Press doesn’t get King’s real dream

mlk 02 On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the now famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.

King had arrived in Memphis to help lead a sanitation worker’s strike. His message was that in a violent and unjust age, he was seeking to do God’s will: showing the city’s whites that God’s black children were suffering and must be helped. As King said,

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.

Today is the 40th anniversary of King’s death. Unfortunately, the press has not changed much since his day. Reporters in general continue to focus on the window breaking itself rather than the Christian context in which King understood that it occurred. The result is stories that not only commit the sin of presentism, but also are largely secularized.

To The Washington Post, King was a tragic leader of the Left. Reporter Kevin Merida focuses on King’s career from 1966 to 1968, the time when King had helped eliminate legal discrimination but struggled to achieve economic and social equality, especially for striking sanitation workers in Memphis:

Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today’s anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation’s uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues — war and poverty — that were consuming him at the time of his death.

Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor — despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis — are as voiceless as they were in King’s day, advocates contend.

Merida’s focus on politics unmoored from religion is misplaced. In his mountain-top speech, King explicitly identified himself with Moses, the religious leader who is allowed to peer the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. Instead, Merida portrays King as the political leader of a line that runs from George McGovern to Barack Obama.

To The Washington Times, King was a tragic leader in another sense: His black followers rioted and pillaged Washington and left a legacy of crime and poverty. As Timothy Warren writes,

Beginning in the early evening on April 4, 1968, upon learning of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., angry blacks throughout the city took their frustration and mourning to the streets. They began fire-bombing and looting businesses.

“We saw crowds beginning to form around 7:30 near 14th and U,” said Mr. Barry. “I tried to get them to calm down. That’s when the riot started to break out. Firetrucks couldn’t even get down there till 3 or 4 in the morning.”

“We could see the fires early on April 5,” said Jim McNeece, a Columbia Heights native and volunteer fireman for Prince George’s County at the time, who was brought in to help fight the fires in the District. “About 24 hours later, they called us because the D.C. fire crews were overwhelmed. Rioters pelted us with rocks and bottles as we put out the fires.”

In the end, the riots led to 10 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and 7,600 arrests and damage of $13 million, according to the Washington Star. The aftermath of the riots have had an unfortunate lasting effect on the city, stunting what many think could have been major economic and cultural development for the District.

mlk2 It’s possible to interpret Warren’s story as the conservative rejoinder to Merida’s: While King fought for equal rights and practiced non-violence, his secular followers lay waste to the nation’s capital. This is an interesting and important angle, but also a flawed one. It focuses, literally, on broken windows rather than King’s prophetic role.

To The Los Angeles Times, King was not only a leader of the New Left, but also a man of God. As John L. Mitchell writes, King focused on political issues, while those who heard him give a sermon at a local church remember him as a holy man:

While he was in Los Angeles, King was contacted by the Rev. James Lawson, who urged him to fly to Memphis, where garbage workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions after two workers were accidentally killed in a trash compactor. That Monday, March 18, King flew to Memphis and delivered a speech to more than 15,000 people.

“He was the Moses of our movement, the major spokesperson and symbol for black people and lots of people around the world,” said Lawson, who chaired the strike committee and later was pastor at Holman for 25 years before retiring and teaching nonviolence.

Mitchell’s story had the advantage of focusing on one incident (check out the images and audio recording of the speech; they’re excellent). This allowed him to tell readers about the historical context in which King gave his speech as well as the reactions of those who saw him deliver it. But Mitchell failed to note that King’s sermon had as much a religious element as a political one.

To its credit, The New York Times conveyed King’s Christian character and mindset well. Shaila Dewan wrote an interesting story about a vacation home that King never got to use. In the story, she told this illuminating anecdote:

Ms. Mitchell, a pioneer in early childhood education and one of the first black school board members in Beaufort County (the other was also a Penn staff member), said she was determined to ask Dr. King one question: “How can you tell me to love people who treat me as if I were not human?”

“I will never forget” his response, she said. “He said we are created in God’s image. So you love the image of God in that person.” She added: “I don’t know if I was able to use that, to apply that, in all different situations. But I always remembered it.”

By using this anecdote, Dewan gave readers a sense of King’s spiritual force. Here was a man interested not just in material bounty and equality for his fellow blacks, but rather in doing God’s will through social protest.

It’s tempting to write about historical figures by focusing on their legacy. But if reporters don’t convey to readers the figures’ perception of themselves, especially their religious perception, they will get only half the story.

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John the sort-of Baptist

johnmccain highres2Jonathan Martin, a great reporter for Politico, had a lengthy story looking critically at the lack of religious rhetoric coming from Sen. John McCain.

It’s a very interesting story and one that raises some questions, but first let’s look at this paragraph:

Raised Episcopalian, McCain now attends a Baptist megachurch in Phoenix. But he has not been baptized and rarely talks of his faith in anything but the broadest terms or as it relates to how it enabled him to survive 5 1/2 years in captivity as a POW.

Um, I’m pretty sure that John McCain, raised Episcopalian, has been baptized. Unless we’re going to say that the Baptist view against infant baptism is somehow objectively correct, this paragraph is phrased poorly.

But that’s not where the Baptist bias ends. The whole piece approaches the issue of whether religious rhetoric is appropriate in political contests as if the question has been decided:

Yet in a time when privacy for any politician, let alone a presidential candidate, is virtually nonexistent and open expressions — or at least explanations — of religiosity are expected and sometimes demanded by others, McCain may ultimately have to offer more than just testimony about his belief in America’s civic religion.

“I would be very surprised if he didn’t,” says John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Simply because a lot of voters will want to know about his faith.”

“It’s a faith-based country,” observes Sen. Sam Brownback, a devout Catholic who has grown closer to McCain since backing his candidacy last year. “Presidential candidates should acknowledge that and say just what is their identity as it relates to that.”

Martin talks to many other people who offer precisely the same analysis. It would be nice if just once these stories would include a Two Kingdoms perspective decrying the supposed need for candidates to emote about their religious views. Journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto just wrote a piece about the matter, using Martin Luther’s view that “The emperor need not be a Christian so long as he possesses reason” as a springboard to discuss what he considers the proper role of religion in electoral contests. Those of us who advocate Two Kingdoms perspectives are out there. We’re just not usually found in media reports.

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Sundays are not for chicken

day clockThere’s a lot of ink spilled over how politics and religion intersect, but I wish we could see more stories about religion and commerce. It’s somewhat rare to find any religion stories on the business pages.

Dana Knight of the Indianapolis Star examined the two in her piece “Religion at the Register“:

When customers walk into Chick-fil-A, they get a side with their chicken sandwich that’s rare in the world of monstrous fast-food chains: Christianity.

No bones about it, this company’s business philosophy is based largely on biblical principles — including the decision to remain closed on Sundays, when the company could be making big bucks at its 1,356 stores.

“It’s become so much a part of how people think about us that they almost think of that as quick as they think of our chicken sandwich,” said Dan Cathy, president of the Atlanta-based chain, who was visiting the Avon store last week.

It must be true. Every time I get a Chick-fil-A urge, I have to check my Day-of-the-Week clock to make sure it’s the right day for a chicken sandwich and waffle fries!

Anyway, the story lists a few other companies that shutter their doors on Sundays so that employees and customers can go to church and rest. Others are more tolerant of prayer groups or hire chaplains for counseling or to visit employees in hospitals.

But the story doesn’t really explain what, exactly, Christian principles are or where they come from. Even the explanation of why they matter is somewhat shallow. This is the best part in that regard, however.

chicken sandKnight cites Chick-fil-A’s 40 consecutive years of annual sales increases:

A study by McKinsey & Co. found that when companies engage in programs that use spiritual techniques for their employees, productivity improves and turnover is greatly reduced.

Chick-fil-A has some of the most committed employees in the industry, “given the strong principled, religious and value-driven corporate culture,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of retailing at Purdue University. “Committed employees do better. One would think that closing Sundays would hurt business, and in a sense it does, but it improves employee business relationships and leads to the commitment that the others do not have.”

Carolina Cruz, the operator of the Lafayette Chick-fil-A, welcomes her team members over to her house each Sunday to watch “appropriate” movies and build morale.

“Our team members get to work in a great environment, and that builds loyalty,” said Cruz, who started out as a team member herself. “When I found that the company shared my values, little by little I got more in love with the company.”

Again, it’s a good idea for a story. But I wish business reporters weren’t afraid to delve into the religious concepts and bases for running a “value-driven” company. To that end, maybe a religious source or two wouldn’t hurt.

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Wright stuff: T.D. Jakes has a blog

td jakes 2What do you know. I was wrong.

It appears that a major, mainstream American newspaper in a powerful American city has published an article about a Pentecostal or conservative African-American minister reacting to the controversy about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and all of those sermons that have done so much to make Sen. Barack Obama’s media life interesting in recent weeks.

It’s even one of the most famous ministers in America, the man who is often called the black Billy Graham. You’d have to say that he is one of the two or three most famous preachers — period — in the whole dang state of Texas, which is saying something.

You had to know that this preacher talking about the hot, hot Wright story would be big news.

So here is the entire article, as published at the Dallas Morning News religion weblog:

Bishop T.D. Jakes comments on Dr. Jeremiah Wright
9:07 AM Tue, Apr 01, 2008. …

Bishop Jakes, of Dallas’ Potter’s House, is blogging these days. And his most recent entry is on the controversy over Barack Obama and his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Click here.

There you go. You might want to read it again.

Or, better yet, head on over there and read what Jakes has to say, because it’s pretty interesting. In all fairness, the are so many internationally known African-American conservatives in Texas that, perhaps, we can assume that the News is preparing a Sunday A1 story on this angle, so we should be patient. Hey, it could happen. I would certainly like to hear from the Rev. Tony Evans, to name another pulpit superstar in Dallas.

Over in the alternative press, The Daily Voice (“black America’s daily news source) did publish a news report on the Jakes commentary. Here is a piece of that.

Jakes … accused the media attempting to “discredit, or at least question” Senator Obama because of his allegiance to his former pastor. But he also made an effort to explain the sermon in context to his readers.

“To be sure, the tenor of the infamous sermon sounded angry and that anger is unfortunately not without chorus as there are some blacks who feel left without true vindication. But please know that we are not monolithic and all blacks do not all agree with him, with me, or with anyone else,” he writes.

Here is another interesting piece of the Jakes commentary, straight from his weblog:

Senator Obama, in his follow-up speech, made some very profound statements in order to bring some context to his faith, his experience at his church, and the far more important issue of where race relationships are in this country. While there are many things about the headlines that I find reprehensible, the one thing that gives me some sense of thanksgiving is the fact that people are talking about it absolutely everywhere. I do not know of a preacher anywhere who isn’t grappling with could’ve, would’ve, should’ve in one way or another as we listen as the secular and sacred press try to bring clarity to the murky waters of a painful past some would rather forget than to forge into. As a senior statesman in our Lord’s church, I always worry when the church is under attack, misunderstood, or poorly represented. At the end of the day, I am afraid that when the politicizing stops the image of the church may incur irreparable damage in the minds of secularists who only draw their context of faith from sound bites and newspaper clippings. …

As a pastor I have — for years and years — believed in racial reconciliation and have tried to exemplify diversity in my own hiring practices, and by diversifying our worship experience at our church. Thus, it is gratifying to see the subject get its just due in our conversations and in our desire to confront what some of us have experienced, especially those of us who were born from the bitter womb of racism and slavery. Not wanting anyone else to know that kind of pain has been the catalyst of my hiring women and men, Hispanics and Whites into our church leadership at least as a starting point toward healing. Our church, though predominantly African American, is still comprised of some 20 different nationalities — and is almost 50% men! I believe that when people come to a church and they do not see anyone who looks like them up front, they do not feel as welcome as they do when they see diversity in music, leadership, and ministers that come in and speak.

Read on. As I keep saying, there is another side to this story out in the pews and pulpits. Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News should seize this opportunity to add some diversity to its news pages.

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Wright stuff: Soap suds and salvation

carwash signAs I mentioned the other day, I haven’t been seeing a lot of mainstream coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., that spends much ink on the religion side of this story. Politics continue to rule the day (surprise, surprise).

However, Newsweek recently published a feature that did attempt to shine a bit of light on a younger generation of African-American pastors whose approach to faith and ministry is different than that offered by Barack Obama’s famous spiritual guide. The radical message of this little piece by Allison Samuels — offered as a sidebar to other Obama coverage — is that some black pastors are actually mixing in some ministry with their political activism. Gosh, you think?

Here is the opening:

A few blocks away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the congregation that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, sits the neighborhood carwash. It’s a rough place where junkies and drug dealers hang out. To an African-American minister who came of age in the civil-rights movement, the blighted scene might have made for a powerful sermon on race and inequality in America, culminating in a call to protest and demand change from an uncaring government. But 38-year-old Raphael Warnock, who is now Ebenezer’s senior pastor, saw those young black men destroying their lives at the carwash and had a different idea. Railing at the problem from the pulpit, he says, wasn’t enough. So last year he asked his flock to join him in holding a weekly Bible study at the carwash.

“In many ways, I see my mission the same way I think Dr. King did, helping the poor and helpless find their way and not be forgotten by the powers that be,” says Warnock. “I just think our ways of attacking many of those same issues have changed. Protests and marches have their place, but there is also a certain amount of action we have to take today to see a change.”

Warnock is part of a new generation of up-and-coming black ministers who are reaching out to young African-Americans, many of whom view the church as an anachronism, and have fallen away from it. Once vital community centers, black churches are often filled with older women on Sunday mornings, not families or young singles. Younger African-Americans, men in particular, say the church, rooted in the struggles and rhetoric of the past, does not speak their language, or speak to their needs. “The black male has all but disappeared from the church, and that wasn’t the case during previous generations,” says Warnock.

Warnock and his peers are out to change that.

The message of this story is that this younger generation is staying true to the Civil Rights Era agenda, but is not limited to it in terms of style. They respect their elders (and those quoted think Wright is getting a raw deal in the press), but they are moving on. They quote hip hop lyrics, instead of black liberation theologians?

But there are huge ghosts in this story, starting with the fact that the demographics of the black churches — at least those covered in this story — resemble the aging and feminine stats of the world of white oldline Protestantism. The status of black men in the church — in the pews, as opposed to the pulpits — is a major news story and closely linked to the breakdown of the black family (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan research), which may be the biggest story in modern urban life.

But I still have a question, after reading this: Where are the black Pentecostals? Where are the black Southern Baptists and the conservatives in the Church of God in Christ? Where are the leaders of black super churches (other than Trinity United Church of Christ, the rare mainline megachurch) and the multiracial megachurches? In other words, where is the other half of the theological spectrum in the modern black church?

When will we hear from these voices?

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John Hagee and Hitler’s pope

Let’s face it, Republican GetReligion readers. You are out there, bracing for the moment when the Rev. Pat Robertson (a) speaks his mind on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, (b) endorses Sen. John McCain, (c) begins his pre-hurricane-season Bible commentaries or (d) all of the above.


You just know that the mainstream reporters are, after the Wright firestorm, going to be all over the wild fringe of the Republican clergy (as they should be). This brings us, of course, to the Rev. John Hagee and his colorful views of the Roman Catholic Church, which is big news in a national election year because Catholics are the swing voters who matter the most.

For those behind in this game, here’s the top of an Associated Press report on Hagee and the aftermath of his controversial endorsement of McCain:

Republican presidential candidate John McCain … repudiated any views of a prominent televangelist who endorsed him last month “if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics.”

McCain has come under fire since televangelist John Hagee endorsed him on Feb. 27, but until Friday his response had been tepid. The Arizona senator merely said he doesn’t agree with everyone who endorses him. He said Friday he had been hearing from Catholics who find Hagee’s comments offensive.

Hagee, leader of a San Antonio megachurch, has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “the great whore” and called it a “false cult system” and “the apostate church” — “apostate” means someone who has forsaken his religion.

Thus, McCain tried to distance himself from Hagee and his beliefs. The problem, however, is that it was hard to know what Hagee actually said — beyond a few wild and very offensive phrases. As you would expect, conservative Catholics were very interested in this issue. They were upset, to say the least.

And so was Hagee, who quickly put out a statement. This is one of those cases where it helps to read the whole document (please do so), but here is a crucial section:

The truth is I am not now nor have I ever been anti-Catholic. That has been demonstrated in a life time of ministry that has assisted Catholics and the Catholic Church. I have given thousands of dollars to the Catholic Church for disaster relief and have personally supported a local convent for many years. Cornerstone Church has operated a social services center that gives food and clothing daily to people who in the majority are Catholic. My wife comes from a Catholic family and millions of my viewers are Catholics.

Many in the media have mistakenly accepted characterizations of my statements which simply are not true. I never called the Catholic Church the “anti-Christ” a “false cult system” “the apostate church” or the “great whore” of Revelations. This is a serious misinterpretation of my words. When I use these terms, I am referring to those Christians who ignore the Gospels and embrace the false doctrines of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.

Now the crucial statement is this: “This is a serious misinterpretation of my words.”

In other words, Hagee said the words that he is being accused of saying. Yet he believes that he is being quoted accurately, but out of context. So what does Hagee believe?

It seems to me that his views contain many of the classic anti-Catholic interpretations of scripture that are embraced by some Protestant fundamentalists. Yet Hagee claims that he is not applying these views to all Catholics, but only to those who are — in his view — guilty of anti-Semitism. His views of Rome’s actions in World War II are as radical as, well, any left-wing critic of Pope Pius XII.

That’s rather ironic, don’t you think? There are times when people go so far to the right that they end up on the far left. Can you say “Hitler’s Pope”?

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Papal drama vs. melodrama

savethedramaIn recent weeks, I’ve tried to point out some of the better and worse coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the United States.

Count this one as one of the better. Headlined “Pope Is Coming, as Is Cliched Coverage in the Media,” you can also see it’s one of the funnier. Reporter Peter Steinfels, writing in the more casual “Beliefs” section, says what many of us have been thinking for years:

Is the pope Catholic? That used to be a sarcastic way of saying, could anything be more obvious? Is fire hot? Is water wet?

Now, however, that nothing in the world is obvious, when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States on April 15 there will surely be voices in the media apparently disconcerted to discover that, yes, the pope is Catholic.

Yes, he disagrees with Richard Dawkins that atheism is necessary for salvation. Yes, he believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God and the center of human history. Yes, he thinks that Catholic Christianity is truer than Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or even Protestant Christianity. Astounding. What next?

Can I get an ‘Amen!”? What distinguishes Steinfels’ piece, though, is the way he homes in on media coverage of Benedict’s upcoming trip. He says the most surprising thing about papal trips are the way they provoke surprise that, for instance, the pope believes all human life is valuable. Or the way that people are surprised that even those American Roman Catholics who do not follow all Catholic teachings still honor the pope. And he makes an important point:

This kind of disagreement may signal, as some argue, a severe crisis in church authority. Or it may be more of a norm throughout Catholic history than is widely realized. But whatever it is, it is not new.

Reporters, of course, have to emphasize drama to push their stories to the front page or the top the of the hour. But it can cause problems:

Breathlessness is always a problem with papal visits. The trouble with melodrama is that it displaces genuine drama. Caricature replaces character.

Steinfels argues that at least five genuine dramas are built into this trip: the appearance at the UN, the encounter with American Catholicism, the emphasis on Catholic education and identity, interactions with leaders of other denominations and navigating the American political divides. Writing about Benedict’s record, he says:

Breathlessness doesn’t help much in making sense of such a record, neither the breathlessness that interprets the pope solely through his most controversial acts or statements nor the breathlessness that cannot imagine how a prayerful, learned and revered figure might nonetheless be a flawed leader.

Breathlessness may be a major reason why, almost three years after his election, the world still hasn’t much of a fix on his personality or his papacy.

This is my favorite part of Steinfels’ criticism, and one I hope that religion reporters are taking to heart:

Of course, part of the problem in getting a fix on Benedict is simply the feebleness of accepted categories for understanding any serious religious leaders — and hence the impulse to deal with them as celebrities or politicians. Of all the words he speaks during his trip here, the ones that will probably go least examined are no doubt the ones he treasures most, the words of the Mass.

Normally media criticism such as this is written after the fact, after we’ve gone through weeks of horrible reporting. I hope that Steinfels’ piece will be read by everyone tempted to create melodrama where genuine drama exists.

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Hardliner cracks down, tramples freedom

benedictxviReader Martha pointed us toward an article by Reuters religion reporter Michael Conlon. The piece takes the increasingly common view that Pope Benedict XVI will focus on education when he visits the United States next month. For a particularly insightful look at the matter, I commend this piece by someone you may be familiar with.

But look at how Conlon framed his story:

Pope Benedict likely will walk a fine line between trampling on academic freedom and laying down the law on orthodoxy when he meets with top U.S. Catholic educators next month, experts and observers say.

He will walk a fine line between trampling on academic freedom and laying down the law? Any line between those doesn’t so great. This pope is clearly a bad man, according to this story. Well, let’s see how Conlon backs it up. He claims that experts and observers are making this claim. Do they?:

“My guess is that Benedict might present a strong statement about Catholic character but probably not what I would call a rebuke,” said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. . . .

“The suggestion that the pope is coming to the United States with a hammer for Catholic educational issues is not only premature but also prejudicial,” the Rev. David O’Connell, president of Catholic University, said in a letter published in The Washington Post.

Quel horror! Oh wait, neither of those things seem to support the lede. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter predicts a broadly positive tone while Rev. Tom Reese (the former editor of the Jesuit magazine “America” — and he’s former for a reason, if you recall) says he’s worried about academic freedom. If the lede replaced “experts and observers” with “the Rev. Tom Reese,” it would be more accurate.

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