#RNA2012: Outside a Mormon temple wedding

In a couple of recent posts — here and here — I’ve already highlighted some of the excellent Godbeat journalism that claimed prizes in the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual awards contest.

If you haven’t checked out the winning entries, I’d encourage you to do so. For regular readers of GetReligion, many of the honorees’ names will read like a who’s who in religion news. Among those names: Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi of CNN’s Belief Blog, David Gibson of Religion News Service and Tom Breen (formerly) of The Associated Press.

Another familiar name from the Godbeat: Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune. 

This past weekend, Stack was busy covering the 182nd annual LDS General Conference, so she didn’t actually make it to the RNA annual conference in Bethesda, Md., just outside the nation’s capital. But she was recognized as the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year, which honors religion writers for the nation’s mid-sized newspapers.

Stack produced a truly fascinating story on Mormon weddings dividing families when some loved ones are forced to wait outside the temple. The top of the story, which I missed when it was published in June 2011:

You see them on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square nearly every day. They pace nervously or stroll aimlessly, staring down at the tulips or up at the spires.

They are nottourists or templegoers. They are parents, siblings, cousins and friends of Mormon couples being wed inside the LDS sanctuary. But, for one reason or another, they are not allowed to view the ceremony.

Maybe they are Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish or atheist. Perhaps they once were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or maybe they are current Mormons who fail to meet all the faith’s belief and behavior standards for a “recommend” to enter into the temple.

Stack demonstrates her expertise on Mormonism with a story that provides theological insight and historical background. At the same time, she writes in a way that makes sense even to a reader not as well versed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She quotes a variety of sources, from church spokesmen to those who have married inside the temple — without certain key relatives joining them.

Moreover, Stack places the weddings in the context of a changing society:

Part of the problem has emerged in recent years as society has moved weddings from the sacred to the secular, says Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall. Marriage was once a church-centered celebration, given that most people’s religious and secular communities were the same. Now they
aren’t.

Many of today’s weddings no longer are seen as a holy event before God and witnesses, she says, but rather as a chance to bring everyone together to celebrate the newlyweds.

“Everyone now has relatives who are not religious,” she says. “So weddings have become more and more part of the market. Couples are spending huge amounts of money for celebrations to include all their friends.”

When I clicked the link to Stack’s winning entry, I couldn’t stop reading, which is always a good sign.

Congratulations to Stack and the rest of the RNA winners!

Changes in the Godbeat

The Godbeat (or religion beat) is in the middle of some major shifts again, ones that can leave glaring holes in several newspapers across the country.

For instance, we watch and read several religion blogs, including Reuters, RNS, CNN, among others. One we regularly read was USA Today‘s Faith & Reason, run by Cathy Lynn Grossman. Grossman, with some spiffy glasses, posted this update on the blog, though.

First, the important thing that’s not changing: I still cover religion — the best beat on the print/Web/smartphones/tablets-you know-what-I-mean. Many great stories lie ahead.
However, how and where you find my work — and top wire stories and the best of Gannett’s religion correspondents such as Bob Smietana at The Tennessean — will change.
Several digital subject-area pages, including the online religion page, will vanish as stories are mainstreamed into News. If you read on a smartphone or tablet, you won’t notice any change. But if you read religion coverage at USATODAY.com on your laptop, these stories will be running in News, Nation and Politics, just as they already do in print.
So this is not good-bye. It’s more of a change-of-address notice.
You can find my stories with a Google alert on my byline (don’t forget that pesky Lynn in the middle) or as my friend on Facebook. My new Twitter handle is @CLGrossman. You can also e-mail me at cgrossman@usatoday with your ideas and thoughts.
Don’t I sound chipper? Well, sure, I’m a little sad. This has been exhausting, glorious fun!

On one hand, it’s nice to see editors who want to incorporate religion into the national, politics and other section beats. On the other hand, its nice for religion to have its own outlet, its own silo if you will. It allows a reporter like Grossman to cover specific stories without having to make the case for national news. But if you’re a company like Gannett that owns USA Today, you’re thinking about whether that reporting time is making $$.

It’s certainly a tumultuous time for the religion beat as newspapers are desperately trying to make money. Sadly, while religion trends really well on the internet, it doesn’t make a lot of money in traditional newspaper sections, since religious organizations don’t advertise as heavily as those who want to place ads in a section like sports or business. It just isn’t an obvious money-making beat.

In recent months, we’ve noticed Tom Breen has left the Associated Press, Kate Shellnutt left the Houston Chronicle, Bruce Nolan left the Times-Picayune, Meredith Heagney left the Columbus Dispatch, Joshunda Sanders left the Austin American-Statesman, several reporters have left to run websites for RNA/RNS, and some reporters are still freelancing religion stories or are still in the religion writing world, but many aren’t doing it for a traditional mainstream outlet. Did I miss others who should be noted? This is just off the top of my head. Or, are there new people on the Godbeat we should be watching?

It’s hard not to feel a little depressed about the lack of reporters who are dedicated to following and covering religion. Yes, anyone can write a religion story. But not everyone can write one with the sensitivities a reporter needs to understand history and context. We would love to see the religion revive itself in some way. Are there ways of doing that? Do chime in, especially if you an offer a new business model.

Frustrated writer image via Shutterstock.

Mixed bag of atheism coverage

I want to get a couple atheist stories out of my guilt file before it’s too late. Ignore this YouTube here for a second and let’s look at the good media coverage. Here’s the Associated Press report on a recent atheist event:

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — For the first time in history, the U.S. military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who don’t believe in God, with a county fair-like gathering Saturday on the main parade ground at one of the world’s largest Army posts.

The Rock Beyond Belief event at Fort Bragg, organized by soldiers here two years after an evangelical Christian event at the eastern North Carolina post, is the most visible sign so far of a growing desire by military personnel with atheist or other secular beliefs to get the same recognition as their religious counterparts.

The purpose was not to make the Army look bad, organizers said, but to show that atheists and other secular believers have a place in institutions like the military.

“I love the military,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. He added, “This is not meant to be a black eye.”

Even though the event ended up being smaller than organizers had hoped for, reporter Tom Breen got enough facts, color and analysis to fill a nice long report. Griffith talks about life at the post and the challenges that atheists face there. We learn not just that the turnout, at several hundred people, was lower than the 5,000 hoped for but that rainy weather may have been a contributing factor. Specifics are given about the festive atmosphere. We get quotes from the speakers and artists who performed at the event.

Since some soldiers from the base had expressed concern that the event would disparage soldiers with religious beliefs, that topic is addressed head on, with quotes. Rather than telling readers what to think, we’re just told what was said at the event.

Finally, the story gives some history, explaining why the event took place and what atheists at the facility are trying to accomplish. And we learn that the same foundation (Stiefel Freethought Foundation) that gave Religion News Service money for coverage of atheism also sponsored this concert. I didn’t find RNS coverage of the concert, but that could indicate my own trouble navigating search engines.

Reuters also had a pretty good story (although I could do without the “atheists in foxholes” reference in the headline and copy). It included some helpful data, too:

Christianity also dominates the religious makeup of the military. Only about 8,000 out of 1.4 million active duty members in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force identify themselves as atheists, and another 1,800 say they are agnostic, according to the Defense Department.

OK. Let’s go back up to that YouTube for the bad. Via The Friendly Atheist, a reader found this Dallas-Forth Worth-area Fox treatment of an atheist ad campaign. A group there was planning on running a campaign with billboard ads and ads in theaters before movies. But for some reason the reporter and anchor were obsessed with painting it as a campaign targeting children. Nowhere are these claims backed up by actual quotes from the atheist group or the sources for the story. I mean, it’s not like the ad campaign avoids children, just that it’s a bizarre focus for the piece considering they target folks of all ages.

Now, the same station did a later report where a couple from the campaign came in for a longer interview in-studio. And that interview is actually very nice. The questions are fine and the couple is given the opportunity to respond fully. A different station did another segment on the ad campaign — which was a positive campaign in favor of atheism — as “anti-religious.”

So a mixed bag in some recent coverage of atheists.

A religious journalist on religion journalism

I have often wondered whether someone who is personally religious would have the guts to uncover a Watergate-like story in his or her own faith tradition. When I read AP reporter Tom Breen’s analogy of a sports fan covering sports, it reinforced the idea for me that someone who is religious could indeed pursue religion journalism just as aggressively as anyone else.

At least one reader, though, was surprised that anyone could arrive where Breen did as he found his way towards the Catholic Church. Mediabistro’s Matthew Fleischer could not fathom how anyone could report on the sex abuse scandals and find faith.

Having covered elements of the scandal myself, this seemed too improbable for words. How could anyone come to believe in the divine sanctity of the Catholic Church while reporting about how, for years, it covered up the sexual abuse of minors and protected the priests who were guilty of these crimes? We emailed Breen to ask him for some clarification.

And here is how Breen responded:

“The coverage of the scandal was the motivation to learn more about Catholicism, and I really can’t overstate the extent of my ignorance at the time; I mean, I couldn’t even name all the sacraments, let alone explain them. So my desire to get up to speed wasn’t just a desire to learn about the context of the scandals, it was an effort to learn, basically, everything I could, from church history to theology to the formal name for that hat bishops wear. It was through that effort – which lasted for years, and took in everything from lots of reading to hanging around pilgrimage sites and talking to people – that I eventually decided Catholicism was for me.”

And back to Fleischer:

To each his own. The Catholic Church undoubtedly has a rich cultural tradition that draws many to the fold. And the Church is certainly bigger than Cardinal Mahony and crew. But it’s still tough for us to understand choosing to believe in the sanctity of any entity that has people like that under/holding its umbrella.

Even if you are not Catholic, you could see this response as fairly flippant. Fleischer doesn’t really take seriously the idea that people become religious through very different paths. Many know the pitfalls of a religious institution and its followers yet find the logic (or other elements) attractive.

But back to the idea of religious journalists cover religion, if you look back at the original post, you’ll see some additional contributions from our readers, including one from A. E. P. Wall:

Editors don’t assign reporters who are anarchists to cover the legal beat. They don’t assign Christian Science practitioners to cover the medical beat. They don’t cover baseball with a reporter who doesn’t go to games. Yet they sometimes assign atheists to cover the religion beat. Alas, newspapers are disappearing faster than churches.

I think an atheist could be an excellent religion reporter, perhaps someone who has personally studied religion. I have heard some journalists suggest that if you are religious, your objectivity could be called into question, but someone who has studied it can see how people take religion seriously and how it can impact every day decisions. Nicole Neroulias suggested the idea of Religion Newswriters Association hosting a panel on the idea at its annual conference.

I’d love RNA to hold a conference session on religion reporters losing or finding faith on the beat. Has that happened before? (I haven’t seen one in the past six years, but perhaps there was one in the early 2000s, around the time of the Catholic abuse scandal?) Breen and Lobdell could both sit on the panel, among others.

This could be a potentially interesting panel. Often journalists are so intent on taking themselves out of the story (for many good reasons), that we might neglect the idea that our own backgrounds shape the way we cover religion.

People who are strongly religious probably probably aren’t terribly excited about covering their own faith in a less pleasing light, but they are completely capable of doing it in a journalistic way or may even be the best person to pursue those angles. For instance, if you believe that expressing truth is a core tenet of your faith, then journalism is just one way of expressing truth, whether the story is lovely or not so lovely.

Warning label via Tom Scott.

How an AP reporter found religion

You might consider Associated Press reporter Tom Breen to be the anti-William Lobdell. Breen recently told me he eventually became a weekly Mass attendee after educating himself on the Catholic abuse scandals for his journalism job. His story is quite the opposite from Lobdell, whose work on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times caused him to drop his faith and write Losing My Religion.

Instead of re-writing Breen’s story into an intro, I’ll let him tell you about it before he answers some questions about the religion beat:

I was baptized a Catholic, but never really in any tradition other than a vague understanding of Christianity coupled with a sort of tribal pull toward the Catholic Church. My mother died when I was very young, and my father had enough bad experiences with church growing up in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago that he wasn’t particularly driven to make sure my brother and I were raised as active members of the faith.

My father is a journalist, though, and it was his influence that steered me toward news. After college, I was working at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., at the time the most recent sex abuse scandals began to break in Boston. Partly because I had some Catholic bric-a-brac on my desk, my editor assumed I actually knew something about the church, and so I was assigned to cover a few local stories related to the scandal.

I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about Catholicism, and so to avoid embarrassing myself and the paper I resolved to learn what I could. In addition to reading everything I could get my hands on, I started pitching stories on religious topics that had nothing to do with the abuse scandal, hoping to bring myself up to speed.

This continued after I moved to the Journal Inquirer, the paper in my hometown of Manchester, Conn. By now I had discovered that I was interested not just in Catholic stories, but in religion generally. It was not only a fascinating topic, but it was one that not many other reporters were interested in covering, so I could pursue stories without stepping on any toes. I also had tremendously knowledgeable editors who were hungry for religion news. One of them put it to me in a way I’ve always remembered: compare the amount of resources the press spends on covering primary elections, he told me, with the number of people who vote in primary elections. Now compare the resources spent on covering religion with the number of people who attend a weekly worship service.

So that’s how I became hooked on religion coverage. On kind of a parallel track, I eventually became a devout Catholic, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and becoming a weekly churchgoer. Ironically, it was my work covering elements of the sex abuse scandal that led me to become an “official” Catholic; I learned all I could about the faith to make sure my stories were accurate, and my learning convinced me this was the truth.

I realize personal belief is a touchy subject for journalists, but in the religion beat it’s been a tremendous asset to my reporting. It’s an imperfect comparison, but if you grew up rooting for the Chicago Cubs you’re going to be a better baseball reporter than someone who’s never been to a game. That’s not to say I think active membership in a religious group is a prerequisite for the beat, but an ex-Cubs fan still knows the game even if she doesn’t follow the team anymore.

That’s probably far more than was necessary, and I apologize. On to the questions!

In your role at the AP, how do you boil down everything into a brief story and still maintain nuance, balance, complexities, etc.?

The AP’s very talented religion editor once described the faith beat as “intimidating,” and I think that’s absolutely right, for precisely this reason. There is no government, economic philosophy or baseball team on the planet with a back story as rich, detailed and complex as, say, Judaism. Or Christianity. Or Islam. Or Hinduism. You get the idea. What we strive to do is work in our “pre-reporting” to identify the telling details, wise sources and most salient facts to make sure that even an 800-word story has enough nuance and balance to meet our standards. When writing about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the wide-ranging debate it prompted, for example, I knew in the earliest stage of the story that I wanted to talk about the Christian theologian Origen in the context of universalism. I hit the books, talked to some sources, and spent maybe half an hour boiling down what I learned into two paragraphs that I could then bounce off editors who are religion pros (to make sure it was accurate) and editors who don’t know Methodism from method acting (to make sure it was right for a general audience). Knowing what’s going to be important in terms of background and detail to augment the main news in the story is a huge help when it comes to “front-loading” our reporting.

Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc. changed how you read and then cover religion news?

My news about religion comes from a lot of sources: newspapers and broadcasters, the denominational press, tips from sources, friends and acquaintances, press releases, etc. But the most important day-to-day aspect of covering the beat is social media and blogs, something that’s a huge change from when I started in daily journalism 10 years ago. Twitter in particular is a chance to monitor international conversations about faith as they happen, with everyone from Rick Warren to the person in the next pew pitching in. And for reporters looking to go beyond the usual pundits, officials, experts, talking heads, etc. and get deeper on a story, there’s nothing like social networking. On a story about American Catholics’ reaction to the beatification of John Paul II this year, I was able to write a story out of Raleigh with voices from all over the country thanks to finding folks on Facebook and Twitter and contacting them for interviews. Blogs have also changed the way the beat works, moving from commenting on stories or developments to breaking news; the questions about Ergun Caner’s resume being a good example of a story that was broken first by bloggers. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do a good job covering religion today without daily use of those resources.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media is having a hard time grasping?

Some of the tectonic shifts in American religion are being only dimly appreciated so far, I think. The U.S. has in all likelihood become a country without a Protestant majority for the first time in its history, a change with lots of implications, both in the short and long terms. The major inroads that Evangelical churches are making among first and second-generation Latinos in the U.S. is also a big story with major implications that I think too often gets lost in coverage of how Latino immigrants are providing the bulk of the Catholic Church’s new members. And the fact that growing numbers of Americans say they have no religious preference is interesting in ways that I don’t think are being fully explored – too often, that’s taken as a decline in religious belief, when I think a big part of the story is a change in how people are defining religion.

What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ll be very interested to see how American Catholics receive the new translation of the Roman Missal, which has been getting a roll-out in some places for months, but which is going to “go live” on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s not on the same level with the changes to the liturgy that came at the end of the 1960s, but it’s altering parts of the Mass most American Catholics have known for their whole lives. People are going to have add the word “consubstantial” to their vocabularies! There’s been some pushback in Anglophone Europe from priests and laypeople, but so far we haven’t seen much of that in the U.S. I don’t know if that will change on November 27. I think it’s going to be an opportunity for some great stories about what people believe and why.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

I don’t know about funny or ironic, but a story that really provided me with a “Wow!” moment this week was the AP’s coverage out of Jerusalem on a small group of Muslim missionaries who spend their days trying to win Jewish converts to Islam, apparently a first in the history of Israel. Given the social, political, cultural and religious contexts, this is bound to be an interesting story, but what I especially liked was that it explored questions that can resonate with missionaries in any tradition: how seriously do you take your faith, and what are you willing to do for it?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve called a member of the clergy or a layperson for a story on a religious topic and as soon as I identify myself as a member of the press, they react like a babysitter in a 1980s horror movie hearing the words, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” One of my fondest wishes is that I will one day be able to make people understand that the vast majority of reporters want just two things: to tell a good story and to get it right. And the only way reporters can tell good, true stories about religion is by developing relationships with people who know faith and aren’t afraid to trust their story to someone.

Guilt files, Pagan edition

We sometimes reference our guilt files and my guilt file is reaching epic levels so I’m going to try to unload three recent stories into one post. I’m grouping them together under what I’ll call The Wild Hunt banner — they’re all stories that would or could be covered over at that blog that deals with Pagan and Heathen communities. The Wild Hunt, for what it’s worth, is now appearing over at Patheos so it’s interesting to see how Patheos is landing various bloggers across the religious spectrum.

STORY ONE
The first was a story from The Tennessean about how Wiccan holidays have been added to the academic calendar at Vanderbilt University. What that means is that students may be excused from class that day should they need the day off for religious observances. It’s a fine story, as these things go, but reminds me of how much I enjoyed Associated Press reporter Tom Breen’s story on a similar situation at Marshall University four years ago. And you can read Wild Hunt coverage of the story with the hilarious headline “Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays.”

STORY TWO
The second story was a weird little piece I found at an NBC Philadelphia site. But it’s about a practitioner of Palo Mayobe in Massachusetts. His barbershop was, we’re told, shut down after authorities found evidence of animal sacrifices in the building’s basement. Animal control removed the animals — two chickens and four roosters, one dead — but the shop remains closed indefinitely. The shop owner says his religious rights have been violated.

A much better story ran in the local paper South Coast Today. Here’s how it begins:

William Camacho has practiced Palo Mayombe, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion similar to Santeria, since he was a child.

Camacho, 41, said his religious practices, which include animal sacrificing, have gotten him into trouble with the city, which is considering filing animal cruelty charges against him.

“They violated my moral rights,” said Camacho, owner of Bad Boyz Cutz, a downtown barbershop that was closed Tuesday after city inspectors found evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice there, officials said.

The story does leave some questions. For instance, why is the shop closed indefinitely? We learn that the animals were found after reports of a possible cockfighting operation. Animal control officers realized the animals were instead being used for religious sacrifice. Camacho says those sacrifices take place in rural settings. The technical reason the animals were seized was because they aren’t allowed in the city. Animal cruelty charges are pending against Camacho.

The story gives a description of Palo Mayombe which, we’re told “incorporates elements of Roman Catholicism along with West African and native Indian traditions. The religion venerates ancestors’ spirits and holds a belief in natural earth powers” and:

Like Santeria, Palo Mayombe features animal sacrifices, such as goats and chickens. The animals’ blood is thought to have a sacred, powerful life force capable of healing and warding off evil spirits. After the sacrifice, the animals are cooked and eaten.

“The roosters go to heaven after the sacrifice. It’s the traditional way,” said Camacho, who has tattoos on his arms of his children’s names, Jesus Christ and an Indian female warrior. He added that he occasionally uses spells for protection.

The story includes plenty of explanation from Camacho but it might have also been nice to talk to an outside expert on Palo. Still, other context was nice. The reporter mentioned how the law handles ritual animal sacrifices in various municipalities. The ending also wasn’t bad:

Also saying that Palo Mayombe has prophetic powers, Camacho said Tuesday’s events were actually predicted four days ago in a friend’s dream.

“And who shows up at my door today? The cops.”

It’s a nice combination of including actual religion in a story with some colorful quotes.

STORY THREE
And the final story I wanted to look at was the dramatic release of the West Memphis Three. This is a very sad story all around. Three young boys were murdered two decades ago. Three men were imprisoned for 18 years for the crime. They walked free this week, one of them leaving death row to do so.

The case itself is complex, as was the arrangement that got them released. The men maintained their innocence while pleading guilty and the state considers them child killers but safe enough to be set free.

There are also interesting religion angles. Here’s a snippet from the New York Times report:

It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.

After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.

Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.

The story is lengthy, mentions some documentaries that got the convicted men some help, and also that for all of the celebrity involvement in the case, some local people believe strongly in the guilt of the men who were released. But it’s even more complex:

But even some of the victims’ families began to doubt the men’s guilt, including Stevie Branch’s mother, Pamela Hobbs, and John Mark Byers, the father of Chris Byers. Both attended the hearing. “Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away,” said Mr. Byers, who appeared in the original documentary profanely condemning the men. “To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing from God.”

It’s an interesting story and one that I expected would receive far more coverage. The part that interested me even more than the guilt or innocence of these particular men was the mood of the era in which they were convicted. The whole Satanic Panic thing. I had hoped to see a few more stories about the Satanic panic and maybe some benefit of hindsight into what was real and what was imagined from that era. Once again, The Wild Hunt has some interesting analysis.

The Army’s evangelical atheists?

Speaking of GetReligion guilt files …

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating feature from Afghanistan last September headlined “A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War.” The top of the story:

SANGIN, Afghanistan — They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There’s one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn’t thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain’s back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It’s a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

“He trusts God to keep him safe,” says RP2 Chute. “And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”

Why am I bringing up this piece — buried until now with 1,453 other messages in my GetReligion story possibilities folder — seven months after its publication? Let’s just say that the guilt over not taking time to mention this feature last year finally became too much for me to bear.

OK, I’m kidding …

The real reason is that The Associated Press published a story late last week that reminded me of the Journal feature.

The top of the AP story by religion beat writer Tom Breen:

RALEIGH, N.C. – The cliche notwithstanding, there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other assorted skeptics from the Army’s Fort Bragg have formed an organization in a pioneering effort to win recognition and ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.

“We exist, we’re here, we’re normal,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, chief organizer of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH. “We’re also in foxholes. That’s a big one, right there.”

For now, the group meets regularly in homes and bars outside of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases in the country. But it is going through the long bureaucratic process to win official recognition from the Army as a distinct “faith” group.

The Army atheists received coverage, too, from the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. Veteran religion writer Yonat Shimron included the military voices in a story on area atheists and agnostics starting a billboard campaign:

Taking a cue from the gay rights movement, Triangle atheists are coming out of the closet with a new billboard campaign that attempts to project a friendly, wholesome image of a group long stigmatized for its unconventional beliefs.

Plastered on billboards in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Smithfield are the smiling faces of real Triangle atheists and agnostics, accompanied by pithy statements such as “I’m saved from religion” and “Another happy, humanist family.”

The “Out of the Closet” campaign is just one of several ways the growing nonbeliever movement is flexing its muscles and elevating its profile amid a competitive religious marketplace in the Triangle and nationwide.

Both written by Godbeat pros, the AP and News & Observer stories are pretty nicely done with excellent context and details.

Nonetheless, a GetReligion reader who shared the News & Observer story link complained that the piece lacked depth:

I sense that this could have been a fascinating piece: the skeleton of a great narrative is in the details. Where are these people coming from? How has religious adherence changed in recent years? What is this ‘movement’ in response to, particularly? What does a meeting of atheists look like, sound like? Is “friendly” really the right word to describe a movement with luminaries like Richard Dawkins? Where’s the depth?

After reading both the AP and the News & Observer stories, I came away with a sense that the tactics employed by the North Carolina atheists are sort of evangelical in nature. In fact, I wondered if — except for the lack of belief in God — these groups could be described as “religious.” I wished that one of the reporters had posed that question to a theologian.

In both stories, the non-believers are portrayed as victims of society’s wider belief in God. However, not much evidence is provided to back up that notion. For instance, we have non-believers in the lede of the AP story trying to “ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.” But we have no feedback from Christians in the military to give an idea how they relate to atheist comrades.

Since I am far from an expert on atheists, I’ll be interested in GR readers’ feedback on the two recent stories and even the guilt-laden WSJ piece from way back when. Remember, we’re concerned about journalism and media coverage, not that bigger question, if you know what I mean.

Rob Bell latest: devil’s in the details

I’ve been fascinated by the Rob Bell no-one-goes-to-hell controversy, and I was particularly captured by this lede from the Associated Press:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

The lede just doesn’t explain why Holtz would lose his job, at a United Methodist Church no less, for simply voicing support on Facebook for Bell’s book. It doesn’t say he was preaching that there is no hell, or beating people over head with it, or that he doesn’t believe hell is real. It merely quotes Holtz saying he doesn’t believe God would subject any of his people to “an eternity of torment.”

So I’m left to wonder why he was fired.

The pastor declined to discuss the situation with AP reporter Tom Breen, and I could sense from the start that Breen was writing around some ambiguity in the details. But this paragraph further down in the story casts real doubt on whether Holtz was fired simply because he “lost his old belief in hell.”

Church members had also been unhappy with Internet posts about subjects like gay marriage and the mix of religion and patriotism, Holtz said, and the hell post was probably the last straw. Holtz and his family plan to move back to Tennessee, where he’ll start a job and maybe plant a church.

Ahhhhhhh. So this was, as I suspected, likely about more than just supporting Rob Bell’s view of hell.

It had to be, as the inestimable Ann Rodgers noted in an insightful comment on Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s Facebook page:

Polity problem here. Unless there has been a change I don’t know about, a United Methodist pastor can’t be fired. He or she can only be removed by the bishop, and then is guaranteed another appointment somewhere. I would suspect that if the bishop moved so quickly after these complaints, that there might have been some previous controversy in the congregation.

The Sanctus blog, written by a former United Methodist minister, echoes Rodgers and goes all GetReligion on Breen’s story.

Under the normal procedure, Holtz would simply be sent to another church or, if worst came to worst, be given a desk job at the conference office. The fact that he is moving out of state and starting a new church is all the more evidence that this story is about a lot more than a Facebook post.

In short, Holtz couldn’t have been fired for supporting Bell’s concept of heaven and hell. He likey wouldn’t even have fired for his other views. There was a lot more to this story than what simply meets the eye.

That’s not necessarily the easiest thing for a reporter to see. After all, Breen is presumably not Methodist and even if he was he likely is unfamiliar with church polity; more importantly, the pastor has refused to speak with him and the subject of the story, Holtz, is the one who gets to frame his leaving the church as a firing.

One thing Breen could have done — it’s something I used to do when I had the time and when I was reporting on a religious issue that I wasn’t well-versed in — was consult with a third-party to see if what Holtz was saying made sense. This could be a Methodist scholar or simply an unassociated Methodist church leader or informed lay person.

That might seem like an unnecessary luxury when on deadline. But it’s no less so than double-checking names and titles, even if a little more time-consuming.

IMAGE: A little satire from Collideoscope