The Army’s evangelical atheists?

Speaking of GetReligion guilt files …

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating feature from Afghanistan last September headlined “A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War.” The top of the story:

SANGIN, Afghanistan — They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There’s one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn’t thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain’s back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It’s a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

“He trusts God to keep him safe,” says RP2 Chute. “And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”

Why am I bringing up this piece — buried until now with 1,453 other messages in my GetReligion story possibilities folder — seven months after its publication? Let’s just say that the guilt over not taking time to mention this feature last year finally became too much for me to bear.

OK, I’m kidding …

The real reason is that The Associated Press published a story late last week that reminded me of the Journal feature.

The top of the AP story by religion beat writer Tom Breen:

RALEIGH, N.C. – The cliche notwithstanding, there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other assorted skeptics from the Army’s Fort Bragg have formed an organization in a pioneering effort to win recognition and ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.

“We exist, we’re here, we’re normal,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, chief organizer of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH. “We’re also in foxholes. That’s a big one, right there.”

For now, the group meets regularly in homes and bars outside of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases in the country. But it is going through the long bureaucratic process to win official recognition from the Army as a distinct “faith” group.

The Army atheists received coverage, too, from the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. Veteran religion writer Yonat Shimron included the military voices in a story on area atheists and agnostics starting a billboard campaign:

Taking a cue from the gay rights movement, Triangle atheists are coming out of the closet with a new billboard campaign that attempts to project a friendly, wholesome image of a group long stigmatized for its unconventional beliefs.

Plastered on billboards in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Smithfield are the smiling faces of real Triangle atheists and agnostics, accompanied by pithy statements such as “I’m saved from religion” and “Another happy, humanist family.”

The “Out of the Closet” campaign is just one of several ways the growing nonbeliever movement is flexing its muscles and elevating its profile amid a competitive religious marketplace in the Triangle and nationwide.

Both written by Godbeat pros, the AP and News & Observer stories are pretty nicely done with excellent context and details.

Nonetheless, a GetReligion reader who shared the News & Observer story link complained that the piece lacked depth:

I sense that this could have been a fascinating piece: the skeleton of a great narrative is in the details. Where are these people coming from? How has religious adherence changed in recent years? What is this ‘movement’ in response to, particularly? What does a meeting of atheists look like, sound like? Is “friendly” really the right word to describe a movement with luminaries like Richard Dawkins? Where’s the depth?

After reading both the AP and the News & Observer stories, I came away with a sense that the tactics employed by the North Carolina atheists are sort of evangelical in nature. In fact, I wondered if — except for the lack of belief in God — these groups could be described as “religious.” I wished that one of the reporters had posed that question to a theologian.

In both stories, the non-believers are portrayed as victims of society’s wider belief in God. However, not much evidence is provided to back up that notion. For instance, we have non-believers in the lede of the AP story trying to “ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.” But we have no feedback from Christians in the military to give an idea how they relate to atheist comrades.

Since I am far from an expert on atheists, I’ll be interested in GR readers’ feedback on the two recent stories and even the guilt-laden WSJ piece from way back when. Remember, we’re concerned about journalism and media coverage, not that bigger question, if you know what I mean.

What faith? It’s all about family

Hopefully, after more than a year of writing for GetReligion, I have won the respect of you, kind reader.

Surely, by now, you realize that I would never use GR as a personal platform — as an excuse to write about the sport that God probably watched when he rested on the seventh day.

Of course, my fellow GetReligionistas would never let their personal affection for any given athletic endeavor influence their musings in this space, either.

By the way, did I mention that today is a national holiday?

Opening Day, that is.

Speaking of, um, the field of dreams, Yahoo Sports’ major league baseball editor has a truly compelling piece on David Eckstein following a sort of family tradition by donating a kidney:

David Eckstein is up next, and he’s filled with familiar anticipation and butterflies. He’s been on-deck thousands of times as a major league ballplayer, a few steps from home plate, waiting his turn. But this is different. He’s ready to donate a kidney because that’s what people with his last name do.

He’s been preparing most of his life, and, as with an at-bat, he’s watched others experience it first. Only three months ago, David’s brother Rick, the hitting coach for the Washington Nationals, donated a kidney to their oldest brother, Ken. An entire scorecard of Ecksteins, in fact, has either needed or donated kidneys.

Everybody goes under the knife. The current Eckstein box score: Five kidney transplants with six more anticipated. Two family members and a close friend have donated kidneys.

At 2,900-plus words, this is a thorough, well-researched story that goes behind the scenes of a close-knit baseball family. In many ways, it’s a joy to read. But this is GetReligion, so you know what’s coming.

The big ole elephant in the room.

Or shall I say, the ghost.

Readers learn this about David Eckstein:

One of the smallest players in baseball at 5-feet-7, 175 pounds, he is an overachiever known for a tireless work ethic and relentlessly positive attitude.

“Everything my family went through gave me a life lesson at an early age that a game is just a game, it’s not life-or-death,” he says. “But along with that, it taught me to never take a day for granted.”

Something bigger than life or death? Is it me or does that hint at something spiritual? Religious even?

Oh, near the end of the story, there’s even this:

“My wife and I have zero concerns about having kids,” David says. “God isn’t going to give us something we can’t handle. If it’s put upon me that one of my children has this disease, that’s what God wants.”

God, huh? Is it me or is there a possibility that faith plays a role in Eckstein’s life? Except for that one paragraph, you sure wouldn’t know it from reading this story.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the reporter had included some background on Eckstein’s Jewish faith? Oh, wait, Mollie the Cardinals fan is screaming at me. Just a second. Oh, OK, it turns out that Eckstein isn’t Jewish. Even knows that:

Of course, if one’s Judaism were determined by a name, then David would be MVP of the Hadassah instead of the World Series. But Judaism isn’t name deep. David’s just a hard-working goy playing on Rosh Hashanah and getting slapped on the tuchas after a clutch hit.

Let’s try again then: Wouldn’t it be nice if the reporter had included some background on Eckstein’s Catholic faith? According to The Tidings, the weekly newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, he takes it pretty seriously:

St. Louis Cardinals players David Eckstein, John Rodriguez and Jeff Suppan, do not often tout their Catholic in public. But they believe their actions on and off the field define them as Catholics.

All three were born into the faith, attend Mass regularly and make prayer a key part of their daily lives.

Interesting. Too bad an otherwise fine piece struck out when it came to getting religion.

Now, everyone please repeat after me: “Play Ball!”

Could church make you fat?

In an Associated Press story in 2004, I let my creative juices flow this way:

In the Bible Belt, fried-chicken fellowships and potbellied pastors are as much a part of the culture as NASCAR races and sentences that start with “Y’all.” Churches traditionally have not worried much about waistlines.

I don’t know if that paragraph would win a GetReligion seal of approval, but I enjoyed writing it at the time.

Fast-forward seven years, and the size of religious people’s bellies is again making news. And like yours truly, most media are having some fun with the story.

The headline at

Praise the lard? Religion linked to obesity in young adults

Time magazine’s take:

Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat

Over at USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman describes it this way:

Uh-oh. All those pizzas luring young adults to church activities may have unintended consequences. The devil may be in the pepperoni: Folks who stick with church for years often wind up fatter than their unchurched peers.

The news peg drawing reporters’ interest? A study by Northwestern University medical researchers. A Northwestern news release provides the basic facts and quotes used in most of the news reports:

CHICAGO — Could it be the potato salad? Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age as young adults with no religious involvement, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. This is the first longitudinal study to examine the development of obesity in people with various degrees of religious involvement.

“We don’t know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention,” said Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity.”

Previous Northwestern Medicine research established a correlation between religious involvement and obesity in middle-age and older adults at a single point in time. By tracking participants’ weight gain over time, the new study makes it clear that normal weight younger adults with high religious involvement became obese, rather than obese adults becoming more religious.

Later, the news release notes:

The authors caution that their findings should only be taken to mean people with frequent religious involvement are more likely to become obese, and not that they have worse overall health status than those who are non-religious. In fact, previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren’t religious in part because they tend to smoke less.

Most of the news reports on the study are about as thin as religious people are, presumably, fat. CBS News, Religion News Service and the Los Angeles Times all basically rewrote the news release.

I was pleased, however, to find a few cases where news organizations dug deeper, although obvious questions — the religious breakdown of those studied, the specific religious activities involved, just to name a few — remain mostly unanswered.

One of my first questions was this: Could it be that religious people marry younger and, thus, start putting on more pounds because of that?

The Chicago Tribune addressed this question:

(Purdue University sociologist Ken) Ferraro, who was not involved in the study, called it “intriguing and important.” But he wondered whether the observed effect was only seen in women. And he also questioned the role of marriage, since the study focuses on the time period when many Americans get hitched.

“We know that weight gain is common after marriage and that marriage is highly valued in most religious groups,” he said. “Thus, one wonders if the results could be partially due to religious people being more likely to get married earlier and then gaining weight.”

ABC News provided, by far, the most insightful coverage that I found. Even the lede managed to nail the bigger picture:

Americans who are religious are more likely to be happy, healthy … and hefty?

ABC also delved into the spiritual and theological realms.

On the spiritual side:

“Another possible explanation is that religion encourages a focus on the afterlife and might thus distract a bit from focusing on the health goals in this one,” said Katz.

Concerning theology:

Sociologists Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro noted that, in America, religions tend to focus on constraining sins such as smoking, drinking and promiscuity, while gluttony became a more acceptable vice to indulge in.

Dr. Keith Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, added that amid the atmosphere of restriction, food can also become “a legitimate, socially acceptable drug.”

ABC even questioned whether the study’s failure to account for location might be an issue:

The southeastern part of the United States, often referred to as the Bible Belt, has the highest concentration of religious populations and also contains some of the states with the highest prevalence of obesity.

While Feinstein’s study draws on populations from around the country (Alabama, Minnesota, Illinois, and California), researchers did not control for location and, hence, it may have been that the Alabama participants skewed the association by having large populations of overweight and highly religious participants.

Not the best writing in the world, but ABC presents a fuller — fatter, if you will — account than other reports and raises intriguing questions.

MSNBC also showed some initiative in interviewing real religious people. (No, I don’t think the reporter asked their weight.) This was my favorite section of that report:

Jessica Ward, a 30-year-old notary public who regularly attends the Kent Lutheran Church, in Kent, Wash., says potlucks can definitely be filled with delicious temptation.

“You don’t see a lot of fresh stuff at most church potlucks,” she says. “You’ll see spaghetti and Swedish meatballs and three or four varieties of potato casserole or green bean casserole or Jell-O salads. Plus heaps and piles of desserts — lots of pies and cakes and cookies.”

Hmmmmm, that sounds like a lot of church potlucks that I’ve attended. I don’t know why, but suddenly, I’m hungry. Food and fellowship, anyone?

D-I-V-O-R-C-E in the boonies

In the early 2000s, in my time as religion editor of The Oklahoman, Oklahoma’s then-Gov. Frank Keating always made for an interesting interview.

Whether sparring with Pope John Paul II on the death penalty or talking about his role with the church’s U.S. sexual abuse review board, Keating — a Roman Catholic — had a knack for supplying exceptional quotes.

In 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Keating’s effort to reduce the Bible Belt state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate. I used one of my all-time favorite Keating quotes in the lead story in that series:

Spousal abuse, adultery and abandonment constitute legitimate grounds for divorce, the governor said.

“But most marriages end because one party or the other is simply bored or decides that they want to have a new Jaguar,” he said.

Writing about marriage in my home state gave me some insight into the subject and whetted my appetite for news reports on divorce-rate trends.

I was fascinated by tmatt’s “Dissecting big Christian divorce myth” post last week.

And, yes, I couldn’t wait to read a New York Times story today with this headline:

Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families

Unfortunately, the Times piece is haunted by what we at GetReligion refer to as ghosts, not to mention misleading statistical analysis.

The top of the story:

SIOUX COUNTY, Iowa — In the 1970s, the divorce rate was so low in this rural northwest Iowa County that it resembled the rest of America in the 1910s. Most of its 28,000 residents were churchgoers, few of its women were in the work force, and divorce was simply not done.

So it is a bitter mark of modernity that even here, divorce has swept in, up nearly sevenfold since 1970, giving the county the unwelcome distinction of being a standout in this category of census data.

Divorce is still less common here than the national average, but its sharp jump illustrates a fundamental change in the patterns of family life.

Now, we Americans live in a nation that increasingly blends one emotional and entertainment culture — a U.S.A., if you will, of cable/wifi. So maybe it’s not surprising that the distinctions between rural, suburban and urban have become less distinct.

But that obvious societal transformation aside, let’s start with the facts in this story: The community’s divorce rate is up nearly sevenfold since 1970, making this county “a standout in this category of census data.” That sounds bad!

Look at the numbers closer, though: The Times reports that there were more than 52 married people for every divorced person in this county in 1980 (not sure why the lede refers to 1970 and the body of the report uses 1980 figures). Now, there are just 14 married people for every divorced person, according to the story. That sounds bad!

But how does the current divorce rate compare to the rest of the nation? You’ll have to do your own math because the Times doesn’t compare apples and oranges in the story. But the story does include this:

Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980.

OK, according to my calculator, there were nine married people for every divorced person in America in 1980. Now, there are 4.65 married people for every divorced person.

What does that mean in the context of this story? Well, it means that the note that “Divorce is still less common here than the national average” might qualify for Understatement of the Year. In fact, this county boasts a divorce rate that is one-third of the national average. That sounds good!

Meanwhile, in its effort to explain the increasing divorce rate in Sioux County, the Times resorts to vague, generic (stereotypical?) language about values and Christians.

We learn that:

Craig Lane, a divorce lawyer from the area, described the county’s conservative nature like this: “If steam is coming from your dryer vent on Sunday, you’ll hear about it from your neighbor.”

Time has worn away some of its old values. These days, Sioux Center looks more like a suburb than a village. There is a McDonald’s and a mall, where residents shop to the sound of Christian music.

What old values? What kind of Christian music — old-time gospel or screamo rock? And, just for the fun of it, exactly how do Big Macs contribute to the demise of marriages?

We learn about the divorce of a woman named Nancy Vermeer:

When Ms. Vermeer divorced in 2002, she became the first teacher in her Christian school to do so. Divorce was more common than it had been in past decades, but she still felt judged, so she developed habits to keep a low profile, like going to the grocery when no one she knew would be there.

Does her Christian school have a denominational affiliation? An official policy on teachers divorcing? Is Vermeer herself a Christian — if so, what kind?

We learn that a young pastor of an unnamed church is trying to fight taboo topics like divorce in this community (which seems like a strange fight to have to wage in a place where people are reportedly divorcing like crazy these days, but I digress):

“There’s a perception here that you need to be perfect,” said the Rev. John Lee, a young pastor who has tried to encourage change in Sioux County by taking on taboo topics like divorce and mental illness in his sermons.

“Cars are washed, lawns are mowed in patterns and children are smiling,” Mr. Lee added. “When you admit weakness, you invite shame.”

The reason can be traced to Sioux County’s roots. About 80 percent of residents, most of whom are descendants of Dutch immigrants, belong to a major denomination church, compared with 36 percent of all Americans.

What does that even mean — belong to a major denomination church? Besides the generic unnamed church where the young pastor ministers, what are the major congregations in this town? What do those churches’ leaders teach and have to say about the climbing divorce rate here and nationwide?

We learn that:

Sioux Center might be rural, but it is relatively affluent, buoyed by a biotech industry and a stable manufacturing base. Its Christian college, Dordt, is a major presence.

What is Dordt’s denominational affiliation? (Click here if you’d really like to know, but don’t bother looking for that detail in the story.)

Oh, it probably doesn’t matter. The important thing to know about divorce in this community is this: The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Just ask Chicken Little — er, the Times.

To toast or not to toast during Lent?

There’s an old joke that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.

I thought of that tidbit of religious humor as I read a Religion News Service feature on some United Methodists giving up alcohol for Lent.

The top of the story:

(RNS) The Rev. James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a “spirit fund.”

It’s a timely, interesting story filled with excellent history and background on Methodists and their positions and beliefs on drinking and temperance.

However, the 800-word piece falls short when it comes to explaining how other faith groups treat the alcohol issue:

From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, what to do with the bottle can be a tricky question for religious groups to answer — especially during holy periods or holidays.

Catholics are not supposed to drink on Fridays in Lent, while Muslims are called to abstain from alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to actually get silly drunk, and what Christmas Eve would be complete without spiked eggnog?

Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar at a Friday fish fry, Methodists — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination — have a more ambiguous stance. Now, the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society is following Howell’s lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.

Overgeneralizations seem to plague that section of the story.

I wish the report had included more details from named sources (actual Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc.) on what the various faith groups teach — and practice — concerning drinking.

I am a lifelong Church of Christ member and don’t drink. Our fellowship is pretty united on the belief that the Bible forbids drunkenness. We are less unanimous on whether social drinking that does not lead to drunkenness is a sin. In fact, in my travels to different parts of the nation, I have found myself at social gatherings with Church of Christ ministers and elders who drink wine with meals. In other cases, Church of Christ members take the Baptist approach. (See joke above.)

Given the nuances in my own faith group, I can’t help but suspect that there’s more diversity in other religious circles on this issue than the RNS story indicates.

Among my questions:

– Are most Baptists really teetotalers, or do they face the same issue as the Methodists in that the church officially frowns on drinking but many congregants do it anyway? (See joke above.)

– Unless I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), aren’t Muslims called to abstain from alcohol all the time, not just during Ramadan?

– Is “silly drunk” the actual term a rabbi would use in relation to the Purim celebration? (If so, then I think that would make a terrific direct quote!)

– And why are Catholics bellying up to the bar at a Friday fish fry if they can’t drink on Fridays during Lent? (Must be a non-Lent fish fry …)

More than a sex covenant?

The Los Angeles Times has joined the chorus of news organizations reporting on the Crystal Cathedral’s controversial choir covenant.

I complained Wednesday that the matter had blown into a full-scale national media brouhaha without a single current choir member being quoted by name.

I wish I could report that the Times benefited from my enlightening post and took my advice.

Nope, didn’t happen.

Instead, we have another shallow report focused on the covenant’s statement that “sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.” And we have another story with no choir members quoted.

Even the Times’ headline leaves a lot to be desired:

Crystal Covenant sex covenant stirs controversy

Sex covenant?

Read the entire document. Is it a sex covenant? Or, just perhaps, is it a more wide-ranging doctrinal statement than that?

Indeed, beyond a mere church debate over homosexuality, the covenant seems to be part of an ongoing Crystal Cathedral dispute involving doctrine, a disgruntled former choir director and the clash of past and present in the post-Robert H. Schuller era. To wit:

On Wednesday, church founder Robert H. Schuller said he strongly disapproved of the covenant because it goes against what he has built his church upon.

“I have a reputation worldwide of being tolerant of all people and their views,” he told the Orange County Register. “I’m too well-educated to criticize a certain religion or group of people for what they believe in. It’s called freedom.”

In the comments section of my original post, someone named tmatt called attention to an element of this news story that I neglected:

I think one other point must be stressed.

The Crystal Cathedral has long been known as a pioneer of a kind of vague, foggy, optimistic, post-doctrinal approach to Christianity. … Many critics of the church have — over the decades — considered this bad and an open door to trouble.

It appears that, facing decline and struggle, the congregation’s leaders have decided to veer back toward Christian doctrine, as defined by most Christians through the ages.

That’s an interesting story. Maybe it could be covered?

Maybe indeed.

Or maybe tmatt’s just preaching to the GetReligion choir. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that line.)

Crystal Cathedral’s controversial covenant

Question: How many named sources does it take to ignite a full-blown national controversy over a church choir?

Answer: Zero.

At least that appears to be the case if the choir involved is tied to the “financially troubled Crystal Cathedral.”

The Orange County Register reports in a 1,000-word news story:

GARDEN GROVE — Choir members at the financially troubled Crystal Cathedral say they are upset by a covenant they have been asked to sign that places a strong emphasis on them being heterosexual and Christian.

The “Crystal Cathedral Worship Choir and Worship Team Covenant,” recently handed out to members, states that members should commit to being Christians by following the Bible in every way.

Former and current choir members say they are particularly offended by a statement in the document that refers to homosexuality. Long-time church members say this is the first time they have seen the cathedral take a firm stand against homosexuality and are disturbed by it.

The covenant states: “I understand that in an era where images of family relationship and personal sexuality are often confused, Crystal Cathedral Ministries believes that it is important to teach and model the biblical view. I understand that Crystal Cathedral Ministries teaches that sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.”

The lede gives the impression that the entire choir is upset by the covenant, although the story leaves unclear exactly how many members comprise the group.

But guess how many current choir members are quoted — by name — in the story? I think we already answered that question.

About 700 words into the story, an anonymous choir member is quoted:

A church member who has been with the Crystal Cathedral choir for the last 19 years said she will quit if she is required to sign the covenant.

“I have already told them I won’t sign it,” said the choir member, who asked not to be identified. “We have had gays in the choir before. I’m not gay. But I don’t believe in what they’re saying.”

The choir member says she doesn’t agree with the statement that choir members should be “Christian” either.

The story does quote two longtime church members — including a former prominent choir member — by name, along with church officials:

Sheila Schuller Coleman, daughter of the founder and senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, issued a statement Tuesday saying the document is intended to “clarify expectations placed on them as ministry leaders.”

“It is true that our new choir covenant includes a definition of marriage and that may have contributed to the hurt,” she stated. “The definition is the one that our denomination, The Reformed Church in America, and the Crystal Cathedral adheres to, based on its understanding of the scriptures.”

Homosexuality has been a topic of debate and discussion in the Reformed Church in America for at least 33 years, but the story provides no background of that kind.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press and USA Today quickly relayed the Orange County Register report to national audiences.

This is the lede of the AP report:

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (AP) — Several choir members at Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral say they’re upset over a document they’ve been asked to sign that takes a strong stand against homosexuality.

The “Crystal Cathedral Worship Choir and Worship Team Covenant” recently handed out to members states that they should commit to being Christians by following the Bible in every way, the Orange County Register reported Tuesday.

Of course, AP quotes none of those “several choir members” — not even the Register’s anonymous source.

USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman used the California newspaper report as the basis for a blog post titled “Can you sing to the Lord if you’re gay?” In the post, Grossman suggests:

You’d better not be having sex outside of marriage — and gay marriage doesn’t count — if you want to lift your voice in the Crystal Cathedral’s choir.

GetReligion focuses on mainstream media coverage, but I was intrigued, too, by the lede on the Christian Post report on this subject:

The Crystal Cathedral in Southern California has taken the surprising step of asking its choir members to model a biblical lifestyle, which would include abstaining from homosexual behavior.

Surprising that a church would ask its choir members to model a biblical lifestyle? Really?

In future coverage, I’d love to find out exactly how many members the Crystal Cathedral choir has. I’d love for a reporter to interview a number of members and see if — indeed — the entire choir is upset with this decision or if there is a diversity of opinions.

Other questions: Are all choir members also church members? Or has the choir traditionally been chosen for its ability to sing as opposed to its church involvement and beliefs? Are choir members paid? Or is this a volunteer role?

Feel free to chime in with your own comments and questions, but remember to stick to journalistic issues. We’re not here to debate whether the choir covenant is good, bad or in between.

Religion and tragedy in Japan


Some news stories are just too big to fathom.

The September 2001 terrorist attacks. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Haiti earthquake just last year.

And now — once again — a disaster of unimaginable proportions unfolds in Japan.

This is GetReligion, so you know the question we’re going to ask: Any religion ghosts?

Well, Japan isn’t an overly religious nation, right? Kudos to religion editor Dan Gilgoff for tackling that question head-on in a piece on “How Japan’s religions confront tragedy”:

Proud of their secular society, most Japanese aren’t religious in the way Americans are: They tend not to identify with a single tradition nor study religious texts.

“The average Japanese person doesn’t consciously turn to Buddhism until there’s a funeral,” says Brian Bocking, an expert in Japanese religions at Ireland’s University College Cork.

When there is a funeral, though, Japanese religious engagement tends to be pretty intense.

“A very large number of Japanese people believe that what they do for their ancestors after death matters, which might not be what we expect from a secular society,” says Bocking. “There’s widespread belief in the presence of ancestors’ spirits.”

In the days and weeks ahead, huge numbers of Japanese will be turning to their country’s religious traditions as they mourn the thousands of dead and try to muster the strength and resources to rebuild amid the massive destruction wrought by last Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

The CNN piece does an excellent job of explaining the role of Japan’s predominant religious traditions amid tragedy. I do wish, however, that the report had included some specific statistics concerning religious groups in Japan.

I was pleased to find that kind of detail in a nice story by USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman headlined “Japanese look to ancient traditions for strength”:

When uncounted thousands have died in a disaster such as last week’s earthquake and tsunami, where will the Japanese people find spiritual strength?

Experts on Japanese culture say they’ll find it in the critical, comforting rituals of religion.

They will rely on centuries-old traditions of a distinctive Buddhist culture and the ancient Shinto beliefs of their earliest people. Japan is 90% Buddhist or Shinto or a combination of the two, with young urban Japanese more inclined to have drifted from religious attachments.

In a related blog post, Grossman concludes:

Everyone prays.

From my own work with The Christian Chronicle, I know that there are Christians in Japan. But how many? Religion News Service steps in with that piece of information:

Churches and Christians in northeastern Japan, the most heavily affected area, are still out of contact days after the disaster.

Studies estimate that 2 percent of Japanese are Christian, with the vast majority practicing Buddhism and the indigenous Shinto religion.

As you would expect at this stage in the disaster, CNN, USA Today and RNS all rely mainly on experts to explain what Japanese believe and how they practice their faith. It’ll be interesting to see if the media follow up with firsthand accounts of survivors and the role of religion in their lives.

These are my initial thoughts on the religion coverage of the Japan disaster. If you have other ideas or questions — or links to other stories — I invite you to share them in the comments section.

For coverage of an altogether different nature, there’s this ABC News interview with Rob Bell. I liked how Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman described the interview:

George Stephanopoulos awkwardly tries to get him (Bell) to say whether or not Japan suffered an earthquake because Buddhism and Shintoism is practiced there and they’re all condemned to hell.