Pod people: Albert Pujols, Macy’s firing

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about one of my favorite subjects: baseball. Toss a strong religion theme in there and you’re in business.

More specifically, we discussed Albert Pujols and his 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The superstar first baseman’s decision to spurn the St. Louis Cardinals in favor of the mammoth contract with the Angels was the subject of a recent GetReligion post that I wrote:

An athlete leaving a city where he’s beloved and signing a gigantic contract elsewhere wouldn’t normally be fodder for GetReligion. But in Pujols’ case, he’s an outspoken evangelical Christian and frequently talks about the role that faith plays in his career, as Mollie has noted. We are in the midst of the Tim Tebow media tsunami, as well.

Since the original post, Pujols’ wife made a bit of news with comments bringing God into the discussion about her husband’s choice of teams:

Deidre Pujols, speaking with interviewer Sandi Brown, who is her friend, said the couple initially had no plans to ever leave St. Louis or the Cardinals, the only team the first baseman had ever played for.

“When it all came down, I was mad. I was mad at God because I felt like all the signs that had been played out through the baseball field, our foundation, our restaurant, the Down Syndrome Center, my relationships, my home, my family close,” Deidre Pujols told the station. “I mean, we had no reason, not one reason, to want to leave. People were deceived by the numbers.”

She indicated the key moment was the Cardinals’ initial offer of five years and $130 million.

In that same ESPN report, there’s also this nugget:

“It’s just like God,” she said at the end of the interview, “to put us on a team called the Angels.”

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I discussed my recent post on the San Antonio Express-News’ coverage of a Macy’s employee fired after she asked a transgender woman not to use a women’s changing room.

In the comments section of that post, the question of how to refer to the customer came up.

I noted that the journalist’s bible, the Associated Press Stylebook, has this entry:

transgender Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Anyway, check out the podcast.

In Lowe’s ‘backlash,’ a fair hearing?

I first learned about the home-improvement chain Lowe’s pulling its advertising from a Muslim reality show when I came across a Religion News Service report over the weekend. The subject interested me, in part, because I wrote a recent Christianity Today story on corporate boycotts.

The top of the RNS report, which I saw on the Washington Post website:

Lowe’s, the national hardware chain, has pulled commercials from future episodes of “All-American Muslim,” a TLC reality-TV show, after protests by Christian groups.

The Florida Family Association, a Tampa Bay group, has led a campaign urging companies to pull ads on “All-American Muslim.” The FFA contends that 65 of 67 companies it has targeted have pulled their ads, including Bank of America, the Campbell Soup Co., Dell, Estee Lauder, General Motors, Goodyear, Green Mountain Coffee, McDonalds, Sears, and Wal-Mart.

“’All-American Muslim’ is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law,” the Florida group asserts in a letter it asks members to send to TLC advertisers.

“The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish,” the FFA’s letter continues.

Given the reference to “protests by Christian groups” in the lede, I hoped to find more detailed information about the Christians involved. However, the only group identified was the Florida Family Association, and the story did not explain that organization’s Christian ties.

On Monday, an Associated Press headline caught my attention on Yahoo! News:

Backlash for Lowe’s as ads pulled from Muslim show

The AP story did not mention the other companies that RNS said pulled their ads from the show. Neither did the AP story use the term “Christian” in describing the Florida association, instead identifying it only as a “conservative group.”

The backlash cited by the AP consisted of a single California state senator calling Lowe’s decision “un-American” and “naked religious bigotry.” AP also quoted a woman whose family is featured on the show and a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations — both of whom expressed disappointment in Lowe’s decision.

Missing from the RNS and AP stories: Any comment — or attempt to seek comment — from the group blamed for Lowe’s decision.

This morning, I Googled to see what else I could uncover on the subject and found a Detroit Free Press report on the “firestorm of criticism” resulting from Lowe’s decision. Again, the Florida group is referenced in the story but not given a voice:

The decision by Lowe’s to drop the ads came after pressure from a conservative evangelical Christian group, the Florida Family Association.

The group targets companies that advertise on programs involving Muslims as well as gays and lesbians.

The group boasts on its website that several companies dropped ads from the show because of its pressure. But it’s unclear whether the companies’ decision to pull the ads had anything to do with the Christian group.

Frustrated with the lack of details on the group behind the protest, I kept sniffing around the Internet and discovered a different AP story that actually focuses on the Florida Family Association:

TAMPA, Fla. – The conservative group that got Lowe’s to pull its ads from a reality TV show about American Muslims has been fighting for more than two decades against gay rights, strip clubs and most anything else that offends evangelical Christians.

The leader of the Florida Family Association is David Caton, a 55-year-old family values crusader who left an accounting career to found the group in 1987. He said the association has 35,000 members who were urged to email Lowe’s to pressure the home improvement giant into dropping commercials during the TLC cable network show “All-American Muslim.”

Now, I didn’t realize that evangelical Christians were such a homogenous group that they all think alike and are offended by the exact same things. But give AP — the Florida bureau, anyway — credit for at least digging below the surface and trying to put a face on the Florida Family Association.

You can read the full report yourself and decide if the AP gives the group a fair hearing.

Textbook example of balanced reporting

Uh-oh.

Gay rights vs. religious freedom.

Too often when those two forces collide, a train wreck demanding GetReligion attention of the negative kind occurs (examples here, here and here).

So when I saw this front-page San Antonio Express-News headline Thursday, I was curious to see how the story would handle the competing interests:

Firing of Macy’s worker pits freedom of religion vs. GLBT rights

Certainly, the headline gave me hope that the report would treat each side fairly. So did the byline, that of talented Godbeat pro Abe Levy.

The top of the story:

A former Macy’s employee who said she was fired for refusing to let a transgender woman use the women’s dressing room at the Rivercenter mall location is trying to get her job back.

The case, pitting freedom of religion in the workplace vs. corporations’ growing acceptance for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has attracted national attention.

Natalie Johnson said that on Nov. 30, she confronted the customer leaving the women’s fitting room and politely made clear no men were allowed.

Johnson said the customer wore makeup and dressed in women’s clothes but was recognizably a man.

The customer argued she was a woman, but Johnson said she held her ground.

She said a manager called her in the next day.

As I kept reading, the informative but evenhanded way that the Express-News approached the story impressed me. At the end of the piece — roughly 800 words — I had no idea what the writer might think concerning who’s right and who’s wrong in this dispute. But I understood clearly the positions of the major players.

Among this story’s specific strengths:

Sourcing: Besides the fired employee, the reporter quotes a Macy’s spokeswoman, advocates on each side, the employee’s pastor and a minister at a gay-friendly church. The writer also explains why the customer is not interviewed:

The customer’s identity has not been revealed.

Context: The story provides important background that helps readers understand why the San Antonio store may taken the action it did:

In May 2010, a transgender employee at a Macy’s store in Torrance, Calif., sued the company, accusing it of gender discrimination and wrongful termination.

But since 2007, Macy’s has received the top rating of 100 percent in the Human Rights Campaign’s evaluation of corporation’s treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

In the Rivercenter mall incident, Staver and Johnson said the customer was accompanied by five friends who responded to her objections with expletives. They reminded her of Macy’s GLBT-friendly policy, including the use of fitting rooms.

Ghostbusting: Since this is GetReligion, you know that we prefer stories without ghosts. This one allow both sides to express their religious views in their own words:

“Obviously, (Macy’s) policy is not equal, because I was fired for standing up for what I believe in,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t lie and say that he was a woman. I’m going to be accountable to what I say to my Lord Jesus. And I’m taking up for my female customers who might feel uncomfortable with a man in the fitting room.”

Johnson’s pastor, Bishop Robert Doxie, backed her stand.

“We believe the Bible was right when it says God created men and women,” said Doxie, who said his church is attended by 50 to 100 at an average service. “We stand on that and promote that.”

But a minister at a local GLBT-friendly Christian church said that while it may be tricky to make room for transgender people, it’s a matter of justice.

“Transgender people are who God created them to be and are authentically living it out, and that means letting them decide which bathroom or dressing room is best for them,” said the Rev. Mick Hinson of Metropolitan Community Church of San Antonio.

“Macy’s is supporting all people. I’m sorry this ex-employee felt this was a religious issue, but if that’s the case, she’ll have problems in all walks of life where people make decisions she doesn’t agree with.”

Kudos to Levy and the Express-News for a textbook example of balanced reporting.

Photo via Shutterstock

Evangelical Pujols to the highest bidder?

“Are you breathing, M.Z.?”

That was my immediate question this morning to my GetReligion colleague — and St. Louis Cardinals uber-fan — Mollie Ziegler Hemingway as news broke that superstar first baseman Albert Pujols will sign a 10-year, $254 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. MZ, alas, remains out of wifi and Internet range — although this story may reach her through some psychic or spiritual ripple in the universe.

As I have shared a time or two, I am a longtime Texas Rangers fan, so Pujols already played a major role in breaking my heart during the Cardinals’ improbable World Series win in October. Now, he’s headed to the Rangers’ AL West rival.

An athlete leaving a city where he’s beloved and signing a gigantic contract elsewhere wouldn’t normally be fodder for GetReligion. But in Pujols’ case, he’s an outspoken evangelical Christian and frequently talks about the role that faith plays in his career, as Mollie has noted. We are in the midst of the Tim Tebow media tsunami, as well.

In fact, I learned of Pujols’ decision via a faith-based tweet from Bob Nightengale, Major League Baseball writer for USA Today:

Pujols was weighing three offers and after praying on it chose #angels over #cardinals and mystery team

He “prayed” on his decision. Does anyone see the potential for a religion angle in the reporting on Pujols’ mammoth contract?

For a primer on the questions likely on the minds of many evangelicals/baseball fans, Godbeat pro Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post Dispatch covered them well earlier this year in a nice piece before the 2011 season even started. Townsend explored whether Christian athletes such as Pujols strike out on big-dollar contracts:

ST. LOUIS — As contract talks broke down between Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, St. Louis baseball fans began nervously asking themselves a host of questions.

He’s a Cardinal for life, right?

He wouldn’t go to Wrigley Field because he likes winning too much, right?

But a particular group of Cardinals fans—those who share his evangelical faith—was asking a different kind of question. What does holding out for the largest contract in the history of baseball say about Albert’s Christian testimony?

It’ll be interesting to see if — and how — the media tackle that question amid the obvious analysis on what Pujols’ decision means to the Angels’ — and the Cardinals’ — pennant hopes. Will reporters ask Pujols about greed? Will they ask whether this contract will allow him to do more good works? Will they report what he says at his news conference concerning his faith?

This story is breaking now, so most of the reports right now are just the basic facts. Please help us follow the story by providing links of mainstream media reports that do — and do not — cover the highly relevant religion angle.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear back from my beloved colleague.

“Are you breathing, M.Z.?”

Albert Pujols photo via Shutterstock

No discrimination based on creed?

After a Kentucky church voted to ban interracial couples from the congregation, I posted last week on media understanding of Free Will Baptist hierarchy — or more precisely, the lack thereof.

Over the weekend, that tiny church reversed course. From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

A tiny Pike County church voted Sunday to affirm that it welcomes people of all races, a week after some members touched off a storm of controversy by voting against accepting interracial couples.

Members of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voted 16-0 Sunday to make clear that everyone is welcome, “regardless of race, creed or color,” and that the church wants to move forward in unity, pastor Stacy Stepp said.

“We voted as a church that we all get back in peace and love and harmony,” Stepp said.

OK, am I the only one confused by that (it wouldn’t be the first time)?

I’m referring specifically to the church’s decision to welcome everyone “regardless of race, creed or color.” Doesn’t creed relate to religious beliefs? Here’s how the Religion Newswriters Association defines “creed”:

A statement of religious belief or faith that encapsulates official teaching. Most have developed over time amid religious and political debates. The word creed is based on the Latin word credo, which means I believe. The most common creeds in Christianity are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Does that mean the church now welcomes everyone into its fold, regardless of their religious beliefs? Wouldn’t a church be the one place where what one believes would matter? What am I missing?

Alas, The Associated Press’ report on the new vote confused me even more. From AP:

Stacy Stepp, pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, told The Associated Press that the vote by nine people last week was declared null and void after it was determined that new bylaws can’t run contrary to local, state or national laws. He said the proposal was discriminatory, therefore it couldn’t be adopted.

Stepp said about 30 people who attended church services voted on a new resolution that welcomes “believers into our fellowship regardless of race, creed or color.”

So churches can’t discriminate based on creed? Could a church not refuse to allow a female pastor or to perform a same-sex wedding? Does the “free exercise of religion” come into play at all?

Kind GetReligion readers, please help me understand.

Photo via Shutterstock

A natural extension of couple’s love

It seems so simple.

Yet it happens so infrequently.

I’m talking about a newspaper feature that neither ignores faith nor exaggerates it in painting the portrait of its main characters.

Instead, the religious underpinnings of a couple who adopted a bunch of special-needs children unfolds naturally — and in their own words — in the piece I want to highlight.

The writer’s name will be familiar to regular GetReligion readers: Bruce Almighty — er, Bruce Nolan, the veteran Godbeat pro at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Here’s the top of Nolan’s excellent story from this past Sunday:

For days before Thanksgiving, the aroma of Royanne Avegno’s freshly baked bread filled her home in River Ridge as the loaves cooled atop the hand-built kitchen cabinets fashioned years ago by Ashton, her engineer-husband. The bread and other homemade dishes were for the 30 relatives who gathered there on Thursday, a smaller group than normal.

This year it was Royanne’s mother, sisters and brother, as well as the families of four of the Avegnos’ five surviving children —­­­­ all but one delivered into the hands of a couple who, in the course of a 40-year marriage, adopted seven children.

In time, Ashton and Royanne Avegno would bury three of their kids, each severely damaged by physical infirmities or psychological injuries inflicted before finding some period of peace in the Avegno household.

Yet they consider themselves blessed.

Keep reading, and you learn that Royanne Avegno taught Catholic social doctrine for years and still serves on the board of directors of the Catholic high school where she worked. In the next paragraph, the writer provides more hints of the family’s faith:

Their home, like others, is decorated with a certain amount of religious imagery — the Blessed Mother holds a place of prominence — and with pictures of their children, who present an international exhibit of family life.

As the story progresses, it would be easy to simplify the couple’s motivation and make it all about religion. But life is seldom so black and white. To his credit, Nolan steps out of the way and gives the couple space to explain their thinking:

At first, Royanne remembered, their approach to adoption was typical. “Our motivation was purely selfish. There was nothing altruistic about it in the least. We wanted another baby.”

But later, a decision to adopt a disabled newborn named Matthew yielded formal, deliberative discussion:

The “reasons against” column was the longer; the “reasons for” were shorter. But it was topped, Royanne said, by the scriptural injunction in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“It’s how, without really thinking about it, we want to live our lives,” said Ashton. “I think we’re living the Gospel call, or trying to, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It was just natural for us. It was the natural extension of our love.”

The keys here: The story drills down the sources’ motivation. It allows the couple to describe — again, in their own words — what drives them. It goes to an outside source — a family friend — to add texture to the journalistic painting.

The result: a heartwarming feature mainly devoid of ghosts.

It seems to simple.

Yet it happens so infrequently.

Adoption image via Shutterstock

Interracial couples and Baptist ‘hierarchy’

Over at Yahoo! News — one of the most visited sites in the online universe — the third and fourth most popular items at this moment relate to a tiny Kentucky church voting to ban interracial couples from joining the flock.

The top of Reuters’ report on the Appalachian church:

TOMAHAWK, Ky (Reuters) – A vote to bar interracial couples from a small church in eastern Kentucky has triggered hand-wringing and embarrassment.

Nine members of Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church backed their former pastor, with six opposed, in Sunday’s vote to bar interracial couples from church membership and worship activities. Funerals were excluded.

The vote was taken after most of the 40 people who attended Sunday services had left the church in Pike County, near the border with West Virginia. Many members left to avoid the vote.

I assume the writer means “hand-wringing” in a cliche sense and that it has nothing to do with the congregation’s religious rituals. But I digress …

Our thanks to Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news, who came across the Reuters story and thought it might be a candidate for some GetReligion treatment. The part of the relatively short report that tripped up Rodgers came near the end:

The move has drawn scrutiny from the hierarchy of the Freewill Baptist Church, Harville said.

Did you catch that? Hierarchy.

The reason for Rodgers’ concern? There really is no such thing as hierarchy among autonomous Free Will Baptist congregations (yes, “Free Will” is two words).

The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky didn’t use that same terminology but also seemed to stumble on how Free Will Baptists operate:

Harville said he plans to ask the conference of churches to which Gulnare Freewill Baptist belongs to overturn the vote.

Here’s what a quick Google search turned up concerning the National Association of Free Will Baptists’ practice on church government:

Free Will Baptist churches enjoy local church autonomy (self-governing). The local church is the highest authority in the denomination. Local churches voluntarily organize themselves into quarterly meetings, district, state, and national associations for the purpose of promoting the cause of Christ on the local, state, district, national, and world-wide level.

The Associated Press showed a better understanding and provided more complete context:

The church’s pastor, Stacy Stepp, said Wednesday that he was against the resolution. Stepp said the denomination’s regional conference will begin working on resolving the issue this weekend.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Antioch, Tenn., has no official position on interracial marriage for its 2,400 churches worldwide, executive secretary Keith Burden said. The denomination believes in (sic) the Bible is inerrant and local churches have autonomy over decision-making.

“It’s been a non-issue with us,” Burden said, adding that many interracial couples attend Free Will Baptist churches. He said the Pike County church acted on its own. Burden said the association can move to strip the local church of its affiliation with the national denomination if it’s not resolved.

“Hopefully it is corrected quickly,” Burden said.

Here’s how Peter Smith, Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, explained the situation:

Free Will Baptist congregations are self-governing, but the association can decide whether it wants to be affiliated with one.

For reporters wanting to explore the big picture, Smith offered some excellent context that perhaps gives some insight into why this isolated story about a tiny Kentucky church is drawing so many Internet pageviews:

The story hits a nerve in part because the church actually put a segregationist policy in writing, but cultural barriers remain at many houses of worship. Segregation was long a fact of life in Bible Belt churches, whether by explicit or implicit policy, born out of both white exclusion and blacks’ post-Civil War wish to have autonomy in their own churches rather than stay in the ones that had preached obedience to their slaveholders.

Fifty years ago, Christian civil-rights activists found the “most segregated” hour of Sunday morning worship to be an embarrassment to their church culture, but today most Americans worship among people of their own race. For bi-racial couples, that’s not an option. The Gulnare church, in its own shocking way, shows this is an issue that will affect even the most remote areas.

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws against interracial marriage, estimates for biracial couples top 400,000, and the child of one such couple is in the White House. And of course, families are increasingly blended in other ways, such as with cross-racial adoption. Multi-racial families can tell when they show up somewhere for worship, even without a policy in writing, whether people are welcoming, hostile or squirmy.

“When you have the ‘other’ in your own family, it’s hard to think of them as ‘other’ anymore,” Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld said in an MSNBC article. The article was on cross-racial marriage, but churches like to think of themselves as family, and these are guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner days for them as well.

By the way, just in case you need a reason to be paranoid, Your Smartphone is Spying on You is the most popular item on Yahoo! News right now.

Interracial marriage photo via Shutterstock

On the campaign trail: Bad Dad?

This is the headline on a Washington Post story published today:

GOP hopeful Rick Santorum campaigns with a seriously ill daughter at home

My first thought: You’re kidding — Santorum’s still in the race!?

My second thought: What a jerk!

Then I decided to read past the editorialized title and see what the story had to say. The Lifestyle piece opens this way:

SIOUX CITY, IOWA — At the lectern in a packed convention center last month, Rick Santorum spoke haltingly, not for the first or the last time, about his seriously ill youngest daughter, Isabella , who has the genetic disorder Trisomy 18. Half of all children with the chromosomal anomaly, more common in girls, are stillborn. And of those who do survive, only one in 10 makes it to her first birthday.

“I have a little girl who’s 31/2  years old,” the Republican presidential hopeful said in his dinner speech at the annual “Defenders of Freedom” event, hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “I don’t know whether her life is going to be measured — it’s always been measured — in days and weeks. Yet here I am” — on the road so often, he was the first of the current GOP contenders to visit all 99 Iowa counties. Why? “Because I feel like I wouldn’t be a good dad if I wasn’t out here fighting for a country that would see the dignity in her and every other child.”

His is easily the most searing personal narrative offered by any candidate this season. And when he speaks of Bella publicly, it is almost always in conjunction with his top policy goal of dismantling the health-care reform legislation, which he sees as a threat to those like her, “on the margins of life.”

Amazingly enough, the 1,400-word profile attempts to tackle Santorum’s personal and political motivations without a single mention of faith or abortion.

In the online version, the Post even links in the opening paragraph to the YouTube video embedded with this post. In that video, Santorum prefaces his remarks about his daughter by citing his authorship of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

The story makes vague reference to Santorum’s “life” platform:

The point of his run, and indeed his whole political career, he said, is “to open people’s eyes to things they maybe ­haven’t thought through. I don’t think most Americans think through life.”

But nowhere does the story explore the role of religion as it relates to Santorum’s daughter and his presidential run — or question whether his decision to campaign bolsters or undermines his reputation as a candidate of faith. (For those new to the GetReligion party, we refer to this gap in coverage as a religion ghost.)

A quick Google search turned up a recent McClatchy story on Santorum. That headline (with a slightly different slant than the Post):

Santorum keeps faith at forefront in his GOP presidential nomination campaign

From that story:

But it was his narrative about 3-year-old daughter Bella that brought him and his audience near tears.

Born premature and profoundly disabled, she almost died twice.

“I look at Bella … and just love her unconditionally,” Santorum said, then added, “That’s how the Father looks at me.”

“That’s right,” a woman responded to his allusion to God.

When he meets with pastors, Santorum points to Time magazine’s decision to list him, in 2005, as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America for leading fights on Capitol Hill against abortion and same-sex marriage.

“And I’m not an evangelical,” said Santorum, who’s Catholic. Evangelicals are Protestants who emphasize a personal “born-again” experience, evangelism and a literal reading of the Bible.

Yet the only hint from the Post story that faith might play a role in Santorum’s life and campaign comes in a passing reference at the very end:

It was late by then, and the candidate hoped, he said, to check in with his family before grabbing a few hours’ sleep, then heading off to an early morning Mass and another full day of campaign events.

Ghosts, anyone?


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