Those fundamentalist missionaries

You know those shoes with the little “TOMS” logo on the side that hip people tend to wear? They’re kind of loafer-like but for the cool kids. There was a mini-dust-up over the weekend when the founder of the shoe organization distanced himself from Focus on the Family, you know, that organization that James Dobson founded.

I’m an Atlantic fan, subscribing to the magazine and reading much of its web content, but I was fairly embarrassed to read this sloppy Atlantic Wire post on the debacle. It should be a basic aggregation of what all happened and who all is involved, but the post distracts with strange choices of words.

For background purposes, my Christianity Today cover story on the organization’s shift away from politics apparently prompted sites like Jezebel to ask why the shoe company is partnering with an “anti-gay, anti-choice” organization. The TOMS founder then distanced himself and Focus responded. With my reporting role, I take no position on TOMS and Focus and keep my opinions out of the discussion over who should have done what. Our job here is to spot good and bad journalism when it comes to religion.

The overarching story is pretty interesting, especially since TOMS’s founder is a Christian and Christians seemed to have a growing interest in the concept of shoes being sent to children for each pair sold. Unfortunately Rebecca Greenfield apparently takes her reporting cues from Jezebel when she writes her round-up.

The problems begin with the headline: “TOMS Wearers vs. Right Wing Christian Missionaries.” Since when would Focus on the Family be described as missionaries? The description missionaries doesn’t make any sense, since it’s usually used to describe religious groups sent into an area to do evangelism. Would employees of some Mormon organization be called missionaries, simply because Mormons send missionaries? It’s pretty unclear where the description missionaries originated.

The next problem is a basic mistake: she misspells Focus President Jim Daly’s name. Journalism 101. But we should also take a look at the loaded language in the rest of the post. I’ve bolded specific phrases.

In a statement posted on both Jezebel and his blog, he denied the partnership with the organization and expressed his regrets for speaking at their event, claiming he didn’t know the full extent of Focus on the Family’s anti-progressive beliefs

…Those against TOMS affiliation with the group are disappointed in the company for aligning itself with am extreme right-wing group. Mycoskie claims he didn’t know the extent of Focus on the Family’s fundamentalist beliefs.

…And even if they hate gays and science, shouldn’t they be able to do some good, too? They seem to be coming out ahead so far, if only because they, unlike TOMS, haven’t made any obvious PR blunders.

It’s hard to pin down an appropriate description for people, since “conservative” doesn’t always cut it, but apparently Focus is anti-progressive and extreme right-wing? That’s what we called loaded. And fundamentalist? Readers of this blog know that using “fundamentalist” is just…wrong, at least according to AP style. Finally, if you oppose gay marriage and don’t believe evolution happened, you hate gays and science? Regardless of what you believe about these things, that’s a stretch.

Again, I’m not defending anyone involved since we look closely at the words journalists use to cover religion. But The Atlantic could do better, even in aggregating.

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  • Tim Høiland (@tjhoiland)

    Great thoughts, and I agree with the sloppy journalism and the danger of loaded words. I’m not sure where Atlantic Wire got the missionary bit, but my guess is that it is based on an assumption (fair or otherwise) of why Focus on the Family would be working in Africa, in seeking to become a TOMS distributor. I for one didn’t know Focus worked in Africa.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I could make understand that line of thinking, though many international ministries have “plants” in other countries but aren’t missionaries. It seems like the writer applied the language without really considering whether it was an accurate description.

  • Kate

    In the final line of the CT article, Daly says “Mission-driven organizations, I think, have greater staying power.” It’s possible Greenfield mistook the word ‘mission’ to mean the missionary sense rather than the corporate sense of an organization with clearly stated goals.

  • Elijah

    This just seems to me one more reason to think the Atlantic is making sloppy reporting and writing a habit. The writer is supposed to be a professional, folks – get the man’s name right. And in an era when every two-bit company has a “Mission Statement”, should we really be sympathetic to the idea that a professional writer/reporter can’t tell the difference between a “Missions-driven organization” and a “missionary”?

  • Joel

    I was expecting much worse. The language seems to be knee-jerk: she hears “Focus,” she says “gay-haters.” I suspect most of her readers (or what she fancies are her readers) have the same word association.

    But at least she acknowledges that religion is not simply a fancy coating for politics. I can’t remember the last time I read an account that mentioned Focus on the Family doing anything but agitating for unpopular political causes.

  • Daniel

    I think it’s appropriate to name domestic (that is, contained within the U.S.) ministries “missions” in the sense of commitment to the Great Commission. In fact, I think all Christians’ approach to their own fulfillment of the Commission would benefit from viewing the nations they live in as their mission fields.

  • tioedong

    so Toms pretend he’s a do-gooder because sells overpriced shoes (usually made in China) so he can give a pair a shoes (usually made in China) to a poor kid.

    Reality check from the rural Philippines:

    Price of Toms in the US: $40.
    Price of Toms I bought in the local store:$6.
    Price of an equivalent shoe (Chinese made) in the local Palenke (open air market): $3.
    Price of a locally made sandal: $2.
    Price of (Chinese made) “flip flops”: fifty cents.

    Hey, maybe the real “story” is financial, not religion….

  • Mike

    I agree with the state of sloppy journalism. It’s rampant and basically makes anything you read questionable, though most people subscribe to certain channels to confirm their predisposed point of view vs be challenged by intellectual stimulation. Whether it’s foxnews or the atlantic, economics doesn’t allow for bipartisan thoughtful dialogue on both sides. Partisan rhetoric pays the bills.

    One other note on journalism. You quote Tom’s founder as being a Christian. Is that based on his personal declaration or your assumption based on the groups and friends he hangs out with? And, even if based on either, is it based on evidence of a redeemed, transformed and yielded life. You may want to do some investigative journalism there before making the statement…

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Mike, I personally wouldn’t put The Atlantic on the same page as FoxNews.
    On Blake Mycoskie’s faith, I looked at his MySpace page, where he describes himself as a Christian:
    As a journalist, it’s very difficult to measure redeemed, transformed and yielded life, so I go off of self-descriptors and habits like church attendance that I can see.

  • Joel

    Whether it’s foxnews or the atlantic, economics doesn’t allow for bipartisan thoughtful dialogue on both sides. Partisan rhetoric pays the bills.

    Mike, most journalists don’t think of themselves as partisan, either at Fox or the Atlantic. Journalists are just people with notebooks, and most people think of themselves as centrist. Partisan is what the other fella is.

  • Frank

    A historical perspective on anti-gay boycotts by religious conservatives in general and Focus On the Family in particular would have been helpful. It’s a sign of weakness to assume that your enemy/adversary/rival/neighbor does good in the world. Certainly, religious conservatives have done this to gays, and it’s causing religious conservatives to lose the culture wars. Gays, having experienced this, shouldn’t stoop to such tactics.

    Clearly, FOF was doing charity. Why can’t gay activists admit an allow it? Perhaps they can even appreciate it?

  • Elijah

    @ Joel – good point, and it bears out the truth of what Mike was saying…

  • Jacob

    Nothing sloppy about what the Atlantic reported. The Atlantic writer did fine, maybe their editor should have caught misspellings. The only reason this story was worth printing is that the controversy of an organization and why someone didn’t what to be associated with the controversies. Some don’t like the context or can’t believe that some find the Focus on the Family controversial in positions that can be deemed as hateful, even as moderate as they are compared to some. Journalism is supposed to be exact in the context of what happened.

    Companies know they lose sales if their products are associated with controversy, nothing new there but this story works ruffling some feathers to suggest a flaw in an outfit that cloaks itself in pretense.

    That you would link and discuss the Atlantic story here shows that publication knows what its doing.

  • Sam Garcia

    All Christians are missionaries. Evangelism is the main duty of all Christians since Christ rose up to heaven and gave the Great Commission. Sure, there are part-time missionaries and full-time ones. If your a Christian and not evangelizing in some way, your shirking your main mission on Earth.