Hobby Lobby in narrow win; Little Sisters of the Poor on deck

So why are the Little Sisters of the Poor at the top of this post as the tsunami of Hobby Lobby coverage continues? Hang on.

So far, the mainstream press coverage of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision (.pdf here) has been rather good. In particular, there has been a shockingly low rate of scare quotes around terms such as “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” almost certainly because this case — in the eyes of the 5-4 majority — pivoted on issues linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a major 1993 win for the old church-state liberalism of the past (RIP).

However, note the very interesting scare quotes in the following reaction statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ committee for Religious Liberty.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.

“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”

The key word is, of course, “accommodation.” In other words, the court did not deal with the Little Sisters of the Poor and appears to have left a door open for the White House to ask Hobby Lobby and other family-owned corporations to settle for the same “accommodation” it has offered to doctrinally defined religious non-profits, ministries and schools. The basic idea is that religious believers will not have to pay for services that they believe are damnable and heretical because the government will ask their insurance providers to provide these services for free (without quietly raising the rates to cover the cost).

I think major news organizations did fine with Hobby Lobby details, in part, because it was seen primarily as an extension of the whole “corporations are people too” political battles of recent years. Thus, the family-owned corporations have religious liberty rights, while massive impersonal corporations (none of which have sought exemptions) have not.

What about the doctrinally defined non-profits, the second level of this church-state fight that many journalists tend to miss?

Remember that New York Times report in 2013 noting that the White House has “excluded many religious organizations from the law’s requirements”? As I wrote at the time:

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Where does anti-Hitler hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer fit?

JOHN ASKS:

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer] was a hero and martyr for the faith, but is it possible evangelical Christians in America have lionized someone whose theology is not actually in sync with theirs?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Books by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) sell without letup, including no less than seven biographies since 2010, plus novels, plays, films, unending articles and even an opera. The German Lutheran pastor is one of the past century’s most revered authors with must-read titles like “The Cost of Discipleship,” “Life Together” and the posthumous “Ethics” and “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Moreover — yes — he’s lionized as a Christian martyr.

Everybody wants to claim this complex thinker as an ally, but where does he really fit? Was his theology “liberal” or “evangelical” or “neo-orthodox” or some mixture? Would he align with today’s political Left or Right? With absolutists or relativists in morals? Was he a pacifist or not? And, the latest fuss, was he gay or straight?

A quick rundown of his eventful life: Brilliant student trained in academically fashionable liberalism. Inspired to a different and deeper faith by African-American Christians during study in America. Fierce foe of Nazi anti-Semitism in the Protestant “Confessing Church.” Teacher in a close-knit underground seminary. German military intelligence officer working secretly as a double agent. Part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and executed as a political prisoner days before Allied troops arrived.

Ample Bonhoeffer buzz results from the much-purchased and much-debated biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Author Eric Metaxas is an evangelical successor to Charles Colson on “Breakpoint” radio commentaries and leader of Manhattan’s intriguing “Socrates in the City” lecture series. He previously wrote “Amazing Grace,” a biography of William Wilberforce, the devoutly evangelical Member of Parliament most responsible for abolishing the slave trade across the British Empire.

Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer continues that theme of uplifting Christian activism. It also typifies John’s concern, since this biography is criticized for playing up Bonhoeffer’s problems with liberal theology and his affinity with evangelical piety. (Metaxas did not answer a “Religion Q and A” e-mail seeking his response to critics.) Bonhoeffer was conservative enough that Theo Hobson at the Episcopal seminary in New York City calls him “fumbling,” “faltering,” and “dubious” in a history of liberal theology. Yale University poet Christian Wiman, author of “My Bright Abyss,” says Bonhoeffer’s story distinguishes him “from the watery — and thus waning — liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s.”

But Clifford Green, who organized the 16-volume edition of Bonhoeffer’s works, savaged Metaxas in the liberal “Christian Century,” charging that he “hijacked” Bonhoeffer by falsely portraying him as a conservative. In a 1993 evangelical journal article, historian Richard Weikart said the theologian was no conservative and followed up with the 1997 book ”The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical?” Weikart, now teaching at California State University, Stanislaus, thinks Metaxas’s “counterfeit Bonhoeffer” ignores liberal thinking that breaks with conservative evangelicalism, for instance doubts that Jesus rose bodily from the grave or that the Bible presents literal history otherwise.

As for politics, David Timmer, religion chair at Central College, chides yet another biography for “using Bonhoeffer as a club to bash Republican policies.” Problem is, he says, the man’s actual political views “were far too complex to be easily assimilated to either the contemporary left or the right.”

Then we have this patheos.com headline: “Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It.”

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ESPN offers faith-free version of Isaiah Austin’s testimony

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If you care about what is happening in modern, multi-platform journalism then you have to pay close attention to trends at ESPN — even if you don’t care much about sports. If you care about the media habits of mainstream American males, especially young males, then you really have to dig into ESPN.

This brings me to the emotional highlight of last night’s NBA draft.

If you know anything about life in evangelical churches — white, black, Latino, whatever — then you know what it means to say that someone “has a testimony.” That means that something intensely spiritual has happened in their life and they just have to talk about it.

If you watch a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and someone shouts “testify!” at the preacher, they are not talking about legal testimony. They are saying, “Preach it!”

Well, former Baylor University center Isaiah Austin has a “testimony” right now. He has been through a life-and-death wringer and he wants to talk about it. Thus, the top of the following ESPN report:

NEW YORK – Between the 15th and 16th picks in Thursday night’s draft came a very special selection by the NBA.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced at that point that the NBA would let Isaiah Austin fulfill the dream of every young player, making him a ceremonial pick.

Just over a week ago, the sophomore center from Baylor was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart. It ended his playing career. The illness was discovered during a physical for the draft. …

The crowd at Barclays Center rose to its feet as Austin, sitting in the waiting area with most of the first-round picks, hugged family members and put on a generic NBA cap. He went up to the stage and posed with Silver, just as all the drafts picks do when they are called.

Wait, there’s one more amazing detail:

During the season, the 7-foot-1 Austin revealed he had a prosthetic right eye after multiple operations couldn’t repair a detached retina.

Austin, expected to be a high pick when healthy, said he felt he has “a great story to share.” He said Baylor coach Scott Drew has already offered him a coaching position with the Bears.

So he has a “great story to tell.” That’s another way, in Christian speak, to say that he has a testimony. So what’s the bottom line at ESPN?

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Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls.

For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

* Christian colleges, like their secular counterpart, now face increasing challenges in enrollment — especially with the post-Millennial generation “cliff” looming ahead.

* Mormon numbers continue to rise. Same song, with new verses.

* Liberal Protestant churches continue a multi-decade demographic implosion, leaving a majority of congregations smaller, older and often (even with endowments from previous generations) swimming in red ink. The radical decline in the old mainline leaves a giant gap in American culture that provides an opening for evangelicals to grab the cultural spotlight.

* Jewish congregations, schools and social institutions face declining numbers, especially when it comes to finding families with children — the link to the future.

* Greek Orthodox churches in North America face a shortage of priests who are, well, Greek and Greek-speaking. Many parishes (some tense about this) now have convert or Slavic priests.

* Conservative denominations — think Missouri-Synod Lutherans, for example — face falling enrollments in some of their elementary, middle and high schools, especially older schools far from suburbs.

* Home-schooling families continue to wield an increasing amount of power in evangelical circles.

I could go on and on with this. However, there is one other story linked to this issue that recently drew major coverage — sort of — in The New York Times and was the subject of my “Crossroads” podcast chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in).

Can anyone guess the topic?

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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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