What’s in the Westboro name?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt is interesting to watch how journalists cover the ongoing legal saga of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The most recent news has a judge cutting in half the punitive damage award granted by a jury to the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after the group protested at the Marine’s funeral.

If you haven’t heard, this group isn’t you average set of protesters. They show up at soldiers funerals and hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and say they believe soldiers are being killed overseas as part of God’s punishment for “the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.”

Here’s the Associated Press in The Kansas City Star:

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has upheld the October jury verdict in the lawsuit brought against a Kansas-based fundamentalist church group for its anti-gay protest at the 2006 Maryland funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq….

Westboro members believe U.S. deaths in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Needless to say, these protests are especially disgusting, and it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

Since free speech is not really the issue anymore in this case, the big question is whether or not $10.9 million is a proper amount of money to both deter the group and restore the family of Lance Cpl. Snyder.

As the author of The Baltimore Sun version of the story rightly states, the federal judge’s reduction in the punitive damage award to $2.1 million may not ultimately stand. The jury in the trial granted additional compensatory damages totaling $2.9 million.

This Sun story does an especially good job describing the legal posture of the case and accurately explains the issues at stake. But take a look at how the author frames the Westboro group in both the lead and later on in the story because it has some significant implications:

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced Monday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster….

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The story refers to the group as a church several times throughout the story but only refers to its claim to be a Baptist church once, and that is when its technical title is mentioned. Clearly there are plenty of Baptists out there who would not want to associate with the Westboro group. While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

Also note that the AP described the group as fundamentalist. Can journalists really use that word to describe anything these days? There are so many ways to criticize the use of that word that it’s grown rather useless for the purposes of news reporting.

Of course there is the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call this group a church. They claim to follow Calvinist and Baptist principles, but some believe that the group is more accurately described as a cult than a church. Of course, how you define a cult? As Terry pointed out earlier, it’s not easily done.

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Not that ’70s Democratic show (sigh)

shriver Last night, while watching the election returns from Super Tuesday roll in, I pined for the Democratic presidential contests of the 1970s.

Talk about good coverage. Reporters wrote stories about Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern battling for the Catholic vote; about McGovern’s choice of two Catholics, Senators Eagleton and Shriver, as his running mates; about Jimmy Carter’s outreach to Catholics in the decisive Iowa caucus.

Granted, American Catholics are not as unified as they were back then. There is no one “Catholic vote.” Still, they represent a bloc in the eyes of Democratic strategists.

So did reporters write about Catholic voters, or those of any religious group? Nope. Not when covering the Democrats.

The New York Times did not write about them. The Boston Globe did not write about them. The Chicago Tribune did not write about them. And so far, no publication has discovered whether Edison/Mitofsky asked voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses about their religious affiliation and practice.

To be sure, some pollsters have reached conclusions about Democrats and religion. Consider John Green’s analysis on a recent episode of Religion & Ethics Weekly at PBS:

There’s a couple of interesting patterns here. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have competed very evenly for the votes of white Protestants, both mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants. And in the states where Senator Obama has won, such as in Iowa, he tended to do a little bit better in that competition. Whereas the states where Senator Clinton won, she tended to do a little bit better — so a lot of division among white Protestants. Part of the dynamic here, though, is age. Barack Obama seems to have done very well with younger evangelicals, younger mainline Protestants — some of them very observant in religious terms, but also some of them perhaps not as observant. So he’s kind of gotten both ends of the spectrum. Whereas Senator Clinton really appealed much more to older mainline Protestants and evangelicals.

Green’s conclusions are not exactly firm. Younger evangelicals like Obama; older evangelicals like Clinton. That doesn’t sound like a religious divide.

Later in the interview, Green noted one possibly interesting development:

One of the really interesting things here is that Senator Clinton really has done a lot better in the Catholic vote in all of the early primary states. She’s done very well among white Catholics, a critical constituency for the fall campaign. She’s also done well among Hispanic Catholics. That’s one area where Senator Obama has not been able to compete as effectively thus far.

Fair enough. On Tuesday, Clinton won most of the heavily Catholic states — Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York. But are these Catholics voting for her out of economic self interest, Catholic social teaching, or both?

Readers are left in the dark. Just like they are in the rest of the Democratic coverage.

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Bush cuts earmarks for God groups?

church and stateThe Kansas City Star had a great story a couple of weeks ago out of its Washington, D.C., bureau about a couple of million federal dollars that went to an inner-city religious ministry by means of the infamous earmarking system on Capitol Hill.

Earmarking stories are hugely important because what are pennies to federal appropriators are big bucks to those on the receiving end. This story is especially interesting because of the obvious separation of church and state issues that the earmarking practice raises:

On the surface, the taxpayer-supported appropriations for World Impact Inc. raise constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.

“Are we using the state to fund the church?” asked Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that scrutinizes federal spending.

Lawmakers, in general, say such earmarks help meet social needs.

Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Bond, a Missouri Republican, notes that World Impact does a lot of good for the urban poor in the region, with wanting to create an outreach and education center in St. Louis and running a ranch in central Kansas that is used as a “Christian training center for inner-city young men ages 18-25.”

This is not a new story. Religious groups have been receiving federal funds for years and only rarely does anyone make a fuss over the practice. Howard Friedman over at the Religion Clause blog points to a May 2007 article by The New York Times stating that since 1989, Congress granted nearly 900 earmarks for religious organizations worth more than $318 million. More than 50 percent of those earmarks were appropriated during the 2004 presidential election season. I also seem to remember that election as being a particularly influential year for religious voters. Could this be a case where reporters should follow the money?

The Star story about $2 million in federal earmarks would be fairly mundane and old news by Washington standards except for President Bush’s recent vow to clean up the federal earmarking process. As Friedman notes, Bush issued an Executive Order last week barring federal agencies from giving out the money that is listed in committee reports unless they have an objectively good reason to do so.

A good follow up to this Star report would be too look at what earmarks directed at religious groups may end up being scrapped because of Bush’s executive order.

It was just a week ago that former White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officials David Kuo and John DiIulio wrote an op-ed in The New York Times claiming that Bush has not delivered on his promises to open up the federal budget to religious organizations helping the poor and needy. Will this executive order further limit the amount of federal dollars going to religious groups?

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Untangle the church-state thicket, please

thicket Writing about church-state conflicts is not easy. What is the issue at hand? How does it affect ordinary people? Alas, two stories by the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post about a controversial legislative proposal failed to answer both questions adequately.

HB 1080 would prohibit religious organizations in Colorado that use public money for social services to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

Sounds straightforward, right? Well, not exactly.

Jean Torkelson of the Rocky Mountain News wrote an unfocused story about the measure. Torkelson ought to have told readers that the dispute is over whether religious groups can use taxpayer dollars to hire workers who conform to their religious mission. Instead, she wrote the following:

Under House Bill 1080, faith-based organizations that run programs using public money couldn’t hire using their own religious standards.

Instead, they would have to abide by state law, which last year added sexual orientation and religion to the list of categories that can’t be used to discriminate in hiring.

Unlike Torkelson, Electa Draper of The Denver Post told readers the gist of the dispute. But like Torkelson, Draper left readers in the dark about another aspect of the bill. If enacted, would religious organizations really be prevented from hiring exclusively from their adherents?

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, said she was willing to work with the groups on the bill to clarify the relationship between anti-discrimination laws and the hiring practices of religious organizations that accept tax dollars.

“A last-minute floor amendment to a 2007 bill (on employment discrimination) makes it appear as though Colorado law allows religious discrimination — that needs to be fixed,” Madden said in a statement. “HB 1080 will . . . not change the real-world practices of organizations such as Catholic Charities.”

Madden’s explanation hardly elucidates matters. Draper and Torkelson, the reporters, should have pinned Madden down. How would the legislation not alter “the real-world practices of organizations”? After all, Madden might be expected to say as much. She wants her bill to become law.

Both stories were not without virtues. For example, Torkelson quoted a Catholic official as saying that if religious organization are denied public funding, there would be real-world consequences:

Chris Rose said breaking government ties would mean the end of a homeless shelter for veterans and almost all child care programs and mental health counseling for the working poor.

Otherwise, the stories suffered from a lack of focus and specifics. Which makes untangling the thicket of church-state clashes only tougher.

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We Believe

webelieve2 At its best, Get Religion is akin to what the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times was in the post-war white South: a rare publication that questions the establishment’s assumptions and reveals its sins of omission and commission.

Of course, the Delta-Democrat Times took aim at an entire ruling class, not just its members in the press, and its staff were, suffice to say, under physical danger, as GR staff are not. Yet few publications challenge in a serious way the press’ world view, and GR is one of them.

I hope that some of my stories for GR have been in this emperor-has-no-clothes vein. Four of my favorite stories sought to expose the media’s sins of omission:

New monks are revolutionaries” (Jan. 27, 2008) Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is a fine reporter, but she focused on the lives of budding monastics and likely overlooked the major social critique these people were making.

Are Democrats not religious?” (Jan. 8, 2008) Ever since their nominee lost yet another presidential election, the Democrats were said to have gotten religion. So in the wake of the Iowa caucus, did journalists and pollster examine whether religious voters supported the Democrats? You probably know the answer to that one.

Missing a fact of life” (Dec. 8, 2007): Few reporters mention that on one question, biologists agree: in the overwhelming number of cases, human life begins at conception.

Paging Pat Moynihan” (Nov. 15, 2007) For more than four decades, the black family has been crumbling. So have reporters come up with an adequate explanation for this major trend? No.

A final story argued in essence that the media were engaging in wish fulfillment:

The Great Incremental Evangelical Crackup” (Nov. 17, 2007) Reporters told us repeatedly that evangelical voters were moving away from the Republican Party. Alas, this bit of conventional wisdom had little foundation in reality.

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Celebrating four years

celebrateKeeping with the spirit of celebrating GetReligion’s fourth anniversary, I am sharing a handful of my favorite blog posts. I am sure there are others out there that dealt with more substantial issues or generated more comments, but for one reason or another these are a few of my choice posts.

January 2008: “Old churches converted to new condos” — Old abandoned inner-city churches are converted into fancy condos. The best part of this post was reader feedback reporting from all around the country with similar stories.

February 2007: “Is talking about God news?” — The Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl, and Dungy talks about his faith and how it affects his coaching style on national television. There’s not much left to say here.

January 2007: “Ford’s quiet faith was just wonderful” — President Ford passes away and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gives readers a sermon/Sunday-school lesson on why Ford’s personal quiet faith was a presidential ideal. My wife was able to take a photos of the president’s motorcade as it went by the Washington, D.C., apartment building that was our home for three months.

July 2006: “Rooting out radicalism” — British journalists struggle to understand the differences between radical Islam and everything else that is Islamic in their country.

November 2005: “Missing Lewis” — In a preemptive strike against Aslan and his fans, The New York Times launches an attack against the mind behind the Land of Narnia.

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Dude, let’s crash at the monastery

monks 02 Did you hear the one about the Super Bowl fans who crashed at the monastery? This is no joke. But it is an amusing, if unserious, story in the The New York Times.

Reporter Katie Thomas wrote about the fact that Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery in Phoenix, Ariz. is renting rooms to those in town for the Super Bowl. Naturally, Thomas’ story is about the humorous clash between the sacred and the secular. Her lede is a perfect example:

There is no sauna, no heated pool, no chauffeur or sommelier. In fact, no alcohol is allowed on the premises, and guests share a bathroom with their next-door neighbor.

But for $250 a night in a city where Super Bowl rentals are topping out at $250,000 a week for a mansion in Scottsdale, the sisters at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery figure they have an offer that cannot be beat.

In debt from the recent purchase of a nearby parcel, the Benedictine nuns are hoping to make a dent in their mortgage by converting their 10-bedroom spiritual retreat into a crash pad for Super Bowl fans this weekend.

You gotta love Thomas’ details — sauna, heated pool, chaffeur, sommelier. Further down in the story, Thomas piles on some more, noting that the Super Bowl guests will sleep in rooms named after various female saints — Hildegard, Helen, Monica, Ann. By marshaling specific examples of the contrast between the sacred and secular, Thomas achieved the difficult feat of making religion a topic of good-hearted amusement.

To her credit, Thomas’ story showed more than the fact that the secular (Super Bowl fans) were growing closer to the sacred (the Benedictine nuns). She showed that the nuns were secular in some ways. For example, the prioress of the monastery, Sister Linda, is an avid fan of the NFL:

“It is violent, but not as violent as some others,” she said. “Now, I’m not into boxing or some of those. But football, yeah, I like football. For the most part, it’s a down time for me, and a time to just sit back and just enjoy it.”

Sister Linda said she admired Eli Manning and Tom Brady — “they’re both talented men,” she said of the two quarterbacks — but added that she was rooting for the Patriots. “They’ve had a perfect season, and it would be so sad to lose at this point,” she said.

Call me a killjoy, but Thomas’ story was a bit too unserious. She failed to explore the consequences of the Benedictine Sisters’ decision to let rooms to Super Bowl patrons. Might the policy not be an example of creeping secularism?

Having once lived in a Benedictine monastery, I know that monks worry about their lives becoming too secular. Some monks mentioned that before Vatican II, the monastery subscribed only to religious publications as opposed to mainstream fare such as Time and Newsweek. When our group of young men plus some monks met one evening with the Benedictine sisters, a vigorous discussion broke about whether the Sisters ought to be wearing habits rather than secular clothes.

No reporter should be expected to know of such intra-mural squabbles; even the Benedictines, the most public of monastic orders, are not exactly as accessible as parish priests. But everyone recognizes that monasteries are for contemplatives, not partygoers. What happens to monastic life when monks live alongside revelers and sports fans?

Give Katie Thomas credit. Her story was worth several chuckles and smiles. It just did not induce a scratch of the head or a rub of the chin.

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Vatican tells journalists to speak truth

journalistIt is not often that members of the clergy use their position to discuss journalistic ethics. Most of the complaints from clergy that I have witnessed firsthand deal with the way a particular story was handled or how their church or parish was portrayed in the local newspaper. Ministers and priests often reflect the theme we espouse here at GetReligion, that the media just does not get it when it comes to religion.

With that in mind, the statements by Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, that “those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth,” is somewhat thoughtful and out of the ordinary. The fact that the statement is not coming in response to a specific story or the way an issue was covered is unexpected.

That said, Bruce Tomaso of the Dallas Morning News had a different reaction when he posted on the Zenit.org item titled “Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth.” Many likely share his thoughts:

I read the following on Zenit.org:

Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org). — Those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth, according to a Vatican spokesman.

My first thought was: So do the priests who abuse children, and the bishops who protect them.

Journalists burning out on the God beat are not an unheard of incident. In fact, it happened at least twice last year. One cites his coverage of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

There is more to this story from the Vatican than just an attempt to poke at journalists. Lombardi is giving an analysis of Benedict XVI’s talk for World Communications Day which is on May 4. Here is what the theme is supposed to be:

We have to ask ourselves seriously, said Father Lombardi, “if [the media] are at the service of the good of persons and the common good of societies.”

“Often, in fact, we have good reason to doubt this or to be bitterly disappointed,” he observed. Too many times “the media seem to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the power of suggestion that they possess.”

The Vatican spokesman continued, citing Benedict XVI’s message: “This happens when the media are not used for ‘the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to create events,’ or at least to amplify their importance, to manipulate their correct interpretation, or impose particular interpretation for ideological purposes, economic and political interests or interests of any other sort.

The question asked by Lombardi is one that is commonly asked in journalism school ethics classes. It may be news to Lombardi that his answer may not be the one given in those classes. Everyone would not readily accept the concept that the media is at the “service” for the good of people and society. I am of the belief that journalists are at the service of the facts and what they observe. The good of society is often not clear when the news is being reported.

I know journalists are not required to attend journalism school and some people don’t believe that a degree is even that helpful, but thinking through these types of important issues could do a lot to improve the media’s coverage of events and issues. Unfortunately, the news outlet for these comments did not make an effort to analyze them. Perhaps as the date for the Pope’s speech approaches, others will do some critical thinking on what he is expected to say.

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