Pod people: Red America and Bible Belt atheists

On the latest Issues, Etc. podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss my recent post on a Washington Post story that featured a red-state American in her natural habitat.

I explain why I liked that story better than some other post-election autopsies of Republican-leaning states, such as this New York Times story.

While the Post story devoted 1,800 words to attempting to understand a religiously motivated voter, the Times report allowed two paragraphs:

The Rev. Brady Cooper, the pastor of New Vision Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he had heard acquaintances in the days since the election speculating that social issues cost the Republicans the White House. To a degree, they were probably right, Mr. Cooper said. But he said that he could not abandon his values to win elections, and was increasingly moving away from politics.

“I’m kind of disillusioned more and more with the political process,” Mr. Cooper said. “One of their top priorities is being re-elected, and that kind of drives a lot of decisions that they make. And it means obviously going with the trends of the culture as opposed to the truth.”

(To be fair, the Times’ Laurie Goodstein provided a more in-depth analysis of the Christian right and the election.)

In the podcast, Wilkin and I also revisit my concerns about the ghost of Prince William County.

And we discuss the unasked question about atheists going to church.

By all means, enjoy the podcast.


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Pod people: saying goodbye

Friends of GetReligion, it is time for me to tip my hat and say farewell. It’s been a good ride, three years of working with excellent colleagues.

I’ll give one final post with some reflections, but first, in my last podcast, I tried to address a few posts that have encapsulated some of the issues GetReligion regularly addresses. Ultimately, we hope to help reporters understand better how to cover the religion beat, a challenging beat for reporters to cover.

Recently, we considered how the religion beat is changing, looking at what’s new that we didn’t have a few years ago. Here’s a hint: we’re all recovering from this great recession and we have this thing called Twitter on the scene. Combine those and you have a few dead religion blogs, reporters moving in and off the beat faster than many people can remember in recent years.

We also have often discussed what religion ghosts look like, stories that should include religion but they don’t. I made a few assumptions when watching London’s opening ceremonies, for instance, filtering religion through my own set of beliefs. Religion is truly everywhere, so sometimes it’s worth getting over yourself and admitting you don’t know the answer. Then you go to a religion scholar and ask some basic questions. Or you crowd source and ask Twitter for help. There are more ways of reporting when we get creative.

Remember this summer when everyone was getting all hot and bothered over Chick-fil-A? The stories were perfect for social media, so what do you do when you have a really hot story the internet loves? I say, maybe you should give it a little bait and then quickly ignore it. Truly, the internet honors stupid stories. Additionally we see seen time and time again reporters who show biases, undercutting their own objectivity.

Because my husband is a sports reporter, I regularly make comparisons between the religion beat and the sports beat. Think about it. There are passionate fans in both beats, people who will spend a lot of money in both areas. So why, then, do sports reporters often ignore an athlete’s faith? I’ve made the case time and time again that sports reporters expect the faith narrative and think it’s cliche. But reporters who ignore the glaring religion angle, as some did with the story on Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, do a disservice to their readers. So how do they keep it fresh? Examine the Grantland piece on athlete Mo Isom for ideas.

There are always ways to tell stories about religion in fresh and interesting ways. Just ask the religious leaders who give sermons every week. And enjoy the podcast.

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Crazy Charlie: His cartoons are insane

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In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two of my recent GetReligion stories: “Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoon Crassness” and “Foggy Bottom’s ‘pantywaist protocol pussy-footers’.” Starting with the press coverage on the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi, the articles (and our discussion) moved on to the vexed question of how the Western media reports on blasphemy in an Islamic context.

I argued the early coverage on the Middle East stories was uneven.  There were some great stories from the Washington Post, New York Times and other outlets from their reporters on the streets of Cairo.  I also singled out for praise a CNN story that put the issue of blasphemy in context for an American audience — answering the question why the “Innocence of Muslims” movie would be so offensive.

The domestic reporting on the embassy attacks was not as strong.  In my opinion, stateside reporters seemed to view this incident  through the lens of the Presidential election campaign.  They parroted the State Department’s claims the riots were spontaneous reactions to to the YouTube video — even though the same papers’ overseas reporters were writing there was evidence the riots were scripted and pre-planned, awaiting a suitable provocation.

The second story about the cartoons satirizing Muhammad as a gay porn star in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo reinforces the disconnect between the domestic and overseas reporting.  The assertion that this was spontaneous, or some sort of religious flash mob, has not been borne out by the responses to the French cartons.  The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are obscene, while the “Innocence of Muslims” video is dumb. The French government closed 20 embassies in the Muslim world in fear of attacks, yet nothing so far has happened (either in Metropolitan France or abroad).

Other European magazines have joined Charlie Hebdo in printing Muhammad cartoons.  The German magazine Titanic pictured depicts Germany’s former “First Lady” Bettina Wulff, being threatened (or defended) by an armed Muslim.  Is it Muhammad?

The Spanish magazine El Jueves last week published its Muhammad cover showing a line up of men in Islamic outfits. The cover says: “But how do they know which one is Muhammad?”

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Hilmar Klute argued the Muhammad cartoons and videos — and the responses they have generated have become rather tiresome.

Seldom has satire been so much in the public spotlight as it has these days. Seldom have satirical drawings and cover pages in Germany and especially in France caused such a great stir. And rarely have so many supporters and opponents of satire popped up with a number of somewhat outrageous claims and warnings. Günter Wallraff wants to flood the European media with anti-Islamic cartoons to ensure that the “demonstration of liberty” – and he really means it – is not just the concern of a few friends of freedom.

This vibrant audacity is, in truth, the quivering anger of an over-excited neo-bourgeoisie that believes that the liberal order can be toppled by crazed Islamists and that we can also defend our open society with art. Sharpened quills versus the scimitar.

This is a pity because satire, precisely at a time when there’s so much material, has seldom been as mediocre as it is today. The mediocre craftsmanship of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, Charb, is not the problem here. What’s sad is the intellectual laziness behind all these sensationalist pictures, photo-montages and jokes.

My sympathies lie with Mr. Klute. There is an air of unreality and lack of intellectual and moral seriousness about this controversy. Those who lived in the New York area in the 1980s will certainly remember “Crazy Eddie”. The discount electronics chain ended each of its high power, high volume advertisements with the tag line: “His prices are insane!”.

At times I feel Crazy Eddie has returned, but this time round he is peddling politics.

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Pod People: Romney, abstinent New Yorkers and (almost) Randy Travis

On the latest Issues, Etc. podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss my recent post on media coverage of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney going to church.

In the comments section of that post, Mark Hemingway, GetReligion’s resident expert on Mormonism, raised an interesting question:

There’s one interesting detail I would like to know, though I don’t know whether it’s here nor there in relation to what Bobby wrote. Did the Romney campaign allow multiple reporters to attend services — or just one? Because the pool report that all of the details in this story appear to have been cribbed from was written by McKay Coppins, who is covering Romney for Buzzfeed and happens to be an active Mormon.

Wilken and I also talk about my recent post on a New York Times feature on sexually abstinent New Yorkers.

A topic that Wilken and I didn’t address: my recent post on the religion ghosts in media coverage of country star Randy Travis — full of drink and devoid of clothing — being arrested at a Texas convenience store.

I bring up that post here because (1) this post is running short and (2) there has been a new development related to Travis. A hat tip to my GetReligion colleague George Conger for pointing out this headline from Canada’s Vancouver Sun: 

Randy Travis, fully clothed, hospitalized after ‘church fight’

You can click this link for all the juicy details.

But to all who questioned if a religion angle really existed related to Travis, I say: I Told You So.

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Pod People: Goofy Catholics and Mercy for Murderers

In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed three recent GetReligion stories: Doggie Masses offered by Inclusive Catholics in Australia, one-sided reporting on Missouri’s Amendment 2, and the parole of Michelle Martin.

Todd opened the show asking why I had lambasted the coverage of the Public Prayer Amendment in Missouri in the report from RNS. The gist of my response was that the article was unbalanced. Offering man on the street responses from Columbia, Missouri (a liberal university town not representative of the state as a whole) was unwise.  Having three “no’s” to one “yes” quotes when “yes” garnered 83 per cent of the vote was a text book case of how not to use man in the street quotes. The preponderance of negative coverage was in inverse proportion to the amendment’s support. A political reporter should not allow his own feelings of disgust with the ignorance of the electorate to color the story.

Our discussion of the coverage of the Inclusive Catholic Mass in Melbourne centered on whether or not the author of the article was making sport of the subjects of his story. I could not answer the question. If I had wanted to ridicule Inclusive Catholics I would have written the article the way the religion reporter for The Age did by showcasing the foolishness of the geriatric hipsters in the story. Todd suggested the reporter may have  written the article in a sympathetic tone — and what I found absurd the reporter found enchanting. So we are left with the mystery of ridicule or reverence.

The discussion of the parole of Michelle Martin touched mainly on the diversity of the Belgian press — Catholic, secular, liberal, conservative. The original report in GetReligion prompted discussion in the wider blogosphere that I followed with great interest.

Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher’s article “Belgian Nuns Help Free (Sort Of) A Monster” showcased the sharply divided opinions about the underlying story. It also pointed out the limits of GetReligion‘s coverage which focuses on the reporting, not on the underlying story.

This can be frustrating at times as there is a latent opinion journalists in every reporter — but at GetReligion we are charged with reporting on the reporting. However, part of the fun of appearing on Issues, Etc., is that I can let fly every so often with an opinion about the issues.

So GetReligion readers, drop on by the Issues, Etc, podcast page and hear me make fun of Inclusive Catholics offer sober analyses of religion reporting.

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Pod people: Treat religion news like crime news?

Did anyone else have a good time watching the Olympic’s opening ceremonies tonight? I learned a lot about how the British, or at least how the ones running the Olympics, see their own history.

Mr. Bean running in Chariots of Fire was fantastic. A glimpse of J.K. Rowling and several versions of Mary Poppins made me grin. There were even some hymns, but my Psalm-singing background caught the tune, few of the words. Bob Costas noted that many Muslims will compete during Ramadan, taking a variety of approaches to fasting during the season. Facts are interesting.

There were no references to the work of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkein that I could tell, which is rather strange in a salute to great British literature for children, but you can’t hit everything, I suppose. I would have liked to see more religion in the history telling, but what can you do?

If you do see good coverage on the religion angles in the coming days, please do share them with us.

Anyway, most of you already know that we get all antsy about stories that don’t offer details about someone’s faith. Take a recent story from The Atlantic, for example, about one of the United State’s female boxers in the Olympics. I was casually reading the story as a print subscriber and like a true girl, I flipped to the story about the first female boxer right away. It combines everything, as an American woman, I’m supposed to love: The Olympics, America, women, strong women, boxing, something new, the first woman at something.

So I’m reading through, grinning and all of that, and then I hit this sentence.

The headphone dangling from her left ear was playing Christian hymns. She used to listen to Drake and Eminem, but she found that rap music riled her up too much before a fight. When she gets in the ring, she wants to be calm—to think about each punch, and never just throw it.

Wait, what?

She listens to Christian hymns? Besides getting her calm, when, where, why, how did she start that? Is it just something from her upbringing, or is there some faith element there? If she is a Christian, does she feel any tension between her faith and boxing? Or is everything a-OK? Or maybe she isn’t religious at all and just uses hymns to calm herself?

I don’t know. But I can’t tell anything specific from that sentence.

Why does this bring me to crime reporting?

Here’s the connection: I see this tendency among reporters to use intense tenacity when it comes to crime or courts reporting, getting all the facts, down to the address, the clothes, the color of eyes, important details, right. If they tried to pass a story without the details through an editor, they would get clobbered.

Yet when it comes to religion reporting, people are described as part of some bland religion. Maybe they’re Christian, maybe they’re Baptist. What kind of Baptist? You know, like President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Pat Robertson?

We’ll never know, at least from this story. Thank goodness for Google and Wiki, but really, shouldn’t reporters want to offer as many specifics as possible? Adding a faith element can turn a ho hum whatever story into a “Wait, what?!” story.

All of this brings me to last week’s podcast, which I failed to post on earlier. We talk about George Zimmerman’s and Trayvon Martin’s family’s vague remarks about God’s will. And then we talk about that weird Bloomberg Businessweek cover on Mormons and business.

It’s quite a fun discussion. You should listen.

Image of magnifying glass via Shutterstock.

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Pod people: Catholic oath story goes full Godwin

Last week, I wrote about the Washington Post‘s horror that a local Roman Catholic diocese was asking its Sunday School teachers to affirm their Catholicism.

The story, which was put on the front page of the paper provoked quite a bit of reaction against the Arlington Diocese or the Post itself. I earlier critiqued some of the more obvious problems with the story. For instance, for a story all about this ghastly, terrifying profession of faith, the newspaper quoted only four substantial words from it. And the words didn’t really tell us what we needed to know to determine whether such a profession of faith was shocking or not.

It turned out that the profession of faith asked for a fairly minimal Roman Catholic commitment. In addition to the Apostles’ Creed, there was some language about the Magisterium. While the documents weren’t online when I first wrote about the story, they ended up on the site later in the day after various internet sleuths had figured out, roughly, what the profession of faith included.

While online platforms enable the sharing of such information, it’s also important to put more info in the actual copy of the story, too.

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I discussed this story and some of the underlying assumptions that go into crafting a story in which it’s major news that a religious organization would expect its religious teachers to publicly profess the teachings of the religion.

The reporter who covered the story took some heat for ending her story with a comparison of the oath to Nazi Germany. She defended herself by saying she doesn’t weed out powerful anecdotes. I joked with her that my only concern was that the Nazi reference was just too subtle for readers.

Another religion writer thought it interesting, though, that when a Roman Catholic bishop compared some opponents of a measure he supported to Nazis, he took major heat. The comparison alone generated major national coverage. The headline in the Post, in fact, was “Pennsylvania Catholic bishop criticized for Hitler comment.”

Elizabeth Scalia tweeted:

As Per WaPo, if a bishop alludes to Nazis he’s an idiot. And if anyone listens to a bishop, he’s a Nazi.

Again, I understand that if you’re trying to convey that asking your Sunday School teachers to publicly profess the teachings of your religion is somehow nefarious, a Nazi reference for the kicker is great. But I do think that if you’re going to let someone compare this to Nazism (on the grounds that it’s simply a powerful anecdote, no more and no less) than at the very least you should let someone who supports the Christian tradition of professions of faith respond to the comparison.

We also discussed my coverage of the public relations firm that is simultaneously succeeding in getting two seemingly contradictory campaigns into major papers: that supporting the fight for religious liberty is too partisan and that a bus tour for a few nuns fighting a Republican-passed budget is awesome and not partisan in the slightest.

Again, the Crossroads podcast can be found here.

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Pod people: Why can’t folks get Obama’s faith?

For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many Americans struggle to understand that President Barack Obama is a perfectly ordinary liberal Protestant Christian.

I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many Obama supporters send me email accusing me of attacking the president by saying this.

Then again, I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many people who oppose Obama send me email insisting that I am attacking Christianity when I note that Obama has frequently made public professions of his Christian faith.

Clearly, there are lots of things I do not understand about this whole issue.

You can hear that confusion quite easily in this week’s GetReligion podcast. This is a confusing situation and, at the end of the podcast, I can understand if listeners are more confused than they were before the thing started. Nevertheless, I do hope you’ll give it a listen.

The discussion spins around that recent Gallup Poll (click here for the details) noting that 11 percent of the nation’s population remains convinced that their president is some kind of secret Muslim. Hey, cheer up. It wasn’t that long ago when 18 percent believed that.

However, let me stress that it wasn’t the whole “Obama is a Muslim” angle in this new poll that fired me up — to the point of writing another Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic.

Nope, what amazed me was this number — 44 percent of the Americans contacted in this new Gallup effort simply answered “I don’t know” when asked to identify Obama’s faith. This is roughly 137 million Americans. Say what?

At first glance, it was rather nice to find out that 52 percent of Democrats know that their leader is a Protestant Christian. But stop and think about that. Since 6 percent of Democrats elected to join HBO skeptic Bill Maher in his insistence that Obama is faking his faith (thus, selecting the “none/no religion” option), this would imply that somewhere around 40 percent (I’m leaving out some of the other smaller subgroups) of the nation’s DEMOCRATS cannot identify Obama’s faith. For those who are curious, 2 percent accurately linked him to the United Church of Christ.

By point of comparison, what percent of Republicans do you think would have answered “I don’t know” when asked whether George W. Bush was a Christian, an unbeliever or whatever? I’ve been trying to find out if a pollster ever even bothered to ask that question, but I cannot seem to come up with the right search terms to plug into Google. I would be stunned if the chunk of GOP folks that said Bush the younger was a Christian of some sort was under 90 percent. Heck, I would assume that just about the same percentage of DEMOCRATS would have said the same thing, with some of them saying he was some kind of theocratic Reconstructionist (as opposed to being a rather normal United Methodist from Bible Belt territory).

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. This is all so confusing.

The larger question, for Team Obama, is what all of this means heading into another election. But for me the key question is what this puzzle says about America. Thus, I called up a writer — an expert on advertising — who has done some thinking and writing about Obama, branding, religion and politics. His name is Mark Edward Taylor and he is the author of “Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol.” Here’s a clip or two from the end of that Scripps column:

We pick up with Obama’s surge into national politic, after his years of schooling in Chicago politics:

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words “change,” “hope” and “believe.” In his book, Taylor says the key is that the “believe” component centered on Obama’s image, talent and personal story — not a creed. The candidate offered “himself to America,” rather than political or religious specifics.

“At no time did Obama declare, ‘I am the Messiah.’ Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one,” argued Taylor. “Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. … He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption.”

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans.

Then again, millions of other people reject 99 percent of the Godtalk that emerges from Obama’s mouth. Some of these people, for sure, are numbered among those who believe he is a secret Muslim or some kind of atheist/agnostic in hiding.

Then again, many others simply think that he is not a “real” Christian, according to their definition of the term “Christian.” Many people (and, trust me, they write lots of emails) say that they can tell that Obama is not a real Christian because he has the wrong beliefs. The fact that his beliefs are perfectly consistent with his Christian denomination is irrelevant, it seems. In other words, he is not part of a “real” church.

… (Millions) millions of other Americans balk at Obama’s privatized definition of “sin” as “being out of alignment with my values.” In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that “whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.”

Taylor is convinced this division — between two very different views of faith — is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

“All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don’t know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not,” he said. “When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama.”


Good. That means that you’ll enjoy the podcast.

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