About that Archbishop Nienstedt conversion quote (updated)

It’s time for another update from the “framing religion as politics” beat, care of The Star Tribune, up in Minnesota.

This latest same-sex marriage story is pretty standard fare — Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt keeps talking about doctrine, the newspaper frames everything as political ambition — except for two paragraphs that raise interesting questions. One of the questions is legal, in a church-state sense, and the other concerns a misquote that should be corrected (that is, if theology means anything to the newspaper’s editors). As a bonus, there there is a pitch-perfect example of language that smacks readers in the face with the newsroom’s views on this subject.

First, there is the money question:

Working aggressively behind the scenes, the 65-year-old Nienstedt has emerged as a key financial and political force for passage of the marriage amendment, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot and is the most contentious issue in the state this election season.

He has committed more than $650,000 in church money, stitched together a coalition of leaders from other faiths and exerted all his power within the church to press Minnesota’s million-plus Catholics to back him.

Now, churches and non-profits are allowed to get financially involved in issues in the public square, as opposed to endorsing candidates. I assume the Star Tribune team knows that. It’s one thing to tell members of your voluntary association where the group stands on a matter of doctrine. It’s something else to urge them to support a particular candidate — whether that is an A.M.E. Zion pastor plugging President Barack Obama or a Mormon leader pinning an overt endorsement on Mitt Romney.

What, precisely, is meant by “more than $650,000 in church money” going to this campaign? Did the archbishop literally pull those funds from church accounts or did he seek donations from Catholic donors, charities, etc.? Readers deserve information there, not fog.

Moving on.

But Nienstedt’s central role in the campaign has also brought blistering criticism from the faithful.

“I just see that this is terrible. This is not how Christ would have spent this money,” said Pauline Cahalan, 67, a lifelong Catholic from Roseville. “It’s very concerning to me when someone says you have to think like I tell you to think.”

So this one woman represents “the faithful” on an issue linked to an ancient sacrament of the church? “The faithful” — the implication is all or most Catholics in the region — oppose his actions?

This language is simply too vague. It’s clear, in this age in which American Catholicism is splintered on issues of moral theology, that many would oppose the archbishop and they deserve to be quoted, on the record. But all, or even most, of the “faithful,” active Catholics? Come on, people. Back that claim up with some facts or, at the very least, a poll that digs into the specifics. “Some” of the faithful? Sure. “The faithful” is another matter.

And finally, there is this brief moment in which a Catholic leader is allowed to speak in Catholic, non-religious language. Note that this is a reference to a written statement from the archbishop.

Undeterred by the criticism, Nienstedt has raised the stakes. To a mother who pleaded for acceptance for her gay child, he wrote: “I urge you to reconsider the position that you expressed. … Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation of heart on this topic.”

To clergy, he issued orders that no “open dissension” would be allowed. He wrote one outspoken priest, the Rev. Mike Tegeder, that if he persisted, “I will … remove you from your ministerial assignments.”

What, precisely, is “a conversation of heart” on this issue? That makes no sense, in terms of grammar or theology. Is there any chance that what the archbishop actually wrote was that, on this matter of fidelity to doctrine and sacrament, his woman needed to seek “a conversion of heart”?

According to this Catholic source, quoting what appears to the same Nienstedt letter, that is exactly what the archbishop wrote. Who altered this crucial quote and why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

UPDATE: A website called Truth Wins Out has posted what it says is the original letter from Nienstedt and — while the “conversion” instead of “conversation” logic remains — it appears that this typo was made by the archbishop and/or his staff. Thus, the copy desk merely passed along that language, while it appears that other Catholics who read it have corrected the wording.

I think the editors still should have noticed that the original wording made zero sense and asked about it. However, it is not a journalistic sin to have no one on the copy desk who thinks theologically or thinks “Catholic” on such a matter. It’s sad that no one caught it, but it appears that the mistake was not that of the newspaper.

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Some religious denigration is better than others

Back when the Obama administration was still claiming that they believed the assassination of the United States ambassador to Libya was in response to a YouTube video, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

In President Obama’s statement on Stevens’ murder, he used this line:

“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

The media seemed oddly incurious about the idea that our leaders were saying that the U.S. rejects efforts to denigrate religious beliefs (and they were only mildly more interested in this claim back during the early days of Terry Jones’ media stunts or when similar statements were made during the previous administration). Media outlets more or less printed the claims and didn’t even realize that many Americans believe that the First Amendment means the government has no business rejecting efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Even more, they believe the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to do just that. Free country and all that. You can stand on the corner and distribute your poorly written anti-Calvinist tracts all you want.

What was particularly odd about the coverage was that, for instance, the Associated Press previously reported that Clinton had been in a crowd that had given a standing ovation to the “Book of Mormon” play. The same play that won a Tony for Best Musical, I believe. Do we reject efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others! Or do we give these efforts standing ovations and awards? I’m so confused! (And I’m not even going to get into any of the other religious liberty battles being fought against government entities.)

All this to say that I was intrigued by media coverage of just the latest effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Here’s how the Inquisitr covered it:

In the clip for American Horror Story: Asylum, Jessica Lange appears as a sinister nun at particularly dark and dreary mental institution during the 60s. “Here you will repent for your sins to the only judge that matters,” she says while leaning over a patient strapped to hospital bed. If the embedded promo is any indication of things to come, then this season looks to increase the sex and violence by several intense notches…

If you want to see more of Jessica Lange as a sadistic nun at a very creepy mental institution, be sure to tune into the American Horror Story: Asylum premiere on October 17.

Entertainment Weekly is so excited about the premier that it ran on the cover of the magazine.

But I haven’t seen any questioning of the anti-Catholic bigotry in this TV show in the mainstream media. Just in this piece in America magazine by James Martin, S.J. He goes through his enjoyment of EW prior to reading its article on the show and adds:

Anti-Catholicism (especially in grotesque portraits of sisters and nuns) has a long history, is alive and well, but is often overstated by some sensitive Catholics.  And of course it’s quite subjective.  One person’s good-natured ribbing is another person’s offensive stereotype.  But it’s always a good thought experiment to imagine the lines about, say, Lange’s sadism rendered with another religious or ethnic group.  Instead of nuns, substitute “rabbis” or “imams,” or “Muslims” or “Jews,” or “African-Americans” or “gay men,” in that sentence.  So reread those lines about the spanking with those groups in mind.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

How does that sound?  Do you think it would make it past many network execs or the editors at EW?  Well, maybe, but should it?

Of course Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender.  A new movie called “The Good Doctor,” opened this weekend, starring Orlando Bloom as a wicked physician who poisons his patients.  (Bad Legolas.)  So Catholic sisters aren’t the only vocations to have their reputations besmirched.  It’s as fair for filmmakers and TV producers to feature the occasional mean priest, bad bishop, and silly sister as it is to feature crooked cops, devious lawyers and messed-up parents.  And Hollywood even turns on its own: check out the brilliant “Episodes” starring Matt LeBlanc as an addled, well, Matt LeBlanc.

But that a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up Catholic sister is the centerpiece of a show’s entire season on a mainstream network is depressingly retrograde, especially when real sisters are trying hard to be seen as women worthy of dignity and respect.  It’s a lazy trope and an offensive one, too.  And I’m always amazed that editors and writers and producers and screenwriters and photographers don’t see that.

Father Martin’s piece is all an interesting critique I’m more interested in the media’s curious decisions to avoid talking about the fact that we denigrate religious beliefs — sometimes in incredibly high-profile ways — all the time in this country. There’s been a general problem with the media coverage of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, but most of that is political or relates to approaching that story politically. But there are, of course, some overlap issues with religion news.

I think the only mainstream outlet article I saw that even critiqued the administration’s line on free speech in recent weeks came from the New York Times, and while it was certainly good, it didn’t get into the religion angle.

Protecting the rights of atheists, skeptics, and believers to criticize and denigrate the religious beliefs of others is a huge issue in this country. While we’ve seen some hypocrisy in how denigration of religious beliefs has been covered, have you seen any good articles exploring this vital First Amendment issue? If so, please pass them along.

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Get hexed? From our ‘no comment’ department

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Let me be honest with you. I am not sure how to start this post.

After all, I could simply say “click here” and send GetReligion readers to the Washington City Paper item in question and that would be that. In fact, I think I’ll do that in a minute.

But I honestly think there is a story here — a religion-news ghost beyond the obvious ones — and I’ve been searching for a way to put that into words. Here’s what I have come up with.

Several years ago, I went to the Czech Republic to speak to the broadcasters there who work in Afghanistan and in other Muslim-majority lands in that region. The key question: Why do American journalists keep insisting that there are “moderate” Muslims and “fundamentalist” Muslims in spite of the fact that Muslims in the region do not think in those terms?

Anyway, I spend several days in the company of a veteran Czech journalist known for his work in public broadcasting. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the nature of religious belief and unbelief in the post-Soviet era.

The bottom line: The Czech Republic is now one of the most secular nations in the world. However, there’s a twist in this story. As the number of people committed to traditional religious belief and practice has declined, the number of people whose worldview includes strong beliefs in superstitions — such as hexes and omens — has risen. Sharply. Today, the Czechs are among the least religious and the most superstitious people in Europe and in the world at large.

With that, let’s look at the following bizarre item from here in Beltway-land, concerning a statement by Sally Quinn of The Washington Post and it’s On Faith project:

At a New York panel Monday on spirituality earlier this week, Quinn recalled how she used her psychic powers in the world of southern magic (emphasis added):

What we really believed in and practiced was voodoo, psychic phenomenon, Scottish mysticism, palm reading, astrology, seances, and ghosts. And I have many, many stories about those, real stories. And that—those things were my true religion, aside from dances. Aunt Ruth was psychic, my aunt Maggie was psychic, and I’m psychic. We actually put hexes on people and they really worked. It was actually really scary and I finally stopped when my brother who has a PhD in religion from the University of Chicago and is a theosophist and a practicing Buddhist told me I had to cut it out because it would come back at me three times. Anything that I did later that was troublesome I kept thinking, I brought this on myself, I should never have put a hex on her.

First, a reminder that Quinn is a columnist for a major American newspaper. Second, huh?

Don’t count on Quinn for an explanation, though. At least not yet. “I’m saving it all for my book!” she writes in an email. “But be careful what you write anyway. ….”

Uh, OK.

Now, let’s try discussing this as a JOURNALISM topic.

So, thumbs up or thumbs down. Who thinks this is a topic — broadly defined, as opposed to defining it as belief in hexes among Beltway mavens who are atheists-turned-Episcopalians — worthy of coverage in the mainstream press?

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Replacement referee goes to church. But which church?

A reader brought to our attention an interview of replacement referee Lance Easley by James Brown on yesterday’s NFL Today show on CBS. I’m a fan of JB’s interviewing style and he packed quite a bit into the seven or eight minute sit-down.

Easley is the referee who made the controversial touchdown call at the end of the Seattle Seahawks game against the Green Bay Packers a couple of weeks ago. Obviously the bulk of the interview was a pretty technical discussion of why Easley made the call and why the review process went as it did.

We also learn about Easley’s background and the training he received to be a replacement referee. We learn what wasn’t covered in his training, too. Interestingly enough, Easley stands behind his call without any reservation. But it was this portion of the interview that caused a reader to bring it to our attention:

Brown: That week you were arguably the most vilified man in America. I mean, the amount of vitriol and antagonism being spewed your way was just pretty intense incivility, if you will, in the public arena. How did you and your family deal with all of that?

Easley: I wanted to come out and let people know I’m OK, that this is a part of the deal. Officials, the guys that are out there now, any official, we understand that going in. It’s not a popular place to be in to begin with.

I’m very supported by my family, by my church, by people in the community who know me and have known me for years. I’m a former college coach, I’ve been involved in the game since I was a child, and people know that I’m a person of character, and I did the best job I could.

Matt Swaim, a producer at EWTN, said, “Wish JB would have asked that replacement ref WHICH Church supported him after that blown call.”

I am very curious about this topic, too. I’ve had the blessing of having seen my congregation support members after tragedy, either self-inflicted or otherwise. This aspect of the life of the church and religious communities is under-reported, particularly given how common it must be.

But having said all that, I’m not entirely sure a follow-up asking for more specifics would have been a journalistic choice I would have made. Given the limited amount of time, and the focus of the program, I think JB was probably wise to move onto a general question about replacement referees being in a tough spot:

Brown: Do you think you guys, replacement officials as a group,  were placed in an untenable position from the very beginning. because you would be placed under a harsh spotlight.

Easely: It was a very difficult situation, it wasn’t like a win-win. It was a difficult situation. We all took it on. We were concerned about the opportunity for other Americans to be working during those seven weeks. You think about the jobs, the people taking the tickets, the restaurateurs, all those people. By trade I’m a small business banker. I want to see our economy grow. I went out and did my job. I’m a football guy, and I’m very pleased and happy and enjoyed the whole ride.

Now, that question and answer may or may not have a religion ghost. But I thought it interesting that so many of the stories about replacement referees were in the context of crossing a picket line. I hadn’t even thought for a moment about how many other jobs were riding on football games being played. I’m not saying that JB’s question was tough enough, given these dueling narratives, but I wish we’d see more discussion of values, religious or otherwise, when talking about economic decisions or foreign policy decisions (drone strikes, torture, etc.). It’s just a good reminder to be attuned to the reality that a healthy unveiling of values can strike at any time, given the right opportunity.

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Got news? ‘Pro-choice terrorist’ pleads guilty

Among the many tragedies of the polarization over abortion is the fringe figures on both sides who resort to violence or are at risk of resorting to violence. They are not large in number but they do exist.

The news media tend to cover the violence or violent figures differently depending on which side of the issue they’re on. This isn’t limited to abortion, since other culture war issues that lead to violence show similar discrepancies in how the opposing fringe figures are covered, but abortion is probably the best example of it.

In any case, last week a pro-choice activist was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison for making murderous threats to several leaders in the pro-life movement. Theodore SHulman plead guilty back in May to transmitting a threat to injure another person. This particular case dealt with threats to Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, and Princeton University’s Robert George.

He had posted a comment on First Things making the threat. The pro-life media outlet LifeSite News reports:

Shulman, a self-described “pro-choice terrorist” is the son of feminist activist Alix Kates Shulman. His mother wrote the 1972 sex-novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and has stated that each of her four abortions were deliberate – “not one was the result of carelessness.”Shulman liked to style himself as the “first pro-choice terrorist” and even had a blog called “Operation Counterstrike.” His mission statement was: “Right-to-lifism is murder, and ALL right-to-lifers are bloody-handed accessories. Swear it, believe it, proclaim it, and act on it.”

His targets included many pro-life leaders including LifeSiteNews bloggers Jill Stanek and Dr. Gerard Nadal.

Stanek had compiled 4,000 comments over four years that Shulman had posted on Stanek’s blog, including this one: “I’m looking forward to watching a documentary entitled ‘The Assassination of Jill Stanek.’”

Shulman has harassed other leaders in the anti-abortion movement and said it was unfortunate that a “pro-choice counterterrorist” hadn’t been able to kill Dr. Bernard Nathanson (the former abortionist and NARAL co-founder who later became a pro-life activist) before he died.

Shulman’s plea didn’t make big news in May and one blogger reported it last week by saying “I eagerly await pervasive MSM coverage of this … I packed a lunch.

But I thought we’d give it a few days and see if anyone got around to reporting on it.

The Wall Street Journal published a seven-sentence Associated Press report on the matter, but I didn’t see that AP report in any other paper. A Fox affiliate in New York published a 9-sentence report. The Staten Island Advocate got in eight sentences since one of the targets was a local man. And that was pretty much it.

It is, of course, significant news in the Catholic, Protestant and pro-life media, where Shulman has been threatening many for years.

So why do you think violence from anti-abortion activists is covered more thoroughly or broadly than violence from abortion rights activists? It’s not that the guilty man here didn’t have a fascinating story or proud pro-choice lineage. It’s not that his mother isn’t a famous feminist author (her latest is the image above). It’s not that his targets weren’t high profile. It’s not that his rhetoric wasn’t quotable. It’s not that his targets weren’t willing to speak on the record. One of them issued a statement forgiving the guilty man. Doesn’t that normally make for good copy? So how to explain the dearth of coverage?

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Boundaries on reporting on religion and politics

Yesterday I told you about the pre-conference to the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area.

Because the speakers were all situated on one side of the aisle, more or less, I mentioned that the pre-conference is organized independently of RNA.

But the best panel was this one:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

The Huffington Post had a nice write-up of the discussion. Each participant gave their opening remarks. Sullivan talked about how reporters need to discuss religion as a means to understanding how elected officials might govern. Campbell said we should ask candidates about religion “only to the extent it has a plausible connection to what an elected official would do in office” instead of covering candidates’ faith solely to make them seem odd or exotic.

On the other side of the debate, Keller defended his widely-discussed (and widely dissed) piece arguing that Republican primary candidates should get tough questions about their views on interpreting Scripture (and various other things). So I guess the piece wasn’t satire, as I had argued at the time (See my “Bill Keller’s Modest Proposal“). Henneberger also argued in favor of exploring any religion angle that comes to mind.

I found myself agreeing with all of them (I have that problem sometimes). But it seemed to me that the two sides could be reconciled. It seemed Sullivan and Campbell — and, if I’m reading at least a portion of the gathered reporters correctly — simply wanted good faith efforts at understanding religious influences and the role religion plays in candidates’ political goals. Keller argued that it’s the politician’s job to decide if he is going to answer a question or not and that reporters shouldn’t unduly limit themselves in where they probe.

I pointed out (the peanut gallery got to ask questions) that part of the reason why Keller’s piece went over like a lead balloon is because he had incorrectly said that Rick Santorum — a rather well-known Roman Catholic — was part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity”and that he’d confused literalism and inerrancy and had mis-stated what Catholics believe about Communion. Perhaps, I asked, newsrooms could do something to make sure religious questions are more informed? Liz Tenety at the Washington Post asked about how hostility to religious views in newsrooms affects trust with readers and what can be done about it.

Keller didn’t quite manage to answer my question, although he noted he’d had to correct the column. Anyway, I thought the discussion interesting none-the-less.

What do you think are the boundaries for reporting on religion and politics? My own approach is a bit of a mix of all four panelists. Like Keller, I think boundaries are the wrong way to look at this. Like Henneberger, I just have a blast discussing religion wherever that might lead. Like Campbell, I don’t think society is helped by having reporters highlight religion simply to make it seem weird. And I agreed with most of what Sullivan said (she had some great comments on what the media miss when they cover religion stories) and was favorable to her idea that the religion questions of political reporters should meet a basic test of whether or not the answer will help news consumers learn about how the candidate will govern.

What are your thoughts on the debate?

Boundaries image via Shutterstock.

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Hundreds of Godbeat journalists hit the Beltway

The Religion Newswriters Association annual conference is being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area. The entire GetReligion team will be in town (even the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, the co-founder of this operation) to talk shop and most of us will be around for at least some portion of the three-day RNA run.

For some of us (OK, me) it’s a first-time event. Others are old timers at this conference.

Suffice it to say lots of laptops will be fired up for this one. Bloggers will blog, tweeters will tweet.

I’ll be hitting some of the pre-conference panels today, which include the following topics and speakers:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melissa Rogers, Wake Forest Divinity School; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

Religious Freedom and the Presidential Election: Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter; Joanna Brooks, scholar and author; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; Jerome Copulsky, Prof. American University; Moderator: Professor Michael Kessler, Georgetown University

Overview of Religion in the Election of 2012: Sally Steenland, Center for American Progress; Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., Georgetown University; Valerie Cooper, University of Virginia; Arsalan Iftikhar, Editor, The Muslim Guy; Moderator: David McAllister Wilson, Wesley Theological Seminary

Bill Keller! Yes, the former New York Times head man.

The pre-conference “Faith & Politics” is, I believe, organized independently of the Religion Newswriters Association by Wesley Theological Seminary, in case you were wondering about their speaker selection or topic areas.

Anyway, we’ll be pretty busy over the next couple of days seeing old friends and meeting new ones and learning from the various speakers that have been brought together. We will all do our best to update you on the most interesting panel discussions and speakers and other events that happen.

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Define ‘evangelical’ … Give three examples

Late one night last week, while I was attending a journalism conference in Kiev, I plunked myself down in the wifi zone in the hotel lobby and pounded out a quick post about at topic that your GetReligionistas have been discussing ever since the cyber-doors opened at this here weblog — the fact that hardly anyone knows what the word “evangelical” means.

For me, personally, one of the touchstone moments in this debate was the day I spent with the Rev. Billy Graham — on behalf of The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — shortly before his 1987 Rocky Mountain Crusade in Denver.

I wrote about that interview at the time, of course, and once again in a 2004 column for the Scripps Howard News Service (“Define ‘evangelical’ — please”). To understand where I am coming from, here is the top of that column:

Ask Americans to rank the world’s most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.

So you might assume that the world’s most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.” …

Long ago, Graham stressed that this term most be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

I thought it was crucial that Graham thought this subject was a minefield for journalists, among others, and that he thought it was important to seek a doctrinal answer to the question. It is also, of course, important to note that evangelicals are found in a wide variety of pews, which means there is no one body of people that has the authority to define the borders of this particular niche in the world of Protestantism.

This subject fascinated me, as someone who grew up in the world of free church, non-creedal Protestantism (Southern Baptist, to be specific), yet has gone on a doctrinal pilgrimage that took me out of Protestantism into ancient Orthodox Christianity.

As my recent post made clear, I am convinced that the definition of the term “evangelical” (if there ever was one) has become more and more blurry over the years. I also know that, as a non-evangelical, I am not in charge of defining it. Trust me, I am clear on that.

However, mainstream journalists — for better and for worse — have to use this term as clearly as possible and, as Graham said, this means asking doctrinal questions. That’s the kind of journalism issue that we explore here at GetReligion, since this is a journalism site about religion-news coverage, not a religion site about any one particular religious body or movement.

In this case, the majority of responses to my post were irrelevant, focusing on claims that I was trying to say who is and who is not an evangelical. Thus, I spiked as many of these comments as I could, with limited wifi in Ukraine and a packed schedule as well.

Of course, it mattered that I framed my post as a discussion of whether “evangelical” remains the best word, or combination of words, that journalists could be using to describe a very controversial figure in the tense arena of Protestantism in America — the Rev. Brian McLaren. Thinking back to the Graham interview, I suggested that it would be helpful for journalists to ask doctrinal questions when writing about the emerging-church leader and offered three questions (the so-called “tmatt trio“) that I have used through the years in many, many interviews with Christians on both left and right. Thus, I wrote:

Let me stress, once again, that these are questions that — working as a mainstream religion-beat pro — I found useful when trying to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right. The whole point to was to get information about doctrinal basics and, in our era, these are some hot-button subjects in a wide variety of groups. The goal is to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.

Many readers thought that, with my three doctrinal questions, I was trying to define who is and who is not an “evangelical” — when the post specifically said that was not the point. What I was arguing was that journalists, like it or not, have to seek out doctrinal information when deciding when to use and when not to use religious terms that are linked to doctrine. I realize that some people define “evangelical” in terms of cultural niches and norms, but — as Graham said — you eventually end up talking about biblical authority and doctrine.

Why discuss this topic? Why not let the people in question self-identify themselves? Journalists often have to resort to that, but it simply doesn’t solve all of the journalistic problems that will come up on the religion beat.

As Timothy Dalrymple of the Patheos leadership team noted, in reaction to my post:

Some suggest that self-identification is the only definition available to evangelicals, in the absence of a Pope or a teaching magisterium. If a person calls himself an evangelical, who are you to say otherwise? Well, I don’t think that’s true. My Pagan friend Star Foster — not that she would want to, of course — could not simply decide to call herself evangelical and we would all have to throw up our hands and say, “Well, nothing for it, I guess. If she says she’s an evangelical, she’s an evangelical. Wish we had a Pope!” That would be ludicrous.

Another interesting response came from McLaren himself, in a blog post that — in many ways — got the point of what I wrote. He called it, “An interesting discussion, somewhat peripherally about me …” Here’s a key point:

I think it’s fair to say that Terry’s original piece implied that one can identify a bona fide Evangelical (or smoke out a covert Mainline Liberal Protestant) based on three questions:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Terry’s three (actually five) questions make perfect sense to him, I’m sure. I suppose a simple “yes” answer to each means passing the Evangelical test. But to me his test questions are too interesting to simply pass or fail. They are jammed full of so many assumptions that they defy a simple yes or no. … As I say in my new book, it’s very hard to understand a different paradigm from the outside.

The problem, of course, is that I stressed that my questions were (a) not about defining who is and who is not an “evangelical,” whatever that word means, and (b) that the goal is not to seek a particular answer, but to listen to what believers — on the left and right — say in response and to gain insights and information from their answers or even their attempts not to answer.

Thus, for example, McLaren’s statement — which he develops in his blog post — that my question No. 1 is actually two questions, that, “Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate?” is a different question than, “Did this event really happen?” is an interesting response, one that would certainly lead to some interesting follow-up questions by the journalist asking it. Ditto for “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone?” being different than, “Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?”

In this day and age, asking these particular these questions often lead to interesting answers and interesting silences. That’s why I remain convinced, as a journalist, that they are helpful questions for journalists to ask when seeking doctrinal information to help them make decisions when doing journalism about trends and disputes among liberal Protestants, Pentecostals, traditional Catholics, progressive Catholics, the Orthodox, genuine fundamentalists, emergent whatevers and the stunningly wide variety of folks who gather under that vague, vague, vague umbrella called “evangelicalism.”

So be careful out there.

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