USA Today

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

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Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

This is one of those weeks when I’m putting together Friday Five after not paying a whole lot of attention to the news.

So if I miss something really crucial, blame it on my “bucket list” baseball trip to see my beloved Texas Rangers play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is the 23rd major-league stadium where I’ve seen a game. Of course, four of those ballparks (old Atlanta, New York Mets, St. Louis and Texas) no longer exist, so I have 11 left on my bucket list. The new Rangers stadium next year will make that 12. 

OK, that’s enough for now, but feel free to tweet me at @bobbyross for more baseball talk.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the (distracted) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at age 37 was the major headline of the week.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller and Slate’s Ruth Graham all covered the sad, sad news of Evans’ passing.

Here at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly wrote a post on the importance of focusing on doctrines, not political choices, in coverage of Evans’ legacy. And Julia Duin voiced her opinion that Evans’ death offered “a rare look at journalistic grief.”

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Catholic student gunned down in Colorado; few reporters ask crucial questions about shooters

Catholic student gunned down in Colorado; few reporters ask crucial questions about shooters

Another week, another school shooting, although this latest one in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch has quickly turned into a religion story.

Well, it’s a religion story if reporters note crucial details and ask basic questions.

As I scanned various stories, I learned there was very little news about the shooters, especially some of their more controversial aspects. One was LGBTQ; the other had Satanic symbols on his car, yet that didn’t make it into many media accounts. (As for Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old who died at the scene, he was an only child. I cannot imagine his parents’ sorrow.)

The Denver Post tells us this much at the arraignment:

One of the shooting suspects, Devon Erickson, sat hunched in his chair throughout his hearing where he was advised of the charges he is being held on. As the proceeding continued, the skinny 18-year-old with shaggy black and pink hair curled farther into himself — his bangs nearly touching the defense table by the end.

Alec McKinney — who is charged under the legal name of Maya Elizabeth McKinney but uses male pronouns and the name Alec — sat up straight in his chair. …

Also, there is this: According to folks who checked out his Facebook account, there was an anti-Christian screed there.

Another student, Aiden Beatty, said that Erickson worked as a vocal instructor and acted in school musicals. Beatty and Erickson formed multiple rock bands together. Beatty said he couldn’t imagine his band mate committing such horror. Nothing on Erickson’s public social media pointed toward violence.

“In my mind he’s pretty much dead,” Beatty said. “He’s effectively killed himself, too, in a terrible and unimaginable way.”

McKinney was transgender and had struggled with personal problems, freshman Ben Lemos said. The two shared a study hall, a lunch group and mutual friends, Lemos said.

“He just had a negative experience with school,” he said.

But the Daily Mail had a lot more interesting details, including how Erickson had “666” and a pentagram spray-painted on the hood of his car.

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Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

At this point, I think reporters have no choice but to dig into the Calvinist themes in the manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused shooter at Chabad of Poway.

It’s crucial to find out, of course, what he learned during his many hours in the pews at Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It would appear that Earnest then blended pieces of Calvinist theology into the white supremacist beliefs that he says that he learned elsewhere.

Here is the key question at this point, as I see it: Was there an online website (a specific writer, even) that twisted Calvinist doctrines into the form that Earnest blended into a radicalized, violent white nationalism that embraced some things that he heard at church, while rejecting others?

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the following, from my first GetReligion post on this subject:

Yes, reporters … need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

This brings us to two Washington Post stories that can — by savvy readers — be read together. They cover two parts of the same equation.

Here’s the headline on the first one I’d like readers to study: “Ancient hatreds, modern methods: How social media and political division feed attacks on sacred spaces.” And here is the overture, which covers the crucial ground:

Inspired by the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and enabled by the largely unchecked freedoms of social media, individual extremists have launched a steady series of assaults on religious institutions around the world, the latest at a California synagogue. …

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USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

What are you supposed to think when you pick up the newspaper in your driveway and see a headline that proclaims, “Catholic Church In Crisis”?

I don’t know about you, but this question immediately jumps into my mind: OK, so which Catholic crisis are we talking about?

Thus, when I started reading the massive USA Today feature (which ran on A1 in several Gannett newspapers in Tennessee, of course) on this subject, I assumed that the “crisis” in question was the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, I wanted to see (a) if this feature would accurately note how long this scandal has lasted and (b) whether it would place the sexual-abuse crisis in the context of several other major problems in the American church (and the Western world in general). Also, if the USA Today team connected sexual abuse to any other issues, what would those issues be?

Right up front, readers learn that the “crisis” is people leaving the Catholicism or seriously thinking about doing so. That’s interesting and a valid way to approach the current state of things.

After a stack on anecdotes about people nearing the exits, there is this thesis statement:

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is at a crossroads. As millions of devout followers filled the pews this Easter season to celebrate the religion’s most important holiday, others hovered at the door, hungry for community and spiritual guidance but furious at the church’s handling of the decades-long sex abuse crisis that’s resulted in young children being raped and abused by priests who were often protected by their superiors.

Seven months after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that 1,000 children had been abused at the hands of more than 300 priests, and as state attorneys general across the nation investigate the church, a Gallup poll published in March found that 37% of U.S. Catholics are considering leaving the church because of the sex abuse crisis and the church’s handling of it. That’s up significantly from 2002, when just 22% of Catholics said they were contemplating leaving their religion after The Boston Globe published an explosive series that initially exposed the abuse and subsequent cover-up.

So, let it be known that the true crisis is clergy sexual abuse and that alone and that this scandal was “initially exposed” by the Globe in the massive “Spotlight” reports in 2002.

Let’s see — that’s wrong and wrong.

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While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

Over the weekend, there were some haunting stories about the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School just outside of Denver. I remember our newsroom in Washington, D.C. scrambling to put together a story from more than 1,200 miles away.

Fortunately, we had a staff writer, Valerie Richardson, who lived not far away from the school and rushed over there as fast as she could as she knew this was historic and there’d never been such a mass shooting at a school before.

Sadly, much has changed since then and school shootings have become part of the American landscape. I wish to spotlight two stories; one of which gives a well-deserved place to religious faith and the other that ignored it.

The first story, from the Los Angeles Times, was about the pastors who were tasked with having to comfort the afflicted families and deliver sermons at the funerals of their children.

They were the men of faith faced with a seemingly impossible task — providing comfort, hope, maybe understanding — after 12 students and a teacher were shot to death at Columbine High School.

Bill Oudemolen presided over the funeral for 16-year-old John Tomlin days after the mass shooting. The pastor told the large crowd at Foothills Bible Church that he just didn’t want to accept what had happened.

“He was killed simply because he went to school Tuesday morning,” Oudemolen told the crowd in Littleton, Colo. “Schools are supposed to be safe zones, not killing fields.” …

These men had the impossible tax of explaining how God could let this happen.

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Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

I have been covering the religion beat, to one degree or another, for 40 years and I have never heard “Easter worshippers” used as a replacement for the word “Christians.”

Is this a reference to people who worship ON Easter or, well, people who worship Easter?

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am well aware that Christians around the world — due to the much-covered clash between the Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar — usually celebrate Christianity’s most important holy day (called “Pascha” in the East) at different times. (For the ancient churches of the East, today is the Monday of Holy week this year.)

All that aside, there is no reason to substitute an awkward term like “Easter worshippers” for the word “Christian,” when referring to the victims in the horrible Easter morning bombings in Sri Lanka.

So I was surprised to see this oh-so-Twitter firestorm erupt yesterday. Here is the top of a key D.C. Beltway report. The pro-forma headline at The Hill states: “Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity'.” And here is the overture:

Former President Barack Obama on Easter Sunday condemned a series of explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka as "an attack on humanity."

"The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity," Obama tweeted on Easter Sunday. "On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka."

As you would expect, “Christians” pounced and this quickly became a story in “conservative” media.

What caused this bizarre mini-train wreck? I can think of two reasons — one based on journalistic caution and the other based on Donald Trump-era cynicism.

Let’s start with the closest thing to logic that I can come up with, if one is seeking a non-political reason for this switch. To bluntly state the point: The terrorists attacked churches AND hotels, so one could make a case that Christians were not the only people attacked.

Now, yes, that still doesn’t explain “Easter worshippers” in the tweets by politicos.

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Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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