About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

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It’s time for a quick trip into my very large folder of GetReligion guilt, that place where I put stories that I think deserve attention — once I get done with the news of the day. And then a day turns into a week and then a week into two weeks and so forth and so on.

So let’s flash back to the recent NBA series between the Los Angeles Clippers and coach Doc Rivers and the Golden State Warriors and their coach, The Rev. Mark Jackson. Yes, “the Rev.” That series led to a very interesting, some would say prophetic, USA Today story about a quiet, behind the scenes controversy in professional basketball. Here’s the top of the story:

Long before Doc Rivers found himself defending his Los Angeles Clippers players who were the unwelcome participants in team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments all week, he was concerned about another sensitive subject.

Religion.

It was late 1999, the start of Rivers’ first season as coach of the Orlando Magic, and he saw a situation in the locker room that he felt needed to be addressed. As his players took part in the pre-game prayer that was part of their routine — with veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong handling the message like always, future New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams serving as unofficial co-messenger and the entire team standing in a circle — Rivers noticed something he didn’t like.

“I looked up in one of the prayers, and Tariq (Abdul-Wahad) had his arms folded, and you could see that he was really uncomfortable with it,” Rivers … told USA TODAY Sports.

Rivers made the decision, with a Muslim believer on his team, to shut down the prayers, saying that his players should keep their religious devotions private. The very next paragraph was what caught my attention.

Rivers calls himself a “very religious” man, having grown up in the Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Ill., and praying on his knees every night in his home to this day. But he prefers to practice privately and is quick to note that he has attended church only for funerals the past 15 years.

Now, no matter how you look at it, that’s a very interesting paragraph full of mixed signals. Why has this strong believer stopped going to church? What was the big idea that the USA Today team was trying to communicate? And what did this have to do with the Golden State series?

Well maybe this is the connection:

This NBA season has been unprecedented when it comes to the blending of basketball and unresolved social issues — from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in a major professional league to Royce White, who has dealt with mental illness, to the Sterling situation — there has been a widespread push for increased tolerance on all fronts. Yet the conversation about religion and how it’s best handled by coaches and players remains fluid.

With Rivers handling his work world one way and Warriors coach/ordained minister Mark Jackson another, there’s no better sign of the breadth of this debate than this particular series. After all, their growing rivalry reached this point in part because of an Oct. 31, 2013 controversy over pre-game chapel and the Clippers’ decision to break league-wide tradition and force the Warriors to pray on their own.

Now, both of these teams include players with very high profiles as Christian believers. That’s not the issue here. The very first time I read this story I wondered if there was some bigger religion-linked issue that the USA Today team was trying to address, if only by circling around and around it without being specific.

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NYTimes leans to the right in Christian legal profile?

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No, the “socially liberal” New York Times didn’t lean all the way to the right.

But it’s difficult to imagine a conservative Christian legal organization receiving fairer, more serious coverage than the Alliance Defending Freedom did in Monday’s newspaper.

With the headline “Legal Alliance Gains Host of Court Victories for Conservative Christian Movement,” the Times used the group’s major Supreme Court victory last week in the Town of Greece, N.Y., prayer case as a timely news peg:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Alan Sears, who has run the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom since its founding 20 years ago, turned to a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office here and noted the decades of blood and tears it took to abolish slavery.

“I think there is no question that one day, this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Sears, a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department.

The comparison may or may not prove apt, but these are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.

A meaty section of the story highlights the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Christian roots:

Alliance Defending Freedom was created by Christian leaders including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James C. Dobson Jr., the founder of Focus on the Family. In the early 1990s the groups had watched with growing dismay as secular groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used the courts to ban school prayer and advance abortion rights even as an emerging gay-rights movement threatened, in their view, to upend the country’s social values.

“People of faith were being outgunned in court,” said Mr. Sears, 62, a Roman Catholic in an organization populated with evangelical Protestants. So the group — then called the Alliance Defense Fund — was founded to foster Christian legal firepower.

The new Christian lawyers have proved to be sophisticated litigants in court, wielding constitutional arguments without invoking religion. But outside the courtroom, the group has provoked the enmity of gay-rights advocates, in particular, by expressing harsh views such as those in a book Mr. Sears co-wrote in 2003, “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” It describes gay people as “trapped” and gay-rights advocates as bent on creating a nation of “broken families and broken lives.”

I was pleased that the Times contrasted Sears’ Catholic background with the prevalence of evangelical attorneys. That detail intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about that dynamic and how, if at all, it plays into the group’s culture and approach. Alas, the Times story ran only 1,200 words. Granted, that’s a full-length novel by concerning new Associated Press standards, but it’s hardly enough space to cover every angle or conceivable question.

Later in the piece, the Times provides more interesting background:

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Getting a feel for the whole elephant in that Mississippi law

You know that ancient story about the blind men groping their way around an elephant? Well, sometimes the men are also unaware of each other — even here at GetReligion.

Last weekend I saw an AP story about the reaction to Mississippi’s new religious freedom law. Gay businessmen and their friends took such offense, they started putting up blue window stickers in protest — even though the law said nothing about homosexuality.

“Wow, this’ll be fun to carve apart,” I thought, not realizing that Bobby Ross Jr. had already done so. The article I read was a repost of the one he saw.

Yet our reviews offer different views on the partial blindness in Mississippi — and how the AP didn’t help clear things up before quoting the protesters.

First off, a favorite complaint of mine: balance. The AP cites three sources on the gay side, one from the opposition. And that one is an out-of-stater: Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based American Family Association. Nor, as Bobby and I both note, does the reporting (or editing) explain why gays fear a law that doesn’t mention them.

As the article says, it’s a close mirror of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Clinton in 1993. Gays and their straight friends are simply taking pre-emptive action:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In conservative Mississippi, some business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion.

Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs — for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

Hundreds of businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

The sticker campaign started this month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason.

Granted, the lede tries to limit the article to the blue-sticker campaign. I wonder if that was to avoid having to cite all sides for the sake of a simpler story? Well, it doesn’t give us a complete view of public reaction to the law. It’s a better gauge of the AP’s reaction.

And the reaction, of course, of gay merchants in Mississippi:

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SCOTUS prayer case: reporting, opinion in one story

Like many towns, prayer opens government meetings in Greece, N.Y. Unlike many towns, a couple of citizens voiced their offense to the practice — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As we heard yesterday, the high court sided with the town. And of course, the other side is crying foul.

Even including CNN, which was supposed to be doing straight reporting.

Here’s how CNN’s Belief Blog item by Daniel Burke led off the report on the high court’s decision yesterday. And keep in mind that it’s not marked as opinion or analysis or commentary:

If you don’t like it, leave the room.

That’s the essence of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.

In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings – even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.

Why did the Supreme Court rule as it did? We don’t find out until the ninth paragraph. Before then, we need to be softened up on the right way to view it.

“Many members of the country’s majority faith — that is, Christians — hailed the ruling,” Burke continues. He then lists some of the supporting organizations and quotes their leaders on what they see as the benefits of the ruling.

Just kidding, just kidding; he doesn’t do that at all. After that token paragraph acknowledging another side, he moves to his real interest: who objected and why.

Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.

Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday’s decision.

“The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.

Finally, the story adds five paragraphs on Kennedy’s majority opinion, which leans heavily on historic precedent going back to the First Continental Congress. The story also cites a poll that found less than 23 percent of Americans object to prayers at public government meetings. (This, of course, counters Rob Boston’s argument that such prayers don’t match the American mood, but he apparently wasn’t asked to account for the contradiction.)

Burke then asks about people “who like their local government meetings to be religion-free?” Interesting choice of word, that: The absence of religion spells freedom. He then gives 11 paragraphs to the dissenting opinion of Justice Elena Kagan, whom he points out is Jewish.

She spins a hypothetical case of a Muslim at a town meeting where a minister invites everyone to pray in the name of Jesus. In her view, avidly reported by Burke, the Muslim must either comply and violate his beliefs, or object and risk giving offense.

But the article doesn’t report that the majority Supreme Court opinion, too, dealt with the question of coercive effects:

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Little argument, and little religion, after botched execution

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This is the headline on a Washington Post follow-up on the recent big story in my home state:

In Okla., little argument over the final outcome for inmate who died after botched execution

Little argument and little religion, based on this rather shallow Post story.

At GetReligion, we often refer to “holy ghosts.” In fact, as our editor tmatt explained at the very beginning (well, not that beginning), that’s why we’re here:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The first ghosts appear way up high in this Post story:

McALESTER, Okla. — Geneva Miller was a bit annoyed as she dug into an egg salad sandwich at the Heavenly Delights bakery, where wooden signs line the walls bearing affirmations of food and family.

She can’t believe that her state, with its strong support for capital punishment, is being pilloried across the nation because of one botched execution.

“We’re just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty,” Miller said. “We just don’t understand how they could think otherwise — that it wouldn’t be right.”

Um, Heavenly Delights? Affirmations of food and family? Is there a chance that religious faith might be a factor here? If so, the Post chooses to ignore it.

Let’s read on:

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Newspaper reporter critiqued by GetReligion fires back

First off, my apologies for that click bait.

Megan Finnerty, a Page 1 reporter for the Arizona Republic, didn’t really fire back at my recent negative review of her pre-Easter story on “Tips for Jesus.”

In fact, the thoughtful email that she sent me with the subject line “Read your critique of my story” was kinder than my snarky critique, titled “What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?”

With Megan’s permission, I thought I’d share a bit of what she had to say, in hopes of providing a behind-the-scenes perspective on GetReligion’s focus, which is the mass media’s coverage of religion news. Before reading her comments, though, be sure to peruse the original post, if you haven’t already. If you don’t, the rest of this won’t make sense.

OK, everybody back?

Here is Megan’s response (edited slightly for publication, with her approval):

I read your thoughts on my TipsForJesus story.

I’m totally not emailing you to defend my work. I’m emailing you because I want to be better and do smarter, more thorough, sensitive work. So I send this note to you in the spirit of learning from someone who does this kind of work — writes about Christianity — all the time. So below, I’m going to walk you through my logic and processes so you can see how I got where I was going. And if you see some big glaring gap in logic or mistake in processes, or just room for improvement, I am open to your ideas.

I LOVED your idea of including how Jesus responded to extravagance. When I read it in your critique, I remembered it, but sadly, none of the religious I interviewed for the story mentioned that piece of scripture.

I interviewed a religion writer (who didn’t make the quote cut because he didn’t say anything super-vital…), a pastor (who I quoted) and a deacon (who I did not quote because he didn’t say anything that hadn’t been better said by others…)

I agree with you, my story would’ve been more complete, and more interesting had I included that Scripture passage.

But I felt like the rest of your critique of my story is that A. I put the pastor at the end and B. I didn’t only interview Christians or biblical scholars. I mean, story organization is always a matter of taste, but I put the pastor at the end so as to make his ending quote land with more force. He was a wonderful interview.

As for not interviewing more Christians, or not asking if TipsForJesus is “Christian” as opposed to just “moral,” those are interesting ideas. To be honest, it NEVER occurred to me to ask if it was “Christian” behavior.

I just thought about how every faith tradition celebrates charity, so I sort of saw this behavior as Christian, sure, but also, if he had named the Instagram account TipsForAllah, or TipsForGod, it wouldn’t really impact the answer to that question — the answer would be yes, charity is positively viewed by all major world religions. So, I just didn’t think it was a compelling question because I felt like my readers would say they knew the answer is yes…

But, are you saying it was naive or wrong or not smart to take for granted that the tipping was, indeed, “Christian?”

And as for not focusing my interviews on explicitly self-identified Christians more or exclusively, I wanted to open the gist of the story up to as many people as possible — Christians and non, because I think we all have a stake in charity, in questions of morality and in how the rich practice charity. And, my readers are not all Christians, you know? I wanted to draw in as many people as possible to being thoughtful and to contending with these really hard questions — most good for most people per dollar vs. good for people I care about or who I’m connected to.

I write every once in a while about the intersection of religion and various aspects of daily life and I am open to feedback and criticism because I know that I am not an expert. So I appreciate the thought you put into analyzing my story. I don’t really think my story qualifies as a holy ghost story, though. Other than leaving out the piece of Scripture, I don’t see what key idea or deeper Christian point I left out …

I replied to Megan and thanked her for being so nice in her response. I pointed out that I wrote not long ago about the inherent difficulty that we at GetReligion face in critiquing journalism without knowing the full, behind-the-scenes story of the reporting, writing and editing involved.

And I said:

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Did Washington Post offer reporting or cheerleading?

The religious left gets sympathetic treatment, not only from a new report by the Brookings Institution, but by a Washington Post article on it.

The story uncritically quotes the report, though it also offers some background on the Old Left, including its religious wing. And it doesn’t ask for reactions from anyone on the right, or even the moderate middle.

Instead, the article starts out by choosing the good guys:

The religious left was never as cohesive and effective as the religious right. But a new report based on interviews with religious progressive leaders finds that the Obama era may have further weakened Democrats’ interest in the non-secular.

The report, released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, argues that religious progressives could be heading for a renaissance if they can focus on what some see as the civil rights issue of today: economic justice.

We’ll leave aside how the Post knows the religious left was “never as cohesive and effective as the religious right.” Instead, we’ll note the first signal of bias: the simple title “the Brookings Institution.” If the article was about, say, the Heritage Foundation, the newspaper would have likely tacked on “the conservative.” But as a liberal organization, Brookings is simply a normal, moderate think tank. The good guys don’t get labels.

The story does look honestly at reasons for the decline of the religious left, as indeed the 56-page report itself does. Among them:

*More diversity, less homogeneity within the ranks.

*Ambivalence and suspicion from secular leftists toward religion.

*Decline of the unions, once a strong ally of religious groups.

*Disagreement on whether the poor are helped better by the govt or by churches and private foundations.

Fair enough, all of it. But the Washington Post apparently didn’t ask about other possibilities for the decline — from a conservative viewpoint. I can think of a few myself:

*Boosting practices like abortion and same-sex marriage as private rights, then pushing them as social and political issues.

*Sapping doctrinal authority in the name of relativism, then campaigning for social issues in the name of truth.

*Preaching equality for everyone, then pitting groups against each other with the rhetoric of class warfare and racial privilege.

The Post article also suffers from a lack of definitions. It throws around “progressive” and “economic justice” as if they’re household terms, although the report itself explains the latter. And the Post docilely quotes the Brookings report for saying the leftists may benefit from a “broadly felt need for a new social contract” — without explaining the terms of such a contract or offering evidence that the need is, in fact, broadly felt.

There’s at least one other way to write about the Brookings report, and the Dallas Morning News took it.

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Journalism, religion and a botched execution in Oklahoma

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What was it like?

How do you feel?

Years ago, when I covered the state prison system for The Oklahoman and began serving as an official media witness for executions, those were the kinds of questions friends asked.

Truth be told, I felt numb.

I mean, I knew I had watched someone die. But I did so in a controlled, sanitized environment. A needle was inserted into a convicted killer’s arm — like someone receiving anesthesia for surgery — and the person lost consciousness. Within a few minutes, a time of death was declared.

The process was so routine, in most cases, that I wrote a behind-the-scenes account in 2000 of a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma:

McALESTER — At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.

Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.

Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.

The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes — a prison shirt and jeans — in which to die.

After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.

Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him — or in him — that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.

Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.

After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.

Fast-forward 14 years, and my home state of Oklahoma is all over the news, and rightly so, after a botched execution involving the state’s first time using a new lethal drug combination.

The anything-but-routine lede from the Tulsa World:

McALESTER — The execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett was botched Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary before he died of a massive heart attack. The event prompted officials to postpone a second execution that had been scheduled for two hours later.

Lockett was given execution drugs and reacted violently, kicking and grimacing while lifting his head off the gurney to which he was strapped. He was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. inside the execution chamber — 43 minutes after the process began — Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said.

In a media conference, Patton said Lockett’s veins “exploded” during the execution, which began at 6:23 p.m. The inmate died from what Patton called a “massive heart attack.” The death occurred after the execution process had been halted.

In its daily religion headlines email today, the Pew Research Center included the Oklahoma execution as the top item, despite no overtly religious content in The Associated Press story to which Pew linked, and I find no fault with that. This is obviously a story with strong moral — and religious — overtones.

In perusing the major media coverage, CNN, in particular, seems to nail the moral angle:

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