MSM & Chick-fil-A: The Internet often honors stupid stories

Last week I saw Chick-fil-A trending on Google and thought there must be some delicious promotion, some sort of free sandwich you get for dressing up like a cow. Eager to get a freebie, I clicked through to find out why people were searching.

Surprise! Chick fil-A’s president Dan Cathy says, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.” Or if you put it the way the media puts it, Dan Cathy does not support gay marriage.

Wait, don’t we already know this? Please tell me people — on the left or the right — don’t think this is still news.

Oh my gosh, it seems that people really do think it’s news. People on the Internet are just discovering that Chick-fil-A, which is closed on Sundays, is a Christian-run business with a Christian owner who believes in traditional Christian doctrines. People of the Internet (at least the ones who drive traffic) are shocked! Shocked, I tell you. And I’m shocked that they’re shocked, so it’s shocking all around.

The same thing happened in early 2011, and the best legitimate coverage I remember coming out of it was from Dan Gilgoff at CNN. He did a piece explaining “the controversy” and why it was a recipe for controversy. CNN has the latest on its Belief Blog, including recycling its old but smart post on 10 religious companies besides Chick-fil-A. There are even companies like this that are less obvious, so maybe I’ll write about them myself at some point.

Story ideas abound that are actually legitimate and reveal something about Christians and business. But elsewhere those stories are not being covered. As tmatt put it last week:

Now, one would assume — after reading a reference to the “comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage” — that this interview from the Biblical Recorder in North Carolina (which was circulated by Baptist Press) actually included direct quotes from Cathy in which he talks about, well, gay marriage.

What did Dan Cathy say?

Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” said Cathy when asked about the company’s position. “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. …

“We are very much committed to that,” Cathy emphasized. “We intend to stay the course,” he said. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

Did you just drop your computer? I know, it’s shocking. I almost passed out, too. Because last time I checked, 42 percent oppose gay marriage while 48 percent favor gay marriage. Or 31 percent of Protestants support gay marriage while 59 percent oppose it. So why does this shock if it kind of, sort of, actually mirrors the country and Cathy’s own religious beliefs?

Last week, I thought this controversy would blow over. Give it a day. It’ll go away. I felt like a little kid with his hands planted up against his ears while his divorcing parents were fighting. Please just stop and tell me when it’s over. But it doesn’t end. It keeps going. The media, desperate for clicks, blogs and writes and investigates and prods and reports and covers this very important lame story that we are just discovering already know. It’s really amazing, I tell you.

Stories tend to die over the weekend. With all the Colorado shooting stories, the important news from the presidential campaigns, I think surely the media will move on to the next hot trend. But no! It doesn’t stop! It snowballs into something bigger. You either LOVE Chick-fil-A or you HATE Chick-fil-A, you can’t separate the product from the person behind it. It’s like Tim Tebow. We can’t simply evaluate him as a good or bad football player. We have to know everything where he stands because he could tear the nation into pieces. Oh my gosh. It’s as if the media has stuck its audience’s heads into a toilet for an information swirlie. But don’t let me make broad, sweeping generalizations about the horrifying nature of this story. Let me offer Case #1:

Newsweek somehow allows one of its employees to write this sentence:

Chick-Fil-A came under criticism this month after a report by the organization Equality Matters revealed that the company donated around $2 million to antigay Christian organizations in 2010. “Guilty as charged,” the fast-food chain’s president Dan Cathy said over allegations that his company is antigay (“We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit.”).

So. Here we are. Tumblr, listen up.

We’re hoping to find a current or former employee of Chick-Fil-A who might want to spill the beans on life inside the alleged antigay company.

“We’re hoping to find a current or former employee of Chick-Fil-A who might want to spill the beans on life inside the alleged antigay company.”

If that’s you, or you know someone who might want to talk to us, please email brian.ries@newsweekdailybeast.com. And if you’d like to help spread the word of our search, a reblog or a tweet would be most appreciated.

Initially, I thought, OK, please let that person be the 20-year-old summer intern going rogue on this thing we call Tumblr.

No! It’s not! It’s Newsweek‘s veteran social media editor. Please stop! Do not destroy journalism through Tumblr and reveal your biases. Do not show how blatantly slanted your outlet is, at least keep it internal. The hilarious part about social media is that you often get to see what reporters really think, who they really love, who they really hate. Yes, a religion is often the brunt of it. God forbid you believe anything specific and let it influence how you understand the world.

[Quick update: The Atlantic Wire is reporting that Newsweek will probably end its print edition as soon as this fall. I really hate it when media outlets die in some form, but truly: who is running that ship into the ground?]

There is a huge trend the media is not capturing (maybe because Bobby already did last year) where Internet petitions target Christian groups for taking a stand on something. We saw it with TOMS Shoes and Focus on the Family, Starbucks and Willow Creek, Exodus International and Apple, Komen and Planned Parenthood. These stories aren’t new, but taken all together, you have one big scared group of powerful people. Can a CEO of a non-religious corporation take a personal view about anything? Will the free market and the Internet allow that?

These are huge questions that probably started back when the Southern Baptists boycotted Disney pre-Internet days. A fun question to ask would be: did conservative Christians set up a system to backfire on themselves when popular opinion goes against them? Another fun question would be: who is the loudest right now when the country is literally divided in half on some of these issues? Are corporations ever going to be able to give to any charitable organizations that have opinions? Do people really want a world where Bill Gates can’t give millions of dollars to religious organizations to mitigate AIDS? Anyone can stop eating at Chick-fil-A, but should the Internet scare corporate CEOs into bland nothingness? Is corporate money vs. a CEO’s personal time and money separate from one another? There are so many legitimate questions to be asking that have nothing to do with what’s actually being written.

A friend posted the following on Facebook:

I also can’t help but notice a disproportionate amount of criticism being leveled at Chick-fil-A compared with that of a company like American Apparel, whose CEO is basically a sexual predator.

Hey, media, let’s direct all this rage equally. Am I going to go out and eat Chick-fil-A? Who cares! Oh, wait, if I don’t care, am I saying something about what I believe? I don’t even know anymore. Thank you, Internet, for destroying my appetite for anything. It’s been a rough week for the media and the Internet. People are on vacation, not everyone can cover the Colorado shootings, reporters are high strung and under pressures now more than ever. But please, use this energy appropriately. Do not simply honor the Internet gods on this story.

How to spot a media-generated purity ball trend

How do you spot a fake news trend? You start asking questions. You find out what key figures are behind something, how much money goes into it, who knows about it.

Remember Mark Oppenheimer, columnist for the New York Times? We interviewed him fairly recently. He spotted a fake trend recently, putting his belief in skepticism towards something called “purity balls.”

To give some context, it should come as no surprise that I’m pretty immersed in Christian culture. By that I mean I’m very immersed, thanks to my job. So if some new trend is on the horizon, I’m generally aware of it, maybe even writing about it. It wasn’t until I read something in some mainstream media outlet (can’t even remember which) that I heard about “purity balls.”

But I was grateful to Oppenheimer for suggesting that I had not indeed been in some internet cave for not knowing what purity balls are. So if you don’t know either, let me explain, drawing on his most recent column:

In 1998, in Colorado Springs, Randy Wilson threw the first “purity ball,” a formal dinner and dance at which he and other fathers signed pledges to protect the virginity of their unmarried daughters. This October, Mr. Wilson will host his 13th purity ball (they have been almost annual). And from the first ball to now, the Wilson family has made an industry of purity.

A field director for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, Mr. Wilson has promoted purity balls across the United States, and his Web site says they have been held in 48 states. He and his wife, Lisa, have written a book, and they sell a “purity ball packet” for $90.

Now, I do know one person in the entire country who has been a part of this, but I assumed it was a Colorado Springs thing, given where she grew up. Mark tweeted, “does anyone KNOW anybody who’s ever been to a purity ball? every news report relied on one family in Colorado Springs…” I tweeted back, “@markopp1 Yes, but they live in Colorado Springs. Not kidding.” I love the following part from Oppenheimer’s column:

The media have lustily promoted the Wilsons. The family has been featured on Anderson Cooper’s television show, in magazines like Glamour, in many newspapers, including The New York Times, and in at least two documentaries: one, a Swiss production called “Virgin Tales,” was released this summer.

But there is something fishy about all this media attention.

Despite all the coverage of the Wilson family and their balls’ dramatic imagery — the girls doing ballet, placing roses before a cross, ballroom-dancing with their dads — there is little hard evidence that purity balls have spread much beyond Colorado Springs.

And then the column raises some questions and angles about what purity balls do for girls and women and how they think about sexuality. And then he quotes from a respected professor who studies this stuff.

In doing research for her book “Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns,” Christine J. Gardner, a professor at Wheaton College, intentionally excluded purity balls.

“They are not a hoax,” Dr. Gardner said in an interview, “but I wouldn’t call them a trend. Purity balls seem quirky and even creepy to the feminist outsider, but maybe it’s time to find a new scapegoat for our fears over sexual and religious conservatism.”

Purity balls don’t shock me, but I don’t see any sweeping trend or friends posting pictures to Facebook or something. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They just don’t exist in the Twitter, Facebook, blog, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, church, denomination, friendship circles that I read or run in. Still, I know even that widely casted net is pretty limited. So if there’s some niche trend in some circle of the country, I at least like to acknowledge it. Unless it’s an inflated trend.

How do you spot a fake trend? For starters, find one more than one family in one city acting out the trend.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Whose God is whose?

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

As if the Internet needs more things to explode over, George Zimmerman, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, brought religion into the mix in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity last night. Here’s how the LA Times describes the turn of events:

In his first lengthy TV interview since killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman initially said Wednesday night that he did not regret anything that happened that night.

“I feel like it was all God’s plan,” he told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Near the end of the interview, he backtracked, saying he would tell the teen’s parents, “I’m sorry,” and that he would be open to talking to them about what happened.

“I can’t imagine what it must feel like. And I pray for them daily,” Zimmerman said.

So, of course, reporters pounce and go to Martin’s family for reaction.

Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press that he rejected a comment Zimmerman made about the events of that night being part of “God’s plan.”

“We must worship a different God. There is no way that my God wanted George Zimmerman to murder my teenage son,” Tracy Martin said.

As a reader put it:

So George Zimmerman said on video that the death of Trayvon Martin was a part of God’s plan? What are George Zimmerman’s religious beliefs? What are the Martin Family’s beliefs? There’s no other details on it other than George Zimmerman said X, and the Martin family responds with Y.

The lack of basic details here is so painfully obvious. Can you imagine reporters accepting the same kind of general description in the details of the crime? For instance, would they be just fine with receiving information that Martin was wearing clothes? No, the hoodie makes it much more descriptive. Was he carrying just any kind of candy? No, we all remember the Skittles. Why is it so hard for reporters to nail down more specifics on religion?

The lack of specifics exacerbate the quotes even more, especially when the family responds that they don’t worship the same God. Easy follow-up questions would be: So what God is that? Do you attend a specific church regularly? Reporters act like these questions are like asking someone’s weight. It’s really not hard. People often want to share that information. And readers are desperately looking for it.

Who cares if the reports and interviews come out of Fox, MSNBC, AP, LA Times, a blogger, a tweeter? Everyone involved is doing a terrible job. It’s not rocket science. It’s reporting. The hole is so big you could drive a truck through it.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Mormon moment fail

I am certainly not the first to note this, so let’s all say this together: What were the editors at Bloomberg Businessweek thinking? Basically, its cover story about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ finances could offend just about anyone who practices just about any kind of faith.

As Daniel Burke from Religion News Service reports:

A lengthy story in Bloomberg Businessweek that hits newsstands on Friday details The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ vast financial holdings, from a $2 billion mall in Salt Lake City to a $1 billion ranch in Florida.

Reaction to the magazine’s cover has overshadowed the article, however. The illustration satirizes the moment when Mormons believe John the Baptist bestowed the priesthood on Joseph Smith, the faith’s founding prophet.

In the parody, John the Baptist tells Smith, “and thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax …” Smith answers, “Hallelujah.”

I like how veteran Salt Lake City Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asks a magazine spokesperson if the cover really is real.

The cover, which has been posted repeatedly on Facebook, is real, Patti Straus, Bloomberg Businessweek spokeswoman told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. … When asked if the magazine was getting any angry reactions to the cover, Straus wrote in an email, “The story speaks for itself.”

Sorry, but if you’re a magazine, design and story go together, maybe not from the reporter’s perspective, but from an entire editorial point of view, it shapes how you want the reader to feel.

The cover is certainly not the first offending one from a national magazine. You might recall Newsweek‘s 2011 cover of Mitt Romney dancing to the words “The Mormon Moment.”

So how did Bloomberg Businessweek‘s cover come about? The Deseret News illustrates some ironies by simply quoting from Bloomberg Businessweek‘s art director.

“We looked into paintings of what is referred to as the First Vision, which is when Joseph Smith went into the woods and had a revelation, and since that moment founded Mormonism,” Robert Vargas, the art director, said in a Bloomberg Businessweek video. “So in researching the paintings, there were many sorts of iterations of this. It’s been done various different ways.” …

This one was not of the First Vision, as Vargas apparently supposes, but of the Angel Moroni delivering the gold plates of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. It may be that Vargas assumed that any painting of Joseph Smith receiving a vision in the woods was part of the First Vision. …

Vargas said the Bloomberg Businessweek editors settled on using the Christensen art “because it had this nice naiveté to it.” “The image itself is somewhat serene,” he added, “so we wanted to have a little more energy with the typography to balance that out.” …

Vargas called the talk bubbles of John the Baptist telling Joseph Smith to invest “funny.”

Seriously, what is up with editors and designers these days?

The webpage with the story “How the Mormons Make Money” and the art they use is what looks like a gold set of praying hands (maybe depicting idolatry?) clasping money with the sun shining down through the clouds.

Even if you move past the art, does the story really understand the Mormon faith enough to understand how it wouldn’t function the same way a business would?

As Joanna Brooks put it at Religion Dispatches, the story itself leaves the reader wanting more.

Another lost opportunity was Winter’s failure to pursue with any insight or curiosity the question of what motivates Mormon enterprise. It’s not that Mormonism is just another form of prosperity gospel. The faith has a 170-year-long history of seeking economic self-sufficiency, motivated at first by Mormons’ desire for autonomy from a hostile mainstream and by necessity engendered by their western isolation. Today, that drive is motivated — as I’ve heard discussed among leading figures in Mormon Studies this week and as was hinted at in the Church’s own statement and a Deseret News editorial today — by the need to create an endowment capable of sustaining the global physical infrastructure of Mormonism (temples, churches, universities) even as the bulk of the Church’s population shifts to the global south and tithing revenues flatline or even drop.

This is no simple Creflo Dollar morality tale. This is story about history and global patterns of wealth distribution, as well as about the way a financially successful American-based Church takes what it needs from the market to realize its own countercultural priorities. A story maybe too big for Businessweek to grasp, and certainly too big for its juvenile cover.

I was actually kind of surprised that the article didn’t mention more about Mitt Romney, given how everything from reporters these days seems to be seen through presidential election lenses. This was one sentence: “Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded in 1984, gave the Mormon Church millions’ worth of stock holdings obtained through Bain deals, according to Reuters.” But generally I didn’t find it to necessarily be tied to Romney.

But then the reporter did an interview with Bloomberg about her story, and the people interviewing go so painfully obvious to Romney, it’s incredible. It’s like the only thing matters, the only reason we should ever care about how the LDS Church handles its money is the presidential election. When the media starts to take an intense look at religion only in presidential election cycles, there’s something wrong, and some priorities are out of order.

One line that did stand out for me from the reporter was when she said, “Most religions make a very clear distinction between the spiritual and the secular, and Mormons deny that there is a distinction at all. Mormons believe they are building a kingdom on earth.” I know some evangelicals believe God is building a kingdom on earth, so I don’t know that her broad sweeping statement about other religions vs. Mormonism is spot on. Anyone with insight into this particular theological view?

No matter how you feel about Mormonism or how leaders handle the institution’s finances, if you care about the way religion is depicted in the media, you should care about this cover and this piece. There is nothing wrong, in terms of journalism, with looking at a religious group’s finances if you take the subject seriously. There were definitely nuggets of information worth reading, but the designers and editors let this one fall flat.

Reporters discover black women like religion

It’s refreshing to read a story about the religious beliefs not necessarily tied to politics or fights or money or scandal. Most Americans really do just believe in some kind of faith, and it’s nice to see media outlets covering demographic beliefs.

For instance, black women are among the country’s most religious groups, the Washington Post reports. A reader sent us the story, saying, “I am an absolute sucker for stories like this one because they are about real people and their relationship to God and not about politics and theological fights.”

The poll, the most extensive look at black women’s lives in decades, reveals that as a group, black women are among the most religious people in the nation. Although black men are almost as religious as their female counterparts, there is a more stark divide along racial lines.

The survey found that 74 percent of black women and 70 percent of black men said that “living a religious life” is very important. On that same question, the number falls to 57 percent of white women and 43 percent of white men.

But in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through. Black women, across education and income levels, say living a religious life is a greater priority than being married or having children, and this call to faith either surpasses or pulls even with having a career as a life goal, the survey shows.

The piece puts the study in historical context, illustrating why black Americans might be more religious. What’s unclear from the summary is why black women are still more religious than black men.

African Americans are more likely to have grown up with gospel music in the background of their lives, as well as with a mother or grandmother who insisted on all-day church on Sundays and Bible school in the summers.

Inextricably woven into black culture has been the sense that devotion and faith in God more strongly connect black men and women to their slave ancestors, who leaned on religious faith to help maintain their dignity in the face of discrimination and harsh and unjust treatment.

Some theologians argue that women in general and black women in particular are more religious than men because of their experience with oppression.

As our reader friend put it:

I think there’s some truth in the part about poverty and oppression leading to more belief in God. After all, there is Mark 10:25. But I wanted someone to offer that religious perspective and not for that to come from only secular sources.

The piece does follow up with those from a religious perspective but in more general terms.

In follow-up interviews with some of the black women surveyed, there seemed to be little or no angst about their religious beliefs or their role in the church. The women said their focus is on one thing: their personal relationship with God.

He may belong to everyone, the women said, but He knows them individually, and guides them, cares for them — even chastises them. He is a God they can talk to about anything, and He talks back, not in the booming Charlton Heston-like voice of the movies, but through the seeming coincidences that occur at just the right time. It’s when that good idea or answer to something they have been struggling with just appears to come out of nowhere, the women said. And it is that deeply felt, inexplicable sense about what is right or wrong.

When life is harsh and doesn’t turn out as they expect, they say, they rely even more strongly on God.

I like the initiative here to follow up with women surveyed, but it’s unclear whether these summaries of what “women said” really means they all reported similar statements, or if the reporter is extending individual statements to the rest of the cohort.

Some black women, including Tricia Elam, a 58-year-old Buddhist, have found peace in non-Christian faiths.

Elam grew up attending a Protestant church and was drawn to Buddhism in her adult years. She has been practicing the faith for 25 years, starting when she was an administrative law judge and was envious of a co-worker’s resolute calm. When she asked him his secret and he revealed that he was a practicing Buddhist, Elam went to check out a Buddhist center.

She was captivated by the sound of the repetitive, songlike chant, performed collectively by members in a group. At the time, her newfound faith was the main thing that helped her survive an acrimonious divorce, she said. “It just seemed to be something I was hungry for.”

This anecdote is fine, but it left me wondering what the breakdown would be between kinds of religion black Americans practice. The Pew Forum, for instance, suggests that 59 percent attend historically black Protestant churches, 15 percent attend evangelical churches, 12 percent are unaffiliated, and just 5 percent attend churches that are not those, Catholic or mainline Protestant. So the number of black Buddhists who are women has to be pretty small. When you’re divvying up your story space, it seems like it would make sense to use an anecdote that illustrates a more representative group, right?

The story subject and the angle were on track, but perhaps a few things could have been stronger in the editing process.

Guess what: Mitt Romney is still Mormon

Let’s be honest: Mitt Romney isn’t exactly giving reporters many religion angles for reporters to pitch. He doesn’t talk about his faith much, so you won’t necessarily see how it explicitly plays out his policies. What’s a reporter to do? Write about his Mormonism, all the time, it seems.

Thankfully, we do have an interesting piece from the Associated Press about what that means, exactly. It’s not couched in polls about whether it’ll hurt him. It merely shows what practicing Mormonism looks like by following the Romney family to church in New Hampshire.

The Romney clan has attended the church in Wolfeboro many times before — only now the family patriarch carries the distinction of being President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger.

Not that church leaders or worshippers mentioned the new reality as, one by one, they stood at a podium to offer testimony, a custom in Mormon churches on the first Sunday of every month. Among those testifying: one of the many Romney grandchildren.

“My name is Chloe Romney and I’m visiting here from California,” the candidate’s middle-school-age granddaughter said from the church’s lectern, a pink flower in her hair. “I know that my family loves me and I like to go to church.”

I’m not sure whether the reporter actually expected the congregation to note Romney’s political work, but I did like the mention of the granddaughter’s testimony.

The family’s devotion to the Mormon faith is a part of Romney’s life that the electorate rarely sees. Romney almost never mentions it in public. And his campaign typically bars the media from seeing him participate in a religion that many Americans are unfamiliar with. But it’s a part of his life that could help him connect with a public that’s just now getting to get to know him — one that includes many church-goers.

What’s interesting is that what I observed was that Romney was much more open about his faith before 2008 (and obviously made his notable religion speech back then). It seems weird to almost suggest he could connect with the public by using his faith, almost as a political tool only and not as a legitimate way of explaining how his faith influences his policy. And just because the electorate includes church-goers, that doesn’t mean they’ll love the fact that Romney goes to church, especially if they think he goes to the wrong one.

Romney’s campaign doesn’t tell reporters when Romney is going to church. But the Wolfeboro branch is open to visitors and an Associated Press reporter attended the same sacrament service the Romney family attended. It featured bread with water instead of wine, a variation on communion that allows for the Mormon prohibition on drinking alcohol.

I like that the AP took the initiative to track his church down, going out of their way to not necessarily eat up whatever the campaign hands them. What I don’t understand is the mention of the bread and water, given that it’s not terribly unusual for any church to not offer wine (think Baptist church). The reporter seems to have some sort of expectation of what communion looks like.

During his presidential campaign, the demands of Romney’s faith can dictate how he spends his time; it requires as many as three hours nearly every Sunday for services. According to people familiar with his private schedule, Romney goes to church nearly every week. His faith also helps drive his fundraising; a significant amount of money comes from wealthy Mormon donors. And Mormon households across the country often housed campaign aides as they moved from state to state during the GOP primary.

Is there any ballpark number on the percentage of donations coming from Mormons specifically?

Some of the “color” the reporter uses to describe how the Romney family acted at church (Romney giving cereal to one of his grandkids), read like your average church service, though I’m guessing a few lines in this section would make those less eager for civil religion nervous.

As the first section of the service concluded, Romney and the congregation sang all the verses of “America the Beautiful,” a song he often quotes on the campaign trail. Many attendees departed while others prepared for the second portion of the service, a Sunday school for adults.
While church leaders moved to close partitions to prepare for the school, Romney chatted at length with others who had come to the service, including several who wore “Romney” pins on their lapels.

The story itself is fairly lengthy for the AP, so I know there wasn’t likely room for much more. However, I thought it would be useful to mention at least briefly the fact that the Obama administration is ironically almost opposite from Romney. 1) throughout his term, Obama didn’t really have an official church affiliation 2) his press aides do send out reports when he goes to church (holidays and such). I’m not making a value statement, but I think the contrast is worth mentioning, if we’re going to discuss faith practices of the presidential candidates.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mormons who quit the LDS church

A few years ago, I covered an Atheist de-baptism ceremony where de-converts would blow dry their hair, attempting to reverse whatever they thought baptism meant. It was unclear how many of the few hundred officially renounced a formal membership where they had to do something specific to formally part ways, since it looked more like an excuse for a party.

Depending on the religious tradition, leaving can range from pretty simple to formal letter writing, the latter describing the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A large group of Mormons formally leaving the church seems like a decent story to tell.

If you read the headline “Mormons quit church in mass resignation ceremony,” what number would you guess could justify using the word “mass”? I thought at least a thousand. But when the piece said 150 Mormons left the church, I wasn’t sure it justified “mass” departure. However, I’m told that Mormons leaving in some kind of group gathering like this is highly unusual, so I stuck with the rest of the story.

What I wondered, though, was how the story about it could be improved, so I made notes after sections for how one could edit the piece.

Participants from Utah, Arizona, Idaho and elsewhere gathered in a public park to sign a “Declaration of Independence from Mormonism.”

“This feels awesome,” said Alison Lucas, from West Jordan, Utah, who took part in the rally amid soaring temperatures. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage except in a group.”

I suppose Reuters isn’t known for gathering the most thoughtful quotes, but if you pick out the quotes in this piece, they lack much substance.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for its culture of obedience, and the mass ceremony was a seldom-seen act of collective revolt.

What does the LDS Church do to retain members? Were there any scholars available who could speak to how rare it is? The piece quotes someone from the LDS Church, which is fine, but it would be more helpful to also have an outside researcher explain why it’s unusual.

The church bills itself as the one “true” Christian faith, and its theology promises families eternal relationships among those who remain faithful, sealing those gifts through special religious rites.

Would a reporter describe Islam, Judaism or any other religion using a phrase like “bills itself”? Of course a religious tradition “bills itself” about anything. I don’t understand the attempt at journalistic distance. A better phrase could have been “The LDS Church teaches…”

Among the reasons cited by those resigning are the church’s political activism against gay marriage and doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings or are perceived as racist or sexist.

What exactly conflicts with scientific findings? Any examples?

Last week, I noticed that mainstream coverage of the Colorado fires ramped up as soon as President Obama took a visit. The political lens reporters use for just about everything is kind of amazing, considering how little phrases like this have to do with the actual story:

Among prominent Mormons is Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee facing off against President Barack Obama in November. Should he win office, Romney would be the first Mormon elected to the White House.

Listen. Stories like this are interesting in their own right. People love religion stories. You don’t have to beg them to care by connecting it to the presidential election.

Some leaving the church Saturday did so with trepidation, as Mormon culture often stigmatizes those who fall away, leaving some without social or business connections.

“It’s hard, so we have to be very careful,” said Robin Hansen, a participant who said she quit over a “culture of abuse” which she believes is cultivated by church teachings promoting obedience.

This is true of many other religions, it seems. What I did appreciate about the story, and what other stories tend to miss, is what it takes for someone to formally renounce membership.

To resign from the church, Mormons must submit a formal letter asking their names be removed from church rolls, a church instructional handbook for lay leaders published on the Internet in 2010 shows.

On Saturday, participants filled a basket with their letters for mailing by [event organizer Zilpha] Larsen, who split with the church over doubts about the veracity of a translation of ancient Egyptian writings which are included in sacred Mormon texts.

The story itself isn’t terrible, it could use more clarification, but what it really needed was a voice from someone who has studied the church and its teachings to help readers understand the significance of this number of renunciations. Leaving the LDS Church is no small task. This group started the process. What we need is more context for why it’s significant.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Spinning the Vatican’s new spin man

During one of my newspaper internships, I helped compile a list of data from houses of worship around the city for a church directory. You would not believe the number of bizarrely awful websites we came across, from the flashy purple and gold to the blogspot templates people still use.

Sure, religious leaders may not see a website as a place to invest a lot of money in, but you would think they would offer the who, what, where, when, why, how on the home page, or at least some where within the website. In many ways, churches face a PR problem.

The Vatican is no stranger to PR issues, and when you’re translating thousands of years of doctrine from Italy to (many Amerocentric) journalists, you can see tensions pretty quickly. For one, I chuckled a little over the critique (right) over its website.

The Vatican made a move last week that might mitigate some of the issues in the future by appointing Fox correspondent Greg Burke as its senior communication adviser.

Lombardi confirmed the news after the AP broke the story, several days before the Holy See had planned to announce it officially.

Do people (average readers, not journalists) still care who broke a story? It’s probably important to the AP being a wire service, but I find lines like this in stories a little weird, considering people generally forget the source of a story (Facebook? Twitter, maybe?).

The Vatican has been bedeviled by communications blunders ever since Benedict’s 2005 election, and is currently dealing with a scandal over Vatican documents that were leaked to Italian journalists. While the scandal is serious — Benedict himself convened a special meeting of cardinals Saturday to try to cope with it — the Vatican’s communications problems long predate it.

It seems odd to date PR blunders to Pope Benedict XVI’s election, considering people might argue the Catholic church has had media problems for quite some time that didn’t start on “election day.” The Catholic church isn’t like the American presidency, where you might say someone’s administration did such and such. The office of the pope doesn’t really translate in those kinds of media boxes, right?

Benedict’s now-infamous speech about Muslims and violence, his 2009 decision to rehabilitate a schismatic bishop who denied the Holocaust, and the Vatican’s response to the 2010 explosion of the sex abuse scandal are just a few of the blunders that have tarnished Benedict’s papacy.

I don’t understand how the explosion of the sex abuse scandal can be dated to 2010. Yes, there were a lot of new reports that year, but doesn’t the issue go way further back?

The new spokesperson is a member of Opus Dei, prompting this point of connection from the reporter:

Brown wrote “The Da Vinci Code,” the best-selling fictional account that portrayed Opus Dei — of which Bertone’s new communications adviser is a member — as being at the root of an international Catholic conspiracy.

Don’t get me wrong: I read the book and saw the movie like everyone else, but is it still in cultural conversation? Not that I can tell. Is this a stretch to make a connection to the reader?

“I’m an old-fashioned Midwestern Catholic whose mother went to Mass every day,” Burke said. “Am I being hired because I’m in Opus Dei?” he asked. “It might come into play.” But he noted he was also in Opus when he was hired by Fox and Time magazine.

You know how we hate it when reporters vaguely mention someone goes to a “conservative Christian church” instead of just naming the church? I extend that analogy to letting this Midwestern mention slide without being more specific. I realize the media sees the world in terms of what’s happening in New York, D.C., L.A. and then anything in between is sort of a blur, maybe Chicago, but that’s about it.

On a larger note, though, I wish the piece would give us more specifics rather than interpretation of what the perception has been. Or, if reporters want to write about perception, use surveys to show how people’s view of the Catholic Church has changed over time. Otherwise, this story alone feels a little inside baseball.

Image via Greg Kandra.