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 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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Pfleger: Pol or priest?

pflegerABC News billed it as an exclusive. More than two weeks after being suspended for making fun of Hillary Clinton from the pulpit, Father Michael Pfleger discussed his return to active ministry.

Here is how Jonann Brady of ABC News began her story:

In an exclusive interview, Pfleger told “Good Morning America” that he does not “apologize for being passionate, I don’t apologize for being free.”

“But I apologize when my passion or my freeness and my flawedness of character get in the way of a content which is much more important to me,” he told “GMA’s” Robin Roberts.

Though Pfleger promised church leaders he would not speak about the candidates again by name, he insisted he would still talk about politics.

“The church has to be the one to be the voice of conscience to the world and can’t be afraid to be that,” he said. “It has to speak to politics and the policies and the politicians and to raise those questions, or we’re not faithful to what our mission is. “

Later in the story, Brady filled readers in about Pfleger’s activities and background:

In his sermon on June 22 called “Ain’t Nothing Like a Comeback,” Pfleger told his parishioners at St. Sabina’s Catholic Church that he would not “run and hide, nor allow them to cause me to ‘play it safe’ or become silent.”

“We still have an unequal justice system — we still have more people of color in poverty, in jail, in poor education systems, a lack of health care. All those statistics will tell us that we have not come as far as we’ve liked to come,” said Pfleger.

Pfleger has been the leader of the predominantly black church since 1981. He has been described as “extremely Afro-centric,” and has called the controversial former pastor at Trinity Church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a “friend, mentor and hero.”

The two passages apply more to a liberal politician than a Catholic priest. Readers were told of Pfleger’s view of politics and political activities but not his non-political pastoral activities.

Brady was not the only reporter who portrayed Pfleger almost exclusively in political terms. So too did Cathleen Falsani, a columnist for Religion News Service and the Chicago Sun Times. In an otherwise interesting profile of the pastor, Falsani emphasized his political activity repeatedly, as in this passage:

Along his unique spiritual journey, Pfleger has made a lot of enemies and acquired a few interesting traveling companions, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, poet Maya Angelou, singer Harry Belafonte, the Rev. Al Sharpton and black liberation icon James Cone.

Sen. Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is one of Pfleger’s closest friends. In fact, Pfleger credits Wright with teaching him how to preach in the fiery style that landed him in hot water and resulted in an involuntary leave of absence from St. Sabina.

Sure, Pfleger’s political activism is a big part of the story. If it weren’t, he would never have made national headlines.

But for a Catholic priest, his brand of political activism is highly unusual. He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Tillich, but not popes John Paul II or John XXIII. He fights against drugs, guns, and prostitution but not abortion, which is an issue of increasing concern among black Catholics. (This would be too much to ask of most reporters, but Falsani and Brady might have asked why Pfleger did not become a Josephite, an order that caters to black Catholics.)

Pfleger’s theological views and spiritual experience are also unusual. In the middle of the story, Falsani writes

Outside of it, Pfleger, 59, has spent the 33 years of his priesthood among the impoverished black community on Chicago’s South Side creating a ministry that’s based in equal parts on a thoroughly Catholic understanding of the social gospel and its notion of God’s preferential option for the poor, and the not-so-Catholic belief in salvation by grace, through faith — period.

At the same time, Pfleger, who says he became a born-again Christian more than 30 years ago, also has built a public reputation for being a loudmouth rebel (some say renegade) — a rabble-rousing, bishop-defying troublemaker.

There is a lot to explain there. How do his views and experience comport with his service as a Catholic priest?

What’s more, Brady and Falsani failed to note that Pfleger was suspended by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago precisely because he was acting in a partisan (i.e. overly political) way. Yet the reporters continue to portray Pfleger almost entirely as a political activist rather than a Catholic priest.

Whatever the two reporters and Pfleger think, there is a difference. Catholic teaching maintains, and Cardinal George reiterated, that priests have a role to play in politics. But priests should not be confused with politicians. When reporters miss this, they don’t get religion.

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God-fearing atheists

thankgodatheistA few days ago, Terry looked at a few of the initial stories that came out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life megastudy. In the comments, a few of you noted one particularly odd statistic from the survey. Here’s how Ed Stoddard of Reuters put it on the news service’s blog:

There seems to be some confusion among self-described U.S. atheists, at least according to the second part of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued today.

It found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying they were “absolutely certain” on this score.

Curiously, more than one fifth — 21 percent — of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

One thing does seem absolutely certain: at least a few U.S. atheists must be confused.

My “Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions” (Wordsworth Reference Series, 1992) begins its definition of the word “atheism” in the following manner: “The denial of the existence of God or gods.”

Indeed, the very definition of the term atheist seems to preclude a yes answer to the question of belief in God or a universal spirit. Whenever I read stories about surveys, I’ve found that going to the original source documents helps. But not in this case. Here’s how the surveyors asked the question:

Question: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

For atheists, eight percent were absolutely certain, seven were fairly certain and 6 weren’t terribly certain. Fifty-five percent of agnostics, who by definition claim ignorance about the existence of God, believe in God. Seventeen percent are absolutely certain, 23 percent fairly certain and 15 percent are less certain.

While atheists and agnostics gave very low marks to the importance of religion and whether they went to church frequently, when asked whether they pray, 21 percent of atheists and 56 percent of agnostics said they did. In fact, a small percentage of atheists said that they received definite answers to prayer at least once a week.

Steve Waldman at Beliefnet has a theory about the numbers:

The Spirituality of Atheists – 21% of Atheists believe in god. What this means is that Atheism has become a cultural designation, rather than a theological statement. Some are likely declaring themselves atheists as a statement of hostility to organized religion, rather than to God. This might help explain polls showing rising numbers of Atheists.

That may very well be, although there is no way to know that for certain from the data. Particularly considering respondents had the option of saying they weren’t affiliated with any organized religion. But even if it were certain, what would that say about the rest of the numbers? It doesn’t really inspire confidence, for me at least, in the survey’s methodology, accuracy or utility.

Certainly a survey so wide — 35,000 random Americans — is by necessity very shallow in it’s theological depth. Particularly when so many of the questions were political instead of religious in nature. In fact, the first 20-plus questions did not discuss religion at all.

Steve Waldman, this time writing for the Wall Street Journal, analyzed another part of the survey:

–On the big culture-war issues, Catholics seem only marginally influenced by the Church’s positions. While 50% of the population as a whole say homosexuality should be accepted, 58% of Catholics say it should be. A narrow majority (48%-45%) of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Part of the explanation: while most Catholics say they have strong views about right and wrong, a paltry 22% say they get their views about morality primarily from religion while 57% say it comes from “practical experience and common sense” — and only 9% of Catholics say religion is the major determinant of their political views.

That’s also some great analysis, as one might expect from Waldman. But the survey again has limitations. For one thing, these numbers combine the views of Catholics who go to mass weekly or daily with Catholics who haven’t been to mass in decades. If there are cultural, non-theological atheists, there are certainly cultural, non-theological Catholics. So before journalists extract dramatic conclusions about the results, I hope they understand the limits of the data.

In the comments to Terry’s post, reader Ron wrote:

I am struck by how hopelessly inadequate the poll’s questions about exclusive truth claims are to capturing the complexity of traditional Christian teaching.

Similarly, I found the question that resulted in Waldman’s second paragraph just lacking in general. It asked “When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance?” The choices were:

Religious teachings and beliefs; philosophy and reason; practical experience and common sense or scientific information.

It’s not just that I would have liked to answer “yes.” It’s the entire premise I find troubling. In my confession of faith (Lutheran), we’re taught that all of these things are gifts from God and that we are to use all of these things to order our daily affairs. Our religious teachings and beliefs come from both revealed and observed truth. They work together.

Or take this aspect of the study as summarized by Jacqueline Salmon of the Washington Post:

The poll, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded. And almost 60 percent believe in hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without repenting are eternally punished, the poll found.

Look at the question that was asked:

Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

I honestly have no idea how would I answer that question. The “heaven” in the question in no way resembles Lutheran teaching about heaven. We don’t believe good works gain people salvation (see: the Doctrine of Justification). It’s a minor point, but one worthy of considering as reporters head off to write big think pieces about what these numbers mean.

Reader Chris Bolinger wrote:

I fear that, with MSM articles on the the latest Pew Forum survey and report, we have the perfect storm of:
* An overreaching survey that tries to cover too much ground and includes many questions that are poorly constructed
* A summary of the resulting 276-page report that tries to boil down results that, frankly, are all over the map
* MSM reporters who are obsessed with politics, know little (and care less) about how surveys are conducted or what flaws may exist in this one, and are itching to call characterize the survey results as “proof” of what they have been reporting for the past few years

These Pew surveys are wonderful and highly addictive for religion reporters. But reporters should be careful about the conclusions they draw from the data given the limitations of the survey.

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Town criers on the Pew report

town crierOne of the greatest aspects of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report released Monday was the state-by-state data. Unfortunately, the coverage in my morning newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, was lacking. A combination of the Associated Press and USA Today made-up the above-the-fold front-page story while the jump had a small graphic comparing the Indiana data to the entire United States.

Some non-national newspapers such as The Dallas Morning News focused on the big headline of the report: “Most Americans say many religions can lead to eternal life.” According to a reader, the story received “big-middle-above-the-fold” placement Tuesday morning. In addition, the article has a helpful section on the report’s limitations. (Also see an online chat with the reporter Jeffrey Weiss on the subject.)

Next door to me in Ohio, The Columbus Dispatch gave their locally reported story similar front page above-the-fold treatment. Similar to the IndyStar, The Dispatch focused on the national story and included a breakout graphic on the state data. The Chicago Sun-Times did a similar article.

According to a reporter friend of mine, there were a large number of journalists on Pew Forum’s teleconference regarding this study. Based on what I’ve seen about the report, newspapers now have an tremendous resource to better understand their communities.

An excellent example of a reporter taking advantage of the advance time Pew gave journalists on this report is the story by the Orlando Sentinel‘s Jeannette Rivera-lyles:

Floridians aren’t jumping out of their beach chairs to go to church.

In fact, among Bible Belt states, Florida ranks last in church attendance among residents who consider themselves religious, according to a new study of more than 36,000 Americans.

Another great example is the article by the Tulsa World‘s Ryan Strong:

A national survey proves that Oklahoma continues to be a vital buckle on the Bible Belt.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released on Monday the second half of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which indicated that a majority of Oklahomans are active participants in a faith-based community.

Surprisingly, The Los Angeles Times also led with the state perspective. The reporter Duke Helfand knows his audience. He puts the fact that 42 percent of the state’s population thinks that “Hollywood is a corrupting influence.” Not surprisingly, considering recent events, the issue of homosexuality appeared in the third paragraph:

Californians, long known for their propensity to buck convention, have apparently done it again: A national survey released Monday revealed that they are less religious and less certain about the existence of God than the nation as a whole.

Residents of the Golden State do not pray as much as people in other parts of the country. They are less inclined to take scripture literally. And they are likelier to embrace “more than one true way” of interpreting their religious teachings.

Fifty-nine percent of them say that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 50% of people nationwide who hold that view, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Local journalists should take advantage of the advance time they receive with in-depth reports such as this and prepare an article that helps their readers better understand the nature of their community’s religious make-up. The national perspective is nice, but often that is something that readers have already heard about.

Photo of Peter Moore, Town Crier to the Mayor of London and The Greater London Authority, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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