Podcasts

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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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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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Do Catholics have one -- singular -- sexual-abuse crisis? No, the reality is worse than that

Do Catholics have one -- singular -- sexual-abuse crisis? No, the reality is worse than that

We have now — at the Vatican’s clergy sexual abuse meeting — reached a stage in the proceedings that will be familiar to reporters who frequent ecclesiastical meetings of this kind.

After a few headline-friendly opening remarks, there will usually be a long parade of semi-academic speakers who offer complex, nuanced and ultimately unquotable remarks about the topic of the day. As a rule, these papers are written in deep-church code that can only be understood — maybe — by insiders.

Long ago, I covered a U.S. Catholic bishops meeting that included pronouncements on the moral status of nuclear weapons. During one address, the speaker veered into Latin when stating his thesis. At a press conference, I asked the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin if that passage in Latin had been (in my words) a “preemptive strike on American headline writers.” The cardinal smiled and said one word — “yes.”

Try to quote that in a hard-news story.

At the end of things, reporters can expect a formal statement prepared by the powers that be that organized the event. We can also expect some kind of television-friendly rite of repentance.

At this point, it’s probably easier to focus on what is not being said, rather than what the Vatican’s chosen speakers are carefully saying. Also, we can look back into the history of this crisis, in order to anticipate what will end up happening. We did a little of both during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Pope Francis stated that the goal of this event was to take concrete steps to stop the abuse of “children,” the “little ones.” The church has been rocked by a “pedophilia” crisis, he said.

That’s what was said. Journalist Sandro Magister offered this commentary on what was not said:

… The big no-show was the word “homosexuality.” And this in spite of the fact that the great bulk of the abuse tabulated so far has taken place with young or very young males, past the threshold of puberty.

The word “homosexuality” did not appear in the pope’s inaugural discourse, nor in the 21 “points of reflection” that he had distributed in the hall, nor in the introductory talks by Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, and, in the afternoon, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez

Scicluna on the contrary, when questioned in this regard at the midday press conference, said that “generalizing on a category of persons is never legitimate,” because homosexuality “is not something that predisposes one to sin,” because if anything what causes this inclination is “concupiscence.”

This is consistent with one viewpoint that’s common in the Catholic establishment: This crisis is about pedophilia. Period.

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What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

This week’s “Crossroads” feature post is brought to you by the letter “A,” as in “Atlantic ocean.”

In other words, I am writing this while looking out a window at the Atlantic Ocean. I think this week’s podcast introduction will be a bit shorter than normal.

Oh, the podcast is the normal length (click here to tune that in) and it focuses on reports about an investigation into the basic facts of the Covington Catholic High School media storm. Here’s my previous post on that topic: “Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists.”

The main subject that host Todd Wilken and I discussed was the lessons that two groups of people — journalists and church leaders — could learn from that encounter between a bunch of Catholic boys, a circle of black Hebrew Israelites and Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

I hope that everyone learned to be a bit more patient when considering “hot take” responses to short, edited YouTube videos prepared by activist groups. That includes Catholic bishops, if and when they face withering waves of telephone calls from reporters (and perhaps other church leaders).

We may have a new reality here: When news events take place and lots of people are present, journalists (and bishops) can assume that there will be more than one smartphone video to study.

The stakes for journalists (and perhaps a few Hollywood pros) could be high. Consider this passage from my earlier post, focusing on What. Comes. Next.

… There’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

So, are journalists pausing to think about what happened in this Twitter-fueled train wreck of a story?

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Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

Stop and ask yourself the following journalism puzzler (I apologize for the length of this thing).

Why did the Covington Catholic High School “smirk” incident with Native American elder Nathan Phillips seize the American media and even cause waves overseas, while the effort by Phillips and his drummers to march into and interrupt a Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (security personnel stopped them) drew a radically mainstream media response (something like this, click here)?

The answer is clear: The gatekeepers in key, elite newsrooms thought the first story was big news and the second one was not.

But why did they feel that way? Why ignore one story and carpet-bomb the other?

That gets us into the media-bias minefield that I have been exploring my entire professional career, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s (click here for my 1983 cover story for The Quill, a professional journal). But that answer only raises more questions: Why do so many journalists ignore, downplay or even mangle religion stories? What kind of bias is involved? As for that topic, click here for my second cover story at The Quill, in 1993. There is no one bias linked all this — there are four of them.

Welcome to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which — #DUH — returns to the Covington Catholic story. Click here to tune that in.

I want to point readers to a new mini-essay by one of my favorite writers, David French of National Review. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in religious liberty cases. As an outspoken #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservative, he has been caught in the middle of many media flash fires in recent years.

The headline on this piece: “We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.” It focuses on the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in many newsrooms. This reality affects decisions about what is and what is not news.

But before we get to French, let me remind readers of the following language in the amazing 2005 self-study conducted by the New York Times, during a time of turmoil over journalism ethics. The title: “Preserving Our Readers' Trust.

Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

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Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

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