Got mojo? Evangelicals and the 2012 election

Guess what?

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has the “faithful in his corner.”

At least that’s what a Columbus Dispatch headline asked readers to believe. According to the Sunday story in the Ohio newspaper, evangelicals may play a bigger role in the election next year than they did in 2008. The top of the 900-word report:

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — An event Thursday night at Ohio Christian University combining equal parts religion and politics suggested that God has returned to Ohio’s presidential campaigning.

Evangelical Christian voters, largely dormant in the 2008 election of Democrat Barack Obama after taking a dominant role in the 2004 re-election of Republican George W. Bush, appear to have their mojo back heading into 2012.

The lead source on this breaking news?

Read on:

“Whoever the Republicans nominate against Barack Obama, this vote is going to turn out, and it’s going to turn out big,” said Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition whose new group, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, sponsored the university rally.

Um, OK. The event organizer and lead advocate reports that — yessiree — the evangelical troops are much more fired up than they were four years ago. Who needs any actual survey data or hard facts to back up the claim? Let’s take Reed’s word for it and report it as news.

But that’s just the beginning of the squishy-as-Jello reporting in this vague story filled with unattributed assertions and generalizations.

More of the same:

Cain, whose 28-minute speech — er, sermon — was more the grist of a preacher than a politician, drew enthusiastic applause from an overwhelmingly white audience that seemed eager to replace the nation’s first black president with the man who would be the Republicans’ first black nominee.

Now, exactly what did Cain say that transformed his speech into a sermon and gave his words “more the grist of a preacher than a politician?” That’s a crazy question, I know. And unfortunately, I have no answer.

Based on reading this story, I don’t know if Cain quoted Scriptures. I don’t know if he discussed a personal relationship with Jesus. I don’t know if he used the F-word (faith), prayed or referenced his Creator.

All I know is the amount of his 28-minute speech — er, sermon — that the Dispatch actually quotes. That would be zilch. As in zero. As in none.

Keep reading, and the report detours into a discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and then quotes a couple of political scientists (including the respected John Green), both of whom talk in general terms about evangelical voting trends. Strikingly, neither expert says anything remotely close to confirming the lede’s assertion about evangelicals reclaiming their mojo — assuming they ever lost it.

Guess what? I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in this report.

Sin, ink and the bishop’s indictment

The big, national religion story of the past 24 hours involves the indictment of a Roman Catholic bishop in Missouri.

The top of today’s front-page New York Times story:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.

The indictment of the bishop, Robert W. Finn, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a county grand jury was announced on Friday. Each was charged with one misdemeanor count involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year. They pleaded not guilty.

The case caused an uproar among Catholics in Kansas City this year when Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.

I am not an expert on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals. But, to me, the NY Times coverage seems pretty straightforward (with one major hitch). In fact, the use of passive verbs up high — “has been” twice in the first paragraph and “was” twice in the second — adds to the element of simply reporting the facts. That’s opposed to active verbs that might seem (rightly or wrongly) aimed at dramatizing the story.

From a journalistic perspective, I do worry about the terminology “is said to have” as it relates to the allegations against Ratigan. “Is said to have” by whom? Who’s the actual named source making that claim?

Contrast the NY Times’ lede with that of the Los Angeles Times’ story (which did not appear on the front page):

In charging the bishop of Kansas City with failure to report child abuse, prosecutors in Missouri have done something unprecedented in the long, troubling saga of the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church: hold a member of the church hierarchy criminally accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest.

What remains to be seen is whether the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn will be an isolated event or will encourage prosecutors elsewhere to investigate allegations of coverup against members of the church leadership.

At first glance, the LA Times approach read more like the intro to an editorial than a straightforward news story. Then again, the language is blunt and accurate. Can anyone argue that the scandal has not been long and troubling?

With these kinds of stories, I generally believe news organizations do best to strip the language to the bare essentials. Let the facts tell the story, not the reporter’s — or news organization’s — opinions.

But news stories can take simplicity too far.

In the NY Times report, a graf near the end left me wanting more information, or less information, or something:

The case has generated fury at the bishop, a staunch theological conservative who was already a polarizing figure in his diocese. Since the Ratigan case came to light, there have been widespread calls for him to resign.

What does the bishop’s theological stance have to do with the case? After all, “liberal” bishops have found themselves caught up in this scandal, as well. There’s been enough sin in this story to taint a wide spectrum of Catholic leaders.

Over at his American Conservative blog, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher points out:

Note well that Bishop Finn is a member of the conservative prelature Opus Dei. You cannot tell who is going to be a good or a bad bishop on this issue by whether or not they are faithful to the Magisterium. Depressing. Infuriating.

Also, who has called for Finn to resign? Who are his critics (since all bishops have critics)? If this left-right angle is going to be pulled into the story, the reader needs specifics. This vagueness hurts the story.

For perhaps the most in-depth coverage, the the Kansas City Star is the place to look. It’s interesting that the local newspaper does not take a shot at the bishop’s theology, while the NY Times does.

The Star reports the facts while looking to local and national sources to help put the case in perspective. Along with familiar sources on this issue (do the names Sipe and Clohessy ring a bell?), the Kansas City paper quotes local parishioners. Some even defend the bishop.

“The man may have been guilty of incompetence and negligence, but I do not see him as a criminal,” said Matthew Copple of Gladstone, whose child attends St. Patrick School, where Ratigan once served as pastor. “That seems wrong to me. Let’s punish the people who committed the deed. I don’t see the need for the bishop to have a criminal record or be guilty of a crime.”

Others disagree and that’s the point. There are a number of voices to follow here and a liberal vs. conservative news framework is just too simplistic.

Is God a Tigers — er, Rangers — fan?

Just two weeks ago, we were asking if God might be a Tampa Bay Rays fan.

On Wednesday, the Detroit Free Press posed a different question:

Is God a Tigers fan?

(At this point in the American League Championship Series, the answer would appear to be, “No way.” Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the Free Press story takes that intriguing question and uses it to frame an excellent religion story.

From the top:

From its outdoor electronic sign to its noon, workday service, the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit obeys the second commandment.

God “does tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said the Rev. Steven Kelly, rector of the 150-year-old church on Woodward, across a parking lot from Comerica Park. “And the Tigers are our next-door neighbors, and one of the ways we love them, is to pray for them.”

At Tuesday’s service, ahead of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Kelly intoned a prayer before the handful of churchgoers asking “for blessings for the Tigers that they may play to the best of their abilities and injury-free.” He will put in another prayer at noon today.

But is God really a Tigers fan?

Keep reading, and you discover that — despite the lighthearted tone — the piece takes religion seriously. That’s a welcome surprise.

After unfolding naturally, however, the story detours somewhat abruptly:

Sports fans are accustomed to seeing players cross themselves before facing a pitch, draw crosses in the dirt with their bats or point to the heavens after a home run.

“Like all sports, baseball is being affected by the general culture. And the general culture is being affected by the rise of evangelical, dogmatic religion,” said William Baker, the University of Maine author of “Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport” (Cambridge Harvard University, $29.95). “It’s in our politics. It’s in our artistic culture. And it certainly is in sports.”

On the positive side, Baker sounds like he has perfect credentials to be quoted in a story such as this. On the negative side, how did this story suddenly arrive at “evangelical, dogmatic religion?” Huh?

Then there’s this:

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.

“In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities.”

Again, I like the sourcing. But why do we have someone responding to a criticism that no one has made in the story? Why exactly would he take offense?

But all in all, I like this story.

At the beginning, I expected a not-so-filling bowl of chicken-noodle soup. I ended up devouring a thermos full of hot beef stew. Kudos to the Free Press.

The story’s stellar concluding grafs:

But what about the current fight for the American League pennant, does God have a stake in that?

“Oh, heck yeah,” said Corena Makin of Grand Blanc, who was among the sold-out crowd attending Tuesday night’s Game 3 at Comerica Park. But if the Tigers don’t advance past this series, Makin said, “it doesn’t say anything bad about God.

“It’s just not their time,” she added.

Mike Lovie, a 47-year-old pipe fitter from London, Ontario, knows all about ill-timed prayers. He also attended Game 3, but rooting for the Tigers wasn’t his first choice.

“I prayed for the Red Sox,” Lovie said, “but it didn’t work.”

Read it and weep; this story is that good

Most of the stories we critique find their way to GetReligion through technological means: Google alerts, bookmarked religion pages, Twitter posts, Facebook links and e-mailed suggestions by readers.

But the piece I’m about to review — and slobber all over with praise — came from a more personal connection.

A friend and I were talking, and he asked me if I’d seen it.

“It’s an amazing story,” said my friend, who read it on The Huffington Post (and, for some reason, felt compelled to apologize for getting more and more of his news there).

Curious, I tracked down the story — a 1,200-word Religion News Service feature. Sure enough, the power of this relatively short piece of narrative journalism overwhelmed me.

The riveting story focuses on the mother of a man who shot 10 Amish schoolchildren and her work caring for her son’s victims. It’s packed with compelling drama, revealing details and raw-to-the-bone quotes. Honestly, I wish I could explain precisely what makes this story work so impressively so that I could bottle the formula and use it in my own reporting and writing.

From a journalistic perspective, let me suggest at least three key ingredients to this story’s success:

Idea: Journalists like to talk about stories that are so good that they seem to write themselves. That’s simplistic, of course. But this is a case where the writer and his news organization deserve kudos for recognizing a great story:

After the shooting, the world was riveted by the remarkable display of compassion shown by the Amish, as the quiet Christian sect embraced the Roberts family and strove to forgive its troubled sinner.

Five years after the shooting, the other side of the story is not well-known — that of a grief-torn mother seeking the still, small voice of God in the aftermath of tragedy.

One place where Terri has found peace is at the bedside of her son’s most damaged, living victim — a paralyzed schoolgirl, now 11.

During their weekly visit, Terri bathes and talks to her, brushes her hair and sings hymns.

“As we reach out in ways that bring a touch, we can find great healing,” Terri said.

Ingenuity: This is a story that required the news organization taking a different approach because the main source is a reluctant interviewee. So rather than give up because the source wouldn’t talk, RNS found a different means of telling a remarkable story:

Terri Roberts, now 60, declines most media requests.

But she has shared her story at conferences and churches. In March, Faith Church in Lancaster posted an audio recording of her spiritual testimony on its website; she confirmed its accuracy for this article.

Implementation: Terrific idea. Wonderful ingenuity. But this story is not the same without a writer highly skilled in his craft who can take the facts and details and weave them in an incredible way. It’s like a baseball player whose perfect swing seems to require no effort at all.

This story does not drag to the end. Rather, it reaches an amazing conclusion, to borrow my friend’s adjective:

Her son cursed God; she trusts in prayer. Her son acted out his rage; she reaches out in reconciliation.

Terri laments that Charlie lacked what she calls “anchor Scriptures,” solid, biblical truths that sustained her during a bout with breast cancer and continue to comfort her now.

She especially wishes Charlie had focused on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things,” Paul wrote.

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Alas, this is GetReligion (smile), so I must acknowledge that I wish the story had included just a few more explanations of the main character’s religious background. What is her denominational affiliation? What hymns does she sing to the victims? What Bible stories does she read?

But really, I am picking nits at the composition of the Mona Lisa.

The believer, minus the religion

A week after baseball’s night of miracles, my beloved Texas Rangers await the winner of tonight’s decisive American League Division Series Game 5 between the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers.

I’m not sure which team presents the best matchup for the Rangers, but I never root for the Evil Empire. The end does not justify the means, don’t you know. I am joking (mostly). As much as I prefer to hate everyone in pinstripes, a few Yankees — such as the late Bobby Murcer, whom I interviewed during his fatal bout with cancer — make that difficult to do.

Speaking of the Yankees, I was pleased to come across an in-depth ESPN.com feature (more than 3,000 words long) with this striking title:

Mariano Rivera: The believer

The equally compelling subhead:

Faith also makes him the greatest, least understood player of his generation

That headline made me optimistic — perhaps overly so — that this piece would not be inhabited by ghosts.

In fact, as the writer rounded first base and headed for second, I still held out great hope that the story would get religion by the time the piece touched home plate:

But the biggest reason Rivera seems to stand a layer apart is his faith. Religion, in general, makes for a squirrely conversation in the big leagues and it is central to understanding him. Faith also allows him to believe in the strength and efficacy of his signature pitch, the world famous cut fastball.

Two weeks after solidifying his reputation as the best closer in the game’s history by recording his 602nd save, and with the Yankees in Florida for a season-ending three-game series with Tampa Bay, Rivera sits in front of his locker at Tropicana Field and suddenly is laughing, broadly and spontaneously, at the suggestion that the roots of his greatness are the standard athlete’s fare: a combination of the gift of a powerful right arm, consistent work ethic, tremendous, historic control and a fighter’s will.

“It’s faith,” he said. “Faith isn’t something that you decide to have. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Today, I’m going to have faith.’ It’s a process. I would never, ever be here in the big leagues without my faith. Ability, you have to have ability and you have to have talent, but I’m telling you, my talent wasn’t enough. God brought me here.

“One year in the minor leagues I was throwing 88-89, and then I was 95. Who can explain that? What happened? I don’t know. No one knows.”

Then readers learn about Rivera’s (not-so) road-to-Damascus moment:

Rivera does not pinpoint the moment that changed his life. “I was born Catholic, but I wasn’t raised Catholic because we never went to church,” he says. Rivera says it was not one clean, singular event that brought him to his spirituality, but a feeling that is generally indescribable.

“I was unhappy with the direction of my life, of where it was going. I had to do something. I was in my 20s. I was 21, think,” he says. “I gave my life to Him.”

Keep reading, and the writer (the same one who wrote a similarly tremendous-yet-flawed religion story about Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker last year) allows Rivera an incredible amount of space to discuss his belief in God.

But the story never really goes below the surface on Rivera’s faith. Based on the above passage, it would seem that he’s a Catholic, but the story never says so. The story never describes how Rivera worships or practices his faith. Is his belief in God really as vague and ritual-free as this story would lead readers to believe?

The reader who shared this story link with GetReligion said of Rivera:

I’ve read for years about his deep, personally rooted faith.

So have I. And I was excited about what appeared to be an effort by ESPN to paint a fuller picture of that faith. Unfortunately, this story whiffs at a fastball down the middle and only adds to the vague portrait of Rivera’s religion.

Dissenting viewpoints, as always, are welcomed and appreciated.

Your turn at the plate, gentle readers.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The naked truth of Tribune story

GetReligion reader and former Dallas Morning News religion writer Jeffrey Weiss coined this maxim:

“Every religion seems sane to insiders and crazy to outsiders.”

Speaking of crazy (to this outsider, at least), the Chicago Tribune had a doozy of an, um, religion story last week.

The top of the 2,000-plus-word report:

In a small house overlooking a lake in Wauconda, a minister directed his female followers to go into a back room and take off their clothes.

In one-on-one sessions, he got naked, touched their bodies and told them to touch his.

He called them prayer sessions.

What allegedly happened in that room over a series of months would spur a criminal investigation in one county, spark civil litigation in two others and reopen the age-old debate on what’s a cult.

Calling it “light therapy,” the minister, Philip Livingston, testified in a Kane County case that he repeatedly performed the naked ritual — claiming it helped cure everything from drug addictions to yeast infections. He said it was done only with consenting adults who were members of his donor-funded Light of the World Ministries. But one participant testified that a teenage girl was involved too.

Is this a story about a criminal? A cult? A church with a constitutionally protected freedom to practice its religious beliefs — whatever those might be — as its members see fit?

Given the subject matter of this piece, it would be easy for a reporter to roll his eyes and focus on those first two C’s (crime and cult). But to its credit, the Tribune provides a well-rounded account (well, as much as possible), seeming content to let readers determine what is sane and what is crazy. That, folks, is what we traditionally refer to as journalism.

That said, the theological content of the story impressed me as vague, at best. For example, there’s this section related to the pastor’s past ties to the famous Willow Creek Community Church network of churches:

As his concrete career crumbled, he prepared for a new vocation in ministry. He took an internship at an upstart church in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood called the Prayer Furnace, then returned to his home church, Willow Creek, to lead fellow members in a small prayer/counseling group.

He told his group that God implanted messages to them in their dreams and he could decode them, according to church records.

That upset Willow Creek leaders, who said he never had permission to lead the group, let alone do dream interpretation — a controversial practice against Willow Creek’s beliefs.

“It’s just so far out, so inconsistent and unconventional with what (the church) understands prayer to be,” said Willow Creek spokeswoman Susan DeLay, “and unconventional is probably a kind word.”

But what does Willow Creek believe concerning prayer? What makes this pastor’s “belief” unconventional? Some more specific theological detail would have been helpful.

Meanwhile, the story provides specific details (maybe too specific … but you can read the piece and decide for yourself) of the “light therapy” offered by the pastor. But when it comes to the theological basis of the congregation’s beliefs, there’s not much to go on. And maybe that’s because, well, there’s not much to go on. 

This is as close as the piece comes to tackling the theological claims of the church:

Among those volunteers was Linda Ericksen, whose husband became Livingston’s assistant pastor.

She told the Tribune she ardently believed Livingston’s teachings that he spoke directly with God. She said she believed in the church’s latest mission: to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ by, according to its website, “getting to know Jesus inside of us and being in perfect harmony with Him as His body.”

Then Livingston introduced a new way to achieve that harmony — a technique that would become the focus of a criminal investigation.

I did appreciate the Tribune’s effort to put this situation in context:

DePaul University professor Roberta Garner, who has studied cults, said such groups typically have a leader who demands ultimate authority, citing a direct line to God. They’re typically small — large groups are hard to control — and often believe conspiracy theories that reinforce the leader’s legitimacy. It’s also not unusual for cult leaders to incorporate sexual practices.

It’s hard to tell how many such groups exist around Chicago, with researchers hesitant to even guess. It can also be difficult to gauge whether they are dangerous.

With the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, authorities are left to determine whether groups’ leaders commit actual crimes, not just have unusual beliefs, she said.

Livingston and his supporters insist they’re not a cult.

By all means, read the story and weigh in on the Tribune’s coverage.

Image: Screenshot of church website.

Baseball’s night of miracles

As you might have heard, the national pastime’s regular season ended Wednesday night in a ho-hum sort of way.

Ho-hum, as in the most unbelievable and remarkable few hours imaginable (and I’m not even talking about my beloved Texas Rangers’ dramatic ninth-inning home run to gain home-field advantage in the American League Division Series).

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci captured the scene:

They will go down as the most thrilling 129 minutes in baseball history. Never before and likely never again — if we even dare to assume anything else can be likely ever again — will baseball captivate and exhilarate on so many fronts in so small a window the way it did September 28, 2011.

Starting at 9:56 PM Eastern, the grand old game, said to suffer by comparison from football’s siren sisters of gambling and violence, and said to suffer from America’s shrinking attention span and capacity to contemplate, rose up and fairly screamed, “Watch this!”

At that minute, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves clung to twin 3-2 leads and the belief that they would avoid the completion of the greatest September collapses in the history of the sport, even if, in Atlanta’s case — the Braves appeared headed for a tiebreaker game with St. Louis — it meant a 24-hour stay of execution. Boston seemed home free to October, seeing that Tampa Bay, its competitor for the wild card spot, was getting blown out by the Yankees, 7-0.

But what happened at that moment was the beginning of the end: With the Braves two outs from victory, Chase Utley of Philadelphia tied the game in Atlanta with a sacrifice fly against Craig Kimbrel, the baby-faced rookie closer for the Braves who was pitching with the earnestness of youth, but more obviously with the toll of overuse and stress from a grueling stretch run. Red-cheeked and flustered, he invited pity more than scorn.

Nothing would be the same in the next 129 minutes. Fortunes were reversed. Reputations were made and destroyed. Careers were altered.

It was 129 minutes played on the edge of a sharp knife. It wasn’t just win or go home. It was fame or infamy. Anonymity or celebrity. Cursed or blessed. Collapse or comeback. The Last Night of the Year did not bother with the in between. The scale and speed of it was mind-boggling.

Of course, the baseball gods — and even God — figured prominently in the media coverage of baseball’s night of miracles.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch focused on the “miracle” of the St. Louis Cardinals (enthusiastically endorsed by megafan M.Z. Hemingway of GetReligion.org fame) overcoming a double-digit deficit to win the National League wildcard over the Atlanta Braves:

So now the miracle continues. On to another city, another series, and perhaps another long and crazy Red October that could outdo the remarkable September magic they’ve already produced.

And at this point, would you dare to think anything else?

“This is a great situation for us,” said Carpenter. “How can you not be excited about what’s going on? This ball club has been unbelievable.”

In Baltimore, perhaps Orioles aficionado Terry Mattingly had something to do with the “Curse of the Andino” inflicted on the Boston Red Sox.

Or maybe the defeat was God’s will, as Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez seemingly suggested after the game? From The Atlantic:

And, speaking of God, the aforementioned Gonzales (sic) said in the locker room after Wednesday’s game that “God has a plan. And it wasn’t God’s plan for us to be in the playoffs.” That happened. He actually said that. I guess it’s better than saying, “God didn’t want me to hit that curve ball.” But it helps explain why so few members of the Red Sox Nation, spread out all over the world, can’t stand this team of underachieving apologists.

Gonzalez’s explanation also caught the attention of Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy:

Adrian Gonzalez chose to take the easy route of predestination.

“God has a plan,’’ he said. “And it wasn’t God’s plan for us to be in the playoffs.’’

Wow. That’ll play well in the Nation. And the owner’s box.

Wow indeed. I realize it’s a sports column, but really? “God has a plan” equals predestination? According to the Religion Newswriters Association stylebook, this is the meaning of predestination:

The belief that God predetermines whether people’s afterlife is to be spent in heaven or hell. It is most often associated with Swiss theologian John Calvin.

Does that mean the Rays are going to heaven and the Red Sox are going to … well, you get the idea?

Speaking of the Rays, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon provided a little Godbeat fodder of his own. From MLB.com baseball columnist Hal Bodley:

It was motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer who once wrote, “You’ll see it when you believe it.”

Seeing firsthand what the Rays have done is hard to believe.

They followed a script that ended early Thursday morning with a stunning 12-inning, 8-7 victory over the Yankees that had to be written by a force far greater than mere humans.

There is no other way to explain how the Rays’ unbelievable march to the postseason evolved — and ended.

“It goes beyond earthly measures,” said Rays skipper Joe Maddon, who has to be 2011 American League manager of the year. “I mean this sincerely. You can’t write this script. No one would believe how this happened tonight. We were in such a bad place, and [the Red Sox] were in such a good place.”

Does that make God a Rays fan? This devoted Rangers fan sure hopes not, since the Tampa Bay Miracles play Texas next.

Hate groups, lies and misinformation

About a month and a half ago, a little-known company called the Charity Give Back Group, or CGBG, started making headlines — and not the kind likely to win the company’s public-relations staff any bonuses.

Religion News Service, the Denver Post and The Daily Beast were among those who reported on gay-rights activists and faith-based nonprofits waging online culture war — with CGBG at the center.

I highlighted the controversy (as one example) in a related Christianity Today story on Christian organizations finding it difficult to partner with businesses.

This week, the CGBG story reached The New York Times, which reported:

The culture war over gay rights has entered the impersonal world of e-commerce.

A handful of advocates, armed with nothing more than their keyboards, have put many of the country’s largest retailers, including Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Wal-Mart, on the spot over their indirect and, until recently, unnoticed roles in funneling money to Christian groups that are vocal in opposing homosexuality.

The advocates are demanding that the retailers end their association with an Internet marketer that gets a commission from the retailers for each online customer it gives them. It is a routine arrangement on hundreds of e-commerce sites, but with a twist here: a share of the commission that retailers pay is donated to a Christian charity of the buyer’s choice, from a list that includes prominent conservative evangelical groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

The marketer and the Christian groups are fighting back, saying that the hundred or so companies that have dropped the marketer were misled and that the charities are being slandered for their religious beliefs.

The 1,200-word Times story is a fairly straightforward report that attempts to explain the controversy and the positions of each side in a balanced way. We get strong language from Stuart Wilber, a 73-year-old gay man and petition organizer who refers to conservative Christian organizations as “hate groups.” But fairly high up, we also get Mike Huckabee calling the petition efforts “economic terrorism” — fairly strong language in its own right.

The reporter boils down the controversy this way:

On one side are angry gay-rights advocates and bloggers, wielding the club of the gay community’s purchasing power.

On the other side are conservative Christian groups that say they are being attacked for their legitimate biblical views of sex and marriage, as well as a Web marketing firm that feels trampled for providing consumers with free choice.

Caught in the middle are companies, including such giants as Macy’s, Expedia and Delta Air Lines, which have the dual aims of avoiding politics but not offending any consumers. In this case, they have been pressured to make a choice that may involve little money either way but that could offend large blocs of consumers.

The phrase “legitimate biblical views of sex and marriage” slowed me down. I wonder if a different word than “legitimate” (such as “traditional” or “orthodox”) might have worked better. But in general, I’m fine with the above section.

However, the following section disappointed me:

Beyond condemning the advocates’ efforts as an infringement on consumer freedom, Mr. Huckabee said it was offensive to apply the “hate group” label to organizations that are legal, peaceful and promote biblical values.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Family Research Council a hate group for “regularly pumping out known falsehoods that demonize the gay community,” said Mark Potok, a project director at the law center — and not, he said, because the council calls homosexuality a sin or opposes gay marriage. The falsehoods, he said, include the discredited claim that gay men are especially prone to pedophilia.

The Family Research Council has accused the law center of “slanderous attacks.”

Advocates insist that their push is not anti-Christian. “It has nothing to do with biblical positions,” said Mr. Steele, the blogger. “It has to do with the fact that these groups spread lies and misinformation about millions of Americans.”

Details that I think would have helped that section:

— What is the Southern Poverty Law Center? What is its political leaning? What credentials does it have for labeling a group a “hate group?”

What exactly did the Family Research Council say concerning gay men and pedophilia? Is there a direct quote or report that the Times could cite of this claim? Does the council stand by its claim? Why or why not? The council is allowed to accuse the center of “slanderous attacks” but not to respond to the specific accusation in the paragraph before.

— What specific lies and misinformation have been spread about millions of Americans? Any direct quotes or references that the Times could cite? And how do those accused of spreading the lies and misinformation respond to the specific claims?

The Times story is not terrible.

It just seems to me — and maybe it’s just me — that it suffers from a lot of the same vagueness and broad generalizations that characterize too many Times stories on gay rights and the culture war.


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