Devil is in the (religious) details

Talk about a tweet going viral.

A Twitter post by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, voicing frustration with the budget deal reached by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama did just that:

This deal is a sugar-coated satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.

He followed up that tweet with this one:

This debt deal is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach, which is take care of the poor, aged, vulnerable.

Soon, media all over the place were serving up sugar-coated Satan sandwiches — and, really, who can blame them?

“A Lucifer Panini?” asked CNN’s Political Ticker.

ABC News put its investigative prowess to work on the “Satan Sandwich”:

Yesterday, Representative Emanuel Cleaver used the term “Satan Sandwich” to refer to the debt deal cooked up by House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama (or should we say, Commander in Chef?). This title attracted a lot of media attention, but as it turns out, Rep. Cleaver, D-S.C., was not the first to coin the term.

In a deliciously literal form, a “Sugar-Coated Satan Sandwich” refers to a red velvet variation on the Southern Moon Pie. Made with red devil’s food cake and marshmallow filling, you can find the recipe here.

CNN, too, delved into the potential ingredients:

What’s in a Satan sandwich? Deviled ham? Goat horn peppers?Marmite? (Surely that is not the foodstuff of the angels.)

Politico noted:

Even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed with Cleaver, saying it comes with a side of “Satan fries,” though she says she will support it.

Fun, fun, fun!

But, oh, I almost forgot: This is GetReligion. So I guess we better explore any potential ghosts related to this story. Anybody see a religion angle?

As best I could tell, most media took rather shallow bites of the Satan sandwich and steered clear of the meatier parts. By that, I mean they did not seem all that interested in the idea of the debt deal being “antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach.”

Honestly, I don’t begrudge the media a little lightheartedness. At the same time, just a sentence or two could have provided much-needed context about Cleaver and why he might make such a statement.

For example, here’s how Mediabistro’s FishbowlDC handled it:

Deeply religious, Cleaver is no stranger to injecting biblical references into his political theater. As a United Methodist minister, he prays in his office and apartment several times a day.

See how easy — and tasty — that was?

Where’s the grass-roots reporting?

A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times featured this main headline and subhead:

Behind an Anti-Shariah Push

Orchestrating a Seemingly Grass-Roots Campaign

The 2,800-word report on “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement” carried a Nashville dateline, but Rick Bragg could have provided more actual details from the Volunteer State from the comfort of his hotel room. 

The top of the story:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.

The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Shariah, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination. “Folks,” Mr. Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ”

Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.

Now, right off the bat, the Times seems intent on making Womick sound like a complete idiot. With his state facing real economic and educational concerns, he’s wasting time voicing concerns about Shariah. Amazing.

What does Womick have to say about his lack of concern for the truly important issues of the day? Well, that’s a potentially good question. But the above opening section of the story represents the entirety of Womick’s cameo appearance (playing the role of modern-day moron).

Good news for Womick, though: He’s not the main villain in this story. That, um, honor belongs to someone else. To wit:

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.

Notice anything missing from the above summary of this report?

It could be that it’s entirely accurate and the facts are 100 percent correct. From a journalistic perspective, though, my problem is the lack of attribution. Actually, that’s my major problem with the entire story: So much is reported as fact without — in my view — adequate sourcing and attribution.

Keep reading, and the Times uses a blanket approach and broad statements to tie Yerushalmi to the laws that have passed in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona, but there’s no specific evidence presented of his involvement in those states. No state officials who supported anti-Shariah measures are asked:

* Have you ever heard of David Yerushalmi or talked to him?

* Are you aware that he has made controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam? By supporting the anti-Shariah measure in your state, did you, in fact, endorse such statements?

* Did the measure in your state result from grass-roots concerns or an orchestrated effort?

The story does manage to make a sweeping Norway reference:

The more tangible effect of the movement, opponents say, is the spread of an alarmist message about Islam — the same kind of rhetoric that appears to have influenced Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the deadly dual attacks in Norway on July 22. The anti-Shariah campaign, they say, appears to be an end in itself, aimed at keeping Muslims on the margins of American life.

This is one of those stories where you wonder if a piece about apples and oranges has been combined into a really weird-tasting fruit concoction. Is it a story about one crazy man’s influence? Or is it a story about whether anti-Shariah state laws are good or bad? Or is it both? If it is both, is it really possible for a single story to tackle both questions in a satisfactory way?

Maybe I’m being overly critical.

Read the full story and weigh in. If you decide to comment, remember that GetReligion is a journalism site and not a place for advocates on either side to argue the issues. In other words, let’s stay focused on the media coverage questions. Please.

A little bit of (nothing) news

I live in flyover country, so maybe this won’t surprise you, but I haven’t wasted a lot of time or energy worrying about the budget debt crisis.

If history — er, “West Wing” – teaches us anything, it’s that some kind of deal will be worked out at the midnight hour before Armageddon actually occurs. Yawn. Please spare me the partisan drama leading up to the 72-point headlines.

Speaking of the aforementioned budget debate, I stumbled upon an ABC News item that sent my “Lame-O-Meter” skyrocketing. My first thought was that the item was so lame as not to merit any mention at all, negative or otherwise. But then I came across it again in two places that I regularly scan for religion news: on the Religion News Service blog’s daily news roundup and on Christianity Today’s latest news feed.

It’s just a little item on ABC’s website (and that’s a big part of the problem).

The headline:

Faith Leaders Arrested in US Capitol During Protest

The entire item is just four paragraphs, so I’m going to avoid violating any copyright laws and just copy and paste the first paragraph. But please read the whole thing so the rest of this post makes sense:

Eleven faith leaders from a range of denominations were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda Thursday as they staged a protest urging Congress to pass a budget agreement.

OK, you read the full report, right?

Does it tell the reader absolutely anything of value? What kind of budget agreement do the faith leaders want passed? Are they upset with just the Republicans or both parties?

Who are the 11 faith leaders, besides the rabbi in a wheelchair? Speaking of faith, what in the world does this protest have to do with the clergy present and the religious groups they represent? Why is this news? As a speaker on the YouTube video notes, the group went to the Capitol to engage in civil obedience and get arrested. Again, why is this news?

The Huffington Post provides more details and answers many of my questions. That news site also indicated that the rabbi that ABC reported was arrested was, in fact, not taken into custody. Not sure which news organization got it right, but I’d tend to go with the one that did some actual reporting. Here’s what The Huffington Post said:

One protester who was not arrested, police said, was Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Police gave Waskow, 77, a wheelchair while he waited with his colleagues for them to be cuffed with plastic bindings. They took the chair back after the last protester was arrested. It appeared as if the elderly leader hoped to keep it to leave, but police said he did not complain.

We live in interesting journalistic times where lots of news media are putting alleged “news” content in a blog format. It’s quick and easy. And, sometimes, it’s maddening.

End of rant. Now back to the debt ceiling weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Skirting at edges of faith

I love to read stories about real people.

Even better, stories about people who hit rock bottom and find their way out of the pit appeal to me.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had just such a story over the weekend — filled with color, emotion and drama, not to mention s-e-x.

The top of the 1,200-word feature:

COLLEYVILLE — Lynn Kiselstein seemingly had it all — a big house, slick car, expensive clothes and a country club membership.

A stripper at clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas, she was rolling in cash.

“At first it was fun,” she said. “I was making money hand over fist, bought a Corvette, built a house and had the wedding of my dreams.”

But the job that afforded her luxuries also led her down a path of self-destruction, causing her to lose her home, marriage, possessions and self-worth.

Now 42, Kiselstein is working in a resale store in Irving and studying for her GED certificate thanks to help from We Are Cherished, a nonprofit that helps women get out of the sex industry by providing encouragement and resources.

Now, I have written a few stories along these lines in my career. In 2002, I did a profile for The Oklahoman on a former stripper’s bumpy road to ministry. In 2006, I did a feature for The Christian Chronicle on a minister’s escape from sexual addiction. In each case, the F-word — faith — played a starring role in the person’s transformation.

As I read the Star-Telegram story, my immediate suspicion was that religion was — or should be — a key element of this piece, too.

Sure enough, we find out pretty quickly that there’s a religious tie to the “nonprofit”:

She was released from jail in February and through a friend was led to the faith-based organization that is headquartered in the Cherished House in Colleyville. The house was donated by First Baptist Church Colleyville, which also provides financial support to the organization.

“We had dinner; they greeted us with gift bags. It was amazing,” said Kiselstein, who plans to eventually attend culinary school. “From the moment I walked in, it literally felt like arms were around me, but no one was standing next to me.”

The ministry is the brainchild of Polly Wright, 38, who is a member of the church.

So, we’ve got a faith-based organization. There’s a church involved. The dancer felt like “arms were around” her. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a spiritual reference.

Nevertheless, this story — purposely or not — skirts at the far edges of faith, its religion ghosts exposed for all the world to see.

We read about one of the ministry co-founders “selling her soul” to earn a ton of money dancing. We see a reference to “emptiness in her life” but never learn precisely how she filled it. She “became a Christian.” A “God thing” led her to meet the ministry’s co-founder. But it’s all very vague and antiseptic — as if really getting religion might make the story too real.

I love to read stories about real people.

But please enlighten me on what really makes them tick, even if it’s religion.

Ghost in Vermont lawsuit story?

Here at GetReligion, one of our mantras is that ghosts far too often haunt news stories.

As tmatt explained at this site’s inception:

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Read this New York Times story about a lesbian couple suing a Vermont inn for refusing to host their fall wedding reception:

The current lawsuit alleges that in October Ms. Linsley’s mother, Channie Peters, spoke with the events coordinator at the inn, which has 24 rooms and is on 570 acres in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, according to its Web site.

Ms. Peters said the coordinator referred to a bride and a groom while discussing the bridal suite; Ms. Peters said she corrected the woman and they continued their conversation.

Shortly after the conversation, Ms. Peters received an e-mail with the subject line “bad news,” according to the lawsuit, and was told the innkeepers did not allow same-sex wedding receptions at the site.

“After our conversation,” the e-mail reads, according to the lawsuit, “I checked with my innkeepers and unfortunately due to their personal feelings, they do not host gay receptions at our facility.”

Hmmmm, “their personal feelings.” Think there might be a religion angle there? It certainly sounds like a ghost might be lurking in this report.

But can we blame the Times for that? Probably not. Keep reading:

An employee at the Wildflower Inn said the innkeepers, Jim and Mary O’Reilly, were “not doing any comment at this time.”

Based on that, it seems clear that the Times did its job and sought comment. You can’t blame the reporter or the newspaper when the people at the center of the story refuse to comment.

Later, however, the couple released a statement included in an Associated Press report:

The inn’s owners, Jim and Mary O’Reilly, issued a statement saying they are devout Catholics who believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.

“We have never refused rooms or dining or employment to gays or lesbians,” they wrote. “Many of our guests have been same-sex couples. We welcome and treat all people with respect and dignity. We do not however, feel that we can offer our personal services wholeheartedly to celebrate the marriage between same-sex couples because it goes against everything that we as Catholics believe in.”

ABC News also covered the lawsuit, although parts of its “news story” read more like an editorial:

The lawsuit’s allegations are particularly jarring, given that Vermont is known as one of the most liberal states in the country. The Green Mountain State has allowed civil unions between same sex couples since 2000, and gay marriage has been legal since 2009. Tourism is one of Vermont’s main industries, and gay-marriage related business has been brisk.

Now that the ghost has been exposed, it’ll be interesting to see if the Times and other media follow up on the religious freedom issues raised by the case. Those issues certainly are generating lots of discussion in some circles.

Schools biased against non-Christians?

In the fast-growing Bible Belt community where I live, it’s not uncommon to see portable church signs outside public school buildings on Sundays.

As housing additions go up, churches often rent space in schools until they can (a) build a permanent facility or (b) develop a flock large enough to support one.

Since schools generally are empty on weekends — and board members typically are eager to pump extra funds into cash-strapped coffers — this arrangement seems to have worked where I live. I’ve never worshiped in a local school cafeteria, but if other folks doing so is the alternative to higher taxes, I can’t say that I mind it.

Alas, given that churches renting schools has been the norm here for as long as I can remember, I couldn’t help but chuckle at a USA TODAY headline this week:

‘Instant churches’ convert public schools to worship spaces

Stop the presses!

Seriously, I suspect that this came as news to some of USA TODAY’s nationwide readership. And the paper did have a timely peg — a recent court decision against churches leasing public school space in New York. Yes, New York City. The top of the 1,200-word report:

Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the pre-fab pulpit and the portable baptistery inside. The Forest Hills Community Church is moving into P.S. 144 — sort of.

Every Sunday morning, the elementary school in Queens, like dozens more schools in New York City and thousands more nationwide, is transformed into a house of worship for a few hours.

There’s no tally of how many churches, synagogues and mosques convert public school spaces into prayer places for the nominal cost of permits and promises to make no permanent changes in the school setting. What’s clear is that there has been a steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools are available, affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.

What’s not clear to me is how that’s clear. If there’s no tally, how does USA TODAY know that there’s been a steady rise? Where are the numbers — any numbers — to back up this claim? Later, we learn that the newspaper’s survey found that the nation’s five largest school districts and its five fastest-growing school systems all permit religious groups to hold services on weekends. But no figures are given on whether the permit numbers are up in those districts, and over what period.

Equally vague is the next section of the story — the nut graf:

Critics, including some courts, are concerned that these arrangements are an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. They say these bargain permit effectively subsidize religious congregations who would have to pay steeply higher prices on the open market. They also note that the practice appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school spaces are most often available.

Who are the critics? How are they voicing their concerns? How many critics are there? Are they all over the country or just a few folks in New York City? What do constitutional law experts say, experts on both sides of this very hot issue? The story fails to answer such basic questions.

As for the description of the arrangements as “bargain permits,” how much do churches pay to rent schools? Do some schools charge more than others? I’ve read some reports — in Nashville, Tenn., for example -— of schools that recoup only utility fees and related costs. But elsewhere, such arrangements seem to be a big boost for school budgets.

Here’s the top of a Palm Beach Post story from last year:

There’s life after the last bell: On a recent Sunday, Oklahoma-based’s 9:30 a.m. service drew enough parishioners to fill the west side of Palm Beach Central High School’s parking lot. Space rented from the high school may run five figures, but the school’s state-of-the-art auditorium is a good fit with LifeChurch’s JumboTron-like broadcast sermons and live music.

And when LifeChurch is shutting down its Sunday services and pulling its 26-foot trailer out of the Wellington school’s parking lot, the Tabernacle Pentecost congregation’s truck is pulling in.

“It can get interesting,” LifeChurch campus pastor Larry Mayer said of the back-to-back ministries.

That’s not the half of it.

Soul line dancing. A poetry slam. Pre-kindergarten graduation. A Sweet Sixteen party, wedding reception, family reunion: Organizations ranging from tutoring franchises to the How Ya Livin ministry are leasing portables, fields and auditoriums, pouring millions of dollars into school district coffers — $3.6 million in the 2008-09 school year alone.

In some places, it seems, those “bargain permits” add up.

Another issue in some master-planned suburbs is that developers have marked off every piece of land in town — for houses, for stores, for parks, for schools, etc. Some fail to allow enough space for churches, so residents are left to drive elsewhere or find an alternative meeting location closer to home, i.e., a school. In other words, this issue is not simply a matter of “bargain permits,” and the New York case and experience don’t necessarily translate to every place across America where churches lease school buildings.

As noted above, USA TODAY focuses on the discrimination angle:

New York City, the largest, is typical: Christian churches are the primary clients because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school spaces usually are being used for student activities.

Could the fact that more than three out of four Americans identify as Christians also contribute to that discrepancy?

All in all, USA TODAY did a pretty nice job of covering the New York angle. But the effort to expand that case to a national level and apply its specific situation to all 50 states seemed to stretch the facts without adequate sourcing or insight. (For a bit more context on the New York case, be sure to read tmatt’s recent Scripps Howard column on this subject. The key words: “Equal” and “access,” as in “equal-access laws,” which do exist).

Video: Alliance Defense Fund video making its case against the New York ruling.

Pod people: From clubhouse to courthouse

For this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of tragedy involving baseball star Josh Hamilton and about news reports on the impact of Illinois’ new civil-unions law on faith-based adoption and foster care services.

We revisited my post on Hamilton’s unfortunate role in the death of a fan at a recent Texas Rangers’ game:

An Oakland Athletics player hit a foul ball that ricocheted into left field. Rangers All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton picked up the ball and tossed it toward fans in the bleachers behind the out-of-town scoreboard. A man in the front row with his 6-year-old son reached for the ball, leaned a little bit too much over the railing and fell headfirst behind the left-field wall — as the entire crowd, myself included, gasped.

In my original post, I noted that anyone familiar with Hamilton and his demons knows that his Christian faith is a big deal in his life. Wilken and I discussed the media’s reporting on Hamilton’s statement that he believes “God has a plan” even in such a sad circumstance. I also pointed out a subsequent quote from Hamilton that attempts to make sense of the freak accident. Here’s the version of the quote that appeared in USA Today:

Hamilton said his Christian faith, which helped him overcome alcohol and drug addiction to become one of baseball’s brightest stars, has buoyed him and his family this week. He said his family continues to pray for the Stone family.

“This is life,” Hamilton said. “There are tragedies, things that happen that you have no control over and you don’t understand them. One of them is standing in front of your maker.

“Maybe I was a little more prepared to handle a situation like this. Still, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt and affect you. It was just a random act of kindness that turned tragic.”

After my visit with Wilken, I came across another piece — this one from ESPN Dallas — on Hamilton’s faith helping him cope:

“I don’t know all of the answers to everything, but I have a relationship with God,” Hamilton said. “It’s changed my life. In some ways, I feel like I was picked. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was picked because in my situation I just happen to have faith. My family’s handled it well also. It’s been tough, but we’ve talked through some things and we’ve prayed a lot.”

In the other half of the interview, Wilken and I focused on my concerns about some of the coverage of Catholic Charities refusing to place foster children with gay couples despite Illinois’ new civil-unions law. In a later post, I found a bit more to like in a Chicago Tribune story on the legal fight. In an updated story, the Tribune reports that the state will hold off cutting foster care funding to two other faith-based organizations.

Anyway, check out the podcast. Wilken asked some enlightening questions, and I did my best to answer them.

Generic ‘evangelical Christians,’ deja vu

Here we go again.

“Aspirations of a President” is the title of a new video by Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.

The six-minute video opens with inspirational music and a U.S. flag rolling across the screen in what resembles the introduction to a “West Wing” episode.

But it’s the content — the former Minnesota governor and his wife, Mary, discussing their Christian faith — that caught the attention of major media.

From the Washington Post:

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty made a unabashed pitch to Iowa’s evangelical vote Wednesday with the release of a video featuring the presidential candidate and his wife, Mary, talking unguardedly about their religious Christian faith.

The video attests to his opposition to abortion and his view that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.

I know it’s too late, but I’m not a big fan of multisyllable editorialization in newspaper ledes, so I cut two of them. And while I was at it, I went ahead and changed “religious” to “Christian,” just to be specific. If you must, sue me.

In the video, the candidate talks about growing up Catholic before joining an evangelical church after meeting his wife in law school. Mary Pawlenty remembers her Evangelical Covenant Church upbringing, but notes that she and her husband attend the Wooddale Church, which is associated with the Baptist General Conference but describes itself as an “interdenominational evangelical church.”

A Godbeat friend tells me:

Pietists is the best term to use, I think, to describe the Covenant church and the BGC, which is also known as Converge Worldwide. They’ve got a high view of Scripture, send out a lot of missionaries and tend to be on the liturgical side. They also stress Christian living rather than doctrinal nitpicking. The BGC, the Covenant and the Evangelical Free church are all splits from the state church of Sweden.

Interesting. To me at least. Of course, none of that kind of information — not even the name of the Pawlentys’ church — made it into any of the stories I read on Pawlenty’s video, including reports by Politico, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Des Moines Register.

Instead — and honk if you’ve heard this before in this space — the generic term “evangelical Christian” is used pretty freely to describe the Pawlentys and the voters they’re targeting. From the Post:

Perhaps no group is more important to the outcome in Ames than evangelical Christians, who make up nearly half of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa, higher than the national figure for GOP voters.

From Politico:

The former Minnesota governor’s main message had been focused on jobs, the economy and management experience. The changes Wednesday mark the first time since announcing his 2012 run that Pawlenty has talked so openly and extensively about being an evangelical Christian, though he wrote about his faith prominently in his book, “Courage to Stand” and has kept a stump speech line, “We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God.”

Bachmann, who’s leading in Iowa, has made her evangelical faith a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. But while Bachmann signed the controversial marriage pledge from conservative evangelical group The Family Leader, Pawlenty also announced on Wednesday that he wouldn’t, carefully staking out his own ground.

The Wall Street Journal came the closest to actually explaining the Pawlentys’ brand of evangelicalism:

In the video, Mr. Pawlenty and his wife talk about the role church played in their early lives and how Mary Pawlentygot her husband to convert from Catholicism to an evangelical strain of Christianity.

“My family and I were Catholics when I was growing up, but when I met Mary in law school, she was an evangelical and introduced me to the Lord in new and powerful ways,” he said.

What say ye, GetReligion readers: In a story such as this, does generic “evangelical Christian” work? Or do readers need more detailed information concerning the specific beliefs and backgrounds of the voters — and the candidates?