Pod people: White House vs. the Wheaton College covenant

From the very beginning, some mainstream news organization have — appropriately so — emphasized that many, if not most, progressive religious organizations have not only supported Obamacare, but the controversial Health & Human Services mandate as well.

This raises a logical question: What are the doctrinal fault lines that are dividing religious groups on the many moral issues linked to the mandate?

Obviously, some groups oppose the mandate — period. Catholics oppose its requirement that all forms of contraception be covered. Then there are evangelicals, such as the Hobby Lobby owners, who have no problem with most forms of birth control, but oppose the so-called morning-after pill and other contraceptives that they believe — scientists are split on the issue — induce abortions.

That would seem to be that. However, there is another moral complication that is affecting many doctrinally defined ministries, non-profits and schools that continue to oppose the mandate. Yes, this is the Little Sisters of the Poor camp, which also includes many schools and universities, such as Wheaton College.

More on that in a moment, since this was the topic that drove this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen in.

So what is going on with Wheaton, the Little Sisters, et al.?

This brings us back to the infamous “tmatt trio,” those three doctrinal questions that I have long used — as a journalistic tactic — to probe the differences between warring camps inside various churches. Remember the three questions?

(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?

Think about that third question for a moment. In recent decades, churches have been fighting about the moral status of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. At times, it’s hard to remember that progressive and orthodox churches are also divided over the moral status of premarital sex and, in a few cases, even extramarital sex (some liberal theologians have argued that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can even been seen in some acts of infidelity).

This bring’s us back to Wheaton College and the other ministries, non-profits and schools that do not want to cooperate with the HHS mandate in any way. As I wrote the other day, many:

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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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Journalism, facts and the fires of hell (revisited)

Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell.

– John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994)

The late Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle and many other superb studies of combat in the Western world, opposed philosophical abstraction. Theories of history that sought to explain the causes of conflict by reference to materialist, idealist, gender, (what have you) theory failed to appreciate the role human agency and culture — tradition, religion, tribal identity — played in explaining human action, Keegan believed.

In his particular field of study, military history, Keegan believed the theories of Carl von Clausewitz that war is about politics, was a wholly inadequate explanation. (War is simply [an expression] of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. Clausewitz, On War, p.605) The adoption of theoretical constructs to explain war, Keegan argued, lay upon totalizing or universalist assumptions that failed to see farther than their cultural presuppositions.

Journalism suffers from these problems. What I see as the displacement of the classical Anglo-American school of journalism by European-style advocacy journalism mirrors the failings Keegan identified in the historical profession. Reporters who come to a story through advocacy journalism have a preconceived notions about the nature of truth into which they seek to place the available facts. If the facts are inconvenient or do not fit the theories, they can be left out of the story.

These musings on the nature of truth and journalism were prompted by a question posed to me by Todd Wilken, during an appearance I made last week on Issues Etc., for Lutheran Public Radio.

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Pod people: Vatican III? Nicea III? Press blind spot 666?

The questions jumped into Twitter in a flash, which is what one would assume would happen when there is a chance that a once-a-millennium news story could be breaking.

So Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis have proposed a 2025 event to mark the great Council of Nicea.

Line up, religion-news consumers, to ask your big questions. Father James Martin, you go first:

So no Vatican III?

But a proposal for Nicea III?

Slow down. First things first. Was this a proposal for a true Ecumenical Council between the ancient churches of East and West?

It quickly became clear, from Rome and Istanbul, that this was not the case.

But what did it mean, really, to say that this date — so far off in the future — is now on the calendar for an ecumenical gathering to celebrate the great Ecumenical Council of Nicea? That, of course, is the gathering of the church fathers best known because of the Nicene Creed and its proclamation of the Holy Trinity.

Once again, I was amazed that the big guns in the mainstream media didn’t jump in on this story. Amazed.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast chat, host Todd Wilken and I pondered, once again, why journalists concluded that the Pope Francis pilgrimage to the Middle East was primarily a political event about statecraft. It was not, repeat NOT, as the Vatican kept stating, an event that grew out of the highly symbolic invitation by Bartholomew for the pope to meet him in Jerusalem. (Click here to listen in.)

In this case, I had written both a GetReligion post (click here) and a Universal Syndicate column (click here) on this topic. In the column I noted:

The symbolic leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.

So why wasn’t this gathering newsworthy? Why was it missing from the vast majority (kudos to the Associated Press for being a major exception) of the mainstream reports about this trip?

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Épater le bourgeois catholique

Stories about religion seem to do odd things to otherwise sensible reporters. Some news articles ignore the religious element of a story, or they suspend judgment (and belief) and accept without question or examination the claims of religions.

In my most recent GetReligion podcast with host Todd Wilken of Lutheran Public Radio I argued the fracas at Harvard University over a Black Mass was a fake story. By saying it was fake, I do not mean that it did not happen. Rather the press went along for the ride in a story about Satanic claims that set off a massive over reaction by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

What we had was a student club seeking to shock bourgeois Catholic sensitivities with a faux outrage — and the leadership of the Catholic Church responded by using a bazooka to swat a fly.

How did this happen? Because reporters did not do their job and ask the hard questions at the start of the controversy. Once the hysteria began, it was too late to do anything. What we had was a Catholic version of the Terry Jones Koran burning story — this time with people involved in planning the event making conflicting claims about whether this rite would take place with a consecrated host.

After the story broke I posted an essay at GetReligion entitled “Why should the devil have all the best press?” that discussed the then planned Harvard Black Mass along with the annual academic conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on exorcism. I argued that the newspapers should have asked some hard questions of Harvard and the Satanists who were supposed to be putting on the Black Mass.

Questions like: “Is this a real religion or are you recreating a scene from a 19th Century French horror novel and calling that a religion?” Or, “When you say you are Satanists what do you mean by that? Are you devil worshipers? Followers of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan?”

Which leads to the question is the ’60s Satanism of LaVey a bona fida religion or a scam?

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Pod people: Reindeers and the quest for nonsectarian prayer

So why, you ask, is that generic civic Christmas scene on top of this GetReligion post as the temperatures in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area finally begin to show signs of real summer baseball weather? I am assuming that, at this point, we have seen our last snow flurries in these parts.

I’ll come back to the reindeer in a minute. Trust me, there is a logical connection between that image and the subject material in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which as usual is a joint production of the GetReligionistas and host Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc. Click here to listen in.

For now, click pause on your reflections on years of the “reindeer wars,” which is actually one of the busiest fronts in America’s lively “Christmas Wars.” I want you to picture another church-state battlefield.

Let’s pretend that it is 10 minutes before a meeting of a government body in some typical American setting, perhaps even a place with a name like Town of Greece or what have you.

On this night there is an issue before this government body — perhaps a zoning question affecting a booming evangelical megachurch — that is special relevance to religious institutions of all kinds, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, etc., etc. So there are going to be lots of different kinds of religious believers present. Atheists and agnostics are also highly involved in this dispute, stressing that religious groups should not receive special rights.

Now, under the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, this Town of Greece meeting will open with prayer.

Try, try, try to imagine a prayer on this occasion that would please all of the participants. Depending on who is up to bat in the community’s much disputed multi-faith prayer rotation, there are a number of possibilities and let’s keep score. Ready?

Yes, you could have an evangelical pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Who is happy? (Of course, these believers could gather outside on the sidewalk or steps and pray to their hearts content, even out loud, but who wants to settle for that. Right?)

You could have a liberal or traditional Jewish rabbi pray (substitute liberal or Jewish Islamic cleric if you which). Who is happy, including those present from among the traditional and/or liberal bodies in the faith who lost the coin flip?

You could have an agnostic, or a liberal mainline Protestant, or a Unitarian offer a completely nonsectarian prayer that would sound something like this:

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Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

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Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail

Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mail straddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

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