‘Well, duh!’ headline of the day

jesuslandagainThere is nothing really wrong with this Associated Press report by Tom Raum.

Honest.

But it does rather leave you wondering if the editors who wrote this and, especially, wrote the headline were around at the time of the 2000 and 2004 “pew gap” elections. Also, there has been an ocean of ink spilled on this topic in the past year.

I think we have reached the point where this headline — at the Washington Post site — is an understatement worthy of a chuckle: “Religion Looms Large Over 2008 Race.”

You think? You think that religion is an issue for the candidates, even beyond Gov. Mitt Romney?

Religion has not played so prominent a role in a U.S. national election since 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president. And it’s not only Romney under scrutiny. All the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls have been grilled on their religious beliefs. Most seem eager to talk publicly about their faith as they actively court religious voters.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasizes her Methodist upbringing and says her faith helped her repair her marriage.

Chief rival Sen. Barack Obama frequently uses the language of religion and proclaims a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. The Illinois Democrat — whose middle name is “Hussein” — scoffs at suggestions of Muslim leanings because he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He is a member of the United Church of Christ.

And so forth and so on, through virtually the entire list of candidates on both sides of the political and church aisle. It’s a nice, crisp summary.

Oh, and did you hear that Southern evangelicals have become more politically active? There’s this thing out there called the Religious Right! Really!

Art: It’s a two-fer. Back by popular demand.

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Devotion to God, then the game

piazzaMichael Kress is the assistant managing editor at Beliefnet and a freelance religion reporter. I’ve come across a few of his articles recently as he’s published in Slate, The Dallas Morning News and other sites.

He had a really straightforward and interesting Q&A with Mike Piazza in The Seattle Times this week. Piazza is the (boo, hiss) designated hitter for the Oakland Athletics. The interview isn’t exactly probing, but it certainly puts Piazza in a new light. I’ve followed Piazza since he was with the Dodgers and knew his brother was Tommy Lasorda’s godson but was surprised by some of his responses to Kress’ questions about religion:

Q: There’s debate about whether it’s appropriate to pray for little things in life, like finding a parking space. Do you pray for victory in games, or for home runs?

A: No, I really don’t. My personal opinion is to keep it broader, to get up in the morning and pray for the Lord’s blessings. Pray for the Lord to help me do my best at my job. To pray for health. Pray for guidance. Pray for all these things. And then all the little things kind of slide in.

Q: Do you have a favorite prayer?

A: I love the rosary, and I say the Hail Mary a lot. The devotion, especially my devotion to the Holy Mother, is something that’s helped me a lot. And I love praying the rosary, so I say my Hail Marys all the time.

Q: Could you say a little more about what Mary means to you?

A: The fact that she was just so devoted and so special, that God chose her to bear his son. It’s, like, wow. It’s really a special thing. I love reading about her, and reading about some of the apparitions, or reported apparitions, throughout history. I wish I had so much grace that I would be privileged to see it.

This interview proves you don’t need to cover religion in terms of conflict or controversy. Religious devotion is a normal part of people’s daily lives and it needs to be covered from that angle, too. A column like this, where local news makers — or average Joes, for that matter — were interviewed about their religious views could be very interesting.

For more of Kress on baseball and religion, I recommend this blog post he wrote on Barry Bonds. It also reminds me of how The Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher lost me in the opening line of his story on the Nationals hosting one of those Faith Nights so popular among ticket sellers (somehow the Post managed not to notice the third annual Gay Night hosted by the Nationals last week). Fisher wrote that baseball and religion don’t mix. All this to say that anyone who doesn’t see where religion and baseball overlap has no business writing about the game. I much prefer Kress on the beat.

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Here some stand

Schmeling“Stories like this annoy me,” a Lutheran pastor wrote when he notified us of the following Chicago Sun-Times piece. Written by veteran religion reporter Susan Hogan/Albach, it’s about how the Metropolitan Chicago bishop-elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America views his denomination’s celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy. The Lutheran clergy and GetReligion reader is a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which does not ordain gay clergy. Though both Lutheran groups are large (and I’m a member of the LCMS), only the larger ELCA is mentioned in the story.

Because of insufficiently clear mainstream media coverage, LCMS Lutherans are used to being asked if we really pay for the abortions of our female clergy members (the LCMS doesn’t even have female clergy members and officially believes the lives of unborn humans should be protected) and other such questions that are better posed to the larger and more politically liberal ELCA. But rarely is there any differentiation among the Lutheran groups in mainstream media. The mention that not all Lutherans are ELCA Lutherans doesn’t need to be big or a substantive part of the story — but it’s probably good to mention it. Particularly considering just how wildly different the two groups stand on everything from confessional approach to political involvement. On to the story:

The Chicago Sun-Times story begins with a horrible headline: “Same-sex salvation.” The story isn’t about whether gays and lesbians are saved. The story isn’t even about whether or not gays and lesbians should be ordained. The story is about the debate in the ELCA over whether or not people who are gay and lesbian AND are ordained should be engaged in sexual behavior. The story and accompanying side bar never even address salvation. Here’s how the story begins:

The Lutheran pastor soon to be bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod wants his denomination to lift a celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy.

“That’s where I think the church is going,” Bishop-elect Wayne Miller of Aurora said. “That’s where I think it needs to go.”

He’s hoping the change will come next month in Chicago, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is conducting its churchwide assembly. Nearly a third of the denomination’s 65 synods are asking for a policy shift in clergy standards.

Two things that I would like to praise about the story: thank goodness Hogan/Albach is on this very timely story about possible changes in the ELCA’s position on homosexuals in sexual relationships serving in the ministry. It’s a big story and there has not been enough coverage. The denomination’s assembly is being held shortly after a decision to defrock a popular gay pastor in Atlanta (Bradley Schmeling, pictured) for his sexual relationship with his partner. And it’s also great the lengths she goes to identify the denomination by its official name: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are many stories that just go with ‘Lutheran’. The reason why it’s a shame there hasn’t been more coverage of this particular angle is that it leaves those of us curious about the debate completely in the dark about the particular views of the various sides involved. It’s hard to analyze viewpoints when they’re not substantively looked at.

The reporter speaks with folks on one side of the issue, including the current bishop:

“Some of the churches with the most growth in this synod are led by gay pastors in committed relationships,” said Bishop Paul Landahl, 69, who has led the Metropolitan Chicago Synod since 2001.

Landahl said he approaches the issue pastorally and with compassion.

“I have a daughter [who is in] a same-sex committed relationship,” he said. “It’s been part of my life. To see her connected to a church that’s kind of slammed the door on gay and lesbian people is a miracle in and of itself.”

Unfortunately, the reporter doesn’t speak with anyone in the ELCA who believes differently. And the problem with lack of diversity is not just intra-ELCA or intra-Lutheran. In a sidebar, Hogan/Albach tries to show “where the faiths stand” on ordaining homosexual clergy. Here’s the full list:

Catholics: The church, which only ordains celibate men, says homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” but that it is not a sin to have a “homosexual orientation.”

Episcopal Church (U.S.): Supportive of gay clergy, including a bishop in a same-sex relationship, which put the denomination at odds with some in the worldwide Anglican communion.

Presbyterians (U.S.): Clergy are required to live either in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

United Church of Christ: Not only supports gay clergy, but endorses same-sex marriage.

United Methodist: Because homosexuality is considered “incompatible” with Christian teaching, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” aren’t ordained.

Judaism: More liberal branches allow for gay and lesbian rabbis.

Islam: Imams aren’t ordained and homosexuality is considered immoral.

So there’s no differentiation for Presbyterians. There’s the funny (U.S.) designation after them and the Episcopal Church. Does that mean she’s referring to the PCA? or the PCUSA? There’s a mention of the UCC and UMC but no mention of, say, any Baptist, charismatic or evangelical denominations. And while the LCMS is over twice as large as the UCC, it doesn’t even get mentioned. It’s kind of like we got a view of the full scope of religious viewpoints — as seen through the windows of a mainstream newsroom.

It would be one thing if the story was limiting its focus to old-line mainstream Protestants, but with the inclusion of the Catholic church and Judaism and Islam, it’s hard to see what the goal of the sidebar is.

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The ‘usual’ death-penalty ghosts

ExecutionTableHave you been following the case of convicted cop-killer Troy Davis on death row in Georgia?

The Georgia clemency board recently granted him a stay of execution, so the story has moved off page one of the major newspapers and back into the inside pages for a while.

Still it is worth following, for several reasons (including what is, for me, a major religion-news ghost).

The best way to get up to speed on this distressing situation is by reading a recent Peter Whoriskey feature story in The Washington Post. There are a number of layers to the controversy, including questions about recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that may make it harder to stop an execution, even when serious questions are raised about the guilt of the person on death row.

What kind of questions?

Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses — a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting — have said they made it up.

Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony.

“It’s getting scary,” Davis said by phone last week. “They don’t want to hear the new facts.”

This is the point in the story where I expected to run into the religion angle, but did not.

The circumstances of the case have provoked criticism beyond the usual groups that oppose the death penalty.

“There is no more serious violent crime than the murder of an off-duty police officer who was putting his life on the line to protect innocent bystanders,” William S. Sessions, FBI director under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But “serious questions have been raised about Davis’s guilt. … It would be intolerable to execute an innocent man.”

Please try, for a few minutes, to set aside your convictions against the death penalty. I know this is hard. What I want you to do is ask this question: What are the “usual groups” that oppose the death penalty and why do these groups believe what they believe?

To cut to the chase, there are people on the cultural left for whom the death penalty is a normal part of their agenda. They may be, let’s say, pro-abortion rights but anti-death penalty. Then there are people on the right who have it the other way around. They are against abortion, but support — to varying degrees — the death penalty.

But what about the “consistently pro-life” people? Whenever I have covered stories linked to the death penalty, I have always found people active in the cause who fell into this camp. Their motivation is, with few exceptions, explicitly religious. Many are Roman Catholics, but there are others who fall into this camp, as well.

I was shocked that Whoriskey’s feature, which was very well written, totally ignored the religious themes that are almost always present in death-penalty cases of this kind. In fact, there is little or no content about the “why” element of this story at all.

Once again, why do people oppose the death penalty? Why does it matter so much to them that — no matter how skilled the investigators — there will always be people who are killed by the state who are innocent of the crimes they are supposed to have committed?

In other words, is this a religious issue for some of those activists in the “usual groups” who oppose the death penalty? I believe the answer is “yes.”

Photo: “Capital punishment,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, July 16, 2007.

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Catholics and Protestants still have doctrinal differences

ReligiousWarSignGifI know this is old news, but a reader sent along another recent story about Pope Benedict XVI saying that non-Roman Catholics are outside the true church. I know we covered this already, but the media treatment of this story has been so horrific that it merits another post. For this week’s installment, let’s look at Steve Maynard’s piece in the Tacoma News Tribune. First the subhead:

Puget Sound-area Protestants and Catholics reach out to each other after a message from the pope prompts shock and dismay.

Shock and dismay, eh? So it’s going to be that kind of story. A caption says “Catholic leaders are downplaying a recent Vatican declaration reaffirming Catholicism as the one true church.” Let’s see if they’re downplaying the Vatican declaration or the media treatment:

Faithful people from Tacoma to Tulsa to Tijuana took notice this month when the Vatican reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church as the only path to salvation. Pope Benedict XVI’s stance that other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches had the potential to divide.

Ugh. It’s amazing that this story comes so late in the news cycle and repeats errors from day one of the coverage. At least it’s good that the reporter has noticed the Vatican simply reaffirmed its teaching. The Vatican has said nothing new here. And given that, it is rather odd that reporters and others continue to be shocked that the Vatican teaches Catholic doctrine. But, most importantly, did the pope say that all non-Catholics are going to hell? Or did he say that Lutherans, Anglicans, Protestants, etc., are not the true church?

A quick note to complain at the unimaginative nature of all the coverage surrounding this Vatican reprint. It’s so easy to take the most obvious point-counterpoint approach. But why not flesh it out a bit more? This supposed shock and awe felt by others seems a bit manufactured (or at least prompted) by the media. I disagree with the document because Lutherans believe the Church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” But I’m not upset, shocked or even the least bit surprised at the Vatican’s document.

Is it really newsworthy that Catholics believe themselves to have the right teaching? If they didn’t, why would they retain their teachings? Isn’t everybody in the church body they’re in because they believe it to be right? If I were a reporter covering this and was required to interview people who were upset by this document, I would ask lots of questions about precisely why they were upset. So many mainstream reports just assumed that outrage was the natural response. Why? Is it news that Catholics have different doctrinal views than other Christians? Is it news that these different beliefs, you know, mean something to people who take them seriously? Apparently it is:

The Rev. Dave Brown of Immanuel Presbyterian Church decided it was time to talk with the Catholic priest two blocks away. . . .

“I was bothered by the pope’s statement and felt it was the catalyst to start developing a relationship with him,” Brown said.

Protestants are not the only ones shocked, dismayed and hurt by the Vatican’s statement, said the Rev. David Alger, executive director of Tacoma-based Associated Ministries.

“A lot of Catholics are deeply troubled and are struggling with what this all means,” said Alger, an ordained Presbyterian.

And, in fact, the reporter speaks with precisely one — that’s one (1) — lay Catholic who says he’s upset by the document. In setting up the quote, the reporter says the pope asserted that Catholicism “has a corner on salvation.” Which is not what the document said. The rest of the Catholics interviewed? They all explain how the media misinterpreted it. In fact, one specifically says:

“It’s not a question of saying only Catholics are being saved,” [the Rev. Michael McDermott, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Tacoma] said.

How the reporter could include this quote while saying the absolute opposite in the opening paragraph rather mystifies me. The priest goes on to explain that Catholics believe they are the only true church in part because of their seven sacraments and a lineage of bishops they believe can be traced back to Jesus’ apostles. But, he says, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ isn’t present and operative in other church groups. The fact that Catholic churches accept the baptisms of other Christians should be proof of this to any average religion reporter.

But the reporter seems confused that Catholics and Protestants could have a long history of working together on (non-sacramental) food banks and other social welfare programs while actually believing each other to teach doctrine incorrectly or administer the sacraments incorrectly.

With this much time out from the reissue of that document, I was hoping for more substantive coverage. One great angle, even for a local religion reporter, would be to look at the different views of apostolic succession among Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Protestant churches. Particularly since different views and practices about same were a major point of the Vatican document.

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Dark night of a reporter’s soul

09064 2The editors of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting decision when they decided to give page-one play to religion reporter William Lobdell’s soul-searching essay, “Religion beat became a test of faith — A reporter looks at how the stories he covered affected him and his spiritual journey.”

That headline is actually stating things rather mildly.

This is a first-person account in which Lobdell describes his journey from born-again Protestantism (and his prayers that God would let him cover the religion beat) to his near conversion to the Roman Catholic faith and finally into a state of dismay and what certainly appears to be, at the moment, a tragic loss of faith. He also says his trials on the religion beat have led him to ask that the editors give him a new job.

This is not a news story, so it is hard to give it a standard GetReligion critique. Although there are moments when the reporter in me wants to ask questions, that is hard to do when you are reading a story as painful and gripping as this one. This is a spiritual reflection, not journalism. It is hard to tell Lobdell that he is wrong — even though many readers will question his conclusions, for reasons of their own.

Essentially, this is an essay about ancient questions linked to theodicy — putting God on trial for the painful reality of evil in this world. Although the writer mentions several issues that pushed him over the edge, it certainly appears that his fury is rooted in his attempts to cover sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and the cover-up by many bishops. Lobdell cannot come to terms with this. Who could?

That leads to the heart of the story:

As the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn’t connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.

I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he’s never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

“My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don’t know. And frankly, if I’m totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, ‘You, God, are infinite; I’m human and finite.’”

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn’t reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn’t exist.

REM tableau 2What can you say about a page-one article of this kind?

Actually, I have more questions that I wish I could ask the editors than questions I would ask Lobdell.

Don’t get me wrong. There would be much I would say to him in person, most of it rooted in the idea that it is better to wrestle with eternal faith issues in the context of a living, vital faith community than on one’s on. But that is hardly a journalistic comment either, now is it? As C.S. Lewis noted in The Horse and His Boy, there are times when God tells each person his or her own story and others simply have to urge them to listen. We cannot hear their story or claim to know what they should be hearing.

I have only known one or two professionals who felt their faith was threatened by covering religion news. I have known people who found faith on the beat — one or two (I will name no names). I have known people whose faith changed while on the beat. And, as I have said many times, I have known excellent religion writers who had a fierce intellectual interest in religious issues and events, but no faith at all.

This is journalism and there are all kinds of people who can do this journalistic work with skill and integrity.

The question, for me, is why this story ended up on page one, rather than in a Sunday feature section, a pullout magazine or some other part of the Times that carries essays, rather than news features or breaking stories.

Were the editors trying to say something about journalism? About faith? A warning about what happens when people of faith work on this beat? That, to me, was the mystery linked to this piece.

Photos: REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

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Don’t discuss religion and politics

bookcoverlgThe Detroit Free Press had a rather bizarre article about the intersection of religious views and politics.

It’s not the clearest piece of reportage I’ve ever read, but apparently Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., is upset by comments Bruce Fealk, an anti-war activist and host of cable-access show, made about the lawmaker’s religious views:

In his comments, Fealk, 53, said Knollenberg should atone for his sins — meaning his refusal to back Democratic-sponsored legislation to set timetables for removing the troops — like a good Catholic.

Both Knollenberg’s staff and the National Republican Congressional Committee slammed Fealk and MoveOn.org, a nationwide advocacy group to which Fealk belongs. In a statement today, the NRCC said, “MoveOn.org has once again made a name for themselves by attacking Joe Knollenberg’s personal beliefs and turning the Iraq war into a political, partisan game. … Religious smears have no place in political discourse.”

The story also says that Knollenberg’s chief of staff asked Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm not to appear on the cable show again and to tell Fealk that “injecting an elected official from Michigan’s religion into a debate on a public policy issue crosses the line.”

What line is that? No clue.

Why would it be bad to discuss religious views in this context? Have Americans historically avoided this kind of discourse? Is this related to the outcry over denying communion to Roman Catholic politicians who support abortion?

The whole story kind of confused me and could have been helped by some political, ethical and/or religious analysts who could explain where the two sides are coming from. But it is an interesting entry into the ongoing story about religion and politics.

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Breaking: Indulgences offered in Pennsylvania

indulgenceLast night I was having dinner with friends and neighbors and we got talking about GetReligion. Our hostess wondered whether local religion reporting was better than what you see and read at the national level. I suggested it was not — since flashes of truly horrific and uninformed local religion stories came to mind immediately. But one of my favorite religion reporters, who is at a significant Midwestern paper, sent along a really interesting local story. And it reminds me that sometimes local reporters are able to treat their subjects better than national reporters.

The story is about the Roman Catholic Church offering central Pennsylvanians a plenary indulgence that will reduce the time their souls spend in purgatory. The details:

The Catholic Church teaches that souls of those who have died in grace must expiate their sins in purgatory before ascending to heaven. Those who receive a plenary indulgence have all temporal punishment for sin removed up to that point in their lives.

To earn a plenary indulgence, followers must visit St. Patrick Cathedral, the mother church of the Harrisburg Diocese. They also must repent their sins, take Communion, go to confession and pray for the pope’s intentions on the day they visit or within several days of visiting the cathedral.

The story is full of helpful information like that. It explains which office in the Vatican grants the indulgence opportunities and how long it will last. But the story could use a few more details. A bit of historical context is certainly in order (and I’m not just saying that because I’m Lutheran and the 95 Theses and stuff like that).

The story provides no insight into why indulgences are controversial or how the offering of indulgences sparked a major conflict within the church. And the story claims that indulgence granting is rare but then later says Pope Benedict XVI has approved indulgences for everything from the World Day of the Sick in Australia to the World Meeting of Families in Spain. And it’s not even the only diocese in Pennsylvania to have an indulgence offering going on right now. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is celebrating its 200th anniversary and celebrating with indulgence offerings. There aren’t all that many dioceses in Pennsylvania.

Still, a great idea for a local story. Just one begging out for a bit more context. And it’s so nice to see a story about a church body with a nonpolitical religious angle.

UPDATE: Reader Chris Duckworth writes:

The article from the Harrisburg Patriot-News is lousy — no context! It reads like a community paper’s review of a local parish’s vacation bible school program.

Again, let me commend this article — Philadelphia archdiocese offers indulgences — from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated June 25. It cites the historical clashing point on the issue of indulgences, and the ongoing theological problems that indulgences represent to Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

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