#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

As I mentioned Thursday, I'm attending the Religion News Association's 68th annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Among the interesting people I've met: Paul Singer, Washington correspondent for USA Today.

I talked to Singer about why he came to Music City for this week's conference. Here's a quick transcript (please forgive any typos or other deadline sins).

Q: What is your job with USA Today, and what brings you here?

A: My job officially is running our congressional coverage for USA Today and the hundred newspapers and news outlets in the Gannett network. I have some responsibility for our coverage of the Trump administration as well. I am here on my own interest trying for some stories about faith and religion.

Q: Why do you think that’s important?

A: Because our readers care about it. It is something I know our readers have interest in. Every time we write a story about faith and religion, it gets a lot of traffic and interest. It is an area of interest for me personally because I cover politics, and a big question in the 2016 election was were evangelicals going to look past the personal failings of Donald Trump and support him for political reasons, (because) he’s going help them advance their political agenda.

Q: Do you think this election only makes the need for a religion emphasis that much stronger?

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How Britain's Telegraph twisted itself into pretzel over yoga-rejecting Christian parish

How Britain's Telegraph twisted itself into pretzel over yoga-rejecting Christian parish

Sometimes, I feel as if I'm visiting here from an alternative journalistic universe.

It seems the notion of a Christian church acting like, well, a traditional Christian church is something as foreign to some of us journalist types as this planet would seem if one had just arrived from Mars.

Consider this article from The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain's more conservative newspapers (it once had the nickname of "The Daily Torygraph"). Apparently, some folks in Wales are upset because while part of a local Anglican church will be used as a community center, classes in yoga won't be permitted.

So Pilates, si, yoga, no. Seriously. Residents are not happy with the church council's -- wait for it -- position on this twisted issue. From the Telegraph 's account:

Parishioners have threatened to boycott a church that banned yoga from its premises because it is "non-Christian".

Church bosses said the discipline that originated in ancient India "might be seen to be in conflict with Christian values and belief".

Part of St David's Church, in Ceredigion, Wales, is being converted into a community centre after complaints that the village of Blaenporth lacked facilities. However, some locals were shocked after the Parochial Church Council (PCC) ruled that, while pilates would be allowed in the planned centre, yoga would not be -- along with other "non-Christian activities".

Those who say that yoga is non-Christian often claim to hold the viewpoint because it "teaches participants to focus on oneself, instead of on the one true God".

The first journalistic problem, as careful readers might recognize off the bat, is the use of the word "parishioners" in the first sentence. By the fourth paragraph, we're informed that it is, instead "some locals" who are upset over the yoga ban. Are we talking about active church members or people who simply live inside the borders of some "parish" region?

This is a distinction with a difference.

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Public-school meditation? Buddhist magazine offers mindful approach on church-state issue

Public-school meditation? Buddhist magazine offers mindful approach on church-state issue

Globalization is a whole lot of give and take. It gives us cheap merchandise from Southeast Asian sweat shops and Facebook friends in Australia who we've never met, even as it takes away American blue-collar manufacturing jobs and the ease with which we could allow ourselves to feel safe if we stayed purposely oblivious to the suffering of the world at large.

Globalization has also put to rest the conceit that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation. Strictly speaking, it's not even an Abrahamic nation (the term of choice when adding Islam to the elite mix).

I'm referring to the growing presence in the U.S. of individuals who follow non-Abrahamic religious or philosophical beliefs. But even more so, to the growth of practices and ideas about living a meaningful life that originated in non-Abrahamic religious environments -- in particular, yoga and meditation that come from South and East Asia.

GetReligion writers have over the years published a slew of blog posts dissecting coverage of news reports about how yoga (by which I mean hatha yoga, as the the practice of stretches and postures is more accurately called) and various forms of meditation have become commonplace at fitness centers and in church basements across America. So have hundreds, if not thousands, of other print, broadcast and online news and life-style media.

We've also written about how some view the Westernization of these once-exotic practices as being culturally insensitive. And of course we've written time and again on how some more traditional Christian and Jewish voices have rejected ostensibly secularized yoga and meditation classes, insisting that they are religious activities.

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Whose yoga is it? Journalists, proceed with care because the details matter

Whose yoga is it? Journalists, proceed with care because the details matter

One of my most uncomfortable experiences as a journalist was a story I did in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. I worked in Washington for Religion News Service at the time, and my task was to come up with a story with national appeal.

I decided to check in with Native Americans to learn what the day meant to them as members of a culture that non-Indians such as myself naively believed still held closely to traditional spiritual beliefs about humanity's place in a holistic world order. (In truth, there were dozens of distinct indigenous cultures spread across the Americas prior to European colonization.)

I'd connect environmentalism with indigenous beliefs for mainstream newspaper readers (RNS's main client base at that time). It was, I thought, a story sure to get widespread national play.

So I started making calls, beginning with the editor of Indian Country News, then the leading national publication covering Native American interests.

Did I get a tongue lashing.

What a silly premise, he told me. Poverty-stricken contemporary Native Americans cared more about day-to-day survival than Earth Day. Nor did he wish to indulge some white reporter's attempt to link contemporary environmental concerns with some generalized, romanticized and fantasized indigenous spiritual trope.

You took our land and now you're after our beliefs! I was, he bitterly insisted, committing cultural appropriation.

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Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga

Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga

Wait, wait, wait. I am sure that I have read this news story before. This hot, sweaty New York Times news feature -- which just screams alternative spirituality at the top of its gray lungs -- sounds so familiar.

LOS ANGELES -- He is the yoga guru who built an empire on sweat and swagger. He has a stable of luxury cars and a Beverly Hills mansion. During trainings for hopeful yoga teachers, he paces a stage in a black Speedo and holds forth on life, sex and the transformative power of his brand of hot yoga. “I totally cure you,” he has told interviewers. “Whatever the problem you have.”
But a day of legal reckoning is drawing closer for the guru, Bikram Choudhury. He is facing six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. The most recent was filed on Feb. 13 by a Canadian yogi, Jill Lawler, who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during a teacher-training in the spring of 2010.

Let's see, we have a story about a pseudo-guru whose teachings are handed on to this disciples, teachings (doctrines maybe) about sexuality (perhaps the word tantra is used), healing, spiritual transformation, philosophy, anatomy and the meaning of life.

Now there is trouble in paradise. Where have I heard this before?

Maybe it was back in 2012 in The Washington Post?

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for 'green' funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.” Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for 'meditation' -- one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story. This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

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USA Today offers faith-free look at meditation, stress

Journalists who try to cover the life and teachings of Deepak Chopra always face the same question: How much ink should they dedicate to the debates about whether his fusion of Hinduism and science are secular or sacred? In other words, is this man a religious leader who is teaching specific doctrines or not?

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Catholic yes to yoga?

I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

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