Evangelicals boot Grassley over probe?

grassleyA telling story about Iowa Christian evangelicals denying a request from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for a spot on the state’s delegation to the 2008 GOP Convention has prompted interesting speculation in various news articles over the last week. Robert Novak was the first to suggest that evangelicals tossed Grassley overboard for leading a Senate Finance Committee investigation of televangelists followed by The Washington Times on Monday.

Exactly why the hard-nosed Senate investigator was denied a spot seemed fishy. The reporters who initially covered the matter over the weekend, after the Novak item appeared, seem to have smelled something pretty rotten:

Political observers in Iowa saw the move against Mr. Grassley as retribution for his having tangled with evangelical pastors in his state. He initiated a Senate Finance Committee investigation of six televangelists for conspicuous personal spending.

“That had nothing to with it at all,” Mr. [Steve] Scheffler [Iowa Christian Alliance President and chairman of the state's delegation] said Sunday. He said Mr. Grassley and the other members of the Iowa congressional delegation already had national convention floor privileges — meaning they could walk the floor but not vote.

On Tuesday, Iowa Republicans were doing everything they could to be quoted stating that Grassley just wants the non-politicians to have a chance to vote at the convention. Right.

Here is the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

Washington, D.C. — Aides to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., on Monday downplayed reports that he was dumped by Iowa Republicans as a delegate to the Republican National Convention because of his investigation of six televangelists.

Beth Pellett Levine, Grassley’s press secretary, said Grassley won’t be a delegate, but he will attend the convention and will have floor access as a federal elected official.

She said Grassley, as well as Iowa’s two Republican congressmen, Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, will not be delegates “in order to give additional Iowa Republicans the opportunity to participate in the floor proceedings and activities of the national party convention.”

It is difficult to determine whether Novak and Times articles are well sourced because much of the information comes without citations. However, consider the news outlets. Both institutions are well sourced in conservative politics, to say the least. Also, consider what the Times was able to quote former Iowa Republican National Committee member Steve Roberts:

With a majority of nine out of 17 members on the Iowa Republican central committee, religious conservatives made Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler chairman of Iowa’s 40-member delegation in a vote immediately after their state party convention July 12.

“The Republican Party of Iowa is moving significantly to the right on social issues,” the just-ousted Iowa Republican National Committee member Steve Roberts told The Washington Times. “It hurts John McCain’s chances to win this state.”

Other party officials said money for the party is drying up because of past mismanagement and current religious dominance, which has turned traditional Republican politics upside down.

“It’s pretty well controlled now by the Christian Alliance,” Mr. Roberts said. “If somebody came to me and wanted to be a delegate to the national party convention, I used to say, ‘Talk to the state party chairman or to Grassley.’ Now it’s very simple. You go to the Christian Alliance, and they determine who is a delegate, and you have to do exactly as they say.”

In recent weeks, religious activists replaced Mr. Roberts as the national Republican committeeman and also replaced the national committeewoman with pro-life advocates who also oppose gay marriage.

One thing reporters do know from this article: Roberts does not like the direction of the Iowa GOP. Does that also represent Grassley? It is hard to say for sure.

Reporters should not ignore that concurring nature of the two events despite what the politicians and staffers have to say about Grassley’s exclusion from the state’s slate of convention delegates. Whether there is a direct link to Grassley’s investigation will probably never be known for sure.

Connected to this is the important role reporters play, along with good-government types like Grassley, in keeping an eye out for are religious-oriented institutions with large amounts of funding (particularly government funding).

See Wednesday’s Indianapolis Star report on an investigation into a local faith-based nonprofit:

Russell, 49, sparked the probe by taking a report of missing money to the prosecutor’s investigation unit soon after the foundation filed for bankruptcy May 30, according to his attorney, Kevin McShane. McShane said that earlier this year, Russell noticed the foundation’s bank account balances were low.

McShane said the organization couldn’t pay its bills; a federal bankruptcy filing lists $2.5 million in liabilities.

The foundation’s unsecured debts include hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit cards, furniture rentals and auto leases. Among several vehicles owned by the foundation is a 2007 Cadillac Escalade.

Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness of faith-based charity organizations, one cannot deny that they are growing and often have tremendous amounts of funds under their control. As these charities grow and take on larger roles in communities, and in some cases receive tax dollars to support their causes, will they receive the scrutiny that seemed so painful for the churches Grassley investigated?

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In God’s debt

  01As noted before, some stories get religion completely or almost. They show the importance and impact of religion from beginning to end. Take this Washington Post story by reporter Ovetta Wiggins.

Wiggins wrote about Christian churches that help their flocks to get and stay out of financial debt. As a Catholic, I had never heard of such a thing; our programs, such as they are, tend to deal with prayer, social activities, and various causes. So I think that, as Mollie noted about an article on high gas prices, this was a good story idea.

Wiggins’ lede certainly caught my attention:

Following the advice of their pastor, the men and women shuffled to the altar, cut up their credit cards and placed them near his feet.

“If we want to have victory, we have to come out of financial bondage,” the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden shouted during a recent sermon.

Ordinarily Jenkins’s sermons are about spiritual freedom and ridding one’s self of sin. But his message has taken a different turn lately — one that preaches the dangers of overspending and debt.

Wiggins’ story was also fairly diverse. Although she did not mention how synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions deal with debt, she included a representative sampling in the Washington region, including a response from a Catholic parish:

Churches are going a step further by providing financial counseling and pointing people to local and state programs that help with finances.

McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia offers classes on how to handle money according to Biblical principles. And last month, St. Martin’s Catholic Church in Gaithersburg hosted a foreclosure prevention workshop to help those in danger of losing their homes.

Wiggins’ story also cast her story in wider relief. Not content to focus solely on the broader economic or national picture, she put her angle in theological context:

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said the problem for some church members is that “Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with money.”

On the one hand, Wolfe said, believers are told that the love of money is the root of all evil. Then there are those who preach a prosperity gospel, which promotes that God wants believers to have an abundant life with extraordinary financial blessings.

Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most renowned preachers of the prosperity gospel, has not tailored his messages to address the changes in the economy or how people should manage their money. But his Dallas-based church, the Potter’s House, offers a program that provides tips on financial literacy, budgeting and credit restoration.

An arresting lede, a (fairly) diverse sample of local denominations, and theological context — any story with those three elements is excellent. Wiggins’ story, however, was not perfect. Read this passage below, and see if it raises a question in your mind:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has encouraged ministers to discuss the foreclosure crisis, saying that religious leaders built their churches “on the middle-class bubble of success.” If churches do not address the foreclosure crisis, he said in a December visit to Prince George’s, parishioners will not only suffer, but “your churches will suffer” as well.

That part about churches suffering struck me as opaque. Did Jackson mean that pastors should be concerned not only about their flocks’ bottom line, but theirs too? After all, if the people in the pews can’t pay their bills, it stands to reason that they will give less money to the church? (Given their decentralized nature, Protestant churches would be more attuned to their congregationists’ financial woes.) Wiggins’ attitude toward the churches in this respect should have been more critical.

Yet her story ended on an appropriate note. She quoted a woman giving herself, or at least her finances, to the Lord:

“I could not lean to my own understanding,” Clements said, paraphrasing a scripture. “It wasn’t for me to figure out, it was me turning it totally over to God to figure out.”

That was a memorable ending for a memorable story.

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Karadzic was hiding in plain sight

1995 karadzicNeedless to say, I received some interesting emails in the hours after the New York Times and the rest of the world’s mainstream media started running the following story. The words changed a bit, but here is the key info from the Times:

Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted war criminals for his part in the massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, was arrested Monday in a raid in Serbia that ended a 13-year hunt. …

Mr. Karadzic, a nationalist hero among Serbian radicals and one of the tribunal’s most wanted criminals for more than a decade, is said to have eluded arrest so long by shaving his swoopy gray hair and disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. He reportedly hid out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries.

What people wanted to know, of course, was what I thought about the fact that “the church” (or “your church”) was hiding one of the world’s greatest monsters. Some people were sure that I would not want to see that angle covered. We’ll get to that in a moment.

I did not the presence of troubling language in these early reports, such as “is said to have” and “he reportedly hid out.” There did not seem to be any solid sources, early on.

Meanwhile, the story did keep evolving throughout the day. Let’s stick with what was reported in the Times a few hours after the story broke. Here is part of an update:

He grew long white hair and a flowing white beard, and, as Dragan Dabic, the former psychiatrist worked for years in a clinic in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, as a practitioner of alternative medicine. He even lectured at local community centers. …

All along, he was said to have eluded arrest by disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest and by hiding out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries. But details provided by Serbian officials for the first time on Tuesday showed that, at least for some of those years, one of the accused architects of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II had been hiding in Serbia in plain sight.

Once again, the church details were delivered in passive voice, with no sources. This report also added another note of caution, saying that “at least for some of those years” he was not in a church somewhere. Who knows where else he had been hiding. That’s a totally appropriate statement, actually.

Finally, the second-day Times report — with tons of additional reporting — began with this lede that did much to clarify the situation:

The infamous fugitive, long charged with war crimes, was not in a distant monastery or a dark cave when caught at last, but living in Serbia’s capital.

Nor was Radovan Karadzic lurking inconspicuously, but instead giving public lectures on alternative medicine before audiences of hundreds. He was hiding behind an enormous beard, white ponytailed hair topped with an odd black tuft, and a new life so at odds with his myth as to deflect suspicion. …

The fatigues-wearing leader of the Bosnian Serbs was unrecognizable in a guise that was part guru and part Santa Claus. As Dragan Dabic, the former psychiatrist worked for years in a clinic in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life that would appear to be an extraordinary risk for one of the world’s most wanted men.

You can find additional details about this amazing scam in another Times sidebar. One key detail is that, according to people who knew Karadzic, they would not have recognized him by sight alone. You had to know his voice to figure out who this was. He was even hiding his Bosnian accent.

But back to the Serbian Orthodox angle. Would I have been surprised if Karadzic had been sheltered in a monastery or church? Disappointed, yes, but surprised, no. That is a complex and violent area and the Orthodox Church has been battered and chopped up, while some people — a lot of people, in a lot of different flocks — keep crossing the lines between faith and ethnicity. It’s the Balkans and we have talked about this before here at GetReligion.

When reading these kinds of media reports, it’s crucial to note the complexity of the Orthodox leadership in that region. Reports that say he hid in a monastery or was helped by “the church” need to take into account that the actions of a local leader or priest are not the same thing as the actions of the actual Serbian hierarchy. I have no doubt, in a region in which dozens of priceless monasteries are being destroyed, that there are Orthodox leaders who betray their church’s teachings to strike back.

But here is the key: The role of religious leaders in the wider region, leaders at the top level, has actually been quite admirable — Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews, included. I wrote a Scripps Howard column on that back in 1999 while the U.S. bombs were falling. It began like this:

It’s tricky for anyone to sign a document in Belgrade these days with the word “peace” in the title.

But back on April 19th, while air-raid sirens screamed overhead, an interfaith quartet of shepherds released a gripping statement to their Yugoslavian flocks and to the world.

“Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war,” said the seven-paragraph “Appeal for Peace,” released from the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. “To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another. In the name of our future and our common life together, we pray to God and appeal to all men of good will to endeavor with maximum effort to end this war and resolve the problems by peaceful means.”

The document was signed by Serbian Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel, all of Belgrade. Together, they called for all bombing and fighting to cease and for the return of refugees to their war-ravaged homes — both the ethnic Albanians fleeing the paramilitary units of Slobodan Milosevic or Serbs fleeing the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This cry for broader negotiations in the Balkans followed a “Kosovo Peace and Tolerance” declaration released on March 18 in Vienna. This longer, more detailed document was signed by a quartet of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders from Kosovo.

pavleIf you are interested in subjects related to that, click here and here.

The goal is not to condone the sins of the guilty. If church officials hid this monster, part of a thug regime of cynics that also jailed and battered faithful bishops, then find the facts and air them out. At the same time, the goal is to not to blame an entire institution for the sins of a few. As noted earlier, religious leaders actually did what they could to promote nonviolence and as much peace as could be managed.

Once again, you have to check the actual actions of the patriarchs in their roles in the interfaith efforts to stop the violence. Yes, you did see bishops marching in demonstrations on issues of Serbian nationalism. It was clear that the Serbian church opposed the loss of Kosovo and the destruction of many of its priceless monasteries. But the patriarchs also opposed the ethnic cleansing and some were jailed and beaten for opposing the regime behind the violence.

Try to keep these two quotes balanced in your mind. The first is from the late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe:

“I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

The second quotation is from the Serbian Orthodox bishops, who noted that the “way of non-violence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God in agreement with human and divine moral law and experience.”

Then they added this prayer to the rites for Holy Week and Pascha, as the bombs fell:

For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans or spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even towards their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

“Lord have mercy.

So keep reading. Look for solid, on-the-record sources and don’t be surprised when people sin. It’s the Balkans. You also have to look for the brave believers who took dangerous stands for peace.

Photos: Radovan Karadzic in power years. Patriarch Pavle of Serbia.

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Lambeth on a local level

detroit skylineDuring my 2003 summer internship at a medium-to-small size daily newspaper in the middle of America, I was assigned to report and write a local version of the latest development of the local Anglican church. The story was about how the local congregations on both sides of the river were facing a “crossroads over gay clergy, teachings.” By the way, those quoted words did not come from my story, but from a headline in Monday’s Detroit Free Press.

Yes, an intern was assigned to cover the beginnings of The Great Anglican Schism, who also happened to have been raised as a Reformed Presbyterian, but was attending a Lutheran church that summer and knew little about the subject. Needless to say, my questions were fairly basic, but I hope I did a good job covering the story.

With a couple of minor complaints, Niraj Warikoo of the Free Press did a solid job covering the Anglican split from a local angle. For starters, the story has an accurate definition of Anglicanism (“the largest Protestant body in the world”) and even the headline makes clear that this fight is not just about “gay clergy.” (I think that was one of my first questions to one of the local Anglican officials.)

The story is also nicely timed:

For years, worshippers at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Livonia patiently put up with their diocese as it adopted a series of liberal changes that clashed with biblical tradition. But the breaking point came in 2003, when the Episcopal Church — with the approval of the local diocese — consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

After a testy meeting with Episcopal leaders, about two-thirds of the 300-member congregation bolted in 2006, leaving a church many of them grew up in. Two years later, they said they have no regrets.

“It just wasn’t a Christian church anymore,” explained Chris Darnell, 41, of Northville.

Those words reflect a schism playing out within the Anglican Communion — the largest Protestant body in the world — as it faces an identity crisis that threatens to split its 77 million members. Four congregations in Michigan have broken away in recent years from the Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the United States that has 87 churches in Michigan, with about 24,000 members.

The article has an excellent list of “fundamental questions” that includes elements of the Tmatt Trio:

* Is Jesus the only means of salvation, or are there other legitimate paths?

* Is the Bible the literal word of God or man’s word about God?

* Is premartial sex OK?

We would like to quibble with the characterization of whether or not the debate is over whether “the Bible is the literal word of God or man’s word about God.” While this is a genuine issue among many, the debate within the Anglican church has more to do with the sacraments and doctrines that arise from centuries of church tradition.

Overall though, other newspapers interested in covering the Anglican divide at a local level should look to this article as something of a template. It’s hard to imagine that local newspapers will be able to ignore this week’s developments out of the Lambeth Conference and how it could impact the local Episcopal congregations. I know my local newspaper hasn’t said a word about it, but if you see anything in your part of the universe, please let us know.

Photo of the Detroit Skyline used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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A haunted college story

bereaExcept for one small detail, Tamar Lewin of The New York Times wrote a memorable story about the debate over rising tuition costs at American universities. Lewin focused on Berea College in Kentucky, a tiny school that does not charge its students admission, and contrasted it with other universities.

Lewin’s lede captured readers’ attention:

Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and “poor white mountaineers,” accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.

“You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free,” said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. “We call it the best education money can’t buy.”

Lewin’s following paragraph helped explain how Berea can afford to not charge students tuition:

Actually, what buys that education is Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation’s wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.

Lewin’s nut graph was interesting and important:

Berea’s approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea’s no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.

But as Mollie pointed out to me, this story was haunted. What Lewin did not do was broach a key fact about Berea College: It is Christian. Indeed, the school’s mission is explicitly so. The preamble to its mission statement begins this way:

Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose “to promote the cause of Christ.” Adherence to the College’s scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” shapes the College’s culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice. This environment frees persons to be active learners, workers, and servers as members of the academic community and as citizens of the world. The Berea experience nurtures intellectual, physical, aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual potentials and with those the power to make meaningful commitments and translate them into action.

Lewin’s failure to mention Berea’s Christian character and identity amounts to a journalistic sin of omission. Berea cannot really be understood apart from its Christian worldview. The closest that the story comes to acknowledging this occurs at the end when Lewin quotes from Berea’s president:

“You see some of these selective liberal arts colleges building new physical education facilities with these huge sheets of glass and these coffee and juice bars, and charging students $40,000 a year, and you have to ask, does this contribute to the public good, or is it just a way for the college to keep up with the Joneses?” Mr. Shinn said. “We are a tax-exempt institution, so I think the public has a right to demand that our educational mission be at the heart of all of our expenditures.”

The more I research this story, the more it’s clear that Lewin’s story contains a ghost of gargantuan size. For example, Lewin writes about Amherst College, an elite university that charges (high) tuition fees. What Lewin does not point out are the striking religious and socio-cultural parallels between Amherst’s original mission and that of Berea’s. (Of course, Lewin also cites Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, three schools with a Christian founding.) This begs all sorts of questions about secularization and religion. Paging Robert Putnam

Perhaps I digress; GR does not tell reporters what they should pursue. But in Lewin’s story, it’s fair to say that Berea’s religion was more than relevant.

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A bad story gets better

womenpriests2 04Many readers submitted a piece from the Boston Globe this weekend about the ordination of women claiming to be Roman Catholic priests. Some said the story was horrific. Others said it was fantastic. Turns out there were two stories. The first is not so good.

Reporter Michael Paulson’s piece was headlined in the manner to which we’ve become, sadly, accustomed with these stories:

3 women to be ordained Catholic priests in Boston
Excommunication automatic, church warns

The subhead is fine and good. The main headline has problems. Will these women be ordained Catholic priests or does a group claim that they will be ordained Catholic priests? The lede compounds the problem:

Three aspiring Catholic priests will be anointed and prayed over this weekend in an ordination liturgy that will resemble the traditional in most ways but one: The three being ordained are women.

It isn’t until the 9th paragraph that we’re told that the ordinations are being done by Roman Catholic Womenpriests. And the article, while mentioning that actual Roman Catholic officials oppose the ordinations, doesn’t do a good job of explaining that such ordinations are not considered valid, licit, legal, etc. So, for instance, we get one-sided perspective such as this:

“We’re part of a prophetic tradition of disobeying an unjust law,” said Gabriella Velardi Ward, a 61-year-old Staten Island architect with two children and five grandchildren, who will be ordained along with Gloria Carpeneto of Baltimore and Mary Ann McCarthy Schoettly of Newton, N.J.

Ward said she has wanted to be a priest since age 5, and that she actively considered becoming a nun before deciding that the priesthood was her calling because she wants to be able to celebrate Catholic sacraments.

“Excommunication or not, I will still be a validly ordained priest and still will be able to serve the people of God,” she said.

The women are to be ordained by Dana Reynolds, a California woman who was consecrated as a bishop in Germany in April.

It’s not that the Vatican perspective isn’t included. It is — particularly at the end of the article. It’s just that the information is presented as if the ceremony will create ordained female Catholic priests who will then be excommunicated from the church. In fact, the organization that ordains these women is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church and their ordinations are essentially considered to be pretend.

To their credit, the Globe later ran a clarification of the headline:

Paulson, the long-time religion reporter who spent more than a few years on the clergy sex abuse scandal story in Boston, published some of the emails he got from readers after the story. Some do a great job of thoughtfully explaining why they think he got the story wrong. Either way, he got a ton of correspondence on the story.

And the discussion with readers seemed to have an effect because the follow-up story corrects some of the problems with the initial account. Here’s the new and improved headline:

Group claims to ordain women priests in unsanctioned ceremony

By incorporating the competing claims, the headline is pithier and more accurate. Here’s the lede:

Paulson nicely framed the competing arguments as just that — competing arguments. One group says this, the other group declares that. The separation between Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Roman Catholic Church was clearly explained. Here, for instance:

But the women who participated in the event, along with the several hundred people who spent nearly three hours in the sweltering, non-air-conditioned Church of the Covenant, said they rejected the excommunications, and believed that the women had been validly ordained. The women were vested with white chasubles and red stoles and greeted with a standing ovation as they were declared to be priests; they then helped preside over a service at which they declared bread and wine to be consecrated and offered what they said was Communion to anyone who wished to receive it.

The ceremony was organized by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an organization that is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church. Catholic church officials say the women are not Catholic, their ordinations are not real, and any sacraments they attempt to celebrate, including today’s Eucharist, are invalid.

Paulson gives the Womenpriests’ argument about why the ordinations are legitimate as well as some retorts from Catholics in Boston. Take this colorful quote from C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts — one of many that Paulson found for his followup:

“One must not only be a male to be a Catholic priest, one must be a Catholic,” Doyle said. “The performers in this theater of propaganda are neither. These women ought to have the intellectual honesty to admit that they left the Catholic Church some time ago. Whatever publicity value today’s exercise has, it must be measured against both the manifest fraudulence and the irredeemable hopelessness of their cause.”

The followup is long, meaty and interesting. Just the kind of story that’s nice to read on the religion beat. The Associated Press’ Steve LeBlanc also had a fantastic report on the events in Boston. The headline doesn’t take sides on the ordination. Early on he notes that the ordinations are not officially sanctioned. He explains the process of excommunication and puts it in context of Roman Catholic doctrine on the priesthood. My favorite part was the last line, which explained what happens to people who are excommunicated and how the penalty can be lifted.

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Pope coverage on balance

wyd2Like political conventions and track-and-field meets, Papal visits deserve multiple story lines. Focus on one angle and the story is bound to be incomplete. Focus on several angles and the reader will get a broad view of reality.

In examining the coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s weekend appearance at World Youth Day, I conclude that only one story met this standard of success. The article, by Tim Johnston of The New York Times, began with the Pope’s speech:

In his final address to hundreds of thousands of young Catholics gathered in Australia, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday sharply criticized the violence and materialism of the modern age.

“A new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished–not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed,” the pope told a crowd, estimated by the organizers at 400,000, at a racecourse and nearby park.

Benedict urged young people to create “a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships.”

The story continued with a brief account of the Pope’s response to the sex abuse scandal in Australia:

On Saturday, he apologized for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and brothers in Australia. “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured, and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering,” he said in a brief departure from his prepared address.

Shortly before leaving on Monday morning, the pope held a small private Mass with a representative group of victims, answering critics who had condemned him for not meeting with the victims directly.

The article ended with another brief storyline, about local complaints about the cost of the event and news about the next World Youth Day.

The strength of Johnston’s story was its balance and fairness. He gave the Pope his say. He gave the activists their say. And he gave local and Catholics theirs.

These three qualities are not ends in themselves of course. If the Pope had announced his resignation, Johnston would have been foolish to write about the other angles. But in a story of this type, with no dominant narrative thread, Johnston made the right call.

Or Johnston seemed to make the right call. What was the extent of the priestly sex abuse in Australia? Was the scandal a cathartic issue as it was in the United States? Maybe the sex-abuse scandal was a major news story Down Under, but I assume it was not considering that Johnston and two other reporters failed to give readers sufficient context.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote almost entirely about the sex-abuse scandal. It story included this voice-of-God line:

[A]s in his spring visit to the United States, one theme loomed over Benedict’s weeklong pilgrimage to Australia: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

A careful reader will wonder who determined that this theme loomed. Was it the media, victims and alleged victims, political activists (as tmatt’s story suggested), or mainstream Catholic leaders? Without an answer, it’s difficult to support the reporters’ thesis. Yes, reporters Traci Wilkinson and Jennifer Bennett did give readers a statistic about the number of convicted priests, but the time line was never mentioned.

The Associated Press, also, wrote almost entirely about the sex-abuse scandal:

Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Monday with Australians who were sexually abused as children by priests, in a gesture of contrition and concern over a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church.

The pontiff held prayers and spoke with four representatives of abuse victims — two men and two women — in the last hours of a nine-day visit to Australia for the church’s global youth festival.

The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the trip. On Saturday, Benedict delivered a forthright apology for the scandal, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the victims’ suffering.

The problem with the AP’s story was a lack of balance and fairness. Although the story does broach the Pope’s speech, it left a lot out. As GR reader Leroy Huizenga wrote,

While this article is better than some, it doesn’t mention Jesus or Christ or the Holy Spirit, all of which Benedict spent a lot of time on … In my view, this just doesn’t deal with the meat of what Benedict actually said.

Exactly. Which is why balance is so necessary.

(Image of World Youth Day in Australia by user Christopher Chan used under a Creative Commons license.)

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Excellence in local religion reporting

excellenceMuch praise should be given to Amanda Greene of The Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., for turning what could have been a few boring press release re-writes into an interesting feature story. The key to the story is that it gives readers a sense for how religion has influenced the area’s history.

How many reporters would get excited about a local church’s sesquicentennial celebration? What if there were four of them? Greene took the time to find out that this was anything but a coincidence:

The short answer: the Revival of 1858.

“The Panic of 1857 sent everyone into a tailspin of economic downturn and a national depression, and everyone went back to church,” said Walt Conser, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He devoted part of a chapter in his book, Coat of Many Colors, to the Revival. “By 1858, there was an economic upturn where building churches was possible again,” he said. (Churches weren’t the only major structures being built in Wilmington in 1858. Thlian Hall is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year as well.)

But the answer to the 1858 church building boom also involved socioeconomic and political pressures from the impending racial divisions in the country. And many times, churches split as a result of those conflicts, Conser said.

In this era of the 30-minute news cycle and instant world-wide communication, it seems odd that local news could be explained by events that occurred 150 years ago. However, most local news stories have an angle that goes back at least a generation. This can be particularly true in religion. Part of the challenge in finding these angles is that the reporter must know who to talk to, which is the case here, or the reporter is experienced enough in the beat to simply have the institutional knowledge.

Congratulations to Greene for successfully educating the newspaper’s readers on how history has influenced their lives today.

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