From print to pulpit

2ndCareerCOVER1You’ve heard of religion reporters becoming atheists. And you’ve heard of religion reporters becoming agnostic. But have you heard of religion reporters becoming pastors?

Associated Press reporter Patrick Condon files from Wisconsin with a lede readers of this blog will love:

On the first Sunday morning of October, pastor Steve Scott looked far beyond the surroundings of his western Wisconsin congregation to find worthy subjects for their prayers: recent natural disaster victims in Indonesia and the Philippines.

There’s nothing unusual about clergy taking inspiration from headlines, but for Scott it’s instinctive. He spent 23 years as a journalist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, most of the last five as religion reporter for Minnesota’s second-biggest newspaper.

The story, as you might expect, gets into the sad fortunes of the newspaper business and the religion beat in particular. When Scott was reassigned to cover the suburbs of St. Paul, he described himself as “petulant … pouting … not very professional,” and took a buyout.

Scott was always interested in religion even if he stopped worshiping regularly. He was a Methodist pastor’s kid and his mother was an organist. He minored in religious studies and took a seminary course the year before he got the religion beat. We learn a bit about some of Scott’s theological views:

Scott likes to talk about the notion of a calling. Though the term is most often applied to clergy, he believes it’s pertinent to anyone trying to figure out how they can best use their abilities to make the world a better place.

“I absolutely believe, as corny as it might sound, that I was called to be a journalist when I was 14,” he said.

After his buyout, he thought he might become a religion professor. But his coursework led to a consultancy at a parish. And his wife since 2007 is a Methodist pastor. Somehow he’s ended up serving two small congregations in Wisconsin. He’ll soon become a full-fledged pastor with his own congregation.

And here’s the nice ending to the piece:

“Cynically, some of my friends have asked me: ‘What are you thinking? You left the newspaper business, and you’re going into the church business?’ They sort of share a demographic of a certain age, and they’re both wondering why young people don’t seem that interested.

“Perhaps there’s a point. But I believe in newspapers, and I believe in the church, and despite their flaws, if we didn’t have either one …”

Scott trailed off, not completing the thought.

Lutherans, too, view journalism as an important vocation. Getting the news out to our neighbors is an important job with important repercussions. It’s sort of nice to see a discussion of this in a major article.

Either way, this story seems like it was just written for the GetReligion reader.

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Another salvo in the Mommy Wars

MommyWarsI’m fairly new to motherhood, with a 2-year-old and an infant. I recently wrote my take on the Mommy Wars — that term used to describe everything from whether women should work outside the home while raising young children to whether to use cloth or disposable diapers — over at Christianity Today. So I was intrigued by this front-page Washington Post story that looks at a new Census report dealing with stay-at-home moms.

Reporter Donna St. George frames it in a curious manner:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

The story shows that mothering full time at home is a widespread phenomenon with nearly one in four married mothers with children younger than 15 staying out of the labor force. It’s worth noting that this figure does not include women such as myself, who also stay home to raise children. That’s because I’m still in the labor force (I really have the best of all worlds, I think.) Also unrepresented by the Census definition of stay-at-home moms are mothers who work even a few hours a month or just one week out of the year, such as freelancers, those who run their own home businesses and seasonal laborers.

So what is this opt-out revolution? (Style note: do you need both the “so-called” and quotes around opt-out revolution? I’m not sure.) Well, here’s how the story explains it:

The notion of an opt-out revolution took shape in 2003, when New York Times writer Lisa Belkin coined the term to describe the choices made by a group of high-achieving Princeton women who left the fast track after they had children.

It has since been the subject of public debate, academic study and media obsession. It has been derided as a myth but has never quite gone away in an era when women still struggle to balance work and family and motherhood’s conflicts have been parodied and probed in everything from Judith Warner’s book “Perfect Madness” to television’s “Desperate Housewives” and “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom.”

The census statistics show, for example, that the educational level of nearly one in five mothers at home was less than a high school degree, as compared with one in 12 other mothers. Thirty two percent of moms at home have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 38 percent of other mothers.

As much as I love the idea of debunking a story every time a New York Times reporter pens a huge trend piece based on nothing other than anecdotal evidence from three of her friends, this Washington Post article in no way does that. Unless reporter Lisa Belkin said that all women who stay at home to raise their children — or even that most women who stay at home — are “high-achieving Princeton women,” that is. And she didn’t. Neither did, one presumes, any of the other stories alluded to above. Instead, these other stories discussed an increase in the percentage of women who choose to either opt out of the labor force or cut back on their hours to focus on their families. As I mentioned above, this article only deals with women who have completely abandoned the labor market.

The Post article goes on to say that a higher percentage of stay-at-home moms (relative to other mothers) live below the poverty line and smaller percentages of stay-at-home moms live in households with incomes above $75,000 a year. Again, this has nothing to do with proving or disproving an assertion that high-achieving women are opting out or that more women are choosing to stay at home to raise children. In order to determine that, we’d need to see longitudinal studies or, simply, data over time.

Instead we get quotes from folks saying that the census figures are a reality check against the notion of an opt-out revolution. Oh, and the only time-lapse data that is included in the Post story is this bit that undercuts the Post‘s thesis:
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Historically, the Census Bureau’s annual population survey shows that there are more mothers at home now than in the mid-1990s.

In 1994, 19.8 percent of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Last year, it was 23.7 percent of families — an increase that [Diana Elliott, a family demographer who is co-author of the U.S. Census Bureau report] said was statistically significant. “I don’t think we exactly know why,” she said.

Now, if the percentage of stay-at-home moms (in married-couple families with kids younger than 15) is increasing — and it is — that actually seems interesting. I wish the Post — and the Census study purporting to debunk the opt-out-revolution theory — had looked into that a bit more. Heck, since Census claimed that the whole reason they did the study was to respond to media reports about women putting their careers on hold, it seems odd that they don’t know anything about this increase.

All this to say that I have a suspicion that women’s decisions about staying-at-home to raise their children might have a few religion ghosts. The story explains, for instance, that Hispanic women are more likely to stay at home to raise their children than non-Hispanic women. Does that have anything to do with higher than average rates of Catholicism and religious activity among Hispanics? I have no idea. Census didn’t break down the data that far, near as I can tell.

The report had some other interesting figures with some religious ghosts, too. For instance, parents in married relationships were more likely to own their own homes, have higher household incomes, be employed, and have at least a bachelor’s degree. They were less likely to receive food stamps than other family types. And 94 percent of fathers who lived with their children, lived with the mother of their children. Only 74 percent of mothers who lived with their children lived with the father of their children.

It’s almost like all that morality stuff that religious groups are shoving down our throats has some merit or something. At least it has some policy implications.

But as far as shedding light on whether women with small children are decreasing their hours or opting out of the labor force altogether — much less why or whether they should — this article doesn’t deliver much.

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Moore and mammon, revisited

michael-moore_0031Who says civility is dead, or that America is on the fast track to a new Idiocracy-style dark ages?

I was tickled pink by the 17 comments (so far) responding to Wednesday’s post on “Capitalism, Catholicism and Michael Moore.”

Christina and others debated a phrase in The New York Times Moore profile stating that there was a long tradition of social justice and activism in the American Catholic church “at least until Pope John Paul II.”

Jane and others explored the meaning and merits of capitalism, socialism, and free enterprise.

And Cheryl unsuccessfully tried to steer the discussion toward “life issues.” (Jerry spoke for many of us when he wrote: “Personally I don’t think that issue has to be part of every news story, important as it is.”)

My hope and prayer was that journalists would drill a little bit deeper during their interviews with Moore during his current media blitz so we could better connect the dots between Moore’s theology and his activism.

Some GetReligion regulars found insights in Moore’s CNN interviews with Larry King and Wolf Blitzer. I found more of what I was seeking in Fortune’s interview, which ran with this big, bold headline: “Michael Moore: Capitalism is anti-Jesus.”

The article quotes Moore’s conclusion in “Capitalism: A Love Story:”

“Capitalism is an evil and you can’t regulate evil. You have to replace it with something that is good for everyone.”

And reporter Scott Cendrowski asked a simple question that evoked an intriguing answer:

How is this film different from your previous ones?

I talk about my religion, which I have never talked about. I think religion should be a private matter. But I thought it was important to this discussion. I’m not a proselytizer, but I do have very strong beliefs and these beliefs were formed not in the school of Karl Marx, but in the Catholic Church. Priests and nuns taught me these lessons of how we’re to treat each other, how we’re to treat the poor, and how we’re to divide up the pie.

I’m one of the few people on the left who’s been fortunate to have access to a mainstream audience. I’m always thinking about ways to communicate with them and stay true to myself, because I am them, and I come from Middle America. I have very conservative values that go contrary to the fictional character that’s been created of me by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the Fox News Channel. I’ve been with the same woman for 30 years, I don’t invest my money in anything but a savings account.

This is getting interesting! In addition to Catholicism and capitalism, Moore is now raising questions about what’s good and evil, what makes a true conservative, and so much more.

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Capitalism, Catholicism and Mr. Moore

michael-moore_0031Sunday’s New York Times profile of filmmaker Michael Moore, whose “Capitalism: A Love Story” opens nationwide Oct. 2, asked readers to view Moore as a modern-day embodiment of Charlie Chaplin:

… (In) films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko,” his hulking figure shambling toward company executives and bewildered security guards has become the postindustrial version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

But Moore is also a Roman Catholic, of one sort or another. So does this make him an incarnation of Dorothy Day? Writer Bruce Headlam told me less than I wanted to know about Moore’s Catholicism or his theology of social justice:

As much as Mr. Moore sometimes plays a comic-book version of class warrior–Left-Thing vs. the Republic of Fear!–his politics are not grounded in class as much as in Roman Catholicism. Growing up in Michigan, he attended parochial school and intended to go into the seminary, inspired by the priests and nuns who, at least until Pope John Paul II, inherited a long tradition of social justice and activism in the American church.

“The nuns always made a point to take us to the Jewish temple for Passover seders,” he said. “They wanted to make it clear that the Jews had nothing to do with putting Jesus up on the cross.”

Along with a moral imperative, Catholicism also gave a method. Mr. Moore idolized the Berrigan brothers, the radical priests who introduced street theater into their activism, for example, mixing their own napalm to burn government draft records. Their actions were a form of political spectacle that, conceptually, is Marxist–workers seizing means of production and all that–and it influenced some of Mr. Moore’s best-remembered stunts.

Trolling the web, one finds that Moore describes himself as both a recovering and practicing Catholic. In 2007 he told The Seattle Times:

I’m actually a fairly conservative person. I live a very conservative lifestyle. I try to go to church most Sundays. I was raised Catholic, so I’m Catholic–sometimes a recovering Catholic. I’ve been with the same woman for the past 26 years.

On Moore’s own site, one finds articles praising the Catholic Worker movement. And in “Jesus w. Christ,” a chapter in his 2003 book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, Moore skewers conservatives’ faith that they best understand God’s plan for our world.

Some of my evangelical friends say, “Moore may be a good Catholic but he’s not a true Christian.” Many of these folks would be equally dismissive of Catholic social teaching on capitalism and social justice for the poor.

I still don’t know the theology, if any, behind Moore’s critique of capitalism. Perhaps there’s an enterprising reporter out there who can explore that angle in depth with Moore during his press blitz for “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Can we have some factual details about Moore and his current life in the church?

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Bow before the IT director!

helpdeskDaveThe St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a salacious headline yesterday about the embezzlement of $510,000:

Ex-religious official charged with embezzlement

So who was it? A bishop? High-ranking nun? Top rabbi? Let’s see:

The former head of information technology for the St. Louis Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame embezzled $510,000 through the use of fake invoices, according a [sic] grand jury indictment filed Thursday.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love IT directors more than anyone and they are certainly powerful and to be respected.

But I hadn’t realized they’d been elevated to the status of “religious officials.”

Good to know.

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Moneychangers in the temple?

daveramseyThe Associated Press had a fascinating look Dave Ramsey, a finance guru. What’s the religion angle? Well, apparently one of his major markets is Christian churches. And he mixes Christian teachings with his message of living debt free and saving money. Jay Reeves penned the piece which is full of information, particularly for an AP piece. Here’s how it begins:

With the economy gasping for life last spring, about 1.3 million people gathered in 5,600 churches nationwide to behold the nation’s leading prophet of personal finance.

Televised live from a church in Edmond, Okla., Dave Ramsey’s infomercial-style “Town Hall for Hope” was a masterful mix of inspiration, humor, advice, marketing and the Bible from a man dressed in jeans, dark jacket and an open-collar shirt.

“Hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Ramsey told a nationwide audience that included the Fox Business Network, available in 50 million homes. Later: “The Bible says the diligent prosper.”

At its core, the 90-minute show was a millionaire preaching to a struggling flock, and it raised anew the question of whether Ramsey’s hugely profitable, tax-paying business — which he describes as a ministry — fits with Jesus’ teachings.

The piece goes on to quote a variety of people but that central question in the paragraph above is never really broached. One man, for instance says Dave Ramsey’s business is an unholy alliance of business and church:

“It’s not a ministry. To me, it’s an insult to the word,” said [John] Hoffman, who lives near Logan, Kan. “It would be nice if it got out of the churches and got into the mainstream.”

Ramsey doesn’t deny mixing religion and business, and he doesn’t apologize for getting rich doing it, either. Business is a ministry, he says, and good ones prosper by serving people the way God wants them to.

“Worship is work-ship, so I don’t separate work from ministry,” Ramsey said recently at his headquarters in suburban Nashville, where he does his syndicated radio and cable TV shows. Bible verses, crosses and photos of Ramsey decorate the building.

Normally I love it when reporters just quote people and leave it at that, but I feel like both of these quotes could have used more context or explanation. For instance, it would be helpful to know why Mr. Hoffman thinks it’s an insult to describe Ramsey’s business as a ministry. I’m curious if he has the same view I have on the matter or if he approaches it from another angle. Unfortunately, it’s not explained.

And I generally think jargon should be avoided in quotes. The phrase “worship is work-ship” makes no more sense to me than its inverse — it would help if the reporter could explain it.

The article includes a lot of details about Ramsey’s business and his back story. Some of the religious details are incredibly helpful, such as when we learn that Ramsey is building off the financial teachings of John Wesley and adding a ‘no debt’ clause. But other times there are these quotes with too little context or substantiation:

“It was a way to make money instead of deliver a message,” said [T.J.] Graff, whose Internet-based business sells truck supplies. “I think it’s no different than the money changers in the temple if you want to go biblical.”

Dave-Ramsey
Again, and I say this as someone inclined to agree with this quote, it would be nice to know why Graff is saying this. And while there is a quote from two other laypeople saying they don’t mind his wealth (which we learn about in detail), a bit more from theologians would be nice. Not to beat a dead horse here, but this quote made me want to know more:

Alexander Hill, author of “Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace,” said churches can inadvertently become a tool for marketers as they try to help members through a tough economy.

“I think it’s fine for churches to provide services for the congregants, and that can be profit or nonprofit,” said Hill, president of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry based in Madison, Wis. “It’s the potential confusion that is a concern.”

Confusion about what? Whether the job of the church is to save souls or checking accounts? Or what? I share Hill’s concern so I want more meat on this quote. Even if I didn’t share his concern I would want to know a bit more about what, exactly, could be the confusion.

Still, even though I’m quibbling here, it’s a really interesting story and one of those that make you realize how much religion news may be missed by the mainstream media. You have tons of people who seek or follow Ramsey’s advice and yet there’s very little coverage. I don’t necessarily think it needs to be so adversarial to be interesting, but it’s a great topic for a reporter.

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Hello ‘National Affairs’

Crossroads_logo_redDavid Brooks’ Sept. 8 New York Times column hailed the arrival of National Affairs, a new quarterly magazine that seeks to occupy the same area of the public square vacated by The Public Interest (which closed in 2005): “the bloody crossroads where social science and public policy meet matters of morality, culture and virtue.”

Available online, the debut fall issue features “Getting Ahead in America,” an article that uses 6,000 words and a few charts and graphs to contrast economic equality (the stated goal of some government programs) and economic mobility (a condition author Ron Haskins says is encouraged by “strong families, more education, and full-time work”).

The article begins with a challenge to readers and a pot shot at journalists:

America’s familiar debate over income inequality conceals and confuses at least as much as it reveals. To hear most journalists and activists tell the story, our country is the scene of a rampant and long-running economic travesty, as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and the distance between them belies the promise of America even in times of prosperity.

Question: Is it too much to ask that authors of such generalizations take some responsibility for explaining or documenting their claims?

OK. I feel better now.

Haskins assembles an army of facts to show that American public policy may be tackling the wrong problem, and that inequality may not be as bad as all those journalists and activists suggest:

This does not mean that inequality has not been growing, or is unimportant. But it does suggest that our approach to the plight of the poor ought not to be rooted in the familiar story of inequality — as that story is not entirely accurate, and is not the most important facet of poverty and opportunity in America.

Then he drops a potential shocker:

Compared to other countries, for instance, mobility in America is surprisingly low. …The American belief that opportunity is greatest in the United States is out of line with the facts.

The article concludes that most government programs designed to aid the poor “produce modest, if any, lasting impacts on participants.”

What, then, should policy makers do?

The best way to increase opportunity is to encourage strong families, more education, and full-time work. …Society — from parents and teachers to celebrities and political figures — should send a clear and consistent message of personal responsibility to children. They should herald the “success sequence”: finish schooling, get a job, get married, have babies.

NatlAffairsLogoHaskins concludes with numerous practical suggestions for encouraging economic mobility.

All of which reminds me of the regular either-or debates that raged at the international charity where I formerly worked. Should we focus on relief or development? Should we clothe and feed those who are victims of famines and floods today, or should we concentrate on educating members of the next generation so they will become leaders of tomorrow?

Ultimately, our organization decided it would have greater impact if it focused its energies on one of these strategies. At the same time we were thankful that other organizations were tackling the problems we couldn’t.

Should the U.S. government do more to encourage economic mobility? Sure. But should it do so by diverting funds from programs serving those Jesus called “the least of these”? That’s a question that will challenge lawmakers (along with all those pesky journalists and activists).

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Wal-Mart Fundamentalists

toservegodandwalmartNormally I don’t look at book reviews since they’re just opinion pieces, more or less. But this New York Times review of books about Wal-Mart had some problems with how it handled religion. One of the books is To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton.

The book apparently discloses that Wal-Mart and its foundation have given a lot of money to conservative groups. No mention is made (in the review, at least) that Wal-Mart has also given millions to liberal groups such as The National Council of La Raza. Anyway, the article violated Associated Press style guidelines in the use of the word fundamentalist.

The reviewer says the book discusses the mystery of why people actually want to work at Wal-Mart, much less develop a loyalty to the company. The answer? It’s a fundamentalist Christian conspiracy, of course:

It is no accident, she argues, that Wal-Mart emerged in the Ozarks, a stronghold of fundamentalist Christianity that was one of the last regions of the American economy to shift from farming to other pursuits. Many farm women actually preferred the part-time jobs with flexible hours that Wal-Mart offered, even though such jobs were exempt from many regulations. Many of these women, after all, were still trying to help their husbands eke out a living on their farms, and flexible work made it easier for them to care for their children.

Economists have long recognized the attractions of flexible working arrangements to some segments of the labor force. But Moreton also offers more novel observations about the lure of Wal-Mart. She explains, for example, how the company invoked the fundamentalist Christian teachings embraced by many of its employees to fashion a working environment that induced them to work contentedly for low wages and paltry benefits.

Who knew that fundamentalists even had a stronghold? Anywhere? And what are these mysterious fundamentalist teachings?

Sam Walton was not a fundamentalist Christian. He and his wife, Helen, worshipped at a liberal branch of the Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. Walton was even an early abortion rights advocate. But Moreton argues that Walton and his fellow executives quickly recognized the economic advantage of weaving specific strands of the Ozark region’s fundamentalist belief system into their corporate strategy.

At the heart of that strategy was the company’s emphasis on the Christian concept of “servant leadership.” In other parts of the retail sector, the servitude demanded of retail clerks was typically experienced as demeaning. But by repeatedly reminding employees that the Christian servant leader cherishes opportunities to provide cheerful service to others, Moreton argues, Wal-Mart transformed servitude from a negative job characteristic into a positive one.

Oh, that fundamentalist teaching. Servant leadership. Noted fundamentalists such as Episcopalians talk about it. So do the right-wing Catholics at America. While its roots predate him, many current practitioners cite some right-wing radical named Jesus as their inspiration for it. Anyway, the Associated Press stylebook says the term should be avoided:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Incidentally, a much better review of the book — by Diane Winston — can be found over at Religion Dispatches. Winston is a progressive who gets religion and respects the author and her argument too much to throw the word “fundamentalist” around.

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