The revival that went bust

Can you imagine what kind of coverage a major mainstream news organization might give a faith-healing church that took in millions of dollars that seem to have vanished?

Pretty sympathetic coverage, actually, if you’re talking about an Associated Press report this week on the financial troubles of the once-flourishing “Brownsville Revival” church in Florida:

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — For years starting in the mid-1990s, millions from around the globe visited a humble church in Florida’s Panhandle for lively Pentecostal revival services where believers flocked on stage to be healed by God for cancer, addiction and broken hearts.

At its height, the “Brownsville Revival” drew as many as 5,500 people a night for six years — estimates put the total between 2.5 million and 4.5 million people. Donations poured in as the Brownsville Assembly of God added staff, built a massive new sanctuary and opened a school for preachers.

In the decade after being the home of the largest Pentecostal outpouring in U.S. history, the church has been on the edge of financial ruin. It racked up $11.5 million in debt, to be paid after the out-of-town throngs and its former pastor moved on.

The red ink is mostly unknown outside the congregation.

“Every Monday I find out what the (Sunday) offering was and we decide what we can pay this week,” said the Rev. Evon Horton, Brownsville’s current pastor. “The good news is last week we paid our mortgage. The bad news is it drained our bank accounts.”

Pentecostalism ranks as “one of the fastest-growing and underreported movements in Christianity,” as ReligionLink put it in 2006. Think about it: How often do you see secular news reports about Pentecostals? Not too often, I don’t think. So I was pleased to see this coverage.

The church involved apparently liked the coverage, as a link to the AP story is featured prominently on its website. It’s easy to understand why, as the reporter shows a willingness to report facts (even those that might be difficult for a skeptical journalist to embrace) in a straightforward, non-judgmental way:

In a fundraising effort that Horton said came to him from God in a dream, the church is trying to raise about $7 million by getting people to give $1,000 each for debt relief. Donors’ names will be engraved in a “walk of faith” around the old sanctuary.

“We can be debt-free if just 7,000 of the millions of people who attended the revival help out,” Horton said.

The story similarly lets the former pastor share his perspective in his own words:

Rev. John Kilpatrick, moved on. He now runs a bustling church and traveling revival ministry based across the state line in Daphne, Ala.

Kilpatrick said Brownsville was never the wealthy church many assumed during the revival years, so loans were the only way to pay for growth. He said the church fell deeper into debt after he departed and membership dropped.

“I resigned (from) the church, and I never would have left if I knew the struggles it was going to have,” he said.

Yet, for all the positive attributes mentioned above, something about this story bugs me. I’m not exactly sure what it is. But after reading 1,300 words — a novel by AP standards — the story seems to ring a little hollow.

Maybe there was no way to avoid that. Maybe the journalist dug and pushed as hard as he could. But I can’t help wondering if there is no one outraged about the missing money — no one willing to cast blame and raise questions about what really might have happened to the millions given. Surely Ole Anthony is waiting by the phone? (I’m only half-joking.)

At the same time, it strikes me that more context on Pentecostalism — perhaps even a reference to the prosperity gospel and how this fits in, or not — might have been helpful.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that I’m being overly critical. That’s where you come in, gentle GetReligion readers. It’s your turn to read the story and weigh in with journalistic questions and observations.

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What a religious freedom rally looks like

We’ve been talking quite a bit about how the public outcry over religious freedom issues has been portrayed in the press. When the Obama administration created a new requirement that religious employers fully fund abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization, many religious employers and their supporters cried foul. The people who support the mandate argue that free contraception is a fundamental right that the government must force employers to provide. Further, failing to force employers to provide these things constitutes a war on women.

And that side of things has been pretty well covered — even adopted, at times — by the media. That side of things should be covered well, although some media outlets have gone overboard by openly campaigning for that side. (Here, for example.)

The other side — those who say that their previously enjoyed religious or economic liberty is more fundamental than free birth control — have not had their side of the story covered well. So mostly when we talk about how the religious freedom side of the argument has been portrayed, we’re talking about a failure to even mention that side of the argument, much less treat it with seriousness (see, for example, the scare quote trend some jumped on).

We’ve been drowning in examples of poor coverage of the outcry against the mandate so I wanted to highlight a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that handled it well.

Most of the religious freedom rallies that were held across the country were held last Friday at noon. (We looked at previous coverage here.) But some were held on the weekend and the one in Jefferson City, Missouri, took place yesterday. There was also another rally outside the Capitol, for a different grievance. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered both rallies, substantively, and put the story in the front section of the paper. There was even a picture of the large religious freedom rally on the front page of the paper with the headline “Crammed Into The Capitol.” So the paper did not bury the news that some Missourians are displeased about this mandate.

As for the story, it’s done by a great Godbeat professional, Tim Townsend. He gives a flavor of the variety of people in the crowd and quotes from different factions:

Speaking to fellow Christians in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson delivered a warning to the White House.

“The fight against a federal requirement that most health plans provide free contraceptive benefits to their members “is not about contraception,” he said. “It’s about religious liberty, and we will never give up this freedom.”

Thousands of people, many wearing red T-shirts with messages such as “I will not comply” and “I stand with the Catholic Church,” roared in approval.

Catholics, Southern Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans and members of the Assemblies of God packed three floors of the rotunda at the “Rally for Religious Liberty” to protest the January announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Arguments over liberty and governmental authority being made concurrently in the U.S. Supreme Court were mentioned by speakers and those in the crowd. The rally also came on the same day that the Missouri Senate gave initial approval to a bill that allows employers to opt out of the contraception mandate.

I might have been nervous about characterizing the entire crowd as Christian — how does one know? — but I just really appreciate the tightly written lede that gives the basics without telling you what to think about what the people said.

We then get a chunk devoted to the other rally — where union members wore bright orange and green shirts in protest of “right-to-work” legislation and other worker laws. We learn that the crowds were the largest of the past decade, although no official estimate is made.

Then we get back to the religious freedom rally:

The federal birth control mandate — which would require religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to include free coverage in their employee health coverage — has been called an attack on religious freedom by many Christians.

Speaking under the words of Rudyard Kipling carved into the rotunda, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet — lest we forget,” Missouri Baptist Convention executive director John Yeats called the Obama administration a “secularist government” that had “declared war on religion and freedom of conscience.”

To huge applause, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “Obama’s health care high priestess,” and compared the administration to the British monarchy during the time of the American Revolution.

There are more colorful quotes from the Yeats fellow before we get a discussion of how the protests have taken place across the country and why. There are additional details on the mandate, promised revisions to the mandate and why that promised revision doesn’t pass muster with the people fighting the mandate. And then we get a discussion of how proponents of the mandate are framing the battle as a war on women. Which segues into an appearance by the woman who heads my church body’s life and health ministries:

Maggie Karner, director of life and health ministries for the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was the only woman on the podium, and one of the four major speakers. Karner said, to a standing ovation, that the issue at hand was “not about women’s issues at all.””

“It concerns all of us American citizens and our constitutional rights,” she said.

There are also quotes from average participants, as well as a member of the legislature who opposes the rally attendees and what they stand for. People are given room to speak freely using their own words and terms. It’s just a very straightforward story that explains the arguments of the protesters.

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Ghosts in those “Hoodie Sunday” stories?

It didn’t take me very long, after I arrived in Charlotte, N.C., to get a bit frustrated with the leaders of that city’s powerful African-American churches.

The churches were doing all kinds of interesting things. The problem was that I only heard about them in the past tense, from people talking about events after they had taken place. I was sincerely interested in what these churches had to say about — to name one example — the lives of black men and how these lives were reflected in media. I was interested in the forces that were shaping black families and how churches were struggling to help.

Finally, I started making the rounds and meeting with these pastors and — here was the key — asking them if they would add me to the mailing list for their weekly church bulletins. That way, I could look for interesting events in the church calendars ahead of time.

However, it didn’t take me long to hear one consistent complaint over and over again.

Most of these African-American pastors — it didn’t matter if they were Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic or mainline Protestant — said that there was one simple reason that they had given up calling local newsrooms about events in their congregations. No matter what they did, any journalists who happened to show up were only going to cover the parts of these events, even worship services, that had to do with politics.

Politics. That’s all that the black church is about to most journalists, said one pastor. No matter what African-American believers say or do when it comes to faith issues, everything always comes out as politics.

Years later, in Denver, I turned in a feature photo assignment for an Ash Wednesday service at a high-church Episcopal parish that was predominately African-American. The priest later called me in amazement. It was the first time he had ever been photographed, he said, in a worship service, while acting as a priest (as opposed to when he was speaking in public, political settings). He called to say “thank you.”

I thought about those old Godbeat lessons when I picked up my copy of The Baltimore Sun this morning and read the A1 story about local reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen-ager who was killed while walking through a gated community. Here’s the top of that story:

It was “Hoodie Sunday” at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore — and at churches elsewhere in Baltimore and across the nation.

Throughout the morning, several hundred parishioners at the African Methodist Episcopal church arrived wearing black, blue or gray hoodies to show their solidarity with Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American who was gunned down in Florida on Feb. 26 while walking through a gated community. He was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who had called 911 about Martin’s presence in the area.

The Martin case has burst open racial frustrations across the nation and galvanized many black church leaders.

At Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, dozens of black youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 were invited to stand in front of the altar, where Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant — wearing a hoodie that said “No justice no peace” — delivered a sermon to roughly 2,000 people.

There was, you see, a sermon. However, the sermon seemed to have little to do with religion or faith. The story focused on details of the case that have — with good cause — been covered over and over in the mainstream press. The service undoubtedly included faith language, biblical images, hymns and other religious themes that were linked to this infuriating event. However, an A1 story in the Sun is not the place to look for that kind of new material, those new insights.

What about the Baptists in town?

At Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn Sunday, Pastor Emmett C. Burns Jr. wore a hoodie even as many of his congregants turned out in their Sunday best. Pastor Burns spoke at a prayer vigil for Martin during the mid-morning service. Congregants clapped, nodded and called out “amen” during his 12-minute speech.

There was a prayer vigil in the middle of a worship service? I’m not sure what that means, since prayer vigils are usually 12- to 24-hour events that last all day or through an entire night, dusk to dawn. Maybe the people simply did a lot of praying and the reporter was not sure what was going on.

And what did the pastor and his people say during this lengthy period of prayer?

Burns, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, said House members were expected to wear hoodies on the floor Monday to show solidarity with Martin. “When will it end? It will not end until we stand together,” Burns said. “I’ve never seen a movement like this all over the nation, where whites and blacks are wearing hoodies. Go buy a hoodie.”

After his message, Burns led the congregation in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

In closing, Burns said: “We ask for justice in the case of Trayvon. Comfort, comfort be with his parents who have lost a child strictly based on his race.”

Now, it does appear that this final statement — “we ask” — is addressed to God. Thus, at least one piece of prayer made it into the story. Otherwise, this story is just another example of what happens when journalists cover worship services as if they were political rallies. What did these pastors have to say about justice, in terms of biblical truth? What appeals did they make to God, as well as to politicians?

Read it all. What did I miss?

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Pat Robertson’s marijuana memo

When Pat Robertson said on his show recently that he supported the legalization of marijuana, some of us didn’t blink twice. He has said things like this before, so it didn’t seem like news. But when the New York Times picked it up, people treat it like breaking news.

For a few minutes, we need to be willing to separate our own feelings about the issue of legalizing marijuana to consider how a story like this should be told. So put the issue itself aside and take a look at who’s quoted, what’s quoted, and who’s not quoted to evaluate whether or not the piece covers the story adequately.

Of the many roles Pat Robertson has assumed over his five-decade-long career as an evangelical leader — including presidential candidate and provocative voice of the right wing — his newest guise may perhaps surprise his followers the most: marijuana legalization advocate.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Who was surprised by his stance besides this reporter?

“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war. “He’s singing my song.”

We get some predictably positive reaction from from the executive director of an organization that supports marijuana legalization. Then we get more glowing opinion from another pro-drug-legalization group.

“Pat Robertson still has an audience of millions of people, and they respect what he has to say,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for more liberal drug laws. “And he’s not backtracking. He’s doubling down.”

The piece goes back to Robertson, quoting beliefs as facts.

“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”

Did the reporter fact check to confirm or deny this claim? Why not look at some data to see whether this is indeed the case (or at least put it in context of state laws)?

Then we get a few paragraphs the Chicago-area leader of black clergy members who personally says she supports marijuana legalization.

“I would hope and think that it would move the needle for the large constituencies of evangelicals he represents,” Dr. Carruthers added.

At some point in this piece of marijuana-legalization-supporters, you would think that the reporter would check to see if Robertson’s views go over well among other evangelicals. For instance, it wouldn’t hurt to look at some Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life data to get a sense of whether he’s among the majority who hold his view. Guess what: Just 25 percent of white evangelicals said marijuana should be made legal.

In the 19th paragraph, we get a quick explanation that one Christian organization, Focus on the Family, declined to comment on Robertson’s statements, except to say that it does not support the use of marijuana for either recreational or medicinal purposes. Really? Only one organization could be found? Was everyone else unavailable for comment? The reporter then repeats Robertson’s argument that there’s no difference between smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.

“If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?” he said.

I don’t know, perhaps a physician or two could weigh in on these ideas?

Keeping up this one-sided piece, we get more quotes from the pro-legalization leader quoted at the beginning who appears to have no formal training in Christian theology or ministry but is quoted as saying that Robertson’s position “is in line with the Gospel.” Jesus, he says, would not “condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”

The final section of the article grants more space to Robertson to tell us more about Jesus and how he’s been “assailed” by those who disagree with him. Man, if people are really assailing him right and left, you would think they would be available for comment.

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Race, religion, Maryland and gay marriage

Time for a quick flashback into the tmatt GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s the cyber-folder of mainstream news stories that I really want to dissect, but then other big stories come along that demand immediate attention and then, well, you know, the folder gets thicker and thicker. Sigh.

This particular Washington Post story caught my attention for several reasons — some positive and a few negative.

The lede is a classic, “Well, DUH!” moment that slipped into print.

Half of Maryland residents now favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, but support varies significantly along the sensitive lines of race, religion and age, a Washington Post poll has found.

Like I said, “Well, DUH.” Raise your hand if you are not surprised that race and religion factor into beliefs on this hot-button issue.

Actually, I has surprised me that the liberal Catholic-secular coalition that runs my state has struggled as much as it has to get this matter through the legislature. When you consider how liberal a state Maryland is, that mere 50 percent support number is downright shocking. There must be a complex story in there, somewhere.

That brings us to the heart of this report, which is presented with great simplicity and clarity.

The new poll found a sharp divide among Maryland Democrats based on race. Among whites, 71 percent support same-sex marriage, while 24 percent do not. Among blacks, 41 percent are supportive, while 53 percent are opposed. Maryland has the largest percentage of African Americans of any state outside of the Deep South.

In addition to race, religion also factors into this fight in a major way. That’s where this Post report is severely lacking in basic facts. Let’s look at a few of them.

Several hundred people, including some ministers and lawmakers, convened … in a rally outside the State House in Annapolis to make clear they still oppose legislation that narrowly passed the Senate last year but fell short in the House of Delegates.

In advance of a Senate hearing on the bill, gay-rights supporters are planning a news conference … with clergy members to show the measure has religious support in the 90-day legislative session.

What is missing?

Well, why are these two paragraphs so vague? Both lack any detail when it comes to which religious groups are backing gay rights and which ones are opposed. This information is especially important — of course — on the African-American side of the debate. Readers need to know who is lined up on both sides. Without those basic facts, this part of the story is next to meaningless.

My prediction is that the state’s larger religious bodies are against the measure and its smaller, declining flocks are lined up with the Democratic leadership. Why do I say that?

The poll found that nearly three-quarters of those opposed to gay nuptials say their views stem primarily from their religious beliefs — a factor that makes lobbying on the issue more challenging.

By contrast, only 5 percent of same-sex marriage supporters say their views are largely shaped by religious beliefs. … The poll also found that those who attend religious services weekly are nearly three times as likely to oppose same-sex marriage as those who do not attend at all.

Read that again. That 5 percent number is a testament to several changing factors in American life, especially the rising number of people who are openly secular and/or “spiritual, not religious.” It also shows just how small the world of liberal Protestantism has become, in terms of bodies in pews — even in Maryland, a highly progressive state.

One more point: The next time a GetReligion commentator argues that subjects such as abortion and gay-marriage are simply political controversies, as opposed to being topics that remain linked to religious doctrine and practice in the lives of millions, just think about this Post story.

Then you can join me in saying: Well, DUH.

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NYTimes struggles to label Eddie Long

Before we examine a slice or two of this recent New York Times piece about Bishop Eddie L. Long, I feel the need to ask a few basic questions about this troubled church leader’s theology.

So, what does the Catholic Church think of the so-called “prosperity Gospel”? I think it’s safe to say that the Church of Rome teaches that this doctrinal innovation is dead wrong, dangerous and, perhaps, even heretical.

What do the Eastern Orthodox churches think of the “prosperity Gospel”? Ditto.

What does the Southern Baptist Convention think of the “prosperity Gospel”? Ditto.

What do self-proclaimed Christian “fundamentalists,” the people who are so conservative that they openly embrace the label “fundamentalist” as accurate, think of this controversial doctrine? They reject it, as well.

What do ultra-conservative Calvinists think of it?

I think you can see a trend here.

The point is that the “prosperity Gospel” has, for the most part, emerged out of a pretty specific niche in modern Christianity (decent Wikipedia page here). This stream of thought is usually linked to Pentecostal churches, but may also be found in other evangelical networks. In the case of Long, he is a leader in what is called the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. Note the interesting combination of “Baptist” and “Full Gospel.”

Truth is, it is inaccurate to simply say that the “prosperity Gospel” is proclaimed, or even viewed as acceptable, by “conservative Christians.” The reason that this statement is wrong is that the overwhelming majority of the world’s conservative Christians reject the “prosperity Gospel.” It’s hard to be a “conservative Christian” when so many of the world’s conservative Christians think you are a heretic.

Hopefully, GetReligion readers can see the logic of this. To understand Long, news consumers really need to understand why his ministry was frequently criticized by most conservative Christian believers, even before his recent moral fall from grace.

With all of that as a backdrop, let’s look at the top of this Times field report from yet another Times team trip into an exotic foreign land — the Bible Belt.

LITHONIA, Ga. – At the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta.

With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders. He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.

Now, it is certainly true that conservative Christians believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. That is an ancient doctrine that would unite traditional Christians.

So it is safe to say that conservative Christians believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. However, it is not logical to say that all people who believe that sex outside of marriage is sin are, in fact, traditional, conservative or even creedal Christians. These circles intersect, but they are not the same.

Toward the end of the story, there was another interesting combination of terms that yields more heat than light.

Support for Bishop Long continues to shrink. Just before the sexual coercion settlement was announced, the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left the church.

On Sunday, a small group of antigay, religious protesters stood outside the church urging Bishop Long to step down permanently. They said they planned to return every month until he left.

“He has a serious moral character flaw,” said Isaac Richmond, 73, the minister at the Church of Human Development in Memphis. “It’s a moral question and he’s a religious figure. We don’t want that image as a role model for young men in the African-American community.”

It’s possible that this crowd of protesters was united by its opposition to homosexuality and, thus, has turned on Long because of his alleged behavior. Yet, on its face, the Times is saying that a pack of antigay protesters have decided to stage a public protest of the ongoing the ministry of the antigay pastor who has been accused of homosexual activity.

That’s sort of confusing. Perhaps it would have been better simply to quote the protesters, after asking them why they were there. Then again, if they were carrying signs that clearly identified themselves as “antigay … protesters,” then that reference would have worked. The label would be validated and illustrated. It’s a journalism thing.

It’s also possible that it would, in fact, have been accurate to call the protesters “conservative Christians,” but we really don’t have enough information to make that judgment. Why? For the most part, the Times simply served up labels.

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Free will, miracles and the BBC

“In miracles we are dealing . . . with the unreal world of fairy-tale,” Matthew Arnold wrote over 125 years ago in God and the Bible. An observer of the BBC’s religion reporting would not be wrong in concluding the Corporation follows this general line, treating faith with a modicum of skepticism.

However, a recent story on faith healing and HIV crosses over the line of healthy skepticism that all good reporting should display into pamphleteering — offering an opinion as news and marshaling facts to support the argument.

The author of Church HIV prayer cure claims “cause three deaths” means well and his intentions of exposing a religious charlatan are good. Intentions aside, this BBC piece is bad journalism. It is poorly sourced, offers inferences as facts — repeat after me  correlation does not imply causation — displays an ignorance of religion and lacks context, balance and tone. On a philosophical level it also breaks with the BBC’s stance on free will — which is not such a bad thing, by the way.

But let’s first jump into the story and see if you see what I see. It begins thus:

At least three people in London with HIV have died after they stopped taking life saving drugs on the advice of their Evangelical Christian pastors.

The women died after attending churches in London where they were encouraged to stop taking the antiretroviral drugs in the belief that God would heal them, their friends and a leading HIV doctor said.

Sometimes I think I will die after attending church, but setting aside faulty syntax let’s return to the story. It continues with a critique by a former government health minister of the general principle of stopping one’s medicine in such circumstances before moving back to substantiate its opening sentences.

Jane Iwu, 48, from Newham, east London, described one case, saying: “I know of a friend who had been to a pastor. She told her to stop taking her medication — that God is a healer and has healed her.”

“This lady believed it. She stopped taking her medication. She passed away,” said Ms Iwu, who has HIV herself.

BBC London spoke to a second woman from east London who told of a friend who died after taking advice from her pastor who told her to stop taking her antiretroviral drugs.

Meanwhile, the director of a leading HIV research centre in east London said she had dealt with a separate case in which a person with HIV died as a result of advice from a pastor.

The story then moves to the experts, who say such practices are harmful.

“We see patients quite often who will come having expressed the belief that if they pray frequently enough, their HIV will somehow be cured,” she added.

“We have seen people who choose not to take the tablets at all so sometimes die,” [said Prof Jane Anderson, director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Health and HIV, in Hackney.]

The culprits are then identified.

HIV prevention charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN) says a growing number of London churches have been telling people the power of prayer will “cure” their infections.

“This is happening through a number of churches. We’re hearing about more cases of this,” AHPN chief Francis Kaikumba said.

AHPN said it believed the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), which has UK headquarters in Southwark, south London, may be one of those involved in such practices.

The church is headed by Pastor T B Joshua, Nigeria’s third richest clergyman, according to a recent Forbes richlist.

When approached by BBC London, leaders of the church described themselves as Evangelical Christian pastors.

The church’s website, which was set up in Lagos, Nigeria, shows photos of people the church claims have been “cured” of HIV through prayer.

The article offers extracts from SCOAN’s website about its healing ministries and quotes a London resident who said that when she spoke with a representative of the church on the telephone she was told prayer can cure HIV.

At this point a SCOAN representative appears on the scene, but he doesn’t appear to be on the same script as the BBC.

However, when asked by BBC London if it claimed its pastors can cure HIV, SCOAN responded: “We are not the healer. God is the healer. Never a sickness God cannot heal. Never a disease God cannot cure.

“We don’t ask people to stop taking medication,” the church added. “Doctors treat; God heals.”

Let’s go through the problems in the order they appear in the story. The story claims that three people have died after they were told to stop taking their HIV medications by “Evangelical Christian pastors.”  The evidence for this claim comes from friends of the deceased (whose names have been changed for the story, the article reports in a footnote). In other words, there is no credible evidence for the claim. No one in a position of authority — police, doctor, coroner — is suggesting the deaths were caused by having stopped taking medications.

We don’t know who has died; we don’t know what they were told; we don’t know when they were told; we don’t know who told them; we don’t know if what they were told led to their deaths; we don’t know how they died. No evidence is presented that the three deaths were linked in any way to their church-going, or to their religious beliefs. Rather friends of the deceased think this might be so.

And on a lesser point, but one that particularly irritates me, we have the claim of Evangelicals being behind this, based upon someone from the church in question self-identifying as evangelical. However, Pastor T.B. Joshua and his Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN) is not an evangelical church, but comes out of the Pentecostal tradition. And a review of the literature about SCOAN finds that Nigerian Christian leaders have denounced it as a cult. Possessing a Christian overlay of vocabulary and symbolism, SCOAN is better described as an African Indigenous Church that combines elements of Christianity with Nigerian traditional beliefs — others argue TB Joshua is a charlatan. But I’m jumping ahead in the narrative.

The group that fingers SCOAN as the villain, said it “believed” the church “may be one of those involved.” In other words, we only have conditional language linking SCOAN to the deaths, and that is not enough to convict.

When the SCOAN spokesman appears, the statements he makes about prayer and healing are so anodyne they could have been offered by the Church of England. If this was meant to shock the reader, I’m afraid the author will be disappointed.

The bottom line here is that there is no evidence to support the statements made in the lede. There is nothing in this story other than the author’s opinion that it is wrong to stop taking antiretroviral drugs and the statements of experts who support this view. Now I happen to agree with this view. But this story as journalism is junk.

However, if we take all of the inferences and assumptions laid out in the story as being true, I was struck by the shift in the BBC’s views on human autonomy this would imply. The Corporation has long championed the cause of euthanasia and has been accused of supporting the right to die through biased news reporting. To be philosophically coherent, I would have assumed the BBC would have supported the choice of the three HIV patients to have stopped taking their medication. The Corporation’s support of human autonomy, of freedom conceived as the faculty of acting spontaneously according to the representation of ends (the will), is rejected in this story and has been replaced with a censorious moralism. “What these people have chosen to do with their own lives is bad,” is how I understand the author’s point of view in this story.

I should say I do not disagree with this sentiment, yet though we have arrived at the same destination I came on a different train. Free will, when it is expressed in secular terms is a moral good for the BBC. Free will when expressed as a choice to believe in miracles and hope for God’s intervention in your life is treated with scorn by the Corporation.

It may have been his sweet reasonableness or Victorian sensibilities, but Matthew Arnold tried to coat his unbelief with with a gentile wash of regret.

The reasons drawn from miracles on cannot but dismiss with tenderness, for they belong to a great and splendid whole, — a beautiful and powerful fairy-tale , which was long believed without question, and which has given comfort and joy to thousands. And one abandons them with a kind of unwilling disenchantment, and only because one must.

The BBC, unlike Arnold, doesn’t do sympathy for the Christian world view and as such misses the deeper story here. The question why someone would do what the BBC is claiming they have done is glossed over — yet the why is the most important question.

John Henry Newman stated that “Catholics believe that [miracles] happen in any age of the Church, though not for the same purpose, in the same number, or with the same evidence, as in apostolic times.” The question for the believer is not whether miracles can occur—of course they can, if God is God—but why they should occur so randomly, why this person and not that should be their recipient.

As he explained to Charles Kingsley in his Apologia pro vita sua, miracles “must be clearly proved, because perhaps after all it may be only a providential mercy, or an exaggeration, or a mistake, or an imposture.”

Here is the heart of the story — a Nigerian pastor has been promising miracles to those who believe (in him?) and three of his followers have died after following his council. This story is inferred but not told, and as such fails.

The article does appear to have legs, however, with the Guardian, and the Sunday Herald in Scotland among others picking it up. I do hope though that those who follow in the reporting do take the time to get to the heart of the matter and answer Newman’s question. What is going on here: providential mercy, an exaggeration, a mistake, or imposture.

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Big day at Supreme Court for religious freedom

An extremely important religious liberty case is being argued in front of the Supreme Court today. I have been meaning to cover the case for months, but it kept falling into the deeper recesses of my guilt file. The case involves the firing of a Lutheran school teacher from a Lutheran school. The particulars of the case are unique and the story of the teacher who was fired is compelling. But because of the way the lower courts have ruled and because of the possible outcomes of a SCOTUS decision, today is just huge.

I’m going to excerpt this Baptist Press story for the details of the two sides in the case:

Cheryl Perich was a teacher at the Lutheran Church-run school Hosanna-Tabor, based in eastern Michigan, when doctors diagnosed her with narcolepsy and she missed work for several months. The school, its small staff stretched, hired a replacement teacher for the spring semester. Perich wanted to return to her job during the spring, but the school noted that it had hired a replacement for the semester; the school also wasn’t convinced she was physically ready to return to work. She threatened to sue if she wasn’t reinstated.

The school fired her, saying she had violated church teachings by immediately turning to legal action instead of going through the church’s own process for dealing with such disputes. Perich filed a lawsuit with the EEOC, alleging that the firing was retaliatory for her narcolepsy. That question of retaliatory firing could muddy the broader issue of whether religious schools have autonomy in personnel decisions. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich, saying she should not fall under the “ministerial exception,” as a church employee, so she could sue. The court drew out two columns titled “secular” and “religious” and tallied how many minutes of the day Perich spent on each. The court added the totals and concluded that she spent more minutes on secular education than religious, and so she did not fall under the “ministerial exception” for church employees.

The lawyers for the school blasted the circuit court’s “mechanistic” approach to Christian education.

So how well are the media covering it? I think it’s fair to say the lead-up to the case could have received more coverage — particularly on news pages as opposed to op-ed pages where most of the ink was spilled — but this is not a case of media silence.

For example, religion reporter Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal had a helpful piece on the matter. And it was written in such an engaging matter that it got picked up widely, including by USA Today. He begins by saying that the case is uniting an impressive interfaith group:

Leaders of Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, United Sikhs, Muslims, Episcopalians, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are united.

So are the conservative National Association of Evangelicals and its liberal counterpart, the National Council of Churches.

So are devotees of Santeria, Yoruba and other religions you may not know.

Even the various Baptist denominations are all on the same side.

They all support the right of religious groups to hire and fire teachers who could be construed as “ministers” on grounds that would be otherwise discriminatory, whether due to race, gender and disability or other reasons. The case could affect hundreds of thousands of teachers and other employees in faith-based schools and organizations.

He explains that dozens of denominations have filed amicus briefs with the court in support of the freedom and that only one group, the Unitarian Universalist Association — has taken a contrary view.

He explains the Who, What, Where, When and Why and moves immediately into the “so what?” of the case, which he says revolves around the issue of the ministerial exception:

“The basic rationale underlying the doctrine seems straightforward,” wrote Howard Friedman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Toledo, in the magazine Liberty.

“For a religious institution to thrive, it must be free from government constraint in selecting who will ‘preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large,’” Friedman wrote, quoting federal case law.

“Laws against religious discrimination in employment should not permit the government to tell a Presbyterian church, for example, that it must hire a rabbi,” he wrote.

But the question has gotten murkier in recent court cases in which religious groups claim that other workers besides the most obvious — clergy — are ministers and don’t have the right to challenge their dismissals.

That includes teachers, in the case of the Lutheran school.

Lutheran school teachers routinely teach the doctrines of the faith, no matter their subject area. But Smith shows how the ministerial exception is also used by various religious bodies to cover other folks, such as administrative assistants and professors at seminaries.

Some of the arguments for and against the school are laid out, although the arguments are certainly not exhaustive (nor could they be in a brief news article).

Smith did a good job of showcasing how broad the coalition of religious groups united in support of religious freedom over anti-discrimination laws, including Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye and Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha. I do wish the story had gotten a bit more into the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, though.

For those interested in the arguments in the case and what it could portend for federal involvement in church decisions, you should check out this op-ed from historian Thomas S. Kidd in USA Today which highlights how the Obama administration did not side with religious groups in the amicus brief it filed:

But in a jarring departure from precedent, the Department of Justice argued in an August brief that the ministerial exemption, if it even exists, is exceedingly narrow, applying only to clergy whose duties are “exclusively religious” (forgetting that even ministers have many earthly duties). …

When framing the Bill of Rights, James Madison and the other Founders wanted the government to have no power to mandate church policies. They wanted no national denomination, either. So they prohibited Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion, and guaranteed churches and other religious organizations the “free exercise of religion.”

One cannot imagine a more obvious feature of an establishment of religion, or a clearer violation of free exercise, than the government dictating to a church that it must rehire a religious teacher, especially a person who has violated church teachings or behavioral codes. The Justice Department’s position, if vindicated, raises the possibility that courts and bureaucrats may, in the name of contemporary norms of fairness, begin requiring religious organizations to hire any number of candidates who do not accept that faith’s tenets. One could easily imagine future decisions forcing churches, synagogues, or mosques to hire employees who do not adhere to the tradition’s norms of sexual behavior, for example.

When Justice filed that opposition brief, it dramatically raised the stakes in the case. That’s because Justice opposes the existence of the ministerial exception altogether and argues that if the Court recognizes an exemption, it be narrowly construed as applying to people who perform “exclusively religious functions.” I have no idea whether the court would find this argument in any way compelling but if they did, it would dramatically change the landscape and open up churches to a wide array of discrimination litigation.

Just a huge, huge case. So let us know if you see any particularly good or bad stories coming out of the day’s arguments.

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