His children fatherless …

Since starting to write for GetReligion last year, I’ve become increasingly aware that there are outposts in American religious life that rarely get much, if any attention from the mainstream media. One of these (can you say Eckhart Tolle, anyone?) is New Age spirituality — and beliefs that syncretize New Age beliefs with Christian or Jewish practices.

Another place where I think the media falls down is in covering the violent fringe of American religious life — oftimes, journos chose to see participants as novelty items rather than as part and parcel of an American radical tradition (the abolitionist John Brown being one famous example). It appears, from what has been written about him, and by his own flair for self-advertisment, that Tempe, AZ, pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church falls into that category. Only instead of guns and swords, he’s using YouTube to promote his ideas.

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Anderson, who has told his congregants that he prays for President Barack Obama’s death. He’s gotten local newspaper coverage, national cable coverage, and lots of heat in the predictable right/leftwing blogosphere. Additionally, he has also drawn the attention of the Secret Service.

So how does one cover Anderson and his message without giving him a spotlight and a forum? Should the media be doing it at all? These are legitimate questions at any time, but particularly appropriate now. I can think of several good reasons for ignoring the publicity-loving preacher — and several others for covering his story.

On the negative side — he’s a ‘hater.’ When there are so many principled and nonviolent conservative voices out there, why pick up on Anderson’s rant? And another question — does doing so encourage others with similar opinion to start expressing them in public arenas?

But what about the idea that Anderson may, in fact, represent the views of a more substantial portion of the American population than we might think? Anger and distress over the President’s abortion stance runs deep — and while most folk who term themselves Christians aren’t likely to pray for Obama’s death, Anderson claims his beliefs are motivated in part by his anti-abortion point-of-view. Can a journalist put Anderson in context without giving his viewpoint a blessing? Then, of course, there is the idea that it is helpful, as with pornography, for readers to understand that free speech embraces speech they might not like.

If you find yourself, albeit reluctantly, on the “aye” side, then ask yourself: what’s the appropriate way to write about preacher Anderson? Here, direct from Fox, is a good example of how not to do it:

A Phoenix-area pastor has started to draw protesters to his congregation after he delivered a sermon titled, “Why I Hate Barack Obama,” and told his parishioners that he prays for President Obama’s death.

Pastor Steven Anderson stood by his sermon in an interview with MyFOXPhoenix, which reports that the pastor continues to encourage his parishioners to join him in praying for the president’s death.

“I hope that God strikes Barack Obama with brain cancer so he can die like Ted Kennedy and I hope it happens today,” he told MyFOXPhoenix on Sunday. He called his message “spiritual warfare” and said he does not condone killing.

But a small crowd of protesters gathered around his church Sunday, calling Anderson’s words “incomprehensible.” And MyFOXPhoenix reported that the sermon, which has drawn widespread attention, led to death threats against the pastor.

Now, why on earth would anyone want to protest such a venomous message? You are not going to find out here — this piece comes close to merely giving the pastor a grandstand from which to, excuse me, pontificate. Memo to Fox writer — find a protester who really has something to say in opposition to Anderson. There’s a lot that can be said — and surely someone out there to say it.

More to the point of this blog — how come the author didn’t ask Anderson what he meant by “spiritual warfare?” I’ve heard of prayer as a way of contending with evil, but I’ve never heard it applied to wishing someone dead. And what of this comparison? “The last time fierce opposition to Obama’s abortion position drew widespread attention was when Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.”

Sure, let’s compare a death wish to principled opposition from some of the nation’s top Catholic clerics and academics. But you know these abortion opponents, they are all alike.

The linked story at the bottom is marginally better, but not a whole lot.

If you want to see a story with more context, and a reality check, read this one from Arizona’s ABC15.com. As well as having a link to Anderson’s sermon, the story tells readers something about the parishioners at his church. And instead of focusing on Anderson, the story’s lede mentions that the Secret Service is aware of the pastor, and is taking appropriate action, whatever that turns out to be. While it’s by no means perfect, at least it has a little gravitas — worthy of a situation in which guns, politics, and religion form a very combustible mixture. If media outlets are going to write about fringers, at least don’t let them parade through the pages, or on the air, or in the cable news, virtually alone.

Video: You may not be of the same mind as Rick Sanchez, or you may agree totally. His Anderson videos are worth viewing whether you approve of his opinions or not.

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  • Jerry

    There are many on the extremes of the political spectrum that adopt the “RINO/DINO” (Republican/Democrat In Name Only) label for those that they consider heretics to their true beliefs. I wonder if we should use BINO (Believer)/CINO (Christian) for those who claim to be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu) but are so far from what scripture says that they are truly “in name only”. In this case, after all, it could be pointed out that wrath is one of the seven deadly sins.

    Of course a reporter should not write a judgment such as this that someone is a BINO/CINO, but there should be a voice in stories about people such as this that reflects what scripture says and thus what 99.99% of those professing that faith believe.

  • dalea

    The MSM seems to have some sort of collective amnesia on the subject. In the 90′s, Colorado’s own Pastor Bob Enyart used to close his show with a prayer for Pres Clinton’s death. Someone (me) turned him into Pat Schroeder’s office and he went off the air after the Secret Service intervened. Somehow, the Denver press did not cover this much.

    Now the Gay press, which seems much more alert and attentive than the MSM, features constant stories on pastors very much like Anderson. There appear to be bus loads of them that the Gay press reports on. Anderson, per the Gay press, is not an isolated example but rather part of a rather signifigant element of conservative Christianity.

    As long as the MSM gets away with treating Anderson as a novelty, the public will not have a realistic view of actual existing conservative Christianity. The MSM reminds me of a primitive tribe that has not figured out the seasons and is constantly astonished when cold white stuff falls on their heads.

    On a personal level, as a NeoPagan, my observation is that everything we work for for others comes back to us three-fold. Karma.

  • Steve

    His wife swears on her website that nobody from the Secret Service or any other government agency has ever contacted them about his comments regarding the president. Perhaps either she or the media is delusional.

    http://www.stevenandersonfamily.blogspot.com/

  • Nicholas

    Actually, Anderson is not that much of a novelty, as dalea points out above.

    http://joemygod.blogspot.com/search/label/This%20Week%20In%20Holy%20Crimes

    Talk about a parade of horribles. ….

  • Dale

    Nicholas wrote:

    Talk about a parade of horribles. ….

    Tempting as it may be, I won’t respond with a list of horrible things done by gay men, of which there are plenty. As for the idea that the gay press and bloggers are reliable sources for information about what conservative Christians are really like, that’s just as absurd as expecting Focus on the Family to present an unbiased picture of gay men. It’s advocacy press, folks, and selective reporting about individuals in a large population (either gay men or “conservative” Christians) is particularly vulnerable to manipulation and mudslinging.

  • Nicholas

    Tempting as it may be, I won’t respond with a list of horrible things done by gay men, of which there are plenty.

    Dale, that just be would be off-topic and silly. Gay men are just like everyone else in that they can be wonderful or awful, and sometimes both at once.

    Note that the links from JoeMyGod are links to MSM coverage of crimes committed by clergy. It’s not from “the gay press”, whatever that is. He just complied them, and there seems to be a lot to compile.

  • Dale

    Gay men are just like everyone else in that they can be wonderful or awful, and sometimes both at once.

    Bingo. My point exactly, and it applies to “conservative” Christians, too. Take a large group of people, and you’re going to have those who do bad things. To highlight an exceptional few is a distortion.

    It’s not from “the gay press”, whatever that is. He just complied them, and there seems to be a lot to compile.

    I’m not the one who introduced the term “gay press” into the discussion–that was dalea, who seems to think it’s a better source for information about “conservative” Christians. Oh, and there’s a lot to compile about the bad behavior of gay men, too. But, unlike you, I’m not here to conduct a smear campaign.

  • Nicholas

    Dale, I suppose it would be futile to point out to you that “conservative” “Christians” take great pains to convince themselves and others that their worldview is the only correct one. They do it so loudly and often that it should come as little surprise to anyone that people like to see them publicly fail. This is what makes the topic newsworthy. It’s not a smear campaign – it’s simple facts.

    Christ Himself had some fairly harsh things to say to hypocrites who prayed loudly on streetcorners and made sure everyone knew how pious they were. One can easily imagine what He’d make of our current crop of Falwells, Dobsons, Haggards, Phelpses, Andersons and Robertsons.

    There are a lot of them, and perhaps the best thing for a real conservative Christian to do at this point is to make abundantly clear that they do not speak for him, and never did.

    Good day.

  • Frank

    Dale,

    To ignore a pastor who calls all gay men child molesters and calls for anti-gay mass murder in the name of your religion makes you complicit.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      I’ve been away all day, and returned to find comments that have nothing to do with either journalism or Pastor Anderson’s coverage.

      Knock off the snark (OK, Julia, I admit Dalea’s was good, but he really got us started). I’ve already had to edit and delete.

  • Julia

    dalea said:

    The MSM reminds me of a primitive tribe that has not figured out the seasons and is constantly astonished when cold white stuff falls on their heads.

    That’s one of the best snarky lines I’ve read in a long time.

  • Dale

    You have to wait until the end of the interview with the Secret Service veteran, but it turns out that the threats against President Obama are just about the same as they have been for the prior several presidents. So Sanchez’ “hook” for the whole story has no factual basis: Anderson is not an example of an increase in threats against the Presidents or angry rhetoric. He’s one person that CNN decided to spotlight.

    How representative is he of anyone? Read his website. He leads a small independent church. He belongs to no denomination. He has no college education or other formal education as a pastor. His qualification for leading his church is that he has memorized 100 chapters of the Bible. Why does this qualify his opinions to be spotlighted by CNN?

    I’m glad that the Secret Service is watching him. But if we had news items about every single nutcase who made morbid comments about the president, that’s all that would be in the newspapers.

  • dalea

    Here’s another pastor preaching for Obama’s death:

    http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2009/09/another-preacher-prays-for-obamas-death.html

    One function of the specialized presses is to cover items of interest to their communities. Thus, the Jewish press covers anti-semitism, the Black press covers racism, the Hispanic press covers anti-immigration and the Gay press covers right wing religion. At the checkout lane, I notice the Hispanic press continues to cover Fr Cutie in great detail. People Magazine’s Spanish edition for September devoted 8 pages to his marriage, more than to Michael Jackson. The MSM should be monitoring these venues, but apparently is not.

  • Nicholas

    That’s funny, dalea. Dale seems to think that Anderson’s death prayers for Obama deserve little attention from the press because his views are so rare, and yet here we have another, and another after that.

    I think Dale’s wrong, obviously. And I for one am grateful that someone thinks that “Christian”* right-wing nuttery should have some ink spilled to inform the rest of us what’s out there.

    *scare quotes provided to indicate that I understand that praying for the death of anyone is counter to the actual teachings of Christ.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Thanks for getting back somewhere on topic, gentlemen ;-)

      I’d like to know if there are left wing “nutters” out there. There is a history of left-wing craziness in America, also, but I suspect that recently (unlike the 19th cent.), much of it hasn’t had a religious theme — or, if it is religious, isn’t being covered by the mainstream. It’s a fine line!

  • Dale

    Dalea and Nicholas:

    Let’s examine what Joe.My.God. and his readers are so excited about:

    You’ve got one pastor at a small independent church praying for Obama’s death.

    One former second vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention who admitted praying for Obama’s death. When notified of Mr. Wiley’s controversial prayers, the Southern Baptist Convention said:

    Sing Oldham, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee. . . said that while Drake served one year as second vice president of the SBC, he is not now nor has ever been a spokesman for the convention.

    “Mr. Drake does not represent Southern Baptist actions, resolutions, or positions in his interpretation and application of ‘imprecatory prayers,’” Oldham said. “Any comments made by Wiley Drake on this subject represent his personal views, not those of the Convention.”

    Oldham said most Baptists view the imprecatory prayers found in the Psalms as private, heartfelt conversations between oppressed people and God, and reflect confidence that God will eventually vindicate the innocent. He said they generally close with a conscious decision not to bear malice and leave final judgment up to God.

    “I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of Southern Baptists reject any call to pray imprecatory prayers of death over any individual,” he said.

    Yeah, it sounds like his views are real common among Southern Baptists.

    Then we have the latest, Pete Peters:

    Since 1977, Peters has been pastor of the LaPorte Church of Christ, a Christian Identity church with fewer than 100 parishioners in LaPorte, Colorado, a community on the banks of the Cache La Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins. From the pulpit, Peters has expounded prolifically on Identity’s biblical views, which include the belief that Jews are spiritually degraded and pose a threat to civilization, that blacks and other people of color are inferior to whites, that homosexuals should be executed and that northern European whites and their American descendants are the “chosen people” of scriptural prophecy.

    It’s fair to say that Mr. Peters’ racism has much more to do with his views of Mr. Obama than anything that he might know from traditional Christianity. Christian Identity is seen as heretical by almost everyone that identifies themselves as “conservative” Christians. None of that gets mentioned on Joe.My.God’s website, of course.

    That’s 3 out of approximately 50 million people who might describe themselves as conservative Christians. Hardly indicative of a whole class of people.

    Joe.My.God and his commenters are free to cherry-pick stories out of the press to justify their hatred (just read the comments). I hold CNN and the rest of MSM to a different standard. When they present an extreme point of view as indicative of a trend, even when their own expert says that there’s no such trend, I smell a rat.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    I walked through some of his theology for PoliticsDaily.com…
    http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/09/03/the-rev-steven-anderson-american-taliban/

    Here’s how I started:

    Not so long ago, it’s likely that the Rev. Steven Anderson would have lived and died known only to a small circle of friends. Instead, for the past couple of weeks, he’s become one of the most famous pastors in America.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Thanks for the help trip through his theology, Mr. Weiss. I agree with the idea that he represents a strain of American religion that surfaces in our history from time to time — but I am conflicted about why we (including me) are giving him more chances to spread his ideas. I am still not sure how I feel about that — do you have an opinion? Of course, he’d love the notion that he’s American Taliban.

  • Dale

    Jeffrey:

    I’ll add my thanks to Elizabeth’s. That was a well-written column that both explained Anderson’s beliefs and put them into perspective.