On bogeymen

bogeymanFrank Lockwood — the Bible Belt Bloggercaught something interesting in an Associated Press story by political reporter Bob Lewis:

Democrat Jim Webb and Republican George Allen both pocketed developments Wednesday important in motivating their core voters in Virginia’s close U.S. Senate race.

. . . Allen, however, may have found in a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex unions the bogeyman he needed to energize social and religious conservatives dispirited by recent Republican scandals to vote in the Nov. 7 election.

Lockwood, who is the faith and values reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the word “bogeyman” caught his eye. The word means “a frightening imaginary being, one often used as a threat in disciplining children.”

The use of the word strikes me as fairly loaded — even in a “news analysis” piece. The word “bogeyman” suggests that gay marriage is an “imaginary” problem — not a real one. I’ll leave it to Bible Belt Blogger readers to debate whether gay marriage is good or bad. My point is simply that Americans are divided on the topic and the word “bogeyman” belongs on the editorial page — not in the news section.

Furthermore, the word “bogeyman” insults people who care about this issue, suggesting they are gullible or childlike if this issue motivates them to vote. Again, this isn’t news — it’s opinion.

Lockwood looks into the tendency of reporters to label Christian conservatives as gullible. He wonders whether the term might be better applied, at times, to mainstream reporters themselves.

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Covering shallow arguments

LetterToNationHow does a reporter write a balanced profile of a guy who thinks that anyone who believes in God is an idiot and “that religion is the root of all evil”?

The ever-edgy Washington Post‘s Style section took on “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Harris in a lengthy profile Thursday that reads like a ping-pong match where one player refuses to do anything but swing as hard as he can at the ball without regard for his accuracy. The other player, who really doesn’t want to play in the first place, does his best to engage himself in the match, but his opponent continuously slams the ping-pong ball back, preventing a real match from taking place.

To say the least, I am guessing that Harris would not like the mission of GetReligion.

In reading the piece over a couple of times, I am left wondering whether Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, can fashion a decent argument against religion. Which is, I guess, the point:

There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.

This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls “my big mouth,” and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness.”

Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn’t target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

“There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can’t attack people’s religious sensibility,” Harris says in an interview. “That is so wrong and so suicidal.”

sam harrisThere are few serious arguments to work with here. Part of me wonders why the Post decided to pursue this story, but there is interesting material here and Harris has an interesting life story. Then again, if Harris weren’t taking on religion, would anyone care for his shallow arguments about a subject that is rich and substantial?

One part of the piece that I felt was appropriately highlighted is Harris’ attack on religious moderates. The idea that religious moderation provides cover for extremists is in a way honest and refreshingly clear. The only thing missing was a response from another genuine atheist. (The article quotes a retired religious studies professor saying that the “country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” and that “pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics … seems like a very crude mistake”).

“I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th,” [Harris] says. “But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism.”

Reporter David Segal quotes various religion and theology professors on Harris’ belief system (can you call it a set of beliefs?), but near the end of the piece Segal gives us a hint of his own conclusion:

Of course, if religion were merely failed science, it would have been supplanted by real science centuries ago. But it has survived and thrived through a revolution in our understanding of the solar system as well as our bodies and our minds, which suggests that it offers something that deduction, data points and reason do not.

All in all, Segal does a solid job poking and prodding a thinker who offers little substance but plenty of style. There are obviously more significant and thoughtful atheists out there, but few can be compared to Evel Knievel.

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When religion reporters cover politics

chaput jpbRemember that 2004 pre-election coverage when political reporters were trying to parse theological statements made by Roman Catholic archbishops? Some reporters had trouble understanding how Catholic leaders had the audacity to discuss whether pro-choice Catholic candidates were violating church teachings. And everyone obsessed about the abortion issue at the expense of other issues Catholic leaders care about. Part of the problem might have been the use of political reporters to discuss a fundamentally theological issue.

The Denver Post solves the problem — and reaps rewards — by having religion reporter Eric Gorski look at church teachings on various political issues facing Colorado voters.

Turns out that both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Colorado Governor are Catholic. And both, to varying degrees, state their opposition to abortion. Gorski digs into that and other issues on which the church takes positions. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput (pictured) declined to critique either candidate, but Gorski got some good info out of him:

The state’s three bishops came out Monday in support of an amendment to raise Colorado’s minimum wage. And over the weekend, a letter was read at Masses supporting the marriage amendment and opposing a domestic partnerships measure.

On the governor’s race, Chaput said he is pleased by some things he hears and worried about others, but wouldn’t elaborate. He said it’s “important that people who claim to be Catholic be Catholic on all issues, not just some of them.”

However, he said abortion is foundational because “it deals with the basic human right, the right to life.” On other issues, such as illegal immigration, Catholics can disagree, he said.

“All people are supposed to have a respect for the immigrants and their dignity and a commitment to the common good,” Chaput said. “But working that out with policy, there’s some flexibility.”

I love how Gorski fleshes out Chaput’s full positions rather than snipping off words or quoting him out of context. Gorski also uses a chart to tell the rest of the story, comparing the two candidates’ positions against those of the Colorado Catholic bishops. He looks at an amendment that would raise the minimum wage in Colorado, as well as an amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gorski doesn’t limit the article to abortion positions, but neither does he de-emphasize its importance for Chaput and Catholic voters. Another nice and helpful piece.

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A Godbeat forum at USA Today

wallis podiumFor more than a week now, I have been trying to remember to let GetReligion readers know that the digital team at USA Today has created a website that makes it easier for people interested in religion news to read the analysis pieces that run every Monday on the op-ed page. The feature is called “Monday: On Religion,” which only slightly freaks me out since my weekly Scripps Howard News Service column has been running for 17 years and it’s called “On Religion.”

But I digress. The national newspaper has run some very interesting essays under that banner and, while the feature runs in the editorial section, it almost always features essays that include lots of information and reporting, as well as opinion. It has even featured some pieces directly linked to religion-beat work, written by religion writers, such as Mark Pinsky’s “Southern Jews and evangelicals: Coming together” and, well, my own “The media, God and gaffes.”

But it was another GetReligion connection that reminded me to post a note about this site — the recent piece titled “Left, right and religion: A double standard.” Not only was the topic interesting, but it was written by Patrick Hynes, author of In Defense of the Religious Right, and our own former GetReligion scribe Jeremy Lott, author of the recent In Defense of Hypocrisy. The heart of the article is its observation that, while almost every move by the Religious Right inspires headlines about “theocracy,” the mainstream media tend to be silent about the actions of religious activists on the left.

What we need, said Hynes and Lott, is more coverage — more balanced coverage — of these “Leftwing Theocrats.” Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose appeals that federal and state budgets are “moral documents” are rooted in the same kind of strategic blending of biblical argument and public policy that, when this mix is served up by people on the right, is usually greeted with derision by disciples of the New York Times editorial page.

Something is wrong with half of this picture:

The religious left is usually given a respectful hearing. That’s a good thing. After all, this is a democracy in which people can make up their own minds about such things. But the same deference should be given to the arguments and ideas of religious conservatives.

Critics are out of line for lambasting the religious right for advocating their beliefs, and they’d be just as wrong blasting the religious left. Yet for liberal and secular pundits, this has been a one-way street.

If that piece is not your cup of tea, USA Today‘s editorial page team then offered a pushy little piece by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and City Journal titled “Conservatism doesn’t need God: The GOP has become the party of religion, and Democrats have been scrambling to play catch-up. The truth, though, is that piety doesn’t belong in politics.”

Check it out. This is a site worth bookmarking, for journalists who care about religion news. It’s also a nice place for Godbeat professionals to send those edgy little freelance pieces that their editors just can’t seem to make room for in the newspaper. It’s a good forum.

Personal note: I’m out the door to lead some seminars at the National College Media Convention in St. Louis. I’ll try to get online whenever I can. I’ll be back inside the Beltway on Monday.

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A note to religion reporters

a stack of booksCan anyone guess what the top two books at Amazon were Tuesday afternoon? If you guessed that the books had anything to do with religion, you would be correct.

Currently the number one book is The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. While it has since slipped to number five, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was in second place on Tuesday.

Go figure.

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Killing embryos

embry3Last night, as I settled in to watch my St. Louis Cardinals beat the Detroit Tigers (fairly, no less!), I told my husband about a political ad I’d seen the day before. It featured actor Michael J. Fox asking people in Missouri to support an amendment to their state constitution that would ensconce embryonic destruction for the purpose of stem-cell research.

I’m a big fan of Fox and I have followed his battle with Parkinson’s for a while. Which was why I was shocked to see what a devastating turn for the worse the disease had taken with him. He was writhing around, lifting a contorted hand and bobbing back and forth.

When I had seen him on a television show a few weeks ago, he seemed to have been doing well — or at least along the lines of what I have come to expect when I see him every few months. Like all good campaign commercials, this one was emotionally gripping. I wondered, though, whether Fox and the commercial’s producers had overdone it a bit in their attempt to be politically effective.

My husband informed me that Rush Limbaugh was in a world of trouble over similar comments about the commercial. He said he thought that Fox either didn’t take his medication or was acting to exaggerate the effects of the disease. Let’s look at how The Washington Post handles this today:

Possibly worse than making fun of someone’s disability is saying that it’s imaginary. That is not to mock someone’s body, but to challenge a person’s guts, integrity, sanity.

I can’t tell from the online version, but I suppose it’s possible that this comes from that den of complete immunity: the Style section. Still, I’m not sure if even the Style section permits such gross mischaracterization of Limbaugh’s comments. Limbaugh didn’t say Fox imagined he had Parkinson’s. He said Fox exaggerated the effects. When someone makes an incendiary comment that you want to criticize, exaggerating the comment serves no one. What Limbaugh said — though I must admit I thought exactly the same thing — was bad enough. At least I only told my husband. And now you all. Let’s keep it between us, if that’s all right.

In polite society, we’re not allowed to wonder whether someone with a horrible disease is playing it up for sympathy or political gain. We’re all supposed to permit the victim to say or do whatever he wants. You lose a son in combat, you’re an expert in foreign policy. You develop a debilitating disease, you’re an expert in bioethics. It may not be fair, but that’s how the game works.

Even if Fox has admitted that he lays off his medication before public appearances where he’s trying to elicit support.

Anyway, my real beef with this and almost all other stories dealing with embyronic-destroying stem-cell research is that they fail to distinguish between stem-cell research and embryonic-destroying stem-cell research. To wit:

The actor, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has done a series of political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is running against Republican Michael Steele for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.

That is not true. What reporter David Montgomery means to say is that Fox is campaigning for candidates who favor embryonic stem-cell research.

Everyone, more or less, favors stem-cell research. Stem cells are considered very exciting avenues for research these days because of their remarkable potential to develop into different cell types in the body (muscle cell, brain cell, skin cell). Some stem cells come from adults while other stem cells come from embryos. Each type has various advantages and disadvantages.

Some people don’t think advances in science should come by destroying embryos. Others think destroying embryos is a price you have to pay for the possibility of developing cures to diseases.

Characterizing people who oppose destroying embryos as opponents of all stem-cell research is unconscionable. It’s one thing if Michael J. Fox does it in a campaign commercial. It’s another if a reporter for a publication like The Washington Post does it.

Words have meaning. Journalists, of all people, should know that.

UPDATE: GetReligion is a forum for discussing how the media treat religious issues. It is not a forum for discussing religious issues themselves. Or scientific issues. Or medical issues. Please do not comment on your personal views of embryonic stem-cell usage. Comments are open for discussion of how the media treat this issue.

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DiIulio loses faith in the Gray Lady

450px The new york times building in new york city 01It’s hard to deal with life in the faith-based-politics era without running into the work of researcher John J. DiIulio Jr., the Democrat (and Roman Catholic) who briefly headed up President Bush’s faith-based outreach to religious groups that try to help their neighbors.

DiIulio is famous for his candor and he is, to say the least, not a card-carrying member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. His departure from the Bush team was memorable and he was way ahead of the curve in warning that the White House was more interested in faith-based voting than in faith-based projects to help the poor and the suffering.

All of this is to say, it is significant that it is DiIulio’s byline on top of The Weekly Standard‘s flamethrower article, “The New York Times versus Religion — So much nonsense in a four-part series.”

The series in question, of course, is reporter Diana B. Henriques‘ sprawling “In God’s Name” package attacking some essential elements of America’s tradition of church-state separation, including several laws and court decisions hailed by religious leaders on the religious left as well as the right. The GetReligion gang has, of course, already written about this series at quite some length.

DiIulio uses the much-celebrated sermon by Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse as his overture, but that is not what his essay is really about. He is convinced that the “In God’s Name” series is evidence that the newspaper agrees with Greenhouse that American public policy has been “hijacked by religious fundamentalism.” Of the first article in the series, DiIulio writes:

A Times “computer analysis” of post-1989 federal laws turned up “more than 200 provisions granting accommodations or protections specifically to religious groups.” The ostensibly faith-favoring laws covered “topics from taxes to immigration to education.” The article’s subheading was “From Day Care Centers to Use of Land, Rules Don’t Apply to Faith Groups.”

The computer analysis turned up 22 “social services” religious exemptions, including one that the story highlighted, “the landmark ‘Charitable Choice’ provision in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.” Apparently, however, the “analysis” did not extend to actually reading the provision, parsing cognate regulations, or carefully examining how the relevant laws have
been implemented or ignored.

Read the article for the details. But here is the heart of the matter, from DiIulio’s point of view:

For every court decision and anecdote in the story indicating how “accommodating” government has become in employment and related matters, leaders of religious educational, health care, and other faith-based organizations could rattle off contrary decisions and horror stories indicating how adversarial government has been and remains.

Times readers might be invited to imagine an America in which all of those ostensibly favored faith groups disappeared tomorrow. Who would suffer the most, and who would have to pay to replace the social services that they now provide? For instance, pick ten big cities, and ask how many low-income non-Catholics (Title I students, Medicaid-eligible patients, etc.) are served by Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities, and hospitals? Next, try to figure out who is subsidizing or “accommodating” whom: How much would it cost to provide the same services without religiously mobilized volunteers and institutions in the mix?

nytredesignThat’s a good question, and DiIulio notes that there are mainstream researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania — two institutions rarely called bastions of fundamentalist paranoia — trying to find out just how much it would cost taxpayers to replace these Catholic “civic assets.” He also mentions the amazing work done by urban African-American churches.

Meanwhile, I know, from my own experience as a reporter, that there are suburban Protestant churches on both the left and the right that do very little to minister in lower-income areas. But there are just as many that have major urban and blue-collar suburban outreach ministries that undercut the media stereotypes.

As I said, DiIulio is both a Democrat and a Catholic and, among reporters, he is known as a straight shooter. He is not a media basher.

Thus, the end of this article is rather stunning. To put it bluntly, DiIulio gets mad and wonders out loud if it really is true that many leaders in the Times newsroom are biased against religious believers, as opposed to merely failing to “get religion” on the intellectual, professional level. Perhaps their distrust of religious believers that they consider ignorant and dangerous has warped how the editors view American religion, in general. Thus, he concludes:

Despite survey evidence, case studies aplenty, and personal experiences suggesting that most elite national media outlets are home to people far less religious than most Americans, I have always resisted the conclusion that their reporting is systematically biased against religiously observant people and institutions. The Times, however, has very nearly converted me to that cynical view.

. . . Over the last two decades or so, the federal playing field has become less tilted against community-serving faith-based organizations, and more respectful of citizens’ free exercise of religious rights. Over the same period, orthodox Christians have asserted themselves in politics in ways that challenge settled ideas about church-state relations and spark deep disagreements even with faith-friendly fellow citizens like me.

The way forward on church-state issues is with honest exchanges of views, from the secular liberal left to the Christian right, conducted in a spirit of mutual civic forbearance. Sadly, the Times prefers to reinforce biases against “the faithful.”

Here at GetReligion, we have praised our share of reporters and stories at the Times, while feeling free to criticize others. We agree with editor Bill Keller that his newsroom needs more intellectual and cultural diversity. I hope that his staff read and meditated on DiIulio’s blast against this great newspaper. I know that it sure shocked me.

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The BBC’s failed multiculturalism

BBC biasThe BBC doesn’t like Christians, and there are discussions of ways to change this. As revealed by the British conservative tabloid the Daily Mail, “the BBC is dominated by trendy, Left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity and in favour of multiculturalism.” To most on the right, this is not shocking news.

Let’s take a step back and consider some recent developments. The New York Times‘ Linda Greenhouse has come clean on her biases. The management at the NYT stumbles around to get its story straight and now the BBC has this embarrassment on its hands. As of Tuesday, the BBC had not addressed the situation, but it will be interesting to see what its response ends up being.

Are two major media organizations a trend? No, not yet, but this is certainly something worth noting as news organizations struggle to find their place in the fast-changing media landscape. Perhaps all news organizations should be more straightforward with their inherent biases. Much of a newsroom’s bias could be easily determined by charting the political and social views of its reporters.

This brings me back to the BBC story, in which the Daily Mail appropriately focused on the staffing of the taxpayer-funded newsroom:

A leaked account of an ‘impartiality summit’ called by BBC chairman Michael Grade, is certain to lead to a new row about the BBC and its reporting on key issues, especially concerning Muslims and the war on terror.

It reveals that executives would let the Bible be thrown into a dustbin on a TV comedy show, but not the Koran, and that they would broadcast an interview with Osama Bin Laden if given the opportunity. Further, it discloses that the BBC’s ‘diversity tsar’, wants Muslim women newsreaders to be allowed to wear veils when on air.

At the secret meeting in London last month, which was hosted by veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley, BBC executives admitted the corporation is dominated by homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians.

One veteran BBC executive said: ‘There was widespread acknowledgement that we may have gone too far in the direction of political correctness.

bbcWhat is most interesting about this report is that a BBC executive claims a “widespread acknowledgement” that the BBC has gone too far toward political correctness. So tell us something we don’t know already, but are BBC decision-makers starting to realize this as well? Does this mean the BBC’s staff is going to move toward true diversity?

This brings me to another point. BBC Sunday morning political pundit Andrew Marr said in the story that the network has “an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias[,] not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

What exactly is an “abnormally large number”? Unless the BBC decides to let us know, it will be difficult to determine exactly how abnormal its staffing situation really is. But the irony of the whole situation is that while BBC executives can rant and rave about how they promote multiculturalism, they to fulfill that mission if they do not have a staff and executive team that represents the wide range of views in the social landscape.

I’m not saying that newsrooms should hire political hacks to do their information-gathering. Rather, in considering hiring decisions for reporting positions, and ultimately editing positions, BBC executives should consider diversity of belief an important part of their mission of multiculturalism.

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