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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Getting a Catholic story wrong

anticath Blaine Harden of The Washington Post faults the Catholic church for keeping Filipinos poor. The gist of Harden’s story is that by opposing artificial contraception, the church has intimidated people in heavily Catholic Philippines into having more unwanted children.

The article begins with the story of a woman who wanted only two children but gave birth to four because of her ignorance about artificial contraception:

She and her family belong to the fastest-growing segment of the Philippine population: very poor people with large families. There are many reasons why this country is poor, including feudal patterns of land ownership and corrupt government. But there is a compelling link between family size and poverty. It increases in lock step with the number of children, as nutrition, health, education and job prospects all decline, government statistics and many studies show.

Later, Harden shows that the population growth rate in the Philippines is 2.1 percent. He compares this figure to that of Thailand, a country that has relied on artificial contraception to reduce its growth rate dramatically.

The story is less than bulletproof. Matthew Balan of the Media Research Center ticked off some of its holes: Harden failed to mention why the typical Filipino woman in 1970 had six children and 3.54 today; the fact that a population growth rate of 2.1 percent is at the minimum replacement rate; and the likelihood that Thailand and even the Philippines will face European-style problems of having too few workers to support many retirees.

I have two main objections to the story. My first objection is that Harden failed to specify the nature of threats that government workers who distribute artificial contraceptives face:

The organization that is helping Espinoza agreed to introduce this reporter to her on condition that it not be named. The group’s health workers said they fear retaliation and harassment from officials in the national and city government, as well as from the Catholic Church.

In 2005, Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines announced that they would refuse Communion to government health workers who distributed birth control devices.

In the first paragraph, Harden neglects to describe the retaliation and harassment that government workers fear. Are those fears justified? If so, what types of threats have government workers faced? Are they physical threats or threats against their livelihood?

As things stand, the story implies that (Catholic) health workers should fear one thing only: being denied Holy Communion. Now it’s true that Catholic leaders are taking disciplinary measures against said workers; they cannot partake of the blood and body of Christ. Yet this hardly constitutes retaliation and harassment properly understood.

My second objection is the story’s breezy dismissal of Catholic doctrine and arguments. The church favors natural methods of family planning, Harden writes, who quotes a United Nations official whose view of the method is four words long:

As for the efficacy of “natural” methods to control population growth, Mukherjee said “it does not work.”

Mukherjee’s statement is nothing more than assertion and an appeal to authority; it provides no evidence that natural family planning does fail or provide any statistics about its success rate. Harden’s use of sneer quotes around the word “natural” will not convince fair-minded readers, either.

Maybe the Catholic Church in the Philippines has frightened and impoverished citizens. Yet Harden’s story shows little hard evidence for this idea. That’s a problem.

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Did Penn Democrats cling to religion?

religiousdems Everyone knows what Sen. Barack Obama said about small-town Pennsylvania voters at a fundraiser in my native city, or at least everyone who listens to the news or reads a newspaper. For those who don’t know, click here. Obama’s remarks were fairly well publicized.

After Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary, religion should have been a natural storyline for reporters. The Catholic vote, the highly religious vote, the secular vote — these topics would seem to have been fertile ground for reporters to plough.

Yet coverage by the big dailies often featured religious ghosts. Take this story in The Los Angeles Times. Reporter Faye Fiore focused on the strong support by voters in Scranton for Hillary Clinton — and used them as a synecdoche for larger constituencies:

… (The) Scranton voter is a crucial Democratic constituency Obama would need to win in a November matchup with the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. And for all the Clinton worship that was going on Tuesday, there were signs that Obama had made inroads, though some felt uncomfortable acknowledging it.

Fiore implied that the Scranton voter is a (white) working-class voter. Yet it’s fair to conclude that the typical Scranton voter belongs to another category, and no not someone who works under Michael Scott. After all, the city is heavily Irish, Italian, and Polish and has as many high schools affiliated with this religious denomination as it does public ones. If it’s any consolation, a Catholic ghost also haunts two stories in The New York Times (this one and this one).

Not all newspapers followed the Times’ lead. The Washington Post noted that Clinton defeated Obama by 44 points among white Catholic Democrats in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer mentioned that Obama did poorly among Jewish voters.

Yet few papers broke from the pack, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. No other newspapers examined voters’ religious observance or affiliation. No papers examined Obama’s victory in Amish counties such as Lancaster.

The dearth of coverage is odd. Obama’s statement about religion and voters got major coverage. Yet few reporters examined whether voters voted based on religious beliefs or commitments.

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God is in the details, part MMCDLXVIII

apostateThe Associated Press’ Eric Gorski wrote a ton of stories about the pope’s visit. One dealt with the relationship Benedict XVI has with American youth.

Of course, the late Pope John Paul II was well loved by young people and his World Youth Day events were major media events. Gorski writes a balanced story that emphasizes the growing orthodoxy among young people while not ignoring the presence of Catholic teens who struggle with church teaching:

Only 14 percent of Catholics between 20 and 40 attend Mass at least weekly, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate at Georgetown University. Other polls find Americans are switching religions more than ever or leaving faith altogether, with the Catholic church feeling those trends acutely.

Yet evidence also suggests a blooming of youth Catholic orthodoxy. Tradition-minded private Catholic schools like Christendom College in Virginia and Ave Maria University in Florida boast small enrollments but are growing in stature. Also growing are women’s religious orders in which sisters wear habits and perform traditional roles like teaching.

These young, devout Catholics share an appreciation for orthodox theology, self-sacrifice and fidelity to church teaching.

It’s a good story with a lot of reporting and anecdotes.

But (cough, cough) check out that first paragraph again. What’s with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate? I think he meant Apostolate.

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B16: Talk to the vox

pbvox The greatest reporter you’ve never heard of is Samuel Lubell. In his 1950 classic The Future of American Politics, Lubell explained why Harry Truman, against all odds and the conventional wisdom, won the 1948 presidential election. What made Lubell’s book great was his skill at interviewing ordinary voters, telling their stories with nuance and subtlety, and detecting the larger pattern from their responses.

A faint echo of Lubell-style reporting can be found in The Washington Times‘ and The New York Times‘ coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s final day in America. I thought the stories would have benefited from using this technique more fully. Even so, its use suggested larger religious themes.

With the help of three other reporters, Paul Vitello of the NYTimes got memorable quotes from Catholics who attended the Mass Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Vitello did more than incorporate a few man-on-the-street interviews. He put those interviews in a larger sociological and religious context:

Many of the people interviewed after Sunday’s Mass said they were deeply moved to be in the presence of Christ’s vicar on earth, as the pope is known to believers. His role as a spiritual father figure can seem to be almost personal for some Catholics.

“The most amazing part was when he came in the Popemobile,” said Sylvia Rios, 45, who attended the Mass with her former husband, Jesus Matthews, 46. “I know he wasn’t waving at me, but we had good seats, and when I looked at him, he looked like he was waving specifically at me.”

But more, people at the Mass said it was thrilling to be in a state of religious communion with so many others — and while in the presence of the pope, who represents the founding of the church 2,000 years ago.

Christa Rivers-Caceres, 37, who drove from Bushkill, Pa., with her husband, Enrique, 32, said being at Yankee Stadium made her feel like part of the family of Catholics, who number more than one billion worldwide. “You were proud to be Catholic,” she said. “It helped reaffirm our faith.”

Theoretically, Vitello’s interviews should please liberal and conservative Catholics alike: liberals because of the primacy they attach to Vox Populi, Vox Dei; and conservatives because of the respondents’ pro-Vatican remarks.

Julia Duin of The Washington Times also talked to local Catholics, including people at the same bar that the NYTimes‘ reporter(s) talked to. But unlike her counterparts, Duin mentioned interviewees’ remarks about hot-button social issues and categorized the responses of the crowd:

Benedict’s audience interrupted his sermon twice with applause: once when he urged his listeners to protect “the most defenseless of all human beings; the unborn child in the mother’s womb,” and a few seconds later, when he asked young listeners to “open your hearts to the Lord’s call to follow Him in the priesthood and the religious life.”

“It was indescribable,” said the Rev. Giacomo Capoverdi, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, R.I. “I am a big Yankees fan, and to see Yankee Stadium transformed into a church was just awesome to me.”

The Rev. Bob Hoatson, of West Orange, N.J., was outside the stadium holding up a sign: “Sexual Abuse of Little Boys and Girls is Soul Murder.”

The founder of Road to Recovery Inc., a ministry to Catholics sexually abused by priests, said he did not have a ticket to enter the stadium but hoped his sign will make people see that “we are still fighting for this issue.”

“Although some people said, ‘Get out of here,’ we responded with, ‘The pope believes us; what about you?’ ” he said.

Duin’s interviews gave readers a strong sense of the crowd. Although the massgoers’ cheers for the pope’s anti-abortion remarks were little surprise, I expected that his comments in support of the clergy would be met with muffled cheers or no response at all. The enthusiastic response suggests that the pontiff’s efforts to renew American Catholicism will find support from more than a few people.

My only quibble with the stories is the lack of integration between the pope’s homily and the respondents. What did people think of Benedict’s appeals to church authority? This would have been the right question to ask. After all, the Times emphasized this passage in Benedict’s homily.

Otherwise, I thought of all the stories about Benedict’s visit these were two of the better ones.

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Covering the church-going atheist

Emblem illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality, titled "Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan", from Picta poesis,Religion reporters covering atheism should approach the subject as straightforward as any other group of individuals who believe in similar ideas about God, an afterlife, the reason for evilness in the world, and the need for community and morality. To assume that atheists come down on the same side of all those issues would be to engage in gross stereotyping and fail to give significant depth to covering a complex minority in the United States.

An article in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus‘s Vermont Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Horowitz of the Columbia News Service is an example of good coverage of atheism in the sense that the article avoids pigeonholing and allows the story’s subjects to direct the narrative:

Ken Novak, a marketing analyst from Evanston, Ill., is an atheist. But that doesn’t stop him from going to services on Sundays. While there, he leads a discussion group and a book club, listens to the Sunday school children sing and finds fellowship with others.

Novak, 54, is a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a religious group that focuses on respecting others and does not worship a deity. He found it 16 years ago when looking for a nontheistic moral education for his children, and knew right away that he wanted to get involved.

“It’s a place where atheists and agnostics can get what a lot of people get out of church and temple,” Novak said of the society.

Novak is part of the growing group of American atheists who have left traditional religions but still feel a desire to be part of a religious group. Many had a positive experience with religion before losing their faith and now miss the community, the tradition and the chance to talk about values with like-minded people. So they join religious organizations that are accepting of atheists, form churches just for atheists or even attend traditional theistic churches.

Christopher Chase, a reader and commenter on our Web site, said that the story is one of the first he has seen in recent memory discussing humanist churches. If that is the case, then religion reporters in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, should consider looking into this group and others like it.

An additional area worth exploring that could have been touched on in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus article is the source of these groups’ ethics and morality. Saying that you believe in tolerance, ethics, morality or treating other people the right way is just a conclusion without a meaningful definition. Do groups like these rely on any particular authoritative code, or maxim through which they interpret morality and ethics? Do they feel that they are necessary?

Photo is of an emblem by Barthelemy Aneau titled “Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan” illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality. Taken from Wikipedia and is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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Lutherans with Issues

TownsendAsburryI had an intriguing GetReligion-related experience last week. A religion reporter wrote about a news story that I’m personally involved in. As a reporter, it is always interesting to watch another reporter in action. But when you actually care about the story involved, everything is taken to a new level.

The reporter in question was one we’ve discussed many times here — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And he did a fantastic job, working efficiently to get to the bottom of an incredibly complex story. It was humbling to watch. I’ll let Townsend handle the background, which he did in his first story on the matter a week ago:

About 75 protesters gathered Monday outside the world headquarters of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, many holding signs that asked simply, “Why?”

The question was directed at church leaders who, during Holy Week last month, pulled the plug on a popular radio program on the denomination’s KFUO-AM station called “Issues, Etc.”

The host, the Rev. Todd Wilken, and producer, Jeff Schwarz, were fired without warning, and all reference to the show was taken off KFUO’s website. Fans were left confused and angry.

The following day, a statement went up on the church’s website explaining that “Issues, Etc.” had been canceled for “programmatic and business” reasons but offered no specifics.

More than 200 fans of the program also attended Evening Prayer at a local St. Louis church the night before the demonstration to pray for Wilken and Schwarz. Our demonstration in front of the church headquarters was a rather quiet and calm affair. For example, my offer to shout “No Justice, No Peace!” while wearing a Martin Luther costume was roundly frowned upon.

So I had a chance to watch Townsend in action. He conducted in-depth interviews with well over a dozen people there and really took the time to understand their concerns:

Tina Finch, 44, an audiologist from Ida Grove, Iowa, drove eight hours to be at Monday’s protest. She said 19 members of her family — spread out from Wyoming to South Carolina — had become Lutherans over the last decade primarily because of “Issues, Etc.”

Because he interviewed so many people, he was able to explain how the cancellation of this radio program was symptomatic of the larger divisions in my church body. When I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about the cancellation of Issues, Etc., the president of the LCMS condemned it in a letter to the editor and denied that there was any division in the church body. His letter was followed by four others from folks who felt otherwise. Anyway, for his news analysis column that runs on Saturdays, Townsend mentioned President Gerald Kieschnick’s letter and wrote:

Despite Kieschnick’s message to the contrary, there is a disagreement among Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod factions that have differing visions for the church’s future.

“There is, and has been for some time, notable division in Synod on a number of issues,” said Korey Maas, a theology professor at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., which is affiliated with the church. “Though I don’t know if anyone can say definitively if these differences were the cause of the termination of ‘Issues, Etc.’”

Many of the protesters said the current administration is too focused on recent evangelical megachurch growth models instead of on traditional Lutheran doctrine. That, they say, is watering down 500 years of Lutheran history.

“This is a symptom of a much larger problem,” said the Rev. Charles Henrickson, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Mo. “This is about whether we retain our Lutheran identity or just blend in with American evangelicalism.”

Lutherans
Townsend also did a great job interviewing synodical officials. Though most of my requests for answers have been met with walls of stony silence, Townsend was able to get them to publicly admit they didn’t like the show:

The church currently produces seven religious shows, one of which is a replacement for “Issues, Etc.” The new program, called “The Afternoon Show,” is different from “Issues, Etc.,” said [David Strand, the executive director of the church's communications board], in that “it doesn’t dwell largely on Lutheran apologetics at a sophisticated level. It still takes its Gospel proclamation seriously, but it finds new ways to capture attention.”

It seems to me that reporters frequently treat stories about conflict in church bodies with a heavy hand. They either give an excess of credence to the bureaucratic institutions striving to perpetuate power or they give too much weight to the laypeople or priests who disagree with the changes being made by the institution’s leadership.

I appreciate that Townsend let both sides speak for themselves. The synodical officials gave institutional answers and the people who were upset gave theological answers. But both sides were able to make their case the way they wanted to.

The first photo, by the way, shows Townsend in action at the demonstration. The second is our band of merry Lutherans demonstrating in front of church headquarters.

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Polygamy in context

mormon polygamyLast week we discussed the need for reporters to distinguish between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the comments, reader Michael Nielsen — a Mormon social psychologist — pointed us toward an op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune that argued for improved information about the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church:

To deny polygamy’s importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism is, well, to be in denial. Many Latter-day Saints prefer to avoid polygamy or to think that it has no bearing on the present, but this is pointless if we are to consider what other people think of the church. Evidence of this is found in the results of a recent Vanderbilt study on bias against Mitt Romney and Mormons. Negative opinions in the study shifted markedly when people were provided “clear, accurate information” about polygamy and other stereotypes regarding Mormonism.

From my reading of newspaper letters, article comments and blogs, it seems that defenders of the church too often provide information that is clear but inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it strikes an observer as disingenuous when told “the LDS Church has nothing to do with polygamy,” as I’ve read in the comments to several newspaper articles in recent days. Clear? Yes. Accurate? Not so much.

As if on cue, Peggy Fletcher Stack, ace religion reporter for the Tribune, filed a comprehensive look at the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church. Headlined “Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy,” the article explains exactly how the LDS came to practice polygamy, how it was discontinued, and what the current view is. She explains, for her non-Mormon readers, that Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in clothing from the 19th century or wear, as a rule, unusual hairstyles.

Stack explains how LDS founder Joseph Smith was inspired by Old Testament figures who had multiple wives and recorded that he received a revelation in 1843 defining “a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives”:

After Smith’s death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state. . . .

Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.”

And by policy, men can be “sealed” for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.

Three of the church’s current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.

Stack explains how Mormons see the polygamy of the past differently than they view its contemporary use.

One of the things she gets into is the economic motivation for the polygamous Mormon communities at their height in the 1860s. According to a scholar she interviews, many of the second, third or otherwise plural wives were widowed, divorced, or had no other men to take care of them. That’s a major difference from the FLDS where boys are routinely kicked out to keep up the supply of plural wives. Religion & Ethics‘ Lucky Severson had a fantastic news piece about this back in November, but I haven’t seen much coverage now that the FLDS are back in the news. Slate was one notable exception.

Stories have also failed to explain the general economics of the FLDS. How do the families support themselves? Do they support themselves? Do taxpayers support the plural wives? What are the religious teachings related to the economics, particularly as they relate to self-sufficiency?

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