Same as it ever was: It’s time for a new, old GetReligion

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You know that whole Christmas in July thing, when stores and other groups have fun by, well, pretending that it’s Christmas, only in the month of July?

That is kind of what is going on here today. Kind of.

The big news is that GetReligion.org is going back to being GetReligion.org — period. This website has, over the past decade or so, gone through three basic transformations in its platform and layout and now we are headed into No. 4.

We are returning to our status as an independent website that wrestles with issues of religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press, linked to The Media Project and, in a process that will evolve over the next year, to my future classroom work with The King’s College in New York City. The key institution at that prime lower-downtown location is the college’s new John McCandlish Phillips Institute, which is led by a New York City journalist named Paul Glader, who is justifiably well-known for his years of hard-news work with The Wall Street Journal. If you are not familiar with the byline of the late and very great New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, please click here and then here.

The key to this fourth GetReligion move is that we are, first and foremost, a journalism website — as opposed to being a site that fosters dialogues and debates (valid ones, at times) about religion and religious issues. As such, our turf is rather different than the many excellent blogs that have flourished here in the digital universe called Patheos. We think it is time to link up with projects, old and new, dedicated to journalism education.

So what does this have to do with the Christmas in July image?

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Let me explain.

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Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted in one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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Can a laundromat replace the traditional church?

Loads of Love, just one of the popular laundry ministries organized by churches across the nation, involves a whole lot of quarters — and conversation.

In Texas, the United Methodist Church’s Arlington Urban Ministries program has operated a laundromat ministry since 1997. In Charlottesville, Va., the Belmont Baptist Church has offered the needy access to washers and dryers, free detergent and laundry supplies since 2010. In Portland, Ore., volunteers with the Eastside Church of Christ began going into laundromats in 2010 as “a coin-friendly way to share Christ.”

A few months ago, the Episcopal News Service reported on “Laundry Love” ministries involving some of that denomination’s California churches. A video posted on the Episcopal Church’s website earlier this month highlighted Laundry Love as “modern day footwashing.”

This week, Laundry Love made its way to NPR:

It’s 7 p.m. on a weeknight at a strip mall in Huntington Beach, Calif., and people have been lined up for hours outside a laundromat here. They’ve been waiting for a chance to do their wash for free. As they file in, volunteers direct them to the machines and help them to supplies.

This is “Laundry Love” at work — a ministry that raises money to pay for detergent, dryer sheets and quarters for machines.

Laundry is a daunting chore for many people, but for the working poor, the cost of doing laundry — not to mention the time involved in hauling it to a laundromat — can be prohibitive. It can also mean going without other basic essentials.

The idea for Laundry Love began at an Episcopal congregation in Ventura, Calif., and slowly but surely, it’s spreading. Now, more than 70 churches, mosques and synagogues around the country have adopted the practice.

The NPR story does not specify when the ministry started, but the Episcopal News Service report indicated it began about 10 years ago. Nor does the NPR story provide any context on other laundry ministries — and approaches — that exist outside of the Laundry Love effort.

Still, it’s an interesting story — albeit an incomplete one.

NPR advances the notion (as does the writer’s tweet) that the laundry ministry somehow replaces traditional church:

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God, Tennessee, culture and that (ironic) red-flannel shirt

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Once again, the oh-so-bookish politician cloaked in that red plaid shirt is touring the complex state of Tennessee, trying to walk the complicated line between the populism of the old Democratic South and today’s modern Republican realities. One of the major problems faced by Sen. Lamar Alexander remains the same: He is the kind of Republican that, every now and then, when the mood strikes them, mainstream journalists are willing to describe as “moderate” — especially in contrast with tea-party people and, well, you know who.

As a former taxpayer in that unique region called East Tennessee (and someone who will return there soon), I have seen my share of political advertisements and debates in that region and I know where some of the fault lines can be found. The three “states” of Tennessee (see the stars on the flag) are unique and very different regions and cultures. The state, as a whole, is the kind of place where some Democrats remain culturally conservative and many old-guard Republicans have close, defining ties to country clubs as well as churches.

So, what are the hurdles facing Alexander as he runs for another term? Folks at The Washington Post, GetReligion readers will be shocked to learn, are a bit tone deaf to the cultural, moral and religious elements of this drama. It’s all just politics.

Yes, the ties between Alexander and the late Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the good-guy Republicans of the Watergate era, are at the heart of this story and they should be. Trust me, I get that.

Like Baker, Alexander (R-Tenn.) has had an exemplary career in public service. He was elected to two terms as governor of Tennessee and later served as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary. Twice he sought his party’s nomination for president, though, like Baker, he was unsuccessful. In 2002, he won election to the Senate.

Throughout his career, Alexander has embodied Baker’s style of consensus-building politics — and largely for that reason he is now, at 74, facing tea party opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. But the tea party activists are competing against more than just one sitting senator and a Republican establishment lined up behind him. They are running against Baker’s legacy — a culture of Republican politics that has married conservative principles with pragmatic attitudes about governing.

For half a century, Tennessee voters have elected a succession of Republicans to statewide office who are more problem-solvers than ideologues, consensus-seekers rather than rabble-rousers. The current trio — Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — all embody in one way or another the Baker tradition.

“They don’t want big government, but they do want government to work,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist and former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, said of the three, “There’s not a hard edge to them.”

Friends and neighbors, there is more to the current ballot-box tensions between Alexander and state lawmaker Joe Carr than mere tea-party stuff. That “hard edge” quote? That is largely a matter of culture and, in the three states of Tennessee, it’s hard to talk about culture without mentioning religion.

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Members mourn Atlanta church; why don’t they talk?

Friendship Baptist ChurchWhen a congregation has to leave its church building, it’s like moving away from home. Members remember all the things that happened there. They think of fun and funny anecdotes, and the crises they weathered. They recall what the church meant to the community.

All that is even more intense when the church is 152 years old, as is Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Which makes a New York Times story on its last service all the more puzzling.

The story has not a single quote from any longtime members, although it says that up to four generations of members were at the farewell service. It offers some appetizers on the church’s influence, but doesn’t serve the main course. And even after three readings, I didn’t see a clear reason the building was to be demolished.

Not that the story lacks some telling details. The lede paints Atlanta as a city so proud of its racial harmony that it neglects its heritage:

So it was perhaps not surprising that Friendship Baptist, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church, founded by former slaves with help from whites and still thriving, found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door. The church is to be taken down, as early as Monday, 152 years after it was established.

Friendship, one of two churches whose multimillion dollar relocation/reconstruction tab will be covered by the city, is steeped in history. Two historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman, held classes in its basement, Morehouse moving into the church from Augusta in 1879 and Spelman starting there two years later. Trained musicians led the flock in song, with an emphasis on preserving old Negro spirituals. Nine other houses of prayer spun off Friendship, earning it the appellation “mother church.”

Kneeling at its pews were up to four generations of families; one longtime worshiper died recently at age 108. Prominent judges, politicians, educators and entrepreneurs attended, filling the collection baskets to the brim. (The church’s security guard said he saw a check for $50,000, someone’s annual tithe.)

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Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

boybible02My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

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Lovers and labels in coverage of same-sex marriage ruling (updated)

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Update: Yikes! One of the drawbacks of media-criticism-on-the-go is the possibility of writing a post that, in retrospect, makes you sound really stupid.

Such is the case with this one, which prompted reader Sarah Morriss to comment:

You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

Nope. I didn’t know that. But a quick Google search finds a Wikipedia entry describing the slogan as “one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years.” Uh, somehow I missed it.

That does put the headline in a different light, although one could argue that not all readers nationally would understand the play on words.

My original post appears below.

* * *

Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Let’s take a quiz and see if you can guess the source of the above message:

A. Sign at a gay-rights rally.

B. Slogan for a same-sex marriage campaign.

C. Headline on an Associated Press news story.

If you picked C, you would be mostly correct. This is the actual headline on AP’s story on a federal appeals court ruling Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional Monday:

U.S. court: Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Even attributing that statement to the court, the headline still strikes me as a doozy, especially given that the 98-page ruling never uses the word “lover.” The term “same-sex” does appear 151 times, along with 321 references to “marriage,” and other major news organizations stuck with more journalistically neutral headlines.

Appeals court upholds decision overturning Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban (Washington Post)

Appeals panel strikes down Virginia gay marriage ban (USA Today)

Appeals Panel Rejects Virginia Gay-Marriage Ban (New York Times)

Appeals court strikes down Va. same-sex marriage ban (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Appeals court rejects Virginia same-sex marriage ban (CNN)

Not a lot of creativity in those headlines, granted. But not a lot of editorializing either.

The headline isn’t the only place the AP story hints at bias. The wire service quotes an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sees no need to label the group. The same can’t be said of the story’s treatment of a legal group that supported Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage:

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The Atlantic: What happened to all those Catholic rites?

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Long-time GetReligion readers, do you remember that typology that a wise, older priest — a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway — gave me a few years ago that proposed that there are essentially four kinds of American Catholic voters?

It went something like this (amended a bit):

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I know that this will be hard, but try to strip the political content out of that typology (note, if you will, that I did not click the “politics” box in the categories list). Focus on the issues of religious discipline and practice of the ancient sacraments of an ancient church.

Think about the sacrament of marriage.

If journalists — on the Godbeat or otherwise — needed more evidence that there are multiple “American” Catholic churches at the moment, all they need to do is dig into the following piece from The Atlantic Monthly that focuses on a crucial piece of demographics and, thus, doctrine.

The headline is bland, from the point of view of most journalists:

The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

But the opening of the piece gets down to business really quick:

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