Pod people: Presby-speak again

The meaningless drivel that passes for public language these days was the major theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 24 May 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?”, posted at GetReligion and talked about all that double-talk.

I led off my GetReligion post with the observation:

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

What lay behind my observation was the news the General Assembly had adopted a new policy on gay clergy.  Same-sex relations continue to be placed in the sin column for the Church of Scotland — but individual congregations can opt out of this view and hire non-celibate gay clergy. The gay clergy bill must be backed by majority of the presbyteries and at this point only 35% are in favor. The issue becomes further confused as the Guardian announced this was a victory for supporters of gay clergy, running the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers.”

Two years earlier the Guardian ran a story about the 2011 General Assembly with the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”, reporting the news the church of Scotland had voted to allow gay clergy. Problem with the headlines was that they reported what the Guardian wanted to have happened, not what did happen.

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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Ohio State vs. Notre Dame’s ‘damn Catholics’

Earlier this week, I saw someone tweet something about how the Republican Party “should never write off any block of voters. It’s horrible politics and it causes great damage.” I retweeted it with the note “Except Methodists.”

For some reason, I’ve long thought it funny to pretend I have something against Methodists.

When I first read the story about the president of The Ohio State University — Gordon Gee is his name — making derogatory remarks about Catholics, I thought it was more a story about religious humor. What do you think? The Associated Press got the story after a public records request:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The president of Ohio State University said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten because the university’s priests are not good partners, joking that “those damn Catholics” can’t be trusted, according to a recording of a meeting he attended late last year…

The university called the statements inappropriate and said Gee is undergoing a “remediation plan” because of the remarks…

“The comments I made were just plain wrong, and in no way do they reflect what the university stands for,” he said. “They were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate.”

The story then quotes a Notre Dame spokesman saying the university particularly didn’t like the comments regarding “Father Joyce.” Four paragraphs later, we learn what those remarks were, which is kind of an interesting way to order a story. More on the comments:

Gee, who has taken heat previously for uncouth remarks, told members of the council that he negotiated with Notre Dame officials during his first term at Ohio State, which began more than two decades ago.

“The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week,” Gee said to laughter at the Dec. 5 meeting attended by athletic director Gene Smith and several other athletic department members, along with professors and students.

“You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that,” said Gee, a Mormon.

What do you think about adding “a Mormon” in there at that moment?

I’d forgotten he was Mormon, but it’s hard for me to remember anything about him other than his pot-smoking wife. But is it relevant information? And, assuming it is, is that the right way to present it?

The story did a great job, I think, of showing that the comments were understood as being of a humorous nature:

Gee was introduced by athletic council then-chairman Charlie Wilson, and Gee’s name and introduction are included in written minutes of the meeting. Gee’s comments drew laughter, at times loud, occasionally nervous, but no rebukes, according to the audio.

And the story is chock full of information about Gee and his habit of making comments that get him in trouble. But the big thing I wondered about was whether the humorous remarks masked anything about the underlying sentiment.

I mean, was it entirely a joke? Was there discomfort of any kind with Notre Dame? Or, put another way, what was the real reason why Notre Dame wasn’t invited to join the Big Ten? Did religion have anything to do with it? If so, how?

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The big questions facing that out gay Catholic priest

It is my experience, through my decades on the religion beat, that liberal Catholics genuinely love talking to mainstream news reporters.

That said, I have also observed — click here for a classic example — that liberal Catholics, especially if they are wearing collars or have the word “sister” in front of their names, do NOT enjoy answering doctrinal questions in the vicinity of recording devices.

Off the record chats? Sure. Background material for those wonderful paraphrased passages in The New York Times that go on and on with no hint of on-the-record attribution? Go for it. Discussions of “reform” in the church, with the questions all framed in precisely the terms they want to see them framed? You betcha.

You see, there is this place called the Vatican and, from time to time, non-liberal Catholics (many of them laypeople who own recording devices or know how to use Internet search engines) have been known to send troubling verbatim transcripts to the powers that be in Rome or to the headquarters of any local Catholic dioceses that happen to be quite loyal to Rome.

You can see this religion-beat reality, methinks, lurking in the background of the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the openly gay Catholic priest who is doing what authors tend to do — doing lots of interviews and speeches about a book that he wants to sell. This book — “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay Catholic Priest” — used to have the word “Anonymous” on the cover, but Father Gary Meirer has put his name on a new edition.

So here is the opening of this news feature:

ST. LOUIS – Standing in front of a stained-glass window on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis earlier this week, the Rev. Gary Meier addressed a congregation of sorts. It had been nearly a year since the Roman Catholic priest had stood before a flock.

That was last June, when Meier told his parishioners at Saints Teresa and Bridget Church in north St. Louis that he would take a leave of absence “to discern what ministry God was calling me to do.” Meier, 49, had talked to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and told him that he could no longer teach the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality.

“I have tried over the years to reconcile my silence as a gay priest with that of the Church’s increasingly anti-gay stance. I have been unsuccessful,” Meier writes in his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest.” “I was hopeful that I could find a way to have integrity while remaining part of a hierarchy that is anti-gay — I was unsuccessful.”

Now, this story does include a brief, accurate, summary of what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality. As always, the key is that the church draws a bright red line between issues linked to “sexual orientation” as a condition and the moral status of homosexual acts. This has obvious implications for debates about the priesthood. Thus:

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German cardinal found guilty of being pro-natalist

One of the most common fallacies of our age is the assumption that simply because we prefer a certain set of social policies they must therefore be compatible.

For example, I like donuts and wish they were free. But I also like the people who make the donuts and want them to be able to make a living wage. The only way my two desires can become compatible is if there is a third-party who intervenes, say, by paying the bakers to give me free crullers.

But as economists will tell you, there is no free lunch (or free donuts). That’s why we don’t like economists. We don’t like to be told that we can’t have everything we want, and that we either have to make tradeoffs or give up some of our desires.

This is also the reason that we don’t like certain religious leaders. They too have a tendency to point out when our desires are incompatible. Even worse, they have the audacity to tell us which desire we — both as individuals and society — should put first.

There exists an entire subgenre of religious journalism dedicated solely to pointing out when religious leaders tell certain groups which desires they should prefer. Sometimes the media approves, such as when the pope tells us we should give preference to the poor over the wealthy. But most of the time, journalists are either annoyed or amused that some clergyman (and they are almost always a man) is trying to tell us that we can’t have it all.

Take, for example, a recent article that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph and was distributed by Canada’s National Post Wire Services, titled, “Cardinal says German women should stay home and have ‘three or four children’ to avoid need for immigrants.”

Although the headline is both factual and neutral, it gives the impression the Catholic leader was asked, “So, what do you think about German women?” and answered that they need to get busy making babies. But the context is much more interesting:

German women should be encouraged to “stay at home and bring three or four children into the world,” rather than relying on immigration to solve the country’s demographic crisis, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne has declared.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner compared Angela Merkel’s government’s family policies to Communist East Germany, where, he said, women who stayed at home were considered “demented”.

Germany, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe, is seeking more workers from crisis-hit countries, including Spain, to solve its shortage of skilled labour.

In unusually direct criticism of the chancellor, Cardinal Meisner said: “Where are women really publicly encouraged to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world? This is what we should do, and not — as Mrs Merkel does now — simply present immigration as the solution to our demographic problem.”

So Germany has a demographic crisis (which creates an ongoing economic crisis) but the country’s government also, at least according to Cardinal Meisner, has policies that encourage women to work rather than solving the demography problem by having more children.

Germany’s solution is similar to my donut problem: In order to get both preferences, a third-party has to sacrifice. As Cardinal Meisner implies, the third-party in this case is Spain and Portugal.

Instead of having babies of their own, Germany’s plan is to import them when they reach working age. As a representative of a transnational organization with strong pro-natalist leanings, Cardinal Meisner feels an obligation to note that producing the source material for future German journalists and archbishops is an important a job that shouldn’t be outsourced.

This is a legitimate disagreement about policy preferences and could have been used as a starting point for a discussion on how to resolve Germany’s demographic crisis. But instead, the Telegraph uses Cardinal Meisner’s statement as a proxy for pointing out that the Catholic Church’s habit of telling people what they should do is out of touch with the times we live in:

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Media coverage of religious profiling

So tmatt has us all doing this experiment of reading a daily paper. I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in a very long time. I used to get both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Fifteen years and 2,000 miles later, I get the Washington Post. The thing that has struck me the most about this go around is how very, very, very thin the papers are. When did that happen? Some days’ editions are barely there!

And then what about what I found on Saturday, when I went to check on my St. Louis Cardinals? Not sure if you can tell in the picture, but the standings listed under “National League” were actually for the American League. Under American League? Also the American League standings!

It led my husband and me into a discussion about how part of the demise of newspapers has to be related to not wanting to pay for such mistakes. At least on the internet, when you come across typos and mistakes, you’re not paying for them!

But what about this mistake, from a recent Washington Post item on one of the early Boston bombing suspects:

The “easy-going, good humored” Saudi Arabian student who briefly became an object of intense suspicion after the Boston bombings broke two months of silence this week, telling The Islamic Monthly that media attention since the attacks “double injured” him.

The date for the story is May 24. The bombings took place April 15, right? So what’s this “two months” we’re talking about? I know it’s not a big deal, but mistakes such as this do affect reader engagement and trust.

The story sums up this interview of Abdulrahman Alharbi by The Islamic Monthly, which barely gets into religion. But I did notice this part:

TIM: In one account that I read it said that somebody saw you running and then they tackled you.

AA: No, no one arrested me, no one tackled me, no. All the people were trying to escape from what happened because they realized that there was something dangerous in the finish line.

I didn’t read that account so much as watch it. Here’s CBS News’ Jim Miller saying as much:

Now, to be fair, both Miller and the anchor emphasize that caution is needed when discussing these reports. But I’d absolutely love a follow-up. Did a citizen tackle this guy or not? If not, as he says, why did the FBI question him? Why did law enforcement remove bags from his apartment? Were they doing religious profiling? Was there more to it?

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God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

Sure enough, it has been.

I saw the devastation for the first time Sunday when I made my way to that side of Oklahoma City to work on a Christianity Today piece on the “Faith-Based FEMA”:

At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

On the Sunday after a major disaster, news organizations often send reporters to cover worship services. The challenge is turning such a predictable assignment into a truly insightful story. I’m not so sure the Los Angeles Times accomplished that feat in its report on Sunday’s services in Moore.

Here’s the lede of the L.A. Times’ story:

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Hanging out with Sheryl Crow and her kids — where?

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While I have not lived in Nashville (yet), I have spent a lot of time there and know quite a bit about the town.

Thus, I really enjoyed the new Associated Press feature about rocker Sheryl Crow‘s decision to move — as in pack up her life and really move — to Guitar Town and give country music a try.

The story is full of all kinds of details that stick, if you get Nashville, but I thought it really needed one or two additional paragraphs, or at least a few extra lines. Yes, this is Nashville, so we are talking about a religion ghost that slipped into this story, but was given very little attention.

Now, the whole key to this story is that the life of a musician in Nashville — the pop-culture capital of the Bible Belt — is somewhat different than life in a place like Los Angeles. In the country music biz artists need to court a broader audience, including the people who run radio stations. It’s a place where even the big stars are expected to project a bit of down-home attitude.

Like I said, this story gets that down, starting with some advice from a guy named Brad, who urged her to go country for keeps:

Crow thought about it and Paisley’s message took hold. But it meant she would have to change things up and embrace Nashville’s country music culture. Eventually, he helped kick start the new record, suggested producer Justin Niebank and introduced her to songwriter Chris Dubois, who served as a co-writer and informal song editor. She changed her songwriting tack, looking to match the more visceral, story-telling style of the genre.

And no one succeeds in country music without courting radio — thus the bus. Most of country music’s biggest stars started that way and Crow — 20 years after releasing her first album, the five times platinum “Tuesday Night Music Club” — didn’t see herself as exempt, no matter how many millions of albums she’s already sold.

The first day of radio tour she hit larger markets like Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and some privately owned stations in smaller towns, too. One day, three states. Welcome to country.

“I say that it’s fun, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Crow said. “Because sitting on the bus and only getting the gratification of only playing like a couple of songs, and then driving for two more hours and then getting to play a couple more songs. It’s really hard, but it’s great, you know? … I’ve felt really embraced.”

So the musician is adapting.

But what about the woman whose private life has, on occasion, been the stuff of tabloid headlines? How’s she doing?

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