About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

Church of The New York Times keeps preaching its own faith

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It’s time for another “Kellerism” update, as The New York Times continues its efforts to highlight religious institutions with doctrines that are unacceptable to the newsroom’s theologians and, perhaps, the U.S. Department of Justice. This time, the drama shifts out West, where another Christian college community is trying to find a way to live out its faith commitments.

NEWBERG, Ore. – A growing number of openly transgender students have forced schools around the country to address questions so basic that they were rarely asked just a few years ago, much less answered: What defines a person’s gender, and who gets to decide?

A small Christian college here, George Fox University, has become the latest front in this fight, refusing to recognize as male a student who was born anatomically female. The student calls himself a man, and as of April 11, when a state circuit court legally changed his sex, the State of Oregon agrees.

But George Fox University sees him as a woman, and it prohibits unwed students from living with anyone of the opposite sex.

Notice the question that was not asked, in an alleged news story that opens with an editorial assertion: If a private — as opposed to state — college is a doctrinally defined voluntary association, what happens when a student decides that he or she does not believe those doctrines? Think of it this way: If a student at a Muslim college decided to convert to Christianity, thus contradicting the covenant he voluntarily signed when he came to the campus, would the college be able to say that this student had to accept the school’s doctrinal authority?

If private religious organizations have the right to define their communities in terms of doctrine, does this First Amendment right no longer apply to doctrines linked to sex? The other way I have stated the question is this: Does the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religion still apply to traditional religious believers who reject many of the doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution?

The leaders of the Times team, of course, do not appear to be interested in that half of the debate that is at the heart of this news story. Thus, this report crashes, as an attempt at journalism. Why?

The answer, of course, is “Kellerism.” What is that? Here is a reminder from a recent post, when I first coined that term. The key is the famous 2011 remarks by former Times editor Bill Keller, when he said that the basic rules of journalism no longer apply to coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The words “aside from” are the doors into “Kellerism.” It’s first journalism-defining doctrine is:

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The Atlantic: What happened to all those Catholic rites?

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Long-time GetReligion readers, do you remember that typology that a wise, older priest — a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway — gave me a few years ago that proposed that there are essentially four kinds of American Catholic voters?

It went something like this (amended a bit):

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I know that this will be hard, but try to strip the political content out of that typology (note, if you will, that I did not click the “politics” box in the categories list). Focus on the issues of religious discipline and practice of the ancient sacraments of an ancient church.

Think about the sacrament of marriage.

If journalists — on the Godbeat or otherwise — needed more evidence that there are multiple “American” Catholic churches at the moment, all they need to do is dig into the following piece from The Atlantic Monthly that focuses on a crucial piece of demographics and, thus, doctrine.

The headline is bland, from the point of view of most journalists:

The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

But the opening of the piece gets down to business really quick:

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Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

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Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: “Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique — I’ve just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!”

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME – Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome … to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here’s the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under “Islamic law” or is the matter more complex than that?

The question, once again, is linked to a basic reality that many journalists struggle with — that this is on one monolithic, consistent approach to Islamic law. It is certainly true that, in many or even most Islamic lands, sharia law includes a death sentence for apostasy, including the act of converting from Islam to another faith. However, there are different approaches to sharia in different lands. In some cultures, the death penalty may be found in the laws, yet this crime is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Yes, it adds another layer of complexity — adding at least a sentence or two of information — to note this conflict inside Islam. However, accuracy is accuracy and the public needs to know that not all Muslims believe that the death penalty is normative for this issue of conscience, which is clearly defended in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18 to be precise).

And what about the mysterious hole in some of the news stories?

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NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy?

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Apparently, this past spring, the Republican National Committee held a closed-door meeting in which a circle of conservative women discussed a topic that they have been discussing for decades — how to talk about abortion when dealing with mainstream journalists, especially television reporters.

Apparently, someone taking part in this meeting decided to invite a reporter from The New York Times to step inside the closed doors. Bravo for whoever made the brave decision to do that.

Apparently, however, it took quite a while for editors at the Times to decide that this was a story worth printing, since it just ran in late July, under the headline, “Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion.”

On one level, this is pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have one rather basic journalistic question: If this was a closed-door session, was the Times reporter actually invited to attend or did someone slip into the meeting? Consider how this issue is framed at the top of the report.

It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion.

They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong.

Please hear me: The content is valid either way. However, shouldn’t this question about access to the meeting have been mentioned? If a reporter snuck in, that’s interesting, especially in terms of decades of tensions about abortion coverage and mainstream news-media bias. If a reporter was invited into the meeting, then that is even more interesting — for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, I thought it was rather strange that the Times team thought that this session focused on an “unlikely set of skills.”

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An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

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What is this? Forbes goes to bat for Eden Foods critics

Several years ago, your GetReligionistas created a new item in our archives list of news “categories.” As faithful readers know, we focus on hard-news material produced by mainstream news organizations. The only time that we write about editorial columns, op-ed pieces, academic essays or the like is when they focus directly on issues in our home turf — religion-beat news.

However, every now and then people would send us URLs for items published by religious wire services, denominational magazines or non-profit sources linked to religious causes that — from their point of view — focused on a valid news story that wasn’t getting mainstream-press ink. After pondering this dilemma for a while, we began using a “Got news?” headline slug and created a new category.

Now it’s time for another category, one that we have been pondering for quite some time. The headline slug is, as you see above, “What is this?” We seriously considered “WTF?” but decided that didn’t mesh well with the sober tone that we strive to maintain around here. I mean, other than Jim Davis and his wild puns, and Father George Conger and his off-beat illustrations, and … You get the point.

So what is the point of this new category? What is this new niche?

One of our main goals, here at GetReligion, is to defend the basic values of what historians have long called the “American” model of the press, with its commitment to accuracy, fairness and even balance in coverage of the news (especially on hot-button topics). The alternative is often called the “European” model of the press, with editors and reporters producing stories that fit into an editorial template that supports the publication’s political slant.

In other words, these publications are biased and the editors admit that right up front. No one expects balanced coverage of social issues at Rolling Stone or World magazine, to name two publications with radically different moral perspectives.

But, to cut to the chase, what about The New York Times?

In recent years, the world’s most powerful newspaper has produced a frustrating mixture of “American” and “European” coverage, with perfectly balanced and fair-minded stories placed right next to other reports that made zero attempt to hide the bias of the editors. That is why those 2011 remarks by former editor Bill Keller — click here for background — were so important. He openly stated that it was no longer necessary for Times journalists to be objective, fair and balanced in coverage of news linked to moral, cultural and religious topics — such as abortion, gay rights, etc.

It appears that the editors of many other publications have made similar decisions, which is why frustrated GetReligion readers send us so many URLs pointing toward “news” articles that read like editorial essays. How often do we see stories that feature a wide variety of voices on one side of a hot-button topic and then zero material accurately expressing the views of people on the other side? How often do we see paragraph after paragraph of background material that is both slanted and free of any attribution?

This brings me, finally, to the first article in this new category. It’s from Forbes and, well, it reads like a press release for activists on one side of a battle linked to the Health and Human Services contraceptives mandate.

What is this? A news article? An editorial essay?

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Pod people: Are all political liberals also on moral left?

Every now and then, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken take and I off in one direction when doing a “Crossroads” podcast and then — boom — we will suddenly veer off in what at first seems like a totally different direction. Radio is like that, you know.

That is certainly what happened this time around, big time. Click here to check out the podcast.

Wilken started out by repeating that question that I have been asking over and over during recent weeks, as the media storm over the so-called Hobby Lobby case has raged on that on.

You know the one: What should journalists call people in American public life who waffle on free speech, waffle on freedom of association and waffle on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

So what happened during the discussion?

Well, while we talked it suddenly hit me that this topic was, in a way, the flip side of the topic that I took on this week in my “On Religion” column for the Universal syndicate. That piece focused on some fascinating information — at least I thought it was fascinating stuff (as did Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) — found in the new “Beyond Blue vs. Red” political typology study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

Before we move along, readers may want to surf over to the Pew site and take the short quiz that went along with the study. This will allegedly show where you belong on this new spectrum of American political labels.

The quiz is frustrating, but worth the time. Many people, including me, found some of the questions impossible to answer since the options were pushed so far to the political fringes. Take this question, for example:

“Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return”

“Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently”

No, there is no option in the middle that — hello experts in Catholic moral teachings — accepts the responsibility for governments to help the poor, yet allows for realistic critiques of whether the resulting programs are effective. In this case, along with the “What would Jesus do?” option, some readers may be left asking, “What would Daniel Patrick Moynihan do?

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Yo editors: Can the state pay Catholics to help immigrants?

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As usual, there was a stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers waiting for me at the end of last week when I returned from a consulting trip to a campus in Iowa. One of the papers contained a very timely and newsworthy story.

My goal here is to argue that — just possibly — this story was even more newsworthy than the Sun editors thought that it was. More on that in a minute.

The immigrant children crisis is one of the hottest stories in America right now and justifiably so. As it turned out, there was a totally logical local angle here in Baltimore, one that ended up on A1:

Here is the top of the story:

Catholic Charities wants to care for about 50 children from Central America at a campus in Baltimore County, seeking a role in the immigration crisis even though the consideration of other sites in Maryland has met with fierce local opposition.

The organization plans to apply to federal officials to house the children at St. Vincent’s Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road, Catholic Charities head William J. McCarthy Jr. confirmed. … McCarthy said housing the children would amount to his organization doing its job.

“Our role and our mission is to meet the needs of these children,” he said. “This is obviously the result of things beyond my control — policies and political posturing that has left these children as victims.”

And more:

The Catholic Charities proposal would be on a much smaller scale than government proposals that would have placed hundreds of minors in an unused Social Security office in Baltimore or at the army center in Carroll County. … Catholic Charities developed the plan in response to a request from a federal agency that was looking for ways to house immigrant children before the crisis rose to the top of the national political agenda this summer. …

And the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church has already received grant money to house immigrant children at a home in Woodlawn. The organization is caring for about two dozen children there.

It seems to me that the implication is that Catholic Charities is doing this service as a partner with the federal agency. Are tax dollars involved, similar to the grant to the United Methodists? I am not sure.

Why do I raise that financial question?

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