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Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics.

This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer. In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

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Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

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Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

I have just returned to East Tennessee from a short, but fascinating, trip to New York City to take part in a conference called “What’s Next for Religious Freedom.” It was sponsored by Yeshiva University and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University.

The event was recorded and I hope, eventually, to update this post with URLs for the various sessions. GetReligion readers can also check YouTube in a week or so.

The opening session was held at Shearith Israel Synagogue on the upper West Side, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in America in continuous existence (founded in 1654). The topic: “The Media and Religion: Trends and Challenges.” This very lively session was chaired by the rabbi and scholar Meir Soloveichik, the leader of  Congregation Shearith Israel and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

The panel?

* Emma Green, religion writer at The Atlantic.

* Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at The New York Post and contributing editor at The Catholic Herald.

* John Podhoretz, editor and columnist at Commentary Magazine.

* Terry Mattingly, as in me.

This is the second summer in a row that I have been on a panel of this kind with Green and, as always, it was great to hear her candid thoughts. She’s a rising force in this field, working at a news and commentary magazine and website that is clearly trying to give religion the attention that it deserves.

Getting to hear from her again reminded me that I have meant to post the link to a recent World dialogue — “Getting the big story” — between Green and journalism historian Marvin Olasky, who for several decades has been the editor of that magazine. This conversation took place at Patrick Henry College outside Washington, D.C. Here’s the full video:

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Friday Five: Tornadoes, Tim Conway's faith, weekend reading list, parents' grief, GOT spoilers

Friday Five: Tornadoes, Tim Conway's faith, weekend reading list, parents' grief, GOT spoilers

Hey folks, it’s been one of those weeks.

Between severe weather warnings here in Oklahoma (aka Tornado Alley) and working on press week deadline at my regular job (The Christian Chronicle), I’ve missed as much religion news as I’ve caught. But I do have a holiday weekend reading list that I’ll share with you.

Speaking of tornadoes, a truck driver caught in the big one in Jefferson City, Mo., credited God with saving him, according to CNN. (There might be a holy ghost or two there.)

Anyway, let’s dive into the preoccupied edition of Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: See earlier caveat, but no single major religion headline really stood out to me this week.

That said, my colleagues here at GetReligion covered a whole lot of interesting territory, as always. That includes — just to cite a few examples:

Richard Ostling exploring the idea of an evangelical crisis.

Julia Duin pointing out another case of the Los Angeles Times suffering from a lack of religion reporting expertise.

And Clemente Lisi highlighting the collision between nationalism and Catholicism in the run-up to European elections.

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'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

At a time when humor is struggling with political correctness and fallout from the #MeToo movement, there’s little material for late-night hosts and stand-up comedians to work with. Of course, there’s President Donald Trump. He’s fair game given his title, ability to dominate news cycles and for his tweets.  

The other people you’re also allowed to pick on (at least from the material you see on TV) are Christians across all denominations.

Vice President Mike Pence’s perceived wholesomeness, for example, is fair game on Saturday Night Live. If he’s an evangelical (he was born and raised a Roman Catholic), then he must be a prude or a square. For example, of the 80 jokes targeting Pence on the late-night talk shows in 2017 alone, USA Today reported that “most were about his alleged dull personality, prudishness and homophobia.” The article cited a database compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Yes, there are real academics who are actually studying this stuff.

The other group that’s fair game are Roman Catholics — period. Jokes aimed at the clergy are so common that there’s barely a ripple of outrage in the mainstream press about this subject. Jokes about others (should a stand-up comedian venture to mock gays or other religions such as Islam) would illicit waves of news coverage about how “Twitter exploded” over the issue.

Comedy can be tough. It’s supposed to be, at times, provocative. What is problematic is how pros in the mainstream press react, or fails to react, to these statements. Censoring comedians isn’t the solution, but it is important to note when the press is “outraged” and when it isn’t.

“Twitter exploded” is the key phrase here.

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Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Location. Location. Location.

When it comes to that glorious, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 new religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation, exactly how much does location matter?

That’s the question some are asking after AP posted job ads for seven new positions last week and RNS did the same this week for its three grant-funded openings.

According to the ads, six of the seven AP positions will be based at AP headquarters in New York City or in Washington, D.C. The exception will be a Cairo-based newsperson who will cover Islamic faith and culture.

RNS, meanwhile, is hiring a managing editor to work in New York or Washington, along with a Rome-based Vatican correspondent and a Los Angeles-based national writer.

Sarah McCammon, an NPR national correspondent based in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast U.S., grew up in a conservative Christian home in Kansas City and attended an evangelical college.

McCammon got more than 250 “likes” when she tweeted this suggestion to AP:

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New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

Our January 31 Guy Memo ho-hummed National Public Radio’s latest example  of perennial wishful thinking in U.S. media about a substantial religious left (still lower-case) emerging to counter America’s familiar Religious Right (upper-case for years now). However, the Memo observed that, “President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds,” so journalists were advised to be “alert for surprises.”

Surprise! South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since soared from obscurity. And his substantive interview for a March 29 Washington Post  article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey raises the prospect that the  religious left could achieve new impact by rallying behind his persona. Such a 2020 scenario could replicate 1980, when triumphant Ronald Reagan boosted the early Religious Right -- and vice versa.

Pundits quickly reinforced the Buttigieg religion angle, including Father Edward Beck on CNNKirsten Powers  in USA Today,  Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine and The Atlantic’s Emma Green.

Buttigieg has never run statewide and is merely the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city (South Bend of Notre Dame fame). But the Harvard alum,  a boyish 37, has already been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, businessman and Navy intelligence officer serving in Afghanistan. His golden tongue in rallies and TV appearances is inspiring early success.

The mayor could aid Democratic designs in the Big Ten states that are likely to (again) determine whether Donald Trump wins. The amiable Midwesterner ranks third behind East Coasters Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Emerson’s latest Iowa poll and well outpaces Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota. Focus on Rural America’s polling of Democrats who plan to attend the Iowa caucus puts him at 6 percent, tied with Klobuchar and another fresh face, “Beto” O’Rourke.

Journalists take note: Buttigieg is a religiously significant figure who underwent a spiritual turn at a Catholic high school and at Oxford. He became a devoted and articulate Episcopalian, came out in 2015, and married his gay partner in church last year.  That, and his social-gospel outlook, mesh with leaders and thinkers in “mainline” Protestantism’s liberal wing, alongside Catholics of similar mind.

Among Buttigieg’s numerous religious comments in the opening phase of his campaign, the most remarkable came April 7 before a packed LGBTQ Victory Fund rally. He admitted that as a youth “I would have done anything to not be gay,” said his same-sex marriage ‘has moved me closer to God,” and challenged “the Mike Pences of the world” with this: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.” (Notably, some media lower-cased his C.) 

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as American coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

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Info-silos and urban bubbles: What's wrecking public discourse on religion and culture?

Info-silos and urban bubbles: What's wrecking public discourse on religion and culture?

It was in 1993 that a Washington Post reporter — in a news report about religion and politics, naturally — wrote one of the most unfortunate phrases in the history of American public discourse.

Discussing the rise of cultural conservatives inside the D.C. Beltway, he opined — in an hard-news story, not an opinion column, and with zero attribution for his facts — that evangelical Christians are known to be “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Fax machines in the Post newsroom were soon humming as evangelicals sent in surveys noting that this was not true. Some provided photocopies of their graduate-school diplomas and similar credentials. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, writing for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, had this to say:

The Post ran a correction the next day, saying the conclusion had no "factual basis," but the damage had already been done. … The caricature of evangelical Christians as inherently stupid because they believe in an authority higher than journalism, the government or the culture (the unholy trinity of rampant secularism) would be repugnant to all if it had been applied to blacks or women or homosexuals. But it seems Christian-bashing is always in season.

At the post, ombudsman Joann Bird made a crucial point about this fiasco, one that — as quarter of a century later — remains sadly relevant to the conversation that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I had this week while recording the podcast. (Click here to tune that in.)

I quoted Byrd in a piece for The Quill journal at the time of that nasty train wreck, in a piece entitled “Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?

… Byrd made the following point: ``When journalists aren't like, or don't know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn't ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.''

What's the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s, 86 percent of the ``media elite'' said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious affiliation.

Some of those statistics have changed a bit, of course, and I think it’s safe to say that very few mainstream journalists these days are willing to answer lots of survey questions about their views on religion and morality.

But the media-bias debates go on, even as America — and our increasingly partisan news media — divide into warring armies with blue-zip codes squaring off with those flyover country red-zip codes. This brings us back to that heat-map analysis at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

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