Tragic ending for a song of faith

Regular GetReligion readers know all about our M.O. on this blog. Our goal is to pick away at the errors that regularly mar mainstream coverage of religion news, while paying special attention to stories that are haunted by “ghosts,” which we define as major religious issues or themes in stories that journalists have missed or mangled (or both).

Much of this work is negative in nature, but not all.

If we really want to have a quiet day on the blog, a day in which there are no long streams of comments through which we must wade, all we have to do is praise a story in the mainstream press. Of course, we can also induce total silence by writing about international news, especially if it concerns coverage of oppressed religious minorities. But that’s another sad issue.

Nevertheless, the Washington Post ran a tragic feature story the other day — in the Style section, no less — that contained a major thread of religious content and, as best I can tell, the team that produced it did a more than adequate job at this point in the story.

You see, this is a genuinely tragic murder mystery. That’s the heart of story. Here’s the top:

The final play of the opera singer was “Hamlet,” the Shakespearean meditation on murder and ghosts and madness, at the Washington National Opera in the early summer. His own slaying, a few days later in or near Fort Dupont Park, apparently played out to an audience of one, that of his killer. His funeral, in Prince George’s County, drew more than 1,000 mourners, who wept for the loss of his Pavarotti-size persona, his booming laugh, his oh-so-sweet tenor.

The facts taken from the last weeks of the life of Don Diego Jones, a 14-year veteran of the chorus at the Washington Opera, married man and a proud new parent, make for the stuff of tragedy, as if lifted from the librettos of the classical operas he loved. But, as has become clear in the two months since he died, the last hours of his life play out more like a violent crime mystery that, so far, cannot be solved.

On the last-known morning of his life, June 7, a Monday, the 43-year-old, 280-pound Jones called his mother to say good morning. He then called in sick to his day job as a social worker with special-needs children for the state of Maryland — a minor toothache, he told his wife, Charita. He kissed her as she left for work, dropped off their infant foster children at the babysitter’s and returned to his townhouse in Temple Hills around 8:30 a.m.

Soon after that Jones vanished.

Police reports — containing some strange inconsistencies — said he had been shot several times. His body was found in Fort Dupont Park, a location that members of his family insist that he had no known history of frequenting. The Post states the obvious, especially when dealing with such a large, colorful, almost mythic figure:

When men are killed in public parks, there is an almost automatic suspicion that drugs or sex is involved, but Charita Jones said her husband did not drink, smoke or do drugs. Court records show he had no arrest history. In 10 years of marriage, and in the two months since his death, she says, neither she nor his family has uncovered anything to suggest he was leading a double life.

So where does religion fit into this story? For starters, the deceased’s mother is a minister, the Rev. Doretha F. Best, and it is rarely unusual to find out that an African-American who is a talented singer discovered his or her gift in church. It is clear that Jones linked his music with faith.

Thus, we read:

The two youngest brothers played football for a while for youth leagues, but Don wasn’t much for being a jock. … He excelled at singing, both gospel and classical. He attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, his mother says, graduated from McKinley High and later, Howard University. His day job for several years was as a musical therapist at St. Elizabeths, the mental hospital in Southeast Washington.

He went to a succession of churches — 10th Street Baptist, 19th Street Baptist — singing in the choir and, as a side business, performing at weddings, funerals and in Christmas musicals. Later, when Best started preaching and opened her own small church, the Tabernacle Full Gospel Church in Temple Hills, he joined and became a youth pastor.

A dozen years ago, he met his future wife at a choir rehearsal. Charita was an alto and, she says, “in awe of his voice.” She liked how well he dressed, how attentive he was to her. “He was very romantic. A flowers-and-roses guy. Very dignified.”

He proposed on a Friday, on her mother’s front porch. That Sunday morning, he presented her with everything she was to wear for church that day.

Their lives centered on music and church. There were hints that, with his giant talent, Jones might be able to soar to another level.

His vocal talents, everyone agrees, were extraordinary, both in their range and versatility. He sang “The 23rd Psalm” at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, accompanied by gospel artist Jeff Majors on the harp. Charita remembers that when Majors called to ask Don to perform at the ceremony, which included performers such as Stevie Wonder and BeBe Winans, he hung up and said, “I just can’t breathe, Charita! I just can’t breathe!” When he and Majors reprised their performance on “Oprah,” she says, he called from backstage just before he went on, to tell her that he thought he might faint from excitement.

And that’s that. The story goes on and the mystery gets larger and deeper.

Does the faith element need to be played higher in the story? I could see how that would help, but the factual material fits where it fits in this long story. Should there be more religious content? At this point in the mystery, how would anyone know?

It’s a painful story to read, with the song of a man’s life being cut off far before what all of his loved ones thought would be a glorious final chorus. His song included his faith. At the very least, this story lets readers know that.

That’s a start. That’s all that can be done at this point.

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Faith-based reporting

Some reporters just react to events and press releases. Others do a good job of keeping the big picture in mind.

I thought of this when I read Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein’s blog request for assistance on one of the issues she covers. She says she’s been requesting access to the faith-based offices in federal agencies for more than six months but has been shut down across the board:

Sure, we know generally that the offices help faith-based and other nonprofits that run programs on things like job training, but let’s get more specific. Which groups do they help and fund, and for what projects? Have their priorities changed since the offices were run by the Bush White House? Does the office at USAID, for example, get involved in the many millions of dollars of contracts related to sex and family planning overseas? And what does the Justice Department faith office do?

If you can help provide answers, be sure to let her know.

The Chicago Tribune actually had the opportunity to find out answers to these questions but squandered the opportunity.

But, no. Instead the newspaper published a puffy, no-news piece praising Joshua DuBois, the head of the faith-based office. You’d be hard pressed to find a reporter who dislikes DuBois as a person but many of the reporters I know who cover the faith-based office have been nothing if not frustrated with their inability to get answers to basic questions about what the office is doing. At a Religion Newswriters conference a couple of years ago, an NPR reporter asked him point blank why he was so unresponsive to reporter queries.

So next time someone gets an opportunity like the Tribune had, let’s make sure we use it well!

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Will Beliefnet be born again?

As you would expect, your GetReligionistas have been getting quite a bit of email asking what we think of the sale of Beliefnet.com by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Folks are especially interested in the semi-mysterious buyers.

Truth be told, there has not been that much mainstream news coverage of this event, which may tell you something about the identity issues that Beliefnet.com has faced in the past (and will almost certainly continue to face in the future). What was the old Beliefnet.com, anyway? Was it an interfaith site built on opinion, weight-loss information, ads for vaguely spiritual books/media and, buried in there somewhere, a collection of links to hard-news reports about religion (mostly, thank goodness, from Religion News Service)?

In one online report, you could learn a few basic facts about the buyers:

BN Media is the investment group behind long-distance services company Affinity4 and religious online video operator Cross Bridge Media, according to a Belifnet memo written by Beliefnet GM/COO Beth-Ann Eason (which is embedded below). Beliefnet has had existing relationships with both those entities.

Here is a key snippet from that Eason memo:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these companies, Affinity4 is an affinity marketer that has raised more than $76 million in funding for charities, ministries and other nonprofit organizations by turning ordinary activities into extraordinary giving. Cross Bridge features online distribution and monetization of audio-video content for nonprofits and ministries. Steve Halliday, who runs BN Media, will visit our offices to address our team and share more about his vision for our company on Monday.

We have also taken the difficult step of cutting a number of jobs from Beliefnet’s staff. We are losing a number of great people, each of whom has contributed to our success over the years, and I hope you will join me in thanking them for their efforts and helping them through this transition. These cuts were a necessary step to ensure Beliefnet can continue growing as efficiently and effectively as possible.

How big are the staff cuts? I have not seen an on-the-record quote about that.

Now, early on, I found that it wasn’t too hard to click a mouse two or three times and find out that Cross Bridge management team was full of people with rock-solid credentials in the world of evangelical/charismatic Protestantism. It goes without saying that this would be a bit intimidating for those who appreciated the old Beliefnet.com formula that reached out to the mushy middle in the world of OprahAmerica spirituality.

To study that information for yourself, click here to see the “senior advisers” for that organization — led off by co-founder Jay Sekulow, a leader in conservative law, culture, media and politics. Oh, and you may have heard of another co-founder — Pentecostal bishop and superstar preacher T.D. Jakes.

However, I am happy to report that Christianity Today online has posted a hard-news piece that gets into many essential angles of this story, including the upcoming departure of Rod “friend of this weblog” Dreher, whose wildly popular blogging work at Beliefnet will soon move over to the new Big Questions Online site that he will edit for the Templeton Foundation. We can assume that he will continue to post his usual 5,000-10,000 words of blog commentary a day at that site.

Near the end of the CT report, Dreher notes:

“Beliefnet could have been integrated into the News Corp. organization as a gatherer and disseminator of religious news and opinion for News Corp. properties, but that never happened,” Dreher said in an e-mail. “I know too that Beliefnet has long wanted to get back into the business of religious ‘hard news,’ but the fact of the matter is, the soft-focus spiritual features are what drove traffic to the site.”

Dreher, who usually writes commentary related to current events, said he wondered whether his blog’s readers were that interested in the rest of Beliefnet.

“[R]eligiously observant journalists like me love to complain that the American media doesn’t get religion, and it really is true. But what if the American public doesn’t get religion either, at least not in a journalistic sense?” he said. “I mean, what if they don’t want serious, sustained and critical coverage of American religious life, both the good and the bad, but rather prefer their religion news to be soft and self-helpy?”

I am sure that this was a sobering quote to the CT reporter, one Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Keep your eyes open and help us watch for mainstream coverage on this. Watch the New York Times, in particular, which I imagine will be tempted to jump on the Religious Right takeover angle.

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Everyone has a big “but”

MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 09:  The Ottheinrich Bible is displayed during a photocall of the 'Bayerische Staatsbibliothek' on July 9, 2008 in Munich, Germany. The Ottheinrich Bible, the first illuminated courtly masterpiece, lavishly illustrated with sparkling gold and precious colours manuscript of the New Testament in German, written circa 1430 in Bavaria, almost 100 years before the seminal Bible translation by Martin Luther, the unusually large manuscript is incomparably the grandest surviving manuscript of the German vernacular Bible, as well as one of the most ambitious books of the northern renaissance. The Bible is expected to fetch in excess of 3 million Euro.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

The New York Times has an interesting piece by Geraldine Fabrikant about a collector building a collection of ancient Bibles. With the goal of establishing a museum dedicated to the Bible, the family behind the Hobby Lobby chain of stores is on a bit of a spending spree. They’ve “bought illuminated, or decorated, manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and other works worth $20 million to $40 million from auction houses, dealers, private collectors and institutions, some of which may be selling because of financial pressure.”

Steve Green is the president of the company and we learn the following about his religious views:

Mr. Green is Pentecostal, but other family members worship in churches of other denominations, including Baptist and Assemblies of God. The family gives to a variety of Christian causes, Oral Roberts University and evangelical ministries among them, and adheres to Christian principles, closing its stores on Sundays, playing Christian music in them and operating Mardel, a separate chain of religious bookstores.

This reminds me of a question one of my colleagues asked me at one of my old newsrooms. He wondered whether Pentecostals were a religion or a denomination. Now, the phrasing above is unclear on two points. “Pentecostal” isn’t a denomination per se, although there are denominations with the word “Pentecostal” in their names. And either way you can’t say “but” other family members are Assemblies of God. That’s because Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination out there. I’m unclear on what denomination Mr. Green is a member of.

Still, the story is interesting and provides a lot of detail on the rare book market, without overlooking the role religion plays in this particular story:

The group also bought a Martin Luther New Testament with 44 lushly hand-painted and illuminated woodcuts, suggesting that the edition was made for royal use, perhaps for Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise.

The book was sold by Jorn Gunther, a dealer who had listed the edition at $400,000 in his catalog. “Book dealers are bibliophiles, but these men are coming at it with a strong belief that the Bible is the word of God and they want to show that,” said Mr. Gunther of Stalden, Switzerland. “It is like a doctor buying medical books.”

I did wonder about one phrase in this sentence:

Dr. Carroll, a former professor in ancient studies who has specialized in Biblical manuscripts, recently resigned from Cornerstone University, a nondenominational Christ-based liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to become executive director of the museum and an adviser to Mr. Green.

I’m more familiar with the phrase “Christ-centered” than “Christ-based” and I note that the university uses the former phrase to describe itself. But I’m wondering if we could get something a bit more explanatory for a general reader.

It’s rare to see this much coverage of religion in a business section story. But the piece could have used some edits or guidance from someone with a bit more understanding of religion. For instance, it would be nice to know a bit more about what motivates the Green family. I don’t normally think of “Pentecostalism” when I think of ancient Biblical texts. But I also know enough about the Assemblies of God to know what emphasis that denomination places on study of Scriptures. These would be worthy themes for exploration.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell (about the chaplains)

If you are interested in church-state separation issues, and you happened to pick up one of the big American newspapers this morning, that sound you are probably hearing is the theme from “Jaws.” Here’s the top of the A1 report from the Washington Post:

President Obama has endorsed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military’s policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1. …

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a “dramatic breakthrough,” it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain “don’t ask, don’t tell,” while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

In political terms, this means that everyone gets to vote before the November elections — which are expected to cut into the Democratic Party’s huge majorities on the Hill — yet the Pentagon would complete its study and announce the results after the voting is done. In other words, Bible Belt Democrats and others in red zip codes have to face the maximum amount of pressure in the campaigns. GOP leaders have to love that.

At this stage, the reporting is totally about politics — of course. Up is up. Down is down. The forces of journalistic gravity remain in effect. It’s much too early for the religion ghosts to make it into print (think about the patterns in the health-care reform news coverage).

In the Los Angeles Times report, the one conservative cultural voice that is featured in the story is from a completely predictable source and the topic, of course, is the nature of the political horse race that surrounds the bill. The reporters probably had this group’s telephone number on speed dial.

… Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that “disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group.”

“This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority,” Perkins said. “They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won’t be prominent in the mind of voters.”

So what is the faith-based issue that is almost certain to surface in the weeks between now and the election? Why, a clash between gay rights and religious liberty claims by traditional believers, of course. The story has already been developing, but has received minimal mainstream media coverage (click here for a short Religion News Service story). As you would expect, niche media (Baptist Press, for example) covered the story from day one.

First, it helps to know that there have been growing tensions in the past decade between conservative military chaplains (most of them evangelical Protestants, due to the basic math of who is in the military) and chaplains who are from more liturgical or liberal Protestant groups and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church.

This surfaced in 2005 as reports that conservatives were claiming that they faced discrimination when it came time for promotions. A year later, this conflict grew more specific — with some chaplains saying that they were being punished or shunned if and when they protested policies requiring them to pray publicly in doctrinally neutral language, meaning language that did not include references to Jesus or to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

While the conflicts focused on predictable flocks — Southern Baptists vs. Episcopalians, for example — others were affected. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops, for example, would never approve of their priests NOT praying in the name of the Holy Trinity. That simply isn’t a doctrinal option, even in a ecumenical or interfaith setting. Can these priests continue to serve as chaplains?

As you can see, there is no easy way out of this church-state maze. Either non-Christians or liberal Christians must, on occasion, hear explicitly Christian prayers, or military personal from more conservative traditions have to live without any potential by chaplains who share their faith.

The ideal military chaplain, these days, is one who is willing to serve as a kind of doctrinal Swiss Army knife, pulling out various rites and prayers and beliefs when the need arises. This is easier for some chaplains than others. How easy will this be for Muslims?

Meanwhile, how does a liberal clergyperson handle ministry to soldiers whose beliefs she or he considers intolerant? Does a traditional Catholic turn to an Episcopal woman in a collar for a blessing before heading into combat? How does a traditional shepherd handle battlefield counseling for openly gay soldiers whose beliefs and challenges (someone experiencing stress in a same-sex marriage, for example) directly violate the doctrines and traditions that the pastor or priest vowed to defend when being ordained?

Truth is, it is often impossible for a military chaplain to refer a troubled soldier to a chaplain whose foxhole is 20 or 30 miles away. There is no way to have a full range of chaplains — from Pentecostal to Wiccan, from Reform Judaism to strict forms of Islam — available in every base, let alone in every submarine. You can see why military chaplains have long been the subject of church-state conflicts, for the perfectly logical reason that these pastors work for, and answer to, both the church and the state.

Sure enough, more than 40 retired military chaplains — speaking out would be too risky for active chaplains — have issued a letter (.pdf) warning that repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will lead to even more conflict in their ranks, with further limits on their religious liberty and ability to minister in good conscience without violating their ordination vows. And, as you would expect, voices on the left side of the debate have responded by saying these chaplains are being illogical and intolerant.

In other words, there is a story in there.

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5Q+1: Julia Duin and her times

Sunday is the much-overlooked Christian feast of Pentecost and we live in an era in which the global rise of Pentecostalism is simply — this cannot be debated — one of the most important religion stories of our time. Ask the experts at the Pew Forum on the Religion & Public Life.

So I thought this would be a good time for a 5Q+1 with a religion-beat veteran who has just written a book that addresses a variety of newsworthy topics linked to this trend — such as the impact of Charismatic renewal in the national and global Anglican scene and ways in which this freewheeling form of faith can be a source of great strength and a door into forms of leadership that can be abused.

The book is “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” and the author is Julia Duin, who is best known, for those who have long followed religion-news coverage, for her work at the Houston Chronicle and at the Washington Times. In all, she has worked at five mainstream newspapers, often earning high marks in Religion Newswriters of America contests and written five books, including another recent work that drew media attention — “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It.”

“Days of Fire and Glory” cuts especially close to the bone, since it focuses on events in the nationally known Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which Duin attended during her Houston years. The other key word in the title is “community,” since much of the work of that parish revolved around the lives of individuals and families that, literally, lived in common households, communities, communes, etc. This fascinated Duin since she had experience with life in a Christian community in Portland. For more information on this fascinating and frightening book, which is rooted in 20 years of research and interviews, see this review by journalist George Conger of the Church of England Newspaper.

Duin was born in Baltimore and was raised in Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland and has a master’s degree in religion from the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge, Pa. For more information on her work and interests, visit her homepage and blog.

So here are her responses to those familiar questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I check GR and Whispers in the Loggia every morning plus I get literally hundreds of emails from Richard Kim, an Episcopal-turned-Anglican priest who operates an informal wire service of religion news. He scoops up a lot of stuff. When I have time, I check Rod Dreher’s weblog, Titus 1:9 and then the Episcopal Cafe, to see what the left is up to.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Overseas religious persecution tops the list. I did a front-page story recently on how the Chinese government is killing off hundreds — no one knows the true number — of Falun Gong prisoners for their organs and I got no pickups. Now that story is not completely new but the MSM is not touching it. It’s Nazi horror stuff: people getting snuffed out for their skin, lungs, corneas, livers and kidneys. The Falun Gong had a press conference recently in the Capitol on this — with secular folks who are not part of their movement testifying — and it was pathetic how few media attended. The slow strangulation of Orthodox Copts by the Egyptian government is another story. Teen-aged girls are getting kidnapped, gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam. Islamic mobs attack Christians with impunity. These stories are not hard to do but I don’t see journalists out there doing them.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I just did a series on the interfaith movement and how interesting combos of Jews, Mormons and Muslims are getting together, setting up think tanks and institutes and holding off-the-record meetings on ways they can work together. One New York foundation — led by a rabbi — does nothing but get foreign imams and rabbis together for several days to teach them how to import American-style interfaith networks into their own countries. I’m also watching how Islamic governments (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kazakhstan) are sponsoring all these interfaith conferences; in fact, Kazakhstan is having yet another one next month. Meanwhile there’s these off-the-record meetings American evangelicals are having with Muslim governments, such as Morocco, about religious freedom.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

It informs everything we do and religion stories are truly everywhere. When you’ve got 95 percent of the American public believing in God; when religious events are Americans’ biggest leisure activity, when Americans spend millions of dollars on sports, but billions on religion (the late George Cornell of the Associated Press did a story in 1994 that actually proved this); then you have to ask why religion stories rarely make the top of A1 unless it’s about the pope. And why is it that journalists who’ve attended a religious college or seminary find it nearly impossible to get hired at a major newspaper? And why is it that sports gets 20-30 writers and photographers and a whole section to itself while at the same paper one reporter has to cover all the major world religions plus several thousand churches, mosques, temples and synagogues in his or her city?

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

The way Jim Wallis has become a statesman for the Religious Left. I’ve watched Sojourners since 1976 and how it started out as evangelical group that morphed into a mainline Protestant institution. There was a total vacuum of leadership and Jim neatly stepped into it, creating himself a place on the New York Times bestseller list in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am amazed at how people who jumped on the Charismatic renewal bandwagon 30 years ago don’t want to be identified with it today, now that it’s no longer fashionable. Instead, they’ve gone Reformed, neo-Calvinist, emergent or whatever the theological flavor of the year is.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I still wish the beat was given the respect that politics, entertainment and sports get. There could be a minimum of five-six reporters per media outlet covering religion because believe me, the stories are out there. Not only the predictable stuff but there are some great scandals out there I’d love to go after if I had the time and the staff. What’s been so disheartening over the years is to see how the largest media outlets consistently hire reporters for the religion beat who have little or no experience or background in religion coverage. I watch these reporters and usually they last 2-3 years max. At the same time, these media outlets demand years of expertise when it comes to staffing the beats they really care about, such as the environment, entertainment, health and election coverage.

So to all you recruiters out there: Don’t just pick someone from your existing staff to plug the religion hole. Do a national search for the right person. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of talent out there and the number of people who have honed their skills in small and medium markets, who’ve done graduate work in religion and would love the chance to cover the Godbeat in a way that would make the most impact.

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The camel’s nose called ‘evangelism’

Before we look at the journalistic essay that has me so hot and bothered, let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This cornerstone of human-rights work was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Article 18.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note, in particular, the link — by proximity and logic — between the right to convert people to another faith and the right to express one’s beliefs to other people in any medium, which I would certainly assume includes human speech (and newspapers, too). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at a World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, during a debate about public evangelism, one person’s evangelist is another person’s political activist.

Now, there are missionaries who take this too far. I assume that rape and forced marriage is not a valid form of evangelism, even though it is common in Egypt. I assume that bribery is not a valid form of evangelism. The same goes for torture and death threats that must be taken seriously.

With all of that in mind, please read the following online essay — entitled “Christian Soldiers” — from Robert Wright at the New York Times. I would never claim that his point of view dominates American newsrooms. That’s a straw man argument, the kind of thing that conservatives spout who, in reality, tend to hate journalism. However, his point of view is common and may affect coverage in some significant newsrooms.

To comment, you are really going to need to read it all. But here is the top of the piece, which contains a key part of his argument against Christians who insist on following the commands of their Scriptures and attempting to convert other people to their faith.

You see, it seems that missionaries — and even native Christians who are part of local churches in foreign lands — are causing violence. It is also crucial that, according to the Times, Muslims do not attempt to convert others and Christians would be very, very upset if Muslims began trying to spread their faith.

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life. But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

Now, apparently, when some Christians get together with Muslims (and members of other world religions) and talk about areas of common ground between the faiths — while stressing that the faiths are all equally true and there is no need for anyone to convert anyone — this is called “interfaith dialogue” and this is a wonderful thing.

But when former Muslims and foreign missionaries meet with Muslims to discuss areas of common ground between their faiths — while insisting that, as these two faiths claim, one of them is eternally right and the other eternally wrong, this is dangerous evangelism that leads to violence.

The status of both of these activities under the U.N. Charter? They are both protected. But it appears that some civil liberties are more protected than others, even when they involve activities that are tightly linked to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Now here is what we are going to discuss here, since I totally concede that some forms of evangelism are dumb and some are offensive.

However, what is the journalistic argument for arguing that the U.N. Charter is wrong? Is it wrong on press freedom, too, since that is very, very dangerous. Right? Was Tutu right to connect persuasive political speech and persuasive religious speech? Etc., etc.

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Fighting to catch up in Nigeria

Last week, I was pretty hard on a New York Times report about the latest round of quote, “ethnic,” unquote violence in Nigeria. This story was very light on the details when it came to describing the role that religion plays in a nation that is, literally, divided by faith.

Thus, I think that it is only fair to provide an update. After all, my original post conceded that the Times team was covering a very challenging story and that more details would, obviously, emerge.

That’s what happened and, sure enough, one of the later stories was much better. As the headline suggests — “Nigerians Recount the Night of Their Bloody Revenge” — this story was built on first-hand testimonies. Did you ever notice that when people talk, as opposed to reporters doing the paraphrasing, that religion jumps higher in the news mix?

I’ll skip some of the details of the massacre a week ago, which flow easily in the words of a young killer named Dahiru Adamu. Here is the summary material that you need:

Sunday’s killings were an especially vicious expression of long-running hostilities between Christians and Muslims in this divided nation. Jos and the region around it are on the fault line where the volatile and poor Muslim north and the Christian south meet. In the past decade, some 3,000 people have been killed in interethnic, interreligious violence in this fraught zone. The pattern is familiar and was seen as recently as January: uneasy coexistence suddenly explodes into killing, amplified for days by retaliation.

Mr. Adamu, a Muslim herder, said he went to Dogo Na Hawa, a village of Christians living in mud-brick houses on dirt streets, to avenge the killings of Muslims and their cattle in January. The operation had been planned at least several days before by a local group called Thank Allah, said one of Mr. Adamu’s fellow detainees, Ibrahim Harouna, who was shackled on the floor next to him. The men spoke in Hausa through an interpreter.

“They killed a lot of our Fulanis in January,” Mr. Adamu said, referring to his ethnic group. “So I knew that this time, we would take revenge.”

His victims were sleeping when he arrived, he said, and he set their house on fire. Sure enough, they ran out. “I killed three people,” Mr. Adamu said calmly.

No one doubts that the violence has cut both ways in this region.

However, that is one problem in this story. That violence last January? It seems that the details of those events — with alleged mass killings of Muslims by Christians — come from the testimonies of the Muslims who are justifying their actions in these new attacks.

Meanwhile, the new violence is documented by a wide variety of outside observers. For the story to be balanced, and truly believable, we need to know more about the January violence and it would truly help if the details came from authorities that are, as much as possible, detached from the vicious killing cycles in this part of Nigeria. Does that make sense?

It’s easy to see the kinds of tensions and challenges that are shaping the work of journalists who are trying to do fair, balanced, accurate reporting on these stories. Pay close attention here, while recalling that authorities at the state levels in Nigeria tend to partisans linked to the ruling religions in the North and South:

“Suspicion is still rife,” the state police commissioner, Ikechukwu Aduba, said in an interview in his office in Jos. “We are appealing to the youth to sheath their swords and give peace a chance.”

Mr. Aduba sharply disputed the elevated death toll reported by others, saying that the police could confirm only 109 deaths.

But a Nigerian Red Cross official in Jos, Adeyemo Adebayo, deputy head of disaster management, said that the number of dead was “possibly” even greater than the 332 buried in the mass grave, since many fled into the bush and could have been cut down there by their attackers. A respected Nigerian human rights group, the Civil Rights Congress, said Monday that its members had counted 492 bodies.

Clearly, journalists face hard, hard work trying to get these stories right. All I can say is that we do not — based on the reports that I have seen — know much about the wave of violence in January that the killers now claim ignited their passions. We need to know more. If GetReligion readers have seen coverage with more information from neutral or international sources, please let me know.

Please give us the URLs to help provide more balance. Otherwise, this Times story still has a bloody hole in it. And let me add one other question, which has been voiced by some readers in comments. Does anyone know if these Christian victims are Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Evangelicals or all of the above?

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