Race

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that half of America’s colleges will die during the coming decade, due especially to competition from online coursework.

Many will pooh-pooh this dire forecast for institutions that have been so cherished a part of the nation’s culture. But Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo contended that the danger is palpable, and increasing, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (behind a pay wall).

Guelzo said America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially at risk, and the smaller they are the bigger their problem. Though elite private schools boast fat endowments, offer ample scholarship aid and lure plenty of applicants, hundreds of private campuses lack these advantages.

Schools in the Northeast are especially vulnerable. In the past six years, 17 small colleges died in Massachusetts alone, and in recent months three more in New England announced closures. The ghost of Vermont’s debt-ridden Burlington College, which went under in 2016, remains in the news because financial moves by its former head, Jane Sanders, got the blame and she’s married to a would-be U.S. president.

Parents and students may protest tuition increases that exceed inflation year by year, conservatives may bemoan faculties dominated by politically correct liberals and some pundits may question the value of a college degree.

But Guelzo said the big threat is simple demographics. He projects that sagging birth rates will reduce potential college applicants by 450,000 during the 2020s. Private colleges must charge much higher tuitions than tax-supported competitors and will be hammered further if Democrats achieve “free college for all” plans that subsidize public campuses.

Obviously a big story is brewing, and religion writers will want to focus on the 247 Catholic colleges listed by the U.S. bishops’ office and the 143 conservative Protestant campuses linked to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Most are four-year liberal arts institutions, but the counts include some seminaries and other specialized programs. Myriad other schools founded by “mainline” Protestants have only vestigial faith commitments and are of less religious interest.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others. …

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

As the political soap opera in Virginia rolls on and on and on, I think it’s important to pause and remind journalists where all of this started — with an argument about religion, science and philosophy.

I am referring, of course, to Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about the proposed Virginia legislation that included controversial language about late-term abortions.

In this firestorm about race — a totally valid story, of course — it has been easy to forget the role that abortion played in this equation.

I say this because of a story that ran the other day at The Washington Post that, in my opinion, should have received more attention. Here’s the bland headline from that: “A tip from a ‘concerned citizen’ helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime about Northam.” Let’s walk through this, starting with the overture:

The reporter who exposed the racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page said a “concerned citizen” led him to the story that has prompted widespread outrage and calls for the Democrat’s resignation.

Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported … the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

“It’s very easy to explain,” Howley, 29, said in an interview. …. “A concerned citizen, not a political opponent, came to us and pointed this out. I was very offended [by the photo] because I don’t like racism.”

Ah, but why was the “concerned citizen” acting? Isn’t that the big idea here, perhaps worthy of mentioning in the lede and the headline?

The Big League Politics editor, naturally, wanted to talk about politics. However, to its credit, the Post team dug deeper and hit this:

The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

Now, why was the “concerned citizen” so angry about the abortion debate, going so far as to use the “infanticide” language of Northam’s critics?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

THE QUESTION:

Across the ages, what passage in the Bible was the subject of the most heinous misinterpretation and application?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Without doubt, the answer is Genesis 9:18-27.

The use of those verses as biblical support for black slavery was “devastating, and patently false,” says David M. Goldenberg, who wrote the important studies “The Curse of Ham” (2005) and “Black and Slave” (2017). Black History Month is an appropriate season to contemplate a perverse biblical claim long perpetrated by various Christians, Jews and, from a different tradition, Muslims.

This Genesis passage, aptly called “obscure” and “enigmatic” by scholars, records a sordid incident in primeval times. After surviving the great Flood, Noah planted grapes and then (possibly by mistake) became drunk with wine. As Noah lay uncovered in a stupor, his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and reported this to his brothers Shem and Japheth, who then took care to cover Noah without looking upon his naked body.

When Noah awoke and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, saying “a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

So this was not a “curse of Ham” so often spoken of, but upon Noah’s grandson Canaan. We are not told that God cursed Canaan, only that Noah did so. Noah then asked God to bless his sons Shem and Japheth while omitting Ham, but God had previously blessed all three brothers equally (Genesis 9:1).

“The Bible says nothing about skin color in the story of Noah,” Goldenberg observes, and others agree. Analysts differ on the geography and ethnicity that might be indicated in the genealogy that follows in Genesis chapter 10 but do agree on one obvious point. The Bible identified Canaan as the ancestor of the Canaanites, Israel’s pagan rivals. The family line in Genesis 11:10-31 designated another of Noah’s sons, Shem, as the ancestor of Abraham and thus the Israelites, as he was also to be of Ishmael and the Arabs.

Please respect our Commenting Policy