Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

boybible02My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

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Church of The New York Times keeps preaching its own faith

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It’s time for another “Kellerism” update, as The New York Times continues its efforts to highlight religious institutions with doctrines that are unacceptable to the newsroom’s theologians and, perhaps, the U.S. Department of Justice. This time, the drama shifts out West, where another Christian college community is trying to find a way to live out its faith commitments.

NEWBERG, Ore. – A growing number of openly transgender students have forced schools around the country to address questions so basic that they were rarely asked just a few years ago, much less answered: What defines a person’s gender, and who gets to decide?

A small Christian college here, George Fox University, has become the latest front in this fight, refusing to recognize as male a student who was born anatomically female. The student calls himself a man, and as of April 11, when a state circuit court legally changed his sex, the State of Oregon agrees.

But George Fox University sees him as a woman, and it prohibits unwed students from living with anyone of the opposite sex.

Notice the question that was not asked, in an alleged news story that opens with an editorial assertion: If a private — as opposed to state — college is a doctrinally defined voluntary association, what happens when a student decides that he or she does not believe those doctrines? Think of it this way: If a student at a Muslim college decided to convert to Christianity, thus contradicting the covenant he voluntarily signed when he came to the campus, would the college be able to say that this student had to accept the school’s doctrinal authority?

If private religious organizations have the right to define their communities in terms of doctrine, does this First Amendment right no longer apply to doctrines linked to sex? The other way I have stated the question is this: Does the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religion still apply to traditional religious believers who reject many of the doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution?

The leaders of the Times team, of course, do not appear to be interested in that half of the debate that is at the heart of this news story. Thus, this report crashes, as an attempt at journalism. Why?

The answer, of course, is “Kellerism.” What is that? Here is a reminder from a recent post, when I first coined that term. The key is the famous 2011 remarks by former Times editor Bill Keller, when he said that the basic rules of journalism no longer apply to coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The words “aside from” are the doors into “Kellerism.” It’s first journalism-defining doctrine is:

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Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

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ANNE ASKS:

What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is — especially in news reporters — called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

CreationPainterSome figured the “days” of Genesis meant long “ages,” the “gap” theory proposed a vast era between the first two verses of Genesis, and there were other explanations. The “old earth” was accommodated by B.B. Warfield, the 19th Century formulator of “inerrancy” (the Bible’s total accuracy on history); William Jennings Bryan, the famous prosecutor of Darwinism at the 1925 “monkey trial”; “The Fundamentals,” the 1910-1916 booket series that gave rise to fundamentalism; and later on by numerous Christian professionals in the American Scientific Affiliation.

Yet Gallup found in 2007 that two-thirds of grass-roots Americans (and not just Christians) think it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that God created humanity “within the last 10,000 years.” The expert on this is Ronald L. Numbers, who teaches the history of science at the University of Wisconsin and wrote “The Creationists” (expanded edition, 2006). He takes special interest as someone raised in the creationistic Seventh-day Adventist Church (though agnostic as an adult).

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Migrant children crossing the border: the religion angle

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Amid the ongoing headlines – mostly political – over the thousands of migrant children crossing illegally into the United States, I’ve been pleased to come across some excellent reports on the religion angle.

New York Times national religion reporter Michael Paulson produced a thorough overview of U.S. religious leaders embracing the cause of immigrant children:

After protesters shouting “Go home” turned back busloads of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, Calif., a furious Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, sat down at his notepad and drafted a blog post detailing his shame at the episode, writing, “It was un-American; it was unbiblical; it was inhumane.”

When the governor of Iowa, Terry E. Branstad, said he did not want the migrants in his state, declaring, “We can’t accept every child in the world who has problems,” clergy members in Des Moines held a prayer vigil at a United Methodist Church to demonstrate their desire to make room for the refugees.

The United States’ response to the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, many of them fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America, has been symbolized by an angry pushback from citizens and local officials who have channeled their outrage over illegal immigration into opposition to proposed shelter sites. But around the nation, an array of religious leaders are trying to mobilize support for the children, saying the nation can and should welcome them.

“We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, who said leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met last week to discuss how to help. He said that in his own congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping.

From there, Paulson notes the broad spectrum of religious leaders — from left to right — speaking out:

The backlash to the backlash is broad, from Unitarian Universalists and Quakers to evangelical Protestants. Among the most agitated are Catholic bishops, who have long allied with Republican politicians against abortion and same-sex marriage, and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose adherents tend to lean right.

The NYTimes piece links to other recent stories, including a Chicago Tribune report on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago seeking to house child refugees, a Boston Globe report on Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts tearfully citing the Bible in suggesting that migrant children could be temporarily housed at military bases in his state and a Dallas Morning News report on Catholic bishops in Dallas and Fort Worth calling for lawyers to represent the children at immigration proceedings.

The Dallas Morning News featured a front-page story Sunday on religious groups rallying to help the migrant children:

Piles of Superman underwear sit among the pyramids of protein formula in the atrium of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas. Soon, the stash will be trucked to South Texas to help with relief efforts for the influx of children and teenagers from Central America.

Down the street on Ross Avenue, welcome boxes sit in an office of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. So many people called the church wanting to help that a parishioner organized a welcome-box drive. She asked for toiletries, a small toy and a handwritten note.

“Esperamos que te guste el juguete! Con cariño, tus amigos en Dallas.” We hope you like the toy, with affection, your Dallas friends, one reads.

Across North Texas, across political divides and theological differences, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and others in the local faith community are stepping up with assistance for the children who have crossed the border illegally without a parent. Congregations moved by the plight of the children are finding practical ways to help, even as governments and politicians argue and scramble over solutions.

“It’s a beautiful illustration of loving thy neighbor,” said the Rev. Linda Roby, an associate minister at First Methodist, patting packets of pajamas.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, distributed an Abilene Reporter-News story on a ministry helping at the border:

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UCLA study literally tries to sell gay marriage in Texas

gay marriage 05Help gays marry and boost the economy: That’s one of the newest pitches in gay rights circles. A new story in Houston Chronicle says legalizing same-sex marriage could boost state income by $180 million over three years.

The thorny issues are explored in this reprint from the Texas Tribune, a non-profit journalistic think tank. The story is interesting, intelligent and mostly fair to conservative and liberal sources alike. But it does leave a few questions.

The news peg is a study by UCLA researchers. It “predicts that more than 23,000 same-sex couples in Texas would marry within three years if the state allowed them to,” the article says. According to the study, those 23,000 couples would add nearly $15 million in sales tax over three years. And if Texas beat neighboring Louisiana and Oklahoma, the state might reap even more.

It’s a clever tactic, especially for a state that has fought gay marriage at least since Texas passed a constitutional amendment against it in 2005. Here’s a pro-gay reaction from the story:

The report, which applies Texas population data to a model based on states where gay marriage has been legalized, provides a financial argument for same-sex marriage, said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Freedom to Marry, a gay rights group.

“There is a fiscal component, and there is also a families component,” he said. “Allowing gay people to marry is actually a conservative value. It’s about limited government and it’s about stronger families.”

And lookit that: two paragraphs from the opposition. I like The Texas Tribune already.

Gay marriage opponents have a different view. Jonathan Saenz, executive director of the socially conservative group Texas Values, said the study used a model that wouldn’t apply to Texas.

“For 10 straight years, Texas has been ranked as the top state for business. It’s no surprise that Texas has also defined marriage as between one man and one woman in its constitution during these same 10 years, since 2005,” Saenz said. “California, a state that performs homosexual marriages, is ranked as one of the five worst states for business in 2014. Case closed.”

We then get a reply from Christy Mallory, one of the authors of the UCLA study. (Yep, The Texas Tribune did more than read and parrot a press release.) Mallory says that business ratings use a “variety of factors,” not just marriage.

Much of the rest of the article recaps the struggle in Texas: Legislators have stopped every effort to legalize same-sex marriage, but a federal judge in San Antonio ruled against the constitutional ban (but stayed the effect of his ruling).

An insightful paragraph:

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An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

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Trend or not? Evangelicals reportedly questioning the Bible

Ted Olsen is managing editor for news and online journalism for Christianity Today, the popular evangelical magazine. He’s an excellent journalist who recently co-authored an intriguing piece titled “Meet the Non-Christians Who Take the Bible Literally, Word for Word.” As a matter of full disclosure, I write freelance stories for CT.

All that said, if Olsen has concerns about a news report on evangelicals (see the above tweets), then I’m inclined to agree. He has the street cred.

The Orange County Register (which earlier this year laid off veteran Godbeat pro Cathleen Falsani) reports that some evangelicals are rethinking the Bible and “growing numbers are asking whether their reading has become too rigid, too simplistic and too alienating.”

The top of the story:

What is the Bible?

It’s a straightforward question. But for Christians these days, it turns out there’s no straightforward answer.

Not even for evangelical Christians, who for centuries have remained near unanimous in their belief that the Bible is the authoritative word of God – until now.

At a time when fewer Americans than ever read the Bible or even regard it as sacred, even evangelical Christians are beginning to ask whether their historic embrace of Scripture has become too rigid, too simplistic and too alienating in an increasingly pluralistic society.

“We’re in a moment of history where things are shifting,” said Rob Bell, a best-selling evangelical author and former megachurch pastor who lives in Laguna Beach.

Bell is one of several prominent evangelicals who in recent months have published books or extended online essays questioning traditional claims that the Bible, as Bell put it in all capital letters in a blog post, “IS THE INERRANT TRUTH ABOUT WHICH THERE CAN BE NO COMPROMISE.”

Alas, this is one of those “three examples make a trend” stories that presents a collection of anecdotes as empirical evidence.

For a variety of reasons, it’s extremely difficult to put a precise number on the evangelical population in the U.S. But just for fun, let’s say the figure is 100 million. Yet the Register quotes three or four evangelicals scattered across the nation and deems their perspectives a major trend.

After quoting Bell, here’s the second example offered by the California newspaper:

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