The Sun sees an obvious light

TimeisgoddeadI am sure that I have written this before at GetReligion and I am sure that, before long, I will write it again. However, there is some truth in the old Godbeat saying that for most American newsrooms, the formula for a page-one religion story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty.”

But there is a reason that Marty (click here for more info) has become a brand name in religion news. Actually, there are several good reasons. One is that his knowledge base is very broad, which often happens with historians who have written 50-plus books. Second, he can speak ordinary English about complicated subjects (and often be witty at the same time). Third, he is famous for answering his own telephone. Fourth, he writes about 2,000 words a day and all of them are published — somewhere.

Finally, the man is often two or three beats ahead when it comes to seeing the obvious and then putting a spotlight on it.

Thus, I would like to note that the Baltimore Sun just published a very fine essay titled “Religion’s flame burns brighter than ever: What happened to the world’s transition to secularism?” It was written by Timothy Samuel Shah of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Monica Duffy Toft of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

But I would also like to note that Marty voiced the major theme of this essay — in very blunt terms — back in a 2002 lecture that I heard him give to students, journalists and ministers at the University of Nebraska. He has also been saying the same thing for a decade or two, only now more people are noticing because of the march of world events.

So what is Marty’s big idea? Here’s how I stated his thesis in a 2002 Scripps Howard column:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

Countless despots have learned that faith cannot be killed with force. This is especially true outside what Marty called the “spiritual ice belt” that extends across Western Europe and North America. …

In the mid-1990s, Marty directed a massive project to study the “militant religious fundamentalisms” on the rise worldwide. It concluded that the leaders of many such groups would resort to military action, when they failed to achieve victory through constitutional means. And if military might was not enough, Marty noted that the study warned that “they may very well take no prisoners, allow no compromises, have no borders and they might resort to terrorism.”

This brings us to the essay by Shah and Toft, which states many obvious facts in a place where the rarely appear — the pages of a solidly left-wing American newspaper. Here’s a large chunk of the heart of this story:

Global politics is increasingly marked by what could be called “prophetic politics.” Voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests. These movements come in very different forms and employ widely varying tools. But whether the field of battle is democratic elections or the more inchoate struggle for global public opinion, religious groups are increasingly competitive. In contest after contest, when people are given a choice between the sacred and the secular, faith prevails.

God is on a winning streak. It was reflected in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shia revival and religious strife in postwar Iraq, and Hamas’s recent victory in Palestine and Israel’s struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But not all the thunderbolts have been hurled by Allah.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond K. Tutu. Hindu nationalists in India stunned the international community when they unseated India’s ruling party in 1998 and then tested nuclear weapons.

American evangelicals continue to surprise the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with their activism and influence on issues such as religious freedom, sex trafficking, Sudan and AIDS in Africa. Indeed, evangelicals have emerged as such a powerful force that religion was a stronger predictor of vote choice in the 2004 U.S. presidential election than was gender, age, or class.

Much has changed, admit the authors, since the infamous Time cover in 1966 that asked “Is God Dead?” That was a logical question for people in elite academia. The question never made sense in Middle America. It is a question sure to be pinned on bulletin boards in the headquarters of Islamists, for obvious reasons.

The article shoots down other myths. Education does not make people less religious. Prosperity does not do the trick, either. Vague, muddy faiths keep fading, while traditional forms of faith appeal to young and old.

There is much that can be debated in this piece. But the central question echoes what Marty has been saying for years. Feel free to send the URLs for these pieces to your local newspaper editors and ask them how this reality is reflected in their newsrooms and in their future plans for their news pages.

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A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple.

Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can’t say that’s surprising, because of the cut and paste, let’s get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters — except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a “literal interpretation” of the Bible’s teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP’s:

Aug. 21, 2006 — After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won’t make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it’s obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church’s deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf’s letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year — that ended up in the local media — about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with “spiritual issues” that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church’s sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It’s clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It’s really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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Reading Washington Times tea leaves

scarletmitt 1 It’s true. One of the reasons people inside and outside the Beltway read The Washington Times is to find out what Republican strategists are thinking. It’s interesting to find out what makes it into the official GOP talking points and what does not.

I always see the Times before I see The Washington Post, for the simple reason that I live in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side of Baltimore that is not considered ritzy enough for home delivery of the Post. One will often see events in the Republican world in one of these papers and not in the other, and you can guess which is which.

So it was interesting to note this headline today in the Times, atop a story filed from Los Angeles by Christina Bellantoni: “Romney golden to GOP in blue state.” It states the obvious about the charismatic Gov. Mitt Romney:

Mr. Romney is eyeing a White House bid as he finishes his last few months in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, and made his case to state party activists this weekend at the California Republican Convention. They loved him — cheering wildly for a stump speech that closely resembled a stand-up routine and later praising him as someone with the right kind of fiscal and conservative values.

“He’s got the charisma Kennedy had and the morals we wish Kennedy would have had,” said Republican Donee Chabot of Los Angeles, who works in real estate.

But I was also struck by this obvious paragraph:

Another Republican privately worried Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith would be a deterrent. The activist said Mormonism will be a difficult thing for the nation to get behind, a tougher religion to sell than President Kennedy’s Catholicism.

Now, where do you think Bellantoni — or her editors — played this interesting statement? Is there, or is is there not, some symbolism in this placement?

Just asking. In terms of journalism and story structure, it seemed rather strange to me.

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Stephanie Simon’s fan club meets here

language of GodStephanie Simon has another great story in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times. She’s the faith and values reporter who consistently hits her pieces out of the park.

This piece is on Francis Collins, a Christian physician and scientist who has mapped the human genome. He sees no conflict with his scientific work and his faith, but he has been attacked by people who deny God’s existence and by those who oppose evolution. He believes in both.

I love reading Simon’s reports because she is usually given enough room to share interesting details. She also manages to do a much better job of putting conflicting folks’ statements in a generous light. In so doing, she lets the reader see the opposing views without stacking the deck toward a given side. From a personal standpoint, this enables me to trust her much more than other reporters. In other words, if I read a news story that gets a minor fact wrong, I tend to discount the entire piece. I assume the reporter doesn’t really grasp the issues at play. When I read a reporter’s characterization of a view I hold and they not only get it right but use phrases and concepts I would, I am much more receptive to reading the opposing views in the piece without putting my guard up.

This is how I imagine most readers of Stephanie Simon must feel. She really takes the time to understand the groups she covers. And we’re all the richer for it. Collins, the man she profiled, recently wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In it, he argues that there is no need for a chasm between science and faith. Simon’s piece fleshes out Collins’ path from nonbeliever to believer and is chock full of interesting details.

In June 2000, an international team supervised by Collins finished the rough drafts of the human genetic code, a string of 3 billion letters (each representing a chemical compound) that guides the inner workings of every human being.

To Collins, the blueprint was a chance to celebrate God’s wondrous design. But he worried that Christians would use this occasion as another excuse to turn away from modern science.

“I had a great concern that this would be portrayed as though we were taking away room for spirituality, making us out to be nothing more than a mechanical instruction book — robots, machines, victims of our DNA,” Collins said.

Invited to the White House to announce the triumph, Collins tried to signal that those concerned with the soul and the spirit should not take the new science as a threat. “It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring,” he said, standing at Clinton’s side, “to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

That moment moved Collins — who is married and has two grown daughters — to talk more publicly about his faith and write the book. “It’s been a bit like taking a public bath,” he said.

I just like how she lets people describe things in their own words but also paraphrases their thoughts thoroughly and gently.

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Have faith in Couric and CBS?

image1464987OK, I realize that Katie Couric is a superstar, kind of the Anglo Oprah, the touchstone Alpha Female for a generation of people who are seeking some way to find a television news mix that hits the heart buttons out there in the “we’re tired of politics and information” world of middle America.

I know that all of this makes her controversial with some traditional newspeople and, for others, makes her a potential savior who can serve as the smiling face on the user-friendly product that saves as many jobs as possible in one of the big-media establishment newsrooms. There are people who are saying, “We are not sure that we want her, but we are worried that the other side might have landed her. So maybe we need her.” There are, for example, people on the journalistic left who worry about her even if they agree with her take on most issues.

Of course, I also know that media-bias armies on the conservative side have their TiVos ready to rock and roll, waiting for her first attempts to cover the hot religious, moral and cultural issues that she turned into pulpit opportunities for her side, during her years at NBC.

But, let me get to the point. I have read much of the carefully orchestrated coverage (how many publicists can work on an event like this one?) of Couric’s final prep days before hitting the air, cable and the Web. I was very confused by the mixed signals contained in a key section of Howard Kurtz’s recent profile of Couric in The Washington Post, the one called “Up Close And Too Personal.”

Click here to read the article and then tell me: What in the world is Couric talking about? I am especially concerned about the following section, which opens with a reference to the proposed “Free Speech” feature in which non-CBS commentators — outsiders, experts, celebrities — will be given 90 seconds of time to air their views.

“People are sick of the lack of civil discourse,” Couric says, with guests “screaming and interrupting each other and trying to stay on message and berating the other person. They want us to get away from sound bites from inside the Beltway and roll up our sleeves and hear from real people.”

OK, I’m with you so far. Reach out to those flyover people who think that their lives and issues matter.

On immigration, Couric says, CBS might interview a restaurant owner about illegal immigrants or a recent emigre from Guatemala. “Sometimes in recent years there’s been such an effort to bend over backwards to placate both sides of the political aisle, and that on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that approach has left people a little bit cold,” she says. “Sometimes they want more analysis and fact-finding and critical thinking.”

On the other hand … one planned segment will also feature author Nora Ephron expounding on plastic surgery, a subject of her new book. “They’re not all going to be super-heavy,” Couric says.

image1777348gSo people do not want a basic, balanced approach to news coverage. They hate the screaming, opinionated style of modern niche-market cable talk television, but they still want opinion and analysis, only they want it from people who do critical thinking, which means smart people, which means what? They want their opinionated news from someone who smiles a lot and doesn’t even bother to let people on the other side of hot, divisive issues get in their best sound bites? What does all of that mean?

Case in point: Let’s say that it’s Nov. 7 and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear debate on the banning of partial-birth abortion, the kind of abortion policy compromise that — according to Pew Forum research — even the overwhelming majority of Democrats would support, in theory. So how does Couric want to approach the two sides of this issue?

Left vs. right? Pro-life left vs. Libertarian right? Pro-life women who have had abortions and want to tell their stories vs. pro-choice women who have had abortions and what to tell their stories? Or do we only hear from the voices that, after Katie and crew have done their critical thinking, are judged worthy to get on the air? What the heck is the new voice of CBS saying, here? Trust me? Have faith?

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What next, a jihad for Christ?

nicodemusI was reading this completely engrossing CNN story on Malika el Aroud, the widow of suicide bomber Abdessater Dahmane. He was one of the two fellows who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by pretending to be broadcast journalists. Their camera hid an explosive. Anyway, she now lives in Switzerland with her new husband running a fan website for Osama bin Laden.

The story says she grew up as a rebellious kid in Belgium but then had a change of heart:

Her life changed dramatically after she was expelled from school for striking a teacher who el Aroud said uttered a racial taunt. She descended into a whirlwind of unsuitable men, drugs, alcohol and nightclubs until she tried to kill herself with a drug overdose.

She said she then became a born-again Muslim and embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion. The strict laws gave her a sense of boundaries. It was in this circle that in 1999 she met and married the man who would kill Massoud.

Born-again Muslim? Isn’t that a curious phrase? What do you think about applying such a Christian description to another religion? I see other people, though not mainstream reporters, have used the phrase before, too. I’m wondering if Mrs. Suicide Bomber used that phrase or whether the reporter reworded what she said.

For those not in the know, here is where the phrase came from in the Gospel of John:

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

What do you think about using the “born again” language for non-Christians?

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How not to handle a call from a reporter

526600146gQNMkA phAs a rule, GetReligion limits itself to dissecting the work of mainstream journalists when they wrestle with news stories about religion. But, every now and then, you see a story in which your heart really goes out to the journalists who are trying to do this difficult job.

Take, for example, reporter Jane Musgrave of The Palm Beach Post and her recent story on the troubled financial past of the Rev. Steven Flockhart, the charismatic new preacher at the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla. This church sits in the heart of a major metropolitan area, just across the bridge from the world-famous resort community of Palm Beach. This is a high-profile gig in a very complex city.

Musgrave had some of the most important building blocks a reporter can have on this kind of story — like court documents, an anonymous tip that checked out and, then, on-the-record interviews with members of a church that Flockhart left in debt eight years ago. She also did a good job of telling the positive side of the story, stressing that those touched by the preacher’s troubles retained a remarkable degree of affection for him as a person, as a leader and, most of all, as a spectacular orator.

However, there was a problem.

Musgrave — in the name of accuracy and fairness — also needed to hear Flockhart’s side of the story. That meant doing an interview. This is where the train came off the rails a bit.

Want to see how not to handle a journalist’s request to hear your side of an important story? Check this out.

The Rev. Kevin Mahoney, executive pastor of the imposing Baptist church along the Intracoastal Waterway just south of downtown West Palm Beach, said he and other church leaders learned of the lawsuit after they offered Flockhart the prestigious position of head pastor, which had been vacant for three years. Like The Palm Beach Post, the church received a copy of the lawsuit and other court documents from a person who signed a short note only as “A former Crosspointe (Baptist Church) Member.”

Flockhart, 40, who lives in a 4,500-square-foot house in Royal Palm Beach with his wife and six children, declined requests for interviews. It is church policy for Mahoney alone to respond to press inquiries, the executive pastor said.

Say what? It is the congregation’s policy that the man in the pulpit — its superstar voice to the community — cannot talk to the press? Does this include television news interviews about, oh, spectacular Christmas events? Radio work?

Thus, the church created a kind of information triangle in which the reporter is forced to bounce documents and questions through an indirect connection. Trust me, this does not help a reporter trust the results. It’s like waving a red flag with one hand while shooting up warning flares with the other.

2005bestHere is what this looks like in print. You can read the story and make up your own mind about the complicated financial details. What we are interested in is the awkward contacts between the church and the newspaper and how this affected the story that was printed. We start with an IRS lien against the preacher for not paying some taxes.

When asked about it, Mahoney said, Flockhart denied ever having any problems with the IRS and said he had not had an American Express card for 12 or 15 years. After The Palm Beach Post faxed the Georgia court documents to Mahoney, he talked to Flockhart again.

Roughly a half-hour later, Mahoney called to say Flockhart did remember a dispute over payroll taxes with the IRS. Further, he remembered the dispute with American Express.

Mahoney said he was not troubled that Flockhart’s story changed dramatically in less than two hours.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious. I know all about that from my background covering the Rev. Jim Bakker, years ago.

Like I said, this is not how to handle a simple request for an interview, especially when the reporter is holding documents in her hand.

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Reconsidering Lethal Weapon 4

passionmelI read more gossip sites by 9 a.m. than most people read all day. So forgive me if I’m still stuck on the Mel Gibson story. Today’s entry comes from Alan Cooperman at The Washington Post. I don’t think the story is terribly important or hard-hitting but I do think it’s worth noting.

Let’s begin with the doozie of the headline. At my newspaper, we’re not allowed to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the headlines that go with our stories, but it’s generally held that you can’t blame a reporter for the headline. Still, someone should be blamed for this one:

Evangelical Clergy on Mel Gibson: Judging Not

The story quotes a bunch of clergy types roundly condemning what Gibson said in his drunken tirade earlier this month. I guess the headline writer’s grasp of Christian theology is so deep that he thinks that unequivocally saying someone sinned and needs to repent is “not judging.”

But Cooperman isn’t writing about judging Gibson so much as judging his film The Passion:

Gibson’s drunken remarks about “[expletive] Jews” being responsible for “all the wars in the world,” which the actor made to a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy who pulled him over on July 28, were “hurtful and unfortunate” (James C. Dobson), “reprehensible . . . shameful” (the Rev. James Merritt) and “cause for concern” (the Rev. Ted Haggard).

But has the actor-director’s intemperate speech by the side of a highway prompted any prominent evangelical leader to voice second thoughts about the portrayal of Jews in Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ”?

And the answer is no, according to Cooperman’s research. All of the folks he interviews say there is no reason to revise their view of the movie because of Gibson’s drunken, anti-Semitic outburst:

Among the points repeatedly made by evangelicals in Gibson’s defense are that he filmed his own hand nailing Jesus to the cross; he has apologized for his arrest remarks; and the virtues of a work of art should be considered separately from the sins of its creator.

I’m glad Cooperman followed up on the story. What I was left wondering, though, was why it was just assumed that Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst would dictate that the film should be reconsidered. I’m open to looking at it again or having that public debate again, but what I didn’t find in Cooperman’s article was anyone claiming that evangelicals should look at it again.

Who are these people who think otherwise? What are their “points repeatedly made”? Cooperman is the only voice in the story raising the question.

reconsidering the passionWhether to separate the substance of the art from the creator of it is usually a question asked in the other direction. A book like Lolita provoked many questions about Vladimir Nabokov. People wondered how such a seemingly nice and happily married man could write such a dirty book about pedophilia. Side note: if you haven’t read that book, read it now. You don’t want to somehow live your life without having read it. It’s that good.

Anyway, we love our art and we idolize our artists. We want them to reveal their innermost secrets so that we might be able to better understand their art. Sometimes that’s an illuminating experience. Other times it’s Britney Spears rambling for five minutes about time travel.

I think Gibson’s demons, including alcoholism, are fascinating and I think they probably say a great deal about his childhood and relationship with his father. And, like I said, I’m open to the case that they say something about secret anti-Semitism and sexism in his films.

But it’s not okay to just say, “See! He said he hates Jews and degrades women!” and act like the case is closed. Even if we grant Gibson’s opponents here their contention that he is unquestionably anti-Semitic, that doesn’t mean, automatically, that his films are. Perhaps he is horribly anti-Semitic but able to keep it completely in check while sober. I mean, the man was pulled over for bad driving but nobody’s writing stories about whether Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior should be reconsidered in a new light because of his driving problems.

Other reporters trying to work this angle of how shocking it is that evangelicals are not condemning The Passion in light of Gibson’s drunken outburst should remember to somehow include folks making the case that it should be condemned somewhere in the article.

Photo from cinencuentro on Flickr.

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