A Godbeat forum at USA Today

wallis podiumFor more than a week now, I have been trying to remember to let GetReligion readers know that the digital team at USA Today has created a website that makes it easier for people interested in religion news to read the analysis pieces that run every Monday on the op-ed page. The feature is called “Monday: On Religion,” which only slightly freaks me out since my weekly Scripps Howard News Service column has been running for 17 years and it’s called “On Religion.”

But I digress. The national newspaper has run some very interesting essays under that banner and, while the feature runs in the editorial section, it almost always features essays that include lots of information and reporting, as well as opinion. It has even featured some pieces directly linked to religion-beat work, written by religion writers, such as Mark Pinsky’s “Southern Jews and evangelicals: Coming together” and, well, my own “The media, God and gaffes.”

But it was another GetReligion connection that reminded me to post a note about this site — the recent piece titled “Left, right and religion: A double standard.” Not only was the topic interesting, but it was written by Patrick Hynes, author of In Defense of the Religious Right, and our own former GetReligion scribe Jeremy Lott, author of the recent In Defense of Hypocrisy. The heart of the article is its observation that, while almost every move by the Religious Right inspires headlines about “theocracy,” the mainstream media tend to be silent about the actions of religious activists on the left.

What we need, said Hynes and Lott, is more coverage — more balanced coverage — of these “Leftwing Theocrats.” Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose appeals that federal and state budgets are “moral documents” are rooted in the same kind of strategic blending of biblical argument and public policy that, when this mix is served up by people on the right, is usually greeted with derision by disciples of the New York Times editorial page.

Something is wrong with half of this picture:

The religious left is usually given a respectful hearing. That’s a good thing. After all, this is a democracy in which people can make up their own minds about such things. But the same deference should be given to the arguments and ideas of religious conservatives.

Critics are out of line for lambasting the religious right for advocating their beliefs, and they’d be just as wrong blasting the religious left. Yet for liberal and secular pundits, this has been a one-way street.

If that piece is not your cup of tea, USA Today‘s editorial page team then offered a pushy little piece by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and City Journal titled “Conservatism doesn’t need God: The GOP has become the party of religion, and Democrats have been scrambling to play catch-up. The truth, though, is that piety doesn’t belong in politics.”

Check it out. This is a site worth bookmarking, for journalists who care about religion news. It’s also a nice place for Godbeat professionals to send those edgy little freelance pieces that their editors just can’t seem to make room for in the newspaper. It’s a good forum.

Personal note: I’m out the door to lead some seminars at the National College Media Convention in St. Louis. I’ll try to get online whenever I can. I’ll be back inside the Beltway on Monday.

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We’re back (cross your fingers)


Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Yes, GetReligion went offline yesterday afternoon for reasons that are still mysterious.

I thought it was my fault, seeing as how the disconnect took place an hour or so after I went to the Network Solutions homepage to pay another three years of fees to retain the rights to GetReligion.org and GetReligion.net. Then we vanished and it seemed that our URL was pointing back to TypePad, our home long ago in the early days of the blog.

Well, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc was on the West Coast and away from his laptop. So I — Captain Useless — was stranded after hours. And on a writing night for the Scripps Howard News Service column, too. Ugh.

Needless to say, the folks at Network Solutions — the ones in answering-service hell, for starters — are gifted with the ability to speak in an unknown tongue and I have not been given the gift of translation. Finally, a dear computer-professional friend from West Palm Beach days who now works here in D.C. (I could tell you where, but I’d have to kill you) helped out and, with the right server info from On High this a.m., dug in and Reformed our settings. Yes, there is a reason that R is uppercase.

Or maybe Doug lept in from some zip code out West and healed things. It also appears that Network Solutions was having some problems of their own. Obviously, I am still confused.

Anyway, we are back in business. So, for starters, I would like to call the attention of longtime readers to the post in which I asked your advice on some tweaks to the site. In particular, I would like suggestions about which categories to add and which to remove. World Religions? New Age? New Old Age? Is it time for Mormonism to get its own folder? I always wonder where to put posts about church life and/or worship.

Other suggestions out there? No, we are not ready yet for separate storage areas for Episcopalians and Anglicans. That’s coming soon enough, only I would vote to move the Episcopalians back into the Seven Sisters.

Anyway, thanks for the emails of concern. We’ll have some fresh posts up soon.

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To boldly go, where GetReligion has not gone …

big2 01I had a minor epiphany the other day when I realized that we are a few months away from the third birthday of this weblog.

To make a long story short, the foundational “What we do, why we do it” post went online on Feb. 1, 2004, after the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc and I sent a month trying to get our act together. Well, that’s not exactly true. Doug had his act together, it took me a month to learn how (OK, to try to learn how) to use the software.

Here’s why I bring this up.

A kind former student of mine sent me a note alerting me to the fact that Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader recently shared the following observation with his readers:

My favorite blog on media and religion is getreligion.org. Day in and day out, it’s an absolutely outstanding site.

Obviously, we like it when Harvard-guy professionals on the beat say nice things like that.

But it also got me to thinking. There is so much that the busy people who do this blog wish we had the time to do. We need to update the left sidebar. We need to tweak the looks a bit in terms of graphics. Should we retire the colors and go to a DC-ish Navy and Khaki look?

Clearly, we need some new categories and a few old ones can go away. At the very least we need a “marriage and sex” category. How about one called “Seven Sisters” for the mainline Prots who aren’t under Anglicanism? I always wonder where to put posts linked to worship and trends in church life. We could use a “religious left” slot, but is that actually — the Pew Forum has great info on this — actually the same thing as the Seven Sisters? Or are the Seven Sisters all splitting up (the answer is “yes”) and the left side of that is half of the religious left, waltzing with the new secularists and the anti-Fundamentalist voters?

Anyway, Lockwood’s plug made met think about the future. Everyone agrees, in the Google-search age, that the way to grow a blog’s readership is through links to other sites of kindred interests. But that raises interesting issues for us. Our primary goal is to help mainstream journalists think about how to improve coverage of religion news. We are big on the whole diversity thing in newsrooms and we still believe in things like balance and accuracy.

We are glad to have readers who are simply interested in religion news and trends. Stay with us! Keep us in your Holy Blogs of Obligation. Please!

But we also need to keep reaching out core audience of news professionals.

So, other than the obvious — Beliefnet.com, Poynter.org, etc., can you name some other blogs and sites that you think should include GetReligion? Can you help us get more links out there in the mainstream? Want to help?

I also wonder: Anyone out there interested in GetReligion t-shirts, water bottles and coffee mugs? What would be the easiest way to pull that sort of project off? Just asking. Maybe we are a kind of blue-denim-button-down-shirt kind of site for causal Fridays?

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Trying to hear the Amish music

smalleramishAs you would expected, some major newspapers used their Sunday editors to dig deeper on issues linked to the Amish school massacre in Lancaster County, Pa. And, as you would expect, some newspapers did a good job of covering the spiritual issues and others used that old, dependable approach that resembles a National Geographic report on an alien culture.

I was speaking and flying all weekend, but still managed to see many of the reports online. I was especially struck by the “When worlds collide” feature story in the Baltimore Sun by reporter John Woestendiek. Folks, this story includes all kinds of interesting information about all kinds of valid stories about the Amish. There are details, facts and color galore. Here is a sample:

In a place where tranquillity is savored, hoopla ruled: Helicopters whirred above, and the roads were filled with police officers, TV news trucks, well-wishers and gawkers. Some vacationers went so far as to request their Amish country bus tours add the schoolhouse to the list of sights to see. There were threats from a fringe religious group to protest the funeral, and bikers who showed up to see that they didn’t.

In a culture where technology is eschewed, it was everywhere: from the satellite dishes dotting the horizon to the TV cables running alongside the road like spilled spaghetti, puzzling the horses that haul the buggies that carry the Amish, who — next to violence — abhor nothing more than being in the spotlight.

So what was missing? It seems that the team behind this story was — so sadly typical of the Sun — tone-deaf to the many religious elements of the story. There were melodies of faith and pain all around them and they just couldn’t hear the music. This is my local newspaper and this was one of those times when I really, really wished this was not my local newspaper.

I mean, they could have run Daniel Burke’s Religion News Service feature on the aftermath of the shootings. I have heard that Burke once worked at a newspaper in the Amish country, and it shows. He visited the Amish, listened and heard the music.

So click here to read “Amish Search for Healing, Forgiveness After ‘The Amish 9/11.’” Here is the haunting end of that piece:

But as their family gathered beneath a gas lamp in their living room after dinner, Ben and Mary struggled to explain why a gunman would want to hurt Amish children. They told their sons that he had a “little problem in his head that made him do mean things.”

One of the boys stared at his plain black pants, fingered his suspenders and again asked, in a respectful tone: Why?

Settling her hands on her lap, Mary said: “Sometimes we don’t understand. I understand that the Lord does let this happen, but I do not know why.”

“Really the only way to answer this is to toss it in the Lord’s lap and say, ‘You take care of it, I can’t,’” Ben said after turning to the boy.

“But you may ask him to please carry us through,” Mary said.

As the night grew long and the boys began to yawn, Ben pulled a little black prayer book from the shelf.

He pointed to a prayer often read at Amish funerals and provided an English translation.

“Glory Father, we thank Thee for all the blessings which Thou has bestowed upon the departed one, especially now that Thou has redeemed him from this wicked world and brought his sorrows to an end, and as we trust, has taken his soul home to Thee.”

AmishDollsIt’s all about access and listening, isn’t it?

Finally, I know many regular GetReligion readers will want to read Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher’s weekend commentary on this event, published in The Dallas Morning News. Click here to read “Amish faith shines, even in tragic darkness.”

The key, says Dreher, is that the Amish are not “Anabaptist hobbits” cut off from sin, temptation, tragedy and grief. They are part of the world of faith and they have their own way of dealing with the hard issues of life.

Charles Carl Roberts IV had one way of dealing with loss. The Amish way is very different and contrasts with many approaches to religion that, sadly, produce tragic headlines.

What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.

Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.

Did that part of the story make it into your local newspapers and television broadcasts?

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Underneath the bonnets and straw hats

Amish straw hats JPGIt’s very hard to write a column about one subject when your mind is locked on another.

So I did something I rarely do yesterday. I switched column topics, even though that meant trying to do extra reading, research and telephone work during a day when I had classes to teach in the morning and the afternoon. I write at night and ship the column to the bureau at dawn on Wednesdays. It’s that “lead time” thing, you know.

The goal, of course, was to write about the Amish tragedy. It was clear that new details would keep coming out all week, but I still thought there was ground to cover from the very first day or two of the story. I knew that the media would, of course, leap into stories linked to “theodicy,” and that’s valid. That is part of the “why” question, after all.

But I was haunted by the question of justice. I know enough about the Amish and the Mennonites to know that this was the other half of the discussion that would be looming in the background, coupled with forgiveness. But who to talk to on such short notice? You can talk to academic experts on the Amish and what they believe, but this rarely gets you inside the minds under those straw hats and bonnets, let alone inside their hearts and souls.

So I decided to try to reach Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof Communities. This is a Christian group that is very similar to the Amish and the Mennonites in many ways, in terms of European roots, traditions and beliefs. However, they are not opposed to modern technology, especially not the Internet (thus the website link above). I have talked with Arnold in the past and, thus, I hoped he would take my call in such a stressful time. Sure enough, the Bruderhof communities had already sent volunteers down to Lancaster County, Pa., to help counsel and help the Amish handle the media storm. The Bruderhof were also highly involved in helping survivors of the Columbine High School massacre. Like the Amish, the Bruderhof folks do not fit easily into media stereotypes.

Arnold was able to give me some time between my classes. That led to a column that began like this:

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer’s sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

“Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television,” said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof (“place of the brothers”) embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

“The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling,” said Arnold, in his thick German accent. “I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. … Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion.”

And here is the end:

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

“If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind,” said Arnold. “If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see.”

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Options on hot question No. 2

dan fireThe tmatt trio issue has inspired another solid question from a loyal reader.

For those new to the discussion, the trio is a set of three — duh — hot questions that I have often used when interviewing clergy and other Christian leaders during this era in which the whole liberal vs. conservative thing has become so rooted in politics, as opposed to doctrine. Once again let me stress that I developed these questions in the mid-1980s as a journalistic tool. I have found that these are the questions that, time after time, help me get past vague labels.

A reader has already asked about question No. 3, which is logical in an era when sex makes so many headlines. But here is the whole set, once again:

(1) Are the 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 the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Now, Jeff Hubbard has written in with a question about question No. 2. Here is the heart of his letter:

There was a post recently where you explained a little about your reasoning in asking the third question in the famed “TMatt Trio,” the one about sexuality.

I have a similar inquiry about the second question of said trio. … (It) seems this question leaves open the possibility of not getting substantive insight into the theological positions of the interviewee. For example, many people that would hold an inclusivist or universalist view about salvation (myself included) would be able to answer “yes” to this question with no qualms or reservations whatsoever. This is esp. true of Barthian universalists. (Who have a very Christocentric rationale for their universalism.)

Of course some universalists who are pomo/liberal-type folks would just flat out answer “no” to the question. However, a “yes” answer to the question leaves open the possibility for that person to fall anywhere on the theological spectrum … five point Calivinists, Wesleyans, fundies, evangelicals of all sorts, and some universalitsts all could feasibly answer “yes” to this question. So what I’m wondering is if any of these issues have ever come up in response to you asking this question, or one like it. Have you ever thought of fine-tuning this question to include more nuance?

Hubbard is right, of course. There are variations on the universalism that dominates our all-tolerant age. Questions about salvation, and whether any one faith is the true faith, often hover in the background of discussions of everything from public prayers by U.S. chaplains to faith-based initiatives in prisons and elsewhere to MPAA ratings for movies. It’s interesting that this “political” question is usually asked in connection with Christian projects, as opposed to Muslim.

This simple question might not tell you much in the context of a check-this-box opinion poll.

However, I have been asking these questions in the context of interviews, often face-to-face interviews. What you find is that the person being interviewed almost always tries to qualify the answer. This yields information about the very variations of belief that Hubbard describes. It is an especially interesting question to ask Roman Catholics in the post-Vatican II world. Often, it has been years or decades since Catholics have heard a sermon on heaven or hell or questions about how one gets to one or the other.

And what about question No. 1? In the late 1980s, I asked that question to five candidates for the open post of bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. The man who eventually won the job went around and around and never did say “yes” or “no.” It was clear that he did not want to answer. That was, of course, a very revealing answer.

Speaking of click-this-box polls about religion, our friends at Beliefnet still have the Belief-O-Matic quiz online. Is this a revised edition? It looks more nuanced than the one I wrote about long ago (in cybertime). Also note the religion-quiz page, with a wide variety of quizzes for people of different faiths. It’s the tmatt trio times 666.

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Making all kinds of churches nervous

TrueLoveWaitsI’ve been wondering, tmatt — in question (3), are you trying to get at the homosexuality question, or something else? If something else, can you say more about why that question in particular? If homosexuality, why phrase it in such an indirect manner? (Since it is often the definition of the marriage sacrament that is contested.) Just curious.

Posted by Liz B. at 10:28 pm on September 27, 2006

This is an excellent question, since battles over sexuality have dominated the religion beat for a decade or two.

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, religion-beat profesionals began to see signs that the progressive wing of the mainline Protestant world — led, in this case, by the Presbyterian Church (USA) — was seeking theological language to declare sexual intercourse, in or out of marriage, a sacrament in and of itself.

Of course this was linked to the gay issue, but the issue is much bigger than that. Some liberal theologians — in a burst of candor — began to say that adultery was not always a sin and that the Holy Spirit might, in some cases, lead a person into adultery. “The wind blows where it will” and all of that. I have searched the World Wide Web and I cannot find a good summary of the crucial document, which was the 1991 report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality in the PCUSA. The chair was a United Church of Christ intellectual named John Carey.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church was arguing about some similar topics, led, as always, by the candor of Bishop Jack Spong of Newark. A key moment came in 1991 with the defeat of the “(Bishop William C.) Frey Amendment,” which simply stated that Episcopal clergy should not have sex outside of marriage. This was too controversial to pass.

But the events on the left were only part of the story, in my opinion.

In the typical “conservative” church, pastors were falling strangely silent on the sins that beset their own flocks, mostly sex outside of marriage and before marriage, while they were often trumpeting their churches’ beliefs on the sexual activities of gays and lesbians. It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue.

I thought it was interesting that I was told, while working on one of my earliest columns about the “True Love Waits” movement, that some of the strongest opposition to the concept came from adults, not teens. The problem was that pastors could not offend divorced deacons or other adults in the church who were having sex before marriage or outside of their marriages.

When it comes to sex, the typical conservative pastor is much more afraid to talk about premarital or extramarital sex than about homosexuality. There is a story there, I think, and it’s an important story.

The emphasis in Christian tradition is on sex and marriage. A journalist who asks religious leaders this question — “Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?” — will disturb many on the left and the right and, I have found, will almost always gain new information.

Again, my goal in creating the tmatt trio questions was journalistic, not theological. I was trying to find out what questions would get me past that old political left vs. right divide.

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Please. Pretty please. Can we ask Katie …

image1945536So what are the questions that faithful GetReligion readers would like to ask Katie Couric?

You think I’m joking? Click here to head to the new Couric & Co. site:

“Dear Katie …”

Is there a question you’re burning to ask Katie? This is your chance. Send us an e-mail with your question — one question per e-mail, please — and over the next several days we’ll sift through them and ask Katie to answer them.

A few ground rules:

Questions must be serious and substantive. (But witty and substantive will also be accepted.) No questions about hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe. Please. Pretty please.

Questions must be brief and to the point. We may edit them for length, clarity and, yes, grammar.

And so forth and so on.

As you would expect, I am tempted to email in the tmatt trio. You may remember them.

(1) Are the 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 the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Yes, it is true that these are questions I use when trying to find out where Christian leaders fall on a doctrinal (not political) scale from left to right, from progressive to traditionalist. And, yes, the issue for a journalist is not what she believes, but how accurately she can cover the beliefs of others, including those with whom they strongly disagree.

Yet is is precisely where Couric’s religious critics have faulted her in the past and I assume they are now watching her every move like hawks. Also, social, cultural and religious issues have long dominated most polls and debates about media bias.

I have to admit that I have not been watching the CBS Evening News lately. I would be interested in knowing if any major religion stories have been covered on her watch. I assume that the pope story drew some serious air time. Any comments from GetReligion readers?

Any questions that you would like to ask Katie? I would assume that the out-of-bounds instructions — “hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe” — would also include questions about camera angles and legs.

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