A layered portrait of hate

In a post last year, I shared my disdain for a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group:

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” … I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

I stand by that statement.

Yet the best journalists can turn even your least favorite subject into a riveting masterpiece that grips you from beginning to end.

As Exhibit A, I draw your attention to Kansas City Star writer Dugan Arnett’s recent 4,000-word (4,000-WORD!!!) profile of Westboro “heir to hate” Megan Phelps-Roper.

From near the top of the fascinating piece:

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Phelpses spend their time when they’re not waving “God Hates Fags” signs, the Star takes you behind the scenes:

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

The remarkable thing about this story is the nuanced, layered picture of the main character (Megan) that it provides. At points, the full story of this young woman’s life almost makes you feel sorry for her.

There’s this:

Megan has little problem handling the vitriol that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s— crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’?”

And this:

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Into the account of Megan’s life, the reporter weaves expert analysis from sources such as a Southern Poverty Law Center official who calls Westboro “the country’s most obnoxious hate group” and a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups.

The piece also provides exceptional insight on the family’s inner workings from a cousin and former best friend of Megan’s who escaped Westboro.

Now, generally, when your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas write about Westboro, we implore the mainstream press to make it clear that this group is totally independent and has no ties to other Baptist churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece comes close, describing the group as the “family-run Westboro Baptist Church.” Still, a clearer statement that this church is totally on its own would have been helpful.

At another point in the story, readers learn of Megan’s baptism at age 13 in a backyard pool. I would love to have seen Megan explain her beliefs and reasons for the baptism at that point.

But all in all, there’s a tremendous amount to like about this story. Even for those, like me, who hate seeing reports about this hate group.

By all means, read the whole thing.

In atheist blitz, where’s the other side?

Evangelical atheists again?

I confess: That’s generally my reaction when I read news stories (and the mainstream media seem to publish them with increasing frequency) about atheists trying to win nonbelievers to their cause.

A new Religion News Service report caught my attention today. The top of the story:

(RNS) The young man in the video pulls in close to his computer camera with the trappings of a typical college dorm room — a loft bed and the clutter of cast-off clothes—piled behind him.

Alex Fiorentini isn’t talking about girls, beer or football. Instead, it’s a coming-out moment of sorts.

“Is it acceptable to the majority of the population to be an atheist?” he asks the camera. “Nope. Are all of your friends going to accept you as an atheist? Probably not all of them. And yeah, those things are gonna suck. But the real question is, ‘Is it OK to be me?’ That is the real question if you are an atheist.”

For Fiorentini, a student at the University of Illinois, the answer is yes. He and scores of other atheists, young and old, have made similar videos for a new campaign designed to build community and support among nontheists around the world.

As puff pieces go, this one isn’t terrible. It contains the relevant facts. It does a nice job of explaining the concept behind the “We Are Atheism” campaign.

The story draws a connection between gays who have been bullied and atheists:

Brown was inspired to start the campaign with her husband and a friend when she attended a talk by Jessica Ahlquist, a teenage atheist who was taunted and bullied after she objected to a “school prayer” banner hung in her Rhode Island high school.

These stories are valid, of course.

However, my problem with most of these pieces is that they only tell their stories from one perspective: that of the atheists. Specifically, it’s framed through the lens of those atheists trying to draw attention to their cause — which, of course, a news story does.

But while the heroes in the story are quoted by name, the villains — those God-believers out there allegedly persecuting atheists — are left vague and nameless. No one who believes in a higher power get to react to the atheists. No one gets to debate the facts in any of these clashes. No one engages in dialogue. No traditional theologians are enlisted to discuss whether, in fact, the atheists are becoming a religious group. Minus the F-word (faith), that is.

Maybe I’m alone, but I read this type of story and want to scream: Wait a minute! I believe in God, and I think atheists are wrong, but this is a free country and they have every right not to believe. Is it asking too much to want to see that point of view reflected?

My point is this: If we’re going to keep reading evangelical atheist stories, wouldn’t it be nice to see journalists approach this topic from a wider, more diverse, perspective? Wouldn’t it be nice to see some believers and scholars quoted? Wouldn’t it be nice to see some actual journalistic skepticism brought to the atheists’ publicity campaigns?

Just asking.

<a href="michael rubin / Shutterstock.com“>Atheist photo via Shutterstock.

Pod people: Religious liberty, inflammatory quote

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting.

That coverage was the topic of a post I wrote earlier this week in which I criticized The New York Times’ approach.

The post generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it actually related to journalism (smile). A few readers pointed out something that I did not: the Times’ use of square quotes around “religious liberty,” both in the headline and the lede.

Read John said:

I got my back up at the scare quotes in the headline, which struck me as tendentious. It casts the Bishops as dishonest aggressors rather than defenders of their liberty.

Jerry N. agreed:

I think the scare quotes in the Times headline undermine the bishops from the start; it’s similar to MSM coverage of “conscience” legislation re. healthcare providers.

Todd and I discussed the role of headlines in helping — or hindering — a newspaper’s credibility. I noted that reporters usually don’t write their own headlines, although in this case the Times headline (“Bishops Open ‘Religious Liberty’ Drive) accurately reflected the body of the story.

Also on the podcast, Todd asked me about my post on The Oklahoman’s coverage this week of the Oklahoma City Council approving a measure designed to protect gay and lesbian city employees from discrimination. In that post, I objected to my local newspaper (where I worked as a reporter and editor for nine years) quoting a pastor claiming gays commit half of murders in large cities. The paper provided no context to verify or refute the claim. I wrote:

That’s it!? With that kind of statement, don’t readers deserve to know the specific, unedited words that the pastor used?

In the comments section, reader GZeus noted that the full text of a letter the pastor sent the council was posted on the church website. The letter includes this full quote:

Judge John Martaugh, Chief Magistrate of the New York City Criminal Court, stated, “Homosexuals account for half of the murders in large cities.” (Kaifetz, J. “Homosexual Rights Are Concern for Some,” Post-Tribune, 18 December 1992.)

Plug that quote into Google, and you’ll find that it has had a long shelf life among certain anti-homosexual forces. But tracking down any evidence to back up the claim is much more difficult. Another blogger notes, too, that “account for” makes it unclear whether homosexuals are the victims or the perpetrators.

Anyway, check out the podcast.

The Baptist pastor said WHAT!?

Confession time: I live in Oklahoma City, but I don’t read a whole lot of news stories about my local city council’s meetings.

I try to pay my municipal water and garbage collection bill on time. However, I don’t tune in on Tuesdays to see the council debate zoning issues, flood retention ordinances or tax incentive districts. Blame my lamentable lack of interest on too many mind-numbing hours spent in bureaucratic government meetings in my early years as a reporter.

In other words, I’m still overcoming the trauma (kidding, kidding).

However, a friend’s tweet about a council meeting this week caught my attention. The post linked to a story by The Oklahoman on the Oklahoma City Council passing a sexual orientation measure and mentioned an inflammatory statement by an opposition pastor. Apparently, the pastor claimed gay people commit more than half of murders in large cities.

Intrigued, I clicked on the story link to see exactly what the pastor said. I was disappointed that the newspaper did not provide a direct quote. Here is the version that appeared in today’s newspaper:

Pastor Tom Vineyard, of Windsor Hills Baptist Church, cited a New York judge in saying more than half of murders in large cities are committed by gay people.

Vineyard received the longest standing ovation of the day after his remarks.

That’s it!? With that kind of statement, don’t readers deserve to know the specific, unedited words that the pastor used? By the way, I am sure that flocks of Southern Baptists would have appreciated the newspaper noting that this is a totally independent and self-proclaimed fundamentalist congregation.

Meanwhile, even more to the point, shouldn’t the reporter have provided some context on the New York judge and what the judge said or didn’t say? Is there any evidence to back up what the pastor claimed, or is the statement as outrageous as it seems on the surface? Was any consideration given to the actual practice of journalism related to this statement?

Given that I had already clicked on the link, I went ahead and read the rest of the story. Now I remember the real reason why I don’t read a whole lot of council stories. If this particular report is any indication, I’m saving myself much weeping and gnashing of frustrated teeth. Speaking of mind-numbing experiences, here’s how the story boils down the arguments for and against the measure to protect gay and lesbian Oklahoma City employees from discrimination:

In general, speakers against the measure cited religion and opposition to adding a class not protected by federal or state law to the city’s policy as their reasons.

Speakers in favor of the measure generally spoke about a desire for fairness and equality.

Ah, religion. That generic collection of cultural systems, belief systems and worldviews that causes speakers to show up at city council meetings and oppose nondiscrimination measures. No other specific information needed, right? (Please excuse me for a moment while I bang my head against a brick wall.)

The entire story contains not a single direct quote, although the report links to a sidebar of random quotes from speakers, including an inflammatory one from Vineyard but not the one cited in the main story.

Strange, strange.

Image of a city council meeting room via Shutterstock

The politics of religious liberty

As U.S. Catholic bishops met in Baltimore this week, this was the headline from the National Catholic Reporter:

Bishop says religious freedom under attack in America

The Associated Press’ coverage of the meeting carried a similar headline:

Bishops say government eroding religious liberty

But this was the headline from The New York Times:

Bishops Open ‘Religious Liberty’ Drive

Notice the subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) difference? As the National Catholic Reporter and AP framed the news, the bishops voiced concerns about religious liberty. As presented by the Times, however, the bishops took a calculated political stand.

The top of the Times report:

BALTIMORE — The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops opened a new front in their fight against abortion and same-sex marriage on Monday, recasting their opposition as a struggle for “religious liberty” against a government and a culture that are infringing on the church’s rights.

The bishops have expressed increasing exasperation as more states have legalized same-sex marriage, and the Justice Department has refused to go to bat for the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that established the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

“We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, said in a news conference Monday at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore. He added that “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” were trying “to push religion back into the sacristy.”

A reader who submitted the link to the Times story commented:

It’s not bad, but it seems a bit skewed to me in its language. Writing that the bishop’s concern about religious liberty is a way of repackaging their concerns over abortion and gay marriage seems to imply their concerns are not genuine.

That was my reaction, too. I’d love to know what other GetReligion readers think (not about the issue itself, needless to say, but about the story angle chosen). Does the Times story push aside the religious liberty concerns in an effort to frame the bishops’ concern as a purely political maneuver? Are there other factors at play?

The Times ends its report by quoting a “liberal” advocate who questions the bishops’ concern for the poor:

Some liberal Catholic commentators have criticized the bishops’ priorities, saying they are playing into the culture wars. John Gehring, Catholic outreach coordinator with Faith in Public Life, a liberal religious advocacy group in Washington, said, “The bishops speak in hushed tones when it comes to poverty and economic justice issues, and use a big megaphone when it comes to abortion and religious liberty issues.”

Interestingly, an address by Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., at the bishops’ meeting included this section:

In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non-governmental source of educational, social, charitable, and healthcare services, offered as an integral part of our mission, offered as an expression of our faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardship, the services which the Catholic Church and other denominations offer are not only beneficial but indeed crucial, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver services in a manner that truly respects the very faith that impels us to provide them.

In other (related) news, the Chicago Tribune reported on three Illinois dioceses deciding to end state-subsidized foster-care services rather than work with same-sex parents in civil unions. From that story:

Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki said the decision to drop the lawsuit enabled the central Illinois diocese to redirect its energies toward serving the poor instead of a protracted legal battle.

“The silver lining of this decision is that our Catholic Charities going forward will be able to focus on being more Catholic and more charitable, while less dependent on government funding and less encumbered by intrusive state policies,” Paprocki said.

Since March, state officials have been investigating whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents were breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turned away openly gay parents.

Is there a possibility that the bishops’ concern for religious liberty has a direct tie to the poverty issue — a chance, in other words, that a “conservative” advocate could argue that speaking about religious freedom is using a big megaphone on behalf of the poor? I would love to have seen the other side explored.

Again, I’d welcome opposing viewpoints from GR readers, but it strikes me that the Times story misses the full picture in its eagerness to frame the bishops’ concern as purely political and tied primarily to the fight over other hot-button issues.

The biblical case for spanking

I’m not sure what to think of a front-page New York Times story Monday that tried to connect the deaths of three children with a self-published book by Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi.

The Times reported that the Pearls advocate “systematic use of ‘the rod’ to teach toddlers to submit to authority.”

The meat of the story:

Debate over the Pearls’ teachings, first seen on Christian Web sites, gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls’ book, “To Train Up a Child,” in their homes. On Sept. 29, the parents were charged with homicide by abuse.

More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.”

The furor in part reflects societal disagreements over corporal punishment, which conservative Christians say is called for in the Bible and which many Americans consider reasonable up to a point, even as many parents and pediatricians reject it. The issue flared recently when a video was posted online of a Texas judge whipping his daughter.

I haven’t read this book or others on the subject, but my GetReligion colleague Mollie says they often focus on biblical passages on physical punishment while completely ignoring grace and forgiveness in family relationships. Regardless, though, of what one thinks about the methods advocated by the Pearls, the trail of evidence linking the deaths to the book seems rather squishy. This line in the report stood out to me:

“If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book,” Mr. Pearl said in an interview.

But since the Times decided to do the story, I wish it had worked harder to explore — and explain — the religious beliefs involved.

Instead, we get a blanket statement that conservative Christians say corporal punishment is called for in the Bible. Later, that statement is adjusted a bit to suggest that “some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls’ teachings.”

Crystal Lutton, who runs Grace-Based Discipline, one of several Christian blogs that oppose corporal punishment, said the danger with the Pearls’ methods is that “if you don’t get results, the only thing to do is to punish harder and harder.”

A GetReligion reader complained that the story focused on Lutton’s practical objections rather than her theological concerns. The reader said:

I’m part of the linked Internet board (with the opponent quoted). She and many others are very articulate at explaining their theological objections, along with their practical ones.

As the reader noted, the article did discuss the Pearls’ beliefs, albeit in broad strokes:

Much of their advice is standard: parents should be loving, spend a lot of time with their children, be clear and consistent, and never strike in anger. But, citing Biblical passages like, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” they provide instructions for “switching” defiant children to provide “spiritual cleansing.”

And this:

“To give up the use of the rod is to give up our views of human nature, God, eternity,” they write.

What do the Pearls mean by spiritual cleansing? How do their views of human nature, God and eternity play into using the rod as they do? What does the Pearls’ church teach in general, and where does it fit on the larger spectrum of evangelical Christianity?

The Times leaves such questions unexplored. But readers do learn that the prosecutor in one of the death cases has no plans to charge the the book’s authors. Imagine that.

Image of parents with child via Shutterstock.

The nut’s guide to media attention

Want to make headlines? Do something nutty.

Better yet, say something nutty. And it would be particularly helpful if the nutty thing you said fed into all kinds of stereotypes about intolerant, uneducated hicks who live in the sticks.

Please allow me to introduce today’s Exhibit A, a fellow by the name of Crockett Keller.

Here’s the nutty thing that Keller said in a small-town Texas radio commercial advertising a state-certified concealed-handgun course he was teaching:

If you are a socialist liberal and/or voted for the current campaigner-in-chief, please do not take this class. You’ve already proven that you cannot make a knowledgeable and prudent decision as required under the law. Also, if you are a non-Christian Arab or Muslim, I will not teach you the class. Once again, with no shame, I am Crockett Keller.

As much as it sounds like a satire skit from “Saturday Night Live,”  Crockett Keller is an actual real, live human being. And over the last week, he’s made real, live national headlines.

This line stuck out from The Associated Press coverage of Keller’s remarks:

The Texas Council on American-Islamic Relations called the ad ugly rhetoric undeserving of media attention.

But media attention it received.

In case you didn’t know Keller was nutty already, The New York Times drove home the point:

Mr. Keller, wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and standing outside the truck parked behind his store, reached for the butt of the holstered gun he had been carrying in his hands as this reporter approached him. He said he had received death threats from callers and had been in contact with the Mason County Sheriff’s Department. “As you saw, I had my hand on my gun, and while I was doing that I was looking to see if you were armed,” he said.

Both AP and the Times seek reaction from Muslim leaders to Keller’s ad.

Guess who’s not quoted in either story? Christian leaders. Neither does either major media organization delve into Keller’s own faith or even report whether he is (a) Christian and (b) attends any particular church. If he does belong to a specific congregation, what do the leaders there say about him and his ad? Is his statement in line with the message from the pulpit on Sundays, or is Keller facing scrutiny from his own?

Granted, maybe the reporters feared Keller would, um, practice his weapons training on them if they pushed him to answer such basic questions. From the Times:

“When you’re in Texas, No. 1, you don’t ask a guy how big his ranch is or how many cattle he runs,” Mr. Keller said. “You really don’t even ask him the name of his wife or his dog. Those are things that are really none of your business. You don’t ask him his religion nor do you ask him his politics. I don’t care what your religion, what your creed is. That makes no bearing. But when people consider themselves a particular religion that has proven itself to be anti-American, well, then, I’m anti-them.”

Still, if this story is indeed national news (count me in the skeptical corner), then the ghosts need to be explored. Nutty as they may be.

Breaking church-state news in Oregon

“Stop the presses!” I joked three months ago when I critiqued a USA Today story on the years-old practice of churches renting public school facilities on Sundays.

Now a new version of this breaking news story has made the front page — above the fold, no less — of The Oregonian, Oregon’s leading newspaper:

MILWAUKIE – Pastor Jeff Jacob begins his weekly services on the Alder Creek Middle School’s auditorium stage, sometimes next to a podium emblazoned with a picture of the school mascot. After a rock band encourages the audience to sway to worship songs, Jacob launches into his sermon, exploring “who Jesus really is.”

Every Sunday, Alder Creek Middle School near Milwaukie essentially transforms into the Southlake Two Church, a scene that plays out weekly in dozens of schools across Oregon and many more across the country.

That bothers Gladstone resident Wilford Bearden, who received a flier last month inviting him to attend church services at the public school. “I don’t think it’s something that schools should be doing,” said Bearden, who approached the district to complain. “I think the general public would probably be appalled as I am that my tax dollars are promoting religion.”

But although Bearden and others believe school-based churches violate the Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state, courts have generally found the practice to be legal. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that as long as districts are renting out spaces to outside organizations, it would be discriminatory to ban religious groups.

The story prompted a GetReligion reader named Ken to complain:

You’d think from the story’s placement that this must be a huge, new, important issue, but it covers no new ground and, in my opinion, tries to create an issue out of a non-issue.

The story, less than 800 words, occupied the Portland newspaper’s prime real estate on Monday morning. Monday is typically the easiest day of the week for a reporter to land a nice feature or trend piece on Page 1, given that Sunday is usually a slow breaking news day. Even by those standards, however, I’d have to say Ken is on to something with his complaint about this particular story.

Ken’s specific concerns about The Oregonian’s story (and your GetReligionistas love it when observant readers can help us write our critiques!):

1. It seems ginned up to create a controversy that otherwise would not exist.

In general, I’m reluctant to climb inside reporters’ (and editors’) heads and try to determine motives. At the same time, journalism often gravitates, by its very nature, to controversy. But what does seem clear after reading this story is that there is no strong local, timely news peg.

One complaining citizen is quoted voicing his concerns about his tax dollars promoting religion (despite the story itself reporting that the churches actually are pumping money into the school coffers). It’s unclear how the citizen voiced his complaint. Did he bring up the issue at a school board meeting? Did the newspaper approach him? Did he take any kind of formal action to raise his objection?

2. It gives no context as far as how long this has been going on, or how significant it is that 51 schools in the top 10 districts do a rental.

Exactly. Moreover, the story provides no actual numerical data to back up its headline, which claims “More schools host church services as controversy lingers.”

3. It ignores its own comment about the Supreme Court’s approval of this practice in the hopes of creating the appearance of “constitutional questions.”

The reporter does cite an ongoing New York case (read tmatt’s Scripps column from a few months ago for much more insight and understanding of the church-state issues involved).

As for creating “constitutional questions,” The Oregonian quotes two “expert” sources — both with concerns about the practice of schools renting churches:

Charles Hinkle, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, says Oregon’s constitution — which clearly bans state money subsidizing religious groups — allows churches to temporarily rent school buildings. But he says districts should be concerned about religious organizations that seem to have no exit strategy. “You are, at that point, supporting a church with your facility, even if you’re getting full rental value,” he said.

Beyond the financial aspect, Jan Carson, associate director of the Portland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, worries about “mixed messages” being sent, particularly to young children. Because Christian churches make up the vast majority of services within schools, she joins some judges who say it may appear that schools or districts condone only certain types of religion.

“Is some sort of favoritism being created intentionally or unintentionally?” Carson asked.

How many religious-liberty attorneys who defend the equal-access rights of churches are quoted? That would be none.

My general reaction to this story?

It’s pretty simple: What Ken said.

Church and state image via Shutterstock.