Please, God, help us with ‘this awful oil spill’

At first glance, it sure seems like The New York Times’ make-fun-of-prayer squad is at it again.

Earlier this month, GetReligion went behind the scenes of a Times story on unidentified faith groups seeking “divine wisdom” (scare quotes courtesy of the “Old Gray Lady”) to close a California state budget gap of biblical proportions.

Now comes a Times story from the Gulf Coast that opens like this:

BON SECOUR, Ala. — In a small white building along the baptizing Bon Secour River, a building that once housed a shrimp-net business, the congregation of the Fishermen Baptist Church gathered for another Sunday service, with the preacher presiding from a pulpit designed to look like a ship captain’s wheel.

After the singing of the opening hymn, “Ring the Bells of Heaven,” and the announcement that an engaged couple was now registered at Wal-Mart, the preacher read aloud a proclamation from Gov. Bob Riley that declared this to be a “day of prayer” — a day of entreaties to address the ominous threat to the way of life just outside the church’s white doors.

Whereas, and whereas, and whereas, the proclamation read. People of Alabama, please pray for your fellow citizens, for other states hurt by this disaster, for all those who are responding. And pray “that a solution that stops the oil leak is completed soon.”

In other words, dear God, thank you for your blessings and guidance. And one other thing, dear God:

Help.

That snarky enough for you?

You’ve got the baptizing river (seriously, what does that mean?). You’ve got the obligatory Wal-Mart reference (I’m guessing there’s not a Macy’s or even a Target in that small town). You’ve got the scare quotes around the “day of prayer.” The only thing missing is Forrest Gump’s mama saying, “You have to do the best with what God gave you.”

Get past the condescending approach, though, and this story actually is a hundred times better than the California piece.

Yes, it manages to include the word “mortals,” just like the story from the West Coast. Yawn. But this time, when the Times refers to divine intervention, there are no scare quotes. Let’s chalk that up as progress.

Even better, there’s some actual religion meat in here — specific details on the wording used by each of five states’ governors who declared days of prayer Sunday:

In the two months since the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion began a ceaseless leak of oil into the gulf, damaging the ecosystem and disrupting the economy, the efforts by mortals to stem the flow have failed. Robots and golf balls and even the massive capping dome all seem small in retrospect.

So, then, a supplementary method was attempted: coordinated prayer.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry encouraged Texans to ask God “for his merciful intervention and healing in this time of crisis.” In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour declared that prayer “allows us an opportunity to reflect and to seek guidance, strength, comfort and inspiration from Almighty God.” In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal invoked the word “whereas” a dozen times — as well as the state bird, the brown pelican — but made no direct mention of God. In Florida, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp asked people to pray that God “would guide and direct our civil leaders and provide them with wisdom and divinely inspired solutions.”

I could get all nitpicky and complain that the story never tells me whether the Fishermen Baptist Church has any ties to the Southern Baptist Convention or another denomination. I could complain that the piece uses the term “Bible Baptist” and doesn’t explain what that means. But I won’t. Unless, of course, I just did.

The story ends this way:

A missionary about to leave for Brazil was waiting to make a multimedia presentation, but first these kneeling men, led by Brother Harry — Harry Mund, a relative of the pastor’s — needed to finish their prayer.

Please God, help us with “this awful oil spill,” he said. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The men rose from their knees and returned to their pews, a couple of them rubbing the salty wet from their eyes.

So there you go. A prayer story from the Times that’s not half bad. I think I’ll rub the salty wet from my eyes, too.

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Fruit’s role in a Muslim dilemma

My minivan was running on empty Sunday morning, so I stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy gasoline on my way to church. Usually, I pay at the pump with my Visa check card, but this time I had cash, so I went inside to hand $40 to the clerk.

The woman in front of me was buying cigarettes from a cheerful young cashier who was talking about her Christian faith.

“I’d be at church right now if I didn’t have to work,” said the employee, who was not shy about sharing her testimony even as she rang up tobacco and alcohol sales.

I thought about the 7-Eleven crew member, working at a job that probably would not be her first choice, when I read a Chicago Tribune story this week about Muslim liquor store owners. Reporter Manya A. Brachear’s piece explores the dilemma faced by store owners trying to balance their faith with the necessity to make ends meet. Here’s the top of the story:

Prescribed by his Islamic faith to pray five times a day, Mazen Materieh often prostrates himself on one of the prayer rugs in the basement of his corner store. When he is done, he returns to his perch behind the counter, where he sells liquor, lottery tickets and pork skins — all forbidden by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

“I’m not justifying what I’m doing. I know it’s wrong,” said Materieh, 52, of Orland Park. “I’m an honest person. I don’t like to be a man of two faces.”

Materieh’s conflict is common in corner stores across Chicago’s South Side. On one hand, store owners cannot make ends meet without selling what customers demand. On the other, consuming or profiting from products forbidden by their faith is considered sinful. What’s more, neighbors blame the stores for perpetuating violence, addiction and obesity in low-income neighborhoods.

After that introduction, the story gets to the news peg:

Now, a coalition of Arab and African-American Muslims is offering Muslim merchants an opportunity to improve their reputations and renew their religious principles by selling fresh produce and healthy foods, especially in neighborhoods without major groceries. Along the way, they hope, store owners will think twice about selling forbidden products. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has provided a grant that will serve as seed money for pioneers in the campaign.

What do you think so far? Read the whole thing, and then I’ll tell you what I thought.

Personally, I really liked this piece. It’s a meaty subject (get it, pork?). And it’s a fresh angle (get it, fruit?). OK, end of my attempt to be punny.

Let’s get serious …

Too often, news stories portray people of faith at extremes. They’re either totally righteous or totally hypocritical. In most cases, I think all of us fall somewhere in the middle. Brachear manages to highlight contradictions in what people believe — and what they practice — in a way that just seems, well, real.

Take this section:

Materieh and a partner opened Sharif Food & Liquor at 5659 S. Racine Ave. after arthritis prevented him from working in construction and a halal restaurant venture didn’t work out. “Sharif” is an Arabic word for “honorable.”

He doesn’t allow his children to help in the store, and he regularly argues with his wife, who doesn’t understand how he can rationalize selling alcohol. He admits a sense of shame came over him after taking religious education classes at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, where his family worshipped.

“In our religion, God loves believers and repenters,” Materieh said. “If I have good trust in God, I should go and do the right thing and not feed my kids with this money. But we are human beings, and we are weak. I pray to God to get me out of it.”

I like that Brachear explained the store name. That’s a nice touch.

Another nice touch is that the piece delves into Muslim theology. Now, you’d think that would be a given in a story such as this. But GetReligion readers know how often that does not occur. Here’s the relevant section:

Sheikh Kifah Moustapha, imam and associate director of the Bridgeview mosque, preaches against haram (forbidden) business practices regularly. He bases his sermons on a verse in the Quran that implores the faithful to avoid intoxicating temptations.

“Believers, wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are abominations from the work of Satan,” the Quran instructs.

Though many Muslims defend their business practices by arguing that scripture forbids only consumption, not the sale, they are wrong, Moustapha said.

I do have a quibble with that last paragraph. Any time I see a phrase in a story such as many Muslims defend, I expect that I’ll hear from at least one of them. However, the writer does not include any Muslims who make the argument cited.

I almost forgive that omission, however, because of the excellent sources who are included, from a Muslim neighborhood activist to Muslim store owners who never have sold pork or alcohol — despite the economic challenges.

The ending section highlights what’s at stake in the effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhood:

Others are eager to follow suit, including Ida Rihan, 48, owner of Delta Foods, 1158 W. 51st St., who has not yet received a grant. Rihan declines to sell alcohol or pork. Her husband was shot 10 years ago by an intoxicated gunman who stole $65. Sitting on a stool behind bulletproof glass, with a mosque prayer schedule taped next to the cash register, she cheerily greets her customers, many of whom call her Mom.

Two doors down on 51st Street, Nasheet Salah, 29, owner of K&K Foods, advertises discounts on vodka, cognac and beer. “That’s a living. You’ve got to do it to prepare the table,” he said.

Rihan doesn’t judge her neighbor. She said people must decide how to balance belief with business.

She would prefer to offer fresh meat and produce regularly, but it’s a choice she can’t afford. She said she would welcome a grant that would enable her to upgrade her merchandise.

“It’s a hard neighborhood here,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for everybody, and everyone has respect for me. You have to do what you believe is right.”

This is a real story from a real Chicago neighborhood — see the specific addresses for proof. Kudos to the Tribune for a compelling local story that gets religion in a real way.

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Everyone has a big “but”

MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 09:  The Ottheinrich Bible is displayed during a photocall of the 'Bayerische Staatsbibliothek' on July 9, 2008 in Munich, Germany. The Ottheinrich Bible, the first illuminated courtly masterpiece, lavishly illustrated with sparkling gold and precious colours manuscript of the New Testament in German, written circa 1430 in Bavaria, almost 100 years before the seminal Bible translation by Martin Luther, the unusually large manuscript is incomparably the grandest surviving manuscript of the German vernacular Bible, as well as one of the most ambitious books of the northern renaissance. The Bible is expected to fetch in excess of 3 million Euro.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

The New York Times has an interesting piece by Geraldine Fabrikant about a collector building a collection of ancient Bibles. With the goal of establishing a museum dedicated to the Bible, the family behind the Hobby Lobby chain of stores is on a bit of a spending spree. They’ve “bought illuminated, or decorated, manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and other works worth $20 million to $40 million from auction houses, dealers, private collectors and institutions, some of which may be selling because of financial pressure.”

Steve Green is the president of the company and we learn the following about his religious views:

Mr. Green is Pentecostal, but other family members worship in churches of other denominations, including Baptist and Assemblies of God. The family gives to a variety of Christian causes, Oral Roberts University and evangelical ministries among them, and adheres to Christian principles, closing its stores on Sundays, playing Christian music in them and operating Mardel, a separate chain of religious bookstores.

This reminds me of a question one of my colleagues asked me at one of my old newsrooms. He wondered whether Pentecostals were a religion or a denomination. Now, the phrasing above is unclear on two points. “Pentecostal” isn’t a denomination per se, although there are denominations with the word “Pentecostal” in their names. And either way you can’t say “but” other family members are Assemblies of God. That’s because Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination out there. I’m unclear on what denomination Mr. Green is a member of.

Still, the story is interesting and provides a lot of detail on the rare book market, without overlooking the role religion plays in this particular story:

The group also bought a Martin Luther New Testament with 44 lushly hand-painted and illuminated woodcuts, suggesting that the edition was made for royal use, perhaps for Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise.

The book was sold by Jorn Gunther, a dealer who had listed the edition at $400,000 in his catalog. “Book dealers are bibliophiles, but these men are coming at it with a strong belief that the Bible is the word of God and they want to show that,” said Mr. Gunther of Stalden, Switzerland. “It is like a doctor buying medical books.”

I did wonder about one phrase in this sentence:

Dr. Carroll, a former professor in ancient studies who has specialized in Biblical manuscripts, recently resigned from Cornerstone University, a nondenominational Christ-based liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to become executive director of the museum and an adviser to Mr. Green.

I’m more familiar with the phrase “Christ-centered” than “Christ-based” and I note that the university uses the former phrase to describe itself. But I’m wondering if we could get something a bit more explanatory for a general reader.

It’s rare to see this much coverage of religion in a business section story. But the piece could have used some edits or guidance from someone with a bit more understanding of religion. For instance, it would be nice to know a bit more about what motivates the Green family. I don’t normally think of “Pentecostalism” when I think of ancient Biblical texts. But I also know enough about the Assemblies of God to know what emphasis that denomination places on study of Scriptures. These would be worthy themes for exploration.

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Northern exposure for Southern Baptists

The Northern Baptist Convention? As the Southern Baptist Convention faces declining membership and baptism numbers, a task force has drafted a resurgence plan.

Godbeat pro Bob Smietana of The Tennessean reported more than a month ago on the controversial proposal for revitalizing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The basic idea: take millions of dollars now spent in Baptist strongholds in the South and divert the funds to domestic mission efforts in places such as the Northeast. (I should note that Southern Baptists have talked off and on about a name change that would better reflect the group as “a nationwide and worldwide body of believers.”)

I hadn’t seen any other mainstream media coverage of the ongoing Baptist funding debate until I came across a Wall Street Journal feature headlined “The Gospel Heads North.” I’ve included a Google News link rather than a direct link to the story to avoid sending you to a subscriber-only version. Here’s the top of the story, published last week:

WOODSTOCK, Ga. — Some 2,000 people witnessed the weekend ordainment of four Southern Baptist ministers at a church here, including one man poised to voyage to the religious frontier of upstate New York.

“Jesus, I thank you…We sure need to win in that area of the country,” boomed Johnny Hunt, the silver-haired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Woodstock, 30 miles north of Atlanta, during a rousing Sunday evening sermon here.

This region is the historical stronghold of the 165-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 16.3 million people.

But alarmed at declining baptisms and membership, the Nashville-based convention is gearing up to send waves of ministers such as Dean Mabry, the New York-bound minister, money and “church planters” — who start churches from scratch — west and northeast to convert the “lost.”

Now, I’ve got to give the writer credit for a nice turn of phrase with “the religious frontier of upstate New York.” Then again, I’d give extra credit if the story included actual reporting on the religious makeup of upstate New York. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Hunt, the pastor quoted in the second paragraph, is not just silver-haired, by the way. He’s also the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. But the story never mentions him again. And never mentions his key role among 16.3 million Baptists. That strikes me as a strange omission, particularly since you’d have to think that’s what drew the Journal to that particular church.

Given the quote marks around “church planting” and “lost,” I was a bit surprised that “rousing Sunday evening sermon” didn’t get the same treatment (although I would like to know what made the sermon “rousing”). In all seriousness, it seems to me that flagging such terms simply slows down the story and doesn’t do anything to help the reader. If the writer is concerned the reader won’t understand the term, then explain it — or use a different, less churchy word.

Overall, the story does a nice job of framing the debate over diverting funds to new areas vs. funding programs in the South where Baptists already are strong:

The Kentucky Baptist Convention stands to lose $1.6 million it now receives from the cooperative program each year for ministries aimed at literacy work and meal programs, says Mr. Mackey. He says the Kentucky convention would still fund the programs, but it would be a struggle.

“It would devastate us,” Sammy Gilbreath, evangelism director for the Alabama Baptist Convention, said in the convention-owned newspaper, mailed to 100,000 Baptists, last month. At stake is $644,000 for Hispanic ministries, hospital chaplains and more, he wrote in the newspaper.

Some Midwest rural pastors fear they’ll be left out, too. Bob Mills, executive director of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, says he could lose funding for food pantries at a time when the charities are struggling to keep pace with demand.

But while it grasps the numerical challenges facing Southern Baptists, the piece fails to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of evangelical culture. For instance, is it really noteworthy that a large Baptist church has baptismal attire ready in case it’s needed?:

The church holds t-shirts, shorts, jogging bras and hair dryers, should anyone spontaneously decide during a service to be baptized in a three-foot deep tank.

One thing that I wish the Journal had done — and The Tennessean too — was to examine the Baptist numbers in the context of a post-denominational society. How much of the Baptist decline is a result of failures on the denomination’s part? And how much relates to a cultural shift that has touched a number of other Christian groups as well?

Also, the church planting trend could be put into a larger context that might be relevant to more readers. The Associated Press, for example, reported late last year on evangelical efforts targeting New England:

Several groups trying to re-ignite New England’s faith are theologically conservative, such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Church in America and the Conservative Baptists’ Mission Northeast. They say a reason for the region’s hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.

The Rev. Wes Pastor, head of the NETS Institute for Church Planting in Williston, Vt., said New England’s liberal mainline denominations, such as the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, have been practicing a “different religion.”

“I’m not saying it to be snooty, but they have a different belief system and that belief system … is a profound departure from historic Christianity,” said Pastor, whose group trained Bass and supports his Baptist church.

As other reporters tackle the Southern Baptists’ debate in advance of the denomination’s annual meeting in June, I’d love to see the bigger questions with wider implications explored.

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Is that it?

Iconic Houses

Frequently we criticize reporters for ignoring or obscuring the role religion might play in stories about socio-economic trends. But here’s a case where a reporter led with the religious angle when looking at a new report that shows that Utah had the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

Apparently 1 in 231 homes there received a foreclosure notice in January, nearly double the national rate. The story says that explaining why Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California had even higher foreclosure rates is straightforward — home prices more than doubled since 2000 and then real estate values dropped precipitously. But Utah home prices only rose half that much, the story says. So what’s the deal with Utah, according to the Christian Science Monitor?:

“It’s a lot of younger people who spent way, way beyond their means, absurd amounts of money trying to keep up with their folks,” says one Utah resident who helps counsel financially troubled families at his church. They’re “cool, nice, wonderful people, but an awful lot of them don’t know how to spend money very wisely.”

In mid-decade, when Utah was tops in bankruptcies, various commentators pinned the blame on Mormon religious and cultural practices, such as tithing, creating large families, buying homes at a young age, and as one critic put it: “the pressure in Mormonism to be, or at least appear, financially successful as proof the Lord is blessing them.”

Indeed, Mormons in 2004 had a bankruptcy rate that was approaching twice that of the national average. But a 2007 study by two Harvard Law School graduates found that rates among non-Mormons in Utah were even higher, suggesting that religion, if anything, was restraining bankruptcies.

First off, what’s the deal with not giving the person in the first quote a name? And does he speak only to experiences in his own unidentified congregation or do we have reason to think his explanation is applicable more broadly? And if you’re going to suggest that the foreclosure ranking is caused by Mormons, you have to base it on much more than a nameless quote and no data. And when data is brought into the equation, it doesn’t exactly support the thesis either.

Also, the way that reporter Laurent Belsie won’t identify sources is frustrating. It’s good to know, I guess, that two graduates of a particular law school studied the issue of bankruptcy in Utah. But who was the study for? Which peer-reviewed journal published it, if any? If someone wants to find out more information, rather than taking the reporter’s word about what the study says (something I try not to do!), what do we do?

And wouldn’t it be nice to know what percentage of Utah is Mormon and what percentage of that group is practicing Mormon? I’m not asking for a full blown regression analysis, but if you don’t know enough about the difference between correlation and causation to look into a few of these issues, you really shouldn’t be speculating on all this.

The rest of the story comes up with other explanations, including low wages, high medical costs, large number of bankruptcy filers with at least one dependent child, large family size, garnishment laws, repeat bankruptcy filers and something called “the effect of having a large proportion of young, middle-class people earning $30,000 to $60,000 a year.” I’m not even sure half of these things are true but needless to say, they are really poorly explained.

Also, I have to mention the headline for this piece:

Foreclosure mystery: Why can’t conservative Utahns afford their mortgage?

Now, certainly Utah as a state tends to vote conservatively but that doesn’t mean that everyone in Utah is conservative. We don’t know whether there is any correlation between the political or social views of a given Utahan and their propensity to foreclose on a property. For all we know, only liberal or moderate Utahans are foreclosing. That headline goes so far beyond what the original report looked at that it’s laughable.

It’s a good instinct to look at possible correlations between religious views and social trends. But if you’re going to do it, I think it needs to be done a bit more thoroughly than we see here.

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Snow money, snow problems

Throughout the 10 years I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. I’ve made great sport of the freakouts that accompany snow in the region. Unlike these puny mid-Atlantic mortals, I grew up in a part of Oregon where four or more feet of snow in my front yard wasn’t uncommon. My wife, being from Colorado, frequently joined me in scoffing.

Until now. I kindly refer you to the photo of the street Casa de Hemingway is on from last weekend. Mind you, this photo is before it snowed an additional 10-20 inches this past Wednesday. Parts of the city saw 52 inches of snow — in less than a week.

I don’t care where you live, the amount of snow we’ve received in the last week is ridiculous. Driving has been almost out of the question, as for days on end most of the sidestreets in our neighborhood remained unplowed. Heck, even getting to our ransacked grocery store four blocks away just to get more baby food has been an ordeal.

But by far the biggest challenge was getting to our church 10 miles away this past Sunday. A friend and parishoner in our neighborhood managed to dig his car out and get close to our house. The whole Hemingway family piled in his car and managed to make it to church, but few others did. There were around 30 people attending services that Sunday, compared to over 200 on average. (A lot of area churches canceled services, but our Lutheran pastor is from hearty Minnesota stock.) Suffice to say, I have been wondering how the storm has been affecting churches all week.

Well, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post comes through in a big way today. It’s a fairly straightforward headline — “Churches, worshipers also feel storms’ impact,” and Boorstein covers a lot of ground. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the storm would negatively affect church income, but that’s what Boorstein leads with:

Some say a snowstorm, with its power and beauty, settles the spirit. Tell that to Pastor Charlie Whitlow, whose Ashburn church is down about $100,000 in offerings, thanks to Mother Nature’s recent weekend romps.

Boorstein notes that Whitlow ended up doing his sermon for the week on the web from his living room. The story also has this lovely anecdote about a Jewish woman who struggles to find a minyan — a quorum of ten Jews — to mourn her father:

When she saw the blizzard, however, she thought of the 1990s TV show “Northern Exposure,” about a Jewish doctor living in Alaska, and the episode in which residents of the mostly American-Indian community scatter across a vast area to help him get the quota — called a “minyan” — so he could pray for his dead uncle.

Miller, who has lived in her Northwest Washington neighborhood for a couple years, sent a plea via the listserv of her 300-unit condo building. Within minutes, she had a few replies. One was from a neighbor who was in Philadelphia, saying he was also in mourning and offering to recite the prayer on her behalf at a synagogue there. By sundown, she had 11 people in her living room– the 10 required Jews and one non-Jewish neighbor with a cheesecake.

“Perhaps our paths will never cross again. Maybe, just maybe, we shared a moment of faith on the worst blizzard in a hundred years,” Miller, a rabbi and spiritual counselor, wrote in a letter of thanks. “The act of giving is an act of faith.”

Boorstein also goes through a litany of events that were cancelled by churches and discusses how the lost church income will be difficult to make up in a bad economy. It’s the kind of story that is often thankless work reporters, but it’s very informative bread-and-butter journalism.

That said, there were a few sins of omission I think are worth mentioning. For one, there was a church building in D.C. that collapsed last weekend when the roof caved in under the weight of the snow. This goes unmentioned. I would have liked to have known how church properties were holding up, what churches are doing for snow removal, etc.

And the other issue is that Boorstein doesn’t really address the issue of chartity at all. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people in the area were without power. How did churches help families stay warm? Surely, they played a role. How is the harsh weather otherwise taxing church-related charities?

Here’s hoping for follow-up. There’s a good one waiting to be written.

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The Mormon public square

When the late Richard John Neuhaus argued for greater participation in civic life by people of faith in his classic 1984 book, his title was metaphorical. The Naked Public Square warned about the crisis of faith confronting a democracy that legislates religious faith to the periphery of cultural life.

But Kirk Johnson of The New York Times’ Denver bureau writes about a literal public square that some say may be too wrapped up with religion in his recent piece, “Project Renews Downtown, and Debate.”

The public square in question is a 20-acre, $1 billion development project called City Creek Center that is being funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is located near the church’s temple and the adjacent Temple Square.

This story operates on multiple levels — religious, financial and civic. Johnson gives each its due, quoting church officials and members as well as local business and academic experts.

Some residents say the church, by opening its checkbook in a recession, rescued the city when times got tough. The 1,800 construction jobs at City Creek alone have provided a big local economic cushion. Completion of the project–20 acres of retail shops and residential towers–is scheduled for 2012.

“City Creek has been a literal and figurative godsend,” said Bradley D. Baird, the business development manager at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a private nonprofit group that has no direct involvement with the project.

Other people say that if the new heart of downtown has a strong church flavor, Salt Lake, which has become more diverse in recent years–could veer back toward its roots, for better or worse. About half of city residents are Mormon, according to many estimates, and if many, or most, of the roughly 700 apartment units at City Creek were occupied by Mormon families, the city could have a dramatic new feel.

“Our downtown has become a ghost town in my life–nobody lives there,” said Dan Egan, 55, a lawyer and church member who works near the site but lives in the suburbs. “Having several thousand people live down here will have a big impact, and having many of them L.D.S. would be a very interesting thing to see.”

Church leaders say they are pursuing no religious agenda with the development, and say they will negotiate special contracts with restaurants that allow the sale of alcohol, which church members are taught to avoid.

Though parts of this story are unique to Salt Lake City and its Mormon establishment, issues raised by the City Creek Center development project are of interest to religious institutions and civic leaders in other cities who are seeking viable urban renewal partnerships at a time when public deficits create the need for creative responses to recurring urban problems such as crime and the loss of jobs and residents to the suburbs.

Although lots of urban churches worry about those issues, the ones that can write a $1 billion check are rare.

“It’s certainly one of the largest, if not the largest project in the United States funded by a single entity, and the fact that the entity is a church makes it doubly unusual,” said Patrick L. Anderson, the chief executive and founder of the Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan-based real-estate consulting company.

Perhaps Johnson’s piece on City Creek Center shows how religious, business and government groups can cooperate in public squares that are both literal and metaphorical.

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‘Lifies’ and the Haggard saga

Gayle Haggard, the loyal wife of fallen evangelical mega-pastor Ted Haggard, was all over the mainstream media world (Oprah, “Today,” etc.) last week promoting her new book: “Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour.”

With this book blitz, reporting on the Ted Haggard story has now officially moved from Chapter 1 in the Media Playbook (Hard news: Scandal) to Chapter 3 (Features: “Lifie”) without going through Chapter 2 (Analysis: What the heck is really going on here?). Readers would have benefited from deeper questioning.

Ted Haggard finally admitted his sins in November 2006 and was subsequently fired from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded. He resurfaced in January 2009 when HBO broadcast Alexandra Pelosi’s gripping documentary, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and he and Gayle appeared on Oprah’s show.

Late last year he started a new church down the road from his old congregation. At that point, some reporters (including local religion reported Mark Barna at The Gazette) did good analysis pieces that raised questions about Haggard’s suitability to lead.

All those questions have been forgotten in the wake of Gayle’s successful p.r. campaign (which was orchestrated by Tyndale, the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher that learned a few things about big-league promotion with the Left Behind novels). Marcia Z. Nelson of Publishers Weekly’s Religion BookLine reports that Tyndale has already gone back to press after selling out a first printing of 75,000 copies.

The Haggard story has now evolved into the type of media events Neal Gabler called “lifies,” which are celebrity-driven, media-friendly stories about failure and redemption that serve up big, gooey life lessons for viewers.

Gayle Haggard presents readers and viewers with a powerful message of marital love, personal loyalty and Christian forgiveness, and I was particularly impressed by her interview with Meredith Vieira on “Today” and the piece by Adelle banks of Religion News Service.

But as the Haggards seek to find a new life and calling for themselves, important questions remain:
- Can we believe Ted when he says, as he did on Oprah last week, that after therapy, he has not had “one compulsive thought or behavior”?
- Even if that is true, is Ted now in a position to once again assume the mantle of pastoral leadership?
- Gayle Haggard has certainly suffered enough already, and her husband’s sins do not necessarily bar her from leadership. But is the “evangelical industrial complex” helping to return the couple to a form of shared leadership by publishing and promoting Gayle’s book?

Gabler’s “Life: The Movie” argues that entertainment has conquered reality. The Haggard saga, at least as it is currently being covered, is the latest in a long list of stories about tarnished evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders that demonstrates the truth of Gabler’s argument in religious circles.

Despite their frequent and often angry protests against pop culture, many Christians reveal that they are all too willing to submit to the marketplace–not any ecclesiastical authority–as the ultimate arbiter of who qualifies as a leader.

This isn’t the last we will hear from the Haggards. Perhaps next time around enterprising reporters will ask some of the tough questions about leadership and authority that have been lost in in the “lifies.”

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