Evangelicals in the mist

fieldguidetoevangelicalsEight years ago, more than 60 percent of California voters banned same sex marriage. It was this majority vote that was overturned by the California Supreme Court.

So I like the basic idea behind Susannah Rosenblatt’s story for the Los Angeles Times. She wrote about some people who believe that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman:

Besides her faith, family is at the center of Cathi Unruh’s life.

That is, family as defined by their understanding of God’s will: a husband, a wife and their children. The El Segundo native even home-schooled her four children to more firmly root them in the family’s evangelical Christian faith.

So for Unruh, the quick translation of Thursday’s ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage is simple. It goes against God’s plan. A union between a man and a woman is “God’s standard of what is best, what’s most healthy, physically, spiritually and emotionally,” she said.

She and her husband, Kris, who met while touring with an evangelical music group, believe homosexuality is akin to sins such as adultery and stealing. Although the couple would readily vote for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they don’t support bullying those who don’t share their values.

“I don’t sit and smack them upside the head with what I believe,” Unruh said Thursday in her home. “It comes down to a personal relationship, just caring about them as an individual. I would share what I believe.”

The only people profiled for the entire story, by the way, are the Unruhs.

Why choose only one couple to write about? Why make them evangelical Christians? Why this one couple, with no real reason given for why these people are typical or atypical?

Permit me to quote a relevant quotation from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association:

Widen your source base. When reporting on same-sex marriage, avoid the stereotypes trap.

As the NLGJA notes, not everyone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual supports same-sex marriage. And not every religious adherent opposes same sex marriage. Considering that such a significant majority of voters in California oppose same-sex marriage, I think the reporter could have included much more diversity.

To be fair, Rosenblatt does concede that the Unruhs aren’t necessarily representative:

The Unruhs are hardly alone in their thinking. They are among the 61% of voters who decided eight years ago to ban gay marriages in California, a sentiment shared by a broad cross-section of people for a range of reasons.

For the Unruhs, it’s religion. More recent polls show the state is much more evenly drawn on the matter.

This is one of my pet peeves. I’m not saying that recent polls don’t show the state is much more evenly drawn, but is that a poll of the general public, of voters, or of likely voters? How statistically reliable is the poll? We have no idea because we’re not given any information. Not to mention, what does “much more” mean? Why not just use the actual numbers and actual poll? Otherwise, it seems like it’s dismissing the Unruhs and the 61 percent of other voters in California.

The rest of the article reads like a typical anthropological study of a bizarre species. For people who have actually met Evangelical Christians, it’s ridiculously boring. Did you know, for instance, that people can oppose same-sex marriage while still welcoming gay people into their home? And did you know that in addition to learning about Christianity, Evangelical Christian homeschoolers assign philosophical works by Plato and Nietzsche?

weddingbands 01Still, the piece doesn’t really delve into anything interesting. They mention their reliance on Scripture but no Bible passages about marriage are mentioned. This line also struck me as weird:

And they believe heterosexual marriage is supposed “to give us a picture of the relationship [God] desires to have with us,” Kris Unruh said.

Putting the word “God” in brackets is bizarre. I wonder if the Unruhs said “He” and were referring to Ephesians 5:22-33 where the Apostle Paul describes marriage as a picture of Christ‘s relationship with His bride, the church.

Even if the story wanted to limit sources to voters who oppose same sex marriage on religious grounds, this article could have been so much more interesting.

Why just portray this couple? Why act as if this is a story about conservative evangelicals fighting against the rest of California? Why not talk to any traditional Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or any of the other multitudes of religious groups that believe marriage should be preserved as an institution between one man and one woman?

Why write about this one family? All. Alone. And. Bizarre.

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When Anonymous attacks

A journalist who strives to practice the discipline of balanced, objective reporting never has an easy task. Inserting religion into the job description only makes things more difficult. See here what washingtonpost.com/Newsweek On Faith columnist Claire Hoffman had to say about the subject a week ago:

I’ve been writing this blog for four months now and the main lesson I’ve learned is that commenters here on the topic of religion have little ear for nuance and much propensity for deep and energetic anger.

At first, it bummed me out to read all these screaming comments weekly, seemingly willful in misunderstanding everything I’d written. The pitch of the comments seem particularly incongruous to my reality as I’m generally mild-mannered and would rather listen than talk — that’s why I became a journalist. I rarely have an opinion that is answered with a scream.

I was advised to ignore the craziness. People familiar with the site and other religion blogs said there was something inebriating in the combination of the anonymity of the web and the radicalism of religious opinions that made people react with venom.

Yes the job of a journalist covering religious issues can induce fits of rage from one’s audience, particularly when the subject matter is something the audience member believes deals with issues of eternity, the meaning of life, or the occasional issue of morality. I’ve noticed that people are particularly peeved when a journalist writes about a subject they deeply care about and fails to reflect their point of view accurately. Sometimes journalists fail to reflect that point of view entirely.

In a perfect world this would never happen. Perhaps someday journalism will move to some sort of Wiki-like bliss where all of humanity can have input on the day’s headlines. Until then reader reactions must suffice and journalists ignore or dismiss them at their peril.

The topic Hoffman was addressing in her post happened to be Scientology. From personal experience I know that the subject of Scientology regularly results in angry-off-the point comments that contribute little to productive dialogue. (Note: comments off topic are regularly and [hopefully] hastily deleted from this site.) The challenge of the subject of Scientology is that some people believe they are an evil cult while others, those who believe in Scientology, believe it is all about achieving self-improvement.

Here’s what Hoffman wrote about a German government official’s comments that Scientology is “not compatible with the” German constitution:

What is Germany so afraid of?

German officials have categorized Scientology as a business, not a religion, and tax accordingly. Scientology has responded by complaining about “religious discrimination.”

The AP reports that “The North Rhine-Westphalia Higher Administrative Court in Muenster refused last month to hear an appeal to a February ruling allowing the intelligence agencies to continue observing the Scientologists. …

Ban Scientology? Doesn’t that seem kind of extreme? They are a religion largely focused on self-improvement. While I’m well aware of their checkered past, decrying it unconstitutional seems like a threatened position to take by a nation.

This particular post went on to receive 521 comments, which is only surpassed by a recent post on gay marriage rights. Generally Hoffman’s blog seems to receive fewer than 50 for the average post.

It goes without saying that the topic of Scientology sets off a certain portion of people who comment on blogs and news Web sites. Part of that is because there is no easy way to cover a subject so sharply divided between those who see the positives and those who see the negatives of Scientology.

I think another aspect is that Scientology receives little serious news coverage by the mainstream media. Part of that can be blamed on the Scientology organization, which has in the past made journalists’ lives quite difficult. Another part is the media’s general inability to commit resources to covering religion seriously, much less Scientology.

Perhaps this can explain the growing movement known as Anonymous. Mainstream journalists seem to be largely ignoring this movement, but that hasn’t stopped it from growing in size and influence. The movement known as Anonymous is something journalists should watch closely and don’t be surprised to see others like it appear when journalists fail to do a proper job of covering issues that are meaningful to large groups of people.

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Nominee for ’08 worst headline

Several GetReligion readers sent in the same story the other day, primarily to mock the headline.

It’s a doozie. But, here’s the interesting part. Several different news agencies messed up the headline in precisely the same way. It’s both sad and amazing.

Thus, we want to know if anyone out there (the truth is out there) saw this story with a good, solid, accurate, headline.

Let’s look at two cases, starting with the venerable BBC. The headline read: “Vatican says aliens could exist.” Now, contrast that with the story content, which begins.

The Pope’s chief astronomer says that life on Mars cannot be ruled out.

Writing in the Vatican newspaper, the astronomer, Father Gabriel Funes, said intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space. Father Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory near Rome, is a respected scientist who collaborates with universities around the world.

The search for forms of extraterrestrial life, he says, does not contradict belief in God. … Just as there are multiple forms of life on earth, so there could exist intelligent beings in outer space created by God. And some aliens could even be free from original sin, he speculates.

Once again, the story is not the problem. It’s the headline.

When you read the words “Vatican says,” the assumption is that you are doing to be dealing with content that actually comes from the pope or from a branch of the Vatican that speaks with authority on a particular doctrine. There is a huge difference between “Vatican says” and “Vatican scientist says” or even “a Vatican official says.”

Now here is a variation on the same theme, atop a story by Godbeat pro Eric Gorski of the Associated Press. This story, as carried in the Chicago Tribune, begins:

Believing that the universe may contain alien life does not contradict a faith in God, the Vatican’s chief astronomer said. …

The Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, was quoted as saying the vastness of the universe means it is possible there could be other forms of life outside Earth, even intelligent ones.

“How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Funes said. “Just as we consider earthly creatures as ‘a brother,’ and ‘sister,’ why should we not talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother’? It would still be part of creation.”

Once again, there is nothing there to get upset about.

But the headline? Believe it or not, the headline said: “Vatican: It’s OK to Believe in Aliens.”

Same problem. It’s hard to believe that major news organizations made the same technical error.

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Multiple Choice Answers

EasyTShirt 01Last February we looked at an intriguing First Amendment story in the Tacoma News Tribune. Reporter Ian Demsky looked at the fallout from a Washington State Department of Corrections settlement decision that gives inmates the right to adhere to two religions at the same time. One priest in particular took a voluntary leave of absence because he couldn’t support the state decision.

At the time, I praised the story as a thorough and interesting description of the problems posed by the decision. Some readers felt the story didn’t dig deep enough. I’m out in the Pacific Northwest right now and noticed that Demsky revisited the issue this week on the occasion of the Rev. Tom Suss’ last official day.

For more than 15 years, he served inmates of all faiths as prison chaplain. But the 63-year-old Catholic priest chose to retire a year and a half early rather than work with a troubled heart.

He’s leaving because he disagrees with new rules that allow state inmates to simultaneously chose multiple religious affiliations with the flick of a pen.

The most recent figures available show that 39 inmates at McNeil had designated multiple religions as of Feb. 21, and officials say that number has gone up since. The combinations include Protestant/Catholic, Jewish Orthodox/Seventh-day Adventist, Buddhist/Protestant/Sikh, Asatru/Catholic.

The contradictions were too much for Suss.

“I’m not a martyr,” Suss said in a recent interview. “There’s no hidden message here. I met my Waterloo. I had no other choice. I could not accept a pagan/Catholic.”

The article quotes the prison superintendent saying that Suss’ departure will be a loss and that he had been a very good chaplain for all faiths. When we first discussed the article, reader Jason Pitzl-Waters said that Suss hadn’t been a good chaplain to all religions. None of that is discussed in this story. Another complaint about the first story was that it didn’t make clear that the new rules wouldn’t compel Suss to commune anyone who claimed a religion in addition to Catholicism. This article does. It also covers new ground, showing that Suss is more upset that the greater religious community didn’t challenge the rules as much as he did. That’s a great angle to include in a story. Here Demsky includes the heart of Suss’ complaint:

At the heart of Suss’ quandary is whether an inmate should be able to simply choose a religion or whether one must be accepted by a community of faith.

Anyone not incarcerated is free to go down to the local Catholic shop and buy a rosary or a Bible, Suss said. That person can go to another shop and purchase amulets or crystals held sacred by pagans. But that doesn’t make one a member of either group. To be accepted into a faith, one must go through rituals and be welcomed by the community, he feels.

“Only the membership process, as authorized by the legitimate tradition, can say whether someone’s of that religion,” Suss said. . . .

“God can’t make a square circle,” Suss said. “How do we think we can create a contradiction of terms and say it’s OK? The DOC and the federal government don’t have that authority.”

Earlier in the story, Demsky mentions that some people see no contradiction in being part of multiple religions. But it would be nice to get a direct response to Suss’ claim. Still, the story is about Suss and his last day more than the larger issue. Considering that, the arguments and tensions are fleshed out well.

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Listening for questions in the weeping

china mapIt’s a saying that I have heard repeated time and time again by people who study China or work there on issues of human rights: Anything that you want to say about religion in China is true, somewhere in China.

You want persecution of minority religions? Check. You want look-the-other-way toleration of minority religious groups? Check. You want gigantic underground Pentecostal house-church networks and loyal-to-Rome Catholic parishes? Check. You want strict enforcement of laws that push believers toward the state-recognized religious bodies? Check.

So where did this gigantic earthquake hit, on the religion-in-China map?

So far — in my rush through the New York Times reports — I have not seen the kinds of, yes, theodicy questions that you would expect to see in stories about a similar tragedy in predominately Christian or Islamic settings. So if there are people there crying out to God, what are they crying out and to whom?

It is a real struggle to work through this story, in particular, that ran with the headline, “‘No Hope’ for Children Buried in Earthquake.” This focuses on the collapsed school in Dujiangyan where hundreds of children are dead:

Little remained of the original structure of the school. No standing beams, no fragments of walls. The rubble lay low against the wet earth. Dozens of people gathered around in the schoolyard, clawing at the debris, kicking it, screaming at it. Soldiers kept others from entering.

A man and woman walked away from the rubble together. He sheltered her under an umbrella as she wailed, “My child is dead! Dead!”

As dawn crept across this shattered town … it illuminated rows and rows of apartment blocks collapsed into piles, bodies wedged among the debris, homeless families and their neighbors clustered on the roadside, shielding themselves from the downpour with plastic tarps. The earthquake originated here in the lush farm fields and river valleys of Sichuan Province, killing almost 10,000 people and trapping thousands more.

Click here for the longer Times report containing even more basic facts about the tragedy. But the story, again, lacks a second layer. It’s that “Why?” question that would be asked in some cultural contexts, but not in others.

Is that a statement about China? This part of China? Mainstream media assumptions about China? Are the people simply weeping, with no cries to the heavens for answers? Is that kind of silent acceptance — that that is the reality on the ground in China right now — a piece of some larger religious or secular view of life and death?

I have questions. I’ll keep looking for some answers. Right now, if you search Google News for “China, earthquake, God” this is what you get. Notice the reactions from Iran and from Catholic leaders. Notice that Los Angeles Times report on earthquakes as expressions of the “wrath of God.”

The silence is unnerving, to me. Then again, I am a traditional Christian in a culture where the “Why?” question would be automatic.

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The clergyman’s sons and daughters

clergymans gov Everyone knows that few Christians in Britain worship regularly. But The London Times revealed the severity of this trend. As Ruth Gledhill reported,

Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests. The fall — from the four million people who attend church at least once a month today – means that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will become financially unviable. …

In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims will have increased from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035.

It’s true that Gledhill’s story is based on projections; as such, the state of Christianity in Britain might well change. Even so, I think that Gledhill deserves little but praise.

She did a good job of getting the story, which is based on statistical analysis of worship in Britain. She did a good job of putting the story in context, drawing out the implications of church membership decline and comparing it to those of non-Christian faiths. She did a good job of parsing out the statistics for individual denominations. (Presbyterians and Methodists are predicted to have fewer than 10,000 adherents combined.)

That said, I have a few quibbles with the story.

Gledhill points to a few exceptions to the Christian trends:

Only in the large, evangelical churches of the Baptist and independent denominations is there resistance to the trend, but many of these churches also show some decline. One small area of growth is in Northern Ireland, where the enthusiasm of Pentecostals and other independents has led to a slight increase in numbers of churches – a trend expected to continue to 2050. The three growing denominations are the Orthodox, Pentecostals and smaller denominations, all dependent to a degree on immigration.

I think that Gledhill should have unpacked this paragraph a bit. Why do scholars think that evangelicals are bucking the trend? Is it because their churches demand more of their adherents and/or because their services are more low church than high church?

Similarly, Gledhill quoted a Church of England official about her story:

The Church of England disputed the forecasts last night. Lynda Barley, its head of research, said: “These statistics represent a partial picture of religious trends today. In recent years church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation.”

It’s unclear what Barley means by diversified. Is she referring to Christians who go to fellow Christians’ homes to worship? If so, does this mean that Christianity can survive without churches?

In a story of this magnitude, fleshing out answers to the questions would have made it even better. Once again, the goal is to link facts and statistics with realities on the ground, in terms of faith ann practice.

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Return of the haunted ’68 radicals

1968Anniversaries are anniversaries and several tumultuous events of 1968 have already been rehashed (see here) by reporters this year. You can bet that more (such as this one) stories of this kind are on the way. What angles should reporters look for?

Robin Shulman of The Washington Post gave the basic picture. In her story about the student revolutionaries at Columbia University, Shulman wrote about the students’ tactics, motivations and current occupations.

Shulman noted that the tactics of student leaders were unusual. In her lede, she implied that they were downright violent:

Forty years ago, they launched a student protest at Columbia University that involved the occupation of five campus buildings, the hostage-taking of a dean, 712 arrests and injuries to scores of students, faculty members and police officers.

Shulman also showed that the student leaders were not fighting for the right to party or high student fees. They had larger concerns in mind:

In 1968, the students sought to end Columbia’s affiliation with a think tank involved in Pentagon weapons research. They also wanted to halt construction of a gym in Morningside Park they thought would be segregated because of its separate entrances for Columbia students and Harlem residents.

Finally, Shulman implied that the student revolutionaries have not burned out or faded away but matured:

Now, they are lawyers, judges, playwrights, poets, professors and ministers. They gathered this weekend back on campus with former classmates to hear memories of those events and occasionally raise a revolutionary fist for old times’ sake.

Shulman’s thesis, in other words, was that student revolutionaries have become professionals. But might be there more to the story? As the title of this post indicates, the answer is yes.

Shulman’s story contains a ghost. Nowhere does she mention the student’s religious background and worldview. Do those elements deserve no mention in the story? After all, student leader Mark Rudd gave a speech about the leaders’ religious influence, citing, in particular, the impact of progressive streams of Jewish faith.

I am well aware that anti-Semites might use this information to cast the student leaders as sinister radicals. Yet should reporters ignore the religious background, training and ideology of political figures? As someone who has written about the Catholicism of the post-war Democratic bosses, I say no. Overlooking or ignoring the role of religion not only marginalizes religion but also misses the truth.

Some of the radicals went on to become ministers. What kind? Are any of those professors in Christian or Jewish schools of theology? How about the poets? Are any of them asking spiritual questions? The ’60s were, in part, about unconventional spiritual searches. It would be interesting to note where those searches have led.

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Learning the Fundamentalists’ fundamentals

DSCN0572In a story for CNN, reporter Eliott McLaughlin dove head first into a discussion of the religious views of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hook for the piece is the group’s decision to open up and permit some public scrutiny of its lifestyle. They’ve started a Web site and a handful of polygamous wives have been doing a ton of interviews.

The sect moved to Texas to avoid legal problems and its former prophet Warren Jeffs is in federal prison for arranging marriages between older men and underage girls. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar rape charges. The FLDS’ copious holdings in Utah are in control of the state pending further litigation. And now over 400 children have been taken into custody by Texas:

“Because of their history of persecution, they have what you’d call a paranoia complex,” said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. “They’ve never really reached out to outsiders.” . . .

The sect’s sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin — as with most Christian religions — to get to heaven. Those deemed “wicked” go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

I don’t even understand the first sentence of the last paragraph. Christianity is a religion. While there are different confessions, communions, denominations, what have you, it’s just one religion. And what does that mean — that “most Christian religions” believe “you must be free from sin” to get to heaven? Lutherans would not say that. We would say Christ’s death alone saves you by grace alone. And that Christ’s work on the cross is received by faith alone. I’m pretty sure a sizable grouping of other Christians who would agree that salvation does not depend on whether people are free from sin but on God’s grace.

McLaughlin goes into great detail about the FLDS tiers of heaven. Some of it would sound familiar to those who have read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. But some of it doesn’t. The hard thing is that while the church is posting media-friendly information on its Web site, it’s not revealing information about its doctrines other than some pretty standard Latter Day Saints information here. So it’s hard to know if McLaughlin’s sources are right or not:

Those who aren’t deemed wicked go to the “spirit world” to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons — how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

“To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you,” Walsh said. “Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven.”

If you haven’t learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, “you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world” before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

Again, maybe Walsh is totally correct. It’s hard to say because of the lack of good scholarship on the FLDS.

The rest of the piece is remarkably cynical about the public relations efforts of the FLDS. Again using just one source, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years, the reporter says the church’s openness should not be confused with candor:
IMG 0264

The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer — the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site’s name — has been scripted to elicit sympathy, [Hamilton] said.

The sect’s Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, “I don’t want to go.”

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as “officers force their way into homes,” “sacred site desecrated,” “children’s innocence threatened” and “mothers and children torn apart.”

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, “the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves,” Hamilton said. . . .

“They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters,” said Hamilton, the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children.”

The reporter says that the only way to contact the FLDS is through a link to a PayPal page. But at least by the time I checked out the site, it had an email contact.

Anyway, the thing I don’t get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short. It was just last September that Warren Jeffs was sentenced. It wasn’t that long before that he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. It seems we might get more sources here than a post-graduate student and a Cardozo professor.

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