The voiceless disappearing flock

Just last week, I praised a Washington Post story that — in a fair, respectful way — managed to personalize black ministers who (a) fought for racial equality and (b) oppose same-sex marriage.

Alas, that story required a reporter willing to listen to a 2,000-year-old religious point of view that seems to contradict the prevailing societal winds.

Fast-forward a week, and check out the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ coverage of a black minister on the other side of the aisle:

The Rev. Oliver White took a proverbial leap of faith a few years ago and told his skeptical congregation that homosexuality was not a sin. Unable to shake the memory of the fire hoses that ripped the clothes off his back during the equality marches of the civil rights era, all were welcome, he said, at the Grace Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul.

As a member of the UCC’s national synod in 2005, White flew to Atlanta to cast a vote endorsing same-sex marriage. The resolution passed after much discussion.

Membership at his largely black church in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood immediately declined. The next Sunday, about 25 percent fewer churchgoers filled the pews. The trend continued for three months until White, 69, had lost almost three-fourths of his congregation. With fewer members, church finances shrunk, and the 22-year-old church recently faced closing.

White never considered himself a crusader for gay rights, but he’d be damned before he’d stand in the way of anyone’s equality. “I never really thought I would be in this position,” White said. “I didn’t ask for it. I really didn’t ask for it.”

And, to borrow this newspaper’s preferred French, readers would be damned before they’d find any opposing viewpoints in this report.

White declares that homosexuality is “not a sin” but offers no theological reasons — at least in this story. Instead, this report sticks closely to a single preferred narrative, one in which there’s a direct parallel between “gay marriage equality and the civil rights movement.” Heaven forbid anybody be given an opportunity to disagree.

Based on my calculations, the heroic pastor’s church lost 150 out of its 200 members, yet the story names nor quotes not a single one of them. They are guilty as charged, based on this story. No need to give them a voice.

Also guilty as charged are other black ministers in the city. No need to give them a voice:

The isolation has intensified. White says he has not been invited to preach at any historically black churches in Minnesota since 2005. “I’ve had African-American ministers tell me how wrong I am. I have many African-American colleagues, but I don’t hear from them anymore,” White said. “The last one I spoke to said he was praying for me, him and his church, which I find kind of hilarious.”

Also guilty as charged: at least one of the 50 members who remain in the congregation. Again, no need to give the actual person referenced a voice:

Two days after White accepted the donation from Cathedral of Hope, a quiet congregant who tended to sit toward the back of the pews during his sermons wrote him “one of the most eloquent letters I’ve ever received…but his point of view was that I was sending my church to hell in a breadbasket.”

“I folded his letter and put it in my Bible,” White said. “I look at it frequently. I have not been able to answer his letter, because I don’t know what to say, except ‘I’ve enjoyed your company.’”

Speaking of crimes, is it illegal to quote people on the other side of this issue? Did I miss that legislation? Otherwise, I’d be tempted to call this a sad excuse for a news story. Except that it’s so far from an actual piece of journalism that I’m hesitant to call it a news story.

I hate to be a total buzzkill, though. Give the Pioneer Press an A-plus for cheerleading.

Image via Shutterstock

Abortion doc and the F-word

A Los Angeles Times profile this week of a would-be Kansas abortion doctor follows a pretty straightforward path.

It’s as simple as 1-2-3:

1. Brave doc steps in to fill the void left by the slaying of Dr. George Tiller.

2. Brave doc encounters threats and abuse from radical abortion opponents.

3. Brave doc presses forward despite the spooky climate in a state with some of the nation’s most sweeping anti-abortion measures.

The top of the story:

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Out near the city’s edge, where fast-food joints and subdivisions seem to spring from farmland overnight, the casualties of an unfinished war sit untouched in a doctor’s basement.

Dr. Mila Means, a 55-year-old solo family practitioner with neon red hair and neo-hippie style, doesn’t remember how or when she heard that Dr. George Tiller had been gunned down in his church.

She knew him only slightly as their paths crossed in medical circles. Mostly, she knew of him — as the lone abortion provider in a city of nearly 400,000, as a symbol of the country’s abortion wars.

After his killing on May 31, 2009, the decision to step into his place did not come as an epiphany but rather over time, with sad reluctance.

The general tenor of the story (read: fawning) aside, I wish the Times had, at least, dealt with the religion ghosts that haunt this report.

The story only vaguely addresses the background and motivation of Means:

In summer 2010, Means began going each weekend to Kansas City, Kan., to learn first trimester abortion procedure. She approached Jeanne Tiller about buying her late husband’s equipment. It cost $20,000, which cut deeply into her practice’s meager budget. She remembers how creepy it felt to walk through Tiller’s boarded up clinic shadowed by his widow’s bodyguard.

The decision marked a full circle for Means, who grew up in Wichita with parents who supported abortion rights. In her 20s, though, she joined a fundamentalist church with a rigid antiabortion stance. Her own beliefs were more ambivalent.

Forgive me for not wanting to take the Times’ word for it, but I’d love to know more about this “fundamentalist” church with the “rigid” anti-abortion stance. By whose definition is it fundamentalist? By whose definition is its abortion stance rigid?

At the same time, the paper fails to quantify Means’ own beliefs — then or now — in any concrete way.

Readers do learn this:

She once applied as medical director of a pregnancy crisis center that talked women out of abortion but said she did not get the job because she could not agree that abortion was never justified. She now sees that time in her life as a passing phase before her politics drifted left.

That’s the full extent of the reporting on Means’ thinking. As a result, the story ends up reading like a hollow puff piece. Did anyone think to ask how her religious views changed, from her days as a would-be crisis pregnancy center worker until today?

Image of Kansas anti-abortion protest via Shutterstock

Backward people in a backwoods place

Out in the backwoods down in the holler

Out in the backwoods, workin’ hard for a dollar in the

Backwoods yeah we get it done right

Work hard, play hard, hold my baby tight

Lordy have mercy it’s a real good life

In the backwoods, yes sir

“Backwoods,” country song by Justin Moore


Alrighty. Everybody ready to jump in the back of the pickup and take a ride down to a place where heterosexual white people tend cattle? To a little speck on the map far away from any Muslims, gays or Democrats? Try not to step in any cow patties, y’all hear.

The Washington Post published a front-page story today about Washington, Okla., which the newspaper portrays as a place where everybody lives the conservative life and sees their deeply held values under assault.

Full disclosure: I’m filing this post from my home in Oklahoma City as I take a short break from clinging to my God and my guns.

The top of the 1,800-word Post story:

WASHINGTON, Okla. — Here is the only light amid the Sunday-night darkness of the plains, its yellow glow visible for a mile around. People travel here down two-lane roads, past flags that snap in the wind and a sign that reads “Only God Can Save America.” They park in front of the steeple at the corner of Center and Main. Pastor Fred Greening greets them at the door.

Theirs is a church of 400 in a town of 600, where four generations stand together to bow their heads in prayer. Cowboys wear boots and roughnecks wear flannel. A 9-year-old sets down his toy truck and clasps his hands. Together they recite pledges of allegiance to the United States, to the Bible and to the Christian flag.

Oklahoma will hold its Republican primary on Super Tuesday, bringing the cultural debate over the heart of conservatism to the conservative heartland. The presidential campaign has turned into an argument about values and faith — a battle long underway on the prairie of central Oklahoma. Here, they fight to protect their town from what Pastor Greening calls the “slow and steady decay of moral America”: the erosion of traditional marriage; the methamphetamine addicts content to rely on public assistance; the political correctness creeping ever south from the college in nearby Norman, which they fear will force God out of their government offices and schools.

As an Oklahoma resident myself, maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this story impressed me (on first reading) as a stereotypical portrayal of this town. I asked my wife what she thought of the piece, and she replied, “I can’t quite pinpoint why, but I don’t like it. It makes the entire state sound ignorant and unyielding.” Certainly, I would urge GetReligion readers to read the story themselves and weigh in (on the journalism, not the politics).

Since it’s my job, I read the story a second time (and a third) and tried to pinpoint what I didn’t like.

Three observations:

It’s too simplistic and vague: Everybody believes this. Everybody thinks that. Can not a single person be found in this town who voted for Barack Obama in 2008? (Out of curiosity, I tried to find 2008 precinct voting figures for this little town but couldn’t locate them in a hurry.)

The most blatant example of the broad stroke used: The church that is the central focus of the story is never identified. With a bit of Googling, I deciphered that it may be a Southern Baptist church. But that’s just conjecture on my part.

We’ve got 400 people at a church in a town of 600. But how many of the 400 are from the town? In the age of commuting, some people drive 30 minutes to an hour to church. Is that the case here?

Do church members really recite pledges to the U.S., the Bible and the Christian flag? At every service? What form does this take? That line left me with a lot of questions.

Adding to the vague nature of the story, we have an assistant pastor quoted, but not by name. Later in the piece, we hear about local business owners named “Sid” and “Casey.” Do they not have last names? Does Sid’s store rent R-rated movies or sell booze and lottery tickets?

Do the “few dozen men (who) still gather each morning at the American Legion to play dominos, crack peanuts and spit tobacco juice on the floor” seriously not argue over anything? Do they seriously agree on every political issue?

– It’s a trip to the zoo: The thing I loved about the Post story on same-sex marriage opponents that I critiqued earlier this week was that the reporter actually talked to real pastors and gave them ample opportunity to express and explain their beliefs in their own words.

That story offered substantive dialogue.

This one, on the other hand, treats the people in this small town as zoo animals. The reporter takes his notepad to the zoo, jots down his witty observations and endeavors to introduce the animals to the readers back home. We hear a lot about what these people supposedly think and believe, but not much from their own mouths.

This paragraph offers a rare exception:

“I want my kids to grow up with values and ways of life that I had and my parents had,” he says, so his youngest son tools around the garage on a Big Wheel, and his oldest daughter keeps her riding horse at the family barn built in 1907, and they buy their drinking milk from Braun’s because he always has. “Why look for change?” he says. “I like to know that what you see is what you get.”

As an aside: I often buy my milk at Braum’s (with an “m”) Ice Cream and Dairy Stores. It’s a major chain in this part of the world, and anybody who spent more than a couple of days here in flyover country would know that. (Totally out of context: I grew up with Braum’s commercials featuring Jim Varney. Know what I mean, Vern?)

– It’s style over substance: The story is presumably tied to the 2012 presidential election. But nobody ever discusses the issues or candidates in this story.

Instead, we get eloquent prose such as this:

What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.

Is this a creative writing project or a newspaper story?

The piece ends this way:

Where, the next morning, a Wednesday, Sid opens at 6. A dozen men show up at the Legion to play dominos at 7. The kids at school recite the Pledge of Allegiance at 8:30 and spend a moment in silent prayer.

A storm rolls across the sky. Flagpoles rattle in the wind.

Another day is happily the same.

Night falls, and one yellow light interrupts the darkness of the prairie. The congregants travel past the water tower and the feed mill and the cotton gin to the corner of Center and Main. Pastor Greening waits at the door.

Exactly what the pastor will say to the congregation is anybody’s guess. But it surely will be conservative. Very conservative. Take the Post’s word for it.

Oklahoma images via Shutterstock

Catholic? Baptist? Mormon? Meet Marco Rubio

After Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s election in 2010, questions emerged concerning the religious background of the Tea Party favorite with Cuban-American roots.

“Rubio’s church life? It’s complicated” was the title I gave one of the GetReligion posts I wrote on the subject.

It’s not every self-described Roman Catholic politician, after all, who attends — and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to — a megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

As regular GetReligion reader and Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana quipped at the time:

This is the perfect American religion story. Here’s a candidate who says he’s Catholic but goes to a Baptist church which doesn’t have Baptist in its name.

As it turns out, however, Smietana didn’t dream big enough in fashioning the perfect American religion story. Our esteemed Godbeat scribe, it seems, left out the part where Rubio — at or near the top of most GOP running-mate lists — was baptized as a Mormon at age 8 and spent four years in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

From the Tampa Bay Times (the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times):

WASHINGTON — News broke Thursday that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was baptized as a Mormon at age 8, when his family lived in Las Vegas. A few years later, he converted to Catholicism.

Yet Rubio’s religious profile is even more complicated than that, given his close ties to an evangelical church in Miami.

It’s a mix — a “faith journey,” as his office put it — that has some wondering whether the rising Republican is trying to be all things to all people, and what other surprises may be in his past.

He’s a practicing Catholic but enjoys the sermons of a Southern Baptist-affiliated church, his office said, adding that he has long crossed into both faiths.

The revelation that Rubio, 40, was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drew quick comparisons to another Mormon, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In just over a year in office, Rubio has vaulted to the top of the shortlist of running mates.

Two words in that lede probably jump out at GetReligion readers: both faiths. 

The question is, of course, whether Catholicism and Southern Baptism (sorry, but I just could not resist!) are two different faiths or different expressions of the same faith — that being Christianity. The same question would apply to the next paragraph of the story, where the Times reports that Rubio only belonged to the Mormon “faith” for a few years.

On the positive side, the Times does shed light on some of the questions we raised about Rubio’s religious background in 2010.

A timeline from the newspaper:

The family left the Mormon church by the time Rubio was 12, according to Rubio’s office, and he received First Communion in the Catholic Church a year later. After returning to Miami, Rubio was confirmed, and he was married in the church.

But as he got older, Rubio started to attend Christ Fellowship in Miami, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Though he had substantial debt, due to mortgages and student loans, Rubio gave about $50,000 to the church over a period of years last decade. He also gave to the Catholic Church, his office said.

In the 2002 Florida House Clerk’s Manual, Rubio described himself as Catholic. Two years later he listed himself as Baptist, then two years after that, he identified himself as Catholic.

“Around 2005 Marco began to return to his Catholic roots,” according to a time line provided by the senator’s office, which added, “He enjoys the sermons and the excellent children’s ministry at Christ Fellowship, and still attends often.”

In Washington, Rubio has said he attends daily Mass.

Are we all crystal clear now on where Rubio stands? Undoubtedly, if Rubio is nominated as vice president, he will pressed to elaborate more fully on his religious affiliation and beliefs.

Meanwhile, I’d love feedback from GetReligion readers on this line from the Times story:

There are several differences between Catholics and Southern Baptists, including that the latter do not recognize the authority of the pope or view communion as the body and blood of Christ.

If you had 31 words to distinguish between Catholics and Southern Baptists, are those the ones you would have chosen? Just curious.

An odd piece of outstanding journalism

A reader sent GetReligion a link to a Washington Post story with this headline:

Black pastors take heat for not viewing same-sex marriage as civil rights matter

The reader said he’s not accustomed to the Post treating traditional religious viewpoints with respect. Therefore, he “cringed thinking about how these pastors were about to be flayed in the press.”

Then he read the story — all 1,350 words of it: Only two people are quoted. One of the sources, in fact, accounts for roughly 10 full paragraphs of direct quotes on his own.

A thinly sourced hit piece? Not exactly.

Said the reader:

It was actually respectful. The two pastors in the story were treated with respect and as real people, not as caricatures.


The top of the report:

All of a sudden, they are bigots and haters — they who stood tall against discrimination, who marched and sat in, who knew better than most the pain of being told they were less than others.

They are black men, successful ministers, leaders of their community. But with Maryland poised to become the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, they hear people — politicians, activists, even members of their own congregations — telling them they are on the wrong side of history, and that’s not where they usually live.

Sometimes, the pastors say, the name-calling and the anger sting.

Nathaniel Thomas spent decades as an administrator in Howard University’s student affairs office, counseling young people not only about their course work but also about their personal quests for justice. He came to the ministry at the dawn of middle age, eager to help people, and especially fellow black men, discover in the word of God a path out of despair.

Over the past couple of years, as Thomas and dozens of other black clergymen in Prince George’s County have stood on the front line of the campaign against same-sex marriage, he has come to see the revolution at hand — in his view, a rebellion against religion and tradition — as an assault on the sustainability of the black family.

When I read the story, it amazed me how much I liked it because generally I would be complaining about too few sources and the lack of any opposing voices quoted by name. Etc. Etc. Etc.

In this case, I felt like the reporter produced a rather remarkable piece of daily journalism by stepping out of the way and letting the sources explain their beliefs fully in their own words.

This piece would have lost its power, I believe, if the writer had chosen to quote 10 different pastors instead of focusing on just two (actually, mainly just one).

By all means, read the story and tell me if you agree.

Maryland State House photo via Shutterstock

Pod people: Girl Scouts and gossip

Girl Scouts and gossip.

Just so that title doesn’t confuse anyone, let me make clear that we’re talking about two different stories.

On this week’s Crossroads, I mean.

On the weekly GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss my recent posts on media coverage of (1) Girl Scouts and the culture wars and (2) the possible excommunication of a Memphis, Tenn., church member for gossiping (among other alleged sins).

Since my post on the Girl Scouts, the Indiana lawmaker who raised a stink over the “radical organization” has apologized for the tone of his accusations but not backed down from his basic complaints. From the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind.:

FORT WAYNE – Days after his opposition to a resolution honoring the Girl Scouts went viral, Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, apologized for his remarks but stood by his decision not to sign the resolution.

In a written statement, Morris said he was able to reflect on his previous letter, which called the Girl Scouts a “radicalized organization” that supports abortion and promotes “homosexual lifestyles.”

“I realize now that my words were emotional, reactionary and inflammatory,” he wrote on Thursday. “For that I sincerely apologize. … I certainly should not have painted the entire Girl Scouts organization with such a wide brush.”

The Fort Wayne paper also reports that anti-abortion groups have come to Morris’ defense.

On the Podcast, Wilken surprised me with his first question, asking if the Girl Scouts should even have been a story in the first place. I him-haw around for a while before acknowledging that I’m not entirely sure. I give a few reasons why. I refuse to listen to my own voice on tape, but it no doubt makes for great podcast theater.

Be sure to check it out and enjoy the Southern-fried accent. And a little gossip, too.

Thin Mints on thin ice?

My pretty, blond-haired niece Peyton has perfected her sales pitch.

The 7-year-old flashes her sweet smile, looks me straight in the eyes and asks, “So how many boxes do you want?”

“How many do you have?” I am tempted to reply when confronted with that cheerful face.

But most recently, I settled for seven boxes of Peyton’s Girl Scout cookies — including three boxes of my favorites: Do-si-dos, which are oatmeal cookies with peanut butter filling.

Who knew I was entering the culture wars by buying cookies?

An Indiana lawmaker is making headlines this week by calling the Girl Scouts a “radicalized organization.” That prompted this note from a Facebook friend:

Yes, they are bad, bad people, spreading Samoas and Thin Mints across the country, corrupting people like me . . .

To my surprise, my own tiny amount of research revealed that the Girl Scouts are indeed becoming a flash point — at least in some circles — in the culture wars. Recent columns in the Washington Times and the Washington Post analyze the issue from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., is the source of the story distributed this week by The Associated Press. The Indiana newspaper reports:

INDIANAPOLIS – A Fort Wayne lawmaker’s rant against the Girl Scouts went viral Monday after he called them a “radicalized organization” that supports abortion and promotes “homosexual lifestyles.”

Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, sent a letter to Indiana House Republicans on Saturday explaining why he was the only member in the chamber not to sign onto a resolution last week celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts.

The resolution applauded the group “for the strong positive influence it has had on the American woman.”

Morris said he did some Web-based research and found allegations that the Girl Scouts are a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood, that they allow transgender females to join, “just like any real girl,” and encourage sex.

This section of the story stood out to me:

Several Christian groups have been focused on growing concerns with the Girl Scouts in the past year, and a few websites exist solely to talk about the group’s alleged leftward leanings.

Few independent reports on the issue exist.

That background information seems severely lacking: What Christian groups are we talking about? What concerns have they expressed? What evidence, if any, have they provided? Hopefully, any follow-up coverage will dig a little deeper.

I, for one, hate to see the Girl Scouts — particularly my favorite little cookie saleswoman — caught up in the culture wars. But if it’s news, it demands to be told fairly and fully.

Image via Shutterstock

When gossip makes the front page


Did you hear the latest news from Memphis, Tenn.?

A woman accused of church gossip made the front page of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ metro daily. The story has generated quite a discussion in Elvis Presley’s hometown.

The top of the report:

Dr. Nan Hawkes has been a member of Second Presbyterian Church for 35 years. That would end if she’s excommunicated over charges of “slander, bickering and gossip” against church leadership.

Hawkes, 59, said Wednesday she has been indicted by the church, accused of “offenses of immorality and contempt for the established order of the church.”

The proceedings will be held in March and will be presided over by Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft. An elder at the church, Craft confirmed Wednesday that he has been chosen as chairman of a five-member commission (three men, two women) of church members who will hear the case if it is not settled through negotiations.

Officials with Second Presbyterian, at 4055 Poplar, would not comment on the charges against Hawkes.

“We’re committed to resolving all cases like this in accordance with Scripture and in accordance with our book of order,” said Robb Roaten, church spokesman. “It’s a sad situation that this kind of thing would happen at all.”

(A quick digression before weighing in on the bigger picture: That third paragraph gives the impression that the case is headed to a criminal court judge. The story should have made clearer that a church elder who happens to be a judge will handle the proceedings.)

Readers who submitted the story link to your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas offered differing perspectives on the report.

Said one tipster:

It makes no sense that it is even in the paper, much less front page with a photo.

Another correspondent said:

I suppose it is front-page news because it is so rare for a matter of gossip to be handled through formal charges in a church. Tons of questions leapt out to me that remain unanswered.

I think the second reader is probably right: It’s not often that a church initiates excommunication proceedings against a member for gossip. Moreover, this is not just any church; this is a 3,800-member congregation with a 150-plus-year history in Memphis. To me, this is a legitimate news story, and The Commercial Appeal’s straightforward report gave me no serious heartburn. At the same time, I understand why the church refused to comment.

More interesting to me than the initial story, however, was the column that Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck wrote Sunday defending the coverage. You get the impression reading the column that the story offended somebody (or lots of somebodies) at the “big, powerful church” and that Peck is walking a fine line between appeasing those somebodies and voicing his confidence in the journalistic approach taken. The (alleged) gossiping member certainly moves from potential heroine in the news story to all-around louse in Peck’s piece.

From the editor’s column:

In a tart e-mail, Cory Hale, a lifelong subscriber to the newspaper and a member of Second Presbyterian, noted that all kinds of organizations face conflict. Sometimes that conflict simply cannot be resolved and a forced separation must occur, he said. ”Shame on The Commercial Appeal for sensationalizing the ordinary with a front-page story and giving your readership the impression that this is somehow extraordinary, even scandalous, just because it happened in a church — my church.”

A fair comment. And not dissimilar from some discussions inside the newsroom about the newsworthiness of the story.

Some editors asked whether the story was too much of an inside-the-church issue to warrant coverage. Others asked whether the story really mattered much to the public. Still others wondered whether we knew enough about what is going on to report about it.

All good points.

But in the end, there was little disagreement among the journalists that this story was unusual and would have a broad public interest.

I wish the editors who wondered whether the paper knew enough about what was going on had received more of a hearing. Peck’s column provides much more insight and context (assuming his unnamed sources can be believed) on the situation than the initial 655-word news report, which was told primarily from the perspective of the woman accused of gossip. At the same time, the editor provides plausible rationale for why the story matters — the kind of explanation that might have helped the report itself.

All in all, a little more TLC before publication might have negated the need for so much navel gazing afterward. The paper’s highly talented Faith in Memphis columnist David Waters did not write this story, but I’d have loved to have seen it in his capable hands.

What say ye, GetReligion readers? Is a church member facing excommunication for gossip newsworthy? Was The Commercial Appeal’s initial report adequate? Should the paper have dug deeper before going to press?