Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted in one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

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ANNE ASKS:

What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is — especially in news reporters — called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

CreationPainterSome figured the “days” of Genesis meant long “ages,” the “gap” theory proposed a vast era between the first two verses of Genesis, and there were other explanations. The “old earth” was accommodated by B.B. Warfield, the 19th Century formulator of “inerrancy” (the Bible’s total accuracy on history); William Jennings Bryan, the famous prosecutor of Darwinism at the 1925 “monkey trial”; “The Fundamentals,” the 1910-1916 booket series that gave rise to fundamentalism; and later on by numerous Christian professionals in the American Scientific Affiliation.

Yet Gallup found in 2007 that two-thirds of grass-roots Americans (and not just Christians) think it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that God created humanity “within the last 10,000 years.” The expert on this is Ronald L. Numbers, who teaches the history of science at the University of Wisconsin and wrote “The Creationists” (expanded edition, 2006). He takes special interest as someone raised in the creationistic Seventh-day Adventist Church (though agnostic as an adult).

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Changing climate — of church views on the environment

USA Today has been eroding its standard of short, shallow stories. And for a complex newsfeature like its recent story on religion and global warming, that is an exceedingly good thing.

The article focuses on the effort to sell global warming to church people. Religion and the environment is an evergreen topic — I wrote a long feature on it more than a decade ago — but USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya takes the interesting tactic of leading with a rabbi in Kansas:

Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a Psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber says. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

An admiring nod not only to the canny rabbi, for combining verses from both testaments of the Bible, but also to Zoroya for grabbing our attention right from the lede.

The story does a great survey of the environmental wings in the various religious bodies, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to United Methodist. Zoroya’s also touches base with veteran para-religious organizations, including the Evangelical Environmental Network and Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. (He bobbles a bit, though, in mentioning an “Episcopalian” priest; it’s “Episcopal.”)

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In NYTimes piece, bias against AA is a hard habit to break

Sometimes our readers are sharper than us professional word pushers. One of them just dismantled a New York Times feature with the skill of a soldier field-stripping a rifle.

The article in question looks at the Center for Motivation and Change, an anti-addiction program that favors secular counseling, therapy and medication. Well and good, as far as that goes.

But the article also notes how CMC shuns the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous. No, more than that. It tries again and again to prove the superiority of the secular method, via biased wording, cherry-picking research and mainly quoting one side.

Again and again, CMC is held up as the enlightened, proven, “evidence-based” approach to kicking substance abuse:

It is part of a growing wing of addiction treatment that rejects the A.A. model of strict abstinence as the sole form of recovery for alcohol and drug users.

Instead, it uses a suite of techniques that provide a hands-on, practical approach to solving emotional and behavioral problems, rather than having abusers forever swear off the substance — a particularly difficult step for young people to take.

And unlike programs like Al-Anon, A.A.’s offshoot for family members, the C.M.C.’s approach does not advocate interventions or disengaging from someone who is drinking or using drugs. “The traditional language often sets parents up to feel they have to make extreme choices: Either force them into rehab or detach until they hit rock bottom,” said Carrie Wilkens, a psychologist who helped found the C.M.C. 10 years ago. “Science tells us those formulas don’t work very well.”

We’ll get to that question of how well the CMC works in a moment. For now, let’s note the code words of “strict” and “traditional,” as if AA and Al-Anon are based on some Amish settlement. Those and other forms of gaming raised the ire of our friend Jean Lahondere.

Underneath the psych talk and success anecdotes, Lahondere says, the Times article is a standard parable on the alleged triumph of science over faith.

The article “treats recovery as either a completely ‘faith-based’ (Alcoholics Anonymous) or ‘evidence-based’ (C.M.C.) ordeal,” she writes. “As if A.A. is a stand-in for religious belief and the new method is firmly rooted in the empirically correct foundation of SCIENCE. It really is more effective as an insight into the writer’s world view than as a story about addiction recovery.”

The Times does muster some scientific allies of CMC:

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Auschwitz in Ireland: L’Humanité on Ireland’s mass graves

The falsehoods and exaggerations — need I say, the hysteria — surrounding the Irish orphanage story has been a sorry spectacle for those who love the craft of reporting. The first reports of a mass grave in a septic tank containing up to 800 unbaptized babies at a Catholic orphanage has been proven to be false as have many of the other extraordinary claims of incredible, monstrous behavior.

The push back began almost immediately, however, as reporters began to examine the claims in detail. The Associated Press printed a correction on June 20, 2014, stating:

In stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.

Note the subordinate clause in the second to last sentence — “if any.”

The story has shifted from 800 unbaptized dead babies in a septic tank to an acknowledgement that there might not be any bodies in the tank. For a detailed study of this sorry chapter in journalism I recommend the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue’s paper “Ireland’s ‘mass grave’ hysteria.”

The revelation that this is a junk story has not stopped some newspapers from adding their own exclusive revelations.

France awoke a few days ago to the news that the 796 dead babies in the septic tank were the subjects of medical experimentation, according to L’Humanité. The dead children may have been (not the conditional tense) the victims of experimental vaccinations by the British company GlaxoSmithKline carried out with the blessings of the Catholic Church and the Irish State.

Il y a trois semaines, 796 cadavres de nourrissons nés hors mariage entre 1925 et 1961 ont été exhumés d’une fosse commune à côté du couvent ?de Tuam. Un taux de mortalité supérieur à la moyenne qui fait craindre que ces « baby homes » aient été le lieu d’essais vaccinaux sur des bébés.

Three weeks ago the remains of 796 infants born out of wedlock between 1925 and 1961 were exhumed from a mass grave near a convent in Tuam. This higher than average mortality rate raises concerns that these “baby homes” were the scene of vaccination trials on infants.

The article, which is behind a pay wall, approaches the story through the concerns of Susan Lohan, the co-founder of an adoption rights alliance.

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Near-death experiences: Is ‘Heaven Is For Real’ for real?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

How well do you think [the current "Heaven Is For Real" movie] addresses communicating out-of-body spiritual experiences?

AND ART ASKS:

[Regarding the "countless books" on near-death experiences such as "Heaven Is For Real"]: Is there any legitimate connection between these and Christian views of the next life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Since maybe a few folks out there haven’t bought this bestselling book, or seen the movie, or read about the book or the movie, here’s a summary:

In 2003 Colton Burpo, not yet age 4, underwent emergency surgery for a burst appendix and had a close brush with death. At various times afterward he told parents Todd and Sonja about experiencing his soul taken to heaven while his body was on the operating table. He reported information the family said he couldn’t have known otherwise, most notably meeting a second sister in the afterlife though he’d never been told about Sonja’s miscarriage.

Years later father Todd, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Nebraska, wrote this hugely popular book. Eventually Hollywood came calling.

Now, for some background information on this phenomenon. Burpo’s book sales pale compared with the various books written by the secular Raymond Moody, an M.D. and Ph.D. who coined the term “near death experience.”

In “Life After Life” (1975) he compiled more than 100 accounts of people who suffered “clinical death” and revived. Many shared such perceptions as moving through a tunnel, glorious light and feelings of great peace. Such matters had received little public notice till then, but subsequent polls indicated millions of Americans have reported “out of body” experiences.

Moody later explored reincarnation, including awareness of his own past lives while under hypnosis. That belief breaks from Judaism and Christianity and fits Eastern religions (though minus beliefs, less popular in the West, about the law of karma and reincarnation into sub-human species). Moody helped establish one of several centers that collect and analyze near-death accounts.

While the Burpo book typifies the theme’s common-folks appeal, elite near-deathers help counter assumptions that people telling such stories are unusually imaginative or suggestible and maybe a bit off.

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Forget Genesis: Adam and Eve make NYTimes front page

From the Bible’s Genesis account of creation:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

That’s, of course, just a small section of the story, but it provides a nice flavor of it. Genesis will come into play — in a crucial way — later in this post.

But first, let’s consider this intriguing headline on the front page of today’s New York Times:

College Is Torn: Can Darwin and Eden Coexist?

And the top of the story:

DAYTON, Tenn. — William Jennings Bryan earned a permanent place in American history nearly nine decades ago in the Scopes trial, when he stood in a courtroom here and successfully prosecuted a teacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school.

While not quite “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” as Time magazine put it, that captivated the nation in 1925, a similar debate is again playing out in Dayton, this time at an evangelical Christian college named for Bryan, which is being sued as part of a controversy over its own stance on the origin of humans.

The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are, even splitting an institution whose motto is “Christ Above All.” Playing out at a time when the teaching of evolution remains a cultural hot spot to a degree that might have stunned its proponents in Bryan’s era, the debate also reflects the problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.

Um, did I read that last part right? “The problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.”

Is that, in fact, what Christian colleges are doing? Are they providing “secular education” with a little religion sprinkled on top? Or is “balance religious beliefs with secular education” a nice turn of phrase gone factually awry?

Bryan College belongs to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an international association of 120 “intentionally Christ-centered colleges and universities.” How many of those institutions would suggest they are trying to “balance religious beliefs with secular education?”  My guess: zero.

On the other hand, how many would suggest they are working to “transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth,” as CCCU’s mission statement puts it? My guess: all.

The real tension seems to be: How do Christian colleges balance their strong biblical worldview with rigorous academic scholarship and freedom? And later in the piece, the Times does a little better job hitting at that question.

But after that long tangent, let’s get back to the center of the Bryan College dispute. This is important:

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What rights should parents of gay children have in Maryland?

Here we go again. The Baltimore Sun — the newspaper that lands in my front yard — recently published a very provocative piece about the next round in our state’s battles between conservative religious believers and gay-rights organizations. In this case, the battle is over the work of the “ex-gay” ministries and, in particular, the rights of religious parents who turn to them for help.

Looking at this from a religion-news perspective, the main problem with the story is that the issue of parental rights is never openly discussed. Instead, it is hidden between the lines of this news feature.

First, a word about comments on this post: Please do not click “comment” in order to express your disgust, or support, for whatever you think “ex-gay” ministries teach or do not teach.

Trust me, if you oppose the work of counselors who believe that men and women can modify their sexual behaviors and attractions, especially those whose sexual orientations can best be described as complex and/or bisexual, your point of view dominates this Sun piece. You may be unhappy that the piece does allow one particular counselor to briefly defend his work and that, at the very end of the piece, there is even a positive quote from one of his adult clients. However, this story — as is becoming the Sun norm on stories about conservative believers — primarily defines his work in terms of material gathered from his enemies and critics.

Meanwhile, after several decades of covering this issue, I do question the fact that the Sun team consistently reports that this counselor’s goal is to “change” the sexual orientation of patients. Just as I have never heard anyone claim that they can “pray the gay away,” I have rarely heard anyone claim that there is some kind of simplistic sexual-orientation switch that can be flipped from gay to straight.

This is how the story states the question in the lede:

Christopher Doyle says he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being gay, but he also believes he can help children and others rid themselves of “unwanted same-sex attractions” through therapy sessions in a tidy suburban home in Bowie.

That has made the licensed psychotherapist the target of intense criticism over the years — so much so, he says, that he closely protects the address of the International Healing Foundation, the nearly 25-year-old nonprofit he runs.

“Unfortunately, we get targeted by activists,” Doyle said in the home on a recent morning.

In the latest salvo aimed at Doyle and his practice, gay rights activists in Maryland say they hope to ban clinical therapy for children that is based on the notion that their sexual orientation can change. They hope to build on success banning the practice in other states, and success here in securing same-sex marriage and protections for transgender residents.

Note, in this case, that the word “rid” is not inside the direct quote.

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