Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

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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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World Vision, donors, scripture and ‘online speculation’

It took a few days, but the newspaper of record has now produced a solid story on the World Vision U.S. firestorm. The piece includes several interesting facts and observations, including a rare sighting of the term “liberal evangelicals.”

The key to the story, at this point, is the emerging reality that there is no way for nondenominational groups to find a safe, compromise position on the redefinition of marriage or on attempts to edit thousands of years of doctrine stating that sex outside of marriage is sin. Here is a key chunk of that New York Times report:

From the start, World Vision’s decision to open its staff to married gay men and women was a test in tightrope walking. Richard Stearns, the charity’s president, called it a “very narrow policy change” and “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage” in an interview announcing the change in Christianity Today — like World Vision, one of the bedrock institutions of American evangelicalism.

Mr. Stearns explained that World Vision’s staff members belong to more than 50 denominations, and since some Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregational churches are now marrying same-sex couples, the charity’s board had decided to be “neutral.” He said this was no different from World Vision’s practice of deferring to churches on other doctrinal matters, such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership and evolution.

The story contains relevant quotes from articulate, qualified people on both sides of the debate and it’s clear that the Times did everything it could to talk to World Vision leaders who are now avoiding telephone calls. All well and good.

At one point Stearns said the board’s action was rooted in its desire to “avoid divisive debates.”

Good luck with that. If board members ever respond to calls from journalists, that’s a key statement that must be clarified. A majority of the board felt that this action would not be controversial? Stearns added this:

“What happened is we ended up creating a great deal more division than unity,” he said. “Our closest partners” told the board that “we had veered from our core values in a way that created a lot of dissonance in our own community.”

He said that despite online conjecture, World Vision had not been pressured by the government to hire married gay employees. World Vision’s annual budget is $1 billion, and the government provides 18 percent of its revenues, while 61 percent is from private cash contributions, a spokesman said. But the decision to make a U-turn was made after donors canceled “several thousand” child sponsorships in two days, Mr. Stearns said.

So, is it safe to say that I can be listed among the people gathered under that “online speculation” umbrella?

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World Vision finds that new crack in modern evangelicalism

So what about that World Vision story? Several things need to be said right up front.

First of all, what we have here is a perfect example of what GetReligion does and doesn’t do. In the past 24 hours all kinds of people have sent me notes asking what “GetReligion thinks” of the World Vision decision. Note: They were asking what we think about the DECISION itself, not the press coverage of that decision.
www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html
Well, I was not surprised that many World Vision leaders wanted to take some kind of legal step toward the acceptance of gay marriage. I was surprised that they played that card at this moment in time. I was then surprised that, 24 hours later, they reversed themselves.

But what does all of that have to do with GetReligion? After all, we are interested in the press coverage of this story, as opposed to arguing about the issue behind the story. Again and again let me note: This is not a religion blog, this is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news.

So what about the coverage of this story? Four quick reactions on my part:

* It’s rather awkward that the must-read mainstream story about this firestorm was written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, a former member of the GetReligion team. More on that in a moment. It also must be noted that the news team at Christianity Today, while operating inside the evangelical world, drove all of the early coverage.

* Frankly, mainstream news outlets have not jumped on the World Vision story to the degree you would expect. Why? Let’s say that, when it comes to religion, journalists are currently focused on the pope, the president and politics. Throw in the Hobby Lobby/Mennonite story at the U.S. Supreme Court and it has been a busy week.

* The World Vision story is, however, causing major earthquakes in cyberspace, with evangelicals and progressive evangelicals tearing each other to pieces. The story is unfolding online, folks. That’s where the action is at this point.

* Finally, gentle readers, if anyone had doubts that there is a doctrinal left wing developing in contemporary evangelicalism, those doubts should be dead and buried at this point. This is probably the most important angle to this sad news event.

So what about the coverage? At this point, in the mainstream, this question leads to the Associated Press. This link is to the version posted at The Washington Post site. Here is the crucial information at the top of the report:

Facing a firestorm of protest, the prominent Christian relief agency World Vision on Wednesday dropped a two-day-old policy that would have allowed the charity to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.

The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage “and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.

Based in Federal Way, Wash., and started by evangelicals, World Vision has an international operating budget of nearly $1 billion and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects. In a conference call with reporters, Stearns said World Vision had not consulted enough with its partners before announcing the initial policy change. Since Monday, Stearns said the board had heard from major evangelical groups and leaders who had told them they had strayed from their core beliefs.

So what is missing from that?

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Surprise! Dallas Morning News finds a Methodist to quote

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Once or twice (or maybe three or four or five times) in recent weeks, we have criticized The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote who supports the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The Methodist bishop for the region, Michael “Never Can Be Reached for Comment” McKee, hasn’t helped matters any, from a journalistic perspective. Whether there’s a history between the bishop and the Morning News or he just doesn’t want to be quoted on this matter, I have no idea. Perhaps he silenced his phone during church and forgot to ever turn it back on?

But rather than settle for a “no comment,” GetReligion has made the case that the Morning News needs to find a voice on the “other side” in its coverage of a retired Methodist minister who presided over the wedding of two gay men earlier this month. That is, unless the Dallas newspaper wants to practice advocacy journalism.

In one of our posts, I got snarky and said:

So we’re left — still — with explaining to a Pulitzer-winning newspaper how it might practice balanced journalism and treat all sides of a divisive issue such as this fairly.

Alas, there’s been a new development on this story: the minister who conducted the same-sex wedding has been suspended by the bishop.

Did the Morning News continue its trend of quoting only one side? To the Dallas newspaper’s credit, no. (Perhaps the Morning News took GetReligion’s constructive criticism to heart?)

From the latest story:

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Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

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United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.

Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

That was the end of that, for the most part, in this western region of the United Methodist Church. Defenders of the denomination’s teachings had to take their battles elsewhere.

This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study — “The Seven Churches of Methodism” — published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church’s leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the larger and still growing “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions — such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. — were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.

This brings us to the current headlines focusing on the supposedly radical actions of New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, especially his open announcement that he would refuse to hold church trials of clergy who violate the denomination’s teachings that homosexual activity, as opposed to orientation, is sinful. McLee is, in effect, saying what Wheatley said in 1980-82.

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