Touchdown! And another touchdown!

After the “Offseason from Hell,” college football returns this weekend. (Insert loud whoops here.)

Last week, I critiqued a Tulsa World story on the faith of Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. This week, the faith of another quarterback — Case Keenum — drew the attention of a major newspaper. In fact, this was the headline on the Houston Chronicle’s 1,500-word story on Keenum:

Faith, family, friends help UH’s Keenum bounce back from injury

Yet it’s not until the 21st paragraph that Keenum’s faith enters the picture — and even then, that key angle takes up only a small section of the report:

The struggles also helped Keenum come to a realization about his football career. And as he always has, he leaned on his faith.

“That’s when you realize that your body is going to fail one day, no matter what,” he said. “Whether you’re in the best shape or the worst shape, one of these days it’s going to be you and God. All that stuff – records, championships, awards – all that stuff is not going to matter. It’s going to be, ‘Do you have Jesus Christ in your life or not?’?”

Even in high school, Keenum’s Christian beliefs were important to him. Sandifer said Keenum was part of a group of about 15-20 players who participated in Bible studies the day before Wylie games. The church he and his family attended, Beltway Park Baptist Church, sits directly across the street from Wylie Junior High and little more than a stone’s throw from the family’s home.

With the support of his family and faith, Keenum progressed through his rehabilitation on schedule and was cleared for all activities over the summer. He has been able to take his normal first-team repetitions with the Cougars during fall practice, though coach Kevin Sumlin was sure to give him a couple of days off.

But you know what? I have no problem with how this story handles the faith aspect.

This is a sports story, not a religion feature. Faith obviously is a big part of Keenum’s life, and the Chronicle both acknowledges that fact and answers key questions about Christianity’s role in this athlete’s life. The paper even allows the player to discuss his faith in his own words (“Do you have Jesus Christ in your life or not?”).

Most refreshingly, faith is presented as a natural part of the story. That angle blends seamlessly into the overall context of this athlete’s road back to the gridiron. Isn’t that what we at GetReligion advocate all the time — the elimination of religion ghosts?

Score a touchdown for the Chronicle.

And as long as I’m lofting praise into the end zone, I want to call your attention to a 1,600-word feature on the faith of Sooners wide receiver Ryan Broyles in The Oklahoman.

As you may recall, Broyles was quoted in the World story about Jones that I reviewed, prompting me to complain:

It surprised me to hear Broyles talking about Jesus because I had read about off-the-field troubles early in his Oklahoma career. Did Broyles have a come-to-Jesus experience of his own? The story provides no clue.

Ask and you shall receive, albeit from a different Oklahoma daily. The Oklahoman story is filled with revealing insight and details, including this section:

He remembers Sunday morning at Mission of Hope, standing in the church service looking down at the children as they sang. They had their heads thrown back and their arms raised up. They didn’t care who was around. They worshipped with every ounce of their bodies.

Something clicked inside him during that trip.

Longtime girlfriend Mary Beth Offenburger met Broyles at the airport when he returned from Haiti. The person who hugged her as tears streamed down his face was not the same person she’d told goodbye a week earlier.

“There’s no going back,” Broyles told her.

No going back to the way he was.

Offenburger marvels at how much Broyles has changed. He eats better and stretches more because his body is a gift from God. He takes bike rides just so he can enjoy God’s creation. He studies the Bible daily with her — and sometimes without her.

Score a touchdown for The Oklahoman, too.

When is an ‘evangelical’ not an ‘evangelist’?

As an admirer of his political life and work, I know a few things about the late Sen. Mark Hatfield.

I know that he was very open about his faith and was involved in many private circles of believers that practiced, in the best sense of the word, “evangelism” on behalf of the Christian faith. In that sense, and in that sense alone, it might be possible to call the senator an “evangelist.”

However, I doubt that he ever was a preacher or a leader in the large- or small-scale public rallies or crusades that are commonly linked to the word “evangelist,” in the sense that the Rev. Billy Graham is the world’s best known evangelist.

So, with that said, what’s going on with this short Richmond Times-Dispatch salute to Hatfield? Note that the headline has nothing to do with the article itself.

The headline:

Mark Hatfield: Evangelist

The top paragraphs:

Oregon Gov. Mark Hatfield delivered the keynote address at the 1964 Republican Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater for president. Intransigents subsequently would vilify Hatfield for being not only a moderate but a RINO.

Hatfield served in the Senate for many years and looked the part. A man of intense religious faith, he lent an evangelical perspective to politics. His opposition to capital punishment and to abortion suggested his seamless approach to issues relating to human life. Christianity Today saluted him. The religious right did not.

Clearly, the editorial-page staff thought that the word “evangelist” was, in some way, the same word as “evangelical.” That’s really strange, for scribes working in a sort-of Southern state such as Virginia.

Simply stated, the headline is wrong.

Thus, this calls for another visit with sociologist Christian Smith and his famous (to some infamous) Books & Culture essay entitled, “Religiously Ignorant Journalists.” This text should be posted in many newsrooms, methinks, for occasional inspirational reading. The opening goes like this:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about “Episcopals,” about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention’s approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect “Episcopals.” What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no “Episcopals”? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn’t even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university’s PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

“Evangelicals” is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau — or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. … Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.”

Words have meanings, folks. As Smith goes on to note, can you imagine news executives hiring people who mangled legal and political terms in the same way?

I know. It’s an old subject. It’s still out there and it’s still important. Some people just don’t get it.

The mysterious two sides of Islam

The International Herald Tribune, which is the global edition of the New York Times, has this absolutely fascinating story about a Muslim woman whose father, brother and husband have all been involved with Islamic terrorism. Written by Souad Mekhennet, it’s headlined “Stuck Between 2 Sides of Islam.” Here’s the lede:

Mariam Fizazi arrived in this north German port city five days before Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists changed the world.

Since then, this cheerful, 34-year-old woman has, she said, had her patience constantly tested by Allah.

“I have had it all — a brother who had been in a training camp in Afghanistan, then he and my father arrested for supporting terrorism in Morocco and then my husband, who decided to travel to Waziristan,” she said in her first media interview. “I think that is quite a lot to deal with for 10 years.”

She appears to bear little bitterness — neither toward the men whose actions have scarred her life, nor toward the authorities who have punished them.

“When I came here, I thought those who have another belief would be against us and not trustworthy,” she said. “But I have learned that there are good and bad people everywhere, no matter which religion they have.”

Talk about an interesting interview subject! The story is full of interesting tidbits about her brother, father and husband. But read it and tell me if you don’t have a few questions.

We get some information about what it’s like to have a husband leave you and your two children for jihad. We get some interesting details from her. She was previously married and had a daughter with her ex-husband. That child lives back in Morocco with her parents because her ex-husband would not let her leave when she moved to Hamburg. She has a six-year-old and seven-year-old child with the husband who left. She won’t wear her wedding ring any more. Here are some more details:

Ms. Fizazi has become what she calls an activist for her religion. “So many people have a wrong idea about what Islam is, and the converted women are the worst,” she said.

Because her father is an Islamic scholar, women seek her advice when they have problems — with their husbands, with Islam, she said.

“Islam has given women many rights, but very often women have no idea. They think Islam teaches them to say what their husband says, to follow what their husband wants them to follow, that is all nonsense,” she said, speaking in Arabic and emphasizing each word with her right hand.

The Internet is one platform where she discusses what she considers the right and wrong interpretations of Islam. “It’s important to be open toward the society we live in,” she said. She tells other Muslim women: “Don’t cut your children and yourself off.”

But it all seems kind of confusing to me. What does her view on women’s rights have to do with the situation with her first child? And is her father a respected Islamic scholar or, as we’re told later, identified by Western and Arab intelligence “as a preacher for jihadi movements.” Or both? We’re told his writings were found in the homes of many men who “went to Afghanistan and Iraq” and “gave young people legitimacy” for terrorist actions. He was the preacher at Al Quds Mosque in Hamburg when Mohammed Atta and other 9/11 plotters attended it.

And the two sides issue is conflated, again, when Ms. Fizazi reports that Hamburg Muslims were unhappy about 9/11 “but that all changed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”

I mean, what changed, precisely? And are there still two sides or not? We’re told that her father “and scores of other Islamists” were accused in attacks that killed 45 people in Casablanca. But in prison, her father started distancing himself “from some of what he had preached.” His sentence was reduced and he was released.

It ends by noting that the husband wasn’t killed, apparently, in a recent drone strike.

OK, like I said, it’s a really riveting read.

But considering that the whole premise is about a divide between two sides of Islam, I could have used a lot more explanation of what, precisely, those two sides are. I’m familiar with the template of “good Islam” vs. “bad Islam” but those stories need details, even if reality is much more complex than that. This seems like it could have been a great story for explaining divisions in certain teachings and how they manifest in different life choices. Even just an explanation of what, precisely, the father distanced himself from would have been helpful.

Thank you, Jack Shafer

I was a GetReligion fan before I ever began contributing here. And I’d been interested in media criticism for years.

My parents encouraged us kids to read both Denver newspapers, which I did daily for years. But they also encouraged us to think about what we read and not just accept something as true because it was in the paper. They would point out to us, time to time, how a story was slanted to give preference to one side or how certain assumptions were made in the organization or execution. My mother in particular has always been a skeptic and good at spotting problems with a given narrative.

Still, it wasn’t until I read — and met — Jack Shafer that I realized media criticism could be a legitimate vocation. I’ve been thinking about that in light of the news that Shafer was laid off from Slate last week. He wrote PressBox, a media criticism site, that was fun for everyone, not just reporters. I took the news of his layoff hard. He is far and away my favorite media critic.

Turns out that I’m not alone. As the news spread throughout social media sites, people lamented the loss of his PressBox column and wondered what he’d do now.

I wanted to highlight a few things from an article on Shafer that happened to run online the same day he was let go. The piece headlined “A Fearless Media Critic” is from the American Journalism Review.

The curious thing about what Jack Shafer does is the people best equipped to evaluate him are his competitors, whose beats sometimes include one another. Ask them and they will put Shafer at or near the top of a short list of the best media critics in the country.

“Here is what Jack Shafer is,” says Erik Wemple, who blogs about the media for “Obviously, very talented, tremendously original and highly informed. But more important, he is utterly uncorrupted by friendship, money, power, anything. He is ruthless with people he doesn’t know, but what is impressive is how ruthless he can be with the people he knows. He’s impervious to outside influence, and it’s a glorious thing to watch.” Although he has been writing about media in one form or another for more than 25 years, Shafer’s passion and fearlessness make him a favorite of a younger audience with expectations of the chainsaw opinion writing of bloggers, says Hamilton Nolan, who handles media criticism in his role as editor of Gawker.

Nolan sees Shafer as perhaps the sole media critic in the country who is consistently unafraid to print what others only think. “Shafer writes much younger, like someone who doesn’t have as much of a career stake,” Nolan says. “It’s rarer to maintain that edge as you climb the ladder. He shoots from the hip, but it’s not a mechanism, because you know when you read his column that he’s a guy who has all this deep knowledge of journalism.”

Here is another helpful tidbit:

Shafer believes in a few fundamental rules for writing about anything: that the thinking behind the column be original; that the underpinning of a point of view be supplied by solid reporting; and that the conventional wisdom be avoided at all costs.

Shafer isn’t known for analyzing coverage of religion news, although he did come up with the term “Jewspotting” to criticize the myriad New York Times pieces about Jews being “discovered” in far-off locales. Defrocking trend stories is one of his specialties, particularly trend pieces about supposed upticks in narcotics use or ridiculous fashions. He thought the Times should change its Style section name to the “Bogus Trend” section.

My background is in economics and in the academic community, there are plenty of thin-skinned people. While journalists tend to be really good at going after things or people we dislike, we really don’t like it if our work is questioned. If you’re one of those people who is conflict averse, media criticism can be difficult. Shafer really set a great example of being unafraid to go after a wide variety of media outlets and memes:

This fearlessness is what sets Shafer apart and what will help his work endure, says media critic Seth Mnookin, who begins this fall teaching a graduate science writing program at MIT. Many media critics, Mnookin says, write for other media members, forgetting just how small that audience is.

“Jack Shafer is very aware that you can make a choice. You can write for the cubicle next to you or you can write for everybody else,” Mnookin says. “Because he doesn’t write for the person in the next cubicle, he is not afraid of offending the person in the next cubicle.”

It’s so much easier said than done. And I suspect that this has something to do with the reason that there are so many fewer female media critics than male media critics. We tend to be a bit more sensitive to criticism.

One thing that Shafer helped me understand is how skepticism is the most useful tool a journalist has. Another is that media criticism is really something only someone who loves journalism can do well. Tmatt talks about this a lot, but many critics just attack the media and see problems wherever they look. They fail to see all the wonderful work that journalists do. Inability to see what is done well hampers a critic’s ability to truly analyze what’s been done poorly.

AdWeek interviewed him about the piece and being let go. Here are a couple of the questions and answers from that exchange:

There was a piece about you in the American Journalism Review today, describing how you write for everyone, not just the guy in the next cubicle. Do you agree with that portrayal?

I got into the press criticism racket because as the editor of Washington City Paper in 1985, I couldn’t get anybody to write press criticism. As strange as this may seem, in 1985 everyone was worried that if they wrote negatively about The Washington Post and The New York Times and Time and Newsweek and the dominant publications of that time, that they’d screw themselves out of a job. I think what the writer of the AJR piece accurately described was that I started writing about the press and continued to write about the press as if I have no career—that I shouldn’t worry, and that no one should worry if they’re writing about the press. They should write about the press the same way they write about GE, or President Obama, or the New York Yankees. They shouldn’t be thinking about their next job.

The piece was very flattering. It was my ambition to write that way, but I leave it to the readers of the piece and you and others to decide whether I’ve accomplished that. You know, when you read a flattering piece about yourself. … I mean, have you ever read a flattering piece about yourself?

I got a good report card once.

I got a report card in first grade that said, “Jack excels in his studies and really enjoys math and English, but he starts fights on the playground that he brings back into the classroom.” I’ve tried to make that my operating premise: Let’s start some fights and see who wins.

I have no doubt that Shafer will continue to do great work. I hope that some of it will be media criticism. And I’m so appreciative of him speaking to a group of young journalists many years ago, giving us his tips for journalism and media criticism.

Image via Reason.TV

Prayers, clergy missing from 9/11 event

Get ready to start thinking about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 if you haven’t already. NPR is one of many outlets preparing to tell you all about it, starting coverage on September 5. Of course, we’ll be interested in the percentage and the quality of religion news that comes out of it.

Usually I’m not a huge fan of covering anniversaries since they are fairly obvious (read: easy for reporters) and 10 years seems like an arbitrary number. However, journalists could often pause more to give a little bit of context and perspective from the past and anniversaries often give them an excuse to do that. We have seen a few interesting religion items come up in the last week or so that we will be interested to see how they play out.

The first item that caught my attention was Eric Marrapodi’s story for CNN on how clergy and formal prayers will not be included in the 9/11 service.

“The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature,” Evelyn Erskine, a spokeswoman for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said in an e-mail to CNN.

“It has been widely supported for the past 10 years and rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died.”

I can imagine that much of New York’s attention has been diverted by Hurricane Irene, but this sounds pretty interesting to me. The piece follows some coverage from the Wall Street Journal on how clergy in New York seem surprised by the decision. The CNN piece offers some rationale from Mayor Bloomberg.

“This cannot be political,” Bloomberg told the radio audience. “That’s why there’s a poem or a quote or something that each one of the readers will read.” He added there would be “no speeches whatsoever.”

While he was talking about which officials would attend, he noted, “There’s an awful lot of people that would like to participate but you just can’t do that, once you open it up. So the argument here is it’s elected officials and those who were there at the time and had some influence.”

I find it slightly ironic that Bloomberg says that the event cannot be political when political officials are the ones leading it. The piece does a nice job of putting the ceremony in context of what officials have done at previous anniversaries.

There have been 10 ceremonies at ground zero in New York to pause and remember the events of 9/11, one six months after the attack and on September 11 each following year.

Spirituality and religion have been reserved for the moments of silence in those events.

As much as Bloomberg would like to keep anniversary events from becoming political, it’s almost inevitable because that tends to be media outlet’s emphasis. In contrast to this news item, President Obama plans to attend an interfaith prayer service at Washington National Cathedral the evening of 9/11. Of course, it’ll be interesting to see who is invited and what is said.

The challenge for reporters is to find a way to cover 9/11 anniversary angles in fresh and interesting ways, and that includes not just covering the official schedule. ReligionLink offers a few ideas for reporters, and let us know if you find angles that stand out this early on.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Fringe ‘Catholics’ in the news, again

I realize that stories about Galileo Galilei and the Vatican are like catnip to some journalists who are anxious to portray the Catholic Church as several centuries behind the time on this or that cultural issue.

However, it helps to know when you are writing about the Roman Catholic Church and when you are not.

So let’s start this post with a parable that’s built on a journalistic metaphor.

Let’s say that a bunch of retired journalists from the Los Angeles Times got together and, with a few converts who yearn for the good old journalism days in that great city, form a news organization that we will call, oh, the Society of St. Otis Chandler. This group rents itself some printing presses and, using a template of a vintage masthead of the Los Angeles Times in 1965 or so, start publishing a newspaper that they call — wait for it — the Los Angeles Times.

This makes some people confused, especially when the leaders of this new-old Los Angeles Times start making pronouncements that directly contradict those made by the leaders of the real Los Angeles Times.

Is everyone following this? Good. Hang on.

Now, the leaders of the actual Times clearly have the right — like it or not — to say who works for the real Times and who is aligned with this pretend Times. So how would these editors feel if major news operations kept writing stories about statements by the Society of St. Otis Chandler and calling its members Los Angeles Times journalists in good standing?

Now, unfortunately, there is one more complication. Suppose that some of these splinter Times people decide that the leadership of the Society of St. Otis Chandler have not gone far enough. Suppose that they start yet another group, one that claims that the leaders of the new-new Los Angeles Times are not only wrong on key issues, but that they are not even journalists in the first place.

Now, do you think mainstream journalists would go so far as to say that these people, the members of the splinter group that left the larger splinter Times, are, in fact, Los Angeles Times journalists?

I sort of doubt it.

All of this brings us to a new Chicago Tribune story that ran in the Los Angeles Times under the following headline:

A few Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong

They say Earth is the center of the universe, embracing church teachings of four centuries ago

OK, so that says “Catholics” in the headline, which is bad, but it might have been hard to get the proper adjective into the headline (unless “Splinter Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong” would fit, which is likely with several skinny letters in the mix).

However, the story then opens like this:

Some people believe the world revolves around them — and their belief is born not of selfishness but of faith.

A few conservative Roman Catholics are pointing to a dozen Bible verses and the church’s original teachings as proof that Earth is the center of the universe, the view that was at the heart of the church’s clash with Galileo Galilei four centuries ago. The relatively obscure movement has gained a following among those who find comfort in knowing there are still staunch defenders of early church doctrine.

A few paragraphs later, readers learn that this belief is held by some members of “a parish run by the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects most of the modernizing reforms made by the Vatican II council.”

The communion status of members of this society are complex, to say the least. To simply call them “conservative Roman Catholics” is way too simplistic.

But later things get worse.

Those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, or the centuries-old consensus among scientists that Earth revolves around the sun, is a conspiracy to squelch the church’s influence.

“Heliocentrism becomes dangerous if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system,” said Robert Sungenis, leader of a budding movement to get scientists to reconsider. “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today. … Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.”

Sungenis is no Don Quixote. Hundreds of curiosity seekers, skeptics and supporters attended a conference last fall titled “Galileo Was Wrong. The Church Was Right” near the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.

Since Sungenis is the pivotal voice in the story, it’s logical to ask this basic question: If Robert Sungenis is “no Don Quixote,” who is he? Also, what is his relationship to Rome? Is he, in fact, a conservative Roman Catholic, as in a Catholic who is a conservative who is in communion with the Church of Rome?

That turns out to be a rather complex and controversial subject, as even the most cursory glance at the following Google search will demonstrate — click here, if you dare.

So what we have here is an interesting story about a very, very small group of believers who claim to be the real Roman Catholics. However, what do they have to do with life in today’s Catholic Church, as in the real one led by Pope Benedict XVI?

That’s a good question. Someone should have asked it, before printing this story in the real Los Angeles Times or the real Chicago Tribune.

MLK: Struggling sinner or skilled liar?

As you would imagine, folks here inside the DC beltway take monuments pretty seriously — especially those linked to the National Mall.

Thus, mainstream journalists are devoting, and rightly so, quite a bit of attention to subjects linked to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rites that will eventually be held (delayed by Hurricane Irene) to dedicate the new Tidal Basin memorial site in his honor.

Most of these stories, of course, are dedicated to the cultural, political and ethical impact of King’s life and work. Thus, the reflect a certain journalistic tendency to edit “the Rev.” from his name and title.

Over at the digital Washington Post page called “On Faith,” the former editor of the website offered some articulate reporting on why that is inappropriate, if not tragic, if the goal of the MLK National Memorial is to promote national understanding of King’s message and legacy. Here is a key part of that David Waters piece, from right up top:

Let’s hope one essential fact won’t be lost in the hubbub … This will be the only national memorial in Washington dedicated to a gospel preacher.

Indeed, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, told the Post this week that he believes his father was “anointed,” and “chosen by God to make the kind of impact that he made.”

“If we overlook the fact that Dr. King was a man of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, we miss the point of his life and his death,” said Kelly Johnson, founder of Two By Two prayer ministries in Memphis. … Johnson and others believe the ultimate legacy of King, a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, will be more theological and less social or political.

King, of course, knew this and once explained: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”

By all means, read Waters’ piece. Note in particular the emphasis on how King tried, in his “I Have A Dream” speech, to focus his oratory on political themes — before setting his prepared text aside and launching into what can only be called a Bible-driven sermon.

However, the most interesting Post piece I have read so far on King was written by columnist Anna Holmes and ran under the headline, “Martin Luther King Jr., the advice columnist.” This piece focused on a large body of King’s words that has often been overlooked, namely the “Advice For Living” columns he wrote in 1956-58 in response to letters from Ebony readers, mostly from middle-class African-Americans.

This is a daring piece, in large part because it deals with tensions between King’s beliefs, his words and the details of his own moral life. However, I would argue that this essay falls short in grasping one crucial element of King’s — yes — prophetic ministry of truth telling. Here is how this crucial part of the story begins:

“Advice for Living” was also remarkable in terms of its content. King did not purport to have all the answers, and, for the most part, avoided making blanket condemnations, perhaps because of the dualities and hypocrisies in his own life. In response to one reader, a preacher’s wife concerned by the amount of female attention bestowed upon her husband, King said, “Almost every minister has the problem of confronting women in his congregation whose interests are not entirely spiritual … but if he carries himself in a manner representative of the highest mandates of Christian living, his very person will discourage their approaches.”

“Remember, this was an era when a common joke was that any upstanding preacher negotiated with the deacon board for a salary, parsonage and pick of the choir,” says Taylor Branch, author of the prize-winning trilogy “America in the King Years.” “But he couldn’t talk about that, because he was trying to make his name known and establish a record of wholesome conservative values for the civil rights movement.”

This leads to a crucial quotation, one that I believe would be disputed by many scholars who have studied King’s life and thought:

“There are a lot of contradictions between what he wrote and his personal philosophies,” says Tamura Lomax, a professor at Vanderbilt University with specialties in African American studies and feminist theory. “He was kind of in a prison. He couldn’t say, ‘Look, when I’m on the road, I have relations, as well,’ so he had to present this idea of the pristine figure, this kind of public piety.”

What, precisely, is meant by the phrase “his personal philosophies”? Is the author saying that “philosophies” equals “convictions” or even his Christian “beliefs”? Or is the point that King publicly professed one set of traditional Christian beliefs on matters of moral theology and failed to consistently live them out in his own life?

If so, Holmes really needed to talk with a scholar more familiar with, or more sympathetic to, King’s preaching and convictions.

It is one thing to say that King was a sinner who failed to live up to the truths that he so brilliantly argued in his sermons on matters of faith and personal morality. Anyone who knows anything about church history knows that more than a few prophets and even a few saints also struggled with temptations that often bested them.

But does this mean that King did not believe the words that he spoke and wrote? Not necessarily. To say that King was, at times, a hypocrite does not mean that he deliberately preached lies. In fact, it could be evidence that he knew the truth and also knew the pain of not being able to live according to that truth, day after day.

Let me stress that this does not lessen King’s legacy, this evidence that he was a sinner and that he knew he was a sinner. This section of the Post piece ultimately suggests that, due to changed elements of his “personal philosophies,” King did not believe that his private behavior was, in fact, sinful.

Many King scholars would consider that statement heresy, if not slander.

Why hear only one voice on such a crucial, controversial, topic about this pivotal figure in American history and, yes, our nation’s religious history? Trust me. There are other voices out there to engage in this debate. It would have been easy to find them and quote them.

IMAGE: The MLK National Memorial.

Hardliners and skeptics on the Godbeat

A week or so ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput gave a speech at a special World Youth Day session for young pilgrims on the theme of religious freedom. Part of the discussion was about media coverage of issues about which the church has a say. Chaput, recently moved from Denver to Philadelphia, is a media-friendly archbishop who isn’t afraid to call out what he considers poor journalistic performances.

Now with the media largely focused on either the cost of World Youth Day or the protests in Spain during the event, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. media didn’t take much notice of the speech. If you’re interested, you can read it over at First Things, but here’s a snippet:

The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.

Here’s another:

We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.

And to think he wrote that before Bill Keller’s little declaration against conservative Christians!

What I thought was interesting, though, was that the Washington Post didn’t cover Chaput’s words except to respond to them. It’s interesting to note how they responded, which might be summed up as “You’re darn right, Chaput, we will crush you.” I’m only slightly kidding. Chaput’s words were discussed in a new media criticism blog by Erik Wemple:

Hard-liner Archbishop Charles Chaput has never been shy about his views on American mass media. He has a long-standing gripe, for instance, with the New York Times, which he blames for twisting his words in a 2004 story about Catholic bishops working against the presidential candidacy of John Kerry.

I find it hilarious that the Post offers one word to describe Chaput and it’s “hard-liner.” It’s just interesting to note that fidelity to church teachings here is given a negative word.

He critiques some of what Chaput wrote, saying it was overly broad and unspecific and unsupported. Of course, Wemple claims up at the top that he’s familiar with Chaput’s lengthy discussions of specific problems with various media coverage, so he’s just saying this particular speech could have been more specific. Sure, that’s a fine criticism. Although one might say the same about calling someone a hard-liner, etc.

He quotes the part where Chaput says that the American media are focused on profits, have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth and responds:

Check, check and check. Chaput’s description is something that editors at the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and MSNBC would support, if not frame and post as a mission statement. News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church. And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?

Suppose Chaput were a government official. Here’s how his remarks would read:

“We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN or MSNBC for reliable news about politics….These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the U.S. government and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward officials on both sides of the aisle.”


Interesting. Did you see how he didn’t accurately read what Chaput said? Chaput talked about the “Catholic faith.” Wemple responds by saying Chaput is correct that the media are aggressively skeptical against the powerful Catholic Church! Do you think Wemple even understands the distinction there?

And about the government example, my own view is that the most powerful bias in the media is toward greater government action. Or at least that’s what a casual read of any newspaper on any day might indicate. Now, is there a lot of aggressive skepticism toward politicians? Not as much as I’d like to see. But having said that, I think it’s also true the media have quite a bit of sympathy for politics and for government. They seem to completely embrace the idea that politics is a good thing and they very easily see how local, state and federal government might play a role in most any story. They seem to embrace democracy, even if they don’t (officially) take sides in a given political contest.

I wish that Wemple, rather than react defensively to Chaput, had thought a bit more about the comparison and whether there’s anything to learn from Chaput’s words.