NYTimes warns: Evangelistic speech near the National Mall!

Are there any GetReligion readers out there who remember the mini-media storm back in 1999 when the Southern Baptist Convention published a series of booklets to guide church members in their prayers for the conversion of members of other faiths?

As you would expect, some faith leaders were quite offended by this, especially Jews who — readers with really long memories will recall — had previously been involved with a Southern Baptist or two about issues linked to prayers and Judaism.

I went to an event in 1999 at a Washington, D.C., think tank in when some Jewish leaders dialogued with Southern Baptists, in a very constructive manner, about the wisdom of these guides, the centrality of evangelism to Baptist theology, etc., etc.

In the question-and-answer session, a Washington Post scribe asked, in a rather blunt manner, why Southern Baptists were allowed to print and circulate these kinds of materials.

I was stunned. So was the very liberal rabbi in the chair next to me. I asked a question that went something like this: “Did I just hear someone from the Washington Post question whether evangelistic speech is covered by the First Amendment?” The Reconstructionist rabbi said, “I think that’s what just happened.”

Why do I bring up this story? Well, this is what I thought of when I hit an interesting passage in a New York Times story about the Green family (of Hobby Lobby fame) and its attempt to build a massive Bible museum on prime land in Washington, D.C.

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Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

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Cruz bounces back, with the help of family and, maybe, faith

There is a reason sports fans see so many media images of professional athletes wearing those omnipresent Beats headphones in locker rooms.

Most athletes these days use music as a way to get pumped up before games and then to cool down afterwards. The problem, of course, is that the typical locker room is going to have a lot of trouble coming up with a common play list for what will end up at high volume on the big speakers. Techno, rap, country, heavy metal and old-school R&B don’t mix all that well. Thus, many athletes crank things up on headphones.

However, there are stars who have earned enough respect, veterans who have enough clout, that they get to play their music on their own sound systems at their lockers or even over the house systems in the weight room. Other players cut them some slack, because they’ve earned it (or they demand it). To one degree or another, everyone else in the room is going to know that this athlete needs that music. Often it’s a symbolic thing, a link to particular culture or life experience. And that’s that.

Thus, I noted with interest the following reference (a passing reference, with no follow-up information) in a Baltimore Sun article about the new shooting star in the Orioles locker room — slugger Nelson Cruz.

Cruz quickly has become a part of the Orioles family in Baltimore.

He appreciates that his teammates let him play his Christian music in the workout room, even though O’Day joked that his singing is lacking. Cruz’s Twitter feed includes photos of him and fellow Latin players, like Ubaldo Jimenez, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, out at dinner together on the road.

Now that’s interesting. There are some high-profile religious believers in that locker room (another former Texas Rangers slugger, Chris Davis, leaps to mind), but I had no idea that Christian faith played a role in the dramatic up-and-down drama surrounding Cruz. I wanted to know more about that. Honest, he cranks up Christian music in the team weight room? Outrageous.

I still want to know more about that. Even after yet another giant Sun feature on Cruz that ran Sunday on A1, instead of the sports page.

Why would a faith-angle matter? Well, for starters Cruz has lived a rather complex moral life in recent years. The story ran under this complex double-decker headline:

After a tumultuous year, red-hot Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz has never been happier

Though drug scandal remains part of his story, Cruz is beloved by fans, teammates as he readies for All-Star Game

So if Cruz is a man of faith, surely the Sun team is going to ask him some questions about how his admitted past use of performance-enhancing drugs fits into that picture. Right?

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Hero or troubled soul: Dallas pastor takes his life

Right from the start, a long Page 1 story in The Dallas Morning News portrays the Rev. Charles Moore as a hero.

The headline on the weekend story:

In dying act, minister hoped to inspire social justice

The top of the 1,750-word story:

From segregated churches of East Texas to destitute slums of India, the Rev. Charles Moore fought for human rights.

He delivered sermons about racism and sexism. He stood vigil against the death penalty. He went on a hunger strike to protest discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But during retirement, the United Methodist minister questioned whether he had done enough. He saw the broken world around him.

So how did Moore — according to the Morning News — take his final, courageous stand?:

On a Monday afternoon in June, Moore, 79, drove from his home in Allen to Grand Saline, the town of his childhood about 70 miles east of Dallas. He traveled along country roads near fields of wildflowers and grazing cattle. In a strip-mall parking lot, outside a dollar store, beauty salon and pharmacy, he knelt down, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.

As flames engulfed him, he screamed and tried to stand. Witnesses rushed to put out the blaze with shirts, bottled water and, finally, an extinguisher.

He was flown unconscious to a Dallas hospital, where he died from burn injuries.

Keep reading, and the Dallas newspaper uses Moore’s own terminology — self-immolation — to describe the nature of his death:

Moore had intended his act to be a grand but selfless gesture in the manner of Buddhist monks who have done the same before him.

“I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service,” he wrote in one of the notes he left behind.

The Morning News does not explain the term, but Wikipedia defines self-immolation as “a ritualistic suicide practice” that refers to “killing oneself as a sacrifice.”

In an earlier story headlined “Madman or Martyr: Retired minister sets self on fire, dies,” the Tyler Morning Telegraph used the term “suicide” up high:

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Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

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Louis Zamperini: A life transformed by … Billy Graham?

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Louis Zamperini had an amazing, amazing life.

Actually, he had two of them since — pardon my French — he was a born-again Christian.

You can get the amazing details of his first life in all of obituaries that are running in major news publications. However, if you want to know much about how this amazing man made sense of all of the pain and suffering in his life, how he was healed (in several senses of that word) and then moved on, well, good luck with that.

Here is the top of the almost fine obit in the pages of secular holy writ, The New York Times:

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.

The details of his ordeal must be read to be believed. Yes, please read them. Yes, he shook the hand of Adolph Hitler.

It is perfectly understandable that this kind of trauma and, at one point, daily torture left scars. The news coverage of Zamperini’s death has handled that angle, sort of. Here is the Times, again:

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Yo WPost: Tim Howard saves, but he says with God’s help

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I have decided to yield to the inevitable.

This morning’s digital Religion News Service newsletter (click here to subscribe) is dead right: People still grieving Team USA’s loss need to surf through the CNN Belief blog’s redeeming dose of Twitter love for goalie Tim Howard and his modern-era World Cup record of 16 saves in one match.

My personal favorite from this digital tsunami:

In terms of news about Howard, the story of the day is the feature at The Washington Post, which begins by noting that goalkeepers tend to be radical individuals, but even by those standards “the tale of American goalkeeper Tim Howard is richer than most.”

The hook for this story is obvious — Howard has Tourette’s syndrome.

Thus, this is a tale of personal struggle, discipline and, well, some other mysterious factor that goes unmentioned.

“Between now and four years ago, I’ve played a couple hundred games for my club and country,” Howard said after the game. “Just more experienced. I don’t really get too high or too low. I think when you have a big tournament, that’s the important thing, managing emotion.”

It has always been that way for Howard. He always has had to think about managing emotion. The bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the more his tics and symptoms flare. “I’ve never counted [how many tics I have in a game],” he said in a 2013 interview with Spiegel Online. “It happens all the time, without any warning, and it increases the nearer an important game draws,” he said. “It always occurs more when I am particularly nervous.”

When the ball is far away, he says he indulges his twitches. “I don’t suppress it,” he told the German publication. But when an opposing striker approaches and readies an attack — which happened over and again on Tuesday — his muscles miraculously calm. “I have no idea how I do it,” he said. “Not even my doctors can explain it to me. It’s probably because at that moment my concentration on the game is stronger than the Tourette’s syndrome.”

Miraculously?

Hold that thought, because this Post report has an interesting hole in it.

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Hobby Lobby in narrow win; Little Sisters of the Poor on deck

So why are the Little Sisters of the Poor at the top of this post as the tsunami of Hobby Lobby coverage continues? Hang on.

So far, the mainstream press coverage of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision (.pdf here) has been rather good. In particular, there has been a shockingly low rate of scare quotes around terms such as “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” almost certainly because this case — in the eyes of the 5-4 majority — pivoted on issues linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a major 1993 win for the old church-state liberalism of the past (RIP).

However, note the very interesting scare quotes in the following reaction statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ committee for Religious Liberty.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.

“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”

The key word is, of course, “accommodation.” In other words, the court did not deal with the Little Sisters of the Poor and appears to have left a door open for the White House to ask Hobby Lobby and other family-owned corporations to settle for the same “accommodation” it has offered to doctrinally defined religious non-profits, ministries and schools. The basic idea is that religious believers will not have to pay for services that they believe are damnable and heretical because the government will ask their insurance providers to provide these services for free (without quietly raising the rates to cover the cost).

I think major news organizations did fine with Hobby Lobby details, in part, because it was seen primarily as an extension of the whole “corporations are people too” political battles of recent years. Thus, the family-owned corporations have religious liberty rights, while massive impersonal corporations (none of which have sought exemptions) have not.

What about the doctrinally defined non-profits, the second level of this church-state fight that many journalists tend to miss?

Remember that New York Times report in 2013 noting that the White House has “excluded many religious organizations from the law’s requirements”? As I wrote at the time:

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