In praise of quirky news interviews

DontBelieve I have been feeling kind of guilty because GetReligion hasn’t even mentioned the bizarre semi-story of the week that has been so hot out there in the blogosphere, especially on conservative Catholic sites.

I am referring to that strange little interview that New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon did with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In case you missed the wave of cybercoverage of this story, including in our own comments pages, here are the remarks that have been getting so much attention:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

As you can imagine, great fun was had in the usual places because of this statement. Anglican capitalists sprang into action, as did humorists. Lots of amused or angry people wrote letters to

This would explain why the Episcopal Church has, in a generation or so, lost a million members and many that remain are getting a bit long in the tooth. Losses have been especially sharp in the past two or three years, as discussed in this story in the liberal mainline Protestant journal The Christian Century.

Catholic writers, in particular, were rather miffed that the Episcopal leader created such a stark equation that said, in effect: Our numbers are declining because we are smarter and care more about the environment than all of those populist Catholics and Mormons (recall that Jefferts Schori was bishop of the tiny Diocese of Nevada before her election as archbishop).

88284924v6 240x240 BackBut I didn’t quite know what to say about this Times mini-interview because, for starters, I thought the questions were interesting and so were the answers. It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children. And the heart of the Episcopal Church’s leadership comes from areas that are rich, urban and highly, highly educated. At the same time, the Episcopal Church’s parishes that are experiencing rapid growth tend to be in the Sunbelt, in growing suburban areas and popular with young, growing families.

So it was a good interview, with a few interesting questions that produced interesting responses, much like that Here & Now public radio interview that produced the new presiding bishop’s revealing comments about people finding salvation through the culturally appropriate religion of their choice.

Quirky questions. Quirky answers. That’s good, right? Like that question about her husband and their long-distance marriage?

You were previously bishop of Nevada, but your new position requires you to live in New York City. Do you and your husband like it here?

He is actually in Nevada. He is a retired mathematician. He will be here in New York when it makes sense.

The question for me is whether Jefferts Schori will continue to be this candid in interviews with news organizations that she respects and to which she wants to talk in order to reach her liberal base. Is it possible that she felt too comfortable talking to the Times and to a public-radio show? That she felt a bit too secure?

I, for one, hope that her candor continues. I have always enjoyed covering religious leaders — on the left and the right — who have strong convictions and are not afraid to share them near microphones and pens.

Image credits: Revolution 21, Midwest Conservative Journal.

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Round up the usual suspects!

CasablancaAirportSorry for the delay on this one folks. I have, for some time now, been meaning to post the link to some interesting comments from the noted Vatican watcher John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. In a way, it’s a meditation on the need for reporters — especially when covering Roman and American Catholicism — to dig past the easy layers of official sources and talk to real people on both sides of the church aisle.

There are some behind the scenes tidbits in here, the kind that have made Allen one of the world’s most famous Vatican storytellers (for better or for worse, depending on how you view his take on things Roman).

However, Allen also notes that the problems mainstream journalists have covering Catholicism must be linked to a larger topic.

… (There) is a deep cultural gap between Rome and the United States, which means that even when reporters get the facts right about something the Vatican has said or done, they often get the story wrong. … Further, most news organizations don’t take religion seriously as a news beat, so it’s covered part-time, often by people without any special training or background. (In Fort Worth, for example, I’m told that one local religion writer also has the rodeo beat). “News” is generally defined as something new or different (“man bites dog”), so for a 2,000 year-old tradition that prizes continuity, a broad swath of Catholic life will never count as “news” for most media outlets. Further, because conflict is the stuff of drama, news reports rarely focus on instances of harmony or quiet service, another way in which much Catholic life flies below the radar screen. Additionally, because “the church” is usually understood to mean the clerical caste, the vast range of works carried out by laity are at times all but invisible. (I was recently asked by the BBC to recommend someone from the church to interview on the subject of women in Catholicism. Since Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, happened to be in Rome that week, I passed along her name. The producer’s response was, “But we want someone from the church!”)

Yes, there is that whole thing about many mainstream journalists failing to get religion. We sort of agree with that.

However, there is something deeper going on as well. How do journalists pick their sources? Why do certain names keep showing up in major media over and over (think Pat Robertson or Father Richard McBrien)?

Well, the other day Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher sort of hit the wall on precisely this topic and pounded out this rather dark meditation on precisely this subject. You need to read the whole thing — but here is the heart of it. I would like to stress that Rod is describing bad journalism in this post and there are many reporters out there, including some we salute over and over at this blog, who prefer to do good journalism. It can be done.

So how do the journalistic usual suspects become the usual suspects who get rounded up in news report after news report? Take it away, Rod:

1. Outright bias. The reporter has an agenda, and calls the expert he knows will give him the quote he wants to spin the story a certain way. If, for example, you want to make Evangelicals come across in a certain way, you will call Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, even though their influence on the broad swath of Evangelicalism has long been waning.

2. Laziness, or expedience. No reporter can be expert in everything, and all reporters work under strict deadlines. Lots of times they’ll do a Google or a Nexis search to see which expert in which given field has been previously cited by reporters. “Norman Ornstein” turns up a lot. He’s an American Enterprise Institute scholar who knows a lot about Washington politics. Nothing wrong with his advice, but one reason he’s so widely quoted is … because he’s been so widely quoted.

3. Ignorance. This is closely related to No. 2. A reporter who means well, and who has the time to research a story, may be unaware of the nuances of a particular field, might not understand that the favored expert is not really expert. She’s going on past reputation as a guide to present expertise. The difference between this and No. 2 is that she really may be trying to do the best job she can, and not cut corners, but her ignorance of the subject area leads her to fall back on the usual suspects, thinking she’s gone to the leading expert.

4. Media-friendly sources. Nothing makes a source rise to the “must-call” list of a reporter faster than the source’s willingness to take the reporter’s call, or to call him back as soon as possible. Again, it’s a deadline thing. A lot of the experts you see quoted so often build up their reputation with the media by being helpful and accomodating. It’s hard to express to those not in the business how helpful that is to a reporter on deadline. (This is why it’s good to remember that if a reporter calls you for a quote, if you intend to speak to the reporter at all, call her back as soon as you can; she’s got a story to file, and if you don’t get back to her promptly, she’ll go to somebody else who will.)

Leaders of major religious organizations may want to clip that list and file it for fun reading on bad-press days. Remember, reporters cannot call you if they do not know you exist. And some reporters may not want to know you exist, because you might spoil the story they have already written inside their heads.

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Looking down the road

polygamyisutahsomeIn 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against sodomy. “Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

Justice Atonin Scalia disagreed with the decision — and even more so with the reasoning behind it. The court wrote the ruling so broadly, he argued, that the current social order would be massively disrupted. Since the court didn’t “cabin the scope of its decision,” state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity would also be attacked, Scalia predicted.

High-profile efforts to introduce same-sex marriage have been covered frequently. Jon Pomfret, writing for The Washington Post, looked at what progress has been made on the first of Scalia’s list: bigamy. He talks to various polygamists, including “Valerie,” about their efforts to legalize polygamy. Valerie, by the way, insists that she’s “just like you and me.” I love that meme. Anyway:

Valerie and others among the estimated 40,000 men, women and children in polygamous communities are part of a new movement to decriminalize bigamy. Consciously taking tactics from the gay-rights movement, polygamists have reframed their struggle, choosing in interviews to de-emphasize their religious beliefs and focus on their desire to live “in freedom,” according to Anne Wilde, director of community relations for Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group based in Salt Lake.

In their quest to decriminalize bigamy, practitioners have had help from unlikely quarters. HBO’s series “Big Love,” about a Viagra-popping man with three wives, three sets of bills, three sets of chores and three sets of kids, marked a watershed because of its sympathetic portrayal of polygamists. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which voided laws criminalizing sodomy, also aided polygamy’s cause because it implied that the court disapproved of laws that reach into the bedroom.

The piece focuses on the positive, but does mention the child rape that happens in some polygamous communities. It also discusses the Mormon roots of the practice. Pomfret says that state authorities adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in recent years.

One reason was that the politically powerful Mormon Church, while officially opposing polygamy, did not want the bad press strict enforcement might bring. Another reason was that law enforcement was worried that isolated polygamist communities would erupt in violence if raided. An internal memo at the Arizona attorney general’s office in 2002 spoke of a “Waco-level problem” among the polygamous communities along the Utah state line.

For such huge claims, it would help to have some substantiation. If you’re going to say the Mormon Church was able to get law enforcement officers to stop enforcing the law in order to bolster the church, you need some support. Also, if you have that information, that would make a fantastic story. But no one from the LDS is quoted.

Other than that, the piece is fine. A colleague of mine described it as “surfacey,” noting that none of the polygamy sources mentioned on ReligionLink‘s polygamy page was quoted. What the piece does do is offer a starting point for discussion.

Whether or not polygamists are successful in using the Lawrence decision to help legalize bigamy, their efforts need to be covered. In general it would be helpful for reporters to look down the road at more marriage stories.

If fundamentalist Mormons succeed in overturning laws against bigamy based on the First Amendment instead of the Fourteenth Amendment as in Lawrence, what would be some of the unintended — or intended — consequences of such a decision?

If gay marriage is legalized, will that help formally sanction families such as the ones profiled in The New York Times last week — with multiple female and male partners? How might that affect family law, the tax code and inheritance laws?

If barriers to marriage are lowered, would there be an incentive for non-intimate couples or groupings to marry for benefits? If so, would that change how companies confer benefits? If companies cease offering benefits for partners, would that affect whether — for instance — one spouse is able to stay home and raise offspring?

Writing stories about how arcane our marriage laws are, as many reporters do, is fine. But it would be nice to see more in-depth reporting about the consequences of changes to marriage laws.

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Finding religion in The Atlantic’s Top 100

atlantic coverI generally like lists. But only if they’re good lists. And by good I mean lists that generally agree with how I see things. In other words, this week’s Washington PostRanking the League” (about the National Football League) is a bunch of garbage. The Indianapolis Colts are not #1. Somehow the geniuses over on 15th Street think that the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears are better than the Peyton Manning’s Colts. Go figure.

I hope this intro gives you an idea where I am coming from when I say that I liked The Atlantic‘s “Top 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time” list. I particularly liked the project’s open-ended, transparent method for determining who made the list: Ask 10 historians what they think and then compute and compile.

From the GetReligion perspective, all I’m able to do is quibble with The Atlantic‘s choice of historians. The list of historians is appropriately diverse. And I think the list reflects this diversity. The list also reflects that a number of the historians could have placed a couple more religious figures in their Top 100. But that just reflects the historians’ biases, and The Atlantic seemed to realize this point.

I’ll stop there and let the article, written by Ross Douthat, do the analysis on religion:

Mark Noll, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, shared [H.W.] Brands’s expectation that politics would dominate the final list, but suggested that this was a reflection of how history has been taught — “as a political narrative or as a reaction against the political narrative.” He contended there is “little room for religion” in either of these narratives — even though religious organizations “have been the main glue in American society since before there was a United States.” His own list drove that point home, by including little-remembered but hugely influential figures like the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, or the itinerant Methodist bishop Francis Asbury.

. . . Take America’s religious leaders — represented on the list by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, Jonathan Edwards (90), and the Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher (91), as well as a number of ministers best known for their efforts at political reform, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (46). Worthies all, but you have to look farther down the winners’ list to find the people who actually built the churches where most of today’s Americans worship. Several Jews are in the Top 100, but the only rabbi to receive votes was Solomon Schechter, the architect of Conservative Judaism. The only Top 100 Catholics are George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Louis Armstrong, and James Gordon Bennett (69), the great nineteenth-century newspaperman; two panelists, however, suggested John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop. There were also two votes for Fulton Sheen, another Catholic bishop, whose 1950s media ministry, as Mark Noll put it, “certified Roman Catholicism as a benign religious, political, and cultural influence” (and made him a trailblazer for today’s rather-less- eloquent crop of televangelists).

Also falling short of the Top 100 were the architects of American evangelicalism, the most successful species of Protestantism in this largely Protestant nation. Two panelists listed Francis Asbury, the eighteenth-century Methodist bishop whose indefatigable missionary efforts created a model of entrepreneurial religion that successful evangelical pastors have followed ever since. The aptly named Evangeline Booth, the first female “general” of the Salvation Army, received one vote, as did Dwight L. Moody, arguably the nineteenth century’s most famous evangelist; two votes went to Billy Graham, the twentieth-century heir to that title.

Another Noll pick, William Seymour, is perhaps more obscure than the other religious figures in the Top 100, but in the long run may prove more influential than any of them. The son of freed slaves, Seymour in 1906 lost his job as pastor of a Los Angeles church over his belief that glossolalia — speaking in tongues — was available to contemporary Christians; undeterred, he set up shop in a ramshackle building on L.A.’s Azusa Street, and thus touched off the “Azusa Street Revival,” the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing form of Christianity in the world.

I guess one of the challenges of putting people known for their work in religion into a list like this is that their influence is very difficult to measure. While there is no doubt the Booths, Grahams and Finneys of the world had great influence of the lives of the people they touched, the result is much more subtle than with writers, politicians and inventors.

Outside the founders of Mormonism and Christian Science, only Jonathan Edwards and Lyman Beecher are on the list for their work as ministers. As Douthat notes, the historians placed little emphasis on American Protestant and Catholic leaders. While Edwards is on the list, there is no mention of the Puritans. Like him or not, Cotton Mather played a key role in early American history.

Why is this the case? Again, it is a reflection of the historians’ biases. For example, as much as I enjoy Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, I don’t see her placing Peter Cartwright anywhere in her Top 100 list. But that’s OK, because Douthat does an excellent job discussing Noll’s thoughts on why other American preachers are not on the list, such as Charles Finney, Francis Asbury, Fulton Sheen, John Carroll, Evangeline Booth and Dwight Moody. Then there is the absence of Billy Graham.

Another problem: Once you place Finney on the list, you would have a hard time explaining why Asbury or Carroll or several others are not on the list. One could say that, apart from Edwards and Beecher, it is tough to find an American religious leader who truly belongs in the realm of most influential, primarily because America has done little other than embrace and expound upon the work of the Catholic Church and the original Protestants. But then again, is that how we want to measure influence?

For the sake of discussion, why wasn’t Billy Sunday mentioned? Or the Hoosier Lew Wallace, whose Ben-Hur was the bestselling book of the 19th century?

I’d like to also make the argument that the theologian Francis Schaeffer should have been on this list. While not very well known, this 20th century thinker, through his writing and teaching, laid much of the groundwork for today’s opposition to theological modernism. His work is the basis for much of what we see today from the Christian right, which — like it or not — has become a major influence in today’s politics.

That’s all for now. Please discuss. What major religious figures in American history were left off this list?

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She blinded me with science

science religionBack in December of last year, a federal judge ruled against a Dover school board including intelligent-design theories in curriculum. The ruling basically said that intelligent design is religion-based and therefore false science. Mainstream coverage pounced on this. I raised a question about the coverage then:

Why is it that people have such an easy time seeing into the hearts of intelligent design proponents and discovering nefarious religious motivations but never question the religious motivations of evolution proponents?

Well, George Johnson had a fantastic piece in The New York Times that surveys religious attitudes of various scientists who attended a conference on science and religion. The article is so well-written and has so many juicy parts that I’m having trouble picking which ones to excerpt.

Johnson’s experience writing about science and religion shows. He wrote Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order a decade ago. He’s won the Templeton-Cambridge journalism fellowship in science and religion. And he’s written numerous articles on the subject.

For this article, Johnson covered a Science Network event referred to by some as an anti-Templeton conference on science and religion. Most of the numerous speakers Johnson quoted expressed a great deal of animosity toward religious belief:

Dr. [Steven] Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, “The First Three Minutes,” that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” went a step further: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

He quoted the noted atheist Richard Dawkins, but many other scientists also expressed anti-religious views, including Harold Kroto, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carolyn Porco.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.

Here’s what Porco, a research scientist at the Space Institute, proposed:

“Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

darwin fishJohnson provides perspective on the story, detailing efforts by the Templeton Foundation to smooth over differences between science and religion. He explains that more prominent believing scientists were invited to the conference but didn’t attend. And he quotes evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, a former Roman Catholic priest, pooh-poohing efforts to fight six billion people finding meaning and purpose in life. When physicist and nonbeliever Lawrence Krauss argues that science does not make it impossible to believe in God and that nonbelievers should stop being so pompous, Dawkins explodes.

“I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said.

While many reporters have been enamored with Dawkins and his colorful quotes, Johnson goes on to quote two religion-opposing scientists in response, including anthropologist Melvin Konner.

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

His response to [doctoral student Sam] Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

There are many other things in the article — notably allegations against some believers — that are left unanswered, but the piece is properly limited to the people and ideas expressed at one conference.

More than a few atheist and non-religious commenters here have suggested previously that Richard Dawkins is equivalent to Christians’ Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Reporters run to them ad nauseum whether they deserve it or not.

This article showed debate with Dawkins. The debate was over tactics rather than underlying views, but in the crusade to win converts to their belief system, scientists’ tactics are important. It’s nice to have a well-written look at the same.

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Readers want the full text

stack of newspapersThe Los Angeles Times did us all a favor earlier this week by posting the text of a sermon given in 2004 that has All Saints Episcopal Church under an Internal Revenue Service investigation. In the age of the Internet, all reporters need to follow this practice because there is really no reason not to.

Even if a few days have gone by, or even weeks, posting the text gives a reporter a chance to revisit an issue. It will also keep reporters honest. When reporters know that the speech they are reporting on will be made available to all, they are going to be darn sure to quote the text accurately and in proper context.

The Times not only posted the entire text of the sermon on its website, but also printed about a third of the sermon in the dead-pulp version.Hhere is the newspaper’s summary, and an update that is sure to thrill any government investigator:

The sermon, delivered Oct. 31, 2004, by the Rev. George F. Regas, was framed as a debate involving Jesus, President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

In September, the church announced that it would not comply with an IRS summons demanding that All Saints turn over materials with political references, such as sermons and newsletters, produced during the 2004 election year. The current rector, the Rev. Ed Bacon, did not obey a summons that ordered him to testify before IRS investigators.

The church continues to set a defiant tone. On Sunday, All Saints will sponsor a conference called “The War, the Pulpit and the Right to Preach.” It will include workshops on conflict resolution, tax law and “Prophetic Traditions and Free Speech.” Regas and Bacon are scheduled to speak.

But did Regas’ speech violate federal laws? The answer, [most] likely to come from the courts, hinges on how one defines campaigning and interprets his remarks.

newspaper readersThis is not the first time we have praised the LAT for its coverage of the church-state battles. The LAT seems to get it when it comes to the law, religion and the history of how they relate.

Earlier this month, The Washington Times nailed an excellent story in the church-state separation battle that found a minister saying that voting for one candidate would be like voting to free Barabbas instead of Jesus.

I’m hoping that when the Times decides to follow up on this potentially explosive story, it will include the full text (or even the audio) to give the readers the knowledge that they have the full story before them.

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Situation normal

gay fatherI like to believe my reading comprehension skills are adequate. But my confidence was dampened when I read The New York Times Magazine‘s advocacy journalism piece on gay parenting. The mash note ran 8,000 words, which was at least 2,000 too many.

I had serious trouble keeping track of the characters in the article. My problem wasn’t just that each of the three family groups profiled was a bit complex, what with sperm donors, sexual partners, and extended families. It was that reporter John Bowe thought pronouns would be enough to identify various members of the complicated tree. Sometimes, though, the complexity of the family alone was enough to make me read the same paragraph three times over. Read, for instance, about an interracial lesbian couple, one member of which was impregnated by an opposite-race gay man, who later split up and moved on:

The black woman has a new female partner. The white woman is now living with a man, and the two have had their own child. So, as [gay sperm donor] R. said, between the one child that R. has with the black mother, the twins borne by the white mother with a black donor and the newest, fourth, child born to her with her new male partner, all of whom have some sort of sibling relation to one another, things can be a little confusing. “They’re quite a little petri dish of a family, as you can imagine,” R. told me. The children go from the white mother, who lives in a SoHo loft, to their black mother, who lives in a nice, middle-class row house in Crown Heights. On weekends, they often visit the white mother’s family’s country estate. “I’d say they’re like divorce kids,” he said. “They’ve got a family that split up; they go back and forth.” But the kids love both their mothers, and though the relationships may seem confusing to outsiders, there is certainly no lack of people in their lives who care about them — something many “straight” families can’t claim.

You really have to love that last line. See, the confusion is not only not a problem, it’s actually better than many straight families’ situation.

It’s not that I’m surprised that Bowe — who cowrote the excellent movie Basquiat, penned an introduction to a book of Ted Rall cartoons and published advocacy pieces for The American Prospect — would write such a biased piece, but who does it serve? Wouldn’t New York Times readers be better off with balanced coverage of this hugely divisive issue? Wouldn’t New York Times editors get a much more interesting piece by having a reporter with a different perspective tackle it? Who needs an echo chamber?

Many individuals or movements that advocate for liberalization of family law — be they homosexual-marriage proponents, homosexual parents or polygamists — argue that their lifestyle is normal, even boring. I’m not making a value judgment about whether that is a good or bad thing, it’s just a common refrain used by the groups. Bowe makes that his overarching theme:

  • Gay parents are motivated not “by ideology but by a deep, and frankly conventional, desire to have children,” says a New York University professor.
  • “Considering how many heterosexual parents are overworked, divorced or otherwise unavailable, [gay donor Mark says], children with lesbian and gay parents are “lucky.”

I mean, I appreciate that The New York Times considers children of complex gay parentage to be lucky, but you think there might have been some room for a differing view in the rambling piece.

Finally, Bowe offers this vignette, which reinforces his theme:

P.J., David and Bobbie’s co-parent, is an X-ray technician with a bawdy and infectious sense of humor. Mark’s co-parents, Candi and Jean, one of whom is a former prison guard, were more reserved. Eight conversations were juggled as children came and went, screaming, laughing, crying, demanding juice boxes, spilling juice boxes, getting sand on the frosting on their mouths and so on.

Bowe clearly is a talented writer. But a story devoid of opposing perspectives on a controversial topic does not deserve to be in a major mainstream paper — even if all mainstream papers are turning into publications with all gay news all the time.

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Oh Canada

BobbleheadJesusA couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an article about the United Church of Canada and its move to add drinking bottled water to its list of “immoral” acts. While it seems trivial, it’s actually a very significant story, particularly from a business perspective.

Which is why Bloomberg had, as best I could tell, the most thorough article on the matter. As a pragmatic matter, the bottled water business is a multimillion-dollar industry and there is a chance that the church’s boycott could hurt the industry.

If there was a theological reason for this church’s move, Bloomberg didn’t give us one. But it did give us enough background to put this move into perspective:

The United Church has a tradition of staking out positions on social issues. It wants the Canadian government to recognize native land claims, stop its involvement in gambling and lotteries, and increase spending on affordable housing.

The church also supports same-sex marriage and wider access to contraceptives.

The effort against bottled water is part of the “Water in Focus” campaign, which encourages congregation members to pressure governments and corporations to protect watersheds from exploitation and pollution. Educational materials include action booklets, brochures and a map linking “water struggles” around the world.

The church says the world’s poor are losing access to clean water. It says more than 1 billion people worldwide lack safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Apparently opposing drinking water doesn’t give the church enough attention, so, as the Globe and Mail reported last week, the church is resorting to the baseball park strategy of handing out bobbleheads — of Jesus. Again, the reader is not to be surprised by this because it’s just one of many things designed to get attention as membership in the church steadily declines:

The United Church of Canada is launching the largest advertising campaign ever by a Canadian church in an attempt to spark debate about religious issues and encourage people to come back to the pews.

The series of advertisements poke fun at some traditions and tackle controversial topics such as sex and gay marriage.

One includes statues of two grooms on a wedding cake and asks, “Does anyone object?” Another features a can of whipped cream with the question, “How much fun can sex be before it’s a sin?” Still another depicts a bobble-head Jesus on a car dashboard and asks, “Funny. Ticket to hell. What do you think?”

The $10.5-million project, to be officially unveiled today in Toronto, includes advertisements in magazines, community newspapers and on the Internet. It will also include the creation of a website called which will feature discussion forums on a variety of social issues. The church also plans to hold seminars to teach its 3,500 congregations how to be more welcoming to newcomers.

canadaThere is very little substantial news reporting in the article, so if you’re not a registered at the Globe and Mail site, don’t let that disturb you. The only source for this article is the Rev. Keith Howard, who is heading the project, and a bunch of polling data. There is very little in the form of probing questions. Essentially here is Howard’s plan, why he thinks it is important and some stats about the status of religion among Canadians. The same can be said, sadly, for this London Free Press article.

Also take a look at this WorldNetDaily piece by Ted Byfield. By no means do I want to associate myself with Byfield’s opinion, because we try not to do that here at GetReligion, but I want to bring it to the discussion over how journalists can better cover the bobblehead movement.

Perhaps there are articles out there that bring a more critical (probing?) line of questioning. Rather than just repeating the official church line, maybe journalists could get into the meat of the issues that the church is dealing with.

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