Shameless self promotion (Rockies division)

xdenver skyline2bWe are glad that people are reading GetReligion — especially working journalists. Obviously.

It is also good that religious leaders click into the site from time to time, since we think that can help them understand some of the challenges that reporters and editors face. We also try to highlight the good as well as note some of the mistakes that take place on the Godbeat (or godsbeat). I had a priest tell me, back when we started, that it helps if church leaders know who the good reporters are when looking through all of those urgent telephone messages on a busy day.

One of the most media-savvy bishops I have ever covered is Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Actually, I met him when he was the Franciscan campus minister at the downtown branch of the University of Colorado (and several other schools), before he was raised to the episcopate in his late ’30s. He has always been interested in mass media — news and entertainment — with a logical interest in youth culture. Chaput drew some attention when he discussed the film The Matrix, with its meditations on the confusion and unreality of modern life, in the context of the Columbine High School massacre.

Anyway, the archbishop’s interest in journalism is frequently evident in in his newspaper columns and speeches. He is considered a pro-Rome conservative, but rare are the traditionalists who pay this much attention to trends in media and modern life. Many Catholic liberals detest him (think abortion politics), but he also makes a few conservatives nervous from time to time (think death penalty and economic issues). Catholic theology tends to shred labels.

All of this is to note that, in a new column in the Denver Catholic Register, the archbishop has praised GetReligion — for reasons that both needle and praise mainstream journalists. Here is a sample:

Getreligion.org is one of my favorite Web sites, not because it’s Catholic or pious — it’s neither — but because it asks the right questions. … The results aren’t comforting. The evidence gathered by getreligion.org shows again and again that the press doesn’t “get” religion as a story. Denver is unusual in having two major newspapers, both with capable religion coverage. But overall, major news organizations tend to cover religion poorly, predictably and too often with a negative undercurrent.

As we enter yet another election year, Catholics should remember that what we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television is often useful, but it’s always a selective taste of reality. Deciding about a candidate based on the latest headlines, or about an issue based on the latest reported poll, is a recipe for trouble.

431342470  oJournalists, of course, would want to debate with the archbishop about that phrase “predictably and too often” being used to describe negative coverage of religion news. That’s a debate he would welcome and it would be a lively one.

When it comes to GetReligion, Chaput specifically wanted to praise Mark Stricherz for challenging mainstream journalists to dig into religious issues and debates among Democrats as well as Republicans. Click here and then here for the posts in question. As the archbishop notes, “obviously, plenty of very good people, including many religious believers, inhabit both political parties.” Why not cover both stories?

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have all spoken quite publicly about their religious faith in recent months. Yet as Stricherz notes, the recent Iowa caucus poll supported by all four major TV networks, CNN and AP was framed in a way that presumed religion is a major factor for Republicans and not for Democrats. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not — but we won’t ever know from the poll results, because the right questions weren’t asked.

Amen. So check out the archbishop’s column. And we thank him for being a reader and recommending GetReligion to others. Perhaps he should bring this subject up the next time he meets with local editors and television producers?

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Public radio, Huck and the Eucharist

eucharist 01The radio skit wasn’t news, but it may, perhaps, make some real news.

During the Fair Game with Faith Salie broadcast on KCPW — the public radio station in northern Utah — the producers decided to air some political commentary with major, repeat major, religious content. Here is a link to the skit itself, although it appears that the station has taken this content offline or it has crashed due to high traffic.

However, here’s the key part of the script, as passed along by the Catholic League:

[Woman's voice]: And now another Huckabee family recipe leaked by his opponents.

[Male Voice]: Tired of bland unsatisfying Eucharists? Try this Huckabee family favorite. Deep-Fried Body of Christ — boring holy wafers no more. Take one Eucharist. Preferably post transubstantiation. Deep-fry in fat, not vegetable oil, ladies, until crispy. Serve piping hot. Mike likes to top his Christ with whipped cream and sprinkles. But his wife Janet and the boys like theirs with heavy gravy and cream puffs. It goes great with red wine.

[Woman's voice]: Now that is just ridiculous. Everyone knows evangelicals don’t believe in transubstantiation.

Let’s leave the Catholic League out of this one. That’s not the story.

This was satire and, thus, is protected speech. The station had every right to put this on the air. And evangelicals and Catholics have every right to protest — especially since this involved their tax dollars.

But, what is this story really about? Before we ask that question, let’s ask what the SKIT itself was about, since that may point toward whatever news story is here. Needless to say, the station’s leaders have been asked this question. Here is part of a post by KCPW blogger Bryan Schott:

So, I’ve been spending most of my day fielding calls and e-mails from people who are outraged by a skit that aired on Fair Game. … I can see where the outrage is coming from, but the skit was meant to poke fun at Mike Huckabee’s Southern roots and his problems with obesity. That’s not my interpretation, that’s why they wrote it.

Frankly, I don’t know how to respond to this. We don’t originate the show. We don’t have an editorial control. The host is a friend of mine — and she’s really upset that this is the reaction. She’s Catholic herself, and didn’t mean to poke fun at Jesus.

The point, you see, is that the producers of the show were not mocking Jesus and they were not mocking Roman Catholics. They were mocking Bible Belt people. They were mocking an evangelical from the Bible Belt who is running for president. The problem was that they had to use the Mass and the Catholic faith in order to get to the punch line about the evangelical target. Follow that?

So, what is the point? That Catholics should not vote for Huckabee? That many Catholics are tempted to vote for Huckabee and this offends progressive Catholics? That this was a journalist’s attempt to protest political cooperation between evangelical Protestants and traditionalist Catholics? Or was this simply a stupid skit that gives us insight into what a very, very small number of people in public radio think is funny?

wine and cheeseHere’s why I ask that question. I have received a few emails recently asking me if your GetReligionistas believe — as some of our comments page regulars clearly do — that the whole NPR universe is somehow (a) anti-religion, (b) anti-traditional forms of religion, (c) anti-evangelicals or (d) some combination of the above.

Personally, I think that NPR does some of the best religion-news coverage that is being done today — period. Click here for the network’s religion-news page. Then again, I also think The New York Times does some of the MSM’s best religion coverage.

Seriously, it’s hard to question NPR’s commitment to excellence. Does that mean that the critics of public-radio are totally wrong when they suggest that, well, many people at NPR and the network’s core audience have a rather blue-zip-code view of the world?

It’s way too simplistic to say that NPR people are all liberals and who are out to mock people like Mike Huckabee and the people who are voting for him.

But I will ask this question: Can you imagine a public-radio station airing a skit this blunt about, oh, any efforts that Barack Obama may make to reach out to Catholics? Wine, bries, soul food, watermelon and Eucharist? That Hillary Clinton might make to reach out to Muslims? Imagine the humor material lurking there. That John Edwards might make to reach out to Jews?

And will NPR do a straight national news story about this controversy? Just asking.

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Red state, blue state — pshaw

newredblueAfter reading stories about the New Hampshire election results last night, I remembered that 12 years ago Mark Penn and Dick Morris, two all-powerful pollsters for President Clinton, had discovered a remarkably effective polling technique.

Voters were asked five questions about their moral and religious values, including how often they attended church. Those who gave a liberal answer on three of the five questions voted for Clinton, while those who gave a conservative answer on three of the five went for Bob Dole. (Click here for an old tmatt column on that issue and, well, secularism.)

Except for race and party affiliation, the technique proved to be a more reliable guide to voter behavior than any other, more reliable than gender, social class, or age. It certainly was prescient in forecasting the red-state, blue-state divide that characterized the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

Unlike last week, when the Edison-Mitofsky poll inexplicably failed to ask voters about religion, its pollsters did so yesterday. So did reporters write about voters’ religiosity? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but no, not really.

The Boston Globe focused on female, young, and independent voters. The Chicago Tribune wrote mostly about female voters. The Washington Post offered nothing. The New York Times did write about the evangelical vote, but the block quote below was about the extent of it:

As for Mr. Huckabee, his advisers say he has not written off Michigan and believe that his evangelical credentials will appeal to the large swath of Dutch Reformed evangelical churchgoers in western Michigan, while his populist rhetoric about his empathy with working people will strike a chord with the state’s blue-collar voters.

Hey, I know the main story last night was the two “comeback” victories of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. I will also concede that in the primaries, the voters of women, young people, and independents are telling indicators of a candidate’s strength. But do reporters really think that voters’ religious affiliation and frequency of church attendance aren’t worth writing about?

If reporters choose to analyze the voting returns in terms of religion, they will find plenty of material. Barack Obama won the secular vote handily. He beat Hillary Clinton 45 to 29 among those who have no religion. Almost two-fifths of Democratic voters (37 percent) say they never attend religious services. Mike Huckabee won only 7 percent of the Catholic vote and only 4 percent of those Republicans who have no religion. More than a fifth of Republican voters (22 percent said they never attend religious services.

All those sound like interesting and relevant stories to me. So why haven’t reporters written about them? GR readers, we need to hear from you.

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From our, ‘OK, we’ll comment’ department

crucifix crossNow you have to admit, in the midst of all the primary craziness, that this tale from the front lines is kind of fun.

The item in question is from Roger Simon’s “Inside New Hampshire” feature over at the Politico. It’s based on one of those old sayings you hear all the time in journalism school, that the “only dumb question is the one you do not ask.” Actually, the way I used to hear it was that the only dumb question is the question that you did not ask, especially if you did not know the answer to it and, later, the information turned out to be crucial to your story.

Anyway, this is a classic “dumb question” anecdote that is, of course, linked to the press and its religion blind spot. Simon writes:

At a press availability with Hillary Clinton (and, as far as I can tell, the only difference between a press availability and a press conference is that reporters get to sit down at a press conference) a reporter pointed to Clinton’s bracelet and asked: “Is that a crucifix?”

Clinton seemed a little taken aback. “I’m sorry, what?” she said.

“Is that a crucifix?” the reporter repeated.

“It’s a cross,” Clinton replied.

Clinton, who has a staggering range of knowledge and isn’t afraid to show it off, had it right, of course: A crucifix has the depiction of the body of Jesus on it and a cross does not.

But the reporter had his follow-up ready.

“Does it have religious significance?” he asked.

Everybody erupted in laughter. Does a cross have religious significance? Is that what he really asked?

“Talk about the secular press!” Clinton said.

Actually, as a friend noted in an email tip about this nugget, the reporter may have been asking a different question: Does this cross have religious significance to you?” That’s a fairly logical question, although it is not unheard of for a United Methodist to wear a cross.

Now, back to the primaries.

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Super sweet fifteen

quinceanera 1Where I grew up in California, Saturdays were for Quinceaneras (why won’t WordPress accept the letter n with a tilde?). If you drove by the Catholic church at the right time, you’d see what looked like a wedding party pouring out. The Associated Press’ Eric Gorski uses the hook of Quinceaneras to discuss how the Roman Catholic church in America is embracing its changing identity:

An elaborate coming-of-age ritual for Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday, the Quinceanera has long been divisive in the U.S. Catholic Church, where it’s viewed as either an exercise in excess or a great opportunity to send a message about faith and sexual responsibility.

The latter view won an important endorsement last summer, when the Vatican approved a new set of prayers for U.S. dioceses called Bendicion al cumplir quince anos, or Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday.

Consider it an acknowledgment of the changing face of American Catholicism. Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 65 million Catholics and 71 percent of new U.S. Catholics since 1960, studies show.

In Denver, Gorski reports the archdiocese views the celebrations as a way to fight teen pregnancy. Before the Quinceanera Mass, girls and their parents have to complete a four-week course on Catholicism and chastity:

In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the Quinceanera once signaled that a girl was officially on the marriage market. The downside to that legacy: The Quinceanera Mass is sometimes seen as sexual coming-of-age moment.

Although teen pregnancy rates have generally been in decline across ethnic lines over the last 15 years, 51 percent of Hispanic teens get pregnant before age 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Gorski has a talent for telling stories rich with details. He gets good quotes from girls going through the classes as well as theologians. He also explains how the quinceanera industry has gotten completely out of control. I’m sure I’m not alone in watching MTV’s decadent My Super Sweet 16 show. Apparently the over-the-top coming-of-age ceremony is not limited to a few bratty teens:

A $400 million-a-year industry has sprouted up catering to Hispanic immigrants seeking to maintain cultural traditions while showing they’ve made it in their new countries, offering everything from Quinceanera planners and cruises to professional ballroom dancers to teach the ceremonial waltz.

At the same time, the ritual is a point of tension with the Catholic church because Catholic families want their faith to be part of the celebration yet it isn’t a sacrament, like marriage.

Read the whole thing. Like many good religion stories, it’s complex and intersects with sociology and economics.

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Details, details (in Kenya)

kenya mapAt a time when elections in other countries lead to assassinations and rioting, it is sobering how relatively peaceful election battles in the United States are. Yesterday’s news that post-election violence in Kenya led to the deaths of as many as 275 people and included the torching of a church where people had sought shelter was particularly sobering.

When people first started sending around stories about the attack, I was struck by the lack of an important detail in the reports. The New York Times had a lengthy — 1,000 words — story on the matter that neglected to mention what type of church was burned. The Associated Press didn’t mention it either. I had to surf through half a dozen stories before I found the information in a Reuters report:

The reporter said about 200 people had been seeking refuge at the Kenya Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, about 8 km (5 miles) from Eldoret in fertile Rift Valley Province.

Later, the New York Times and the Associated Press updated their stories to include this information. It is yet another reminder how wonderful the internet can be in helping reporters correct errors or supplement their stories.

The quality of the stories has improved with time but I’m still left with a few questions. One of the most thorough stories goes to great lengths to explain the nature of the divides in Kenya. President Mwai Kibaki was inaugurated for a second term on Sunday in an election that has been criticized as rigged. Kibaki is an ethnic Kikuyu:

The violence — from the shantytowns of Nairobi to resort towns on the sweltering coast — has exposed long-festering tribal resentment.

The people killed in Eldoret, about 185 miles northwest of Nairobi, were members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. … On Tuesday morning, a mob of about 2,000 arrived at the church, said George Karanja, whose family had sought refuge there.

“They started burning the church,” Karanja told the AP in a telephone interview, his voice catching with emotion as he described the scene. “The mattresses that people were sleeping on caught fire. There was a stampede, and people fell on one another.”

Karanja, 37, helped pull out at least 10 people, but added, “I could not manage to pull out my sister’s son. He was screaming ‘Uncle, uncle!’ … He died.” The boy was 11.

Karanja said victims were being hacked with machetes before being set on fire.

The Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, are accused of turning their dominance of politics and business to the detriment of others. Odinga is from the Luo tribe, a smaller but still major tribe that says it has been marginalized.

There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya, and political leaders have often used unemployed and uneducated young men to intimidate opponents. While Kibaki and Odinga have support from across the tribal spectrum, the youth responsible for the violence tend to see politics in strictly ethnic terms.

The context and explanation of tribal divisions is great but I am, of course, curious about the religious views of the warring factions.

Were the Kikuyu seeking refuge in a church because they were Christian? Were their attackers Christian? Kenya is a tremendously diverse country and about 45 percent Protestant, 25 percent Catholic and 10 percent Muslim. Hopefully as the coverage progresses we’ll get a few more details about how religion plays into this sad story.

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Do Christians follow their leaders?

pat2 The Washington Post acknowledged yesterday that contrary to its pronunciation 14 years ago, evangelicals are not “easily led.”

OK, I made that up, but not really.

As recently as seven weeks ago, The Washington Post implied that evangelical voters followed the political dictates of their leaders. After Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani and Senator Sam Brownback backed John McCain, the newspaper concluded that evangelical voters were similarly divided. After all, if evangelical shepherds are divided, so too must their flock:

The endorsements of two Christian conservative leaders yesterday underscored the fractures that remain among evangelical voters less than two months before the first votes will be cast in the Republican presidential nominating contest

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that in fact, evangelical voters are not like a bunch of sheep. After talking to dozens of voters in Iowa, reporters Perry Bacon and Michael D. Shear, the latter of who had co-written the story above, found that evangelicals paid their leaders’ views little mind:

many of the voters interviewed Sunday said they were not influenced heavily by the views of national religious leaders or their local pastors.

Over the past two months, endorsements by evangelist Pat Robertson of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), and by conservative Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have done little to raise the candidates’ fortunes, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) has struggled here despite an initial embrace of his candidacy by national Christian activists. Iowa pastors who backed Huckabee were largely following, rather than leading, their congregations.

On Saturday, the Rev. Morris Hurd, chairman of the Iowa Christian Alliance, endorsed Romney, even though the alliance is formally neutral. Sunday, some of the people at Hurd’s 200-member church in eastern Iowa, West Hill United Methodist in Burlington, had read the news, but they were not swayed.

So the Post has concluded that at the least, today evangelicals are not easily led. That’s a start.

But it won’t do to say that evangelical leaders influence voters not at all. Clearly, evangelical leaders do influence them. How else to explain the development below? (The news was first reported by Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic Monthly.)

On Friday, three national religious leaders backing Huckabee — Tim LaHaye, Michael Farris and Rick Scarborough — convened a conference call with Iowa pastors to urge them to use Sunday’s services to drive up participation by Christian voters, who polls suggest favor the former Arkansas governor by comfortable margins.

Perhaps the Huckabee campaign is foolish to employ this tactic, but it sounds reasonable. Evangelical leaders can affect turnout rates; if the pastor urges his congregants to vote, more will do so.

This phenomenon is not limited to evangelicals, by the way. I found a corollary to this in my own research about Catholics. In examining why one county in western Pennsylvania has switched on the presidential level from Democrat to Republican, I discovered that some Catholic voters were influenced by the outspoken views of their leaders on hot-button cultural issues.

Here’s my recommendation, although it’s not original: Reporters should call professors or experts in religion and politics — and not just John Green! Expecting a reporter to call a scholar while in the heat of a presidential campaign is surely too much to ask. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that of reporters when they are cooling their proverbial heels.

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Homeschoolers all look the same to me

HomeschoolingI’m sure all of you have your countdown clocks going for the first major event in 2008 — the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses! So much drama, so many television commercials, so many cliches and platitudes. The Los Angeles Times published a story about former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and his roving army of homeschooled children/precinct captains.

I’m still waiting for a story to explain how someone can be endorsed both by teachers unions and homeschoolers. The New Hampshire arm of the National Education Association endorsement of Huckabee gave Huckabee its first ever endorsement of any Republican. And teachers unions are notorious for opposing homeschooling. Politics creates strange bedfellows but usually those bedfellows have noncompeting motivations. The Times story doesn’t mention Huckabee’s endorsement from the New Hampshire NEA but it does delve deeply into the support he receives from certain homeschoolers in Iowa and other early primary states:

As other candidates have found over the years, home-schoolers’ flexible schedules make them invaluable volunteers. High school-age students can call a halt to calculus to set up chairs for a town hall meeting, or put off biology for a day to stick mailing labels on the latest campaign flier.

In the evenings, families pile into minivans to canvas door-to-door. Parents often send their children to make the pitch, so the whole experience becomes part of their education, like a civics class come to life.

“You get a family where there’s eight or nine children . . . you have a team right there. Put several of those out helping, and doing it for free, and that does a lot,” said Justin LaVan, 35, a Des Moines lawyer and father of five who serves on the board of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators.

The story does a good job of talking to actual homeschoolers and explaining how it is that a relatively small percentage of the population can be so helpful to candidates. But as GetReligion reader and homeschooler Sharon D. pointed out, the story has some basic reporting problems. Take this, for example:

About 9,000 of Iowa’s students are home-educated. Nationwide, the number is 2 million and rising steadily, according to Michael P. Ferris, who runs the national home-schooling association. Home-schoolers are distributed fairly evenly among the states. Though an increasing number are ethnic or racial minorities, the majority of families are evangelical Christians.

The national homeschooling association? The? How about “a” national association. The group Ferris founded, the National Homeschool Legal Defense Association, is but one group that represents the interests of homeschoolers. There is also, for instance, the National Home Education Network.

The last line of the excerpted paragraph is also troubling.

It is written to appear that being an evangelical Christian is at odds with being a member of an ethnic or racial minority. I don’t think the data would support the notion that these groups are mutually exclusive. There’s also the problem that a figure is dropped in the story without a source — that a majority of families who homeschool are evangelical Christians. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that unspecified religious or unspecified moral reasons are the primary motivation of a sizable 30 percent of parents who homeschool, but any contention that a majority of homeschool families are specifically evangelical Christians should be sourced.

Decades ago in my home state of Colorado, Christians of various stripes as well as other religious adherents, secularists and parents of children with special needs comprised local homeschool associations. Many had religious or moral motivations for homeschooling but not all were evangelical. It may be true that a majority of families who homeschool are evangelical Christian but I would like to know more about the proof for that figure. Sharon has one final comment to add:

Finally, if most trivially, can everybody please update their stylebooks? I haven’t seen a homeschooler hyphenate the word in many years. Why are newspapers determined that they must?

The Los Angeles Times story is a good one and helpful to understanding a key factor in Huckabee’s standing in Iowa. But reporters need to be careful when writing about homeschoolers and see them as the incredibly diverse group they are.

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