God, Tennessee, culture and that (ironic) red-flannel shirt

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Once again, the oh-so-bookish politician cloaked in that red plaid shirt is touring the complex state of Tennessee, trying to walk the complicated line between the populism of the old Democratic South and today’s modern Republican realities. One of the major problems faced by Sen. Lamar Alexander remains the same: He is the kind of Republican that, every now and then, when the mood strikes them, mainstream journalists are willing to describe as “moderate” — especially in contrast with tea-party people and, well, you know who.

As a former taxpayer in that unique region called East Tennessee (and someone who will return there soon), I have seen my share of political advertisements and debates in that region and I know where some of the fault lines can be found. The three “states” of Tennessee (see the stars on the flag) are unique and very different regions and cultures. The state, as a whole, is the kind of place where some Democrats remain culturally conservative and many old-guard Republicans have close, defining ties to country clubs as well as churches.

So, what are the hurdles facing Alexander as he runs for another term? Folks at The Washington Post, GetReligion readers will be shocked to learn, are a bit tone deaf to the cultural, moral and religious elements of this drama. It’s all just politics.

Yes, the ties between Alexander and the late Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the good-guy Republicans of the Watergate era, are at the heart of this story and they should be. Trust me, I get that.

Like Baker, Alexander (R-Tenn.) has had an exemplary career in public service. He was elected to two terms as governor of Tennessee and later served as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary. Twice he sought his party’s nomination for president, though, like Baker, he was unsuccessful. In 2002, he won election to the Senate.

Throughout his career, Alexander has embodied Baker’s style of consensus-building politics — and largely for that reason he is now, at 74, facing tea party opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. But the tea party activists are competing against more than just one sitting senator and a Republican establishment lined up behind him. They are running against Baker’s legacy — a culture of Republican politics that has married conservative principles with pragmatic attitudes about governing.

For half a century, Tennessee voters have elected a succession of Republicans to statewide office who are more problem-solvers than ideologues, consensus-seekers rather than rabble-rousers. The current trio — Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — all embody in one way or another the Baker tradition.

“They don’t want big government, but they do want government to work,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist and former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, said of the three, “There’s not a hard edge to them.”

Friends and neighbors, there is more to the current ballot-box tensions between Alexander and state lawmaker Joe Carr than mere tea-party stuff. That “hard edge” quote? That is largely a matter of culture and, in the three states of Tennessee, it’s hard to talk about culture without mentioning religion.

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Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

boybible02My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

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Church of The New York Times keeps preaching its own faith

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It’s time for another “Kellerism” update, as The New York Times continues its efforts to highlight religious institutions with doctrines that are unacceptable to the newsroom’s theologians and, perhaps, the U.S. Department of Justice. This time, the drama shifts out West, where another Christian college community is trying to find a way to live out its faith commitments.

NEWBERG, Ore. – A growing number of openly transgender students have forced schools around the country to address questions so basic that they were rarely asked just a few years ago, much less answered: What defines a person’s gender, and who gets to decide?

A small Christian college here, George Fox University, has become the latest front in this fight, refusing to recognize as male a student who was born anatomically female. The student calls himself a man, and as of April 11, when a state circuit court legally changed his sex, the State of Oregon agrees.

But George Fox University sees him as a woman, and it prohibits unwed students from living with anyone of the opposite sex.

Notice the question that was not asked, in an alleged news story that opens with an editorial assertion: If a private — as opposed to state — college is a doctrinally defined voluntary association, what happens when a student decides that he or she does not believe those doctrines? Think of it this way: If a student at a Muslim college decided to convert to Christianity, thus contradicting the covenant he voluntarily signed when he came to the campus, would the college be able to say that this student had to accept the school’s doctrinal authority?

If private religious organizations have the right to define their communities in terms of doctrine, does this First Amendment right no longer apply to doctrines linked to sex? The other way I have stated the question is this: Does the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religion still apply to traditional religious believers who reject many of the doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution?

The leaders of the Times team, of course, do not appear to be interested in that half of the debate that is at the heart of this news story. Thus, this report crashes, as an attempt at journalism. Why?

The answer, of course, is “Kellerism.” What is that? Here is a reminder from a recent post, when I first coined that term. The key is the famous 2011 remarks by former Times editor Bill Keller, when he said that the basic rules of journalism no longer apply to coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The words “aside from” are the doors into “Kellerism.” It’s first journalism-defining doctrine is:

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Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

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Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: “Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique — I’ve just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!”

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME – Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome … to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here’s the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under “Islamic law” or is the matter more complex than that?

The question, once again, is linked to a basic reality that many journalists struggle with — that this is on one monolithic, consistent approach to Islamic law. It is certainly true that, in many or even most Islamic lands, sharia law includes a death sentence for apostasy, including the act of converting from Islam to another faith. However, there are different approaches to sharia in different lands. In some cultures, the death penalty may be found in the laws, yet this crime is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Yes, it adds another layer of complexity — adding at least a sentence or two of information — to note this conflict inside Islam. However, accuracy is accuracy and the public needs to know that not all Muslims believe that the death penalty is normative for this issue of conscience, which is clearly defended in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18 to be precise).

And what about the mysterious hole in some of the news stories?

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An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

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What is this? Forbes goes to bat for Eden Foods critics

Several years ago, your GetReligionistas created a new item in our archives list of news “categories.” As faithful readers know, we focus on hard-news material produced by mainstream news organizations. The only time that we write about editorial columns, op-ed pieces, academic essays or the like is when they focus directly on issues in our home turf — religion-beat news.

However, every now and then people would send us URLs for items published by religious wire services, denominational magazines or non-profit sources linked to religious causes that — from their point of view — focused on a valid news story that wasn’t getting mainstream-press ink. After pondering this dilemma for a while, we began using a “Got news?” headline slug and created a new category.

Now it’s time for another category, one that we have been pondering for quite some time. The headline slug is, as you see above, “What is this?” We seriously considered “WTF?” but decided that didn’t mesh well with the sober tone that we strive to maintain around here. I mean, other than Jim Davis and his wild puns, and Father George Conger and his off-beat illustrations, and … You get the point.

So what is the point of this new category? What is this new niche?

One of our main goals, here at GetReligion, is to defend the basic values of what historians have long called the “American” model of the press, with its commitment to accuracy, fairness and even balance in coverage of the news (especially on hot-button topics). The alternative is often called the “European” model of the press, with editors and reporters producing stories that fit into an editorial template that supports the publication’s political slant.

In other words, these publications are biased and the editors admit that right up front. No one expects balanced coverage of social issues at Rolling Stone or World magazine, to name two publications with radically different moral perspectives.

But, to cut to the chase, what about The New York Times?

In recent years, the world’s most powerful newspaper has produced a frustrating mixture of “American” and “European” coverage, with perfectly balanced and fair-minded stories placed right next to other reports that made zero attempt to hide the bias of the editors. That is why those 2011 remarks by former editor Bill Keller — click here for background — were so important. He openly stated that it was no longer necessary for Times journalists to be objective, fair and balanced in coverage of news linked to moral, cultural and religious topics — such as abortion, gay rights, etc.

It appears that the editors of many other publications have made similar decisions, which is why frustrated GetReligion readers send us so many URLs pointing toward “news” articles that read like editorial essays. How often do we see stories that feature a wide variety of voices on one side of a hot-button topic and then zero material accurately expressing the views of people on the other side? How often do we see paragraph after paragraph of background material that is both slanted and free of any attribution?

This brings me, finally, to the first article in this new category. It’s from Forbes and, well, it reads like a press release for activists on one side of a battle linked to the Health and Human Services contraceptives mandate.

What is this? A news article? An editorial essay?

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‘Sin’ gets scare quote treatment in Portland, Ore.

Be very, very afraid, Portland!

The Christians are invading Oregon — and they want to tell your children about Jesus.

That’s scary stuff, I know.

But somehow I missed — until now — the newspaper story earlier this month about some residents’ concerns about an after-school Bible study club. I promise this headline is from The Oregonian, not The Onion:

Evangelical Christian clubs coming to Portland-area public schools — opposition says curriculum is ‘hardcore fundamentalist indoctrination’

If you need me, I’ll be hiding under my desk.

Then again, it’s probably best not to delay this dramatic news:

Hundreds of Portland-area residents are organizing to stop a network of Christian clubs from proselytizing to children on public school campuses.

The Good News Club has been controversial around the country, but Portland may be the first city to organize on such a large scale against the group.

“We think if people have enough information, they’ll choose not to do it,” said Robert Aughenbaugh, a co-founder of Protect Portland Children. His said the group purchased a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s Willamette Week.

The Good News Club’s curriculum includes teaching children that every person is a sinner. In the eyes of many Christians, “sin” is any failure to meet God’s standards. The Bible states, for example, that “all have sinned.”

“We believe that these doctrines are harmful to 5-year-old children,” Aughenbaugh said. “They teach fear. They teach shame.”

Did you catch the scare quotes around “sin?”

Here at GetReligion, we’ve become accustomed to seeing scare quotes (which according to Merriam-Webster, express “skepticism or derision concerning the enclosed word or phrase”) around terms such as “religious liberty” or “religious freedom.”

But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen scare quotes around “sin.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a newspaper feel the need to define that term. Then again, I’m a Bible-believing Christian who lives in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Actually, however, the story isn’t terrible. (I wish I could say the same about The Associated Press’ extremely lame rewrite.)

Keep reading, and the newspaper provides crucial context on the program’s constitutionality and gives a voice to all sides, including the Christians. In fact, the report gets down to some important (albeit humorous, if you know anything about evangelical Christianity) nitty-gritty:

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Pod people: Are all political liberals also on moral left?

Every now and then, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken take and I off in one direction when doing a “Crossroads” podcast and then — boom — we will suddenly veer off in what at first seems like a totally different direction. Radio is like that, you know.

That is certainly what happened this time around, big time. Click here to check out the podcast.

Wilken started out by repeating that question that I have been asking over and over during recent weeks, as the media storm over the so-called Hobby Lobby case has raged on that on.

You know the one: What should journalists call people in American public life who waffle on free speech, waffle on freedom of association and waffle on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

So what happened during the discussion?

Well, while we talked it suddenly hit me that this topic was, in a way, the flip side of the topic that I took on this week in my “On Religion” column for the Universal syndicate. That piece focused on some fascinating information — at least I thought it was fascinating stuff (as did Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) — found in the new “Beyond Blue vs. Red” political typology study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

Before we move along, readers may want to surf over to the Pew site and take the short quiz that went along with the study. This will allegedly show where you belong on this new spectrum of American political labels.

The quiz is frustrating, but worth the time. Many people, including me, found some of the questions impossible to answer since the options were pushed so far to the political fringes. Take this question, for example:

“Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return”

“Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently”

No, there is no option in the middle that — hello experts in Catholic moral teachings — accepts the responsibility for governments to help the poor, yet allows for realistic critiques of whether the resulting programs are effective. In this case, along with the “What would Jesus do?” option, some readers may be left asking, “What would Daniel Patrick Moynihan do?

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