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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Can a laundromat replace the traditional church?

Loads of Love, just one of the popular laundry ministries organized by churches across the nation, involves a whole lot of quarters — and conversation.

In Texas, the United Methodist Church’s Arlington Urban Ministries program has operated a laundromat ministry since 1997. In Charlottesville, Va., the Belmont Baptist Church has offered the needy access to washers and dryers, free detergent and laundry supplies since 2010. In Portland, Ore., volunteers with the Eastside Church of Christ began going into laundromats in 2010 as “a coin-friendly way to share Christ.”

A few months ago, the Episcopal News Service reported on “Laundry Love” ministries involving some of that denomination’s California churches. A video posted on the Episcopal Church’s website earlier this month highlighted Laundry Love as “modern day footwashing.”

This week, Laundry Love made its way to NPR:

It’s 7 p.m. on a weeknight at a strip mall in Huntington Beach, Calif., and people have been lined up for hours outside a laundromat here. They’ve been waiting for a chance to do their wash for free. As they file in, volunteers direct them to the machines and help them to supplies.

This is “Laundry Love” at work — a ministry that raises money to pay for detergent, dryer sheets and quarters for machines.

Laundry is a daunting chore for many people, but for the working poor, the cost of doing laundry — not to mention the time involved in hauling it to a laundromat — can be prohibitive. It can also mean going without other basic essentials.

The idea for Laundry Love began at an Episcopal congregation in Ventura, Calif., and slowly but surely, it’s spreading. Now, more than 70 churches, mosques and synagogues around the country have adopted the practice.

The NPR story does not specify when the ministry started, but the Episcopal News Service report indicated it began about 10 years ago. Nor does the NPR story provide any context on other laundry ministries — and approaches — that exist outside of the Laundry Love effort.

Still, it’s an interesting story — albeit an incomplete one.

NPR advances the notion (as does the writer’s tweet) that the laundry ministry somehow replaces traditional church:

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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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Lovers and labels in coverage of same-sex marriage ruling (updated)

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Update: Yikes! One of the drawbacks of media-criticism-on-the-go is the possibility of writing a post that, in retrospect, makes you sound really stupid.

Such is the case with this one, which prompted reader Sarah Morriss to comment:

You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

Nope. I didn’t know that. But a quick Google search finds a Wikipedia entry describing the slogan as “one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years.” Uh, somehow I missed it.

That does put the headline in a different light, although one could argue that not all readers nationally would understand the play on words.

My original post appears below.

* * *

Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Let’s take a quiz and see if you can guess the source of the above message:

A. Sign at a gay-rights rally.

B. Slogan for a same-sex marriage campaign.

C. Headline on an Associated Press news story.

If you picked C, you would be mostly correct. This is the actual headline on AP’s story on a federal appeals court ruling Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional Monday:

U.S. court: Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Even attributing that statement to the court, the headline still strikes me as a doozy, especially given that the 98-page ruling never uses the word “lover.” The term “same-sex” does appear 151 times, along with 321 references to “marriage,” and other major news organizations stuck with more journalistically neutral headlines.

Appeals court upholds decision overturning Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban (Washington Post)

Appeals panel strikes down Virginia gay marriage ban (USA Today)

Appeals Panel Rejects Virginia Gay-Marriage Ban (New York Times)

Appeals court strikes down Va. same-sex marriage ban (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Appeals court rejects Virginia same-sex marriage ban (CNN)

Not a lot of creativity in those headlines, granted. But not a lot of editorializing either.

The headline isn’t the only place the AP story hints at bias. The wire service quotes an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sees no need to label the group. The same can’t be said of the story’s treatment of a legal group that supported Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage:

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Migrant children crossing the border: the religion angle

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Amid the ongoing headlines – mostly political – over the thousands of migrant children crossing illegally into the United States, I’ve been pleased to come across some excellent reports on the religion angle.

New York Times national religion reporter Michael Paulson produced a thorough overview of U.S. religious leaders embracing the cause of immigrant children:

After protesters shouting “Go home” turned back busloads of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, Calif., a furious Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, sat down at his notepad and drafted a blog post detailing his shame at the episode, writing, “It was un-American; it was unbiblical; it was inhumane.”

When the governor of Iowa, Terry E. Branstad, said he did not want the migrants in his state, declaring, “We can’t accept every child in the world who has problems,” clergy members in Des Moines held a prayer vigil at a United Methodist Church to demonstrate their desire to make room for the refugees.

The United States’ response to the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, many of them fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America, has been symbolized by an angry pushback from citizens and local officials who have channeled their outrage over illegal immigration into opposition to proposed shelter sites. But around the nation, an array of religious leaders are trying to mobilize support for the children, saying the nation can and should welcome them.

“We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, who said leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met last week to discuss how to help. He said that in his own congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping.

From there, Paulson notes the broad spectrum of religious leaders — from left to right — speaking out:

The backlash to the backlash is broad, from Unitarian Universalists and Quakers to evangelical Protestants. Among the most agitated are Catholic bishops, who have long allied with Republican politicians against abortion and same-sex marriage, and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose adherents tend to lean right.

The NYTimes piece links to other recent stories, including a Chicago Tribune report on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago seeking to house child refugees, a Boston Globe report on Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts tearfully citing the Bible in suggesting that migrant children could be temporarily housed at military bases in his state and a Dallas Morning News report on Catholic bishops in Dallas and Fort Worth calling for lawyers to represent the children at immigration proceedings.

The Dallas Morning News featured a front-page story Sunday on religious groups rallying to help the migrant children:

Piles of Superman underwear sit among the pyramids of protein formula in the atrium of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas. Soon, the stash will be trucked to South Texas to help with relief efforts for the influx of children and teenagers from Central America.

Down the street on Ross Avenue, welcome boxes sit in an office of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. So many people called the church wanting to help that a parishioner organized a welcome-box drive. She asked for toiletries, a small toy and a handwritten note.

“Esperamos que te guste el juguete! Con cariño, tus amigos en Dallas.” We hope you like the toy, with affection, your Dallas friends, one reads.

Across North Texas, across political divides and theological differences, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and others in the local faith community are stepping up with assistance for the children who have crossed the border illegally without a parent. Congregations moved by the plight of the children are finding practical ways to help, even as governments and politicians argue and scramble over solutions.

“It’s a beautiful illustration of loving thy neighbor,” said the Rev. Linda Roby, an associate minister at First Methodist, patting packets of pajamas.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, distributed an Abilene Reporter-News story on a ministry helping at the border:

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NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy?

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Apparently, this past spring, the Republican National Committee held a closed-door meeting in which a circle of conservative women discussed a topic that they have been discussing for decades — how to talk about abortion when dealing with mainstream journalists, especially television reporters.

Apparently, someone taking part in this meeting decided to invite a reporter from The New York Times to step inside the closed doors. Bravo for whoever made the brave decision to do that.

Apparently, however, it took quite a while for editors at the Times to decide that this was a story worth printing, since it just ran in late July, under the headline, “Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion.”

On one level, this is pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have one rather basic journalistic question: If this was a closed-door session, was the Times reporter actually invited to attend or did someone slip into the meeting? Consider how this issue is framed at the top of the report.

It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion.

They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong.

Please hear me: The content is valid either way. However, shouldn’t this question about access to the meeting have been mentioned? If a reporter snuck in, that’s interesting, especially in terms of decades of tensions about abortion coverage and mainstream news-media bias. If a reporter was invited into the meeting, then that is even more interesting — for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, I thought it was rather strange that the Times team thought that this session focused on an “unlikely set of skills.”

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