Wright stuff: Reassessing the prophet

LincolnArtI am completely confused by the media coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. I feel as if the media went from providing a bit too much context for his incendiary remarks to completely abandoning the man. Is there any substantial difference between what he said this week at the National Press Club and what we saw in televised snippets from his sermons? Has he said anything different about his famous parishioner Barack Obama than he did in his old interviews with the New York Times or Rolling Stone?

Did the mood change because he went after the media in their own house? Did the mood change because the media support Obama and it’s clear Wright is hurting Obama? It all seems a bit unfair. From my view, Wright hasn’t changed one bit and now, all of a sudden, he went from being a prophetic preacher to a really bad man. His only media friend is PBS’ Bill Moyers. Why has the mainstream media changed its tune?

The real point of this post, however, is to look at how Bible verses are created in the media. Lynn Sweet, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Wright at the press club event as follows:

During a question and answer session after his speech, Wright was asked why he waited so long to try to explain himself: “As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the — all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. The media was making a fool out of itself because it knew nothing about our tradition.

The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank paraphrased the paraphrase in his piece denouncing Wright for praising Louis Farrakhan, defending the view that Zionism is racism, accusing the United States of terrorism, repeating his view that the government created the AIDS virus to cause the genocide of racial minorities, standing by his previous remarks (e.g. “God damn America”) and holding himself out as a spokesman for the black church in America:

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, explaining this morning why he had waited so long before breaking his silence about his incendiary sermons, offered a paraphrase from Proverbs: “It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Linking to Milbank is Dayo Olopade at The New Republic:

Breaking his silence to the DC press corps today, Wright had the audacity to cite Proverbs: “It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

As Nathan Goulding pointed out at National Review, the problem with that last reference is that Wright was citing President Abraham Lincoln, not the Book of Proverbs. Lincoln was referencing Proverbs, of course. Proverbs 17:28, to be precise:

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace;
When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.

Image via the Lincoln Art Gallery

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Wright stuff: His black church tradition

church4As Mark noted earlier, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., came right out and made a statement — a statement about religion — that reporters should be able to investigate and challenge. In a way, Wright focused on the very angle that GetReligion has been trying to focus on from the start of this media firestorm.

The key quote again: “This is not an attack against Jeremiah Wright, this is an attack against the black church.”

There is the question: Is this statement true? Or is it more accurate to state that Wright is a high-profile leader in a certain kind of black church, one that offers a unique approach to faith and life? What about black Pentecostal churches? Lutheran? Assemblies of God? Catholic? Southern Baptist? Church of God in Christ?

In addition to its main Wright stories, which have been almost completely political, the Washington Post has offered some sidebars that capture more of the atmosphere surrounding the controversial preacher’s current media tour. I need to note right up front that much of this reporting has been done by a veteran reporter who is a friend of mine, Hamil Harris. Here is are two key passages from the story that ran with the excellent headline: “Preaching to the Choir, and Feeding the Fire — Before Black Ministers From Around the Country, Wright Courts Further Controversy.”

Some ministers were fired up by Wright’s defense of “black liberation” theology:

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of the District’s Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said this was more than a speech. “This is a movement that has been in the shadows for decades — I call it the progressive evangelical movement.”

The Rev. James Forbes, pastor emeritus of the Riverside Church of New York, said: “In all of this hullabaloo, the question is: What is the message that God is trying to get through? It is more serious than the presidential election.”

Princeton professor Cornel West was just happy that Wright was getting to tell his side of the story. “People need to know the work and witness of Brother Jeremiah Wright, they need to know who is all his humanity. … All of the lies that have been told about him need to be shattered.”

But another person with close ties to Wright — the Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Highland Park — had his doubts about the timing of this whole episode:

“I still come back to the point that the focus should be on Obama, Clinton and McCain,” Davis said. “Dr. Wright talks about an attack against the black church, but if you peel everything away, you don’t have a room filled with reporters and press if we are simply talking about the black church.

“The risk for all of us in ministry is when we operate outside of our normal roles,” added Davis, who studied under Wright at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “While Reverend Wright has done so many good things down through the years, I am reminded of the song, ‘May the Work That I Have Done Speak for Me.’ That doesn’t take any commentary at all.”

These are crucial voices. But, again, note that they are united by ties other than race. They are connected through the United Church of Christ — a trailblazing church on the religious left — or through other academic or community ties that are solidly on the theological (try to forget politics, for a moment) left.

Cornel West? James Forbes? Very important voices, but voices on one side of the religious and cultural spectrum. Do they, along with Wright, represent a crucial part of the black church? Yes. Obviously. Do their cultural and theological views represent all of the black church? That’s the question reporters have to keep asking.

church1An earlier Post sidebar ended with a voice of caution about the agenda that is driving much of this coverage, an agenda driven as much by Wright as by anyone else.

The question is whether Wright’s voice represents the past, the present or the future. Or, is his voice only one voice that is part of a debate that will continue into the future? The experts agree that “black liberation” theology is important. But that is not the only issue, now.

The prevalence of the theology today can’t be easily measured, but traces of the movement can be seen in the style and ministry of many black churches across denominations. Some black church leaders, however, say its relevance is waning.

“The issues that we face today are more crisis-oriented: How am I going to keep my marriage intact? How am I going to keep my home? What school am I going to put my kids in?” said the Rev. Keith Battle, who heads Zion Church in Landover. “There might be a racial undertone to the questions, but it can’t just be a movement anymore about when am I going to get my 40 acres and a mule.” …

The Rev. Harry Jackson Jr., who leads the multiracial Pentecostal Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, said that liberation theology might have begun as a helpful rallying cry in the civil rights era but that what is needed now is a message of reconciliation.

“You can’t keep bringing up the anger of black power or black theology without a vision or plan to address those issues,” he said. “There is a desire for the first time in post-civil rights history among large white churches to integrate in cities like D.C. that are predominantly black,” he said.

These other voices are important, as well.

While it may sound strange to say this, the Wright coverage, as a whole, needs more diversity — theological diversity. Some of the sources that are ending up in the sidebars need to bleed over into the main stories.

Illustrations: Black Art Depot, the black church.

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Wright stuff: Does he typify the black church?

wright 02 For their story about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s comments yesterday, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin of The Washington Post focused on the politics of his appearance and speech. Their emphasis is understandable for obvious reasons. Yet the reporters underplayed the religion angle in their story — and thus also weakened their political angle.

Murray and Slevin gave readers the gist of Wright’s remarks — attacks on Wright are an attack on the black church:

Speaking before a sold-out gathering that was broadcast live on cable news networks yesterday, Wright told a mostly African American audience that his preaching has been misconstrued by journalists and political pundits who do not understand black religious tradition, which he said was founded amid slavery and racial intolerance and “still is invisible to the dominant culture.”

“Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country but for all the people in this country.”

In his prepared remarks, Wright traced the origins of the African American church in a measured tone and academic language.

To their credit, Murray and Slevin also quoted a fellow black pastor, albeit one with close ties to the Rev. Wright:

The Rev. Deborah F. Grant, a close friend of Wright’s and the pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ga., said the scrutiny of Wright is unfair, because he is being examined through a political lens. “He has not been called to be a politician. He’s been called to speak the gospel.”

Yet Grant was the lone voice on behalf of black churches. This is a failure of reporting. Murray and Slevin should have given readers a much better idea of whether Rev. Wright is typical of black pastors. They needed to include the voices of more black pastors and an expert on black American Christianity. Do they view Rev. Wright as left-wing anomaly or a mainstream figure?

This is an important question not just religiously but also politically. Suppose Barack Obama disavows his former pastor, as the Post implies that he should. Would Obama face massive defections from ordinary black Christians? Or would he meet resistance from a few stray black-liberation adherents?

Like any good politician, Obama knows how to count. So you can bet that he knows where his former pastor fits in the black Christian universe. Reporters should also know — and tell their readers accordingly.

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Learning the Fundamentalists’ fundamentals

DSCN0572In a story for CNN, reporter Eliott McLaughlin dove head first into a discussion of the religious views of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hook for the piece is the group’s decision to open up and permit some public scrutiny of its lifestyle. They’ve started a Web site and a handful of polygamous wives have been doing a ton of interviews.

The sect moved to Texas to avoid legal problems and its former prophet Warren Jeffs is in federal prison for arranging marriages between older men and underage girls. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar rape charges. The FLDS’ copious holdings in Utah are in control of the state pending further litigation. And now over 400 children have been taken into custody by Texas:

“Because of their history of persecution, they have what you’d call a paranoia complex,” said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. “They’ve never really reached out to outsiders.” . . .

The sect’s sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin — as with most Christian religions — to get to heaven. Those deemed “wicked” go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

I don’t even understand the first sentence of the last paragraph. Christianity is a religion. While there are different confessions, communions, denominations, what have you, it’s just one religion. And what does that mean — that “most Christian religions” believe “you must be free from sin” to get to heaven? Lutherans would not say that. We would say Christ’s death alone saves you by grace alone. And that Christ’s work on the cross is received by faith alone. I’m pretty sure a sizable grouping of other Christians who would agree that salvation does not depend on whether people are free from sin but on God’s grace.

McLaughlin goes into great detail about the FLDS tiers of heaven. Some of it would sound familiar to those who have read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. But some of it doesn’t. The hard thing is that while the church is posting media-friendly information on its Web site, it’s not revealing information about its doctrines other than some pretty standard Latter Day Saints information here. So it’s hard to know if McLaughlin’s sources are right or not:

Those who aren’t deemed wicked go to the “spirit world” to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons — how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

“To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you,” Walsh said. “Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven.”

If you haven’t learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, “you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world” before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

Again, maybe Walsh is totally correct. It’s hard to say because of the lack of good scholarship on the FLDS.

The rest of the piece is remarkably cynical about the public relations efforts of the FLDS. Again using just one source, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years, the reporter says the church’s openness should not be confused with candor:
IMG 0264

The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer — the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site’s name — has been scripted to elicit sympathy, [Hamilton] said.

The sect’s Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, “I don’t want to go.”

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as “officers force their way into homes,” “sacred site desecrated,” “children’s innocence threatened” and “mothers and children torn apart.”

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, “the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves,” Hamilton said. . . .

“They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters,” said Hamilton, the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children.”

The reporter says that the only way to contact the FLDS is through a link to a PayPal page. But at least by the time I checked out the site, it had an email contact.

Anyway, the thing I don’t get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short. It was just last September that Warren Jeffs was sentenced. It wasn’t that long before that he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. It seems we might get more sources here than a post-graduate student and a Cardozo professor.

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Cheers for the Baptist presses

press For months, I have complained that newspapers have given readers too little information about the electoral preferences of religious and non-religious voters. Then came last Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. Now I know where to look for more information: the denominational press (the competing Baptist newsrooms, to be specific).

Standing out from the pack was Robert Marus of the progressive Associated Baptist Press. Some papers noted that Catholic Democrats voted heavily for Clinton; CNN and The New York Times gave readers the raw data. Yet only Marus sliced and diced the religious vote on the day after the primary.

For example, early in his story Marus presented his readers with this information:

Catholics — who represented 36 percent of all Democratic voters — chose her over Obama by a whopping 40-point margin, 70 percent to 30 percent.

Pennsylvania’s Protestants went for Clinton in percentages almost identical to that of the commonwealth’s overall Democratic electorate — 55 percent to Obama’s 45 percent. After Catholics, they made up the next largest religious category in the primary, with 24 percent of the total. Jews, who made up 8 percent of Pennsylvania’s Democratic turnout, favored Clinton 62-38 percent.

Only three broad religious categories favored Obama in the state. Those who said they were Christian but did not identify as Protestant, Catholic or Mormon made up 13 percent of voters, and they favored Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. He also had a 24-point edge among those listing no religious affiliation, who made up 10 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats. And the six percent of primary voters who listed a religious affiliation other than Christian, Mormon, Jewish or Muslim went for Obama 58-42 percent.

Michael Foust of the conservative Baptist Press also beat the mainstream media to the story. Though his analysis was less detailed, Foust showed his readers that voters’ religious observance was a factor in the Pennsylvania primary results:

Clinton carried the state, 55-45 percent, and edged Barack Obama among those who attend church weekly (61 percent to Obama’s 39 percent) and more than weekly (51-49 percent), according to exit polls. Combined, the two groups made up 36 percent of Democratic voters. Obama won among those who never attend church, 56-44 percent (a group comprising 17 percent of voters).

The MSM did break down the religious vote — four days after the Pennsylvania results were in. Jennifer Agiesta of The Washington Post wrote one of the better stories. Agiesta’s two main insights related to religious observance and race:

In amassing her 10 percentage point win, Clinton had one of her strongest showings among white Catholics, who gave her a 44 percentage point margin over Obama and made up nearly a third of Keystone state Democratic primary voters. Among the most devout in this group, those who attend Mass at least weekly, Clinton won 3 to 1.

White Catholics have been a Clinton mainstay throughout the nomination contest. She has won the group by double-digits in 16 of the 22 states where data were available. In Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of all Catholics.

But among Protestants and other Christians, Obama’s six percentage point win masks a sharp racial fissure. Black Protestants went for Obama, 93 percent to 7 percent, while white Protestants broke for Clinton, 59 to 41.

Voters who attend religious services weekly gave Clinton a double-digit margin, but this group, too, was divided by race. Black voters gave Obama a nearly 80-point margin, while whites went for Clinton by 36 points.

My only complaint with all three stories is their absence of information about why voters behaved as they did. Did Jewish voters break for Clinton based on her remarks about defending Israel from a hypothetical attack from Iran? Why did highly observant Catholics break heavily for Clinton while the same was not true for highly observant white Protestants? Was it perhaps related to the observations of Julia and Deacon John M. Bresnahan?

… (The ) talking heads on cable news television … are hinting, implying, or openly saying that the reason Catholics in large numbers are writing off Obama as worthless is “racism.” Yet word was spreading months ago among Catholics that on the issue of abortion Obama is by far and away the worst, most vicious proponent of abortion-on-demand in recent American political history — even so fanatical on the issue that he favors infanticide after a failed abortion.

Unless reporters start asking those questions, readers will not know. If the denominational press breaks this story, too, the MSM will really be on its heels.

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Ghosts at the YFZ ranch

polygamyThe YFZ Ranch story was supposed to be about child abuse. No one will argue that when children are being abused, the state has broad powers to step in and stop the abuse no matter what justification is used to try to legitimize the abuse. No religious belief justifies any type of child abuse.

As it turns out, the YFZ Ranch story may be less about child abuse and more about the practice of polygamy, underage marriage, and a state’s moral objection to those practices. The story is dramatically shifting from the rather simple question regarding child abuse to whether a person’s religious beliefs that polygamy is necessary for eternal salvation can trump the state’s interest in enforcing the majority’s views on morality.

The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Christopher Smart portrays the real life consequences of this story in all its vivid and troubling details:

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who represents some FLDS members, said mothers were told to gather together inside the coliseum at 9 a.m. but were not told why. Once there, CPS said children 13 months or older were being removed from them. One mother had her 13-month-old daughter literally taken out of her hands, the legal organization said.

Two women who returned to the FLDS ranch, Velvet, 31, and Ruth, 34, later gave tearful accounts of how their young children were taken from them in what they described as a “cold” manner.

Velvet, who did not give a last name, said she has a 13-month-old daughter, Velvet Rose, who is still breast-feeding.

“I don’t know where she is,” Velvet said fighting back tears. “She’s never had a bottle before. I need her back.”

There are three possible reasons Texas could put forth for breaking up these families. The first and most obvious is evidence of abuse. The state has had an entire week to search for evidence of abuse, and if they have found any strong evidence of abuse, the state is either not presenting that evidence, or the media is not reporting it. Here’s the Associated Press:

CPS officials have conceded there is no evidence the youngest children were abused, and about 130 of the children are under 5. Teenage boys were not physically or sexually abused either, according to evidence presented in a custody hearing earlier last week, but more than two dozen teenage boys are also in state custody, now staying at a boys’ ranch that might typically house troubled or abandoned teens.

Two teenage girls are pregnant, and although identities and ages have been difficult to nail down, CPS officials say no more than 30 minor girls in state custody have children. It’s not clear how many other adolescent girls may be among the children shipped to foster facilities.

That second paragraph brings up the next reason the state could take action to break-up the families: illegal underage marriages. A state may legitimately make marriage under a certain age a crime because it has long been accepted that people under a certain age are not capable of consenting. But does that make a break up of every single family within a community necessary? What if the family only had boys? Or what about the family with just a couple of toddlers?

Here is the AP again getting into the heart of this vitally important issue:

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — The state of Texas made a damning accusation when it rounded up 462 children at a polygamous sect’s ranch: The adults are forcing teenage girls into marriage and sex, creating a culture so poisonous that none should be allowed to keep their children.

But the broad sweep — from nursing infants to teenagers — is raising constitutional questions, even in a state where authorities have wide latitude for taking a family’s children.

The move has the appearance of “a class-action child removal,” said Jessica Dixon, director of the child advocacy center at Southern Methodist University’s law school in Dallas.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” she said.

Rod Parker, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, contends that the state has essentially said, “If you’re a member of this religious group, then you’re not allowed to have children.”

The last and least mentioned reason the state could break-up these families is the fact that they practice polygamy, which is illegal throughout the United States. In fact, several Western states were required as a condition of their admittance as a state to ban polygamy in their state constitutions. Needless to say, the American government has never accepted plural marriages.

Would a state have legitimate grounds to break-up a family because the children are living in sin illegality? That’s certainly the story the lawyers for the FLDS group are putting forward. They have some reason to have confidence in this argument since the Supreme Court has carved out a wide constitutional privacy right in 2003 when it comes to matters of the intimacy of a person’s personal life (see Lawrence v. Texas).

If this story continues to become less about child abuse and more about the state’s power to set standards of morality and the family structure, journalists should not expect the debate to come down on the traditional right-left divide.

Some liberals will look to this case as an example that the state has no business regulating marriage, plural, same-sex or whatever. Some conservatives will see this as an example of the state having no business regulating family life, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs (home schooling anyone?). Journalists should be alert to covering both sides of the story. There are no easy answers here.

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The sensational and sentimental

childcustodyCould there have been two more dramatically different religion stories last week than Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to the United States and the ongoing drama with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It is completely understandable that almost all religion reporting resources focused on papal coverage, but I keep hoping that we’ll see some really good coverage of the ins and outs at the Yearning For Zion compound ranch in West Texas.

Reader FW Ken said it well:

The story in the FLDS business here in Texas needs desperately to tease out the legitimate religious angles from the cultic. The isolation and focus on the leader are classic cult behaviors. The sexual exploitation of younger girls by older men is not uncommon in cults (I’m thinking Moses David and the Children of God back in the 70s), although, to be fair, polygamy and arranged marriages between younger and older is not uncommon in history . . . But that’s the sort of thing that really needs telling, because it is possible to interpret the current event as the government swooping in and stealing the children of people who’s religion and way of life based on that religion aren’t socially acceptable. Look, I’m a Catholic and don’t approve of polygamy. But I amreally uncomfortable with government force being applied to people who believe differently then me. Again, sorting out the cult aspects from the authentically religious choices people make is crucial to protecting the legitimate interests of the kids without force feeding them standard American culture. . . .

Bottom line: I’ve worked for the great State of Texas most the past 40 years in one capacity or another and somehow I don’t trust us to really help these children through our child welfare system. Call me cynical, but this is a job for journalism, but, unfortunately, a journalism that “gets religion” (what a concept!) and doesn’t settle for the sensational and sentimental.

I finally found a few stories that weren’t terribly sensational or sentimental. However, the stories didn’t really help us understand, as FW Ken put it, the religious angles versus the cultic. Written by Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times, their focus is on the DNA tests that members of the polygamous sect are being subjected to:

Current and former members of a deeply conservative polygamous sect whose children have been seized by the state came to a county office building here on Tuesday to donate their DNA for a genetic database that state officials said could be a step toward the reunification of parents and children.

The collections began even as the first children were sent off under a judge’s order into foster care pending an investigation of under-age marriages by the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S.

The parents came in ones and twos and groups on a blisteringly hot day, some resigned to the task, others simmering with resentment. Jarring juxtapositions — old ways and new, science and faith, cynicism and hopefulness — were everywhere. Just after lunch, a group of women in pastel prairie dresses climbed down from a late-model S.U.V. with dark-tinted windows like those used by movie stars. But for the West Texas dust, they looked straight from Hollywood central casting.

David Williams, 32, clutching a Book of Mormon and a binder with pictures of his three sons, said he drove 1,200 miles from Nevada “to give all that I have to aid in the return of the children to their parents.”

Mr. Williams said that he had left the sect three years ago, but that his three sons had continued to live here at the group’s compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch, with their mother. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than a century ago after the Mormons abandoned their traditions of polygamy.

I like that jarring juxtapositions line — a very efficient way to capture a great deal of context. And the imagery in the following line manages to paint quite the picture without being condescending or rude.

Perhaps discussing why Mr. Williams left the sect would be a good way to explore some of the tangled religious issues. He’s carrying a Book of Mormon and he left the sect — he seems like a good potential source.

It’s also worth noting that the timeline about the FLDS is a bit off. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did officially change its position on polygamy over a century ago but I believe the FLDS emerged in the 1930s after the LDS really began cracking down on polygamists. Kirk Johnson’s follow-up story seemed to fix this problem somewhat:

The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.

Anyway, most stories out there continue to take either the “look at these freaks” or the “these poor, poor parents” approach to the story. A more nuanced and less extreme approach is called for as a service to readers.

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Straightforward coverage of Umbanda

How often does a reporter get to write about the 100th birthday of a religion? The Miami Herald, no stranger to covering off-beat religions (at least from the perspective of a reader in the United States), has a rather unusual story on the “uniquely Brazilian religion” of Umbanda.

The story is rather positive and takes an outsider’s perspective on the religion. For a story that is serving to introduce the religion for the purposes of commemorating it’s 100th year in existence, it covers all the basics. The story focuses appropriately on the religion’s history and has the benefit of presuming that the reader knows little or nothing about Umbanda:

Umbanda has been a natural fit for a country where many believe in the everyday presence of spirits and omens. What’s drawn the interest of international scholars is the religion’s unmistakably Brazilian bent, which has won it fame as the country’s only home-grown faith.

Umbanda’s Brazilian focus is most obvious in its pantheon of spirits, which includes popular folk figures such as the rogue, who’s a fixture of street culture here; the freed slave known as the preto velho; and an indigenous warrior known as the caboclo, who can appear adorned with feathered headdresses and bows and arrows.

Worshipers also can be possessed by someone from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, a cowboy from southern Brazil or a poor ranch hand. In its use of Brazilian folk mythology, it’d be as if worshipers in the United States were possessed by cowboys, astronauts and blues singers.

The story’s introduction, which is not included in this post, follows the stereotypical lead for a story about a religion outside the mainstream. It describes from an onlooker’s perspective someone being possessed by a spirit. Perhaps it’s just too difficult for reporters to resist painting that word picture of the seemingly defining experience of the religion.

Thankfully, as faithful story finder Chris Chase pointed out, it moves on to discuss the religion in terms of more relevant information such as Brazilian nationalism and the influence of 19th century spiritualism.

That event launched what would become a potent mix of African religions, Roman Catholicism and the teachings of 19th-century French spiritualist Allan Kardec. The religion now claims as many as eight million devotees and more than 100,000 temples around Brazil.

Many temples are holding special ceremonies this year to celebrate the religion’s centennial, which is as much about survival as it is about spirituality.

Throughout the early 20th century, Brazilian governments, alarmed at the religion’s intense ceremonies, outlawed its practice, forcing many worshipers underground. Although the religion is legal now, Brazil’s mushrooming Pentecostal churches still regularly condemn Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions as the work of the devil.

A quick point about the numbers cited in the story. I am curious how many of the religion’s faithful live in the United States. I’m sure there are some Florida and Miami residents who would be curious if there are any estimates on the number in their area.

As for 8 million practitioners cited in the story, the linked above Wikipedia article cites a sociological study that says there are 30 million practitioners, but that includes people in Uruguay, Argentina and the United States. I’m not one to necessarily put a Wikipedia fact above a fact vetted by a newsroom, but it would be interesting to know more about how extensive this religion is and whether it is growing or not.

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