When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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How reliable is a piece of rock?

stone reliefOne of the things that I have always been fascinated with is archaeology. Especially archaeology that uncovers things we did not know or could not confirm about the past. Such is the case here in an article on the China Daily Web site that describes an artifact that could be used as evidence that Christianity spread to China as earlier as 100 years after the death of Christ. The reporter Wang Shanshan has the details:

A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks like a manger, with allegedly “the three wise men” approaching from the left side, holding gifts, “the shepherd” following them, and “the assassins” queued up, kneeling, on the right.

As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates of Paradise in Florence?

Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China, said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn’t.

Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China’s parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the gilt-bronze gates of Florence. …

Before Wang’s discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as far as to China.

The veracity of these types of archaeological finds from a historical basis always perplexes me. Call me a skeptic, but the discovery of a piece of stone proves something as significant as the spread Christianity? Apparently, this rock provides us with some — pardon the pun — hard evidence:

There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.

But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer seems entirely groundless. “It really happened,” he said.

The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or “Terrace of Nine Women,” in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the site were first excavated in 1954.

Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and the themes were similar to those found in Shandong Province.

GetReligion reader David Buckna, who provided us with the link to this story, said that he found it incredible that the Chinese government would even report on these stone tablets. But could this report be exclusively for Western consumption, Buckna wonders.

As I said earlier, I am no archeological expert, nor will I attempt to play one on the Internet, but I’m sure some faithful readers could provide some insight into this subject. The piece contains some good back-and-forth between sources debating exactly how established Christianity was in the first centruy and how effectively it was spreading. And you have plenty to work with. The article is 1,500-plus words long and finishes with a dramatic pronouncement:

Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang’s discovery will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.

“They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making investigations, because he is the ‘flagship’ historian in the Chinese Christian community,” Qi said. “He is a master not only of the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.

“There could be an earthquake in the world’s Christian community and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.

“World history could be rewritten.”

Is it time to rewrite world history? Call me a skeptic on this one.

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When is religion news “religion” news?

iraqi firefighter baghdad 11704The 2005 end of the year wrap-up stories are starting to bloom. With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday — massive newspapers — look for tons then.

You will see top 10 lists for news stories and top 10 lists for “religion” news stories. Here at GetReligion, we are interested in both and, especially, in the overlap between these lists. This was the subject of my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. Veteran GetReligion writers will, I confess, hear an echo of the blog in the main theme. Click here if you want to see that.

I started with the Palestinian suicide bomber at the sandwich stand in Hadera, Israel.

Are events such as this “religion” news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers — Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events “religion” news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

I asked these questions again because events related to terror, Iraq (photo), Israel, etc., were missing in the Religion Newswriters Association’s top 10 list of religion news stories in 2005. Click here to get to the RNA home page, which appears to be crashed at the moment. I will try to post the direct link to 2005 RNA list later.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see the role that faith plays in this Peggy Noonan column about the top five news events of the year. It’s from the Wall Street Journal, of course.

Seen any other interesting Godbeat lists you want to point out?

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Pope at Christmas: You write the lede

Pope BenedictGreetings from Crawford, Texas, home of my professor brother and, from time to time, of someone named George W. Bush. I wonder if I could get arrested for Christmas caroling out at the ranch tonight? After all, it is still Christmas.

But I digress. One of my favorite things to do as a journalism professor is to hand my students the full text of a speech and then ask them to write their own lead and top three or four paragraphs. Then I show them MSM leads and ask them how they think the major reporters selected the topixcs on which they decided to focus.

So here is an example, only we’ll take it in reverse.

So here is a look at the top of Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson’s story covering the Christmas messages of Pope Benedict XVI.

In his first Christmas message as pope, Benedict XVI called on people across the globe Sunday to open their hearts to Christ as a way to combat poverty, war and the sterility of a world obsessed with technological advance. …

Addressing an enormous Christmas Day crowd, which filled St. Peter’s Square despite the cold and rain, Benedict urged Christian unity as a way to draw upon the “life-giving power of the child of Bethlehem” to create a “new world order” that can rectify ethical and economic injustices.

“A united humanity will be able to confront the many troubling problems of the present time,” the pope said, “from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live, from the proliferation of weapons to the pandemics and the environmental destruction which threatens the future of our planet.”

Now, I realize that the pope spoke to several different audiences in the crucial Christmas appearances. Click here to see the full text of the Urbi Et Orbi message on which this lead is based. Nevertheless, I still think that it is interesting to contrast the tone of the news story, which is oriented almost totally to issue of public policy around the globe, and the text of Benedict’s actual Christmas sermon, as posted by the Holy See at its website.

Believe me, I understand that popes are hard to quote. Sound bites are hard to come by, when it comes time to covering a papal address or sermon. What, for example, is a mainstream journalist supposed to do with the following — which is the heart of the actual Christmas sermon and a major link to the messages of the late John Paul II?

Hang on, because this will get quite involved. That’s the point.

Wherever God’s glory appears, light spreads throughout the world. Saint John tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness” (1 Jn 1:5). The light is a source of life.

But first, light means knowledge; it means truth, as contrasted with the darkness of falsehood and ignorance. Light gives us life, it shows us the way. But light, as a source of heat, also means love. Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory — the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, “it has shone around them.” Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up — charity towards others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness. … In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.

So where is the lead in that sermon? If you are writing for the Los Angeles Times, do you simply HAVE to come up with a more topical, even political, lead? Is that the very definition of news?

Just asking. The pope probably thinks that the sermon was important, too. A few readers might agree with him, even in Los Angeles.

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Blaspheming the American god

Jesus2I have a friend who makes fun of the stories that repeat every year on local news stations. His favorites are “Grocery scanners rip you off!” and “Our blacklight shows hotel comforters are dirty!”

My personal favorite annual story is the one where someone trusted in the commmunity accidentally blasphemes Santa by questioning his existence. I mentioned before that I think I might be the one American among the masses who celebrate Christmas who never believed in Santa Claus — so that may be part of why I am so intrigued by stories like this. But consider also this passage from Dell DeChant’s fascinating book The Sacred Santa:

Santa is not the embodiment of secular “commercialism.” He is the embodiment of our culture’s greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects. Santa is the incarnation of this myth. For this very reason he functions as a profoundly religious figure in our postmodern cosmological culture. This reason may also account for his seeming immunity to criticism from a religion still following the cultural logic of a previous time. In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred. To attack him as secular is to attack his shadow.

Now consider last year’s cautionary tale to those who might break orthodox teaching on Santa. It came from an extremely unlikely perpetrator and place, a priest at St. Pius X school in Whittier, CA.

Yes, Virginia, there really is no Santa Claus.

That’s what a priest at St. Pius X School here told students as young as 5 during morning Mass last week, causing a furor among parents who claim the priest overstepped his boundaries by speaking so frankly about the much-loved Christmas figure.

During the Mass, school officials admit, the Rev. Ruben Rocha repeatedly told the students in grades kindergarten through third that there is no Santa Claus.

So it was major news that a priest at a Roman Catholic school taught something true from the pulpit. This year, according to CNN, it’s Chris Rock, or his Everybody Hates Chris show, at least:

“Everybody knows there’s no Santa Claus,” Drew said to Tonya on the UPN sitcom. “Come here, let me show you something. I’m taking you to the toys … Santa doesn’t come down the chimney. We don’t even have a chimney. We have radiators.”

Disillusioned, she stomps out of the room.

But wait. It gets worse.

Put on the spot, Tonya’s dad Julius tells her the Easter bunny and tooth fairy don’t exist, either.

The story describes the network as “blindsided.” I just find it so odd that children’s belief in Santa is such a widely-held cultural belief that reporters run stories about people telling part of the truth about him.

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The military and the J-word, again

WhiteHouseNC053A long, long time ago, the journalist Stephen Bates wrote a stunning book entitled “Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms.” You knew it was an amazing book because the back cover was full of praise from scholars, journalists and acitivists on the left as well as the right. His thesis: Our public schools have become so biased against traditional forms of religion that they are, ultimately, undercutting the foundations of America’s heritage of public education. They are driving away millions of parents and, thus, their children.

I thought of this book while reading veteran Godbeat reporter Julia Duin’s story in the Washington Times about a hunger strike by Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who says he is one of many U.S. miltary chaplains who face discrimination because he refuses to stop saying traditional Christian prayers in public. In other words, he continues to say the word “Jesus.” (You may recall the excellent New York Times story on this issue that drew GetReligion praise.)

What is the connection?

When I was interviewing Bates about his book, he used two terms that I recalled from my graduate studies in church-state studies — “civic toleration” and “theological (or doctrinal) toleration.”

What the American founding fathers wanted was “civic toleration,” the belief that all faiths or non-faiths would be equal in the eyes of the state. This did not, however, mean that the state would — to use modern language — practice “viewpoint discrimination” and deliberately favor some forms of religion over others. The state would not say that some religions are right and others are wrong.

The problem, said Bates, was that American public schools seem to think that it is their duty to teach “theological toleration,” which teaches that all religions are the same in the eyes of God. This means that faiths that actually teach that their beliefs are true, and others are false, are — well — wrong. This means that they must change what they teach, in order to have any role in the public square. In practice, this leads to state recognition and even support for faiths that take an approach that says that “many religious roads to lead to the same god, gods or God.” The state then has trouble tolerating the faiths that it has ruled are not tolerant enough. This is church-state entanglement of the worse kind.

Bates had a memorable way of putting this. He said this is like people who say, “You know, there are people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should and I really hate people like that.”

This brings us back to Duin’s report about Klingenschmitt, a chaplain who has fought for the religious rights of Jews, Muslims and others under his care, but refuses to pray in a manner that he believes is less than Christian and, thus, heretical. He is backed by a conservative ecumenical group called the National Clergy Council (see photo). According to Klingenschmitt, he is about to be fired. Conservatives want President Bush to step in and defend the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Thus, Duin reports:

Seventy-three members of Congress have joined the request, saying in an Oct. 25 letter to the president, “In all branches of the military, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.” About 80 percent of U.S. troops are Christian, the legislators wrote, adding that military “censorship” of chaplains’ prayers disenfranchises “hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the military who look to their chaplains for comfort, inspiration and support.”

Official military policy allows any sort of prayer, but Lt. Klingenschmitt says that in reality, evangelical Protestant prayers are censored. He cites his training at the Navy Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where “they have clipboards and evaluators who evaluate your prayers, and they praise you if you pray just to God,” he said. “But if you pray in Jesus’ name, they counsel you.” Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains are likewise told not to pray in the name of Allah, in Hebrew or in the name of the Trinity, he added.

If you search for this story on Google, you will discover that, so far, only Stars and Stripes is interested in it (other than the usual assortment of conservative news outlets). Once again, offensive free speech now seems to be more important to conservatives than to those formerly known as “liberals.”

As the New York Times noted, the Navy is facing lawsuits filed by 50 or so Christian chaplains. Thus, the issue will not go away. Let’s hope that more MSM newsrooms notice this fact.

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On the telephone as reporting tool

santa telephoneA few weeks ago a mini-scandal broke out surrounding Ridgeway Elementary School in Wisconsin. It seemed that some official with the school play had secularized the words to the beautiful “Silent Night” (or as we Lutherans call it: “Stille Nacht“) to “Cold in the Night.” Various groups got enraged and sent out press releases and television networks ate it up and ran breathless segments about the war on Christmas.

So Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker did something revolutionary. He picked up his telephone and called the author of the play in which “Cold in the Night” is featured. It turns out that playwright Dwight Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian (President Reagan’s church in California) for decades. The play comes with a “Christian” page which may be inserted and includes Christian Christmas songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the one hand, Tucker pokes fun at Fox News’ John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly and generally gives the impression that the war on Christmas is more perception than reality, but on the other hand he does a good job of explaining why those who feel attacked do so. Tucker does this by speaking with James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He contrasts what Christmas in 1950 might have seemed like to a conservative Christian with the present. Here’s how Neely characterizes it:

And now you wake up and it’s 2005. You go to hear the kid’s Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like “Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds.” The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a “holiday tree” most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say “Merry Christmas.” Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and “the holidays.” What is to be made of all this?

Tucker provides what so few reporters — especially those on the magic electronic box — have done with this cable-driven war on Christmas: he provides historical context, interviewing authors of various books on the American history of Christmas. He mentions the Puritan distaste for Christmas and keeps on going:

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn’t take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn’t made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.


Thank you! My one complaint, other than the inexplicable editorial “we” the author uses, is the absolutely offensive ending to the piece. Tucker makes fun of Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver for arguing that Christmas trees should not be renamed:

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he’s right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

No offense, but my beloved hometown paper the Washington Post is just about the last place I look for speculation on what the “Deity” thinks about, well, anything. I mean, they could at least try refraining from mocking religious adherents for a few months before tacking on this ending. But it’s still worthwhile to read.

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Sacred spaces? Let Dallas be Dallas

gene002101203Anyone who knows anything about church growth in America knows that, when it comes to studying big churches, all roads lead to Texas (surprise, surprise) and sooner or later (surprise, surprise) you’re going to end up in Dallas, which some people call the capital of American evangelicalism. If you doubt me, click here.

The researchers call them “megachurches.” Just how big a church has to be to earn that label is somewhat in dispute. But, suffice it to say, when your church sanctuary seats 2,000-plus you know you’re in the right ballpark. If you hit 5,000 you have entered the big leagues. There are so many big churches in Texas that there are even liberal megachurches, including the famous lesbigay friendly Cathedral of Hope.

But most of the Dallas megachurches are packed with evangelicals, of one stripe or another (although that label is problematic). Dallas is, well, Dallas. There’s the famous Potter’s House led by the Pentecostal giant Bishop T.D. Jakes and the powerful Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship (photo) led by Dr. Tony Evans. There are huge United Methodist congregations, such as the famous Highland Park United Methodist Church, and cathedrals of various kinds — Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, you name it. Among Southern Baptists there’s the old megachurch at First Baptist and the gigantic modern one at Prestonwood (photo number two).

Now, I realize that megachurches are not for everyone. Frankly, they kind of spook me when it comes to atmosphere and architecture. If you want to roam around a bit in the 7,000-seat Prestonwood sanctuary, click here and hang on.

Some people think these places are ugly. But many, many people (including a few who still subscribe to newspapers) think they are the most beautiful places on earth — modern cathedrals for the age of giant video screens and the worship services that go with them. They are big, dramatic places and I have seen photo essays that — for better or for worse — do them justice.

But not this past weekend in the Dallas Morning News.

This is where things get a bit complicated and, if you work in this embattled newspaper’s circulation department, a bit depressing.

Year after year, the News wins national awards because of the high quality of its religion coverage. However, there are those who wonder whether this religion-news section is a national section or a local section. This is a question I have raised here at GetReligion. There is no question about the quality of the work. The question is whether the News remains dedicated to covering religion news in the Dallas that most people who live in Dallas would recognize as Dallas.

If you read these pages week after week (as any sane person interested in religion news would), you will read about all kinds of religious groups, and this is good. The problem is that you will find a stunningly low percentage of articles about the changes, trends, problems and triumphs of the largest and most powerful religious groups IN DALLAS.

Prestonwood Baptist Church2This weekend offered a perfect symbolic example of this syndrome, entitled “Sacred Spaces,” that probably made some telephones ring at the News. Or, let’s put it this way: If this feature did not make the telephones ring, then that would be really bad news. Why? That would tell us how few people in the biggest churches in Dallas still read the Dallas Morning News.

Here is the prologue to this photo-and-text feature:

What makes a place sacred?

Some — for instance, Jerusalem — are sacred because the faithful believe divine manifestations have occurred there. Some religious edifices are imposing, designed and consecrated in accordance with ancient traditions. Sometimes, a simple, quiet spot invites visitors to step out of their routines and into prayer or reflection. And sometimes, tragedy turns ordinary space into hallowed ground — like Ground Zero in New York, or the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial in downtown Dallas.

We visited seven “sacred spaces” in the greater Dallas area and brought back these images and impressions.

Thus, the News team visited the Cistercian Abbey in Irving, Temple Emanu-El Mausoleum, the Thanks-Giving Square, the St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, the Hare Krishna Temple, the Anjuman-E-Najmi Mosque in Irving and the Lien Hoa Buddhist Monastery in Irving.

Again let me stress (before people start leaving comments) that the question is not whether it was good or bad for the Dallas Morning News to focus on these particular “sacred spaces.” The question is why these talented journalists appear to have avoided other “sacred spaces,” including some of the most prominent religious sanctuaries in the entire United States of America.

I am sure that, in part, the goal was diversity. Fantastic! The question is whether what ended up on the printed page actually offered a diverse and balanced look at faith in Dallas. Was this feature diverse? Did it offer an accurate, sensible look at “sacred spaces” in the greater Dallas area?

Let me end with a question for the News circulation staff: If you were, let’s say, a Southern Baptist leader in Dallas and you happened to pick up this issue of this newspaper, what would you think the journalists who produced it were saying about your life, your churches and your faith?

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