The ghosts in Google News

Young master Jeremy Lott is on to something important with his post yesterday about trying to find a natural niche for religion within Google News. This whole task is not easy and, yes, it is closely related to the overarching purpose of this blog and our search for religion “ghosts” between the lines of many news stories in the MSM.

A few weeks ago, I tried to do the new Google thing where you set up your personal version of the News page that searches the Google world and creates a special section. I, of course, wanted a religion section.

So I started — with the user-friendly Google interface — trying to select a few search terms that would give me a nice Google religion section.

It didn’t work. Why?

Well, what search terms would you select? You can start with the usual names for religious groups — Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Disciples, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Methodist, Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, etc., etc. Get the point? How many names and niche groups would you need, just to handle the North American scene?

When I left the religion beat at the Rocky Mountain News, I had file folders up and running on 250-plus religious denominations, groups, leaders and movements.

Google that.

And this kind of online search would yield next to nothing about the subtle parts of religion news that most fascinate me.

A denominational search gets you, well, the “usual suspects.” As the Catholic uber-blogger said in a comment to Jeremy:

Yeah, I did a “Catholic” section on my customized page.

Problem is that 75% of the stories are sports scores.

But I can get through them pretty quickly.

But I think you’re right — a built-in religion section would be good.

Posted by Amy Welborn at 1:01 pm on June 12, 2005

Does a denominational search get you the “ghosts” in the world of entertainment, sports, business, politics, science and academia? It will net some of them, but not many. And it would miss the most interesting ones, since they are rooted in faith elements that are hard to pin down. It will miss most of the true ghosts.

It’s like the work of our best MSM Godbeat reporters. The better the journalist, the harder it is to lock them up on a niche page. We have commented on this before and it will remain at the heart of the GetReligion task.

We’ll keep trying and we want you to join in. For example, if you get some great Google “religion page” search terms, let us know. We can send them to the Google powers that be, to help them create a lively home for this crucial news content.

Search on.

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The story that is haunting me today

Today’s Washington Post is so full of religion stories and religion haunted stories that I hardly know where to begin — from abortion rulings to the latest Koran crime update, from a reporter taking a Bible Belt trip through her past in a vanishing Virginia town to yet another stunning Catholic clergy abuse lawsuit settlement. This does not even include the religion page.

So how come the story that has haunted me all day seems to have no religion in it at all? Why do I want some other shoe to drop in this crime-beat story, just so that I am not haunted by the reality of evil? Click here to find out what I am talking about. Does this story spook anyone else? Sense the ghost?

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Separation of coven and state in Indy

There is an interesting church-state case going on right now in the heart of Indiana, and prog-blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters of Wildhunt wants to know why more religion writers are not interested in it.

Actually, this is a coven and state case, which is one of the reasons it is so interesting. First of all, let’s look at the Indianapolis Star report that tells how two Wiccan parents ran into a judge who does not approve of their faith. Here is the key section of reporter Kevin Corcoran’s news story:

Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in the couple’s divorce decree last year over their fierce objections, court records show. The order does not define a mainstream religion.

Bradford refused to remove the provision after the 9-year-old boy’s outraged parents, Thomas E. Jones Jr. and his ex-wife, Tammie U. Bristol, protested last fall. . . . The parents’ Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford’s attention in a confidential report prepared by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights. Jones’ son attends a local Catholic school.

“There is a discrepancy between Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones’ lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . . Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages,” the bureau said in its report.

This led to the following comment by Pitzl-Waters, which was echoed by folks over at The Revealer:

This is an outrage. An outrage that will most likely be ignored by all those God-bloggers and religion reporters who don’t mind a little persecution so long as it isn’t happening to them. How many dead canaries in the coal-mine do we need before there is a problem?

I don’t know which God-bloggers he had in mind, as opposed to god-bloggers or gods-bloggers or whatever. But he is right. This is an important parents’ rights case and is, in a strange way, very similar to the cases in which Muslims, Orthodox Jews and traditional Christians wrestle with public-school officials over the moral education of their children.

Religious liberty is only as strong as the rights of miniorities. Take away the rights of parents to advocate their own faith to their children and the next thing you know you’ll have evangelical kids forced to sit in school classes that openly attack the faith taught in their homes. Wait, that’s happening already, isn’t it?

But the point remains the same. Parents have a right to pray with their kids and even preach to them. If Christians — even very conservative ones — want that right they should defend that right for others.

Meanwhile, note the strange twist that the Wiccan dad is sending his kid to a Catholic school. I wonder what the Catholic authorities think of this publicity?

That angle did, however, remind me of a great quote from a Beliefnet message board, sent to me by a friend. Someone wrote: “I am a werewolf . . . and also Catholic. . . . But too progressive for some Catholics.”

Wait! Did he say “some” Catholics? Now there is a story.

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A most ecumenical parting of ways

In writing a brief profile of newly approved federal judge Priscilla Owen, David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times touched on her experience at St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church:

In more recent years, Ms. Owen also became much more religious, her sister said. Republicans have lauded her role as a founding member of St. Barnabas Church, a theologically conservative congregation in Austin where she still teaches Sunday school. “On any given Sunday, you can find Justice Owen hopping on one leg, reading stories,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said last week.

Democrats have criticized an allusion to religion in an opinion she wrote arguing against exempting a teenager seeking an abortion from the state’s parental notification law. The law’s requirement of an “informed” decision, Ms. Owen argued, included an understanding “that some women have experienced severe remorse and regret” and consideration “that there are philosophic, social, moral and religious arguments” about abortion, as well.

Ms. Owen’s defenders argue that she was interpreting an ambiguous law in a way consistent with its legislative history and that courts later cleared up its meaning. And her pastor, the Rev. Jeff Black, said she would never impose her religious views in a court. “If it was a believer who came to her and said, ‘What should I do?’ then she would say, ‘Here is what the Scripture says,’” Mr. Black said. “But in a court of law, she would never do that.”

Hold the phone: St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church? As the name suggests, this congregation did not begin its life within the Evangelical Covenant fold.

St. Barnabas is a religion writer’s dream of a feature story with eclectic details. Black built the congregation — as a mission of the Episcopal Church — through meetings of the Alpha Course. But then along came the General Convention of 2003, which took the Episcopal Church in a decidedly more liberal direction on homosexuality, and St. Barnabas became one of several congregations to break from its diocese and the denomination.

As Eileen Flynn wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in late March, St. Barnabas is now a former Episcopal parish and a new member of an evangelical Protestant denomination meeting in the activity center of St. William’s Roman Catholic Church:

Black and St. William’s pastor, the Rev. Joel McNeil, found that they shared the same biblical view of homosexuality.

McNeil said when he heard about St. Barnabas last year, he was “impressed with the integrity of the pastor and the congregation” for determining they could not in good conscience remain in the Episcopal Church.

“There’s a lot of pressure, it seems, to make the church like the world rather than evangelizing the world,” McNeil said. “I admire that they have resisted those pressures and have decided to maintain the traditional Christian belief.”

Word of McNeil’s support traveled to Black via a St. William’s parishioner visiting St. Barnabas as a photo copier salesman.

The two priests started talking and discovered they could help each other.

Founded in 1997, St. Barnabas congregants had been worshipping in rented North Austin office space and wanted a permanent home. St. William’s was building a church near its present location on McNeil Road and needed to sell a 6½-acre parcel and parish center.

And it just so happened that Black’s mother was the librarian at McNeil’s junior high school in Rome, N.Y., in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the roughly 250 St. Barnabas members had decided they wanted to officially join the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church, an ecumenical fellowship of churches founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885, after several months of an informal association.

The covenant offered to buy the St. William’s property and closed on the $1.7 million sale with the Catholic Diocese on Friday. Black said his congregation expects to invest $400,000 in improvements to the property, including an additional building for offices and classrooms.

The two congregations will share the parish center over the next year until St. William’s facility is complete.

The details are too intricate for a brief profile of Priscilla Owen, but they’re fascinating nonetheless — especially amid the now-standard accusation that any congregation breaking away from the Episcopal Church is guilty of Donatism and doomed to a lifetime of schism.

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The not-so-biblical biblical baccalaureate

Carolyn Bower of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch masters understatement in her report on Lindbergh High School’s students holding separate baccalaureates this year. It seems one group didn’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an, while another group didn’t want to be preached at. But let’s turn the narrative over to Bower’s story, which is all the richer for its just-the-facts tone and lack of scare quotes:

Baccalaureates are traditionally religious services held before graduation. One of Lindbergh’s will begin at 7 p.m. tonight in the high school auditorium in south St. Louis County. Invitations have listed TV evangelist Joyce Meyer as the invited headliner. Organizers call the event a biblical baccalaureate.

The other was May 17 in the auditorium also. The service offered reflections, a prayer, music, speeches and a video of teachers offering advice to students.

Earlier this year students began to disagree about what to offer in the baccalaureate service as well as who should organize the event.

Trinity Fry, 18, a Lindbergh senior, along with her mother, Joyce Fry, helped to organize tonight’s service.

“The biggest thing we didn’t want was people reading out of the Quran or other things,” Trinity said. “We wanted to include all students, but we didn’t want an interfaith service.” Trinity did not attend the service last week.

Rob Boston of Americans United also is understated in the response he offered to Bower:

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the best solution is to have privately sponsored baccalaureates in private buildings or churches.

Boston said the Lindbergh case offered “a bit of a twist,” holding a privately sponsored baccalaureate on school grounds. But he said laws allow for private groups to access facilities on an equal basis.

“I’m not aware of other cases like this,” Boston said, adding he was shocked to hear Joyce Meyer would headline the event. “Those who attend can expect a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing.”

Bower missed one blazing irony in the story: The students who don’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an are apparently fine with hearing from one of the leading voices of prosperity theology (as reported with admirable thoroughness in the Post-Dispatch two years ago).

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Times! Finish the Ivy Christians story

The sterling New York Times reporting team of Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick served up a fine story idea this past weekend under the headline “On a Christian Mission to the Top.”

The basic question: What happens when very traditional Christians attempt to reestablish a base in what was once a haven for high-level discourse about faith — the Ivy League schools?

And the Times report about the “Christian Union” organization — which is reported in a very calm and fair manner — delivers the goods, at least at first. Here is a solid chunk of that, focusing on missionary Tim Havens and his work at Brown University:

Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain’s office now recognizes “heathen/pagan” as a “faith community.”

But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens’s prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups — more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.

There you have the problem, slipping in there at the end of these summary paragraphs. Instead of focusing on a truly interesting trend — evangelicals trying to engage elite academic culture, rather than flee it — the story veers off into ultra-familiar territory about evangelical niches and the movement’s rising clout in other areas of American life, business and, of course, politics.

Yes, those subjects are connected to the Ivy League story. But the Times report dedicates so much attention there that — quite literally — the story never delivers the goods on the subject in the lead. It seems that the story gets hijacked a third of the way in and it never recovers.

Here is another glimpse of what could have been:

Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to “reclaim the Ivy League for Christ,” according to its fund-raising materials, and to “shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural institutions.”

The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and supporters met in Princeton for an “Ivy League Congress on Faith and Action.”

I hope this is the start of a series of articles, but I doubt that is the case.

In the end, it seems that anything linked to religious believers has to get hooked to the true religion in the Times newsroom — politics. That is, after all, what life is all about.

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Back on the taxidermy front

This week’s Time promises more than it delivers in saying that the feature story “The Posse in the Pulpit” offers “a portrait of the pastors who are leading the offensive against the filibuster.”

It’s more like three photos — of D. James Kennedy, Rod Parsley and Rick Scarborough — and a few sentences about Scarborough, including the telling detail that, like Bob Jones III, he has the iconic head of a dead animal on his office wall:

Last week’s federal-court decision overturning Nebraska’s gay-marriage ban has only added fuel to the right’s fire. Thus, Scarborough is spending most of his time these days working to beat back Democrats’ attempts to block several of President Bush’s judicial nominees. “It takes two-thirds of Congress, the President’s signature and three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution–or one judge,” says Scarborough, sitting beneath the mounted head of a whitetail deer in his east Texas office. “And believe me, the left learned that a long time ago.”

Much of the 1,200-word story explores the frustrating details of how Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over several of President Bush’s appointees to federal courts.

Time notes, “The Senate could be headed for this historic showdown in part because it anticipates an inevitable one down the line: a full-blown confirmation brawl over the next Supreme Court nominee.”

The story leaves the impression that the Senate would not be in this place were it not for these evangelicals preachers, or their opposite voices in People for the American Way.

Perhaps these preachers see it only as a matter of timing or intensity, though. Time doesn’t devote enough space to details that would answer such a question.

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Star Wars "R" Us?

It is almost time for the full wave of Star Wars coverage to hit.

So far, I think that religion-beat specialist Jeffrey Weiss at The Dallas Morning News has asked the most serious questions about the content of the movies themselves — at least without seeing the new film.

The big question: What if the religion in the Star Wars canon was totally and utterly screwed up, a mixmaster blend of everything that is out there filtered through the Baby Boomer perspective of a man who has no idea what he believes?

And what if this aspect of the film is, along with special effects, at the heart of its popularity in postmodern America? What if it makes no sense whatsoever and that is a good thing? Would anyone in mainstream American religion have the courage to say that?

The lead, in this case, should have been the headline: “Like it or not, the Force is with us.” Here is a big chunk of the Weiss report, which contains the big idea:

America’s median age is about 36. That means about half the country has little or no memory of a time before Star Wars was part of the cultural landscape. George Lucas released the first Star Wars movie in 1977.

Not coincidentally, some experts say, younger generations of Americans have been turning away from institutional religion in record numbers. There may be some link, they say, between the fuzzy “theology” of the Force and the powerful but fuzzy spiritual longings of this group.

Most of those who check “none of the above” when pollsters ask about their religious preference aren’t atheists or agnostics. They believe in a Higher Power and a Higher Purpose to their lives, in a transcendent order to the universe and in the immortality of their souls: Life and love carry eternal values.

Sound familiar? Star Wars fans might say all you need to do is listen to your feelings.

As Yoda explained it: “Luminous beings are we.”

So here is my question: Will the Culture Wars — accurately defined — show up in the new movie? At some point, will Sith and a Jedi superstars point fingers at one another and say that the other is on the side of George W. Bush and the Religious Right?

Will the big word — ABSOLUTES — show up, as in “absolute truths”?

Watch for it. Will Lucas be able to resist? Or will he yield at last to the political side?

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