Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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The Atlantic: What happened to all those Catholic rites?

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Long-time GetReligion readers, do you remember that typology that a wise, older priest — a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway — gave me a few years ago that proposed that there are essentially four kinds of American Catholic voters?

It went something like this (amended a bit):

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I know that this will be hard, but try to strip the political content out of that typology (note, if you will, that I did not click the “politics” box in the categories list). Focus on the issues of religious discipline and practice of the ancient sacraments of an ancient church.

Think about the sacrament of marriage.

If journalists — on the Godbeat or otherwise — needed more evidence that there are multiple “American” Catholic churches at the moment, all they need to do is dig into the following piece from The Atlantic Monthly that focuses on a crucial piece of demographics and, thus, doctrine.

The headline is bland, from the point of view of most journalists:

The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

But the opening of the piece gets down to business really quick:

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Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

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Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: “Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique — I’ve just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!”

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME – Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome … to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here’s the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under “Islamic law” or is the matter more complex than that?

The question, once again, is linked to a basic reality that many journalists struggle with — that this is on one monolithic, consistent approach to Islamic law. It is certainly true that, in many or even most Islamic lands, sharia law includes a death sentence for apostasy, including the act of converting from Islam to another faith. However, there are different approaches to sharia in different lands. In some cultures, the death penalty may be found in the laws, yet this crime is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Yes, it adds another layer of complexity — adding at least a sentence or two of information — to note this conflict inside Islam. However, accuracy is accuracy and the public needs to know that not all Muslims believe that the death penalty is normative for this issue of conscience, which is clearly defended in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18 to be precise).

And what about the mysterious hole in some of the news stories?

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How should we define — and assess — atheism?

DANIEL ASKS:

Is it becoming possible to be religious without believing in god? (the lower-case “god” is Daniel’s usage)

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This is partially a repeat from March 22, 2013, when The Guy posted “Is atheism a ‘religion’? Is the Pope Protestant?” That headline indicated the idea seems ludicrous on its face. Yet, as the item explained, things are actually somewhat complicated.

The Guy won’t repeat that material here. Meanwhile there’s intense interest not only in definitions but in atheism’s role in society, to judge from the 69 lively comments posted in response to The Guy’s June 21 item on the unhappy “track record when atheists wield political power.” As an admitted theist, The Guy would like to thank all atheists who responded. These matters obviously deserve another look.

First, can people be “religious” without belief in God, or a god, or gods? Yes, absolutely. This is not “becoming possible” now but has long been true. The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam. The Buddha Dharma Education Association, among others, states flatly that true Buddhists do not “believe in a god.” Yet teachers like Kusala Bhikshu tell us “a lot of Buddhists believe in God” while others don’t.

Or consider the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, self-defined as a “religion” yet creedless. It explicitly welcomes atheists as members in good standing alongside those with a God-concept. Humanistic Judaism likewise designates itself as a “religion” but eliminates the Jewish God.

However, those are obvious exceptions. Most atheists have no involvement with “religious” groups, don’t consider themselves “religious,” and may feel the label is a slur.

One comment distinguished between ordinary atheists with a live-and-let-live attitude toward belief versus atheists who turn “religious” in their zeal to oppose “religion.” This referred to the recent “new atheist” authors and activists who not only argue against God but may demean religion and religionists as stupid or evil, or seek limitations on religious rights commonly recognized by democracies.

Since devout religion and convinced atheism wrestle with the same issues, The Guy suggests everyone call a truce and speak of atheism not as “religious” but as a “philosophy” or “ideology” or “worldview” or “metaphysical stance.” Comments?

On to the June question and answer about the historical facts when atheists exercise political power, which were calculated to provoke discussion and certainly succeeded!

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Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

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‘Reformers’ win British battle over women in the episcopate

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The Church of England has taken what appears to be a definitive step toward women in the episcopate and, as you would expect, journalists at our major newspapers are pretty pumped up about that. You can see this quite clearly in language near the top of the Washington Post report about the historic vote in this symbolic national church.

The move effectively shatters the glass ceiling that prevented women here from being promoted to top church jobs and was made possible after reformers and traditionalists reached a compromise that would satisfy parishes opposed to female bishops. …

That it has taken this long for the church, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, to make the move may seem baffling to Anglicans in countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, where women already serve as bishops. It has been baffling for many here, too, with churchgoers and even the prime minister accusing the Church of England of being out of step with the times.

Once again, note the language used to frame this event.

The word “traditionalists” is certainly appropriate, since this was a debate about centuries of Christian tradition in churches that claim apostolic succession from the early church.

But what about that other word, “reformers”? As I have noted in the past, that is a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed. This term pretty much settles the issue, telling readers precisely who the good people are in this story, which means that folks on the other side are the kinds of blokes who are opposed to “reform.”

Do an online search for definitions of “reform” and you can see what I’m talking about. Here are some samples:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”

* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …

* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …

* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”

* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

So we are talking about the defeat of traditionalists who oppose the correction of abuses, the righting of injustices, the defeat of evil, etc., etc. Needless to say, the bad people on the losing side of the vote are not given much room to discuss their beliefs and concerns.

The Post team does mention people in the opposition, however, even while failing to listen to their voices.

… (The) issue of women as bishops remains highly divisive in the global Anglican community. The majority of the world’s 80 million Anglicans reside in Africa, where many vehemently oppose the idea.

In concessions to opponents with theological objections, the package of measures passed Monday allows a parish unsatisfied with a female bishop to ask for a male alternative and take its complaints to an independent body.

“You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in reference to the traditionalists during a lively, five-hour debate that preceded the vote.

Oh, those backward Africans.

Meanwhile, an analysis piece at the BBC — which was more balanced than the hard-news piece at the Post — dug a bit deeper and noted that quite a few of the major players in the highly Evangelical Protestant churches of Africa have no major objections to allowing their female priests to be considered as bishops. That piece also hinted at one of the major issues looming in the background, based on past history here in the United States and elsewhere:

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Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?


CNN reports the Dalai Lama –the spiritual leader of Tibet — has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama’s call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled “Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims” begins:

(CNN) – Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries’ Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

The article reports that “[r]ising Buddhist nationalism” in Sri Lanka and Mynamar “spearheaded by movements led by extremist monks” has led to communal violence in recent years. Details of the violence are given as are the Dalai Lama’s calls for peaceful coexistence between the faith communities.

And the story closes with an explanatory note that:

The Dalai Lama was speaking before the audience in Leh to confer Kalachakra, a process intended to empower tens of thousands of his Buddhist followers to reach enlightenment, his office said.

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In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about religious faith and mathematics that turned into a “Crossroads” podcast. The post talked about a number of hot stories and trends on the religion-news beat — think thinning ranks in the Catholic priesthood, for example — and then boiled things down to this statement: “Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine.”

One of the other stories mentioned was this:

… Sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. …

* 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.

This leads me to a timely story that ran recently in The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was also picked up by Religion News Service. The oh-so familiar headline proclaimed: “Catholic schools fight to keep doors open as future dims.” The lede was intentionally nostalgic and to the point:

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Like I said, it’s a familiar, but very important story.

I think it would be instructive to apply the old journalism mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how” to this piece. I am especially interested in the “why,” in this case. Why were there lots of Catholic students in the past and not today?

That opening section led to a solid statement of the bleak local numbers, which then tied into the national picture. The key, of course, is falling enrollments.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.

In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald. For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but also heartbreak.

This story includes many fine personal details and local specifics. However, it left me asking big “why” questions: Why is this happening? What is the reality behind these painful trends? Why are the desks empty?

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