That ‘What, me worry?’ semi-faith story

I realize that many news consumers are not fond of the emerging tradition in many mainstream newsrooms of running pushy, perhaps even provocative news features during major religious holiday seasons — especially stories during Christmas and Easter.

It helps to understand that many of these same news organizations used to serve up rather dim, shallow, allegedly “inspirational” stories that readers were supposed to see as sort-of religious (but not really) tributes to the season in question. ‘Round about Dec. 20th, reporters would hear frantic, exhausted editors saying things like, “Will someone in this &*^%#%^ newsroom please find me some kind of *&^# %$@^%& *%$#$ Christmas story with big color art for page one? $^%@! You all know that we have to have one.”

Needless to say, many of those stories were rather lame.

These days, the goal seems to be to find some kind of religion story that tweaks the faithful, rather than one that condescends to them. I see this as progress, frankly, when the results are truly newsworthy.

This brings me to the latest USA Today news feature by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman that focuses on life in America’s post-denominational and increasingly post-doctrinal age.

Yes, I have heard from some GetReligion readers who who see this story as another MSM attempt to dance on the grave of small-o orthodoxy. However, I don’t see this story that way.

Why? Let’s look at the recent story that ran under the headline, “For many, ‘Losing My Religion’ isn’t just a song: It’s life.” The story focus on the growing slice of the population that neither believes or rejects belief. These folks just shrug and say, “So what?” Here’s a crucial chunk of Grossman’s story:

As Christmas Day glides by — all gilt, no substance — for many, clergy and religion experts are dismayed. They fear for souls’ salvation and for the common threads of faith snapping in society. Others see no such dire consequences to a more openly secular America as people not only fess up to being faithless but admit they’re skipping out on spiritual, the cool default word of the decade, as well.

Only now, however, are they turning up in the statistical stream. Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

• 44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

• 46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

• 28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

• 6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

First of all, note the sources of these gloomy statistics. Grossman is drawing, primarily, on research done by conservative Protestants and organizations that are seen as dedicated to fair, informed research. No one is dancing on any graves, here. In fact, you can argue that the Southern Baptists, in particular, are sounding these statistical alarms in order to awaken the faithful, not to insult them.

This is similar to those headline-grabbing polls conducted in the past decade or so by the evangelical researchers at the Barna Group that determined — according to their doctrinal standards — that only 9 percent of American adults are attempting to live according to a “biblical worldview.” Is it anti-religion when candid believers conduct this kind of research?

Come to think of it, are scholars linked to the oldline Protestant churches doing similar research? If anything, this USA Today report has too many conservative voices and not enough info from the religious left.

The bottom line, however, is clear: This story has legs. And it is linked to another major trend that cannot be ignored:

The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the “Nones” — the people who checked “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS). The Nones numbers leapt from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.

The So Whats appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed “nothing in particular.”

However, this USA Today report did leave me asking some questions. Here are a few of them.

* How does this “So what” trend relate to the phenomenon that Jewish sociologists have been studying for years, the one that I first read about in the early ’80s in a Jewish studies class at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign? The trend has become known as “Fewer Jews, but better Jews.” In other words, as more believers drift away there is a corresponding change in the shape of the religious community. There are fewer believers, but a higher percentage than before are believers who are trying to practice traditional forms of their faith.

* If rising numbers of people are unconcerned about religious life and doctrine, how does this trend affect religious groups that are not as strict or orthodox? Are liberal movements growing or shrinking, especially in comparison to trends in more conservative forms of the faith? Even inside one branch of the church — such as Roman Catholicism — are liberal parishes thriving, opening schools and producing priests? How do their statistics compare to parishes that strive to defend church traditions?

* What replaces these traditions, when they are thrown aside? How do the “So what” Americans mark their marriages, births, deaths and other symbolic movements? I was struck by this piece of the Grossman report:

The Rev. Ema Drouillard, who specializes in San Francisco-area non-denominational ceremonies, said in 2001 about 30% of her clients refused any reference to religion at their weddings. A decade later, 80% of her clients choose her carefully God-free ceremony. The only faith they pledge is in each other. No higher authority is consulted as they vow to walk beside each other, “offering courage and hope through all your endeavors.”

“A lot of people just aren’t on any spiritual path. They say, ‘We are just focusing on the party.’ Or they have no language for their spirituality so they just leave it out,” Drouillard says.

Interesting. By the way, this minister is ordained. Who ordained her? Who is supporting these lite rites?

* On a related question, what do we know about the ages and lifestyles of these “So what” semi-believers? Is this a stance that works better for single adults who are cohabiting, as opposed to married couples with multiple children?

* During a visit to the Czech Republic a few years ago, I heard journalist after journalist discussing two interesting trends. The first has received plenty of ink, which is the fact that this nation is one of the most secular on earth. The second trend, however, can be seen as the second piece of a paradox. The Czech Republic has also become one of the world’s most superstitious nations, with millions of unbelievers who, in effect, turn to superstitions to replace the mysteries that once were defined by organized forms of faith.

What would this look like in an American context? Perhaps this trend could be linked to all of those atheists who, according to researchers, continue to pray?

Lots of questions. Yes, but these questions are based on the assumption that this is an important story.

More coverage, please.

Fear and loathing in Nigeria

Last night I followed a random tweet that linked to this report from Nina Shea at National Review‘s Corner:

In its latest move to effect religious cleansing in Africa’s largest country, Boko Haram — the Nigerian Islamist movement that claimed responsibility for the deadly Christmas Day bombings of a Catholic church, an evangelical church, and three police stations — is now reportedly warning all Christians in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north to evacuate by Friday or else face new attacks. It also vowed to confront Nigerian troops sent to quell four of the northern states it has targeted with violence.

Well that sure sounds like big news. Unfortunately, it’s not big enough to get into the Washington Post. Or The New York Times. There is, however, an op-ed in the New York Times arguing against the U.S. getting involved in Nigeria’s problems. Headline: “In Nigeria, Boko Haram Is Not the Problem.” (Not everyone agrees.) That op-ed contradicts, in part, what was reported in the news section of the New York Times in August. Which is fine, of course, but it’s problematic that there’s no news on Boko Haram’s ultimatum. There’s also nothing in the Los Angeles Times about this latest action.

But other media outlets are interested. Agence France Presse covered it. So did The Telegraph. I embedded the CNN video above which talks about Boko Haram’s ultimatum as well as some of the background on simmering problems in Nigeria. There’s a print article on CNN as well. Headlined “Islamist militants in Nigeria warn Christians to leave north within 3 days,” it is actually a somewhat terrifying read that ends with a warning about how quickly things could explode beyond repair in Nigeria. (And following Twitter makes it seem like things are on the precipice now.) Here’s a snippet:

Nigeria has almost equal numbers of Christian and Muslims, with the south predominantly Christian. Boko Haram and other Islamic groups claim the north has been starved of resources and marginalized by the government of Jonathan, who is a Christian.

Boko Haram (which according to the group means “Western civilization is forbidden”) is demanding the imposition of Islamic sharia law across Nigeria.

Christian leaders have demanded a stronger response to the attacks from the government and the Muslim community. Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, complained last week that the response of Islamic leaders had been “unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities.”

“The Christian community is fast losing confidence in government’s ability to protect our rights,” Oritsejafor said.

David Cook of Rice University, who has studied the rise of Boko Haram, said that “if radical Muslim violence on a systematic level were to take hold in Nigeria … it could eventually drive the country into a civil war.”

Corruption, poverty and a lack of government services have helped Boko Haram gain support, especially among young Muslims out of work. So has a perception that the Muslim north has been marginalized by a political establishment drawn largely from the Christian south.

Reuters FaithWorld is a great site for updates on what’s going in Nigeria. Here’s a link to a few of their recent reports.

Anyway, while many U.S. media outlets ignore the ultimatum or Jonathan’s state of emergency, other outlets are covering things. Here Reuters describes what the first tank patrols look like. Here Reuters speaks with a Muslim ex-warlord about the looming fight against Boko Haram.

Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a Muslim who led a rebellion in the delta until a peace deal with the government in 2004, said bomb attacks by Boko Haram could provoke retaliation by mostly Christian southerners, including those living in the delta. …

Asked if northerners could be targeted by some from the majority Christian south, he replied: “It is seconds away … Nigeria is on the precipice of a civil war.”

“For Niger Delta people to take up arms is just a minute away. It’s just Goodluck that is holding us back,” said Asari, who is from Jonathan’s southern, mainly Christian Ijaw tribe, but who converted to Islam.

“We have all reached the extreme. There is nothing anybody can do about it except we fight.”

Super interesting story.

The Pew Forum had some helpful information on threats to religious freedom in Nigeria.

France 24 has some interesting background on the group’s religious goals here.

On top of the rather serious religious strife we’ve been talking about, a strike has been called for Monday — because of the government stopping fuel subsidies — and protests are already being reported. Nigeria is a place to watch. Let’s hope the U.S. media develop a bit more interest in the story.

Romney’s Mormonism: Problem for voters?

For vague, unknown reasons, some Christians are reluctant to support a Mormon for president.

At least that’s the impression you get reading a Washington Post story this week with this headline:

Romney’s religion still a sticking point

Here’s the top of the story, published before Romney won the Iowa caucuses by the thinnest of margins Tuesday:

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — On a recent afternoon at the Kanesville Tabernacle, the historic site along the Mormon Trail where pioneers selected Brigham Young to lead their church in 1847, Sister LaRae Wright lamented that 150 years later many Iowans still know nothing about the Mormon faith.

Mitt Romney, she said, could change that.

“I want him to shout it from the rooftops,” Sister Wright burst out with a chuckle. Then she paused. “But does that make political sense?”

It does not. Conversations with voters and evangelical leaders across Iowa reveal that a suspicion of Mormonism may still be a central reason for those opposing the former Massachusetts governor. But by establishing himself as the electability candidate in the field, Romney has created a political tension between that undercurrent of religious antipathy and a more open hostility toward President Obama.The outcome of Tuesday’s caucuses could depend on whether the fear of a second Obama term trumps the trepidation about Romney’s religion.

Why are some voters suspicious of Mormonism?

A longtime Romney supporter suggested to the Post that “bigotry” is the reason. Another source cited a “fear of the unknown.” The story included this interview with a voter at a Romney campaign event:

On Sunday afternoon, potential voters in Atlantic waited for Romney at the Family Table restaurant. A few tables down from a group of Mormons, Karen Poe, 68, fresh out of church services, sat with her husband, Phil, around ketchup-stained plates. “Beating Obama is my bottom line,” she said, but isn’t sure she can get behind Romney.

“He’s a Mormon,” Poe said, grimacing at the mention of Romney’s name. “Everyone needs to base their decision on something, and the basis for his decisions would be different. I’m not convinced it’s a good point of view to be coming from.”

Poe, an evangelical member of the Assemblies of God church outside Des Moines, said that while she’d also have issues with a Jewish or Muslim candidate, Mormons worried her more. “They are a very controlling religion,” she said.

Missing from the article: Any exploration of theological reasons why some Christians — evangelicals, mainliners and Catholics among them — might have problems recognizing the core of Mormonism.

Your GetReligionistas spent some time this morning privately bemoaning that glaring omission.

This afternoon, we were pleased to see a Religion News Service piece that provides clarity where the Post offered confusion.

In his report, Godbeat pro Daniel Burke explores why Romney’s “evangelical problem starts with theology”:

(RNS) The good news for Mitt Romney: he won the Iowa caucuses. The bad news for Romney: evangelicals remain reluctant to support him.

Romney bested former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes in Tuesday’s (Jan. 3) first-in-the-nation voting. But just 14 percent of evangelicals supported the former Massachusetts governor, according to entrance polls, a third less than he won during his 2008 campaign.

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Romney failed to convince evangelicals that he cares about their issues, particularly outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage.

“What evangelicals are saying is: We don’t know what this guy believes,” Scheffler said. “Does he have any public policy philosophy other than wanting to be elected president?”

Yet numerous polls and anti-Mormon statements suggest that deeper disagreements rooted in core elements of Christian theology are also in play.

Those core elements of Christian theology?

Among the disputes are the nature of God, the doctrine of the Trinity and the acceptance of revelations and books beyond the Christian Bible.

“For the people on the inside of these kinds of discussions, these are not just matters of life and death but of salvation. There is nothing more important for them than having a proper relation to God and idea of who Jesus is,” said Mason, author of “The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.”

In a sense, Mormons and mainstream Christians have been at odds for nearly 200 years, Mason said.

Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, said God told him that every existing church and creed was “corrupt” and “wrong.” Drawing on personal revelations—published in the Book of Mormon and other texts—Smith set out to restore the church.

Smith preached fairly orthodox Christian theology at first, but “became increasingly radical, breaking more and more from standard Christianity with every year that he lived,” said Craig Blomberg, a professor at Denver Seminary who has been active in evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

A sermon Smith preached three months before his death in 1844 planted the seeds for Mormonism’s biggest break with traditional Christianity, according to scholars. In it, Smith preached that God was once a flesh-and-blood man who had attained godhood. Likewise, Smith taught, humans could advance to God-like status in heaven.

That’s a pretty big chunk of the story that I just copied and pasted. I’m tempted to share much more. Instead, I’ll encourage you to read the whole thing yourself.

By all means, peruse both pieces and share your thoughts on how each media organization handled the story. This is not the place, however, to argue politics or debate beliefs. Let’s keep the focus on journalism.

Romney photo via Shutterstock

Katy Perry’s Big Fat Hindu Divorce?

I know that the shelf life of the average Hollywood marriage is around five months or so. But I was still quite saddened by the news that Russell Brand had filed to divorce Katy Perry shortly after their first anniversary.

While most GetReligion readers probably don’t read the gossip pages or celebrity news section as much as the typical reader, we should acknowledge that there’s much more interest in the life of Perry than there is in what’s going on in Nigeria right now. Sad, but true. And I find recent reports about Perry and Brand’s looming divorce interesting from a GetReligion angle.

Take this headline and lede from the New York Daily News:

Russell Brand Katy Perry divorce has Hindu leaders angry after solemn Indian ceremony

Slammed for not taking the marriage ‘seriously’

While it’s relatively common in Hollywood for celebrity marriages to not last until death does them part, some Hindu leaders are taking Russell Brand and Katy Perry’s divorce very hard.

“They should have taken marriage more seriously as it is a sacred rite in Hinduism,” Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism told WENN. “In Hinduism, marriage is the most important sacrament.

“If celebrities opt for a Hindu wedding, they should be prepared to adhere to the commitment, devotion, responsibility, sanctity and morals, which are attached to it.”

Back when the wedding ceremony took place, I wondered whether it was accurate to call it a Hindu marriage ceremony. It was widely reported — though poorly sourced — that a Hindu priest had officiated at the ceremony. Brand is Hindu, while Perry is the child of two Christian pastors. But when it came to actual sourcing from the couple, it sounded much different. The couple released a statement to Us magazine that read:

Russell Brand and Katy Perry are overjoyed to confirm that they were pronounced Mr. and Mrs. Brand on Saturday, October 23. The very private and spiritual ceremony, attended by the couples’ closest family and friends was performed by a Christian minister and longtime friend of the Hudson Family. The backdrop was the inspirational and majestic countryside of Northern India.

A commenter to the thread pointed out that the evangelical pastor who performed the marriage rite had commented on it publicly. The first and last lines of his blog post:

Yes, I married Katy Perry and Russell Brand. Rather, I was the officiating minister at the wedding. …

Oh, and refuting media outlets it was not a Hindu celebration. I was there.

What I find fascinating about all this is how something that’s just not true has become an accepted fact by the media, even if it is that popular section of media that follows celebrity. If you do a Google news search for Katy Perry Hindu, you get 736 news stories. One of those begins with this line:

English actor-comedian Russell Brand and American musician Katy Perry, who reportedly underwent elaborate Hindu wedding ceremony in October 2010

Another has this paragraph:

Now we have Perry and Brand. They had themselves a “Hindu style” wedding with a mandap in the middle of the Ranthambhore tiger reserve in 2010. They wore traditional Rajasthani dresses and went around a holy fire seven times while a priest chanted shlokas. Brand invoked Lord Ganesh. Fourteen months later he’s invoking “irreconcilable differences.”

I mean, we’ve gotten quite confident that this non-Hindu wedding was Hindu and we even have a lot of completely false details!

If the media can’t get this most basic of details correct when writing about these two people, one wonders what they do get right and if it’s just by chance when they do.

Your obligatory post about labels in Iowa

As you would imagine, one of the first things I did after returning home last night was cue up the Iowa coverage. For the most part, I surfed back and forth between CNN and Fox most of the night.

No MSNBC? I figured that watching MSNBC cover a GOP primary in the Heartland would be something like (insert metaphor of your choice here, something like “watching a Focus on the Family documentary on the life of Elton John”).

Lo and behold, one of the first things that I heard after I grabbed my remote was veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, on Fox, talking about the importance of watching several caucus locations in Northwest Iowa. Why? Because those areas were heavily Catholic and that would show how Rick Santorum was faring with Catholic voters as well as with evangelical Protestants.

Wait a minute. There are Catholic voters in Iowa? Who knew?

In general, I thought one of the most interesting themes that ran through much of the night’s coverage was the admission by many experts and analysts that it was simplistic to talk about Iowa in terms of “evangelical voters,” alone. The real drama in the GOP race is between the party establishment and the so called Anyone-But-Mitt-Romney crowd that is currently voting for Santorum or for Rep. Ron Paul. The evangelicals are part of that scene, but so are working-class and middle-class Catholics. (See this David Brooks column in The New York Times for a concise summary of this issue.)

I was stunned at how many GOP insiders kept stressing the urgent need for Romney to break out of his 25 percent shell. Clearly, if somewhere between 54 and 56 percent of the Iowa caucus voters were self-proclaimed “evangelicals,” then Romney’s problem is much bigger than any remaining Mormon complications — since there are already some “evangelicals” voting for him. The “evangelical” issue is not the whole picture.

So how should reporters describe what is happening, when discussing the religion factor? The Times deserves some credit for admirable restraint in this day-after analysis piece that managed to avoid the “evangelical” label altogether. The lede noted:

DES MOINES – All year long the story of the Republican race for president was Mitt Romney and a rotating cast playing the role of Someone Else. On Tuesday night, Someone Else was played by two candidates: Rick Santorum, the longtime champion of social conservative issues that were supposedly taking a backseat in this jobs-centric presidential race, and Ron Paul, the noninterventionist Texan who represents an almost 180-degree turn from the Republican Party’s direction.

Of course, what unites the Santorum and Paul voters, other than opposition to Romney? The big words here are “culture” and “populism.” The fact that Paul’s cultural conservatism is appealing to many religious conservatives doesn’t hurt, either.

In other words, the Tea Party and the cultural conservatives can share pews rather easily. The issue is what to do with the country club folks.

On that issue, the Times turned to a major Southern Baptist voice for insight:

Still, for now, the intensity of the desire to unseat Mr. Obama may be Mr. Romney’s most important ally, overcoming whatever qualms various strains of conservatives have about him. Surveys of Iowans entering caucus sites on Tuesday night showed that slightly more people thought it most important to choose a candidate that can beat Mr. Obama than one who is a “true conservative.”

“The key is not whether Romney can unite the party, but whether Obama can unite the party,” said Richard Land, the head of the ethics commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. ”And the answer to that is a resounding yes.”

So the lesson there is to look at the wider issues of culture, class and religion — instead of focusing on a mythical, united, all-powerful “evangelical vote.” There is evidence that some folks at the Times did the math last night. Bravo.

Meanwhile, this chunk of a CNN round-up almost turned into a celebration of the futility that surrounds the religious-labels game.

Evangelicals still matter

Evangelicals made up about 60% of the caucus electorate in 2008, but heading into this year’s caucuses, polls suggested that the number might be lower. In the closely watched Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday before the vote, just 34% of likely caucus-goers described themselves as “born again” or “fundamentalist Christian.”

But according to entrance polls on Tuesday, 57% of those who caucused called themselves evangelical or “born again.”

Christian voters showed up but did not rally behind a single candidate like they did in 2008. … But Santorum, a Catholic and staunch abortion opponent who courted pastors and home-school activists during his campaign, outperformed his opponents and won a third of the evangelical vote. That’s a big slice of a crucial Iowa voting bloc that surely helped Santorum to his second-place finish on Tuesday.

Uh, and which voting bloc was that? The “evangelical” bloc, the tiny “fundamentalist” bloc or one of the two “evangelical” blocs? Also, if Santorum got a third of this alleged bloc, where did the other two-thirds go?

Please let us know — URLs in the comments pages — if you saw other Iowa coverage that dug into the cultural and wider religious issues, instead of simply focusing on the “evangelical” bloc or blocs that clearly did not vote as a bloc. I have also tried to find URLs for some of the television analysis, which — shocking — seemed much more nuanced that most of what I am reading in the major newspapers.

What did you see? What coverage impressed you, when it came time to “get religion,” as well as “get culture” and “get class”?

VIDEO: Santorum’s “Game on” remarks, opening with a quote from C.S. Lewis?

After 1929 rape, mom and daughter reunite

One of my family members devours biographies, a genre not known for tantalizing your average middle-aged woman. When I asked her why she loves them, she insists that the stories are better than fiction, that because they are true, they are much more interesting. A recent news story out of California fits that description pretty well.

The Associated Press picked up on an incredible story of how a 100-year-old woman reunited with her daughter seven decades after conceiving her out of rape, a story that seems like it could come from a book or movie.

On a summer day in 1928 while picnicking with girls from a sewing class, Disbrow and her friend Elizabeth were jumped by three men as they went for a walk in their long dresses.

Both were raped.

“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what to say. So when we went back, nothing was said,” Disbrow recalled.
Months passed. Her body began to change.

Disbrow, who had been told babies were brought by storks, didn’t know what was happening.

Her mother and stepfather sent her to a Lutheran home for pregnant girls. At 17, she gave birth to a blond-haired baby with a deep dimple in her chin and named her Betty Jane.

Her daughter Betty Jane went on to marry and have six children, including astronaut Mark Lee, who has gone on four space flights and circled the world 517 times. You get snippets of religion here and there throughout the story, with the details that she was sent to a Luthern home for girls, how a pastor and his wife wanted to adopt her child and how she prayed to be able to see her child. But the story offers faith as an afterthought.

Perhaps faith wasn’t terribly prominent in her life and in her experience, you might assume. But if you look back to a piece from the Orange County Register, you get a different picture. Reporter Tom Berg starts off the story with the prayer that the woman prayed to be able to see her daughter.

Months turned into years. Years into decades. Until Disbrow woke up May 22, 2006, and after wishing happy birthday to her little girl, she
prayed: Lord, if you would just let me see Betty Jane, I won’t bother her, I promise. I just want to see her before I die.

Some might consider it a fool’s prayer. Disbrow was 94. And her baby girl, if still alive, would be 77.

To meet would take a miracle.

The piece doesn’t go in-depth into the woman’s faith, whether she was raised in one faith or became something else, but it does end with some details that offer a better picture of the outcome.

Disbrow’s family, friends and church all embraced her story. Grown men cried when she described it at Heritage Christian Fellowship in San Clemente.

And when mother and daughter met?

“It was like we’d known each other all our lives,” says Ruth Lee, now 82.

“It was like we never parted,” says Disbrow, who recently told this story to friends at her 100th birthday party.

Immediately after, Disbrow prayed again. She thanked God. She forgave the man who raped her. And she wondered something about him for the first time:

“I wondered if he ever watched the space shuttle take off, not knowing that perhaps one of those he was watching was his grandson.”

These few little details at the end of the piece offer a fuller picture of this already compelling story. Without them, it wouldn’t do her story justice.

Image via Shutterstock.

Open thread on 2011 religion news

How long have I been away from my desk, out on the nation’s highways visiting various encampments of family members?

Well, so long that I have not had a chance to seek the comments of GetReligion readers on the results of the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 events and trends on the religion beat in 2011 (click here for the full press release).

Comment No. 1: Is it just me, or did anyone else think that the poll results received less ink (digital or analog) this time around? Less coverage than normal?

At the same time, this was clearly a year when there was one event that drew the most mainstream news coverage and the biggest headlines. However, this was also an event that was so important that many editors probably didn’t think of it as a religion-beat story, in and of itself.

In other words, this news story was too important to be a religion-news story. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

You can sense this paradox in the CNN Belief Blog analysis of the poll results. Here’s the top of that essay:

Washington (CNN) – The killing of Osama bin Laden was voted the top story of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association, beating out Rep. Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims and Catholic Bishop Robert Finn’s failure to report the suspected abuse of a child.

Though on face bin Laden’s death is not a religion story, it created conversation on a number of faith topics, the RNA said.

“Faith-based groups reacted to the terrorist leader’s death with renewed sympathy for victims’ families, scriptural citations justifying the demise of evil, and hopeful prayers for peace among the nations,” stated the RNA release.

In other words, the killing of the world’s most famous Islamist radical was not really a religion story, just as bin Laden’s career was not really rooted in his religious worldview and his interpretation of Islam?

Also, this year’s poll results were, for me, a clear, but painful, illustration of harsh reality in the news biz. Some events are big stories because they are big stories. Other stories are not as important to editors because they are not as important to readers, even if the consequences of these stories may be greater in the long run.

That’s how I felt about bin Laden’s death. I mean, everyone knew that U.S. officials were going to find him sooner or later. It’s also easy to argue that his real power, his power to shape world events, had already declined sharply during his years in hiding.

Meanwhile, other bloody events were taking place in Pakistan during 2011 that I was convinced offered sharp, clear insights into the confused state of affairs in that tense, confused and potentially deadly land.

Thus, I focused my Scripps Howard News Service column on a pair of events that didn’t even make it into the RNA top 10 list. Instead, they drifted all the way down to the No. 16 slot. Thus, while opening with bin Laden’s death, I quickly offered this summary of these other religion-news events that I am convinced were the year’s most poignant and, perhaps, significant:

… (When) I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind — a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer’s back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation’s secular political leaders — including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer — declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer’s role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs — the only Christian in the national cabinet — died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony (see video with this post) to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized — persecuted Christian and other minorities — these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti’s bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides … especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. … In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

So, GetReligion readers, do you have any comments on the RNA poll? Did you see any other coverage of the year’s top religion-news events that you want to share, via URLs in our comments pages? Tee off.

Iowa’s ‘uneducated Jesus freaks’

My dad used to tell me a story about a man getting off of a train and asking the station manager for information about the town he’d just arrived in.

“What’s the town you’re from like?” the station manager asks. The man explains that it’s not very nice. The people aren’t that smart or nice and the food isn’t that great and you can’t keep a job and the ladies are all uppity.

“Well, I imagine you’ll find this town’s a lot like that, too,” the station manager responds.

When the next train stops, another man gets off and asks the station manager the same question. “What’s the town you’re from like?” the station manager asks. The second man explains that he was blessed to come from a beautiful town with nice people full of interesting conversation and fun hobbies. People work hard, the kids are generally fun and he misses it terribly.

“Well, I imagine you’ll find this town’s a lot like that, too,” the station manager responds.

You get the point. Well, I thought of that story when I read this absolutely hilarious (unintentionally, I should mention) piece in The Atlantic about how much University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom loathes his state. It ran a few weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to look at the piece since then but with Iowa caucuses happening tonight, it’s now or never!

The piece itself is remarkable for how much hatred comes through but also for how many errors are contained within. First, let’s get a taste of the piece:

Hats are essential. Men over 50 don’t leave home without a penknife in their pocket. Old Spice is the aftershave of choice. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer (always fatal for the deer, sometimes for the human). Farming is a dangerous occupation; if farmers don’t die from a mishap (getting a hand in an auger, clearing a stuck combine), they live with missing digits or limbs.

Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals. Everyone loves Red Waldorf cake. Deer (killed with a rifle is good, with bow-and-arrow better) and handpicked morels are delicacies families cherish.

Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they’re Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can’t drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER. I’m forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers talk about religion. In the Hy-Vee grocery store, at neighborhood stop-and-chats, at the local public school, “See you at church!” is the common rejoinder. It’s as though the local house of worship were some neighborhood social club — which, of course, it is. A professor I know at the University of Iowa chides her students for sitting in the back of a lecture hall, saying, “This isn’t church, you know.”

Now, when people claim that magazines and newspapers run hate pieces like this, I frequently find myself saying something like “Now, now, let’s not exaggerate.” But it’s hard to do that when, well, when major outlets such as The Atlantic see nothing wrong — and a whole lot right — with publishing rot such as this. This reads like a parody of what conservatives claim journalism professors and journalists think about them. Except that, you know, it’s not a parody. That’s what’s so amazing. And for a spot-on, side-splitting parody, read “Is This Hell? No, It’s Iowa” by Iowa’s own, well, IowaHawk. Make sure you read the original before you read the parody, though. This fake Twitter account is also worth a regular chuckle.

Anyway, here’s another choice paragraph:

When my family and I first moved to Iowa, our first Easter morning I read the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) with this headline splashed across Page One: HE HAS RISEN. The headline broke all the rules I was trying to teach my young journalism students: the event was neither breaking nor could it be corroborated by two independent sources. The editors obviously thought that everyone knew who He was, and cared.

It turns out it’s not true. There was a small box with a verse from Matthew on the front page that contained those words. But the front page headline was about a murder. Anyway, the next paragraph is:

After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter,” “Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?” or “Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?” Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery “Happy holidays!” will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Even journalism professors are allowed to have opinions about how much they hate themselves or other people. I’m pretty curmudgeonly myself, to be honest. But they should probably be careful about the facts.

The hate screed was certainly big news in Iowa. Iowans of all religions and political persuasions responded decisively to Bloom. He’s probably still licking his wounds. But the errors did get other media coverage.

For one thing, The Atlantic did not handle the corrections well. As Columbia Journalism Review put it:

But elsewhere in its response to critics, the magazine has broken one of journalism’s golden rules: errors should be corrected forthrightly, and with as much fanfare as the original mistake was made. The piece erroneously stated that the state’s second-largest newspaper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, ran an Easter Sunday headline in 1994 “splashed across Page One” that read, “He Has Risen.” The Gazette has since produced a copy of that front page. The top two headlines are actually about a murder in the state and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, with a small (albeit odd and journalistically inappropriate) box above the fold quoting a Bible verse that includes the words “He is risen.”

Rather than simply concede the error, The Atlantic added this note as one of a number of “corrections and clarifications”: “A 1994 newspaper headline both Prof. Bloom and his wife recall is different from the one on the edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette unearthed by a reporter for the paper from its archives.” But there is no debate here: the story was wrong; no evidence has been presented that the dramatic headline exists. And the fact that Bloom remembers that small box as dramatically as he does perhaps says something about the lens through which he has viewed his adopted home state from day one.

Errors are bad enough. Covering them up or trying to downplay them is worse.

The Associated Press didn’t mince words with their lede to the story:

Only a few weeks before the first Republican presidential contest, some Iowans are on the attack like never before.

They’re writing angry blog posts, doing research to discredit their opponent and railing against elites, but this vitriol isn’t aimed at Republican candidates. It’s focused on University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, whose article for The Atlantic magazine painted Iowans as uneducated Jesus freaks who love hunting and don’t deserve the political clout they will exercise Jan. 3. …

“You can chip away if you want at this story, but it raises some fundamental central issues that Iowans and Americans need to confront,” [Bloom] said in an interview. “I think America should sit down and have a collective discussion on the wisdom of how we select our president and how inordinately important Iowa is in that process.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, he added: “Sorry if I offended, but that’s the real job of journalism.”

Causing offense (particularly by making stuff up) is not “the real job of journalism.” What’s unfortunate about all this is that it’s Stephen Bloom and his editors at The Atlantic who are responsible for this really shoddy and error-drenched piece of journalism. But so many other reporters and journalists have to deal with the fallout.