Got news? Is a global ‘war on Christianity’ newsworthy?

Would it be newsworthy if a U.S. Senator claimed in a public address that American taxpayer dollars are being used in a war against Christian believers in — to pick one key region — the Holy Land?

Apparently not, since Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made that claim yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Conference and the media has all but ignored it. As James Hohmann of Politico reports:

“There is a war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide,” he said. “And your government, or more correctly, you, the taxpayer, are funding it.”

Although it was noticed by a handful of the D.C.-based, politically oriented sites, few mainstream outlets picked up on the story (a mention by CBS News and the AP are the only ones I could find).

Why the silence?

Imagine if a senator — a potential candidate for president, in fact — had claimed we were funding a war on Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism. Would that not be a front-page story? Why then the difference when it comes to Christianity?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is because few journalists understood what Sen. Paul is even talking about. The socially conservative Christians at the conference knew what he meant, but that is because they read alternative media sources. Religious media outlets mention persecution of Christians around the globe nearly every week, though such stories rarely find their way into mainstream news stories. Even when, earlier this month, the Vatican claimed that 100,000 Christians are killed annually because of their faith, no major media seemed interested enough to do a follow-up on the assertion.

Perhaps some journalists thought that by reporting on Sen. Paul’s statement they would be required to explain the context. But they needn’t have worried about that. Here, for example, is the entire mention by the Associated Press in their 900+ word article titled, “GOP leader says ‘a war on Christianity’ is funded by taxpayers”:

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Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘fundamentalism’

When it comes to religious terms, you would be hard pressed to find a word more misapplied by the media than “fundamentalist.”

As your GetReligionistas have stressed a gazillion times, that is why the term has its own cautious entry in the Associated PRess Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Alas, whenever this term is used by the media, you can be assured that it’ll have almost nothing in common with its original meaning.

Here’s how we got the term: In the early 1900s a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism — including the mainstream Protestant churches — in reaction to liberal theology and the form of Biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. A series of articles was written and collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals which was intended to outline the key doctrines, the “fundamentals”, of the Christian faith. The movement eventually moved away from its intellectual roots, though, and by the end of World War II it had receded from the culture at large.

Nowadays, though, the term “fundamentalist” has become synonymous with just about any strict conservative stance in any religion or ideology. Once again, it pays to remember that the AP stylebook notes that it has “taken on a pejorative connotations” and advises avoiding it unless a group applies it to themselves.

Unfortunately, that suggestion is rarely followed and the label is applied in seemingly contradictory ways. Take, for example, the title of a report an ABC New’s Nightline: ‘Modern Polygamy: Arizona Mormon Fundamentalists Seek to Shed Stereotypes.’

The story contrasts a group of “1,500 fundamentalist Mormons” living in Centennial Park, Ariz. with another group of nearby polygamists, “the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followers, or FLDS, the group led by self-described prophet Warren Jeffs.” There’s no indication the Centennial Park polygamists call themselves fundamentalists so why use the term to compare them with a group that does?

The “stereotype” referred to in the title is that Mormon polygamy is repressive to women:

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Is the ‘New Evangelization’ a laughing matter?

In America there are two career fields that have a disproportionate number of agnostics and atheists: scientists and stand-up comedians.

At least that’s my impression. While surveys confirm that four-in-ten scientists (41 percent) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, the data on comedians is anecdotal and based entirely on my having watched way, way too many stand-up comedy specials.

While black and Hispanic comics often reference topics such as church-going, white comedians tend to only bring up religion when they are mocking believers. One notable exception is Jim Gaffigan, one of the whitest (or at least palest; he jokes that people wonder if one of his parents was a polar bear) and most successful comics in the country.

As the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein recently asked,

Is Jim Gaffigan technically employed by the Catholic Church?

The thought occurred to me in a week during which I saw the awesome Catholic comic speak in person and did some reporting about the church’s major new outreach effort it calls “the new evangelization.”

The sweeping campaign seeks to bring back the many millions of Catholics who have left the church and generally to re-imagine the entire concept of evangelizing, which is more typically associated with, well, evangelical Protestants. The new Catholic version is more subtle, highlighting Catholics who are just living out Catholic teachings and are happy as a result.

Let’s consider the question about Gaffigan being on the Vatican’s payroll by looking at one of his clips on Jesus and Christianity.

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

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Evangelicalism is political, but not a political movement

How many political issues do American evangelicals care about? Apparently, just two: abortion and same-sex marriage. At least that is the impression you’d get if you read about evangelicals in the mainstream press.

Earlier today, CNN updated their “Fast Facts” page on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Aside from general biographical information and a timeline of his career, the page includes only three “Other Facts,” including this one:

Evangelical Christian who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

Australia’s Herald Sun describes another Minnesota politician, Michele Bachmann, in similar terms:

The former tax lawyer staked out positions against big government, with calls for slashing taxes and debt, while touting her credentials as a Christian evangelical opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Abortion and same-sex marriage. And that’s that.

With the media constantly connecting evangelicalism with these issues it’s no surprise that many people believe these are the only two moral, cultural and political issues that matter to evangelical Christians. As important as these issues are, though, they are just two of a multitude of concerns that comprise the public agenda of American evangelicals.

Evangelicalism is religious movement that span across a broad range, from left to right, across the political spectrum. There is no singular “evangelical perspective” on any political issue. And on doctrinal matters? Even that question will cause fierce debates.

Yet for many journalists, politics is the metanarrative that frames all others belief structures. Since I can’t convince them to stop treating religion as a subset of politics, I thought it might be useful to at least help them broaden their perspective by pointing out how evangelicals tend to faith prioritizes and influences political views. I’ve been an evangelical my entire life and a close observer and participant of evangelical trends — particularly in the media and politics — for the past fifteen years. But you don’t need to be an insider to recognize the main concerns of the evangelical community — especially evangelical leaders — tends to revolve around six key principles.

These six principles, of course, do not comprise an exhaustive list. While I incorporated many of the themes from the National Association of Evangelicals’ paper on civic engagement, the list remains rather subjective and based on my own experience. Still, while it won’t provide a definitive answer to the question of what American evangelicals care about, I believe it’ll show that the political concerns are more broad-based than is often realized. The six principles are:

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German cardinal found guilty of being pro-natalist

One of the most common fallacies of our age is the assumption that simply because we prefer a certain set of social policies they must therefore be compatible.

For example, I like donuts and wish they were free. But I also like the people who make the donuts and want them to be able to make a living wage. The only way my two desires can become compatible is if there is a third-party who intervenes, say, by paying the bakers to give me free crullers.

But as economists will tell you, there is no free lunch (or free donuts). That’s why we don’t like economists. We don’t like to be told that we can’t have everything we want, and that we either have to make tradeoffs or give up some of our desires.

This is also the reason that we don’t like certain religious leaders. They too have a tendency to point out when our desires are incompatible. Even worse, they have the audacity to tell us which desire we — both as individuals and society — should put first.

There exists an entire subgenre of religious journalism dedicated solely to pointing out when religious leaders tell certain groups which desires they should prefer. Sometimes the media approves, such as when the pope tells us we should give preference to the poor over the wealthy. But most of the time, journalists are either annoyed or amused that some clergyman (and they are almost always a man) is trying to tell us that we can’t have it all.

Take, for example, a recent article that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph and was distributed by Canada’s National Post Wire Services, titled, “Cardinal says German women should stay home and have ‘three or four children’ to avoid need for immigrants.”

Although the headline is both factual and neutral, it gives the impression the Catholic leader was asked, “So, what do you think about German women?” and answered that they need to get busy making babies. But the context is much more interesting:

German women should be encouraged to “stay at home and bring three or four children into the world,” rather than relying on immigration to solve the country’s demographic crisis, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne has declared.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner compared Angela Merkel’s government’s family policies to Communist East Germany, where, he said, women who stayed at home were considered “demented”.

Germany, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe, is seeking more workers from crisis-hit countries, including Spain, to solve its shortage of skilled labour.

In unusually direct criticism of the chancellor, Cardinal Meisner said: “Where are women really publicly encouraged to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world? This is what we should do, and not — as Mrs Merkel does now — simply present immigration as the solution to our demographic problem.”

So Germany has a demographic crisis (which creates an ongoing economic crisis) but the country’s government also, at least according to Cardinal Meisner, has policies that encourage women to work rather than solving the demography problem by having more children.

Germany’s solution is similar to my donut problem: In order to get both preferences, a third-party has to sacrifice. As Cardinal Meisner implies, the third-party in this case is Spain and Portugal.

Instead of having babies of their own, Germany’s plan is to import them when they reach working age. As a representative of a transnational organization with strong pro-natalist leanings, Cardinal Meisner feels an obligation to note that producing the source material for future German journalists and archbishops is an important a job that shouldn’t be outsourced.

This is a legitimate disagreement about policy preferences and could have been used as a starting point for a discussion on how to resolve Germany’s demographic crisis. But instead, the Telegraph uses Cardinal Meisner’s statement as a proxy for pointing out that the Catholic Church’s habit of telling people what they should do is out of touch with the times we live in:

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Does the president, and the press, get theodicy?

There’s an old joke preachers tell about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him. He put his finger on a verse and read, “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the phrase, “Go and do likewise.” Dejected, he opened the Bible one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly.”

I was reminded of that story after reading about a lost Bible discovered in tornado debris last week in Shawnee, Okla. As a local NBC affiliate reported,

Storm chaser, Brandon Heiden, shot video of the storm as it pummelled [Lance] Carter’s home.

Heiden stopped for a moment to make sure everyone was ok, and found a Bible in the debris. He shot this picture, and hoped the owner would be re-united with the good book again someday.

Meanwhile, Gage Ross, a friend of the Carter family came by the property to help with the clean-up effort. Ross stumbled across that same family Bible; it was still open to the very same page, Isiah chapter 32 which reads, ”A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”

“The Lord must be with us, I guess.” Ross remembers.

While the Bible only traveled about 100 feet (it belonged to a neighbor who lived on Mr. Carter’s property), the story made it all the way to the White House.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Moore, Okla. to assess the damage done by the recent deadly tornado. According to the transcript of his speech, he said:

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Mormonism is a religion, not just a culture

For people serious about their faith, religious beliefs tend not only to influence other types of beliefs but they tend to be presuppositional. Believers adopt particular cultural and political beliefs because of their religious views. For example, an evangelical who believes that abortion is wrong tends to adopt cultural and political views that flow from their religious convictions. Not all evangelicals oppose abortion rights, of course, and even those that do may have developed their position on the issue apart from their religious views. But those who are pro-life tend to be so in a way that is different than those who developed a secular-minded opposition to abortion.

While this may seem too obvious to mention, it can lead to problem for journalists on the religion beat.

A prime example from several years ago is how the media covered the Tea Party movement. There were at least three main factions of the Tea Party, and the main one could be described as a subset of the religious right. Despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers polled in 2011 said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

The bottom line: By failing to understand the foundational beliefs underlying the movement, the media continually misunderstood (and misreported) what the movement was really about.

To truly understand a cultural or political movement comprised mainly of religious believers requires understanding the presuppositional religious views that shapes it. But since it can be difficult to determine the motivating belief and cumbersome to explain, it’s often easier to simply focus on the non-religious aspects. That is one of the reasons why so many religion stories become political stories. Journalists know how to write about politics, so if a story can be “translated” it becomes easier to tell.

A similar process seems to have occurred in a recent New York Times Magazine story focusing on Brigham Young University’s film animation program, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country.” Instead of writing about religion-as-politics, though, it translates religion into mere cultural expression.

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