Faith and hope amid the ruins

First, there was that one big story.

Then, there was that EVEN BIGGER STORY.

Down South, though, about 350 people are dead and thousands more hurt and homeless after a swath of tornadoes cut a deadly path across seven Southern states — hitting Alabama hardest — last Wednesday night. It’s the nation’s deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression and America’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, according to the news reports I’ve read.

We exist here at this friendly little weblog because the mainstream media often do not GetReligion.

It does not take an editor with a seminary degree, however, to know that on the Sunday after a big disaster in the Bible Belt, reporters better crawl out of bed long before noon and go to church.

In my Associated Press days, I always loved these assignments because the guild contract required paying reporters a full day’s salary even if they only worked a few hours of overtime on an off day. So you’d go to a morning service — or maybe two or three — feed your quotes to the person writing the day’s big roundup and be home by noon with a nice little bit of extra pay.

But I digress …

It appears that most of the major media — and of course, the local newspapers in storm-ravaged communities — got the memo about the importance of going and writing the “faith and hope amid the ruins” stories.

And quite honestly, most did an incredible job with these stories. Most followed the same formula, opening with a pastor addressing his weary congregation and discussing God’s presence in the storm. But wow, such stories can be powerful — no matter how many times you’ve read them. It’s almost as if faith plays a tremendous role in people’s lives.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Alabama pastor Tommie Lewis took one good look at his congregants and asked, “Why?”

Four days after tornadoes ravaged their town and their state, they came ready to listen, and he came ready to preach.

“Why is it that the deaths are now beyond 200 and approaching 300? Why do good people who live in their homes 50 years, never bothering nobody, have to get swept away? Why do folks who paid their car notes every month now have no cars? Why?”

Across the South, this day of worship couldn’t have come soon enough. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others dusted themselves off, reached for their finest clothing — some donated, some borrowed — and flocked to God to refuel their faith and gather hope on a Sunday that Alabama’s governor had declared a Day of Prayer.

From the Wall Street Journal:

GLENCOE, Ala. — Pastor Allen Murphy, 61 years old, spoke to worshippers Sunday at the new Mamre Baptist Church, framed by a stained-glass window of Jesus kneeling and looking upward. Above, the church roof was torn away.

“We’d be lost and undone without Jesus,” he told the assembly of about 100 people.

Two Mamre Baptist Churches in northeast rural Alabama, the old and the new, were destroyed by last week’s tornadoes. One church member died and several others were injured in the old church, where they had sought shelter.

The last words of Spencer Motes, 33 years old, according to witnesses, were, “Get on your knees!” as the door of the church basement blew open and the structure fell in.

Throughout the service, in the new church down the hill from the old one, people called out amens and raised trembling hands. They sang “Victory in Jesus,” calling for salvation and rebirth.

From AFP, the French news agency:

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Grieving storm survivors turned to prayer and the good grace of volunteers Sunday across the US south as shattered communities looked to rebuild after the second-worst tornado disaster on record.

Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors for prayers, some in the very houses of worship destroyed by powerful tornadoes that claimed nearly 350 lives on Wednesday.

“This is the Bible Belt. Church goes on regardless,” Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt told AFP.

In hardest-hit Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley declared a state-wide day of prayer, the faithful gathered under open skies, in parking lots and church sites on the first Sunday since the historic disaster wiped several of their churches off the map.

In the town of Phil Campbell, congregants erected a makeshift wooden cross and sang hymns on the concrete slab where the Church of God once stood, before some of the most powerful tornadoes on record left it and thousands of homes and businesses in splinters.

Alabama papers also had some nice writing — including here, here and here — on the Sunday after the twisters.

From the Tuscaloosa News:

ALBERTA – As they gathered around and held hands to sing the standard gospel song “Amazing Grace,” many members of Alberta Baptist Church began to cry, but implicit in the prayer was the resolve to carry on.

“We pray, oh, God, for your mercy, for your precious strength and provision…,” the Rev. Larry Corder prayed later in a small service in the parking lot outside the church building that stood for nearly 60 years before the tornado last week nearly demolished it.

“We thank you, Father, for what you’re going to do in our lives and in this community in the days that lie ahead.”

Even the New York Times made it to church.

For whatever reason, though, the Times didn’t stay long. The paper’s story hits the faith angle, then quickly switches to government officials:

All across the South on Sunday, worshipers arrived in borrowed or newly bought clothes, carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins. They sang hymns, gave thanks for miracles and celebrated tearful reunions. And they looked for answers.

“Why?” asked Reverend Lewis. “Why? Why is it that the death toll now is beyond 200, approaching 300, and they’re still counting?”

While the preachers wrestled with the big questions, governmental officials focused on more concrete matters.

On Sunday afternoon, White House officials visited Pratt City and Smithville, Miss., touring the ruins with state and local officials, pledging federal support and addressing the priorities of the response.

“Obviously housing will be perhaps the single most critical part of the recovery, and we have a number of efforts under way already,” said Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, who was accompanied by the secretaries of homeland security and agriculture, among other officials.

Insert yawn here.

Seriously, “carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins” is a nice turn of phrase. But dare I ask for a source? Dare I expect to see someone actually quoted who carried one of these Bibles? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking that person might have a much more interesting story than White House officials.

The Times eventually returns to the faith angle, but — and maybe it’s just me — its piece seems to lack the true emotion and raw depth of most of the other major media reports.

I saved the best for last, however. Did I mention that the AP has experience with these kind of roundups? I especially loved the lede on AP’s story as it opened with a slightly different angle than the other reports (and then came back later with a little more detail on the Muslim and Baptist referenced):

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn’t matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

“If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God,” she said.

The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?

Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

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Phoebe Snow, RIP

I was sad to see on Twitter the other day that Poly Styrene had died. I’d been a big fan of her music. Not much later, I read that Phoebe Snow had died. I’d kept up with news about Poly but realized that I hadn’t heard what was going on with Snow in a few years. I came across the CBS morning news video embedded here on Roger Ebert’s blog at the Sun-Times. It’s several years old but it was full of detail and I was sobbing by the end. If you’re at all a fan, you will be well served to check it out.

Here’s the lede of the Associated Press report on her death, as published by the Kansas City Star:

It wasn’t long after the release of “Poetry Man,” the breezy, jazzy love song that would make Phoebe Snow a star, that the singer experienced another event that would dramatically alter her life.

In 1975, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose, who was found to be severely brain-damaged. Her husband split from her soon after the baby was born. And, at a time when many disabled children were sent to institutions, Snow decided to keep her daughter at home and care for the child herself.

The decision to be Valerie’s primary caretaker would lead her to abandon music for a while and enter into ill-fated business decisions in the quest to stay solvent enough to take care of Valerie.

Snow, who worked her way back into the music performing world in the 1980s and continued to perform in recent years, died on Tuesday from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010, said Rick Miramontez, her longtime friend and public relations representative. She was 60.

Snow never regretted her decision to put aside music so she could focus on Valerie’s care. She was devastated when her daughter, who was not expected to live beyond her toddler years, died in 2007 at 31.

“She was my universe,” she told the website PopEntertainment.com that year. “She was the nucleus of everything. I used to wonder, am I missing something? No. I had such a sublime, transcendent experience with my child. She had fulfilled every profound love and intimacy and desire I could have ever dreamed of.”

There are key distinctions between this report and the CBS News one embedded above. But it’s clear from both — from everything you can read about her — that Valerie Rose was the focus of Phoebe’s life.

I wondered, while watching the video, how she had such strength to raise a child alone, to turn her back on an unbelievably promising music career. I wondered whether her religion played any role. There’s no religion to speak of in the video report. The AP report tells us only that she was born Phoebe Ann Laub to white Jewish parents.

We have to go back to a 2008 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle to learn the answer:

Yet, when it comes to her own listening, Snow says she always comes back “to the original R&B guys, James Brown, Sam Cooke. I was just listening to the original group Sam Cooke was in. What were they called? The Soul Stirrers? They were so good I almost fainted. A lot of that Baptist stuff is so powerful. Tremaine Hawkins, Aretha … that’s the stuff I really grew up listening to.”

From a religious standpoint, though, Snow embraces neither Judaism nor Christianity. She’s a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Nichiren Shoshu style, whose practitioners chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a meditation tool. She says her practice is the main thing keeping her going after the death of her daughter.

“When Valerie died, I thought I would rail against my religious practice,” Snow says. “I questioned it at first for obvious reasons. But then my faith deepened. I became much more devoted. I found, almost … I’m trying to find the right word to describe it … sanctuary.”

Apparently she converted in 2002, according to this old PopEntertainment.com profile:

She says, “If you had told me at any time before the year 2002 that I would be chanting for hours at a time at a Buddhist temple, and that I would travel fourteen hours to Japan and chant day and night, I would have laughed out Phoebe Snowloud in your face. But I have had a very profound and visceral experience, at a very low point in my life. I was a sad sack. A friend called me and said, ‘I’m having a Buddhist meeting in my house.’ She was not an arm twister. She was really laid back about it.

“She said, ‘And we’re going to have a little pot luck afterward,’ and I said, ‘Oh!.’ Food was my nemesis. I wonder if it was the food that got me there, but I got there. I had such a profound experience the first time I chanted. Don’t try to intellectualize it. Don’t try to categorize it. Don’t try to explain it. Because you can’t. It’s beyond comprehension. That’s where faith comes in. If you have faith, you can do anything. Don’t try to understand.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if a reader didn’t have to go searching for information about the religious life of the recently deceased!

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Obama and the Easter kerfuffle

Last week I complained about the lack of coverage surrounding President Barack Obama’s confession of Christian faith at a pre-Easter Easter breakfast he hosted at the White House. I wrote, “remember how much the media covered those polls showing that huge chunks of people in all parties were confused about Obama’s religion? Isn’t that at least partly an indictment of how the media cover Obama’s own words about his faith? Even when he speaks very clearly about his own religious views, the news is covered but not highlighted, pushed to the margins or sent out on the wire without fanfare.”

And not a week later we have the latest flurry of activity surrounding how President Obama handled Easter. Now, most of these discussions take place on opinion sites and opinion shows. So, for example, we have FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly leading a panel discussion about racial statements made by the pastor of the church Obama visited for Easter Sunday. (Don’t worry, MSNBC has equivalently ridiculous clips about religion from a progressive perspective.)

But as the embedded video shows, some folks are asking why President Obama didn’t release a statement about Easter, particularly considering the statements that he has released marking other holy days.

And now you see why I’m kind of peeved that last week’s prayer breakfast comments didn’t receive more coverage, right?

Anyway, Fox News seems to be where the story originated. Here’s how that story begins:

President Obama failed to release a statement or a proclamation recognizing the national observance of Easter Sunday, Christianity’s most sacred holiday.

By comparison, the White House has released statements recognizing the observance of major Muslim holidays and released statements in 2010 on Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hajj, and Eid-ul-Adha.

A Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter writes that “previous presidents also did not issue Easter proclamations.” That’s undoubtedly true. But it’s also true that previous presidents have issued Easter statements. The Fox News report specifically quotes from President George W. Bush’s Easter greetings. For that matter, the Fox News story quotes from President Obama‘s previous Easter greetings. The 2010 one was a bit interfaith, apparently.

Over at the Dallas Morning News we’re given an absolutely blistering attack on Fox News from a religion reporter, full of emotion. Here’s the dramatic ending:

As for Obama, he’s issued hundreds of presidential proclamations, recognizing everything from Leif Erikson Day to National Forest Products Week to National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

But unless I missed it on the list, he has never issued a proclamation for a Muslim holiday. Not ever. Not one.

Not ever? Not one? Always use the Google before making statements like this. For, as Fox News noted, just this past year the White House has released statements on Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hajj and Eid-ul-Adha. And while the White House search function is rather rotten, the same goes for previous years. And, again, as Fox News reported, Obama put out statements regarding Easter in previous years and mentioned it in passing in this week’s radio address.

Speaking as someone not just annoyed by civil religion but also the unfair scrutiny applied to the faith lives of presidents, I understand the desire to defend the president. But the Fox News report mentioned the prayer breakfast Obama hosted last week where he “spoke openly about the Christian faith.” And early on it mentioned that the Obamas went to services on Easter Sunday.

What opinion shows and web sites did with it may be another thing. But I rather prefer the approach Religion News Service has taken with the broader issue, where one reporter in particular has shown how the White House has changed how it talks about religion in light of public opinion polls showing uncertainty among many Americans about the president’s Christian faith.

That’s an interesting and complex story and one that requires knowledge and nuance to cover. Few reporters seem up to the task.

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Ken Woodward colors our world

One of the reasons so many big stories in our mainstream press are “haunted” by religion ghosts is that many reporters are confused about what is and what is not “religious.”

Is religion a matter of doctrine? Yes.

Is religion a matter of culture? Yes.

Is religion a matter of rites, sacraments (even if they are not always identified as such) and practices? Yes.

Is religion a matter of personal choices and convictions? Yes, again.

I could go on and on.

So when believers commit terrible acts while singing hymns or chanting sacred slogans, their actions may in fact be rooted in their rejection of changes in their cultures that have affected them in terms of economics and the nuts and bolts of their religious lives. But that doesn’t mean that their motives are not essentially religious. It’s more than culture.

And the decline in the number of priests and nuns in the modern Catholic church? These changes may, in part, be rooted in the 1960s, birth-control pills and wider career options for women. But all of those cultural realities raise moral and religious questions, don’t they? So why are young women and men these days less likely to hear a divine call to give their lives in service to God and man? To give their lives to His Church? That’s a religious question and a cultural question.

Why am I writing this? In part because these issues come up all the time in this blog’s comments pages. And I am also writing this in response to a new essay by the veteran religion-beat scribe Kenneth Woodward, an articulate Catholic who is best known for his decades of work at Newsweek. It is a meditation drawn from an upcoming book. Here is the start of what he describes as the most personal part of the book, as published by First Things:

On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It’s a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion — more than half the map — are colored more deeply.

At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.

When colleagues stopped by my office they’d often stare over my head at the map. “Where are my people?” was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation’s capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties—all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation’s Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.

For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection — to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded — in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.

Now what jumps into your mind as you read that?

For me? Well, I think of news stories, many of them important, but very hard to cover.

IMAGE: To get closer to the map and others like it, click here.

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This Westboro voice sounds strangely familiar

The Westboro Baptist Church saga has always intrigued and appalled me, in large part because of my background in church-state studies and First Amendment rights. I am also intrigued with people who are so radical that they defy easy description. As the old saying goes, sometimes people go so far to the right that they end up on the left (and vice versa).

Thus, I have always wondered what would happen if mainstream reporters actually listened to the Westboro Baptist folks and tried to describe, for example, why they think that Southern Baptists and ordinary evangelicals are raving liberals. Dig deep into this search file and you can see traces of that, as well as in this Scripps Howard News Service column from last fall. Note, in particular, the links to a 2003 Baptist Press piece about the radical theological beliefs of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his flock.

Anyway, last week something unusual happened during the spring ’11 College Media Convention in New York City. One of the legal minds in the Phelps family — which is full of lawyers — sat down and took questions from a room packed with young journalists, no holds barred. Before the Q&A session, attorney Margie Phelps was interviewed by a top-flight journalist and researcher, Gene Policinski, the executive director of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum. Both of them took the encounter very seriously (click here for a rough, but helpful, video).

I learned all kinds of things from taking notes while biting my lip and listening carefully to this event. But here is the key. For the Westboro Baptist believers, the “you” in all of those “God Hates You” signs they carry is not primarily the family of the dead soldier whose funeral is the location of their media-friendly picketing. No, they insist that the “you” is America, especially America as symbolized by what Phelps & Co. call the pro-America “pep rally” that surrounds them wherever they go.

As Margie Phelps told the young journalists: “We’re not picketing the funeral. We’re picketing the pep rally.”

So why am I sharing this with GetReligion readers? Here’s why.

For almost 23 years, I have kept my Scripps column rooted in a kind of news analysis style, as opposed to a full-on, first-person opinion style. However, it is a column and my point of view is in there and I know that. Still, I rarely take big leaps of logic and ask readers to jump with me.

Maybe I should have done that this week. As I worked with pages of Margie Phelps quotations, I kept hearing another specific voice inside my head. To tune in that voice, please read the end of the column:

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church’s tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals. For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro’s leaders concluded that, “It’s too late now. … This nation is doomed.” Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

“We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers’ deaths to publish a viewpoint,” said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. “And we said, ‘We don’t agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.’ …

“That is not a blessing of God. … The soldiers are dying for your sins.”

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply “joined that public debate” on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

“These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears,” she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist “know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols — the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. … We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back.”

Do you hear another voice? Yes, it could be one of these guys — because the theological approach is similar. The formula goes something like this: America takes a certain set of actions, refuses to repent and, thus, calls down the wrath of God.

However, I also heard the voice of someone else who made big headlines three or so years ago by using the same basic theological point, only with a different sin as his theological starting point and framing device. Can you say, “God damn America!”

So, here is my question: How big a leap would it have been to have included the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in this column? After all, this would have meant explaining what he said and why he said it, as well as what I mean when I say that he is using essentially the same theological approach as the Phelps crew. This would have required a big leap by the readers, to follow the thread of that analysis.

Yes, I know that. But does anyone else hear that voice?

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To toast or not to toast during Lent?

There’s an old joke that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.

I thought of that tidbit of religious humor as I read a Religion News Service feature on some United Methodists giving up alcohol for Lent.

The top of the story:

(RNS) The Rev. James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a “spirit fund.”

It’s a timely, interesting story filled with excellent history and background on Methodists and their positions and beliefs on drinking and temperance.

However, the 800-word piece falls short when it comes to explaining how other faith groups treat the alcohol issue:

From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, what to do with the bottle can be a tricky question for religious groups to answer — especially during holy periods or holidays.

Catholics are not supposed to drink on Fridays in Lent, while Muslims are called to abstain from alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to actually get silly drunk, and what Christmas Eve would be complete without spiked eggnog?

Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar at a Friday fish fry, Methodists — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination — have a more ambiguous stance. Now, the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society is following Howell’s lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.

Overgeneralizations seem to plague that section of the story.

I wish the report had included more details from named sources (actual Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc.) on what the various faith groups teach — and practice — concerning drinking.

I am a lifelong Church of Christ member and don’t drink. Our fellowship is pretty united on the belief that the Bible forbids drunkenness. We are less unanimous on whether social drinking that does not lead to drunkenness is a sin. In fact, in my travels to different parts of the nation, I have found myself at social gatherings with Church of Christ ministers and elders who drink wine with meals. In other cases, Church of Christ members take the Baptist approach. (See joke above.)

Given the nuances in my own faith group, I can’t help but suspect that there’s more diversity in other religious circles on this issue than the RNS story indicates.

Among my questions:

– Are most Baptists really teetotalers, or do they face the same issue as the Methodists in that the church officially frowns on drinking but many congregants do it anyway? (See joke above.)

– Unless I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), aren’t Muslims called to abstain from alcohol all the time, not just during Ramadan?

– Is “silly drunk” the actual term a rabbi would use in relation to the Purim celebration? (If so, then I think that would make a terrific direct quote!)

– And why are Catholics bellying up to the bar at a Friday fish fry if they can’t drink on Fridays during Lent? (Must be a non-Lent fish fry …)

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Former Speaker, now Catholic

“On the Stump, Gingrich Puts Focus on Faith,” read the headline for this A1 New York Times piece. But a focus on faith was not what the piece delivered.

Early on we’re given an interesting political story about how Newt Gingrich is attempting to reintroduce himself to Republicans, addressing questions about his two divorces and lack of emphasis on social issues. Gingrich says that his conversion to Catholicism two years ago is “part of an evolution that has given him a deeper appreciation for the role of faith in public life.” But we don’t learn much about that conversion, instead getting vague paragraphs such as this:

It remains an open question how a new inspection of Mr. Gingrich’s record would hold up to scrutiny by voters, including his own spending votes and the 1995 government shutdown, but his advisers believe that it could be well received, given the sentiment of Tea Party supporters. And in the early going, Mr. Gingrich appears to be getting another look from religious conservatives, especially Catholics, a traditional swing constituency.

“Especially Catholics,” eh? I don’t know what that means, or how we’re measuring these things. I mean, I bet there are a lot of Catholics who are wanting a few more details about that conversion, too.

I wasn’t certain if the lack of actual discussion of religion was because of Gingrich being tight-lipped about it or something else. But later in the week, the Los Angeles Times delivered much more on that front, using a wider variety of sources. Focusing in on Iowa, the reporters paint an interesting picture about Gingrich’s last two years, wherein he meets with conservative religious leaders, expresses his contrition for his divorces and provides financial and strategic help for their social causes:

Gingrich’s moves are meant to allay concerns among influential religious conservatives that his personal history is at odds with their views. In 2007, he admitted during a radio interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that he had been having an extramarital affair with his present wife as he was excoriating President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his dalliance with a White House intern. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, put it, Gingrich has “one ex-spouse too many for most evangelicals.”

But as the former speaker moves closer to a potential White House bid, with more details expected Thursday, his wooing of the evangelical community appears to be paying off.

“I think he’s just excellent,” said Pastor Brad Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. “Everybody brings up his past, but he’s very open about that, and God is forgiving,” said Sherman, who had lunch with Gingrich last fall.

Sometimes the positive quotes come from people who are working with and paid by Gingrich — which is specifically pointed out. There is a lot of discussion about religion in the public square. And we get a lot of background about the candidate, too. Check out this exchange:

Although Gingrich has been forthcoming about his personal conduct in private conversations, he can become testy when pressed on the issue publicly. At the University of Pennsylvania last month, a Democratic student activist asked him to square his marital record with his goal of putting the nation on a higher moral plane.

“I hope you feel better about yourself,” Gingrich responded. “I will be totally candid: I’ve had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God. … If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant.”

I appreciate that we’re not just told he got testy but given his words as well. I don’t know where this story appeared in the paper, but it had much more news than the A1 feature in the New York Times above.

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Phelps: ‘We’re thanking our god’

By definition, Supreme Court decisions are national stories. However, the Westboro Baptist Church case remains a local story here in Maryland because this is where this particular case started — with the tiny independent church’s hateful media fest near the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Baltimore Sun devoted more ink to the story than other newspapers. All news is local.

The story is quite conventional in its coverage of the court’s decision.

The ruling, issued a day before the anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s death, was a bitter disappointment for the Marine’s father, Albert Snyder, who sued the Topeka, Kan., church for picketing his son’s funeral in 2006, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the ruling was expected by free-speech advocates, who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to align with a group that protests against gays, Roman Catholics, Jews and others.

“It’s an opinion that supports very fundamental First Amendment principles,” said Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. … “A lot of people react to the church itself and its message … not focusing on larger issues of public speech and free speech,” Zick said.

In a telephone interview, Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro’s founder, called the opinion “a victory by God” that was “10 times better than I ever imagined.”

That’s the tough message of this First Amendment case. However, what hit me in this report was some strangeness of a religious nature later in the story.

Yes, I realize that the Westboro take on religion is strange in the first place. After all, these are people who literally believe that there are sins that God refuses to forgive, even after repentance (check it out). For these folks, the Southern Baptist Convention is on the religious left.

Now, in that earlier chunk of the story, notice that in the “victory by God” quote from Margie Phelps, the reference to the deity begins with an uppercase “G.” That’s normal under the Associated Press Stylebook.

However, something strange is going on in another quote from Ms. Phelps, hear the end of this lengthy report. Check this out.

Even Margie Phelps, who argued the case on Westboro’s behalf before the Supreme Court, acknowledged that the opinion wasn’t likely to be popular.

“The whole country’s going to rise up in rage against this,” Phelps said, “But we’re thanking our god. We’re going to have a special thanksgiving prayer service this very evening, and our pastor is recording a video news release as we speak. It will get tweeted and blogged all over the universe. … This case put a megaphone, an international megaphone to the mouth of this little church.”

What’s up with the lowercase “g” in the “we’re thanking our god” quote?

The stylebook instructs reporters and editors: “Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions.” However, it also notes that journalists should “Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.”

Trust me: I would be the first to wonder, as an Orthodox Christian, whether the Phelps family creed doesn’t focus more on court fees and hate that it does on the Holy Trinity. However, can there really be any doubt about whether this “thanking our god” reference isn’t to the God of the Bible? That’s painful, but that is clearly what Margie Phelps meant in this case.

I just checked and this Sun reference has not been corrected. Like it or not, it should be.

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