Cheers! Left hits GetReligion tipping point

slambangoI don’t know about you, but after carrying a very heavy cyberload all weekend, I could use a bit of lightening up.

Thus, in that spirit, let me to take you over to the Religious Left Online blog, where the anonymous congregation recently had a bit of fun at our expense.

As a great entertainer liked to say, “And awaaaaaay we go“!

The GetReligion Drinking Game

I was cyberchatting with a friend and joking about starting a drinking game (sacremental wine, of course) one could play while reading GetReligion, the well-respected conservative website on religion and the media. The goal of a drinking game — as perfected by college students but now a pop culture metaphor — is taking a shot everytime something is mentioned that occurs so consistently and repetitively that it is guaranteed to get you drunk.

Despite the many strengths, there is a certain repetitiveness and predictability to the posts and conversation at GetReligion — just as there is on many websites. I laughed this morning when I saw a post that mentions both Katie Couric and Oprah since I would have been able to take two shots of sacremental wine when those perennial names surfaced. Other topics that win you a shot:

• Daniel Pulliam posting a topic on Mitt Romney

• Terry Mattingly mentioning his TMatt trio

• Someone taking a shot at contemporary Christian music, while also trying to defend it.

• Criticizing the evil, liberal agenda of the NYT and WP, while promoting the LAT.

• Criticizing Jon Meacham while taking a shot at Episcopalians.

And that was just this week. There’s also

• suggest that the Mainstream church is dying because they are too liberal

• a link to Terry’s column

• a mention of Rod — friend of the Blog — Dreher

• and a suggestion to a commenter that they need to read more since they haven’t arrived at the same perspective as the blogger.

Happy Drinking.

Well now. I tried to find a link for the Katie meets Oprah post, but could not find it in recent weeks. But I have no doubt at all that such a post exists. (Wait! He/she/it had the link on Religious Left Online.)

I could do an annoted version of the game and respond to these wonderful, witty observations on our blog and the blogosphere in general. It would be a blast to see the anonymous drinker and his crew do the same thing for, let’s say, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. In other words, take a shot every time Sullivan uses the term “Christianist.”

00000118But, as the Religious Leftinistas note, this is something that can be said of any blog that features the beliefs and interests of a specific writer or a small group of writers. Also, the GetReligion gang does not hide that we are both mainstream journalists and members of traditional Christian flocks.

Still, I will make a few comments.

Take a drink — this ex-Baptist says make it Dr Pepper, the Mogen David of Texas Baptist life — every time I defend The New York Times, praise its correction system or note the brave candor of its editor.

Take a drink whenever we praise individual writers within the very newspapers that we often criticize. The fabulous Laurie Goodstein leaps to mind.

Take a drink whenever we stress that doctrine matters more than political labels, something that many leaders on the right forget as often as people on the left. This is what that whole tmatt trio thing is about.

Take a drink whenever we plug, the Pew Forum and others who note that we need more diversity in American newsrooms, diversity in terms of life experiences and educational backgrounds included.

Anyone else want to nominate some, uh, tipping points in the GetReligion cyberpages? Does anyone dare head over to Religious Left Online and do a game for that blog? No, not me. And one of my co-workers has a great idea. He says that the Religious left folks — they could use special make up to remain anonymous — need to actually stage the drinking game and record it as a YouTube video. Just do it.

Still, thanks to the anonymous Religious Leftistas for their careful and faithful reading. I wish that more conservatives spent more time doing similar reading on the left side of the cyberchurch aisle.

P.S. What’s with the thing about me shooting at Contemporary Christian Music while also defending it? That did puzzle me. I mean, there are artists out there trapped in CCM who I think are quite good, and I hope they escape into the mainstream, unless their calling really is to sing to the church and the converted. That’s the one drinking-game item that puzzled me the most.

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The PB and her amazing technicolor dreamcoat

Jefferts Schori investitureThe Episcopal Church invested a new leader this weekend. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected the first female presiding bishop in June, and media reports then focused on the milestone. Jefferts Schori’s election also provoked a possible schism in the church because of her vote to confirm the election of a gay bishop, among other things.

I was curious whether the papers would feature hard-hitting pieces analyzing the threat posed by the investiture or whether they’d be cheerleading pieces. Let’s begin with Alan Cooperman’s lede for his Washington Post story:

Wearing multicolored vestments that represent a new dawn, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori formally took office yesterday as the first woman to lead the Episcopal Church and promised to seek healing and wholeness in a denomination threatened by schism.

Represent a new dawn? I know that Friday was National Cliche Day, but that seems to be laying it on a bit thick for the first paragraph, no? I believe that Jefferts Schori referred to her color choices as representing dawn, but it would help to attribute the phrase to her if it must be used.

Further, the meaning of the multicolored vestments isn’t explained. In liturgical churches, certain colors are associated with particular seasons of the church year. According to The Episcopal Church, liturgical colors include white or gold for Christmas and Easter; blue or violet for Advent; and red for Holy Week, Pentecost, and ordinations. Clergy’s stoles match the season, generally. Deviating from church traditions means something, I’m sure. Louis Sahagun’s Los Angeles Times piece also mentions the liturgical color changes with only slightly more explanation. You may also be interested in Julia Duin’s Washington Times piece from earlier in the week that anticipated the event.

Still, Cooperman devotes many straightforward and helpful paragraphs to explaining the nature of the division in the Anglican Communion:

But several primates in the Global South — developing countries where Anglicanism is fast growing and deeply traditional — have said that they will have difficulty sitting down with her, not so much because she is a woman as because of her views on homosexuality and theology.

Jefferts Schori . . .voted in 2003 to confirm the election of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican prelate. She has also supported blessings for same-sex couples, and she has said that, although she believes in salvation through Jesus, she does not think Christianity is the only path to God.

Those positions fall on one side of an increasingly bitter fault line in the U.S. church. Seven of the 111 Episcopal dioceses have rejected her authority, though they have stopped short of formally breaking away from the denomination. Some individual parishes have cut all ties to the Episcopal Church and have affiliated with more orthodox Anglican provinces overseas.

Don’t get me wrong: A pastor of a huge church cheating on his spouse with a male prostitute while using crystal methamphetamines is a really big deal. But so is leading a national Christian church body while not believing that Jesus is necessary for salvation. Isn’t it interesting how much coverage one story gets and how thoroughly pedestrian the other is considered?

RobinsonAnd on a related note, here’s a snippet from an email that was sent to me today by a reporter:

A pastor is married for years, has children, runs a successful church, advances in his denomination/sector of Christianity, and then “finds himself” and abandons wife and children for a live-in situation with another man. His reward? Consecration as a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church of America and wide-ranging media praise. LATimes, I believe, had a nice kiss-up interview with Gene Robinson just this week.

Another pastor apparently is married for years, has children, builds and runs a a successful church, advances in his denomination/sector of Christianity, fights temptation and loses, stays with his family, and when the dam breaks, is crucified in the press as his reward.

Whatever else you may think of these stories, there’s really no question that most reporters think only involves moral failure. How does that affect the coverage?

It would also be interesting to track which story ends up having the bigger fallout. That depends, of course, on whether Robinson’s story leads the 77 million-member Anglican Communion into schism.

Note: The liturgical stole pictured above is not the one worn by the new presiding bishop. This non-traditional stole comes from an online store for liberal churches. To see the vestments work by Jefferts Schori, click here for an Episcopal News Service photo from the event.

Note: The communications office at The Episcopal Church kindly notified us that we do have permission to use their photos. So I have replaced the original picture (which you can see here) with a picture of Jefferts Schori’s actual vestments. May there be peace in the land!

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Ted Haggard, the symbolic centrist

ministries 1371 1Over the past few days, I have been watching the coverage of the Rev. Ted Haggard fiasco carefully to see how many journalists understand one of the most important facts in this story.

What is that fact? Haggard is not a leader of the old Religious Right. For many people, he was the charismatic face of a more moderate brand of evangelicalism that backs the traditional Christian doctrines on the hot issues linked to sex and marriage, but also carries that “Culture of Life” emphasis over into discussions of poverty, the environment, the spread of AIDS, economic justice in the Third World and other issues.

Yet, at the same time, he was one of the new “moderate” evangelicals who had not lost the trust of the old-guard evangelical alpha males symbolized by Dr. James Dobson and Charles Colson. Haggard was a bridge personality, in other words. This made him an important figure for the White House, since he was an evangelical — but not among the old faces that everyone is used to seeing on the cable TV shows (think Pat Robertson) that President Bush has avoided like the plague.

It isn’t hard to find out this fact about the now resigned head of the National Association of Evangelicals. All one has to do is Google “Haggard,” “evanglicals” and “environment” and some pretty obvious links pop up. In fact, the evangelicals-that-the-New-York-Times-can-love template was kind of a cliche there for a few months. Click here to see what I am talking about.

It’s no surprise that there are hints of this reality in coverage by the talented and fair-minded Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. For example, she wrote:

A father of five who dresses in blue jeans and drives a Chevy pickup, Haggard is well-known, and widely praised, as an energetic, charismatic pastor who has pushed to expand evangelical activism into issues such as global warming and world poverty. But he hasn’t shied away from the traditional culture-war issues of abortion and homosexuality.

A lengthy profile in Harper’s magazine — which is quoted approvingly on Haggard’s website — recounts how he built New Life Church in part by hanging out at gay bars and inviting the patrons to come to his sermons and be saved.

Under Haggard’s leadership, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, reaffirmed a policy statement that describes homosexuality as “a deviation from the Creator’s plan” and calls same-sex relations a sin that, “if persisted in … excludes one from the Kingdom of God.”

Note the presence of the words “if persisted in.” That is a fine point that applies to all kinds of activities that traditional Christian believers consider sin.

In addition to Simon, reporter Myung Oak Kim at the Rocky Mountain News has included some references to Haggard’s moderating role in modern evangelicalism. (I am sure there are other articles of this type that I have missed in the deluge. My apologies, in advance.) In an article on Haggard and national politics, Kim uses language that is very similar to that of Simon:

Within the evangelical community, Haggard is considered a moderate. Since becoming president of the 30 million-member evangelical organization in 2003, he has worked to broaden the mission of the NAE beyond hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion to environmental consciousness, fighting poverty and promoting international human rights. …

BK TH001 250pixelsAnd in her latest story, Simon carries these themes even further. While many focus on the impact of the scandal on Republican politics, it is much more important for journalists to ask how it may or may not affect the fault lines within modern evangelicalism.

Thus, Simon writes:

Jesse Lava, who runs an online community called Faithful Democrats, said he hoped Haggard’s call for more activism on issues like poverty would gain traction in the coming months as his followers confronted “the fact of human fallibility” and remembered that “we need to address people in need with grace and compassion.”

But political scientist John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, predicted the opposite effect. Haggard’s push for action on global warming raised hackles among powerful leaders on the religious right. With Haggard discredited, those leaders may be able to swing the focus back to issues such as abortion. Or the evangelical movement — a solid GOP bloc over several election cycles — could splinter.

“This could have quite profound implications for how evangelicals [affect] politics in the future,” Green said, “long after we’ve forgotten the results of this coming election.”

Of course, there is no need to “swing the focus” back to abortion. That is the issue that never, ever, goes away in American politics — in either party. Ask the Democrats who are biting their tongues while a few culturally conservative Democrats in key red zip codes try to win some Hill seats that may return the party to power. The issue is whether the evangelical agenda narrows and narrows and narrows, while the old guard lose trust in the leaders who are trying to take their place.

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Father Ted Haggard? Say what?

AmyHaggard1After a wild Friday on the Colorado Springs front, I think I can safely say that there is more news and fallout to come.

There does not seem, however, to be much new in the basic stories today. Here is a link to the ongoing coverage at the Colorado Springs Gazette, which, of course, has the best collection of local sidebars out there at the moment (for those who care about the impact of all of this on that giant New Life congregation). It does appear that Haggard will address the congregation on Sunday.

I wonder if that is the event that totally pulls the TV networks into this pre-election firestorm.

Timing, timing, timing.

However, on a personal note, I will be away from my computer keyboard all of today, speaking at a national Orthodox Christian Laity conference here in Baltimore at the College of Notre Dame.

The topic is “The Present State & Future of Orthodoxy in America.” Speakers include Archbishop Lazar of the All American Saints Monastery in British Columbia, Father Peter Gillquist of the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Missions and Evangelism, Andrew Natsios, formerly of the U.S. State Department and now the White House special envoy for Sudan, and others. My topic is “So What Do the Converts Want, Anyway?” I do not know if audio or text versions of the talks will be posted in the future. I will ask. I am not expecting coverage in the Baltimore Sun.

Please keep us posted on major stories that you see today about the Ted Haggard story (please leave comments with URLs on the many posts already up) and also the coverage of the consecration of the new presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church and any pre-election developments. It will be a busy day.

But before I vanish I wanted to point GetReligion readers toward an interesting graphic that was included with a longer post at Amy Welborn’s Open Book site. Click here to see her whole post.

It seems that the WTSP-TV producers in Tampa Bay had a rather one-track mind when they selected art for their website’s original post of the Haggard story. Then the folks at the CBS affiliate changed the art to something that, in some ways, was even worse. Welborn explains the sequence.

Now it appears that the art is totally gone.

I had no idea that Haggard was a Roman Catholic priest. I also had no idea that this story was directly linked to Holy Week. Yes, Easter has to follow Good Friday. But I don’t think that theological point was what the producers were thinking about.

Now, the station has added this correction at the end of the article:

WTSP apologizes for our earlier inclusion of a photograph of a Roman Catholic priest’s collar. The inclusion of the photo was not intentional.


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Covering a story driven by electronic media

radio mikeAs a print journalist, I often wince when important news stories are driven by the radio and television. Accusations fly quickly and responses are hastily arranged. Even in the age of the Internet, stories driven by print reporters develop more slowly. Facts tend to be treated with greater care when they are handled by individuals independent of the situation than by accusers and the accused.

But television and radio reporters are part of the age in which we live and events unfold as they may.

KUSA 9 Denver managed to land an interview with the Rev. Ted Haggard and posted it in its full unedited glory here (requires Windows Media). It’s a difficult interview to watch. No, it’s not the poor camera work and lighting, it’s the very apparent pain in Haggard’s face, and I don’t know what to say about his wife. But the interview broke the big news of the day, at least as of 6 p.m.

Haggard continues to deny some aspects of what he has been accused of, but he has since admitted to things he previously denied.

From the beginning this story has been driven by the local television and radio stations. Print reporters have been left scrambling. Even the announcement that Haggard’s accuser, Michael Jones, failed a lie-detector test occurred as he performed it, live on the radio.

It is important to note that the accuracy of a lie-detector test, also known as a polygraph, has come into serious question lately, particularly in the government. Aldrich Ames, a former CIA counter-intelligence officer and analyst convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, beat several of them and a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report said that the polygraph has serious limitations.

I’m not saying that Michael Jones is telling the truth, or that he is lying. It’s just important to realize that a polygraph is not a reliable way for a journalist to determine the truthfulness of a person’s statements. While mentioning that Jones failed a polygraph, journalists should not allow that to determine who is telling the truth in this case.

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Of Meth and Men

1595550526 01 LZZZZZZZWhen I saw the transcripts of the Rev. Ted Haggard’s phone message, my first thought was that it sounded more like a call to his dealer. That would have still been a big story but more of a local affair. You know, “Pastor of Megachurch Bought Meth from Sketchy Guy.”

Without the allegations by gay prostitute Michael Jones that he had turned tricks for Haggard about once a month over a three-year period, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have got very far. Or at least I think that’s fair to say. (If you disagree, feel free to make the case in comments.)

In other words, this story traveled as far as it did because of our attitudes about hypocrisy and especially hypocrisy about sex. Type “Haggard” into Google News. You’ll get no fewer than 2,000 results, including dozens of foreign news outlets.

Regardless of the result of Jones’ second polygraph test, the story has now been downgraded. Given his personal history, Jones never had much credibility, and he was pretty frank that he was doing this to damage Haggard and hurt the efforts to ban gay marriage and save the Republicans from certain doom.

Journalists aren’t going to want to get burned again and risk the attendant charges of bias for taking sides in the midterms.

Now an independent board of overseers (note to reporters: they’re not from Haggard’s megachurch) will decide if buying Meth and massages from a gay prostitute and lying about it are cause to fire him. My guess: the board will at least decide that Haggard can’t be head pastor anymore, and they’ll probably fire his ass.

As for the larger implications for this story, well, it’s probably worth looking at what the National Association of Evangelicals will be like without Haggard as its president.

In its earlier form, the scandal could have helped to depress the evangelical vote or get out what Terry Mattingly has written about in the past — the growing “anti-evangelical vote.” But the way the news cycle has sped up has made that less likely. A political consultant friend told me that he would have released a bombshell like this on Friday rather than Wednesday.

And hey, working journalists, the next time you have a story that’s all about hypocrisy, it might not be bad to get a quote from the guy who wrote the book on the subject.

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Rereading that Sharlet piece

harpersReader TK had a fascinating comment on a previous post about the Haggard coverage:

One statement that he has made, repeatedly, concerned me:

Haggard: “Does a Christian need to ask forgiveness each day? No! A mature Christian should not be sinning on a daily basis, so may not need to ask for forgiveness on a daily basis.”

The above quote came from a really interesting 09/12/2005 interview with Ted Haggard on the Issues, Etc. radio program hosted by Pastor Wilken. The interview was later rebroadcast, in two parts (part one and part two), on 9/13/05 with added commentary and listener call-ins.

. . . Now, with the allegations and his admissions of some guilt, I can’t help but question his doctrine, his steadfast belief, that true and mature Christians no longer sin. The “best” Christians I know live in daily repentance and full knowledge of their capability to sin.

It will be very sad to follow this story because of the many, many families who’ve followed him to Colorado Springs. Along with the Wilken interview, I highly recommend a lengthy article, Soldiers of Christ, by Jeff Sharlet of Harper’s Magazine from May 2005. In re-reading the article this morning about Haggard and those families who followed him to the “city of faith,” I found this passage ironic:

“Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devil’s plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church.”

I don’t know what this says about me, but when I first heard the Haggard story, my thoughts immediately went to Jeff Sharlet. He runs The Revealer, a site that, like ours, analyzes media coverage of religion.

Jeff has written a few long-form reports on religious issues in his day. One, a detailed and insightful look at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, should, as TK says, be reread in light of this news cycle. He’s reposted it with the following introduction:

I’m re-posting my original Harper’s piece below not because I think I got the story right — if Jones’ story is true, I missed it by a mile — but because I hope it’ll help the journalists now on the job get the story right by not making the mistake I did. The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism. I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

Perhaps some reporters will be able to get the religious angle to this story.

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My spiritual gift is crystal meth

crystal methI’m rather speechless about this whole Ted Haggard story. I grew up down the road from his New Life megachurch (pop. 14,000) and have followed his ascendancy for years. I’m rather uncertain what can be said about the media coverage, too.

Stories like this are difficult to write about, and we’ve seen some good examples of how to treat it. I’m not sure if this is simply a personal opinion or a journalistic one, but I absolutely loathe this news cycle. I’m not sure if people need to read about the allegations or why they’re reading about them now.

Whether or not the allegations are true, this is a person with a wife and five kids. Whatever else may be said about him, I doubt Haggard claimed he was sinless or without lusts. And public condemnation of sinful behavior does not mean his private life is open season.

Yes, it’s salacious and juicy, but I think that reporters should think ethically about how to handle this story. And I think I might be speaking more to myself — who always experiences a bit ton of schadenfreude at the Elmer Gantry-like downfall of megachurch or televangelist leaders — than anyone else.

Anyway, here’s one thing I’ve picked up from the story. Mr. Jones, the drug-selling male escort, is the only source for the story. He says Haggard a) paid him for sex, b) bought crystal meth and c) used it in front of him. He’s failed a lie-detector test, but the test administrator says it could be because he’s not eaten or slept well.

The evidence, as it were, is an envelope allegedly from Haggard as well as two voice messages allegedly from Haggard that discuss what Jones says is a meth purchase. Haggard has admitted to some of the allegations while vehemently denying the prostitution charges.

Those bits of substantiation don’t support the gay sex charge. They support the drug usage claim. I think it’s interesting that reporters are leading and pushing the gay sex claims rather than the meatier drug claims. I’m not really sure what it means, I just find it interesting.

On this site we look at whether the media do a good job of understanding the religious angles to stories. And that is and will be a concern as this story develops. But reporters on the religion beat or any other beat should make sure to get the facts straight before anything else.

Once those facts are laid out better, Bible Belt Blogger Frank Lockwood asks an interesting question:

But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?

He notes that Haggard describes himself as Southern Baptist but applies some Charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues, the laying on of hands for healing, and prophecy. I think back to Eric Gorski’s excellent series on Bishop Dennis Leonard up I-25 at Heritage Christian Center. He linked the theology of prosperity to the church’s financial dealings.

The bottom line: Newspapers should follow The Denver Post‘s lead by having religion reporters heavily involved in the coverage. It’s bound to pay off.

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