Bizarre AP wording in update on Overland Park shootings

If you are of a certain age, as I am, and you grew up deep in the heavily Protestant Bible Belt, like I did, you can probably remember running into some people way back when who — to be blunt about it — used to draw a verbal line of distinction between people who were “Christians” and those who were “Catholics.”

It’s hard to imagine that now, isn’t it? This is especially true after the admiration that so many evangelicals and other conservative Protestants openly poured out on the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in recent decades.

Truth is, I rarely ever hear that kind of talk anymore, no matter where you find conservative Protestants gathered. When I do hear it, other Protestants quickly leap to the defense of the Catholics who are listed as, well, non-Christians.

That’s why I was stunned when a faithful GetReligion reader, and religion-beat pro, sent me the following Associated Press story about the tragic shootings in Overland Park, Kansas. I am sure most of our readers have seen these stories by now, but here is the top of the report for context:

Never one to keep his hatred to himself, Frazier Glenn Cross for decades sought out any soapbox to espouse his white-supremacist beliefs, twice running for federal office with campaigns steeped in anti-Semitism.

Yet there’s scant evidence the Army veteran and retired trucker with Ku Klux Klan links ever resorted to violence before Sunday, when authorities say Cross — armed with a shotgun and pistol — opened fire outside two Jewish sites near Kansas City. None of the three people killed turned out to be Jewish.

The 73-year-old, who shouted a Nazi slogan at television cameras when arrested minutes later, is jailed awaiting charges that investigators said could come as early as Tuesday. At some point, a federal grand jury is expected to review the slayings, which investigators now deem a hate crime.

Investigators are, of course, considering calling this a hate crime because the shooter’s motives seemed clear, in light of reports that the alleged gunman was heard yelling “heil Hitler!” as he was arrested. Some witnesses said he asked people he encountered during his rampage if they were Jewish.

Nevertheless, the people killed were not Jews, which adds a layer of complications to the telling of this tragic story.

This brings us to the passage spotted by the reader:

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For the Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy has only one side

Brandeis University offered an honorary degree to a controversial speaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it under pressure from Muslim students. Controversies always have at least two sides, right?

Not when the New York Times reports it. In its story on the dispute, the Times cites three sources who opposed Hirsi Ali’s appearance.

How many voices speaking on Hirsi Ali’s side? None.

There’s an attack by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling her “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide.”

There’s Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute: “… for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing.”

And there’s a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, who endorses Brandeis’ decision.

The Times adds: “Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views, or for giving in to Muslim activists.”

You bet they might. So why didn’t the newspaper ask anyone?

Could the Times perhaps have called the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee? Or the American Enterprise Institute, where Hirsi Ali is a visiting fellow?

How about one of a dozen Jewish organizations at Brandeis? Surely the newspaper could have found a Jewish source at a school that was founded for Jewish higher education — as a 1998 Times article noted?

The Times story is not totally one-sided. It notes in the lede that Hirsi Ali is a “campaigner for women’s rights” as well as a “fierce critic of Islam.” It reports that it tried to reach her by phone and e-mail. And it offers two paragraphs of explanation for her antagonism to Islam:

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes.

She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim’s body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.

But it would have been better to quote someone who was on her side.

Asking comment from Maya Berry is puzzling in itself. Most Muslims are not Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims, as the Arab American Institute’s own website indicates. Even Hirsi Ali isn’t Arab; she was born in Somalia.

Other media had little trouble going to the other side, as it were. Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service quotes two of them in the second paragraph of his piece. And an Associated Press story quotes a professor who refused to sign a faculty letter against Hirsi Ali:

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Pentecostal gap in that LATimes immigration reform story

There was an important interfaith gathering the other day in Los Angeles that allowed some highly symbolic religious leaders to make a faith-based appeal for immigration reform. As you would expect, The Los Angeles Times produced a short news story that focused on the basic facts.

The double-decker headline pronounced:

Local religious leaders unite for change in immigration law

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Southern California hold vigil calling for a revamp in federal immigration laws.

As noted in the lede, the service attracted several of “Southern California’s most prominent religious leaders,” led by the local Catholic archbishop. The presence of a Catholic leader was par for the course, especially in this case:

Immigrants who are in the United States illegally “need mercy and they need justice,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, welcoming an array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to the gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Gomez, who has made changing immigration laws a hallmark of his three-year tenure leading the L.A. Archdiocese, described the current system as “totally broken,” adding that federal laws punished families and children unfairly.

“These are human souls, not statistics,” the archbishop said. “These are children of God. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering.”

I appreciated the fact that the Times team candidly reported that hardly anyone was in the cathedral’s pews during this event. The actual phrase was “only a few dozen in attendance.”

The story also noted that it was important that leaders from “each of the three main Abrahamic traditions” were in attendance, instead the usually rally for Christians, alone. That is certainly a newsworthy point.

So what is missing in this short report?

Read the following material from the story quite closely and tell me who is missing. What is the major hole in this coalition, especially if the goal is to make a faith-based case for immigration reform in the context of modern-day Southern California and the lands to the South of the United States?

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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On Hobby Lobby, how does the Supreme Court measure up?

Aaaaiiieeeee! More “devout Catholics!”

No, wait. The Washington Post seems here to be using the term more responsibly, examining the relationship between beliefs and verdicts. And it doesn’t even use the term as a launchpad for a liberal screed.

The article tied to the Hobby Lobby case is not flawless, but it does try to advance knowledge for people who aren’t court watchers. How well, though, is a good question.

After a painful cliché — “The justices got religion” — the article calms down:

Or at least they seem more open about their faith, appearing before devout audiences and talking more about how religion shaped their lives or guides them now.

As the court this week weighs religious conviction vs. legal obligation in the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, those who study the court say the change is hard to quantify but easy to notice.

The Post notes that this is the first-ever U.S. Supreme Court without a Protestant member, instead sitting six Catholics and three Jews. It says the mix may affect the outcome of two cases this week in which two companies — the evangelical-linked Hobby Lobby chain and the Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood Supplies — must comply with Obamacare’s requirement to supply employees with all kinds of contraceptives.

The “devout Catholics” are justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — although, as in many media, the Post doesn’t say how they’re devout. Nor does it include fellow Catholic Justice Anthony Kennedy among the titled devout. More on that later.

“In what is likely to be the signature case of the term, the issue is not affiliation but devotion,” the Post says. But how to spot or measure devotion is left unclear. Clarence Thomas is a “former seminarian who says God saved his life,” but doesn’t offer details. Antonin Scalia has used the phrase “fool for Christ” and has stated his belief in the devil.

But how often do the justices attend worship? How often do they observe Holy Communion or light Shabbat candles? How many of the basic doctrines of their faiths do they hold? How much do their beliefs affect their everyday lives?

For a couple of them, the answer would be “not much.” Sonia Sotomayor, nominated by President Obama, is not religious, but was raised in parochial schools, like Thomas. Also nonreligious is Elena Kagan, who “nonetheless has reminded Jewish groups that she undertook years of three-days-a-week religious instruction as a child.”

The other drawback to the Post article? It’s vague on how the beliefs of the justices influence their actions, especially while at the bench. In fact, some of the story indicates otherwise:

“It is literally impossible to answer” whether a justice’s religious views affect his or her decision-making, said Richard H. Fallon, a Harvard law professor who is a scholar of the court …

The rise of religious conservatives on the court corresponds with the rise of the religious right in Republican politics. Seven of the 11 justices who joined the court since 1980 were nominated by Republican presidents, including the five Catholic men who are the current court’s most consistent conservatives.

But they were not chosen for their religious affiliations, experts agree. “It didn’t matter that Alito was Catholic,” said Eric Mazur, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. “What mattered was his ideology.”

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Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

MADDIE ASKS:

What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A item treated ancient Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto and Taoism, which have survived into the 21st Century but with radically diminished status. Maddie wonders why ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies died out and Zoroastrianism has nearly disappeared while Judaism and Hinduism didn’t vanish like other ancient creeds. She asks, did the younger proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam simply “push out” the dead creeds?

All very intriguing.

There’s ample mystery here and The Guy is a journalist, not an expert on the history of world religions. But we can scan some common theories. Of course believers in an ancient faith that survived presumably attribute this to divine intervention.

Does dynamism explain the expansion of Christianity and Islam? Or rather, did internal weaknesses of other faiths doom them? Perhaps both. Islam has always had global ambitions and expanded through evangelism (“dawah,” Arabic for “invite”) and also political, social and military pressures. Christianity is equally evangelistic but in modern times mostly gains adherents without political or military force.

Zoroastrianism has at least survived while many other ancient creeds did not. This great faith was formulated by Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) around the 6th Century B.C.E., the same remarkable spiritual epoch that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Mahavira, and major prophets in the Bible. It long dominated its homeland of Persia (present-day Iran). But Muslim forces invaded in a 7th Century C.E. conquest and over time used this control to almost totally supplant the older religion. Unlike Islam, Zoroastrianism has not utilized evangelism or political-military tactics. Today it survives among some few Iranians who haven’t emigrated along with perhaps 200,000 “Parsis,” descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India. Today’s tiny numbers appear destined to shrink even further due to a low birth rate.

Zoroaster shared with Judaism the worship of one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”) and some propose that monotheism is the key to perpetuating a faith. Perhaps so in some cases, but that cannot explain the long lifespan and impact of Hinduism, with a multitude of gods, or of Buddhism, which doesn’t necessarily worship gods at all.

Another theory that seems to better fit the historical evidence is that long-term success requires a definitive body of holy writings with captivating messages in poetry and prose. Such are the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Rig Veda, a hymn collection that’s the earliest and most important of Hinduism’s four central scriptures. Tradition says the Hindu text dates back countless thousands of years; western experts believe that at minimum it originated prior to Moses, the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books.

Similarly, the remarkable survival of Judaism despite oppression could be attributed to its incomparable Tanakh (Christians’ “Old Testament”). As Simon Schama’s new book The Story of the Jews says, the Hebrew Bible provided “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.” With the Bible came articulated belief in the one God, developed scriptural moral codes and laws, and bookish intellectual rigor growing from biblical study and commentary, all resulting in strong ethnic solidarity.

Today’s world Jewish population is 15 million. Though Judaism has survived, like Zoroastrianism it seems destined to gradually fade as secularized Jews defect from belief in God and study and practice of their ancestral faith, alongside higher intermarriage and lower birth rates.

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DPA reports on the return of the Eternal Jew to Württemberg

What is legal is not always moral, a German court observed this past week, holding that an organization may dismiss an employee for conduct that the state affirms as being within the law but which the organization views as wrong.

This sort of story in an American context might generate a line or two of commentary, but little more in the wake of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which held there was a “ministerial exception” to labor laws that forbade the state from interfering in church employment issues.

As the New York Times reported in 2012:

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision that was surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

The wire service agency DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported last Friday on a similar case making its way through the German courts. In a story entitled “Kündigung von Religionslehrer wegen Bordell ist rechtens.”(Terminating a Religion Teacher over a Brothel is legal) the DPA lays out the facts of the case using an economy of words with only a modicum of comment in the lede, which states:

Schüler in Religion unterrichten und nebenbei Miete aus einem Bordell kassieren – darf das sein? Seine Arbeitgeber schmissen einen Lehrer deshalb raus. Zu recht, fand das Arbeitsgericht. Das letzte Wort ist allerdings noch nicht gesprochen.

Teach students in religion while collecting rent from a brothel – may that be? His employer threw him out. And rightly so held the Labour Court. But the last word has not been spoken. 

The article reports a Hebrew School teacher employed by the Jewish Community in Baden-Baden was dismissed after an investigation into financial irregularities at the board disclosed the teacher owned two apartments which he let to a brothel. In affirming the dismissal, the court held this was:

… «einen ausreichend schweren Verstoß gegen die Loyalitätspflichten gegenüber seinem jüdischen Arbeitgeber aufgrund seiner Vorbildfunktion als Religionslehrer». Die Weiterbeschäftigung sei für den Arbeitgeber nicht zumutbar. …

(“a sufficiently serious breach of the duty of loyalty towards his Jewish employer for failing to exhibit the exemplary conduct expected of a teacher of religion.” It was not reasonable for the employer to continue his employment.)

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Jews and Jesus: A ‘Spiritual Incursion’ in St. Louis

The breaking news — only 2,000 years old — that Christians and Jews have vastly different views of Jesus made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend (and was picked up nationally by Religion News Service this week).

To be more specific, the Post-Dispatch featured a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that seeks to convert Jews.

The newspaper’s main headline immediately cast the effort in a negative light:

SPIRITUAL INCURSION

Now, according to my online dictionary, incursion implies “a hostile entrance into or invasion of a place or territory.” Perhaps the headline is a major reason that the story upset so many folks in the LCMS. That, and the fact that the piece used phrases such as “targeted for conversion” to describe evangelism efforts by the Lutheran congregation.

The subhead was equally tilted:

Lutheran outreach draws criticism from Jewish groups

Contrast that with RNS’ much more down-the-middle headline, which perhaps sets a different tone:

Lutheran ministry seeks to convert Jews 

Now, at major newspapers such as the Post-Dispatch, copy editors — not the person with the byline on the story — typically write the headline. I thought the story itself, written by a Godbeat pro, was actually pretty good. Of course, given my role as a media critic, I do have a few quibbles with the piece. Call it an occupational hazard.

Let’s start at the top:

In a small storefront in Dogtown, a St. Louis neighborhood known for its celebration of the Christian missionary St. Patrick, sits a congregation dedicated to converting Jews.

Congregation Chai v’ Shalom is tiny by most standards, with weekly attendance averaging somewhere between 30 and 40 members. But it has the backing of the 2-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

And its mission fits squarely into the Synod’s controversial effort to preach the message that Jesus was the Messiah to Jews, in hope that they will become Christian and gain salvation.

On a recent Sunday morning, a couple dozen gathered at Congregation Chai v’ Shalom, a makeshift space where stars of David, one with a cross placed in the middle, hang prominently on the walls, alongside what looks like a random collection of paintings.

The vast majority of those who attend Chai v’ Shalom are not Jewish, but they are interested in reaching out to Jews. The service itself even caters to Jews, where the Shema, a central Jewish prayer, is recited and much of the lively singing is in Hebrew.

That’s a nice lede, filled with important detail and colorful description.

My quibble is a single word that has become cliche: “controversial.” Would the lede be any less effective without that adjective? Would the writing be any more precise? To me, inserting that term there adds an unnecessary level of editorializing — even without the headline and subhead.

Instead, why not present the facts and let the readers decide if this approach is, in fact, controversial? 

Let’s read some more:

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