What about the Presbyterians?

PC USA Logo2The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 2.3 million members. By way of comparison, the Episcopal Church has 2.15 million members. I’ve remarked before at how odd it is that the Episcopal Church gets so much more coverage than the other American church bodies with more members. It’s not completely surprising, perhaps, that they get more coverage, given the large Anglican communion, the pomp and circumstance of liturgical worship and the dramatic way in which the church is imploding. But still, it seems out of balance.

Back in early May I marveled at the general lack of coverage of the United Methodist Church convention in Ft. Worth. When the Southern Baptists met in Indianapolis in early June, there was a fair amount of coverage. But the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, the big biennial meeting of the denomination’s highest governing body, was held in San Jose and the coverage was again paltry. What’s odd about that is that the assembly had plenty of reporter-friendly drama. One reader mentioned a few of the highlights:

The GA voted on a number of controversial statements about Israel and the Palestinians; approved a $2 million war chest to sue congregations seeking to leave; approved a change to one of the PCUSA’s confessions that would remove mention of homosexuality from the church’s confessional documents; voted to rescind thirty years’ worth of church policy on the incompatibility of homosexual behavior and Christian life; and voted to remove language from the church’s constitution requiring ordained ministers, elders and deacons to live in faithfulness in marriage or chastity in singleness.

And yet all that was produced in the mainstream media was a single AP story — which incidentally was really pretty well done – a decent LA Times story and an abysmal report from UPI. And in my neck of the woods (Pittsburgh), an area with one of the biggest concentrations of Presbyterians in the country, the major daily has ignored the story completely. Where’s Ann Rodgers on this? Oh, yes — she’s covering the buildup to Lambeth.

It is somewhat odd that Rodgers hasn’t weighed in on the news coming out of San Jose. She does a great job of covering denominational politics in general and PC(USA) drama in particular. She’s done more to explain the property battles embroiling Presbyterians than anyone else.

Far and away the best reporting on the assembly came from Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The PC(USA) is headquartered there. For the paper, he wrote a couple of stories about the PC(USA) membership losses, the denomination’s backtracking on acknowledging that anti-Jewish rhetoric had gotten into discussions over Israel and Palestine, debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, a vote to repeal the church’s constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and removing the explicit condemnation of homosexuality from the church’s constitution.

For the blog, he looked at the membership losses, the church’s new moderator, a vote to alter a reference to homosexuality in the Heidelberg Catechism, a vote to delete a constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, modification of an interfaith statement, approval of executives and stated clerk, including the Belhar Confession into the church’s Book of Confessions, the approval of a $2 million fund for legal battles with departing congregations, and debate over Mideast issues, among others.

Compared to Smith’s coverage, other media outlets dropped the ball. Kim Lawton had a good, but brief, piece for PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

The major story coming out of the convention seems to be the vote on ordination standards. The vote to drop the ban on homosexual clergy requires presbytery approval, something reporters seemed to obscure somewhat. Eric Gorski with the Associated Press handled it quite well:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), bitterly divided over sexuality and the Bible, set up another confrontation Friday over its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.

The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

The proposed change to the church constitution requires approval from a majority the nation’s 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies — a yearlong process that has proven to be a barrier to similar efforts in the past.

Compare that to UPI:

Some U.S. Presbyterian Church members say a move to allow the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy will trigger a backlash by denomination members.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the biggest group under the U.S. Presbyterian umbrella with 2.3 million members, voted Friday to amend its constitution to allow the ordination of gay clergy, just as the church’s national governing body was deciding in San Jose, Calif., to not tamper with its own definition of marriage as being a “covenant between a woman and a man,” The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.

The reporter failed to mention that the vote must be approved by presbyteries or any other context. To that end, the Los angeles Times piece was markedly better. And it’s by Duke Helfand, so that’s good:

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.

At the same time, the church’s national governing body, meeting in San Jose, refused to alter its definition of marriage, calling it a “covenant between a woman and a man.” The actions by the General Assembly came the week after same-sex marriage became legal in California. They also follow the decision of a gathering of Methodists from Southern California and Hawaii, who went against their national church by voting to support same-sex couples who marry and the pastors who welcome them.

Helfand’s piece actually went into some good detail on various votes and what they mean. It does mention later on in the piece about the requirement that presbyteries approve the vote. Helfand also gave some history on the battle as well.

It’s not that I think that conventions and assemblies are the be all and end all of religion reporting, but they seem like a bare minimum requirement. It’s like writing about politics without mentioning the electoral season — it just doesn’t make sense.

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Christians on the move in China?

the lord's prayerThe growth of Christianity in non-Western cultures and societies is widely acknowledged to be one of the biggest religion stories these days. A significant subset of that story is the rapid growth of Christianity in China to a point where it is the country’s second largest religion (behind only Buddhists and ahead of Islam).

The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times covered the under-reported growth of Christianity in their Saturday editions. The article, which interestingly does not have a byline at the top (Xu Wan is noted as a contributing researcher at the bottom) is of a reasonable length and depth, but is strangely optimistic.

Statistics, political machinations, and ethic conflict generally make-up stories about religion in non-Western societies. The subject that typically receives the short-end of the coverage is the theology and faith that make up the religion. Here is what the LAT was able to muster together:

Christianity is thriving in part because it offers a moral framework to citizens adrift in an age of Wild West capitalism that has not only exacted a heavy toll in corruption and pollution but also harmed the global image of products labeled “Made in China.”

Some Chinese Christians say their faith is actually a boon for the party, because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to sustaining communist rule.

“With economic development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly,” prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin’s church as worshipers bowed their heads. “Holy Father, please save the Chinese people’s soul.”

At the same time, Christianity is driving citizens to be more politically assertive, emboldening them to push for more freedoms and testing the party’s willingness to adapt. For decades, most of China’s Christians worshiped in secret churches, known as “house churches,” that shunned attention for fear of arrest on charges such as “disturbing public order.” …

This rise, driven by evangelical Protestants, reflects a wider spiritual awakening in China. As communism fades into today’s free-market reality, many Chinese describe a “crisis of faith” and seek solace from mystical Taoist sects, Bahai temples and Christian megachurches.

Today, the government counts 21 million Catholics and Protestants — a 50% increase in less than 10 years — though the underground population is far larger. The World Christian Database’s estimate of 70 million Christians amounts to 5% of the population, second only to Buddhists.

At a time when Christianity in Western Europe is dwindling, China’s believers are redrawing the world’s religious map with a growing community that already exceeds all the Christians in Italy.

The story’s major hook was a battery of interviews given by a number of “clerk leaders and worshipers from” a variety of locales in China to the Tribune and PBS’ “Frontline/World.” Apparently, this is a sign of “Christianity’s growing prominence.”

While not explicit in the article, readers are understood to know that Christianity, and other religions, have not always been welcome in China since the rise of the Communist government. What goes unsaid is that repression still exists. To what extent is difficult to measure. We’ve noted before that reporters tend to play down the idea that repression exists in China, and this article is no exception. Rather than stating that churches are shut down for various reasons, the article notes that “A new church or Sunday school, for instance, might be permissible one day and taboo the next, because local officials have broad latitude to interpret laws on religious gatherings.”

Here is more spin on how China’s government is failing to allow for freedom of worship amongst its citizens:

Overall, though, the government is allowing churches to be more open and active than ever, signaling a new tolerance of faith in public life. President Hu Jintao even held an unprecedented Politburo “study session” on religion last year, in which he told China’s 25 most powerful leaders that “the knowledge and strength of religious people must be mustered to build a prosperous society.”

In an excellent review of a trio of books in Christianity Today International’s July/August edition of Books & Culture, which is unfortunately not online yet, Terence Halliday writes that China’s Communist Party does not tolerate rivals. “That includes religion, because of a ‘long history of religious movements toppling dynasties in the past.’” (quoting Randall Peerenboom’s China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest). Ignoring China’s recent history of religious repression would be like the ignoring slavery in the United States in 1910.

Halliday, co-director at the Center on Law and Globalization, American Bar Foundation and University of Illinois College of Law, writes that the books he reviews (Peerenboom’s in addition to Susan L. Shirk’s China: Fragile Superpower and James Mann’s The China Fantasy) fail to mention much about religion. Halliday notes that Christianity’s destabilizing effect in China would likely involve pushes “for conditions under which their faith and witness can thrive, conditions that cannot exist alongside a one-Party state intolerant of competing ideologies.”

As the Olympic media crush in China draws closer, reporting on China’s religious freedoms (and other freedoms) will be important to note. Defining religious freedom will be key. Apparently it is now considered acceptable to talk to certain media outlets regarding a country’s less repressive religious freedom, but what if less friendly media outlets decide to criticize the country’s religious freedoms? Sometimes the lack of coverage of a topic is the most important story about which no one is willing to talk.

Photo of “The Lord’s Prayer” in Classical Chinese from 1889 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Reproduce and multiply

nochildrenOne of the most important decisions made in a newsroom is story selection. The editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine made a very interesting decision in choosing to run a lengthy story about the demographic collapse of Europe. Reporter Russell Shorto, whose work we’ve looked at before, examines various explanations for the low birth rates in Europe in his piece titled “No Babies?”

His main theory seems to be that when the traditional family met modernity, cultures that adapted fared better. Better is a relative term, however. His example of success is Northern Europe, where the birth rates still aren’t near replacement level.

The average number of births per women to maintain a country’s population level is 2.1. A 2002 report showed that birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. That means that — all else equal — the country’s population will be halved in 45 years and will never be able to recover. Such a rate is called “lowest-low fertility,” and it’s worrying various public policy analysts, according to the story. In the 1960s, Europe represented 12.5 percent of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2 percent, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5 percent of the world will be European. And it’s not just Europe. Where only a few decades ago my elementary school teachers were proclaiming the looming disaster of overpopulation, birthrates have plummeted from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today.

The story only aims to explore a few theories for why birthrates vary in Europe, but I do wish Shorto had explored why people think it’s problematic. The article mentions many people who think the birthrates are dangerously low:

To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”

It may seem obvious why this is a problem but later in the story, Shorto speaks with people who think declining birthrates in Europe are fantastic. So why the two sides differ is needed. Why is it bad if a society dies out? Why is this pathological?

Readers of Shorto will not be surprised that he does not shy away from religious discussion. As is reinforced daily, religious views will have a tremendous effect on how they order their sex lives:

There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.”

But Shorto brushes aside spiritual concerns to focus on economic ones. A great deal of time is spent looking at how labor force participation among women correlates to fertility rates. And the European data are quite interesting. Apparently one way to increase fertility rates is to have a, well, nanny state. But the United States has a fertility rate of 2.1 — far higher than Europe — and much less socialism. Which brings us back to a religious mention:

Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

Another factor in our high birth rate seems to be the flexibility of our labor force. While many European countries give mothers approximately eleventy gazillion taxpayer-funded weeks off when they have their maternity leave, labor force flexibility helps here. Women are more content to take time off to have children because they sense they can make up the difference after their kids head off to school.
The most fascinating part of the article, however, deals with Germany. Some urban planners are welcoming their cities’ demises. Dessau, where the architect Walter Gropius planted the Bauhaus school of design, is surrounded by forest with no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II). City planners are demolishing underused sections of the city with every decrease of the population. Twenty-five-hundred flats have been destroyed with 8,000 on the chopping block. One gets the feeling that Shorto finds the whole thing a bit creepy:

Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route — from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died — that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism. The idea is to attract more tourists and money and build up the locals’ pride in their history. There is a certain paradox here: thanks to its Communist heritage, this part of Germany has the distinction of being one of the least religious places on earth. Eisleben gets 100,000 religious pilgrims a year, but only 14 percent of its population are churchgoers, and hardly anybody expects a turnaround.

But while few locals themselves may feel religiously inclined, the thinking is that if religious pilgrimage is the best card in your hand, you play it. This notion — embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies — is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline. For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”

Religious ghosts haunt stories that deals with life and death issues such as these. So it’s wonderful that Shorto didn’t just acknowledge the role religion plays but included religious voices and concerns in the story. And, again, kudos to the editors for selecting this story. Much more could and should be written about this topic so hopefully other media outlets will follow suit. People who are interested in this topic would also do well to watch this 2007 documentary which covers much of the same ground.

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Black baby steps

blackabortRare is the reporter who writes about blacks and abortion. So give credit to Julia Duin, a-friend-of-this-blog who covers religion for The Washington Times. She wrote about a topic that the rest of the Washington press corps avoided: a demonstration late last week by black activists against the nation’s abortion laws.

Here is how Duin began her story:

Hoisting signs declaring “abortion is not a family value,” about 60 black demonstrators descended on Democratic and Republican headquarters on Capitol Hill Thursday morning to demand that political candidates refuse funding from Planned Parenthood.

Activists and pastors claimed that a disproportionate amount of the nation’s abortions are performed on black women, many of them in clinics operated by Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

“Planned Parenthood is a lying, racist organization,” said Alveda King, niece of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, adding that one of two abortions performed on her occurred at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“Planned Parenthood says they provide health services to the black community,” said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of the Los Angeles-based Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny. “I ask, what is healthy about killing black children?”

Her opening suggested that the story would break news. Black church leaders, including the niece of MLK, rallied on Capitol Hill; and anti-abortion activists charged that a billion-dollar business is racist.

Yet the story sank under its own weight.

For one thing, Duin did not confirm an important fact. She wrote that the activists and pastors “claimed that a disproportionate amount of the nation’s abortion are performed on black women.” That’s more than a claim. As the Alan Guttmacher Institute wrote in an October 2002 report,

Of women obtaining abortions, 41% were non-Hispanic white, 32% were non-Hispanic black and 20% were Hispanic.

For another thing, Duin overlooked the political significance of the black church leaders. Her story promised a discussion about abortion in the black community. But after a few paragraphs, the story focused on abortion laws, funding, and politics. What happened to the original story line?

I think that readers needed an elaboration on this theme. Do black Christian leaders plan to do any follow-up to combat abortion locally and nationally? Does the march represent something new for black pastors? Both would seem to be relevant questions. Of the 17 leaders of the National Black Pro-Life Union, seven are pastors.

I like that Duin and the Times had the guts to write this story. But I think this was an opportunity missed.

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Failing the objective

AnglicanBomb1Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times covered a Virginia state court ruling Friday regarding the constitutionality of a longstanding state law that could allow the 11 congregations who have left the Episcopal Church over the last couple of years to keep their multi-million dollar properties. The tone and perspective of the two stories are rather stark. Just look look at the headlines.

Here is the Post‘s:

Episcopal Church Loses In Court

And now the headline in the Times:

Virginia judge affirms parish property rights

I guess the upholding of one group’s “property rights” is another group’s lost legal battle.

The Times article, written by friend-of-the-blog Julia Duin, focuses heavily on the legal consequences of the judge’s ruling, inter-mixing the history of the conflict, while the Post article primarily focuses on the background of the rather complicated story.

A reader noted to us that the Post‘s reporting unprofessionally uses the word “spat” to describe the conflict and repeatedly refers to the 11 churches as “the breakaway congregations.” Duin on the other hand, refers to the group of 11 churches as “11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop” and subsequently as simply “the churches.” I know the story is complicated but why can’t neutral terms be used to describe the two groups?

The Post goes an extra step further in quoting a seemingly objective “expert” who actually turns out to be taking sides in this legal battle:

It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.

Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the “only way” for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.

Oh, snap! Not such an objective expert after all.

In addition, The Post does not seem to have the contact information of anyone associated with those “breakaway,” “conservative,” churches, while Duin quoted sources on both sides of the battle.

I don’t envy the reporters covering this highly charged, significant, convoluted religious and legal battle. Efforts at objectivity may seem futile, but thoughtful, consistent choice of language and terms is a good place to start. The Post seems to have particular difficulty in talking to representatives of both sides and avoiding pejorative shorthand terms.

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A new “church within a church”

Canterburyleft 01Major, major news coming out of the Jerusalem meeting of Anglican primates. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) has produced a statement with major implications for the Anglican Communion. Before looking at any coverage, you should read the clear and concise statement here. In a section analyzing the current state of affairs in Anglicanism, the GAFCON document says that the church is in crisis over “three undeniable facts”:

The first fact is the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel. This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, not the way, the truth and the life. It promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right. It claims God’s blessing for same-sex unions over against the biblical teaching on holy matrimony. In 2003 this false gospel led to the consecration of a bishop living in a homosexual relationship.

While sexual morality is clearly a major issue at play here, reporters should read what precedes discussions of sexuality when characterizing the nature of the division in the Anglican Communion. The second issue is the realignment of parishes and dioceses in Canada and the United States, joining with provincial bodies in the Global South. The third issues is the “manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy.”

The rest of the document offers a confessional statement of doctrine, and the announcement of a new primatial council for development and discipline. This council will set up an Anglican province in North America for confessing Anglicans who live here.

The GAFCON participants have not split from the Anglican Communion, despite what some reporters are alleging. However, they are formally announcing their intention to set up a “church within a church” to deal with the problems being wrought by the division in the communion. So reporters who were claiming that GAFCON was a gaffe-prone failure to accomplish anything might have to backtrack a bit.

While the Anglican blogosphere did a great job of covering the event, Ruth Gledhill of The Times was, I believe, the first reporter out of the gate with the big news:

The Anglican Communion will be split tomorrow when conservatives representing more than half its total membership will announce the formation of a new orthodox body to be a stronghold against liberal views. It will be schism in all but name.

The new global Anglican fellowship will act within the legal boundaries of provinces such the Church of England that make up the existing Communion but, in North America, it will declare its independence from the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church and from the Anglican church in Canada.

A later piece said the GAFCON move is “in effect a schism.” But one of the sentences from the GAFCON document specifically said, “Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion.” So what is happening, exactly? Gledhill’s blog has some analysis and asks:

When is a schism not a schism? When it is done by Anglicans.

George Conger for the Washington Times put it well, I thought:

Conservative Anglicans will declare a split from the U.S. Episcopal Church on Sunday, but will stop short of schism with the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll had a rather straightforward story mostly comprised of background on the division in the Anglican Communion, but it’s a good thing to read if you need that information.

Gledhill already had some analysis on what this all means, which is helpful for such a massive story as this:

The trigger for the new movement was the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire and the authorisation of same-sex blessings in the New Westminster diocese in Canada.

But to the conservatives, these events were merely the logical conclusion to years of movement away from the Christianity of the Early Church Fathers – the writers and teachers in the first five centuries of Christianity – the Anglicanism of the Reformation and the enthusiasm of the 19th century revivals of Anglo-Catholicism and evangelicalism. . . .

[The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter] Jensen said:”American revisionists committed an extraordinary strategic blunder in 2003. They did not think that there would be any consequences.

“Now if they did not believe that there would be consequences, that is an arrogant thing, I have to say. But I don’t know them, so I really cannot say. The consequences have been unfolding over the last five years. Now their church is divided; it looks as though there will be permanent division, one way or the other.

“All around the world the sleeping giant that is evangelical Anglicanism and orthodox Anglicanism has been aroused by what happened in Canada and the United States of America. It was an act of folly.”

Is that an angle that reporters should be pursuing? Did the Episcopal Church made a strategic blunder? Was the strategic blunder the failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to effectively deal with the North American church? I honestly have no idea, but we do need reporters to dig into what all this means. As Terry would say, that goes for the local, regional, national and global implications of this story.

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An uncertain future for Iraqi Christians

Assyrian As Iraq receives less news coverage for a variety of reasons, the ongoing tragedies that are becoming part of everyday life in that ancient land receive less coverage. Nearly a year ago, we highlighted a Washington Times article on the persecution of religious minority groups in Iraq. Thursday, The New York Times provided a retrospective article on the subject of religious persecution that highlights just how tragic that persecution became:

Officials say the demands could be hundreds of dollars a month per male member of a household. In many cases, Christian families drained their life savings and went into debt to make the payments. Insurgents also raised money by kidnapping priests. The ransoms, often paid by the congregations, typically ran as high as $150,000, several priests and lay Christians said.

In a paradox, this city, long the seat of Iraqi Christianity, also became known as the last urban stronghold of Sunni insurgents. Another, more painful, paradox is that many of Iraq’s remaining 700,000 Christians paid to save their lives, knowing full well that the money would be used for bombs and other weapons to kill others.

The really stunning statistic in this article is that the Iraqi Christian population has fallen a pre-war 1.3 million to about 700,000 today. Those who stayed provided financial backing against their will for the insurgency:

These payments, American military officials and Iraqi Christians say, peaked from 2005 to 2007 and grew into a source of financing for the insurgency. They thus became a secret, shameful and extraordinary complication in the lives of Iraq’s Christians and their leaders — one that Christians are only now talking about more openly, with violence much lower than in the first years of the war.

“People deny it, people say it’s too complex, and nobody in the international community does anything about it,” said Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad. Complicating the issue further, he said, some of the protection money came from funds donated by Christians abroad to help their fellow Christians in Iraq.

Yonadam Kanna, a Christian lawmaker in Iraq’s Parliament, said, “All Iraqi Christians paid.”

I should note that the NYT is somewhat behind on this story. The Associated Press ran a story in early May, and CNSNews.com had a story on the subject in late May.

Probably as a benefit of being late, the NYT was able to provide some context to the situation with some stunning details. One subtle angle in their story is that the decreasing violence has allowed a sort of respite from the ransom payments and kidnappings.

The missing angle from these stories was what would happen if and/or when the American military presence is either reduced from its current status or removed all together. What type of assurances, if anyone, can be given to Iraq’s religious minorities (about 3 percent of the population) that they will be able to continue to live in their ancient land?

Photo of Assyrian child dressed in traditional clothes from Wikipedia.

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What’s in a name?

roseBack in April when Texas authorities seized children from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we discussed how well the media distinguished between them and the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As far as media coverage went, we thought reporters handled the distinction pretty well. We definitely took issue with how well they retained their objectivity with the story.

But the LDS church commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans and found that 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the “Mormon Church” based in Salt Lake City. According to the survey, six percent said the churches were partly related, 29 percent said the groups were not connected at all, and 29 percent weren’t sure.

So the LDS decided to do a big public relations campaign and enlist religion reporters help in clarifying the distinction. Whereas Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune ran a rather brief story, the Associated Press’ Eric Gorski used the campaign as a hook to explore the issue in greater depth:

As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.

Church officials knew the sect’s similar name and practice of polygamy — part of Mormon church life until it was banned more than a century ago — would cause people to confuse the two.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, is starting a public relations campaign that seeks a delicate balance: distinguishing itself from a small, separate group that claims some of the same history while not denigrating someone else’s beliefs.

It’s a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren’t interested in attacking someone else’s beliefs,” LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. “At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us.”

“Mormons,” he said, “have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas.”

I love the way that Gorski really makes the most out of each word. There is rarely an unnecessary clause in his prose. The middle of the story gives a ton of specifics — the LDS took no stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Texas or subsequent battles. Gorski explains why the campaign was launched and how it centers around videos on the LDS web site that aim to demonstrate that church members are like anyone else in the community.

He also explains how the church aims to explain its former practice of polygamy relative to the FLDS’ current practice of polygamy. He gives the specifics of the public relations campaign, such as an article that emphasizes that most polygamous marriages involved just two wives and that Mormon women in the 19th century could choose whether to marry and could leave their polygamous marriages. He notes a few things that were left out, such as the fact that church founder Joseph Smith had at least 28 wives, some as young as 14 and that his successor Brigham Young married at least 20 women. But he gets a response from LDS Apostle Cook about why comparisons of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs to the early Mormon church prophets are unfair. There’s no “gotcha” in the reporting.

In addition to another religious scholar, Gorski speaks with historian Jan Shipps, who is a highly-regarded non-Mormon scholar of the Latter Day Saint movement:

Although the Mormon church distances itself from polygamist groups like the FLDS, the groups are not unrelated, said Jan Shipps, a historian who specializes in Mormonism. They share common roots, call themselves Mormon and recognize Joseph Smith as a prophet, she said.

“You can see why the (LDS) church is doing its best to draw a line between the two,” she said. “The problem is that by drawing the line, they don’t recognize the shared history both accept.”

Shipps said it’s accurate to call sects like the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” because she, and other scholars, considers Mormonism a new religious tradition with several expressions.

The LDS church, which considers itself Christian, sees it differently.

As part of the new initiative to set itself apart from polygamist groups, the church’s general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week urging sensitivity in coverage and asking that the term “fundamentalist Mormon” not be used.

“Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated,” he wrote, “and then started their own religion.”

I love how straightforward Gorski is. He doesn’t come down one way or the other, even if he gives the LDS official the last word. His story from beginning to end shows the most important point: the LDS church seeks to distance itself from the FLDS. But he also shows that the church’s goal of getting journalists to refrain from calling the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” is not universally shared. The one thing that would have been nice to have included in this story is some perspective from the FLDS themselves. What do they think of the LDS public relations campaign? It would also have been nice to find out what the LDS think the group should be called. All I could find on the LDS site was the not-so-specific “polygamist sect in Texas” and the clunky “the polygamous group in Texas that calls itself the FLDS,” neither of which are probably going to catch on at copydesks.

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