The Washington Post Magazine

Washington Post Magazine gives voice to unsung evangelical whistleblowers/bloggers

Washington Post Magazine gives voice to unsung evangelical whistleblowers/bloggers

I’ve written for the Washington Post Magazine more than a dozen times, but I’ve never known it to be all that interested in certain inside baseball aspects of American religious culture. Stories always had to connect with a larger issue –- usually politics -– to get in.

Which is why I was happily surprised to see this recent feature on the corps of bloggers who’ve been going after Protestant churches that have tolerated — if not outright encouraged — sexual and spiritual abuse. And there’s a bunch of them out there and many of these congregations are quite large.

Those of us who are insiders on the beat have known about the Wartburg Watch, the most famous of these blogs, for years.

After an opening anecdote about one whistleblower, the Post continues:

(Recent exposes) are thanks to the Wartburg Watch and Watch Keep, blogs that are part of a larger constellation of “Christian watchdog” outlets. While clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church has been in the headlines for years, it’s only more recently that abuses within Protestant churches have started to draw mainstream media attention. Much of the credit for this quickening churn goes to a circle of bloggers — dozens of armchair investigative journalists who have been outing abuse, one case and one congregation at a time, for over a decade now, bolstering their posts with court records, police reports, video clips of pastors’ sermons, and emails, often provided to them by survivors.

Most of these bloggers are women; many come from churches that teach women’s submission and deny women’s spiritual authority. “Investigative blogger women started a revolution at their kitchen tables,” says pastor Ashley Easter, who hosts the Courage Conference, a Christian, survivor-focused gathering. They have advocated “for victims of abuse from where they were, where they could find a platform — blogs and social media.”

Recently, a younger cohort of “ex-vangelicals” and online activists have joined the fold, and in late 2017 #ChurchToo started to trend on Twitter. In turn, a wave of secret-smashing tweets blossomed into reported pieces at publications like Mother Jones and the New Yorker. Yet the bloggers who built the foundation for this activist network are known mainly to church abuse survivors and reporters covering these stories. To the rest of the world, their efforts have mostly blended into the joint backgrounds of the clergy sex abuse scandal and #MeToo.

You know what I really liked about this piece? It gave the ‘little people,’ who are so often ignored by their pastors, a vote.

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Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well. Finally someone wrote a realistic, balanced piece about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington Post Magazine staff writer David Montgomery put together a (roughly) 6,700-word piece that asks whether the SPLC is what it pretends to be — the ultimate (and accurate) judges of hate in America.

It gave ample voice to several of the SPLC’s most prominent critics, including one mainstream evangelical Christian organization that narrowly missed being in a bloodbath because of being labeled a hate organization.

See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.” … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.” …

Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”

The piece then switches venues to Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, which began in 1971 as a legal aid group, then expanded in the 1980s to monitor Klan groups.

Then the SPLC began widening its definition of hate and extremism.

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Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

One of the tragic facts about religion is that true believers have been known to go off the rails. Sometimes they take groups of people -- large or small -- with them into various degrees of oblivion. When this happens, it is common for people outside of these groups to use the word "cult" -- one of the most abused words in the religion-news dictionary.

Long ago, I took a course in contemporary religious movements and "cults" as part of my graduate work in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University. It was easy to see that the term "cult" is like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement.

But here is the crucial point I need to make, before we look at that massive Washington Post Magazine feature that ran under this headline: "The Exiles -- Former members say Calvary Temple in Virginia pressures people to banish loved ones. What happens to those who leave?"

People who study "cults" use this term in one of two ways. There are sociological definitions, usually linked to the work of prophetic figures who hold dangerous degrees of control over their followers. Then there are theological definitions linked to religious groups in which a leader has radically altered core, historic doctrines of a mainstream faith.

You will find all kinds of "cult" talk if you plug "Calvary Temple" and the name of its leader, the Rev. Star R. Scott, into an Internet search engine. However, veteran freelance writer Britt Peterson avoided this term, for the most part, in this feature. I think that was wise.

Has this congregation in Northern Virginia evolved into a pseudo-cult operation? I don't know. What I do know is that it appears to be a perfect example of a trend in American Pentecostal and evangelical life that causes all kinds of trouble for journalists. I am referring, once again, to the rising number of independent churches -- large and small -- that have zero ties to any denomination or traditional faith group.

Many of these Lone Ranger churches are perfectly healthy. Many others go off the rails and, tragically, there is no shepherd higher up the ecclesiastical ladder to hold their leaders accountable. Thus, here is the crucial passage in this first-person magazine feature:

When the Azats joined Calvary in the mid-1980s, its charismatic pastor, Star Robert Scott, had been there for over a decade, starting as youth pastor at what was then the Herndon Assembly of God in 1973, according to former congregants.

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God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

One of the benefits of working at the Washington Times –- as I did for more than 14 years -– was watching the soap opera that was the family of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, which through its subsidiaries owned the Times.

Not that I ever got to see much of Moon's 14 children. But I sure heard about them, especially when their infighting led to massive budget cuts at the Times in 2009.

One of the older daughters and several of the sons all had similar Korean names (which were anglicized to Preston, Sean, Justin and Tatiana), but it was clear they all had designs on their father’s vast empire.

It was also clear they were going to reinvent the theology that undergirded the Unification movement and create their own religion. What sort of religion that may be comes out in a recent Washington Post Magazine piece on a church pastored by one of the younger sons; a church that encourages members to bring automatic rifles to church services. (By the way, I've also written for the same magazine rather recently). 

Sanctuary Church — whose proper name is World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, but which also goes by the more muscular-sounding Rod of Iron Ministries — stands inconspicuously on a country road that winds through the village of Newfoundland, Pa., 25 miles southeast of Scranton. The one-story, low-slung building used to be St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Before that, it was a community theater, which is why there are no pews, only a semicircle of tiered seats facing the old stage, now an altar.

On a Sunday morning in late February, 38-year-old Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, entered stage right wearing a white hoodie and cargo pants…One tenet of the Sanctuary Church is that all people are independent kings and queens in God’s Kingdom — a kind of don’t-tread-on-me notion of personal sovereignty. Hence, symbolic gold and silver crowns bobbed on row after row of heads.

Anyone who’s watched any Unification Church ceremonies knows these folks seem to have a fixation with robes and crowns. Sean Moon wears a literal crown of golden rifle shells. Photos show a congregation in white robes and scarves with guns cradled in their arms. 

A key pillar of Sanctuary dogma is the importance of owning a gun, particularly the lethal, lightweight AR-15 semiautomatic, which the National Rifle Association has proclaimed “the most popular rifle in America.” Last fall, Pastor Sean had studied the Book of Revelation. It makes multiple references to how Christ one day will rule his earthly kingdom “with a rod of iron.” Although Revelation was written long before the advent of firearms, Pastor Sean concluded that “rod of iron” was Bible-speak for the AR-15 and that Christ, not being a “tyrant,” will need armed sovereigns to help him keep the peace in his kingdom.

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WPost story on small-town gay activist vs. local Baptists raises more questions than answers

WPost story on small-town gay activist vs. local Baptists raises more questions than answers

There are times when I run across a very well-written piece that makes a poignant point and communicates an effective message. Yet, at the same time, there’s this uneasiness.

Such is a piece out this week in the Washington Post Magazine. With a headline that read “The Last Frontier for Gay Rights: A powerful liberal activist, a rural conservative town and a debate that won’t end,” it’s about a small North Carolina town.

I’ve written some 15 stories for the same magazine for the Post’s Style section, most of them profile or long-form narratives like this one. You may be familiar with the story I did last November for the magazine about Paula White, spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. So, I know how it takes months of hard work to produce these pieces and it sounds as though writer Tiffany Stanley spent a similar amount of time working on this article.

With few exceptions, the magazine has stuck to stories with relevance inside the Beltway. Since the residents of this western North Carolina county have nothing to do with Washington, D.C., I'm guessing the magazine, which got a new editor last year, is expanding its reach. There's a lot here, so please stick with me:

Word spread fast through the county that fall. Comments streamed across Facebook and in the halls of the high school and through the pews of churches: There was a gay-straight alliance starting up at Alexander Central High. It would be known as the P.R.I.D.E. Club: People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. Its detailed acronym notwithstanding, theories about it swirled.
There were rumors that the school would have “transgender restrooms,” or that a “homosexual-based curriculum” would be used in health and physical education classes. Some community members were upset about the school district’s lack of communication. A woman wrote in to the town newspaper: “It is heartbreakingly sad that our morals have come to this.”
The sense of siege extended to adults — on all sides of the controversy. Robbin Isenhour-Stewart, an art teacher and the club’s co-adviser, said she received “biblical hate messages” taped to her classroom door. The Rev. Phil Addison, a Southern Baptist minister, said he found trash on his lawn and his mailbox kept getting knocked down; he suspected it had to do with his public criticisms of the club. “I don’t know that it was them,” he told me, “but if not, it was a huge coincidence.” David Odom, a school board member, said his daughter came home asking why he was taking the Bible out of schools.

We hear next about a school board meeting packed with church members because their pastors asked them to attend. Also at the meeting was:

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Friday Five: Award-winning religion story, Down syndrome advocate, free cars at church and more

Friday Five: Award-winning religion story, Down syndrome advocate, free cars at church and more

I'm going to bury the lede and do a bit of foreshadowing before we get to the big, happy news in this week's Friday Five.

Previously, GetReligion's own Julia Duin has won two Wilbur Awards, the national honors given by the Religion Communicators Council. The annual prizes celebrate excellence by individuals in secular media in communicating religious issues, values and themes.

Duin's first Wilbur Award came in 2002 and recognized a Washington Times series she co-wrote with Larry Witham on the future of America’s clergy.

In 2015, Duin earned her second Wilbur Award for her "From Rebel to Reverend" piece about Nadia Bolz-Weber for More Magazine.

The 2018 Wilbur Award winners were announced this week. Might Duin claim a third? Stay tuned as we dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Los Angeles-based freelance writer Heather Adams had an extremely interesting piece this week on an anti-abortion activist who has Down syndrome.

Adams wrote the story for Religion News Service (full disclosure: I also do occasional writing for RNS, including a spot news piece this week on creationist Ken Ham speaking at a public university in Oklahoma).

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Reporting on Paula White and the White House: Trying to tell her side of the story

Reporting on Paula White and the White House: Trying to tell her side of the story

Those of you who may have read my lengthy profile on Paula White in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine may not know that it was this GetReligion post a year ago and then this one that helped make the Post story happen.

Her spokesman, Johnnie Moore, noticed these posts, and contacted me to express thanks for their fairness.

Mercenary creature that I am, the wheels started turning in my head. A lot of publications, I thought, would be interested in knowing the inner life of this woman; the backstory behind her relationship with President Donald Trump and how she has hung on over the years despite scandals that would deck most people.

So I floated a trial balloon: Would Paula, I asked him, consent to appearing before dozens of journalists at the Religion News Association convention in Nashville in September? As a member of the conference committee, I was putting together a panel and I wanted her to be on it. Through Moore, she said yes. (Note: I’ll be referring to everyone by their last names in this piece except for Paula).

By this time, I was in contact with pros at the Post’s Sunday magazine, since I have written 14 stories either for the magazine or the Style section. Most of the pieces were several thousand words long, including my latest: A 2015 profile on Alice Rogoff, wife of inside-the Beltway billionaire David Rubenstein and (at the time) publisher of the Anchorage-based Alaska Dispatch News. T

he folks at the magazine were definitely interested in a story. Paula was on the road so much that I didn’t get through to her until June to explain what a story of close to 6,000 words would entail. We agreed that I’d spend three days following her around Washington, D.C. in late July.

Early in the afternoon of July 27, I was standing at the Northwest gate on Pennsylvania Avenue impatiently waiting for the right media person to allow me in. I didn’t know there was a titanic battle raging right then between communications director Anthony Scaramucci (who would be fired the following week) and chief of staff Reince Priebus who was about to be ousted.

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