Day 2: Pope still extremely Catholic

I hope everyone is having a blast with Day 2 of Papalpalooza. I’ve actually enjoyed some of the media coverage I’ve come across but we all know what happens when I post on good stuff.

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Right. So let’s look at other approaches taken.

I know it’s The Guardian but I did like the transparency of this piece, which reads something like a parody of how the mainstream media treat the Roman Catholic Church. Headline:

Next pope’s in-tray: five key issues for the Catholic church

With Pope Benedict XVI announcing his intention to step down, we look at the pressing matters awaiting his successor

And I’m sure you will be surprised that the five issues are contraception, sexual abuse in the church, same-sex marriage, abortion and women. It’s like the newspaper was talking about the only five topics it permits discussion of when it comes to the Catholic Church instead of, you know, the Catholic Church’s pressing matters that await the papal successor. But illuminating none-the-less.

For a more sophisticated version of that piece, you might want to read the Washington Post‘s piece headlined “In picking successor, Vatican must decide what’s needed in a 21st-century pope.” It’s actually a great read overall and I don’t want this criticism to overshadow that. But the priorities put forth in the piece when it comes to cultural issues say more about what ails media coverage of the church than what ails the coverage of the church itself. The first three paragraphs of the analysis piece (is it analysis? It reads as such but I don’t know if it’s marked as such) are great:

In the eight years since Pope Benedict took office, the divisions in the Catholic world have become more solidified. The West, including Europe and the United States, has been locked in a culture war over contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the church, among other issues. Meanwhile, more theologically traditional Catholics in Africa and parts of Asia have fueled much of the church’s growth, threatening a standoff with Islam.

That is the media’s war, no doubt. They wage it faithfully day after day after wearying day. I’m not entirely sure it’s one engaged in by many Catholics. I wonder if the media gets just what a narrow and distorted presentation of church life they present.

By the way, the next paragraph in the piece is:

In other words, the next pope will have to carefully pick his audience and decide how best to communicate with it without alienating the rest of the faith’s followers.

The second time I read that, I read it imagining a bunch of journalists in a dark room, licking their lips, rolling their hands over and laughing. That’s really unfair, I’m sure — and not just because the article immediately transitions to a discussion of how papacies are about focus. I think it’s just a telling reaction that illuminates a breakdown in trust with certain readers.

Here’s a telling couple of paragraphs:

Catholic debate in the United States often centers on issues such as whether the church should allow the ordination of women or married priests. But those are not the debates of the cardinals, all of whom were picked by Benedict or his like-minded predecessor, Pope John Paul II. They are in agreement on such matters as allowing female priests, contraception, or equality for gay men and lesbians: no, no and no.

The real factors behind the selection of a new pope are “not the kind of stuff that comes up on talk shows,” said John L. Allen Jr., who has written seven books on the Catholic Church and popes.

Oh that every reporter in the land would read that John Allen quote and ruminate on whether he’s talking about them!

As for the preceding paragraph, what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is that? I mean, first off, the media may have done an excellent job of convincing themselves that redefining marriage is about nothing more or less than who believes gay men and lesbians are “equal.” They have done an excellent job of closing their minds when it comes time to listen to any other arguments — much less giving them accurate, fair play in news coverage. Any way that you want to look at it, that paragraph was not, to put it mildly, a fair characterization of church teaching on the dignity of all people. It was not good journalism.

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Early media failures in B16 resignation story

Well that’s not the news I expected to wake up to! Pope Benedict has announced he’ll retire at the end of the month. And as Michael Brendan Dougherty writes:

There is no way I’m prepared for the ignorance about to be on display in the media

Joshua Trevino snarked:

Summing up most media comment: “Is it normal for the Pope to also be the Bishop of Rome? Will we see future Popes focus on just the Papacy?”

NBC host Chris Hayes weighed in:

All in all, a pretty lackluster (dare I say crappy?) papacy, right @michaelbd ?

And CNN’s Piers Morgan came out as the first Vatican Truther of the day:

As a Catholic, I’m not buying this. Popes don’t just quit because they’re tired.

What about the more august media institutions? Well, let’s look at the New York Times. It starts fine:

ROME — Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic world on Monday by saying that he would resign on Feb. 28 after less than eight years in office, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

OK, then we get some phrasing that makes a quote look a little scare-quotey in the second paragraph (but it’s just quoting and not scare quoting) and this in the third paragraph:

A profoundly conservative figure whose papacy was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, Benedict, 85, was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of his predecessor, John Paul II.

Sigh. If the New York Times wants to offer the opinion that the papacy was overshadowed by the abuse scandals from decades ago, that’s fine. It’s not straight news journalism, but whatever. However, to present it as fact when it’s more the narrow-minded focus and deeply-held conviction of the newspaper itself, that’s not fine.

Later we get more:

The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into frenzied speculation about his likely successor and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious.

The Times picks the adjectives for how the papacy “was seen” (by whom were they seen, you might be asking).  They are, you will be shocked, “conservative and contentious.” Do we even need to bother with further evaluations? Seems like we’re done.

It was at this point that I checked out of the article:

When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient;” that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of women priests and stem cell research.

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. OK, it’s a lie that the pope opposed stem cell research. I imagine what the reporters are trying and embarrassingly failing to grasp is that some religious groups oppose that stem cell research which destroys human life. They don’t oppose the (wildly more successful, but don’t tell the media) forms of stem cell research that don’t.

Stupid error on the part of the Times.

Meanwhile, what does it mean to “oppose homosexuality”? That term is false and meaningless. As for Benedict believing that Catholicism is true … well, I’m not entirely sure we need newspapers to tell us that. It’s like the punch line of a joke, and says infinitely more about secular media than it does the Roman Catholic Church.

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Gay marriage and golf

Little news of the gay marriage debate in the French National Assembly has made its way across the Atlantic into the American press. The lack of news coverage could be due to the perception that the outcome is not in doubt. The governing Socialist Party and their allies on the left hold a majority and have directed their members to vote in favor. Or France, being a very foreign country, the goings on way over there are of little concern to the American newspaper audience.

Whatever the reason, the lack of interest is a shame as the debate has been informative, lively and fun to watch. And, some of the arguments being proffered have not been laid before the American public. Let me digress for a moment and bring you up to speed as to where things stand as of this post’s publication.

The story so far — Following last year’s general election victory by the Socialist Party (PS) and its presidential candidate, François Hollande (I have shortened this from François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande), the party and its allies on the Left — the Radicals, Communists, etc., began the legislative implementation of their campaign promise to legalize gay marriage and permit gay couples to adopt children. The right has fought the move while social conservative groups — led by the Catholic Church — have mounted a vigorous public protest campaign, culminating in the largest public demonstrations last month in France in the last 30 years.

In the National Assembly, the right, led by the UMP party, proposed 4999 amendments to the bill. After 24 marathon sessions spread over ten days, with many sittings lasting until the small hours of the morning, the National Assembly concluded debate on Friday and a formal vote is scheduled for Tuesday, 12 Feb 2013.  The Senate will then take up the bill on 18 March.

Back to GetReligion — When I say the debate has been fun, I mean that it has been vigorous and pointed to a degree seldom seen in the U.S. Americans fed upon the pap of MSNBC or Fox commentators might find the French political debate indigestible — too spicy, too rich. Part of this lies in the stark polarization of French public life. In European eyes there is very little difference between the American Democrat and Republican Parties. While such an observation would baffle most Americans, from a French perspective the difference between the two American parties is miniscule compared to the spread of ideas between the Communists and the extreme Right in France.

And the place of religion in politics is very different in France — some right-wing French groups are ultra-montane Catholics while others are atheists — and there are Catholic Socialists on left (though no Catholic Communists I have found, though friends tell me a few of their seminary professors might qualify).

The right-wing news blog, 24 heures actu, which the Atlantico says

est un média impertinent de droite, radical (sans être extrême), et dans une France bâillonnée par le discours convenu de certaines élites, ça fait du bien !

is an impertinent radical right (though not extreme) publication, and with France gagged by the conventional chatter of its elites, its impertinence is a good thing.

has attacked gay marriage as racist.

Le mariage pour tous serait-il, à l’image du golf, un loisir réservé aux blancs et aux bourgeois ?

Will “marriage for all”, like golf, be a hobby reserved for whites and the bourgeoise?

N.b., “Marriage for all” or “mariage pour tous” is the French equivalent of America’s “marriage equality” — a slogan of the left that seeks to drive the direction of the debate through packaging. But again I digress.

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Escape from Westboro Baptist, for some reason or another

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Let’s face it, the edgy folks at the Westboro Baptist Church are not easy to cover in a fair and accurate manner. You think?

However, did I miss something? When did the Westboro people join a liturgical church or pack up and move to Louisiana (or maybe Canada)?

What am I talking about?

Find yourself a decent online dictionary and look up the word “parish.” You’ll usually find something that reads like this:

par·ish … n.

1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches. b. The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.

2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

3. An administrative subdivision in Louisiana that corresponds to a county in other U.S. states.

I think it is safe to assume that the independent Westboro flock — which preaches a brand of free-church Protestantism that even the most conservative of Baptists would consider bizarre if not heretical — has not jumped into a Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican diocese. Also, I think the church is still up in Kansas.

Why do I bring this up? Read this Toronto Star copy carefully:

It was a different kind of coming-out moment for two members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace announced their exodus from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based parish made infamous by its “God hates fags” campaign.

“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes,” wrote Megan Phelps-Roper. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was started in 1955 by Fred Phelps, Grace and Megan’s grandfather, exclusively for the Phelps family. The parish has been lambasted for protesting the funerals of American solders, whom they claim died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

What? Did the people who wrote and edited this story assume that a “church” or “congregation” is the same thing as a “parish”? It would appear so. They made that mistake more than once.

This is a bizarre, but rather symbolic, little mistake. The bigger problem found in this story is more common in Westboro coverage.

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SPLC to get Sarah Palin treatment any day now

I want to talk about media coverage of the man who was convicted today of shooting up the Family Research Council. But let’s first go back to the horrible story about the murderous rampage that one disturbed individual went on in Arizona.

The mainstream media narrative, initially, was that a right wing Tea Party supporter acting under the orders of Sarah Palin had assassinated a sitting member of Congress. Precisely none of that was true or even close to true, but it didn’t keep the media from pushing a particular narrative about it for some time. (It wasn’t the biggest religion story, per se, but see our posts here, here and here) I also wrote a post about the role that alternate realities played in the shooting and media coverage of same. The shooter was said to engage in alternate realities. But, I argued, the same might be said of the media, feverishly trying to create a world where political opponents could be blamed for the most brutal crimes imaginable even if the facts didn’t support that.

For days the media focused on the need for civility, and how this shooting was the result of conservative political rhetoric. Some media outlets suggested that campaign and battle words be avoided when talking about politics. See, a PAC associated with Sarah Palin had put out a map with races to “target” and had identified those “targets” with crosshairs. The Atlantic Wire highlighted some of The Atlantic‘s writers on the matter in a piece headlined “Did Sarah Palin’s Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?

In the wake of his shocking and senseless attack, a number of commentators are asking, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows put it, “whether there is a connection between” such “extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery” as that published by Palin and “actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be.” In other words, did Palin’s map cross the line famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?”

The Washington Post wrote a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.” The story acknowledges that it’s written as the “result of a national tragedy in which there is no known connection between anything Palin said or did and the alleged actions of Jared Loughner, who is accused of fatally shooting six and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others.”

More from The Atlantic (which also included folks who didn’t blame Palin):

Palin at Fault

  • What Palin Did Wrong  The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan clarifies, “No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it’s about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder.” He points out that Giffords herself had expressed concern about Palin’s map.
  • ‘Imagery of Armed Revolution’  The New York Times’ Matt Bai writes, “it’s hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.” Bai explains, “The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.” He says Palin and other used “imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’ when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms. “
  • The Psychology of Incited Violence  At Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman writes, “The question is not ‘did Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric cause this shooting?’ The question is ‘does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?’” Weisman explores the decision-making process and role of unconscious biases, concluding, “Although there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli.  His actions did not take place in a vacuum.”

So yesterday, Floyd Lee Corkins II pleaded guilty to three criminal counts involving his August 2012 attack on the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council. He told the FBI that he picked his target from a “hate map (!) on the web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That’s the liberal group that is frequently used as a legitimate source in news reports (I sort of thought they jumped the shark when they identified “pick-up artists” as hate groups but this Reason archive might be worth a read for developing a tad of skepticism of their treatment by the media).

OK, so we have a real criminal who cites a real “hate map” as a key factor in his violence. How do you suppose the media treated that story?

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News flash! Pastors preach different sermons on sex!

The Associated Press carried a story the other day that made a very interesting — and newsworthy — claim about the ever-controversial Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Pay close attention to the top few paragraphs on this one:

The Rev. Robert Jeffress has changed the way he talks about homosexuality from the pulpit.

The pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Dallas hasn’t stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says he usually talks about homosexuality within “a bigger context of God’s plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage.”

“It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn homosexuality and not adultery or unbiblical divorce,” he said, explaining that the Bible allows divorce only in cases of adultery or desertion. He also includes premarital sex on that list.

Now, the crucial thing the story never documents is precisely what is meant by that claim that Jeffress used to single out homosexual behavior for “special condemnation” in comparison with other forms of sexual activity outside of traditional marriage.

Does this mean that, for example, Jeffress used to preach MORE OFTEN about gay issues than straight issues? Does this mean that he actually said that he taught that acts of gay sex are, in the eyes of centuries of Christian doctrine, somehow more sinful than, let’s say, sexual intercourse before marriage? Sure Jeffress did not make that claim (hello Westboro Baptist Church) that homosexual sins are not only worse than others, but that they cannot be forgiven, even after repentance.

It would have been good to have asked Jeffress what he actually taught, in the past, or even quoted an example or two from taped sermons available to the public.

Whatever. The goal of the story is to spotlight that fact that many younger evangelicals are changing how they view “gay and lesbian issues.” I have no doubt whatsoever that this trend in polls is real and that it is important. However, I also see very little evidence that these polls are consistent in their wordings, when it comes to asking young evangelicals what they believe and, more importantly, what specific Christian teachings they now reject.

I know many young evangelicals who back same-sex marriage to the same degree that they support abortion. In other words, they want the legal option to exist for society, but, in terms of theology, they have not personally rejected centuries of church teachings on the subject.

This AP report sets out to offer a highly nuanced take on these issues, since the goal is to show that people are being more nuanced. But the wordings used in the story? They are all over the place.

The story also accepts, as pure fact, claims by progressive Christian leaders that doctrinally progressive churches are thriving and gaining new members, while conservative churches are losing members in waves. The evidence? The voices of researchers on the other side? Silence. Zero. Zip. Nada.

What emerges is evidence that some popular church leaders are changing how they PRESENT sexual issues in public. Also, some preachers are falling silent.

… Jeffress said he was concerned that some other evangelical pastors were shirking this responsibility.

“My sense is that people are just avoiding the subject, by and large,” he said. “They are so bent on trying to add to the numbers of their churches that they don’t want to disenfranchise new members or be characterized as unfriendly.”

Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio seems to have taken that approach. After withdrawing from giving the benediction at president Obama’s inauguration ceremony because of controversy over a past sermon in which he said same-sex relationships were sinful, Giglio downplayed the significance of the remarks.

In his withdrawal letter, Giglio did not say he had changed his views on homosexuality, but instead noted how old the sermon was and stated, “Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years.”

The key, for reporters, is to realize that there are stark differences between many of the leaders on the right, as well as differences between those on the left. What to do?

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Don’t have a cow over Chick-fil-A, man!

My post on the unlikely friendship between Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer prompted GetReligion reader Joel to comment:

I’ve seen it pointed out that these days, the real story is to be found in the comments on a story. The comments on the HuffPo piece seem to bear that out depressingly.

I replied:

I don’t know about that philosophy, Joel. My motto is: “Never read the comments.” Except on GetReligion, of course.

I was half-joking but half-serious.

The journalism website Poynter.org noted this past fall that NPR and other news organizations were tightening comment moderation to improve conversation.

In a survey of readers, NPR received this feedback on comments:

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‘Loving the sinner’ in Chick-fil-A gay marriage flap

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An outspoken gay-rights activist and a traditional-marriage-advocating fried-chicken magnate walk into a crowded football stadium and … wait, wait … enjoy the game together.

Huh!?

As the ole cliche goes, life sometimes is stranger than fiction.

A first-person Huffington Post piece by Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, has gone viral this week on Facebook and Twitter, at least in the conservative Christian circles in which I hang. The article’s title certainly is catchy:

Dan and Me: My Coming Out as a Friend of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A

Windmeyer provides a behind-the-scenes account of his unlikely friendship with Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, who became the subject of a media storm last year when he said he supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

With apologies to chickens everywhere, Windmeyer’s piece is filled with religious beef. Consider this section, for example:

During our meetings I came to see that the Chick-fil-A brand was being used by both sides of the political debate around gay marriage. The repercussion of this was a deep division and polarization that was fueling feelings of hate on all sides. As a result, we agreed to keep the ongoing nature of our meetings private for the time being. The fire needed no more fuel.

Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.

And in that we had great commonality: We were each entirely ourselves. We both wanted to be respected and for others to understand our views. Neither of us could — or would — change. It was not possible. We were different but in dialogue. That was progress.

In many ways, getting to know Dan better has reminded me of my relationship with my uncle, who is a pastor at a Pentecostal church. When I came out as openly gay in college, I was aware that his religious views were not supportive of homosexuality. But my personal relationship with my uncle reassured me of his love for me — and that love extends to my husband. My uncle would never want to see any harm come to me or Tommy. His beliefs prevented him from fully reconciling what he understood as the immorality of homosexuality with the morality of loving and supporting me and my life. It was, and remains, an unsolvable riddle for him, hating the sin and loving the sinner.

On Facebook, one friend suggested:

I believe that this is what Jesus would have done. This is what Dan was doing — modeling Christ.

Another chimed in:

Maybe Shane was modeling Christ.

In either case, there’s a religion angle here, right? Given how much news the Chick-fil-A controversy made last year, I wondered if the mainstream media would pick up on Windmeyer’s commentary.

The answer: Sort of.

A front-page story Tuesday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chick-fil-A’s hometown newspaper, reported on the fast food giant’s sales growing last year. The headline:

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