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Jews and Jesus: A ‘Spiritual Incursion’ in St. Louis

The breaking news — only 2,000 years old — that Christians and Jews have vastly different views of Jesus made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend (and was picked up nationally by Religion News Service this week).

To be more specific, the Post-Dispatch featured a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that seeks to convert Jews.

The newspaper’s main headline immediately cast the effort in a negative light:

SPIRITUAL INCURSION

Now, according to my online dictionary, incursion implies “a hostile entrance into or invasion of a place or territory.” Perhaps the headline is a major reason that the story upset so many folks in the LCMS. That, and the fact that the piece used phrases such as “targeted for conversion” to describe evangelism efforts by the Lutheran congregation.

The subhead was equally tilted:

Lutheran outreach draws criticism from Jewish groups

Contrast that with RNS’ much more down-the-middle headline, which perhaps sets a different tone:

Lutheran ministry seeks to convert Jews 

Now, at major newspapers such as the Post-Dispatch, copy editors — not the person with the byline on the story — typically write the headline. I thought the story itself, written by a Godbeat pro, was actually pretty good. Of course, given my role as a media critic, I do have a few quibbles with the piece. Call it an occupational hazard.

Let’s start at the top:

In a small storefront in Dogtown, a St. Louis neighborhood known for its celebration of the Christian missionary St. Patrick, sits a congregation dedicated to converting Jews.

Congregation Chai v’ Shalom is tiny by most standards, with weekly attendance averaging somewhere between 30 and 40 members. But it has the backing of the 2-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

And its mission fits squarely into the Synod’s controversial effort to preach the message that Jesus was the Messiah to Jews, in hope that they will become Christian and gain salvation.

On a recent Sunday morning, a couple dozen gathered at Congregation Chai v’ Shalom, a makeshift space where stars of David, one with a cross placed in the middle, hang prominently on the walls, alongside what looks like a random collection of paintings.

The vast majority of those who attend Chai v’ Shalom are not Jewish, but they are interested in reaching out to Jews. The service itself even caters to Jews, where the Shema, a central Jewish prayer, is recited and much of the lively singing is in Hebrew.

That’s a nice lede, filled with important detail and colorful description.

My quibble is a single word that has become cliche: “controversial.” Would the lede be any less effective without that adjective? Would the writing be any more precise? To me, inserting that term there adds an unnecessary level of editorializing — even without the headline and subhead.

Instead, why not present the facts and let the readers decide if this approach is, in fact, controversial? 

Let’s read some more:

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10 years of GetReligion: Why we are still here, part I

The late Leonard Smith was, according to his Jan. 26 obituary at the Greenwich Time newspaper in Southwest Connecticut, a radically independent man who never hid his beliefs. A native of New York City, he was World War II veteran and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He liked to sail and raise hunting dogs. He was devoted to his wife and five kids, to the churches they frequented and to charities.

I have a strong suspicion that quite a few faithful GetReligion readers would have liked Mr. Smith — a whole lot.

Why is that? Consider this passage at the end of his obituary:

Leonard Smith hated pointless bureaucracy, thoughtless inefficiency and bad ideas born of good intentions. He loved his wife, admired and respected his children and liked just about every dog he ever met. He will be greatly missed by those he loved and those who loved him. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you cancel your subscription to The New York Times.

Yes, there are quite a few people in this great land of ours who not afraid to share their negative feelings about The New York Times.

As that famous 2005 Times self study — “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” — noted:

We fully accept that there are those who love to hate The Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics. And beyond that debate, productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people — readers and nonreaders alike — whose opinions of The Times are not so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism.

“Amen” to that. No, honest.

When Douglas LeBlanc and I launched GetReligion 10 years ago our goal was to offer both positive and negative criticism of religion coverage in the mainstream press. (The first post is dated Feb. 1, 2004, but it went live on Feb. 2.) We wanted to be able to defend the press from many religious readers who, essentially, just want to see PR releases backing their side of any argument. Yes, and we wanted to be able to criticize errors of fact, glaring religion-shaped holes in stories (more on those “ghosts” later) and stories that failed to offer accurate, balanced treatment of serious voices in public debates.

To get specific, we wanted to be able to defend The New York Times from critics who never cut that great newspaper any slack, who never see the amazingly broad coverage that it provides day after day. We wanted to argue that the problem with the Times is that it is inconsistent in its pursuit of the essential journalism virtues. It offers page after page of quality coverage and then, boom, readers run into a story that may as well have been written in the press office of this or that activist group linked to the very issue being covered.

But here’s the key: We wanted to be able to argue that the problems were caused by an inconsistent approach to news, not by a specific bias in the newspaper that was being applied in a doctrinaire manner (as many critics would insist).

And then you know who said you know what.

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Time takes sides in India’s sex wars

Time magazine reports India’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s colonial era “sodomy laws”, ruling there is no “right” under the constitution to same-sex carnal relations. The court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be repealed but only by the legislature not judicial fiat.

Time is not too happy about this. The magazine’s editorial voice can be heard through out “Homosexuality is Criminal Again as India’s Top Court Reinstates Ban”.  The lede states:

In a surprise move, India’s top court on Wednesday reversed a landmark judgment by a lower court decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The court said that the law regarding homosexuality could only be changed by the government. “The legislature must consider deleting this provision (Section 377) from law as per the recommendations of the attorney general,” Justice GS Singhvi, the head of the two-judge Supreme Court bench said in Wednesday’s ruling.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned an archaic colonial law (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) that made gay sex an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment. Wednesday’s decision shocked many because while anticipation was high not many expected India’s top court, which in the past upheld many progressive rights judgments often going against the government and popular discourse, to revoke such a forward looking judgment.

“Archaic” is also used in the subheading of the story to describe the law. The commentary in the second sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate. The Attorney General of India had argued in favor of overturning the law — there is a hint of this in the quote from the court’s ruling, but nothing further.

The Hindu, one of India’s leading daily newspapers, noted the attorney general called the sodomy law a British import.

Mr. Vahanvati had said “the introduction of Section 377 in the IPC was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions, rather it was imposed upon Indian society by the colonisers due to their moral values. The Indian society prevalent before the enactment of the IPC had a much greater tolerance for homosexuality than its British counterpart, which at this time under the influence of Victorian morality and values in regard to family and the procreative nature of sex.”

Time makes its views clear in this paragraph.

While activists vow to challenge the ruling, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality is now in the hands of New Delhi. And while the good news is that the government has recently changed its position on the issue, arguing for it in the court pointing out that the anti-gay law in the country was archaic and that Indian society has grown more tolerant towards homosexuality, the bad news is that the country is heading for general polls in a few months and a much embattled coalition government is striving hard to retain power. It is thus highly unlikely that gay rights will take center stage in Indian Parliament any time soon.

“Good news”? That does cross the line dividing news and commentary.

There is also a lack of balance. Time quotes the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a “veteran LGBT activist” and other “[s]tunned LGBT activists”, but offers no voices in support of the decision, or an explanation of the legal principles offered by the court in its decision.

What then is going on in this story? Was there a breakdown in Time’s back office that permitted an ill-written story barely distinguishable from a press release making it through the editorial process?

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Not 5Q+1: Thoughts from Michael Luo on faith and ink

A long, long time ago, during the gentle, mild reign of GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we used to have “5Q+1″ features in which we asked journalists — including many not on the religion beat — a set of questions about their views on religion and the news.

Maybe we will bring that back sooner or later. That think ye?

As time went by, Sarah broadened the feature to include a wider variety of questions. In one such interview, she e-chatted with Michael Luo of The New York Times about a variety of subjects, including that whole “Linsanity” explosion in Madison Square Garden and the NBA in general. Click here for a refresher on that. One of the key exchanges went like this:

I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. …

Now, journalist Paul Glader of The King’s College faculty (best known for his Wall Street Journal reporting) has explored some of the same material with Luo in an interview featured in the current issue of Christianity Today.

There is material in this piece that I know will interest regular GetReligion readers, since it relates directly to interactions between religion and journalism and religion in major newsrooms, such as The Times. The key is that Luo sees the connections between religion and real life, including his own work covering criminal justice.

For starters, there is this:

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Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

Members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to disassociate with its national body to join a more conservative denomination.

With a vote of 1,337 to 170, the church decided to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Another vote cemented the church majority’s desire to join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was formed by former PCUSA congregations in 2012. Other churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, have also recently made the move.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s website. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

At this point, here’s what I want to know: What exactly makes the new denomination more conservative? Conservative is such a subjective word.

Will the rest of the story provide insight into the specific theological and doctrinal issues at play?

Sort of.

But in general, this 630-word report (read: not a lot of space for a reporter to provide deep background) seems pretty disjointed and disorganized.

For example, the Morning News quotes a supporter of leaving the PCUSA up high:

Kent Krause, a church elder, said the debate about leaving PCUSA has been bubbling for decades.

Many members of the congregation disagree with the a la carte religious beliefs taken by the national body, he said.

“There’s disagreement to the extent that the church believes the PCUSA has adopted the universal approach that there may be lots of ways to salvation as opposed to what is the basic reformed belief that salvation through Christ is kind of the main [path],” he said.

OK. Universalism is, according to the church elder, a key issue. How do the opponents of the split respond to that claim?

Go ahead and cue the crickets, or click this link if you’re really curious.

The story moves from that issue into a paragraph of background on property issues related to the decision. (The Morning News does not mention this, but my GetReligion colleague Father George Conger tells me that Highland Park Presbyterian’s leaders have been talking to the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth about how to leave. The diocese won a recent victory against the national Episcopal Church in the Texas Supreme Court. The court held ownership of church property is governed by what the deeds to the building say, not what the denominational hierarchy says. According to Conger, the Anglican wars in Texas appear to have cleared the way for conservative Presbyterians to quit the PCUSA and keep their buildings.)

But back to the real reason for the split …

Later in the story, there’s this:

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights”

As the debates rage on about you know whatWashington. Post. Ombudsman. Bias. Column. — I would like to jump in remind faithful GetReligion readers of an earlier episode in this post-journalism drama. I’ll also share another link or two pointing toward pieces in which journalists are discussing some of the prickly issues in the Patrick Pexton piece.

But first, let’s back up to the earlier event (video here) in Austin, Texas, that still has me depressed, the one during which Bill Keller, days after stepping down (or is that abdicating) as New York Times editor, essentially said that there are different journalistic rules for covering social issues and religion, as opposed to politics and real news. For those who have forgotten his remarks, here is a flashback care of a column I wrote for Scripps Howard:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. … We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what are some of the “social values” issues that have popped up in the news every now and then since, oh, 1973 or thereabouts? That would be any issue in public life linked to sex, salvation, marriage, abortion, parenting, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other things that, in the United States, tend to get linked to religion. Did I miss anything major in that list?

None of those issues, of course, have anything to do with politics or life in the public square. So how, precisely, does a newspaper such as the Times cover political life in America in a balanced way without being able to be accurate and fair in its coverage of opposing voices in debates about religious and social issues?

Yes, the same question would apply to The Washington Post.

Let the journalistic debates continue, since the only thing that is at stake is the future of what historians would call the American Model of the Press.

Meanwhile, over at CNN.com, former Post media-beat reporter Howard Kurtz has weighed in on Pexton’s piece, and related issues. He notes, for example, what happened when the newspaper in Laurel, Miss., covered a particularly moving same-sex union rite, the first ever in that Bible Belt county.

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Cardinal Dolan dares to tweak the NYTimes

If you’ve paid attention to religion news at all in recent days, you probably know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded to the latest attempt by the White House (.pdf here) to draw a legal line between religious liberty in church pews and freedom of religious expression in the marketplace and the rest of American life.

The bishops’ key point appears to be that this latest version of the Health and Human Services mandate “falls short” of the mark.

The New York Times put it this way:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday rejected the latest White House proposal on health insurance coverage of contraceptives, saying it did not offer enough safeguards for religious hospitals, colleges and charities that objected to providing such coverage for their employees.

The bishops said they would continue fighting the federal mandate in court. … The bishops said the proposal seemed to address part of their concern about the definition of religious employers who could be exempted from the requirement to offer contraceptive coverage at no charge to employees. But they said it did not go far enough and failed to answer many questions, like who would pay for birth control coverage provided to employees of certain nonprofit religious organizations.

In the eyes of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also the current leader of the U.S. bishops, that simple word “rejected” does not capture the full intent of his organization’s response. Thus, he took to his blog to say:

Unfortunately, there were some news reports today that claimed the bishops “rejected” the White House proposal, ignoring the fact that we bishops said, “we welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all.”

Now, my goal here is not to argue with Dolan on his point about the accuracy of that “rejected” paraphrase.

Instead, I would like to voice a hearty “amen” to the post written by the omnipresent Rocco Palmo over at “Whispers in the Loggia” in which he notes a significant trend — which is the willingness these days of Catholic leaders to use social media and/or the Internet to directly debate major newsrooms about issues of content and interpretation.

Palmo writes:

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