GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

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Universe gives birth to itself, transformed by unknown ‘force’

This is a challenging day to be a journalist on the science beat, if the goal is to avoid ultimate questions.

I am happy to report that The Washington Post — to my surprise, quite frankly — didn’t try to avoid the obvious. Here’s the top of its story on the Big Bang update that is making global headlines:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

Say what? “In the beginning”?

Anyone who starts a story on this issue with “In the beginning” has to know that many American readers are going to connect that with, well, this passage that opens the Gospel of John:

1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. The same was in the beginning with God. 3. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Next question: What is the best verb here, science writers?

So the universe “got very big very fast, transforming itself” from nothing or next to nothing into something really big? It “transformed itself”?

To it’s credit, the Post team did not settle for one verb in its coverage of this amazing development. That same passage the opens the story also uses, well, the C-word. The gravitational waves were “created” in an event at the “dawn of time.” Yes, the word “created” certainly raises an obvious question or two. Later, the linguistic plot thickens:

Cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales, has already been roiled by the 1998 discovery that the cosmos is not merely expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate, because of what has been called “dark energy.” Just as that discovery has implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, this new one provides a stunning look back at the moment the universe was born.

And what existed before the universe “was born” and who, or what, gave birth?

Questions, questions, questions. At some point, the professionals behind this story needed to admit that this development raises questions that transcend science. Finally, there is this:

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Could the pope of Rome ever be Jewish?

ELIZABETH ASKS:

Isn’t it possible for the Pope to be Jewish? And if the Catholic Church someday elected a Jewish pope would that most likely help or harm Catholic-Jewish relations?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Timely topic one year after the breakthrough election of the first Western Hemisphere pope, Francis of Argentina, who succeeded the first two non-Italian popes in centuries.

The questioner notes a bit by Jay Leno, late of “The Tonight Show,” who told passersby the new pope was Jewish to trick them into giving false reactions. Gags aside, yes, it’s absolutely possible to have a pope who’s Jewish in ethnic identity and appreciation of that heritage — so long as he affirms those aspects of the Christian religion that differ from Judaism. Jesus’ apostle Peter was Jewish, after all, and he’s Catholicism’s first pope.
Not only that. In the 2005 papal election one feasible candidate was Jewish. More on him below.

Jewish popes have long been the stuff of legend. Orthodox Rabbi Berel Wein’s history blog says Jews even made the incredible claim that Peter abandoned Christianity and reverted to Judaism. Seven other stories:

* Pope Zosimus (who reigned in A.D. 417-418) was Greek but there were unsubstantiated reports he was also an ethnic Jew, perhaps because his father was named Abram.

* Pope Gregory VI (1045-1046), who abdicated soon after his election, supposedly came from Rome’s Pierleoni family of prominent Jewish converts to Christianity.

* Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) or Hildebrand, considered a great church reformer, was also possibly from the Pierleoni line.

* Pope Anacletus II (1130-1138), named Pietro Pierleoni, was unquestionably from that Jewish clan. Ah, but he was never actually a pope, according to the Catholic Church. In a hastily called election he won the support of a majority of cardinals while another faction that considered him corrupt met the same day to elect Innocent II (1130-1143), who migrated to France. Innocent is on the church’s official list of popes while Anacletus is branded a schismatic “antipope.”

* Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) might have been Jewish, according to unsubstantiated reports stirred by his amiable policy toward Jews.

* “Pope Andreas” was a figure of Jewish medieval folklore not found on the list of actual pontiffs. The story, first printed in Yiddish in 1602, claimed that Christians kidnapped him as a boy and he rose through the church ranks to the papacy while remaining a religious Jew at heart. Rabbi Wein says this tale “has had remarkable staying power in the Jewish world and is recounted in many books.” The legend most likely originated with an actual case of such repellent religious kidnapping in Germany.

And more recently:

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The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!

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KENNETH ASKS:

With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even weather.com joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

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Got news? So what’s RFRA got to do with Arizona?

For the past 20 years or so, while watching more and more debates over the First Amendment sneak into the headlines, I have been asking myself the following question: What should journalists call a person who waffles on free speech, waffles on freedom of association and waffles on religious liberty?

The answer: I don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not not “liberal.”

Of course you can also turn this equation around and ask: What will mainstream journalists call a person who is strong on free speech, strong on freedom of association and strong on religious liberty?

The answer, based on the news coverage I have seen in the past year or so is this: It appears that such a person is now either a “conservative” or a very, very old member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In other words, folks, up is down and down is up in the public square right now. After all, the fierce defense of the First Amendment used to be the very essence of American liberalism. And now?

Note the language at the top of this Washington Post A1 story, a piece that in the current atmosphere is almost radically tolerant of traditional religious believers in a variety of ancient faiths:

Conservative activists said Thursday that they will continue to press for additional legal protections for private businesses that deny service to gay men and lesbians, saying that a defeat in Arizona this week is only a minor setback and that religious-liberty legislation is the best way to stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed legislation on Wednesday that would have provided a wide variety of religious exemptions to Arizona businesses, after major business groups, prominent Republicans and gay rights advocates argued that it would amount to discrimination.

Many conservatives said they will continue working to convince voters and judges that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion are motivated by faith rather than bigotry.

“The fight has to be over what the First Amendment is,” said John C. Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, adding that his side needs to convince the public that conservatives are not trying to deny the rights of other Americans.

Note, of course, the framing in the lede. Is the question here whether this legislation was a way to “stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights” or a way to protect the consciences of religious believers who want courts, in the wake of gay-rights victories, to be able to hear their appeals when state agencies of private citizens attempted to force them to commit acts that violated established doctrines central to their faith?

The desire to protect religious believers, and institutions, was — as recently as the Clinton White House — an issue on which a wide coalition of traditional liberals and conservatives could find strong agreement. We are talking, of course, about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which President Bill Clinton proudly signed in 1993.

Now in recent coverage, journalists have faced a challenge in a highly-charged atmosphere. On one side the Arizona story were activists who saw SB1062 as anti-gay legislation. On the other side were those who saw it as an attempt to clarify and even narrow the language in Arizona’s own RFRA law.

For journalists, the goal was to accurately and fairly cover the viewpoints of people on both sides of this debate, articulate, informed activists and scholars who represented both of these points of view. Right?

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

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As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

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