Sports reporters turning to God

ray lewisThe domain of sports reporting often overlaps into religion, and appropriately so. The best sports reporting focuses on people, and people are often religious.

I always find it interesting when sports reporters decide to put the religion issue front and center. Was the religious element front and center in the subject’s life? Or is religion front and center in the reporter’s life? Or a combination of the two?

Two religion-in-sports stories caught our attention recently. First, GetReligion reader Bill Caraher pointed us to last week’s Sports Illustrated cover piece on Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The cover art is clear on what this piece is about, and anyone who has a scant idea of Ray Lewis’s background would understand the clashing of symbols and stories.

Where to start with this piece? Caraher suggests that we look at the end, which contains some not so subtle language that I think nips at the idea that journalists often see the athletes they cover as some type of modern-day heroes whose stories have the potential to change lives:

“What do y’all want me to do, seriously?” Lewis says of his critics. “The thing you’ve praised me for — being a courageous leader — is the same thing y’all trying to crucify me for now. I’m doing what you want, to say, ‘Dammit, I’m not going to put up with this!’ and suddenly [the team] said, ‘Ray wanted to talk about money.’ I never played this game for money, but now I do?”

Yes, there’s that word again: crucify. It’s no slip. Lewis won’t go so far as to call himself the Second Coming, but he’s close to believing himself a prophet of sorts, and if martyrdom is the price, so be it. “God has me to do what people are afraid to do: tell the truth,” he says. “Yes, racism does exist. Hatred exists every day. I’m not afraid. The worst thing that could happen to me — and I don’t see it as the worst — is to be killed and go to heaven.”

Delusional? Maybe. There are many who won’t take kindly to Ray Lewis, of all people, telling them how to live. After Baltimore’s season-opening win at Tampa Bay this season, three of Lewis’s sons were standing outside the Ravens’ locker room, their dad’s name and number on their backs. A woman walked up to their mother and, speaking just above their heads, hissed, “I can’t believe you let your kids wear that murderer’s jersey.”

It’s a story of a redeemed and reformed modern-day athlete that focuses as much on Lewis’ religious convictions as his own self-absorption and hero status. Lewis is the one who is booed when he enters stadiums. Lewis is the one who has reformed his life by turning to God. The story is sadly more about Lewis than it is about God.

Revelation 195Stepping over to the National Basketball Association,’s Sam Alipour got to spend some time with Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has his own redemption story to tell.

While this piece deals with some random theological issues, it’s largely because Odom’s new line of T-shirts were deemed controversial by Alipour, who took issue with the shirt’s image of Jesus Christ.

I wouldn’t want to get in a street fight with the dude whose image is emblazed on Lamar Odom’s soon to be unveiled T-shirt line. And that’s partly because it’s the image of The Dude, himself. Jesus, with “white like wool” hair, eyes of “blazing fire” and feet — or, in this case, face — of “burnished bronze.” So, is it extreme? According to Odom’s interpretation of Revelation, Chapter 1, Verses 14 and 15, it’s accurate.

. . . “The book says his hair was ‘white like wool,’ which doesn’t sound like long stringy hair to me,” he explains. “It doesn’t talk about blue eyes. Hopefully, these shirts will be a big-time history lesson as well. The description of Jesus in the Bible is never used. He made people nervous, scared. He didn’t look ordinary.”

What, eyeballs of raging fire aren’t ordinary?

“Yeah, the first thing people say is why’s there fire in his eyes? It’s kind of demonic,” Odom admits. “But if you read the Bible verse, I don’t think the Son of Man will be too happy when he returns. The world has been flipped upside down.”

Well, that’s interesting. It’s also interesting that Alipour never made it clear what Odom’s beliefs are. We just know he is spiritual. And that’s great, if that’s all he is, except he decided to skip over a major religion issues that could have produced some interesting, or maybe not so interesting, commentary on the potential intersection of Islam and Christianity in Odom’s life:

Odom has made it his mission to educate himself on the world’s religions, including enlisting the guidance of a Muslim cleric and family friend to learn about Islam. The lesson was driven home when Odom visited Istanbul, Turkey, during the ’04 Olympics.

“There’s unity in Istanbul, where 99 percent are Muslim,” Odom says. “In America, we’re divided, even within Christianity. Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists — there’s no unity. Too often, religion means infighting and holy wars and territory.”

It’s great to focus on Odom’s depiction of “The Dude” on T-shirts, but if we don’t know what Odom actually believes, we’re all left hanging.

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Cheaper by the dozen

bigfamilyOf the topics that are both universally experienced and wildly controversial, procreation has to rank near the top. Kudos to Eileen Finan at Newsweek for a remarkably balanced piece about a landmine-prone issue. (And thanks to reader Jon Swerens for letting us know about the article.) In an online-only piece, she looks at a movement of Protestant Christians opposed to birth control of any kind:

It’s hardly a typical scene from the suburbs. The Bortel home outside San Antonio, Tex., counts 12 members — parents David and Suzanne and their 10 children, ranging from 13 months to 15 (the 20-year-old married and moved away) — all crammed into a four-bedroom house that trembles constantly with activity. Everything revolves around the home: Dad works there, the kids are schooled there, the youngest three were born there. The family uses a 15-passenger van to get around, and at night, the kids climb into multiple sets of bunk beds.

David and Suzanne hear the same questions repeatedly. So for the record: No, they’re not Catholic. Yes, they’ve heard of birth control. And no, they’re not crazy. In fact, they’d happily welcome a twelfth child. “It’s about obedience to God,” says David, 38. “The Bible says that God is the only opener and closer of the womb.”

The Bortels form part of the “quiverfull” movement, a small but growing conservative Protestant group that eschews all forms of birth control and believes that family planning is exclusively God’s domain. The term derives from Psalm 127:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.

Judging from the high rate of birth control use by American families and the declining size of the average American family, I have no doubt that the Bortels’ statement would be met with impassioned replies. Still, it’s so nice to read a story in which the reporter just permits the featured players to describe their theology in their own words.

Journalists seem to spend so much time covering how people control their family size but very little time covering whether people control the same. It’s refreshing to see a story on what is certainly a small but significant movement.

Archery2Finan’s story gives a comprehensive overview of the Quiverfull movement before showing how opposition to birth control is growing among some evangelicals:

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has become one of its most prominent advocates. “If a couple sees children as an imposition, as something to be vaccinated against, like an illness, that betrays a deeply erroneous understanding of marriage and children,” says Mohler. “Children should be seen as good by default.” His stance isn’t as extreme as that of quiverfull followers; for instance, he condones the use of condoms for married couples in extreme circumstances, like illness.

Still, Mohler’s views are considered “an oddity” in mainstream Baptist circles, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land admits, however, that Mohler has certainly expanded his following. “He is seen as the popularizer of a position that is still very marginal, but 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have even been discussed,” says Land, adding that he knows of at least two former students who had reverse vasectomies after hearing Mohler’s arguments.

Movements usually are not limited to one bureaucratic group, which is why I’m surprised when reporters write a trend story around single groups. I appreciate how Finan broadens it to show how underlying principles or values are not neatly contained in organizational boundaries — even in a piece ostensibly about a single group. I also appreciate how she shows debate within the Christian community. She also speaks to opponents of the movement.

I wonder if there’s some reason I’ve seen an uptick in coverage of opponents of birth control. Kathryn Joyce, former managing editor of The Revealer, had a piece in this week’s The Nation on the same. As she is writing for a liberal magazine, we may not be surprised that Joyce takes a much harder look at the movement, but it still includes some great reportage — and meatier criticisms — between uses of the word “fundamentalist” and allegations of racism.

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Slicing up that old pizza guy

t 350 x 350 210OK, football fans, is everyone else as tired of the horrid Domino’s Brooklyn Style Pizza ads as I am? If I hear “Fold it like a man!” one more time I think I am going to give up pizza for Nativity Lent or something radical like that.

Still, I have to admit that the little New York Times story on this ad campaign — “‘Brooklyn Style Pizza’ Meets the Real Deal” — left me feeling a stab of sympathy for the giant corporation.

As you would imagine, reporter Kim Severson didn’t find too many people in Brooklyn who were happy or excited about this mass-marketing of a pseudo-New York tradition. Nevertheless, there is a passage near the end that is jarring, to say the least. There are people who believe that the Times can find a way to spin almost any story in a way that sticks needles into the sensitive skins of conservative Christians, especially Roman Catholics.

But did we really need the pizza-culture wars? In the ads, Severson writes,

An older Italian woman yells out of a brownstone window. A man with the look of an extra from “The Sopranos” pumps iron on the roof. A Rosie O’Donnell lookalike berates a taxi driver for not folding his slice like a man. And there’s an African-American guy. You can’t hear what he’s saying because the rap music pouring from his car speakers is too loud.

That kind of imagery just grinds at Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president.

“It’s a multinational right-wing company, mass marketing the Brooklyn attitude with obsolete ethnic stereotypes, not to mention flimsy crusts,” he said through a spokesman.

. . . The right-wing reference is to Domino’s founder, Thomas S. Monaghan, who sold the company in 1998. He has supported the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue and earlier this year announced his intention to build a town called Ave Maria in Florida based on strict Roman Catholic principles.

What a plot twist. Not only is this fake Brooklyn pizza, it’s dangerous Brooklyn pizza. It is Brooklyn pizza with bad political and theological DNA.

You have been warned.

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On hypocrisy

hypocrisyWhen Mike Jones went to the media with claims that New Life megachurch pastor Ted Haggard had paid him for sex and meth, he said he did so because of Haggard’s hypocrisy. Jones said he felt that Haggard was a hypocrite because he preached against homosexual behavior while also engaging in it.

The hypocrisy slur has been lodged against Haggard far and wide.

Two recent essays in First Things question the hypocrisy claim. While First Things is a religious journal, reporters on the Haggard beat — or any subsequent scandal story — should read them. Robert Miller argues that people aren’t hypocrites because they violate a moral norm in which they profess to believe:

Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing. It’s a certain kind of lying, and so can be done only consciously and intentionally.

. . . Ted Haggard, I am sure, always believed that homosexual conduct was wrong, always wanted to avoid such conduct, and always regretted engaging in it after he did so. He found himself experiencing very powerful desires contrary to the values he sincerely believed in, desires he wished with all his heart he could have escaped from, desires he refers to as a “repulsive and dark” part of his life against which he has been warring for a long time. Sometimes, contrary to his wish, he gave in to those desires. This makes him weak, not a hypocrite.

Richard John Neuhaus added to the comments by providing a modern example of hypocrisy. German novelist Günter Grass loudly proclaimed for years that any of his countrymen who was affiliated with Nazis should be ostracized, more or less. And yet he had willingly served in the Waffen-SS and had hidden that fact. Neuhaus says false accusations of hypocrisy show a “naive indifference to the reality of the conflicted self.”

Kevin Simpson and Eric Gorski’s piece for The Denver Post uses the Haggard scandal as a jumping-off point to discuss homosexual behavior and its causes:

Although the nature versus nurture debate — biology versus psycho-social factors — has simmered for years, most recent research has pointed toward sexual orientation being hard-wired into humans, at least to some degree, said Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, who studies sexual orientation development.

What’s so interesting about this story and so many others that deal with the “root causes of homosexuality” is the underlying assumption that an individual who engages in both heterosexual and homosexual behavior is, well, obviously and unequivocally gay. Take Ted Haggard. Here is a man who has been married to a woman for decades and has five children. He also, allegedly, paid a man for sex for three years. Isn’t it interesting that so many people assume that combination means he’s gay? You bake one loaf of bread, it doesn’t mean you’re considered a baker, but for some reason we think differently about sexuality. But only in one direction — men in homosexual relationships who’ve slept with — or even been married to — women aren’t considered straight.

Anyway, what’s missing from the whole Denver Post article is the view of some Christians that homosexuality — whether or not it is genetically influenced or some product of cultural influences — is not the best expression of God’s plan for sexual desire. The absence of that information or perspective makes the rest of the article — which more or less condemns evangelical efforts to assist homosexuals in modifying their behavior — ring hollow.

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Gasp! There are pro-life moderates?

409px Glass of waterThe mainstream press is still working its way through the “what it all means” stage. Here is The New York Times trying out different ways of saying that the new Democrats who gave their party the Hill majority are not “bright blue.”

In other words, they too are moderates.

What amazes me is that the Times seems to think this is new. The Democratic Party ran off all kinds of centrist voters in the Reagan era and more in the post-Clinton era. This is no great secret. So who were these voters and what made them bite their lips and pull a GOP lever? Once again, we are wrestling with what words like “centrist,” “reform” and “moderate” mean.

Well, the new Democrats are not crusaders. They realize that there were Republicans who voted for them, in part due to the war and GOP corruption.

But what else is going on here? The Times even uses — without blushing — the word “liberal” to describe the current Democratic leadership that has been put in power by this small collection of centrists. Conflict could be ahead. But conflict on what? Here is a long slice of the article:

Representative Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who recruited many of these candidates as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, described the group as “moderate in temperament and reformers in spirit.” Conservatives tend to highlight the conservatism in the new class as a sign that Democrats are essentially ceding ground to the right on issues like gun control and abortion.

But many of these freshmen Democrats are hard to pigeonhole ideologically. Even among the most socially conservative, there is a strong streak of economic populism that is a unifying force. Heath Shuler, for example, the former professional football player and newly elected House Democrat from North Carolina, is anti-abortion and pro-gun, but sounds like an old-style Democrat on economic issues.

“I was taught at a very, very young age about faith and personal responsibility, and through that, that responsibility was about helping those who cannot help themselves,” Mr. Shuler said. “If you look at what the Democratic Party stands for, it is about helping others who can’t help themselves.”

Once again, as always, abortion — the great stalking horse for the Sexual Revolution in general — is right up front. And so is the issue of religious faith.

But isn’t it amazing that the Times story expresses mild surprise that there are people who are moral conservatives and political progressives? I mean, hasn’t anyone read that “Tribal Relations” piece in The Atlantic that GetReligion keeps pushing? Didn’t they read the Pew Forum materials showing that a solid majority of Democrats wants significant changes in our abortion laws?

Once again, there are centrists who are liberal on economics and conservative on cultural issues. Then there are centrists who are liberal on cultural issues and conservative on economics. Do we need a new vocabulary to describe these two very different groups?

And, yes, what about the ultimate decision? How does this affect the courts? Will the party leadership compromise there?

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California is “moderate,” so there

1004 GOne of the most important words in American political speech is “moderate.” The same thing, of course, is true in the world of religion.

“Moderates” are nice. They are smart, constructive and nuanced.

Extreme people are mean and extreme, and that often means dangerous. “Extreme” conservatives or even “radical” conservatives are even worse than regular conservatives. I guess that the same thing would be true of “extreme” liberals, only that there are almost none on the American political scene. There are “moderates” and, out on the edge, “progressives” and others who want progress (as opposed to those who want to stay put or even regress).

There are candid journalists who realize that “moderate” is a loaded word. For example, take that statement by New York Times editor Bill Keller that we have discussed here in the past, from one of his documents linked to an internal committee asking how his newspaper can do a better job of relating to its readers:

We must . . . be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

I thought about this issue while reading George Skelton’s Capitol Journal report in the Los Angeles Times arguing that this election proved that California isn’t a blue state at all out on the left coast. No, California is a pastel state or, at most, a light-blue state.

In other words, California is a “moderate” state. Offer California a “moderate” GOP candidate like Rudy Giuliani or, of course, the Governator and this becomes perfectly obvious.

This is not a deep blue state, regardless of recent presidential elections. Color us light blue, if you must.

… Currently, and over the long haul, we’re centrists. Sure, we’ve voted for the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential races. But in the previous 10 elections, we voted nine times for the Republican. Each of those contests had its own dynamic, but party label was the least of it. This state never has been and is not now solidly Democratic.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overwhelming reelection victory is Exhibit A of California centrism. The governor ran as a typical state voter: anti-tax, fiscally prudent, pro-environment and left-leaning on social issues like abortion. He was supported by 57% of moderates, a Times exit poll found. That pretty much mirrored his overall vote, about 56%. This state is not consistently liberal and, except on certain issues, definitely isn’t conservative.

The best hope for the GOP, writes Skelton, is that there is “a Ronald Reagan out there somewhere.”

tbrc map 3What in the world does that mean?

As a rule, it seems that the newspaper’s definition of “moderate” is conservative on economic and business issues, and perhaps on military issues, yet liberal on social issues.

If that is what “moderate” means, what do you do with the folks who march with the Rev. Jim Wallis, the new old Democrats and others of that ilk? Can someone be a “moderate” if they are liberal on economic issues and conservative on moral issues? What would the Los Angeles Times call that kind of voter or candidate?

Actually, there is a clue later in the article:

We’re sometimes liberal, rejecting — for the second straight year — an initiative to require parental notification before a minor can obtain an abortion. But we’re conservative on law and order, placing residency restrictions and GPS tracking devices on paroled sexual predators.

“This is not a liberal state, it is a libertarian state,” says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. “Basically, its about Western American values.”

Ah, that makes more sense. “Moderate” equals liberalism on social issues.

So, once again, let me ask: What would editors at the Los Angeles Times say that “liberalism” looks like on moral, social and cultural issues? Is liberalism even possible on these issues? So Hollywood is full of “moderates”?

Second image is from Take Back Red California.

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Pardon the interruption

grammyDylanSoyBombWhen I wrote about Linda Greenhouse’s problematic story anticipating the Supreme Court arguments over a federal ban on partial-birth abortions, reader Mattk wondered why we would cover it here at GetReligion:

Is it because most of the people who oppose abortion are religious? Is it because there are so many Roman Catholics on the court? Is it because over the years Justice Scalia has put on some pounds and maybe he is a practicing glutton? What’s the tie-in?

While abortion is not necessarily a religious issue, the coverage of the larger issue is riddled with religious ghosts. Many of the most ardent opponents of the practice are practicing Christians or religious adherents of another stripe. The questions surrounding abortion — such as when life begins, when life begins to have value, how our legal system defines personhood, how society feels about sexuality apart from procreation — all have a religious angle. That’s why we discuss abortion coverage here. And, you’ll note, many religion reporters include hot-button issues such as abortion on their beat.

The most interesting aspects of recent coverage include descriptions of the lack of exercise of judicial faculties and how the justices determined medical and health impacts. But there was also a law-breaking protester! Here’s how Charles Lane of The Washington Post reported it:

The most dramatic moment of the morning came moments later, at about 10:40 a.m., when a loud voice cried out from the back of the courtroom.

“Abortion is the shedding of innocent blood!” shouted a man later identified by the court as Rives Miller Grogan, 40, of Los Angeles. He was immediately tackled and dragged out by Supreme Court police, who charged him with violating a federal law against disrupting court sessions, as well as with offenses related to resisting arrest.

Lane’s article did a good job of characterizing the arguments, using neutral language and plenty of color. Linda Greenhouse’s wrap-up for The New York Times was also very good, although she somehow didn’t notice the protester. Maybe in her world abortion opponents aren’t factual realities. Still, ignoring the protester was better than what Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick did. She somehow heard the protester utter words that no one else heard and seemed a bit foggy about the whole event. Good reporting! Oh, did I mention her piece is headlined “Doctor, there’s a lawyer in my womb“? and that Slate is owned by The Washington Post? Anyway, here’s Lithwick:

For the first time in my eight years at the court, I watch as a spectator begins to shout, “Have you ever been a parent?” and something about Jesus and perishing, before he is tackled by court security and dragged out of the chambers. His screams can be heard for some time after he’s been removed. It’s quite distracting. I think from now on the court security guards should maybe carry Tasers.

Still, Lithwick reported a religious angle that no one else did. Apparently Planned Parenthood’s Eve Gartner told the justices that how a woman “wants her fetus to undergo demise” is a “very personal moral/religious decision.” Chief Justice John Roberts asked why decisions about the impact on the fetus were beyond the scope of things Congress can take into account. Interesting exchange.

Maybe I’ve been beaten down by decades of horrific abortion reporting, particularly with stories about partial-birth abortion laws, but these stories were not the worst I’ve seen.

The image, by the way, is of Dylan and his dancing protester of commercialism from a few Grammys ago.

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On story selection and privacy

privacy is not a crimeI’m not sure if non-journalists understand how much of a news outlet’s work depends on the selection of stories. Here at GetReligion, we tend to focus on problems with the way a given story is treated. Whether it is treated at all is a bigger issue.

Reader Paul Strickert sent along a sad story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen wrote about a sweeps story for a local news station that took a tragic turn. A pastor committed suicide after a local television station planned to air an expose of his trips to adult bookstores.

Owen wrote that the possibility of harm that unnecessary reports can cause to the person under investigation — as well as family members and communities — needs to be considered by news outlets.

Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple wrote a note to readers explaining how his paper decided whether to run an article about the Ted Haggard story when it broke. He found out about the story from The Denver Post, which ran a small item on the second page of the local news section.

I wondered how a bombshell like that could have been buried on Page 2 of the second section. If true, what was it doing there? It should have been the banner. If not, what was the story doing in the paper?

As Rocky staffers carried through their day, they debated whether to cover the story and how to avoid pitfalls:

Even if we could talk to the escort, would we publish his claims? The cynics out there might say, come on, there was never any doubt you’d publish them. But they’re wrong. We know how easy it is to make false allegations.

When Haggard resigned from the National Association of Evangelicals, the decision was made for them. Temple’s account — which discusses which headlines were considered — is a fascinating look inside the newsroom. One editor ends up suggesting the word revelations in the headline:

Would evangelicals view the use of a word with New Testament echoes as unfair, even mean-spirited? Did it imply that the claims against Haggard were true? Many voices were heard. Staff members who openly identified as Christian spoke their minds, with some on both sides. Our religion editor was called at home. Family members were consulted, as were dictionaries.

I think it’s very interesting that he considered how Christians would respond to a headline on a story about the megachurch pastor.

Temple has written about other Haggard issues on his blog, such as why he permitted an article about odds for various outcomes in the scandal. He also answered a question about a photograph of Haggard speaking with reporters while his wife and children were with him:

I will not quarrel about the public’s right to know, nor will I debate the (First) Amendment as related to the media’s right to do their thing. I will, however, violently object to the logic behind publishing a photo that shows two of the Haggard children. Those kids don’t deserve to be a public part of the mess their father made of his life.

Reporters have every right to cover the goings-on of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and shamen. But when they do, they should consider the ramifications of their coverage on families and reputations. That goes for all targets of stories, not just religious ones. But I think non-journalists should know that these discussions do take place in newsrooms, for better or worse.

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