The ghosts in Google News

Young master Jeremy Lott is on to something important with his post yesterday about trying to find a natural niche for religion within Google News. This whole task is not easy and, yes, it is closely related to the overarching purpose of this blog and our search for religion “ghosts” between the lines of many news stories in the MSM.

A few weeks ago, I tried to do the new Google thing where you set up your personal version of the News page that searches the Google world and creates a special section. I, of course, wanted a religion section.

So I started — with the user-friendly Google interface — trying to select a few search terms that would give me a nice Google religion section.

It didn’t work. Why?

Well, what search terms would you select? You can start with the usual names for religious groups — Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Disciples, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Methodist, Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, etc., etc. Get the point? How many names and niche groups would you need, just to handle the North American scene?

When I left the religion beat at the Rocky Mountain News, I had file folders up and running on 250-plus religious denominations, groups, leaders and movements.

Google that.

And this kind of online search would yield next to nothing about the subtle parts of religion news that most fascinate me.

A denominational search gets you, well, the “usual suspects.” As the Catholic uber-blogger said in a comment to Jeremy:

Yeah, I did a “Catholic” section on my customized page.

Problem is that 75% of the stories are sports scores.

But I can get through them pretty quickly.

But I think you’re right — a built-in religion section would be good.

Posted by Amy Welborn at 1:01 pm on June 12, 2005

Does a denominational search get you the “ghosts” in the world of entertainment, sports, business, politics, science and academia? It will net some of them, but not many. And it would miss the most interesting ones, since they are rooted in faith elements that are hard to pin down. It will miss most of the true ghosts.

It’s like the work of our best MSM Godbeat reporters. The better the journalist, the harder it is to lock them up on a niche page. We have commented on this before and it will remain at the heart of the GetReligion task.

We’ll keep trying and we want you to join in. For example, if you get some great Google “religion page” search terms, let us know. We can send them to the Google powers that be, to help them create a lively home for this crucial news content.

Search on.

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How odd of Google / to choose the news

As part of my regular duties at this blog, I was scanning Google News the other day, when it struck me: You’ve got Top Stories, World, U.S., Business, Science and Technology, Sports, Entertainment, Health, and More Top Stories. What’s missing?

True, Google News highlights plenty of religion stories — no complaints there — but it does not separate them under their own category. Now the question I have for GetReligion readers is, Is that a good thing?

On the one hand, creating a Religion category would make sure that such stories are continuously called to people’s attention. But separating religion stories out of the regular lineup would also likely lower some of those stories in said lineup and make them easier to gloss over for many readers.

Put another way, Should Google get Religion?

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You’re not going to believe this one

Hat tips to Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher. Are you ready for this? Has anyone heard of similar cases out there? I mean, other than the whole “Choose Life” flap down in Florida.

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RNS listens to both sides at the Academy

Here’s a rare chance to look at the Air Force Academy story from two points of view.

The first is one of those free for a week Religious News Service specials, but in this case it has also been posted at Beliefnet, which means the URL should last.

What is different about the RNS piece by veteran religion writer Steve Rabey is that he is not following the basic template of the Americans United press releases that started this media storm or the Los Angeles Times articles that followed. Instead, Rabey covers this story as if people on both sides of the debate have constitutional rights that need to be protected.

Here is a sample, starting with the views of football legend Bobby Bowden:

Bowden and other evangelicals rallying around the Colorado-based Academy contend opponents are trying to limit their freedom to talk about God. “If you knew the cure for cancer, would you tell somebody or would you keep it a secret?” asked the Florida State coach at a May banquet in Colorado Springs sponsored by the nonprofit group, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “The problem with us Christians is we won’t speak out.”

But others say evangelicals in and out of uniform speak out too aggressively at the Academy, creating an environment that Americans United for Separation of Church and State described as “systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure.”

It’s a classic battle between evangelical Christians, who say they are commanded to share their beliefs, and people of other faiths or no faith, who say they shouldn’t have to tolerate constant proselytizing or harassment. And the battle lines extend far beyond Colorado Springs, an evangelical epicenter, to similar religious freedom battles around the country, as well as other world hot spots where America’s global aspirations seem to be cloaked in Christian rhetoric.

There you go. Note the presence of the word “constant” in front of the bombshell word “proselytizing.”

That is crucial. There has to be a middle ground between a speech code and a campus in which the evangelicals are running the show. As I keep saying, if evangelicals there are abusing power — nail them. But there is no reason to take away their freedom of speech or to single out some doctrines for “viewpoint discrimination” while others versions of faith run free.

Rabey carefully listens to voices on both sides of the debate — which is news almost in and of itself in this matter. For a look at a more typical report on the tempest, here is a somewhat calm update from The Washington Post. But the “burning in hell” quote is once again reported as fact.

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The riddle of Thomas Merton

In a story for The San Diego Union-Tribune, Kimberly Winston shows how much a talented religion reporter can do with something as simple as a locally sponsored conference about a dead man with a popular following. In this case, it helps that the dead man is Thomas Merton, the agnostic-turned-Catholic-monk who was pursuing an interest in Buddhism by the time he died in 1968. (If you’re a fan of Matthew Fox, you may believe that sentence should end with “by the time he was assassinated in 1968.”)

These paragraphs of Winston’s perfectly capture the mixed legacy of Merton more than 30 years after his death:

Last fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cut an essay on Merton as an exemplary American Catholic from an upcoming edition of the American Catholic Catechism.

At the time, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Diocese of Pittsburgh said Merton was removed because “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was.” He was replaced by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, another convert and founder of the Sisters of Charity.

That brought a petition from Merton devotees, many who say he was cut because of his dialogue with Buddhists and other Eastern monastics — something some conservative Catholics see as evidence that Merton moved outside the Christian faith. A final draft of the catechism has been submitted to the Vatican for approval, so it is unlikely Merton will be reinstated.

That is as it should be, says George Kilcourse, a diocesan priest and professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where Merton taught and many of his papers are housed. Kilcourse was a student at Bellarmine and still remembers Merton. Reducing this impassioned, conflicted, talented man to an entry in the catechism is like reducing “St. Francis of Assisi to a birdbath,” he said.

“He never wanted to be canonized,” Kilcourse explained. “He was much too human to be dealt with that reverently.”

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G3 Dean heats up DC press

Well, there is a certain logic to the question — even if Fox’s Brian Wilson was tossing raw meat to his cable-TV base demographic. I am referring to reporter Mark Leibovich’s chatty piece in The Washington Post‘s Style section — that lively dwelling place of the old New Journalism — about Howard “God, gays and guns” Dean coming to a major U.S. Capitol photo op.

Here is the mean, but logical, question reported from the scene:

The press chorus then devolved into a cacophony of competing screams. (And Dean knows screams!) After several seconds, a booming voice cut through the noise. It belonged to Brian Wilson, a Fox News correspondent who was standing in the middle of the crowd. He asked Dean “if people are focused on the other things that you’ve said about hating Republicans, about Republicans being dishonest and then this latest comment about the Republican Party is full of white Christians. You say you hate Republicans — does that mean you also” hate white Christians?

Dean is, of course, a white liberal Christian. It does no good to claim that he is a secularist of some kind. He is not.

This serves as yet another reminder that the blue-red zip code divide is not about “secular” vs. “religious.” It is, in large part, about two radically different versions of faith, with divisions among progressive and traditional Christians, Jews and others. Yes, this does return us to James Davison Hunter territory. And, of course, ditto for the work of those New York University guys, Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce.

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What if Dean were a GOP God guy?

There he goes again.

You may have noticed that Democratic Party Chairman Howard “God, gays and guns” Dean has shown up again on the Godbeat.

I swear, this man’s press aide must have the patience of Job (cue: rim shot).

This time around, Dean made headlines with his statement that Republicans have become “a pretty monolithic party. They all behave the same. They all look the same. It’s pretty much a white Christian party.” There were more fireworks where that came from.

“The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people,” Dean said . . . responding to a question about diversity during a forum with minority leaders and journalists. “We’re more welcoming to different folks, because that’s the type of people we are. But that’s not enough. We do have to deliver on things: jobs and housing and business opportunities.”

This statement — no surprise — ticked off some conservative religious and political leaders. They wondered how mainstream journalists and politicians would have reacted to similar brash statements involving other social and religious groups.

Dean, meanwhile, bravely marched on and defended his turf. Here is a sample, drawn from an Associated Press report carried by The Washington Post. I find it interesting that the Beltway Bible did not assign one of its own reporters to this story.

Dean noted that he, too, is a white Christian. But he said the GOP is too narrow in its scope and the Democratic Party is far more diverse.

While even prominent Democrats in recent days have distanced themselves from some of his comments, the outspoken Dean, appearing on NBC”s “Today” show, said criticism of him is meant by Republicans to divert attention from the country’s problems and make him the issue instead.

The AP quoted Dean, when challenged, as saying that “unfortunately, by and large it is. And they have the agenda of the conservative Christians.” In response, GOP Party Chairman Ken Mehlman quipped that “a lot of folks who attended my Bar Mitzvah would be surprised” that he leads an all-Christian party.

According to Peggy “friend of this blog” Noonan, this whole episode raises darker questions about political discourse.

In a Wall Street Journal column called “Seeing Red,” the superstar speechwriter asked what would happen if President Bush delivered a speech in the heartland that included this language:

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I want to speak this evening about how I see the political landscape. Let me jump right in. The struggle between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is a struggle between good and evil — and we’re the good. I hate Democrats. Let’s face it, they have never made an honest living in their lives. Who are they, really, but people who are intent on abusing power, destroying the United States Senate and undermining our Constitution? They have no shame.

But why would they? They have never been acquainted with the truth. You ever been to a Democratic fundraiser? They all look the same. They all behave the same. They have a dictatorship, and suffer from zeal so extreme they think they have a direct line to heaven. But what would you expect when you have a far left extremist base? We cannot afford more of their leadership. I call on you to help me defeat them!”

Imagine the explosion of negative MSM coverage — all of it deserved — that would follow this address.

The problem is that those two paragraphs consist of phrases from remarks by Dean and by Sen. Hillary Clinton. You need to see Noonan’s color-coded version of the column to know which Democrat spoke which words. Again, you will find it here.

One of her main questions is this: Where is the MSM outrage at these Dean and Clinton sermons which, in part, single out a certain brand of religious believer for such harsh criticism?

Now, I know some wackos on the Religious Right can sling some similar acid around. But we are talking about the top leaders of the Democratic Party. I don’t think this is going to help them in the blue zip codes across the Bible Belt.

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Could it be . . .

Can the prince of darkness thrive in Giulianified New York?

That question is repeatedly posed by Jim Knipfel in his cover story in the current issue of the New York Press. The question sets up an interview with Peter Gilmore, a mover in the Church of Satan who was involved in relocating the organization’s headquarters from San Francisco to New York in 2001.

My favorite bit is when Knipfel catches Gilmore out in a bit of Evil nostalgia:

“Times Square used to be the most potent vista for viewing this entire spectrum in one glance,” he said. “If one stood on Broadway and 42nd, simply by looking around you could see human passions embodied: base sexuality in the venues for all facets of pornography, the restless mind hungry for information in the endless electronic crawl of headlines and in the publications cramming the newsstands. Our need for fantasy was served by the many theaters showing every level of film being produced and a similar range of live performance from the splendid to the sordid. There were shops which sold exotic weaponry and tacky souvenirs. The cuisine ranged from street vendors of dubious cleanliness and the quintessentially American Howard Johnson’s to the second-floor exotica of the Chinese Republic.” . . .

As we all know, that symbolic, iconic Times Square is long gone, replaced with “retail boxes” catering, as he puts it, “to the bland needs of tasteless drones.” The supposed revitalization of the area, he further notes, “has slapped a sanitized mask on the true face of our Babylon.”

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