How NOT to cover the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly anticipated ruling in the Hobby Lobby case expected as soon as today, Forbes offers a perfect example of how not to cover the decision.

And yes, I realize it’s more than the Hobby Lobby case (thank you, tmatt).

For anyone not familiar with the background or what’s at stake, ReligionLink provided this informative primer back in March that’s still relevant.

As Religion News Service puts it:

Technically,  it’s Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a showdown over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. The core legal question is whether a private company can have religious rights.

But to the general public, this is seen as a showdown between employers — the evangelical Green family behind Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite Hahn family that owns the Conestoga cabinet company — and the employees’ personal reproductive choices under their insurance.

But back to Forbes. 

Here’s the headline atop that organization’s one-sided account:

What To Expect If Hobby Lobby Wins Religious Freedom Case

Who does Forbes quote? Three sources — all critics of Hobby Lobby’s position. Apparently, all the “experts” are concerned:

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Who is an evangelical? Who isn’t? Who says so?

Having thus, according to his own opinion, explained how a clergyman should show himself approved unto God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, [Obadiah Slope] went on to explain how the word of truth should be divided; and here he took a rather narrow view of the question; and fetched arguments from afar. His object was to express his abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance, to cry down any religious feeling which might be excited, not by the sense, but by the sound of words, and in fact to insult the cathedral practices. Had St Paul spoken of rightly pronouncing instead of rightly dividing the word of truth, this part of his sermon would have been more to the purpose; but the preacher’s immediate object was to preach Mr Slope’s doctrine, and not St Paul’s, and he contrived to give the necessary twist to the text with some skill.

– Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chap. 6 “War” (1857)

I am pretty sure I know what an evangelical is — someone who believes and worships as I do.

Don’t press me too hard on this point. For the past 15 years I have written for The Church of England Newspaper, since 1828 the voice of the Evangelical party of the Church of England. Trollope refers to our august publication in Barchester Towers under its name at that time “The Record” with disdain, noting the odious Obadiah Slope, the oily chaplain to Bishop Proudie, is a “Recordite.” Evangelical for me is a set of beliefs and style of churchmanship. And it is a particular party affiliation.

Now I will not be the first Episcopalian or Anglican to systematize the Christian world according to our particular prejudices: there are Catholics, the Orthodox, foreigners — everyone else who speaks English should properly be an Episcopalian. Sadly the world has not been persuaded of the merits of these arguments. Nor do I expect my suppositions on who is an Evangelical to be the final word.

The Rev. Billy Graham for one, as tmatt has reported at GetReligion, will not define an evangelical. One of tmatt’s more frequent story lines is “define evangelical. Give three examples.” He also has devised a test, the tmatt trio, that places a Christian on the spectrum of belief, that many argue (tmatt disagrees) roughly corresponds to evangelical belief.

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Yet these questions could be answered the same way by Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, even Episcopalians (well some of us at any rate.) Placing my arch attempts at Anglican humor to one side, I agree with tmatt, (and Billy Graham) that it is quite hard to define an evangelical today.

However, I will stick out my neck and say a recent article in FaithStreet misuses the word evangelical. What it wants to say and should have said was “proselytize.”

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Got religion? Better not put it on your first resume

Day after day, week after week, month after month, religion-beat reporters receive emails from pollsters, academics and think-tank experts promoting new blasts of data about religion, politics, culture or some combination of the above.

Honestly, I think I could write a column a month about the material pouring out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life without sinking into PR territory.

There is no way to write about all of these surveys. Some, quite frankly, appear to be probing questions so obscure that one wonders if anyone would have asked them, without grant money being involved in the process.

But not all.

The other day, I read a press release about a study probing the impact of religion on hiring practices in this new complex America in which we live. I filed it, hoping to get back to it in a week or so. Yes, guilt-file territory.

Veteran religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman — now with Religion News Service — went straight there, with sobering effect. The bottom line: Americans claim to respect religious faith, but there is evidence that they are getting nervous about that. This is especially true when it comes to religions — think Islam — that they think might be bad for business.

Thus, the headline: “Got religion on campus? Leave it off your resume.” Key material here:

Two new sociology studies find new graduates who included a religious mention on a resume were much less likely to hear back from potential employers. The studies used fictitious resumes — with bland names that signaled no particular race or ethnicity. These were sent to employers who posted on the CareerBuilder website to fill entry-level job openings in sales, information technology and other fields suitable for first jobs out of college.

The researchers tested seven religious categories including: Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, and one faith they just made up, “Wallonian,” to see what would happen compared to people who made no faith reference.

Fewer employers called back the “Wallonians,” as well as the others, reacting to “a fear of the unknown,” said University of Connecticut sociology professor Michael Wallace who led the studies.

Yes, there are regional differences, but some themes stand out. The hurdles facing Muslim job applicants are obvious and exist everywhere. But is there a rising animus against Catholics in the Northeast?

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The Atlantic: Apparently, ‘evangelical’ now equals ‘cult’

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, every year or two, there is some kind of mainstream media meltdown linked to (a) leaders of a mainstream religious group using the word “cult” to describe another religion or (b) some radical new religious movement behaving in a truly frightening manner that leads to it being labeled a “cult” by secular journalists.

The results are often rather icky, from the point of view of logic and information. During one of these blowups a few years ago I wrote, in a GetReligion post:

… I realize that “cult” is a loaded word, whether one is using it in a doctrinal context or in a sociological context. In a mainstream newsrooms, reporters have no business using it in stories about doctrinal conflicts, unless the word is used by one of the groups in a dispute and there is no way to avoid explaining how and why they are using it. Like what? Southern Baptists may refer to Mormonism as a “cult,” because of the latter faith’s radically different doctrine of God, in comparison with traditional forms of Christianity through the ages. But no one, including 99.9 percent of the Baptist leaders I know, would claim that modern Mormonism is a “cult,” in a sociological sense of the word.

Should mainstream reporters use this loaded word at all?

Note the stress on a doctrinal approach to this dangerous word, as opposed to a sociological approach. Journalists need to know that these distinctions exist in religious and academic discourse.

Why? Here is another practical example, from one of my “On Religion” columns:

… The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

Why do I bring this up right now? Well, The Atlantic just published a very interesting article with one of those headlines that reach out and grab readers by the neck (especially if readers are Godbeat professionals): “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”

Oh my.

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Politico’s long-but-shallow exposé on Hobby Lobby family

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Cue the dramatic music.

Politico has a breathless, 2,200-word profile of the Greens — the Hobby Lobby family — out this week with this sensational headline:

Hobby Lobby aims for Obamacare win, Christian nation

Stop the presses!

In one sense, it’s a long piece seemingly designed to expose the Greens’ desire to promote the Bible as truth. At the same time — despite its length — the report ends up feeling rather shallow in the true depth it provides.

Like a child playing with a water gun on a hot summer day, Politico attempts to cover a lot of territory. But nothing really seems to stick in this game of journalistic hopscotch.

Let’s start at the top (and don’t bother looking for any named sources up high):

The evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby made a fortune selling crafts supplies and made headlines fighting government-mandated birth control coverage. They’re also using their billions to sell the American public on the literal truth of Scripture — through a public school Bible curriculum, a huge museum around the corner from the Smithsonian and public forums on the faith of the Founding Fathers.

The Green family may be best known in secular circles for their lawsuit against Obamacare, a high-stakes — and highly political — case that could undercut the administration’s goal of setting minimum standards for health care coverage. By the end of this month, the Supreme Court will decide if the federal government can force the Greens to include methods of contraception they deem sinful as part of employees’ health insurance.

The pending Hobby Lobby ruling has thrust the Greens into the national spotlight, but the family’s mission is far bigger than a single court case. The Greens are spending hundreds of millions on a quiet but audacious bid to teach a wayward nation to trust, cherish — and heed — the Bible.

They’re building a huge museum dedicated to the Bible a few blocks from the Mall in Washington , with as much public space as the National Museum of American History. They’ve financed a lavish traveling exhibit as well, complete with a re-created Holy Land cave, a “Noah’s Ark experience” for kids and animatronic characters such as William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for daring to translate the New Testament into English.

The Greens are sponsoring scholarly study of the Bible and hosting forums such as a recent panel on faith’s role in shaping early America, which they hope to package for national broadcast.

Most provocatively, they’ve funded a multimillion-dollar effort to write a Bible curriculum they hope to place in public schools nationwide. It will debut next fall as an elective in Mustang High School, a few miles from Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma City headquarters.

I previously critiqued a one-sided Associated Press report on the Mustang Bible elective. Politico never gets around to identifying the source or explaining the specifics on the “multimillion-dollar effort.”

Roughly 600 words into the story, the first named source — besides a reference to a Steve Green quote last spring — shows up. That source is a critic:

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Faith and fitness: LATimes explores God’s role in weight loss

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There’s a healthy dose of religion news on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times.

“God is their fitness co-pilot,” proclaims the print headline on this Column One feature. The online version goes with “Cross training” (get it?).

Believe it or not, there’s no mention of that Northwestern University study from a few years ago that prompted Time magazine to report  “Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat” and USA Today to suggest “The devil may be in the pepperoni.” But I digress.

Let’s start with a large portion of the LATimes opening:

When Jim Black leads people on a robust walk three times a week on the grounds of the 120-acre Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, he’s got powerful company: God.

The several dozen people who join him have shown up with the same hopes that anyone brings to an exercise plan: They mean to lose weight, ditch inhalers, get stronger.

But at Saddleback, there’s a lot more going on. Pastor Rick Warren is using the power of his church, one of the biggest in the country, to impress upon his followers that their bodies need the same care as their spirits.

After two months on “The Daniel Plan,” Black gave up his diabetes medication. He has given up wheat, dairy and sugar. He recently bought a bicycle. In a year, he lost 90 pounds; his wife lost 40.

“It’s that one scripture: My body is not my own, my body is on loan and someday I’ll have to account for it,” said Black, 48. “I wanted to serve God at a higher level. And I wanted to be able to fit in the seat of a roller coaster and buy one seat on the airplane instead of two.”

Yeah, that one Scripture (AP style is uppercase when referring to the religious writings in the Bible).

But just to be clear, exactly which Scripture are we talking about? The LATimes just brushes right past that obvious question. I assume Black is referring to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. From the New International Version of the Bible:

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The missing Scripture aside, I like the LATimes lede. It is interesting and draws me into the story. I am compelled to read more (even if I weren’t a GetReligion critic):
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Demon ‘deliverance’ in Big D: ‘The Exorcists Next Door’

A burp or a yawn? Either might signal an exiting demon.

So say Larry and Marion Pollard, the subjects of a 4,400-word D Magazine profile with the provocative title “The Exorcists Next Door.”

When Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher proclaimed the piece a must-read, we knew we needed to check it out.

Let’s start at the top:

The trees and rolling hills lend a warm, suburban vibe to Marion and Larry Pollard’s West Arlington neighborhood. Shouts of children from a nearby elementary school waft in on waves of heat as you step inside the foyer of their comfortable ranch home, where you’re surrounded by portraits of the grandkids—eight of them, ranging in age from 5 to 22.

To the right is the Pollards’ office, looking like any pastor’s study, with a desk, a trio of chairs, and bookshelves lined with Bible commentaries. A box of tissues sits discreetly beside one chair. A football-sized terrier named Bella bounces in and nestles behind you when you take a seat.

You won’t hear bland Bible homilies in this place, however. The Pollards are exorcists, practitioners of an ancient specialty mostly lost since the early days of the church, and their job is to cast out demons. The demons come out through gagging and coughing and shaking and yawning, with minimal histrionics, because Larry “binds” the theatrical antics of demons, such as flinging bodies across a room. They call it gentle deliverance.

Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.

For the next four hours, I will witness an exorcism—or, as they prefer to call it, “deliverance session”—and it will blow my mind. Not because I haven’t seen a deliverance before. I have, but it was while on Christian church missions in Nigeria and Botswana. I’ve never seen this: the juxtaposition of these plainspoken, ordinary West Texans and the Dantean drama that plays out in front of us, via the soft frame of a 38-year-old suburban mom we’ll call Ruth.

Writer Julie Lyons, whom Dreher describes as “a friend from my Dallas days and a heck of a writer,” approaches her subject with seriousness and respect — and even allows herself to become a part of the story (don’t miss the twist at the end!).

She complements her detailed narrative of what she witnesses inside the Pollards’ house with historical background and modern-day insight from theologians:

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Ghosts after Seattle Pacific shooting? Not in this story

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Here at GetReligion, we blog often about holy ghosts in news coverage. However, we much prefer stories that leave no room for spiritual ghostbusting.

Such is the case with an exceptional Seattle Times report on the “grief without despair” that followed last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Given the university’s evangelical Christian ties, religion has been a part of this tragic story from the beginning, as tmatt noted earlier.

In a piece published Sunday, the Times explores the faith angle in a simple-but-remarkable way:

In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.

They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.

“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”

The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

Yes, the reporter — a former Godbeat pro named Janet Tu — provides relevant background on Seattle Pacific:

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

Faculty and staff must be professing, practicing Christians.

But this story (relatively concise at 1,000 words) is at its best when Tu steps backs and allows her sources — three professors and two students — to discuss the role of faith in their own words:

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