Can journalists cover “normal” religion?

1932792066 01 LZZZZZZZOur friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”

This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)

While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.

Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?

In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.

Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.

And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.

One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.

Read it all (as the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon likes to say).

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Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

My Scripps Howard News Service column is out and it’s about the story behind an odd little news story involving a new gay-rights activist named Jerry Falwell. Does anyone have any theories as to why this story did not get more MSM attention (other than the fact that Falwell is as far from the limelight these days as Pat Robertson should be)? Just curious.

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Special "ooooh, you said the f-word!" edition

“[F]ear, fundamentalism, and Fox News.”

Those, according to the always interesting religion writer Mark Tooley, are what the National Council of Churches’ Bob Edgar told Religion News Service he wants to redefine the term “moral values” to transcend. In a fun piece for The American Spectator, Tooley tries to broaden our understanding of the religious dimension of the filibuster debate. Worth a read:

The Religious Right was popularly portrayed as a chief supporter for Republican efforts to curtail filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominees. But the Religious Left was just as outspoken in supporting filibusters, even while hypocritically chastising Senate Republican leader William Frist for supposedly injecting religion into the issue.

Characteristic of the Religious Left’s vituperations was a letter of protest to Senator Frist from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

“The rhetoric that some people of faith — Republicans, conservatives, or fundamentalists — ‘have it right’ and all other people of faith have it wrong not only is self righteous, but inappropriately polarizes people of faith for political purposes,” said Bishop Mark Hanson.

Hanson accused Frist of “political manipulation” for allegedly judging the faith of some based on their politics. But only a month earlier, Hanson was questioning the faith of President Bush and his supporters based on the administration’s budget proposals, which reduced the rate of increase in some social welfare programs. …

The National Council of Churches (NCC) led the way in excoriating the ostensible threat of theocracy posed by President Bush, Senator Frist, and conservative religious people who support Bush’s judicial nominees.

“Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic,” intoned Bob Edgar, the United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman who heads the chronically left-leaning NCC.

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Bulletin: Fundies don't cotton to euthanasia

DoctorDeath.jpgIf you oppose Terri Schiavo’s death by starvation and dehydration, you may be a fundamentalist — at least according to an opinion-laden report this morning by Megan O’Matz of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

O’Matz, like many other journalists, refers to Schiavo’s case as one of a right to die, as if we all know that Terri Schiavo would choose to die as her husband would have her die. Here’s the graph in which O’Matz drops the F bomb:

A predominantly African-American church that is unusual for its alignment with Christian conservatives, the [Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach] is part of a vocal and influential circle of fundamentalists waging a fierce political battle to keep Schiavo alive.

Then there are these rhetorical choices:

Its members, and those of other South Florida churches, have inundated legislators in Tallahassee and Washington with calls and e-mails since Friday, when Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed by court order at the request of her husband, Michael Schiavo, who says she never wanted to live in a persistent vegetative state.

Whether she’s actually living in a persistent vegetative state is a matter of considerable debate.

Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and its social justice arm, the Center for Reclaiming America, are at the center of efforts to keep Schiavo alive. The center spearheaded a massive grassroots lobbying effort last week, urging its supporters and other so-called “pro-family” groups to call and e-mail state senators who defeated a bill that would have stopped the tube’s removal.

Life lesson to would-be polemicists: If you want to convey your disapproval, use the double-barreled method of a sneer quote preceded by the phrase so-called. Even mouth-breathers will understand your hollered point.

But the most troubling passage comes here:

Like most national discourses that involve abortion or euthanasia, the drama unfolding around Schiavo is full of passion, vitriol, half-truths and untruths.

At the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, the church’s senior minister and a nationally known evangelical leader, told parishioners Sunday that he read that Schiavo can eat and swallow food and water on her own, without the aid of feeding tubes, “but the judge will not allow it.”

Some in the congregation gasped.

After the service, church leaders said Kennedy was ensconced in his office preparing for another sermon and was not available for further comment.

The claim that Schiavo can swallow is “an outrageous thing to say,” Bill Allen, professor of bioethics, law and medical professionalism at the University of Florida, said in an interview Sunday. Schiavo has had swallowing tests in recent years and has been found not to be able to swallow, he said.

Kennedy’s concern is not new, and CNN reported similar remarks by David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo’s parents, on March 18:

In addition, Gibbs said he filed a petition in federal court in the Middle District of Florida. The petition asks the court to review the state court process, he said.

“Terri is not terminal,” he said. “If we feed Terri . . . she will live another 30 to 40 years.”

He described Schiavo as “responsive” although he acknowledged she functions at the level of a 6- to 11-month-old child. She recognizes her family, he said. “She teases. She plays. She smiles. She tries to talk.” Schiavo also can breathe and swallow on her own, he said.

Asked why, if she can swallow, a feeding tube is necessary, Gibbs said he has inquired whether Schiavo could receive food by mouth, and “courts in Florida have said no. The order is to stop all food and water.”

World magazine, in this report, describes the Catch-22 in which Terri Schiavo lives, for now. And it makes clear that, if swallow tests have occurred in recent years — to use O’Matz’s broad paraphrase — recent must be understood as more than five years ago:

Over the past two weeks, the Schindlers have rained paperwork on the court. They charged that the judge made an evidentiary error in a crucial earlier ruling, appealed for new medical tests, asked to file a petition for divorce on their daughter’s behalf, and requested that if her feeding tube is removed, their daughter be orally fed and hydrated.

Judge Greer denied every motion, including the feeding request. This though at least two health-care workers in 2003 filed affidavits saying they had given Ms. Schiavo ice water and small spoonfuls of Jello while they cared for her at a nursing home in the late 1990s. In 2000, three doctors filed affidavits saying Ms. Schiavo could swallow on her own. [A sidebar timeline in World elaborates: "Feb. 2000: Circuit Court Judge George Greer rules to remove Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube. Three doctors file affidavits saying Ms. Schiavo can swallow, but the judge denies requests for swallowing tests."]

Mr. Weldon, who is a physician, characterized Judge Greer’s oral-feeding denial as “an outrage,” while Stephen Drake of the Illinois-based anti-euthanasia group Not Dead Yet said the ruling “fits in with Greer’s pattern,” and noted that the judge’s order regarding March 18 doesn’t just allow the removal of Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube, it orders removal. “This whole issue has been horribly distorted into a question of who should be the decision-maker about her life. The real question is, what are Terri Schiavo’s rights under the law? In the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, the presumption should be that she should continue to get food and water.”

Mr. Schiavo has allowed only tube-feeding and has refused repeatedly to allow doctors to administer “swallow tests” to determine whether Ms. Schiavo can eat and drink. The circular sound of that — Mr. Schiavo’s confining of his wife to a feeding tube, but contending that she wouldn’t want to live that way — mirrors the circular rut in which the case has crawled through the Florida courts.

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Creeping Fundamentalism XII: Private-school sins

HardlyboysLet me join the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc in praising the 1,400-word essay by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times that used the word “fundamentalism” 15 times without veering into the cheap-shot territory that earns reporters a note in our Creeping Fundamentalism files. Let all the people say, “amen,” or “bravo,” or whatever.

At the same time, I hereby move to nominate another story for Creeping Fundamentalism status, even though it is rather old by now. It’s from the Dallas Morning News and it did not show up on my radar earlier, in part, because it was in the hard news pages and not in the religion section. That says something about how hard it is even make a dent in reading all of the major stories that are out there that we need to read while chasing our ghosts.

Reporter Kent Fischer’s story ran under the headline “Gay student forced to leave school.” But before we look at that report, let us turn once again to that familiar passage in the Associated Press Stylebook.

There you will find this wisdom: “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.”

Let me note a few interesting word choices in this story. First of all there is the lead: “Three weeks ago an 18-year-old honor student at Trinity Christian Academy was cruising toward graduation. He had already been accepted to a prestigious university, and the final months of high school seemed a mere formality.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I would have avoided the word “cruising.”

Fischer’s story notes that the anonymous student — since named in reports in gay media and elsewhere — was a varsity athlete, thespian, journalist and student leader at a “fundamentalist private school.” However, he was forced out of school when administrators learned that he had created a website for young gays and lesbians to chat, hook up and exchange photos. Then, in “a matter of days, the student, who is gay, went from prized student to sinner outcast.”

We are told that he violated the student code. We are not, however, given the part of the code that he violated. Perhaps the school declined to provide this text. If the school does not have a fully detailed code that clearly states moral teachings for its students, then the school is really asking for trouble. Here is the money quote:

Today, the student attends high school in Plano, and students, teachers and administrators at Trinity Christian are left debating whether forcing the withdrawal of a popular lifelong student was the “Christian” thing to do. The case also shines a light on the moral culture clash with which private fundamentalist schools are increasingly wrestling.

The other use of the f-word is when Fischer notes that: “Those who work with gay teens say the expulsion of gay students from private fundamental school is quite common.” It seems there is something missing from this sentence. It could have been “from a private fundamental school” or “from private fundamentalist schools.” It’s hard to tell.

Either way, the report offers no indication whatsoever that the word “fundamentalist” has any specific content of meaning. This is interesting, in a newspaper published in Dallas, a city in which there are more than a few Baptists and other evangelicals who know the precise meaning of “fundamentalist” and probably would have answered their telephones. Maybe they were busy.

The News report does contain some useful information about this high-profile issue in private schools. First of all, a gay-rights lawyer does note that the private school was acting within its legal rights. He does not, however, note that this “freedom of association” for members of religious groups is precisely the same right that would protect, well, gay and lesbian groups. Religious groups have a right to define and defend their doctrinal and moral standards — especially when a student and his or her family signs the document.

Readers are also told about a national network that lobbies on behalf of gay students trapped in religious schools. We are not told about any corresponding groups on the other side of the issue, other than Christian-school professionals. It also would have been nice if Fischer had noted, when describing how school administrators declined to discuss aspects of this case, that they could not discuss these matters without violating privacy laws.

One more comment on this “fundamentalist” school. Its website shows it is backed by accreditation groups that are not, as a rule, associated with true “fundamentalist” or “Bible school” groups. Also, I could not help but notice that the school has a football team and a marching band. It is my observation that truly fundamental, separatist schools rarely draw a large enough student body to maintain competitive programs in sports and the arts. They tend to be small fortresses. I suspect, in fact, that many, many of the students at this school are from families that are not very conservative, when it comes to church practice. This tends to create interesting social problems.

But that is another news story. If the Dallas Morning News decides to cover it, I hope the reporters and editors that work on it will avoid making fundamental errors.

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Brother Ned, say a little prayer for us

flanders greets.jpgIn one of the most illuminating passages in his autobiography, Here I Stand, retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong recalls the strict environment of his childhood:

But the religion of our home was quire clearly the religion of my Presbyterian mother. Sunday was called the “Sabbath” and one did not work or cause others to work on that day. The Lord’s name was never to be taken in vain, not even by saying “My goodness,” for that was a clear reference to God, and the phrase “For crying out loud” was said to be a direct reference to the cross. I can recall having my mouth washed out with soap for saying “gosh” and “darn.”

After reading this, I find it easier to understand why Spong is so fond of using the word fundamentalism to describe what he hates. In Spong’s childhood home, apparently even Ned Flanders would have been the regular subject of mouth-washings.

From the other end of the spectrum: In my childhood home, a frequent source of entertainment was hearing my father bellow into the phone, after his Cajun temper had been ignited, that someone could kiss his ass. From my mother I inherited the habit of saying “God!” to express surprise — something to which I didn’t give a second thought until my early 20s, when a friend from Moody Bible Institute suggested I probably could find a less glib way of invoking the Almighty.

All this comes to mind because of Jeffrey Weiss’ report — under the copyeditor’s dream headline of “What the *^&%$#@!” — in today’s Dallas Morning News. Weiss’ balance is masterful, combining funny anecdotes with insights from scholars.

Weiss explores the strangest territory in explaining the standards of TV and movies:

Broadcast TV remains more cautious than many other cultural outlets. While “Oh my God!” can be heard virtually anywhere in prime time, ads are still a blasphemy-free zone. For instance, a candy bar ad not long ago had an angry guy shouting “Great oogly moogly!”

Cable, from The Sopranos to Bill Maher, bars few if any words. Comedy Channel’s taboo-shredding South Park started as an Internet-distributed short that featured a wrestling match between Jesus and Santa Claus.

Movie ratings also indicate a softening of attitudes said Jim Wall, the former editor of Christian Century, who is a longtime advisor to the appeals board of the Motion Picture Association of America.

“The ratings are designed to reflect what the rating board feels the average American parent would expect to find,” he said.

So even one f-word used in a sexual context is still pretty much an automatic path to an R rating, he said. But a bunch of religious expletives aren’t likely to move a movie beyond PG-13.

In fact, the official explanation of the ratings on the MPAA Web site mentions violence, profanity, drug abuse and sexual content as factors in determining ratings — but nothing about religious language.

I do not yearn for the return of blasphemy laws, or the Hays Code, for that matter. Nor do I yearn to hear 8-year-olds hollering “Jesus Christ” during what friends of mine once called a grand mal hissy fit. Weiss’ story includes one segment that helps explain the taboo thrill of certain language:

The sacred and profane are an odd pairing in most contexts, but stand comfortably together in foul language in most cultures. That’s partly because they both pull concepts where polite society says they don’t belong, said Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times and a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Obscenity takes bedroom and bathroom activities and drags them out into the living room, he said. Blasphemy, on the other hand, hauls heaven down into the common world.

Both feel satisfyingly “wrong” when we want to vent our frustrations.

That reminds me of an angle worth some column inches. From screen-talking galoots at the theater to chattering gossips during a church service, mass culture seems to be losing any distinction between public and private space, or between the sidewalk and the sanctuary. Why is this?

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When Fred comes to town

FredphelpsThe Washington Post has published a follow-up to its two-article series on Michael Shackelford, a gay teenager living in the very red locale of Sand Springs, eight miles west of Tulsa. When the Post concluded its second article on Sept. 26, Shackelford had decided he would feel more at home by joining his older sister in Las Vegas.

The Post‘s update highlights one hell of a curveball: young Shackelford has become the latest target of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, and troika. A visit from the Phelps clan, as Samuel Johnson once said of the gallows, concentrates the mind wonderfully — in this case, the mind of Cornerstone Church, which Shackelford attends with his mother, Janice.

Series author Anne Hull describes how pastor Bill Eubanks prepared after he saw a fax announcing the Phelps crew’s intentions to protest at Cornerstone for welcoming Shackelford as a worshiper:

The week before the protest, the pastor announced from the pulpit that they were in the midst of a spiritual battle. He read parts of the flier aloud. “We are family,” Eubanks said. “We are going to stand united as a family.”

The response surprised Michael, who thought he would be cast out. People were being nice to him. Only a few weeks earlier he’d been called a “queer” at Arby’s. Now there was a new menace in Sand Springs, and it was Fred Phelps.

Hull describes the scene inside the church on the day of the Phelps protest:

“There is darkness and there is light and we are in the middle of the light,” Eubanks said, to more thunderous applause. “Say it: God loves us all. All of us!”

After the service, several people came up to hug Janice. One woman held her in an embrace that lasted two minutes, whispering to Janice the whole time.

A burly man with a crew cut gave Michael a thumbs-up. “Man, you be who you are,” Shannon Watie said, holding his Bible. “We got your back.”

Watie later said that he respected Michael for having the courage to come out. “I have the sin of pride, the sin of lying sometimes,” said the 37-year-old father of two. “The reason why Jesus was on the cross was because we all do.”

Watie voted for Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage. Civil unions? He might have considered those. Homosexuality? “That’s between the person and God,” Watie said.

Out in the foyer, Eubanks saw Michael and seized the chance. He invited Michael to lunch. There was work to do.

Hull has written a subtle story. The members of Cornerstone Church will not be sympathetic characters for many gay or gay-friendly readers — I can already envision the comments on this blog condemning their views as heterosexist or homophobic. But it would take an awfully stubborn reading of Hull’s work to insist that they’re not showing love, as best they know how, for Michael Shackelford.

[Director Steve Drain offers an offbeat portrait of Phelps and his family in his film called Hatemongers. For much of the film, members of the Phelps family speak for themselves. One of the funniest moments (RealAudio clip) is when Phelps revels in making George magazine's list of "The 20 Most Fascinating Men in Politics." Phelps crows that, at No. 5, he outranked Geraldo Rivera and Larry Flynt: "Look at old Geraldo at No. 16. See, he ain't nothing -- 16."]

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Let the eagle bore

Even as disaffected American liberals consider moving to Canada in the wake of the last week’s elections, many Canadian journalists are trying to figure out what the heck happened. Some of the early attempts at deciphering the results are not promising.

Take the Friday edition of CBC Radio’s The Current. The broadcast led off with a parody of Bush "spending" the political capital he’d built up: trading a couple televangelists for a ban on gay marriage and the like; then
there was a clip of John Ashcroft singing "Let the Eagle Soar"; then guest host Catherine Gretzinger introduced listeners to Ester Kaplan, author of With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House.

Kaplan warned that in Bush’s "first administration, we saw tremendous incursions into what has traditionally been the separation of church and state in this country," and that we should expect more of the same in the second go-round.

She nearly despaired that Bush, "running against only the second major party Catholic candidate [What about Al Smith? -- ed. It's so 1920 of you to bring that up.], carved into even the Catholic vote, and that seems to have come on these values issues — the narrow values issues of the Christian right — of abortion and this fight against gay marriage."

The author argued that more moderate Christians have a "values agenda of their own which has to do with valuing life, which has to do with taking care of the poor," but she lamented that they aren’t as good at organizing or articulating this vision as the "Christian right" are at firing up voters and getting them to the polls.

Kaplan reported that "I hear, as I’ve been traveling around lately, a tremendous amount of rage — or maybe depression is a better word — coming from Christians who feel like their religion has been hijacked. It’s very very similar to the kind of language we hear from moderate Muslims that somehow this far right wing within the religion has staked a claim to Christianity that many of them reject."

Fair enough. That’s one point of view of what happened and what comes next. And then Gretzinger turned to a Methodist minister for a rebuttal. The problem is, the minister was Philip Wogaman — Bill Clinton’s former pastor during the presidential years.

Listen to the broadcast. Wogaman clearly catches Gretzinger off guard by agreeing with what has been said thus far. He says that faith can be a good thing for the chief executive to have but we have to wonder, "Is it the kind of faith that is open to others, that embraces diversity, and that seeks justice for the marginalized
people of the world?"

If not — and Wogaman isn’t feeling very charitable toward Bush because of "the narrowness of his values" — then faith can and should work against the president. Wogaman contrasted the narrow way with the accepting way and intoned that Bush is way too crimped for his refined taste.

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