More gay-marriage cheerleading

gaymarrIn the spring, I encouraged reporters to write about the California Supreme Court’s decision to redefine marriage from the viewpoint of religious traditionalists and not just religious liberals and seculars. So I was happy to come across a recent story in The Los Angeles Times with the headline of “California churches plan a big push against same-sex marriage.” Finally, I thought, on this issue reporters were getting traditional religion.

I was wrong.

Reporter Jessica Garrison quoted from religious leaders who have taken a public position on Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Of the seven sources quoted, three support the ballot measure, while four oppose it. And this was a story about religious supporters of the ban. Not only was the headline misleading, but the two sides were not presented fairly. As Mollie noted, the LAT did this back in May.

Religious traditionalists were quoted in the story defending their position. Well, one was anyway. Here was his quote:

“This is a rising up over a 5,000-year-old institution that is being hammered right now,” said Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church, an evangelical congregation in La Mesa. Garlow said that, while he supported Proposition 22, he was not nearly as involved as this time around, when he has helped organize 3,400-person conference calls across denominations to coordinate campaign support for the proposed constitutional amendment.

“What binds us together is one common obsession: . . . marriage,” Garlow said.

He added that many people of faith, regardless of their religion, believe that “if Proposition 8 fails, there is an inevitable loss of religious freedom.”

Three sentences — that was the extent of Garrison’s account for why religious traditionalist leaders seek to ban homosexual marriage. And none of the sentences elaborated as to why Garrison believes the measure’s defeat would result in “an inevitable loss of religious freedom.” Now maybe leaders of the ballot measure can’t string a few sentences together. But given that its leaders include bishops and well-known pastors, I doubt it.

By contrast, Garrison quotes not one, not two, but three religious opponents of the ban. Their quotes are interesting and help explain their position. One was an Episcopal priest, another was a rabbi, and another was a liberal mainline church with a special outreach to homosexuals.

All I am asking is for reporters to give religious traditionalists a fair hearing. Yet except for a Modesto Bee story I quoted from in June, reporters have not given them one.

Neglecting Palin’s faith, mostly

palin2 01The major news magazines’ coverage of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s religiosity was more like that found in newspapers than, well, magazines. It contained a few facts but no explanations. While there were a couple of exceptions to this trend, those exceptions are instructive.

Time magazine provided the least information about Palin’s Christianity and how it shapes her political views. Reporter Michael Sherer wrote about Palin’s impact on the female vote this November without mentioning a) Palin’s faith and b) female voters tend to be more religious than male voters.

When Palin’s faith and political views were mentioned, the reporter did so in a less than sophisticated way. Take this passage from Claire Suddath’s story:

She is Christian and pro-life, but also a supporter of birth control: she’s a member of Feminists For Life (FFL), an anti-abortion, pro-contraception organization. In 2002, she wrote a letter to FFL stating that she had “adamantly supported our cause since I first understood, as a child, the atrocity of abortion.

Perhaps Suddath’s editor removed the context or explanation of Palin’s faith and politics. I hope so, because her story would have been better served had she mentioned the relationship between her Christian faith and anti-abortion convictions. As GR contributors have written, a person need not be religious to be pro-life, although religious tradtionalists are more likely to hold that view.

Newsweek reporters did little better. In their brief profile of Palin, Evan Thomas and Karen Breslau mentioned the governor’s faith only in the context of her tentative support for teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. The reporters described her position this way:

Palin said during her run that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools. She was baptized in an Assembly of God church, a Pentecostal denomination that believes God created the world at every step. Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, said Palin attends different churches and does not consider herself Pentecostal.

This description is better than Suddath’s above; at least it notes the theology of the Assemblies of God. Yet the passage does not quote Palin’s explanation for her view. And Palin no longer identifies exclusively as a Pentecostal. So this passage leaves as many questions as answers.

The two exceptions to this poor to middling coverage were not magazine stories. AP reporter Eric Gorski wrote a characteristically informative religious profile of Palin that appears on Newsweeks‘ Web site. While most of the story was of the go-through-the-rolodex-of-Christian-leaders variety, Gorski deserves praises for starting to dig beneath the surface, quoting from Palin’s previous pastor:

The 44-year-old mother of five, who led her high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was baptized as a teenager at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, where she and her family were very active, according to her then-pastor, Paul Riley.

She now sometimes worships at the Juneau Christian Center, which is also part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said Brad Kesler, business administrator of the denomination’s Alaska District. But her home church is The Church on the Rock, an independent congregation, Riley said.

“The church was kind of a foundation for her,” said Riley, who said he gave the invocation at Palin’s inauguration and had her address students at the church last month.

The other exception was Time reporter Jay Newton-Small’s interview with Palin. Rather than being a strict journalism story, it had a question-and-answer format. Small’s questions were interesting, as were Palin’s answers. One example is this exchange:

What’s your religion?


Any particular…?

No. Bible-believing Christian.

What church do you attend?

A non-denominational Bible church. I was baptized Catholic as a newborn and then my family started going to non-denominational churches throughout our life.

Another example was the previous Q & A in the piece:

Where do you see yourself going? Staying on in Alaska. Washington?

You know, I don’t know. I knew early on that the smartest thing for me to do was to work hard, do the best that I can, make wise decisions based on good information in front of me. And then put my life, get myself on a path that could be dedicated to God and ask Him what I should next. That will be the position I will be in as long as I’m on earth — that is, seeking the right path that God would have laid out for me.

Give credit to Newton-Small and her employer for interviewing Palin before she was chosen as McCain’s running mate. By hedging her bets, Newton-Small told her readers a lot about Palin’s faith and religious outlook.

However, I must fault the magazine reporters for not exploring why Palin decided to give birth to a son with Down Syndrome. As Mollie noted, 90 percent of mothers whose embryo or fetus has Down Syndrome decide to have the unborn infant killed. Did Palin’s faith play a role in her decision? It sounds logical considering her answer above to Newton-Small. Was it her non-religious pro-life principles or some other factor?

Palin’s decision to carry her son to term is not simply a personal story. It will have political ramifications. Take this post by anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek about the birth of Palin’s fifth child:

But Palin told the Anchorage Daily News in April, “We knew through early testing he would face special challenges, and we feel privileged that God would entrust us with this gift and allow us unspeakable joy as he entered our lives. We have faith that every baby is created for good purpose and has potential to make this world a better place. We are truly blessed.”

Meanwhile, Barack Obama, actively opposed legislation as IL state senator to protect little babies with Down syndrome who had survived their abortions but were being shelved in a hospital soiled utility room to die….

Conservative-leaning writer Michael Barone agrees that Republicans will contrast Palin’s decision with Obama’s vote. I expect that more magazine reporters will dig into Palin’s faith and religious outlook. But if they don’t and it ends up affecting the election this November, don’t say Get Religion did not warn you.

Newsweek apologia for Pastor Wright

wright 03Newsweek published an interesting but uneven cover story about Barack Obama’s relationship with his father and father figures.

The story was interesting because it contained plenty of good journalism about Obama’s personal relationships, such as a quote from Obama about his faith and the perspective of the teacher whose classroom Obama Sr. met his son for the first time. But it was uneven because it also contained little more than an apologia for the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.

Toward the end of the story, Newsweek editor and resident civil theologian Jon Meacham got around to explaining why Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In the course of his explanation, Meacham described Wright’s theology this way:

Much has been written about the “Africentrism” of Trinity: the African-American Last Supper that hangs in the church lobby and the kente cloth that drapes its altar. But Wright’s ideas about Africa were more than decorative. Wright taught that African- Americans should be proud of their African heritage, of the stories of slavery and freedom handed down by their grandparents and great-grandparents. He also preached that people should feel a financial and social responsibility to their brothers and sisters in Africa, especially those without food and water, those with chronic or incurable disease, those without any education.

He also preached … well, you can fill in the blank (here and here). See what I mean? Meacham did not describe Wright as a journalist would, characterizing the man’s theology in full. He described him as an apologist would, characterizing his theology in the most anodyne and positive terms.

Imagine if Obama had joined the church of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, he of the famous quote about the true origins of Sept. 11. Would Meacham have been so silent about Falwell’s controversial views? I doubt it. As Mollie noted, too many reporters have one standard for old Mainline churches such as the UCC and another standard for evangelical churches.

Newsweek‘s story overall was well reported and informative. But this one flub leaves you wondering whether the story really got religion.

(Photo of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. by used under at Creative Commons license.)

What did Bob Casey say?

casey4A few weeks ago, I criticized a New York Times story about Sen. Bob Casey, Jr.’s expected speech at the Democratic convention partly on the grounds that the story failed to specify its nature. Would Casey address his opposition to legal abortion or some other topic, such as the economy or Barack Obama’s skills on the basketball court? The story never said.

Today I criticize an Associated Press story for a related fault. See if you can catch it. Reporter Kimberly Hefling began her story this way:

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey invoked his late father’s name Tuesday night and referred to his own opposition to abortion rights from the podium of the Democratic convention–16 years after his father was denied the same privilege.

While he spoke only briefly during the speech on the issue of abortion, it was intended to send a message: Sen. Barack Obama supports abortion rights, but accepts those like Casey who oppose abortion rights.

In 1992, Casey’s father, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, was denied a prime-time slot to speak in opposition to abortion rights, which created a rift within the party.

“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” Casey said. “But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who may disagree with him.”

That description might sound unobjectionable, but read closer. It is more conclusory than factual.

Hefling asserts that Casey “referred” to his pro-life views. No, he did not. Casey alluded to them. There is a difference. Casey did not say that he is pro life or an abortion foe; he said that he and Obama differ on the issue of abortion. The nature of that difference was not mentioned.

By failing to characterize Casey’s remarks accurately, Hefling’s story gives the false impression of unity between pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. Had she been more careful about describing Casey’s speech, she would have avoided this misimpression.

A reporter who got the story right was James O’Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Instead of jumping to conclusions, O’Toole let his subject speak. Consider his description of Casey’s remarks Tuesday night:

A generation after his father was barred from the podium of the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. invoked his name as he depicted Sen. Barack Obama as a force for tolerance on an issue that continues to divide Democrats.

“I’m honored to stand before you as Gov. Bob Casey’s son,” the senator said as he took the stage of the Pepsi Center. Later, he urged the delegates to rally to the candidate he had endorsed before the Pennsylvania primary, calling him, “a leader who, as Lincoln said, appeals to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ ”

“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” said the lawmaker, who is an abortion foe. “But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is a testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who disagree with him.”

Even better, O’Toole let his subject speak again, this time via an interview with Casey. Casey’s comments were more than revealing; they contradicted Hefling’s implication that pro-choice Democrats had welcomed pro-lifers back into the presidential wing of the party’s tent:

When asked about the relative lack of intra-party unrest over the fact that Mr. Obama was reported to have at least considered several anti-abortion Democrats as running mates, however, Mr. Casey said, “Let’s be candid. I don’t think we’re at the point where our party could nominate someone who is pro-life … maybe even at the vice presidential level.”

It would be unfair to criticize Hefling unduly. Her job at the AP is to get the story right and right away. At a nominating convention, that is a tall order. But uncovering the truth demands being up to the task.

(Photo by Chad Briggs used under a Creative Commons license.)

Evolution as article of faith

evolnIn The New York Times, reporter Amy Harmon wrote about a Florida ruling that requires state schools to teach evolutionary biology. Her lede began with the story of a high school teacher who attempted to instill evolution’s principles into his students:

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

In February, the Florida Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, the state’s public schools to teach evolution, calling it “the organizing principle of life science.” Spurred in part by legal rulings against school districts seeking to favor religious versions of natural history, over a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.

My problem with the story was not Harmon’s presentation of creationism. It accurately summarized creatonism’s tenets and the broader claim that science does not deal in ethics.

No, my problem with Harmon’s story was its presentation of evolution. It posits a scientific consensus on this idea. Is that true? I have my doubts. Three years ago, Michael Powell of The Washington Post wrote a fair minded and balanced story about Phillip Johnson, the father of the intelligent design movement.

Harmon’s story does not address those doubts. Instead, she treats evolutionary theory as a consensus opinion. Her story would have been better had it defined consensus and conceded that evolution is a bit of an article of faith.

Young Obama, the state, the unborn

obama2Give credit to Ben Smith and Jeffrey Resner of The Politico. The reporters unearthed a 1990 Harvard Law Review article written by none other than its president, Barack Obama. The story provides an interesting early glimpse into Obama’s thinking about abortion and fetal rights, as the authors explain:

The six-page summary, tucked into the third volume of the year’s Harvard Law Review, considers the charged, if peripheral, question of whether fetuses should be able to file lawsuits against their mothers. Obama’s answer, like most courts’: No. He wrote approvingly of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that the unborn cannot sue their mothers for negligence, and he suggested that allowing fetuses to sue would violate the mother’s rights and could, perversely, cause her to take more risks with her pregnancy.

The subject matter took Obama to the treacherous political landscape of reproductive rights, and — unlike many student authors — he dived eagerly into the policy implications of the court decision. His article acknowledged a public interest in the health of the fetus, but also seemed to demonstrate his continuing commitment to abortion rights, and suggested that the government may have more important concerns than “ensuring that any particular fetus is born.”

Please read the second half of last sentence again. Obama writes that the government should be neutral to the value of prenatal human life or treat it as a secondary interest.

That’s a big statement. I think that the reporters needed to explain or elaborate if possible whether Obama mentioned why he reached this conclusion. Why should the government be value-neutral about pre-natal life, but value-positive about post-natal life?

If Obama never elaborated, which I imagine he did not, the reporters should have said so.

That’s not much to ask — a few baby steps, you might say. In other words, the article needed more Obama on this topic. His words are the story.

An American Catholic tragedy

chicagoHave you read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? The book is a favorite of mine. Its greatness lies not only in the story, but also its accumulation of detail. In reading the book I felt as if I knew all about Clyde Griffiths– his shame at his poor Christian parents, his envy of the wealthy guests at the Kansas City hotel where he worked, his cold-blooded plan to murder his working-class pregnant girlfriend.

I had a roughly similar feeling while reading The Chicago Tribune‘s expose of the Chicago archdiocese’s mishandling and cover-up of its sex-abuse scandal.

Granted, reporters Margaret Ramirez and Manya A. Brachear were fortunate to hit the journalist’s equivalent of a jackpot: the release of Cardinal Francis George‘s deposition. Yet give the reporters credit for describing and quoting from the deposition’s testimony in detail. Consider the passage below about how the Rev. Edward Grace, the archdiocese’s vicar for priests, coached accused abuser Father Joseph Bennett:

In 2002, a male victim voluntarily underwent a lie-detector test that showed he was telling the truth. The cardinal says he never received that information. In 2003, a female victim tells archdiocese officials specific details about freckles on Bennett’s scrotum and a round birthmark on his back that led an archdiocese review board to conclude that sexual abuse “did happen.”

Grace advised Bennett on how to handle the victim’s knowledge of his private parts, according to a memo. According to the testimony, Grace told Bennett in November 2005 to get a note from a dermatologist questioning whether the scrotum marks might be “aging marks” and may not have been present at the time of the allegation.

The victims’ attorney, Anderson, asks the cardinal about the freckles matter, saying: “Grace is–looks like he’s trying to explain it away. Do you read it that way?”

George responds: “It could be read that way.”

Those details are essential. The passage exposes Chicago archdiocesan officials, including the Cardinal himself, as nothing more than dissemblers and enablers. It is hard to get out of one’s mind the image of the freckles on the priest’s scrotum and to forget that Grace sought to explain away those marks. The unstated theme from the passage is obvious: archdiocesan officials cared far more about protecting predator priests than victims.

Even without the benefit of the deposition, the two reporters used quotes and detail to devastating effect. Take this brief passage, which Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher cited:

Therese Albrecht, one of Bennett’s accusers, said she felt ignored when she came forward in 2004.

“I feel indescribable anger and pain. What price can you put on an 8-year-old’s virginity?” she said. “He didn’t call me up. I never got an apology.”

That said, the story was not perfect.

I think that reporters Ramirez and Brachear should have attempted to portray Cardinal George’s subjective view of reality. Part of the greatness of An American Tragedy was that Dreiser took you inside the head of Clyde Griffith and others, making you feel the pressures and lusts and dreams that made him to want to murder his working-class girlfriend. Ramirez and Brachear did not do the same. In consequence, their story reads more like a detailed and novelistic indictment of the archdiocese than a detailed and novelistic story.

Of course, asking two reporters to imitate one of the 100 best novels in 20th-century literature is a great compliment.

Woody Allen: Living with a void

woody 01In her spiritual profile of filmmaker and actor Woody Allen, Newsweek reporter Jennie Yabroff begins her story this way:

Woody Allen cuts his banana into seven slices each morning. Six slices, or eight, and something bad might happen. “I know it would be total coincidence if I didn’t slice it into seven pieces, and my family were killed in a fire,” he says. “I understand that there could be no correlation, but, you know, the guilt would be too much for me to bear, so it’s easier for me to cut the stupid banana.”

In the next paragraph, Yabroff contrasts Allen’s personal behavior with the existentialist, even nihilistic, themes of his movies:

Despite the odd superstition (he also avoids haircuts while shooting a movie), Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres–comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical–only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen’s eyes, they’re all tragedies, since, as he says, “to live is to suffer.” If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.

The rest of the story is a variation on this spiritual and philosophical conflict. Allen makes movies to find meaning in life. Yet Allen asserts that life has no meaning and his films continually make that point. Allen’s latest film finds pleasure in life, albeit of the kind no traditionally religious person would approve of. Yet he rejects the possibility of happy endings, let alone heaven and hell.

Yabroff juxtaposed those two themes well. In doing so, she turned her story into that rarest of specimens: a serious examination of a major filmmaker’s spiritual conflict. It is the sort of story that only a great movie reviewer, such as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, would write or run on the website Metafilm.

Yabroff’s profile was not the deepest examination of Allen’s existentialism. Is he the type that affirms free will or determinism? Given that Badem won an Oscar award last year for playing an existentialist character, the story would have profited from broaching this issue.

But that is a quibble. Yabroff’s story got religion in a major way.