The New York TImes

Friday Five: Matt from Walmart, pope vote, icky details, execution reprieve, butts and bagels

Friday Five: Matt from Walmart, pope vote, icky details, execution reprieve, butts and bagels

Hey Godbeat friends, can we please get a faith angle on Matt from Walmart — and pronto?

I kid. I kid. Well, mostly.

I heard about “How a dude named Matt at an Omaha Walmart went viral” via a tweet by Mary (Rezac) Farrow, a writer for Catholic News Agency. She described the Omaha World-Herald story as her “favorite piece of journalism” she’s read in a while.

After clicking the link, here’s my response: Amen!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

. Religion story of the week: We are blessed here at GetReligion to have religion writing legends such as Richard Ostling on our team of contributors.

Ostling’s post this week “Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news” is a typical example of his exceptional insight.

The news peg for the post is Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell’s recent scoop in America magazine on the precise number of votes for all 22 candidates on the first ballot when the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis in 2013. Ostling offers praise, too, for Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein’s coverage of the story.

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Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.

Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.

But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.

With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.

First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”

Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.

Now, compare and contrast what you find.

Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.

The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.

So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.

The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.

Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.

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A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason.

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Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

It seems like an easy question: What are the sex scandals in the Catholic church all about?

If you look at the coverage, week after week, it’s clear that many journalists covering the latest wave of news about the scandals are still wrestling with this issue.

Obviously, the scandals center on acts of sexual abuse and harassment by Catholic clergy. The question, apparently, is this: Who are the victims? Reporters have to answer that question in order to get to the next big question: What sacred and secular laws are being broken?

After decades of following this story, and talking to activists on the Catholic left and right, the basic facts are pretty clear.

The vast majority of the victims are young males between the ages of 11 and 18. Then there are significant numbers of prepubescent victims, male and female, being abused by criminals who can accurately be called “pedophiles.” Also, there are many adult men (many are seminarians) and women involved in sexual relationships with priests and bishops, some consenting and some not. The size of this last group is assumed to be large, but there are few facts available.

With this in mind, pay close attention to the lede of the latest New York Times update on the Vatican’s shocking move to stop U.S. Catholic bishops from taking actions to discipline bishops accused of various sins and crimes.

BALTIMORE — Facing a reignited crisis of credibility over child sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came to a meeting in Baltimore on Monday prepared to show that they could hold themselves accountable.

But in a last-minute surprise, the Vatican instructed the bishops to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year, when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis for bishops from around the world.

Many of the more than 350 American bishops gathered in Baltimore appeared stunned when they learned of the change of plans in the first few minutes of the meeting. They had come to Baltimore wanting to prove that they had heard their parishioners’ cries of despair and calls for change. Suddenly, the Vatican appeared to be standing in the way, dealing the bishops another public relations nightmare.

What is the crisis all about? The answer, throughout this article, is “child abuse,” and that’s that.

It’s interesting to note that the article does not include references to two crucial words in this latest wave of scandal ink — “McCarrick,” as in ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — and “seminaries” or “seminarians.”

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Election day thoughts: New York Times visits Utah, includes crucial faith details in a tragic war story

Election day thoughts: New York Times visits Utah, includes crucial faith details in a tragic war story

The mayor of North Odgen, Utah, was a soldier on yet another deployment — returning to Afghanistan.

Brent Taylor was married and had a large family, although it was not unusually large by Utah standards. He was a Republican who was popular with many Democrats in his town.

No, this is not going to be a post about whether professionals in the mainstream media — The New York Times, in this case — did or did not replace the term “Mormon” with the full name of that religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a major story.

No, I want to say that the journalists behind this Times story made a sincere attempt to grasp the ties that bind in the piece that ran with this headline: “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan, Was on 4th Deployment.”

I had some doubts, at first, when the faith element did not show up in the overture:

NORTH OGDEN, Utah — The call had come again. Brent Taylor, the mayor of North Ogden and a major in the Utah National Guard, would be going to Afghanistan for his fourth deployment.

He told his constituents about it on Facebook in January, leaning into the camera to explain that he had been called to serve his country “whenever and however I can” and that he would be gone for a year, as part of a team helping to train an Afghan Army commando battalion. “Service is really what leadership is all about,” he told them.

He said goodbye to his wife, Jennie, and their seven children, and turned over his municipal duties to his friend Brent Chugg. “You need to keep safe,” Mr. Chugg told him. “I will,” Major Taylor replied.

He did not make it home.

However, the faith details emerged — I think this was the right call — when the story shifted into details about family and community. I also think it was appropriate, as a radically divided nation heads into midterm elections, for the Times team to include some of this painful political atmosphere (without mentioning You Know Who). In my experience (including two recent invitations to speak at religious-liberty events at Brigham Young University), many LDS leaders and laypeople are very unsettled by current trends in America’s political life.

But back to the head of the story — the mayor and his family, and its community.

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Will white evangelical women push Ted Cruz challenger Beto O'Rourke over the top? Not so fast

Will white evangelical women push Ted Cruz challenger Beto O'Rourke over the top? Not so fast

My baby sister, Christy, is a conservative Christian and a registered Republican in Texas. She never has voted for a Democrat (she insists her vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 general election actually was a vote against Hillary Clinton).

However, Christy, who is in her mid-40s, told me she’s torn on the high-profile U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

“I can’t support Beto because he’s pro-choice, and I just think Cruz is a liar,” my sister said in a text message.

I thought about Christy this week as I read a New York Times story from Dallas on some white evangelical women — who have supported anti-abortion candidates in the past — putting their support behind O’Rourke:

DALLAS — After church on a recent Sunday, Emily Mooney smiled as she told her girlfriends about her public act of rebellion. She had slapped a “Beto for Senate’’ sticker on her S.U.V. and driven it to her family’s evangelical church. 

But then, across the parking lot, deep in conservative, Bible-belt Texas, she spotted a sign of support: the same exact sticker endorsing Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who is challenging Senator Ted Cruz.

“I was like, who is it?” she exclaimed. “Who in this church is doing this?”

Listening to Ms. Mooney’s story, the four other evangelical moms standing around a kitchen island began to buzz with excitement. All of them go to similarly conservative churches in Dallas. All are longtime Republican voters, solely because they oppose abortion rights. Only one broke ranks to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But this November, they have all decided to vote for Mr. O’Rourke, the Democratic upstart who is on the front line of trying to upend politics in deep-red Texas. 

In the Senate race, one of the most unexpectedly tight in the nation, any small shift among evangelical voters — long a stable base for Republicans — could be a significant loss for Mr. Cruz, who, like President Trump, has made white evangelicals the bulwark of his support.

If you’re unfamiliar with O’Rourke, he’s a rock star among the national Democratic Party and a favorite of national news media eager to explore whether his candidacy might turn Texas — long a red state — blue:

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Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat  that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

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Clerical sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. I know this from personal experience

Clerical sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. I know this from personal experience

As a goodly number of sentient beings are by now surely aware, the Roman Catholic Church is mired in yet another near-global, clerical sex-abuse and institutional cover-up meltdown. How it unfolds will undoubtedly alter the church’s future trajectory. Whether that will be for better or worse remains to be seen.

But this post is not primarily about the Catholic hierarchy’s serious and pervasive failings. Rather, it's my attempt to remind readers that such failings are far more about the human condition than any particular faith group.

I know this because, though I am not Catholic, I was also a victim of clerical sexual abuse.

In my case, it happened when I was about 11 in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the New York City borough of Queens, where I grew up.

This was the synagogue that my parents trusted to provide me with a grounding in religious Judaism. Instead, the trauma of my experience distanced me from the faith — actually, all faiths — for decades to come.

I never told my parents about any of this, out of shame and fear, so they went to their graves ignorant of what happened. All they knew was that I refused to ever return to that synagogue, not even for my needed Bar Mitzvah lessons. (Both the lessons and the actual Bar Mitzvah took place elsewhere.)

Synagogue clerical sex was most likely one of my earliest experiences of adult hypocrisy — not counting what I experienced in my own family, of course. Who knows? Perhaps it was the trauma that led me to become a journalist.

Because if adult hypocrisy angers you, where better to uncover it than in the arenas of human endeavor — politics, the so-called justice system, the business world, and as I now know, institutional religion and even journalism — that one continually encounters as a reporter?

I'd say working as a journalist is a damn good way to learn about the world as it truly is, warts and all.

Before preceding further, let me state that sharing my experience here is in no way meant to provide comfort to those many Catholics desperate for such institutional comfort. That’s for you to find, or to cease searching for, on your own.

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Australia's new Pentecostal prime minister: Try to guess how the press is receiving him

Australia's new Pentecostal prime minister: Try to guess how the press is receiving him

Australia has a new prime minister, which is certainly news. Reading the story’s domestic and international coverage makes clear that its newsiest angle -- for journalists, at least -- is its compelling religion twist.

That’s because the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, is an outspoken, politically conservative Pentecostal Christian. This mixing of religion and politics may be old-hat at this point for Americans. But it's an entirely new experience for Australians.

Morrison’s selection as PM is, for this American, something of a surprise, as Australia is among those Western nations in which Christianity is, by and large, gradually losing steam. However, it’s also a place where conservative politics is steadily on the rise, giving Morrison, a compromise candidate for the prime minister’s job, a leg up.

The coverage of his ascendancy to his nation’s top political post has also noted that his political style is “pragmatic,” meaning that while he’s clear about his values, he’s generally been willing to stand down when it's clear his traditional views on issues such as gay marriage are a bit much for the majority of Australian voters.

Here’s a chunk of a The New York Times story on his selection. 

Mr. Morrison and his faith represent a break with tradition in Australia, where politics has long been ardently secular. He is the first prime minister to come from one of the country’s growing evangelical Christian movements, leading many experts and voters to wonder how his Christianity might affect various issues, from foreign policy to social policy.

“The question is whether Morrison will choose to make his faith part of his political persona or to what extent he will,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “At this point, he doesn’t seem to have shoved it in people’s faces.”

In many ways, Mr. Morrison cuts a markedly different figure than evangelical Christian politicians in the United States.

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