“Amen,” to what Rod Dreher said

Tragically, this sad post speaks for itself. Please note that Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has confirmed the key element of the story with the man who is at the center of it.

I will, however, share one relevant personal anecdote.

Years and years ago, when I was leaving college, I had a job interview with a major church-related wire service. I went into the interview knowing that I urgently needed to ask this editor one question: “Is the work you do journalism or public relations?”

We came back from lunch and started talking. One of the first things the editor asked me was, “Do you think what we do is journalism or public relations?”

I responded by telling him that I had come to town to ask him precisely that question. He smiled and said, “Well, I asked you first.”

Needless to say, I was silent for a while. I knew that, in effect, my answer would represent a kind of turning point in my work, potentially closing a symbolic door.

“I think that you think the work you do is journalism,” I said, “but the people who sign your paycheck think that it’s public relations.”

Precisely, he said. Could I live with that?

I said, “No.”

So click here to read all of Dreher’s post entitled, “Shooting The Messenger,” about the latest sad, even tragic twist in the story of The National Catholic Register and its now infamous interview with Father Benedict Groeschel. Click here for a previous GetReligion post on coverage of this story.

Here is how Dreher’s post opens, and closes:

Several readers have e-mailed to say that John Burger, the veteran National Catholic Register writer and editor who conducted that controversial interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel (it’s been removed from the site; story about the controversy here) was fired by the EWTN-owned newspaper because of it. I confirmed with Mr. Burger that he was let go because of the incident, but he did not wish to comment further.

This is disgraceful on the Register‘s part, just disgraceful. I hope somebody in Catholic media with a job to offer will contact John Burger and talk to him.

And the conclusion:

EWTN and the newspaper it publishes has made John Burger, now jobless, suffer for committing the sin of journalism. At the Register, the truth won’t set you free; it’ll cost you your job. See, this is part of the reason why so many talented men and women of faith stay away from church-affiliated news and entertainment media. People who run churches and church organizations often don’t understand what communications (journalism, filmmaking, etc.) is. They think it’s all supposed to be publicity, and so they guarantee mediocrity, and ultimately the discouragement of talented people — artists and journalists — who have good and useful talents to give to the whole church.

Of course, we live in a day and age in which many of voices (click here for the most important example) in the mainstream press are struggling to commit acts of balanced, accurate journalism, when it comes time to cover the religious, moral and cultural issues that so deeply divide our land. Sometimes it’s hard to show tolerance to people who, according to your journalistic doctrines, can be labeled “intolerant.”

Please help us watch for any follow-up stories on this sad situation.

Key ‘moderate’ Catholic, hailed by choir on left

So The Washington Post ran a story the other day that made me feel very strange, for strictly journalistic and, yes, political reasons.

The story focused on the retirement of John Carr, for 25 years a key public policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops. The whole point of the story is that the bishops are now being led by people — I assumed that meant Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — who are, shall we say, immoderate. They are too conservative, you see, because they are rather obsessed with issues such as abortion, marriage and religious liberty.

Carr, on the other hand, is a moderate’s moderate. From all indications, he appears to be a pro-life Democrat (that’s an accurate label for me, as well) who has been a crucial leader among liberal evangelicals, progressive Catholics and other folks of that ilk. Most of all, the story wants readers to understand that Carr’s departure could mean hard times for true Catholic moderates who care about church teachings on issues of justice and peace.

This made me think of that famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf) study of The New York Times issued back in 2005, following several scandals linked to the world’s most powerful newsroom. In response, editor Bill Keller, yes that Bill Keller, wrote a response entitled “Assuring Our Credibility” (.pdf) that included these words about the challenges journalists face when covering political and religious issues:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

Thus, I would like GetReligion readers to read the Post story about Carr with that passage in mind.

What’s my point? Well, I think that Carr almost certainly can be called a “moderate” Catholic in that his life’s work falls somewhere in between the church’s truly liberal branch and the whole world of doctrinally conservative Catholics. However, to establish his “moderate” credentials, it would be good to hear Carr’s work evaluated by his critics on both sides of this divide. Correct?

Instead, this is what we get:

The mixing of religion and politics engenders powerful passions, but insiders know that faith advocates typically aren’t players in Washington. Carr is one of the few exceptions. But his influence is only part of the reason Carr’s exit … is being mourned. Some are also concerned about who will come after him.

At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines,

Carr is considered a dying breed: a Catholic moderate with a foot firmly in both camps. He worked for the White House Conference on Families under President Jimmy Carter and was a Democratic candidate. He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees. At a good-bye event this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters, Carr’s voice sounded angriest when he bemoaned the Bush-led Iraq War.

Catholics are becoming more divided over whether they focus on church teachings against war and poverty or the ones against abortion and gay marriage. Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn.

“If John Carr hadn’t been there for the past 20 years, who knows what would have happened?” said John Gehring, who focuses on Catholic issues for the left-leaning advocacy group Faith in Public Life and often clashes with the bishops.

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that the next quote comes from Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and so forth and so on. Later on, we hear from Carr’s brother — New York Times media columnist David Carr.

So here is my question: Read this story and name, for me, the key voice evaluating Carr’s work and career from the conservative side of the Catholic establishment, whether that is in politics, higher education or even the church hierarchy.

Read the story, twice if need be. Look for the conservative voices, amid all of the high-profile voices on the left and on the center-left that are featured in this news — not editorial page — report. There should be informed, articulate conservatives who help readers evaluate Carr’s work. Right? I mean, this is journalism, after all, not a work of advocacy writing.

So who is your favorite Catholic conservative featured in this news story?

Good luck with that.

The Times gets key details right in Philly pain

And now for something completely different.

You may need to sit down. It’s time for GetReligion to offer a positive (for the most part) take on a New York Times report about Catholicism and, in particular, the troubled Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It helps that, in this case, the story does not focus on one of those doctrinal, cultural stories on which the urbane, sophisticated Times has shed all pretense of doing balanced, fair coverage (if the journalism gospel according to Bill Keller remains the norm in the world’s most powerful newsroom). This story is, for the most part, about financial hard times in the city’s Catholic pews and schools. Here’s the top of the report:

PHILADELPHIA – “It’s been a rough week” is how the Rev. Charles Zlock, pastor of the St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, started his 10 a.m. homily on Sunday.

It seemed like an obvious reference to the searing trial that ended Friday with the conviction of a senior Philadelphia archdiocese official, Msgr. William J. Lynn, on a charge of endangering children by placing a known pedophile in an unwary parish.

But the 120 worshipers attending St. Mary’s on Sunday, though upset by the case, were mostly heartsick for a different reason: After final services next Sunday, this handsome church in northwest Philadelphia, a center of life for nearby residents since 1849, is scheduled to close. For the unsettled Roman Catholics in this 1.5 million-member archdiocese, the closing is one more blow in sweeping and bitterly contested cutbacks. Across the city, thousands are already incensed because church leaders have closed 27 cherished schools.

So the archdiocese is having to pull the plug on quite a few parishes and schools. Something tells me that these moves are, in part, linked to familiar demographic issues — think birth rates and Mass attendance — that are missing from way too much of the mainstream media’s coverage of Catholic life. The bottom line: Few Catholic schools close when they are packed with Catholic children and fueled by the support — dollars and volunteer hours — of growing or healthy parishes.

Alas, Philadelphia is the kind of place where many Catholics are proud of their past glories, while rather blind to their present realities. The Times states this rather clearly:

Faced with an unheard-of $17 million deficit this year — worsened by millions of dollars in legal fees — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who arrived in September, announced last week that he was closing the youth office, shutting down the nationally known monthly newspaper and laying off 45 archdiocese employees. He has put the archbishop’s 13,000-square-foot mansion up for sale. …

Philadelphia’s elaborate network of parishes and parochial schools was developed more than a century ago, after the settlement of European ethnic groups that have long since dispersed. For too long, officials here avoided making unpopular decisions, said Rocco Palmo, an expert on the Catholic Church and writer of the blog Whispers in the Loggia.

Parishioners were never told that the church was sinking in the red, Mr. Palmo added, and this year’s announced cuts, which will be far from the last, took many by surprise. “Chaput has taken on the toughest job any bishop in the United States has faced in at least 50 years,” said Mr. Palmo, who has been appointed by the archbishop to an advisory council, praising him for changing the culture of what had been an insular and often imperious clergy.

Note the gesture of the new archbishop selling his own mansion and trying to cut the central office, at the same time that he has to close historic, urban, often weakened, parishes. I found it poignant that, in one parish visited by the Times, some of the faithful mourning the decision to close these particular church doors were, in fact, suburbanites who returned, one last time, to a parish they no longer attended.

Most of all, I appreciated the balanced words of Father Charles Zlock, the pastor of one of the churches that is about to close. He underlined the pain, but noted that these decisions were a long time coming. This is the Times story, condensed.

Father Zlock said he was exhausted after being “screamed at” over the last year and a half by parishioners who were worried about their children and the loss of churches and schools. The Philadelphia officials and priests, he said, had become “arrogant and complacent” over the years, contributing to the crises today.

But like many others, he praised Archbishop Chaput for tackling unpopular issues head-on. “Chaput has put a steamroller in place and said we’re going to fix this thing,” he said. “Two years from now we’re going to be a smaller, leaner church. … But the people who will be here will be spiritually vibrant and engaged.”

What would a smaller, more vibrant church look like?

While Chaput, once again, declined an Times interview request, the team that produced this story dug a very relevant quote out of a recent speech by the outspoken Franciscan. In it, he offered a statistical marker by which to judge the future health of this powerful, but weakened, archdiocese:

Archbishop Chaput declined to be interviewed, but in a speech last week he called for a zealous new missionary movement in Philadelphia. He lamented that only 18 percent of registered Catholics here attended Mass weekly, compared with 40 percent in Denver.

For what it’s worth, this Times report also caught the attention of my friend Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher, who recently moved from Philadelphia back to southern Louisiana. He was pretty plugged into Catholic networks during the time he was in Philly and offered this reflection about the views of his Catholic friends there:

They are hurting like everybody else is, but they believe that with Chaput’s arrival, the hard decisions that ought to have been made a long time ago are finally being made, and a corner has been turned. I remember when I first arrived in Philly, back in 2010, having a conversation with a very well-informed and committed Catholic, who was quite melancholy about the situation in the archdiocese. He told me that most of his fellow Catholics there had no real idea how perilous the situation for the RC church there was. He wasn’t talking at all about the abuse scandal. He was talking rather about the complacency and the belief that all those buildings, and all that history, would protect the archdiocese from decay.

He told me that he seriously wondered if there would be much of a church in Philly for his children to inherit when they were grown. My friend is neither a conservative nor a gloom-and-doomer. What he saw back then is now becoming more widely known. Again, my Catholic friends there say it’s better to acknowledge the painful truth and to deal with the world as it really is than with pious illusions. They’re right.

Not a happy story. But it is a real story in which hard questions had to be faced head on.

Photo: Mass in the Philadelphia cathedral.

That Gray Lady Catholic same-sex unions scoop 2.0

It’s time for a Catholic culture wars flashback.

Let’s set the way-back machine for last summer, when the Womenpriests movement held one of its ordination rites in Baltimore. As one would expect, this event was glowingly covered — sort of — by The Baltimore Sun. I focused, in posts at the time, on this particular passage:

Andrea Johnson, presiding as bishop, ordained two women from Maryland, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, one from Pennsylvania and one from New York in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ. The church was filled with family members — including husbands of three of the ordinands — and friends, including some who are employed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore but who support the ordination of women. Photography was limited to protect the privacy of those attending the ceremony.

I noted, with two clicks in Google, that one of the ordinands was a former faculty member/campus minister at one of most powerful Catholic schools in our region — Archbishop Spalding High School. This fact was not included in the news story. And what about the fact that the Sun agreed to abide by the instructions not to photograph the audience. In mean, who would be present who needed the safety of anonymity? I wrote at that time:

… (I)t sounds like the Sun agreed not to photograph the congregation in order to protect the privacy of Catholics — Catholic educational leaders or diocesan staff, perhaps — who could not afford to make public their support of the Womenpriests movement. I don’t know about you, but that seems strange — unless editors had decided to protect those individuals as sources for the story. If that’s the case, perhaps that should be stated?

I bring this up because of some of the reactions I have heard — in or comments pages and through private emails — to my post that ran with the headline, “New York Times scoop! Catholic same-sex unions!” The post focused on a story that included lots of clearly attributed quotes and information from religious leaders in quite a few churches that are being rocked or even divided by conflicts over homosexuality and the definition of marriage.

That’s good. Journalists like clearly attributed information.

But then there was this passage in the Times report:

The dividing lines are often unpredictable. There are black churches that welcome openly gay couples, and white churches that do not. Some Presbyterian churches hire openly gay clergy members, while others will not. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is a sin, but there are Catholic priests who secretly bless gay unions.

The story offers no attribution for the final claim, which is an A1 story in the making if I have ever seen one. The story also, and this is the key, does not offer any context for this claim or information about its source, including why the source of needs to remain anonymous — or in this case, not even mentioned. The information simply shows up.

Does this matter? Well, I noted that this would appear to violate a New York Times editorial policy document that states, in part:

Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality. Guidance on limiting the use of unidentified sources, and on informative description of those we do use, has appeared in several editions of our stylebook, including the current one, and in our Integrity Statement, dating from 1999.

As you would imagine, conservative Catholics were not amused by this episode.

Over at the CatholicCulture.org website, Phil Lawler made the following observations:

It is, regrettably, easy to believe that some Catholic priests are giving their blessing to homosexual unions. But if that is the case, these priests are clearly acting in defiance of the Church: the institution they claim to serve. That defiance would constitute a major news story, not merely an observation to be made in passing. … The Times appears to be protecting dissenting priests from ecclesiastical discipline.

Any Times reporter who actually witnessed a Catholic priest blessing a homosexual union, or heard a credible first-hand report of such an event, should have written a news story about it, and that story should have appeared on the front page. That didn’t happen. Why not? I can think of only three possible explanations:

The Times reported something as fact when it had no solid evidence. Terry Mattingly and I agree that’s unlikely.

The Times had solid evidence of priests blessing gay unions, but withheld that evidence because the priests demanded anonymity. That’s possible. But as Mattingly points out, the Times ordinarily informs readers when a report is based on information from someone who requests anonymity.

The Times knows of priests who have blessed same-sex unions, and those priests have not requested anonymity, but the Times has decided not to identify them anyway. This seems to me the most likely explanation.

My assumption is that the second option is closest to the mark, in a scenario that resembles the Sun Womenpriests story mentioned earlier. In other words, the newspaper is actively participating in the story and shaping information in a way that protects one side of the debate from retaliation by the other.

Yes, I know that this happens in political stories all the time. My office is on Capitol Hill. However, this is precisely the scenario that the Times ethics policy addresses — which is why, in order to build and retain trust — the policy requires reporters and editors to give readers as much information about confidential sources as possible (short of a clear, named attribution). Yet that did not happen in this case.

GetReligion readers have, in comments or privately, offered another interesting explanation.

The Times report clearly implies that the Catholic priests performing these same-sex union blessings are, in fact, Catholic priests in good standing. However, perhaps this is not accurate, and the priests in question are either ex-Catholic priests or members of movements (think Womenpriests) that claim to be Catholic, yet the final doctrinal authorities on this issue (as in Catholic bishops) disagree. Yet, why wouldn’t the newspaper simply state that this is the case. Why not give credit to, so to speak, this Rebel Alliance?

I want to propose another scenario, one based on my own experiences in newsrooms and past conversations with liberal Catholics, including journalists. What if the source or sources for this information are, in reality, liberal Catholics and ex-Catholics IN THE TIMES NEWSROOM? They know about these rites or have participated in them, yet they do not want to betray their own liberal priests? Thus, the reference is simply stated as fact, because the people in the know are actually involved in the news process.

Surely the Times staff includes more than its share of ex-Catholics and liberal Catholics. What was the label that former editor Bill Keller pinned on himself in his infamous post-Sept. 11 column (the one that compared the Vatican with Al Qaeda) that ran under the headline, “Is the Pope Catholic?” He said, “I am what a friend calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ — well beyond lapsed.” I would be shocked if Keller was alone in his own newsroom.

How would a reporter include that information in a story, in an attempt to honor the Times policy?

New York Times scoop! Catholic same-sex unions!

Talk about burying the lede.

The mainstream press has been on a tear ever since President Barack Obama announced that his liberal Christian faith had inspired him to change his beliefs on the definition of marriage. One of the most common stories, produced by news outlet after news outlet, has focused on the ways that this doctrinal issue has divided various groups of believers.

This is a totally valid story to be covering, since believers on both sides of this issue are separated by centuries of doctrine and tradition. Here are the pivotal paragraphs in a typical New York Times report. However, when reading this passage, prepare yourself for the stealth blockbuster:

Mr. Obama’s declaration last week that he supports same-sex marriage prompted ministers around the country to take to their pulpits on Sunday and preach on the issue. But in the clash over homosexuality, the battle lines do not simply pit ministers against secular advocates for gay rights. Religion is on both sides in this conflict. The battle is actually church versus church, minister versus minister, and Scripture versus Scripture.

The dividing lines are often unpredictable. There are black churches that welcome openly gay couples, and white churches that do not. Some Presbyterian churches hire openly gay clergy members, while others will not. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is a sin, but there are Catholic priests who secretly bless gay unions.

Did you catch that last reference? If, in fact, the Times has factual material about Catholic priests blessing same-sex relationships and unions then this is clearly the most important news angle in this piece. This is a major news story, buried deep in a related news report.

However, note that this claim (which I do not doubt, by the way) appears with absolutely no context, no attribution, no clue as to the source of this information. The Times does not even claim to be printing this information based on anonymous sources who requested protection from the Vatican. This is most strange.

I don’t know about you, but this passage immediately made me think of the following quotation:

Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality. Guidance on limiting the use of unidentified sources, and on informative description of those we do use, has appeared in several editions of our stylebook, including the current one, and in our Integrity Statement, dating from 1999.

This is, of course, the top of a report on The New York Times Company’s policy on the use of confidential sources. The key is that, when editors approve the use of a confidential source, reporters are still supposed to provide readers with as much information as possible in order to explain why they should trust this news story.

But wait, since we are dealing with a story that is about religion, linked to a “social values” issue on which all urbane, intelligent citizens would be in agreement, this may be one of those cases in which — under the Bill Keller revelation — that the Times no longer needs to play by conventional journalism rules about bias and fairness. That’s the ticket.

You remember the Keller doctrine, right? Here’s a reminder, with the recently retired editor discussing (video source here) whether his newspaper now openly plays an advocacy role on behalf of liberal policies and beliefs:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

Now, there are other passages in this recent Times story that merit discussion. For example, pro-gay rights scholars compare scriptural references to sexuality with those describing slavery, yet the story offers no material describing traditional Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant viewpoints on that issue.

You know, the usual stuff. Once again, however, one must ask it — post Keller confession — the leaders of the Times believe they have any responsibility to accurately report the views of those who dissent from the newspaper’s approved religious doctrines.

Still, this story does appear to include a major innovation, one that appears to violate the newspaper’s policies. So let me ask: “What is the source of the information reflected in the following statement? I refer to this sentence: ‘The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is a sin, but there are Catholic priests who secretly bless gay unions.’ ”

Is this statement based on anonymous sources? If so, how can they best be described, so that readers have a chance to evaluate the validity of this claim?

52 percent of reporters: Media poor on religion news

You know it’s sad when both the general public (57 percent) and reporters (52 percent) agree that the media does a poor job explaining religion to the broader public. And then two-thirds of the public think religious coverage is scandal-driven, compared to 30 percent of journalists who say the same thing, according to a new study from the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

So why is there such poor coverage of religion?

Maybe it’s lack of a basic understanding of faith and belief. Half of all reporters say a major challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge of religion, according to the report. Just 19 percent of reporters say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion, one-third consider themselves “knowledgeable,” 40 percent say they’re “somewhat knowledgeable,” compared to about 10 percent who say they’re don’t know much at all. You can see reporters having a hard time admitting they don’t know much about religion, so I would guess the number is even lower than what they self-report. But when belief or unbelief is so crucial to understanding so much of our world, it’s an amazing state of the media.

On a pretty basic level, media outlets are fairly concerned with wide representation in the newsroom, ensuring race, gender, and other demographic qualities are covered. However, the report says that minority Christians and white evangelical Christians are under-represented among journalists who cover religion when, ironically, they are the groups that consume the most religion news.

“Religion figures into American politics, popular culture, foreign policy and even the economy more strongly than ever before. But the disconnect between news consumers and producers suggests that current news media coverage isn’t making the importance of these overlapping relationships clear,” said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, who managed the study. “This situation presents the news media with both a challenge and an opportunity at a moment when innovation in the profession is paramount.”

Earlier this week, we talked about whether it’s startling that only 19 percent of Americans say the media is “friendly” toward religion. Commenter Carl Jacobs responded:

I have never noticed any media hostility to the Women Catholic Priest organization. Or the Episcopal Church and their theologically liberal ilk. Or the ‘spiritual but not religious’ First Church of Starbucks crowd. It’s religion based upon a fixed and knowable and binding revelation that inspires their animosity.

Or as John M. put it:

Headline proposal: “19 Percent of Readers Surveyed Need to Spend More Time Reading the Howlers That Come Across GetReligion”.

I mean, seriously, between Bill Keller and the head of the BBC, even the pretense of objectivity is being shed when it comes to covering people like me.

Of course, John is referring to the former editor of the New York Times and the BBC’s Mark Thompson, both of whom have had interesting things to say about religion coverage. (Hint, Thompson apparently said it’s acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity.)

There’s a group of reporters out there who strive to cover religion accurately and thoroughly (they tend to go to events like the Religion Newswriters Association conference, attend denominational gatherings, check out ReligionLink, read religious publications, etc.). But a number of media outlets either don’t prioritize the religion beat or don’t have reporters who are qualified to cover religion. Can you imagine if an editor assigned someone to cover the Romney campaign who didn’t have some background or understanding of politics?

You certainly don’t have to be religious to cover religion well, but I would think editors would want reporters who have at least studied it or have a background that would shape an understanding of how religion works and influences people. It’s why we sometimes you get more religion coverage out of the Colbert Report than you from mainstream news outlets. Just 28.1 percent of the public and of 8 percent reporters said that broadcast news provided “good” religion coverage, the survey suggests.

Most reporters think their audiences want personality-driven religion news that connects to institutions and events, the release for the study says. But about 70 percent of Americans say they’re interested in complex coverage that looks at religious experiences and spiritual practice. And in case editors aren’t convinced that the American public want more religion news, there’s a little nugget to reinforce the idea: A majority of respondents (63 percent) says religion coverage is important to them.

Image of man smacking forehead via Shutterstock.

For BBC czar, race always trumps religion

It’s the question that gets asked whenever an alleged comedian on HBO goes a bit nuts on the subject of religious believers.

It’s the same question people asked when some NFL players mocked Tim Tebow’s love of public prayer.

It’s the same question conservative Catholics, and others, asked when the hierarchy at The New York Times made the decision to run a full-page anti-Catholic advertisement that urged liberal and nominal Catholics to pack up and quit their church.

It’s the question that tends to draw mocking laughter in the GetReligion comments pages whenever a reader dares to ask it.

The question, of course, is this: Would the powers that be in mass media have dared to approve x, y or z if this particular advertisement, comedy routine, cartoon, Broadway show, movie, music video or whatever had focused its attack on Muslims?

It’s a question that is not — for me — directly connected to the journalism work that we do here at GetReligion. Please hear me say that.

However, there was a headline the other day in The Daily Mail linked to this controversial topic that was just a bit too close for comfort, for me. I am referring to the one that, with its stacked sub-headlines, proclaimed:

Christianity gets less sensitive treatment than other religions admits BBC chief

* He suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities’

* But added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race

I don’t know about you, but I had a simple reaction when I read all of that: The head of BBC said that near an open microphone?

Here’s the top of that Mail report:

BBC director-general Mark Thompson has claimed Christianity is treated with far less sensitivity than other religions because it is “pretty broad shouldered.”

He suggested other faiths have a “very close identity with ethnic minorities,” and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters. But he also revealed that producers had to consider the possibilities of “violent threats” instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.

Mr. Thompson said: “Without question, ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms,’ is different from, ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write.’ This definitely raises the stakes.”

But he added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race.

Now the minute I read that — especially all of those short, edited, punchy quotations — I immediately assumed that Thompson had been quoted out of context. What kind of journalist could say things like that, especially one who is committed to accurate journalism, free speech, religious liberty and various other values and rights that tend to be cherished in free societies?

I told my GetReligion colleagues that I really wanted to see the whole interview, or a transcript, or both. As it turns out, that information was a few clicks away on a site linked to a rather authoritative educational brand name — Oxford. Click here for the .pdf of the interview or watch the video that is attached to this post.

By all means, read it all. The give and take is rather complex, at times, but I think that the triple-decker Mail headline is accurate, if rather blunt (in the style of Fleet Street). I immediately asked my fellow GetReligionistas if we could hold off on this story long enough for me to write a Scripps Howard News Service column based on the full interview. My goal was to put some of those blunt snippets into a broader context, if I could.

So, here is a sample of what came out of that. I began with the New York Times decision to run the anti-Catholic advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but not the mirror-image anti-Muslim advertisement that was immediately cranked out by Stop Islamization of America.

Should Catholics have been shocked?

Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the BBC, another of the world’s most influential news organizations.

For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a “very close identity with ethnic minorities” and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.

Meanwhile, he said it’s acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion — even in an increasingly secular age.

“I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape,” said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

Christianity, he argued, is a “broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it’s not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It’s almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means.”

The bottom line, said the BBC leader, is that Muslims tend to be literalists on matter of faith and they are much more likely to be offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus. At least, that is what Thompson thinks, as a self-identified moderate, practicing Catholic. Thus, he said:

“For a Muslim, a depiction — particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the prophet Muhammad — might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief.”

And that stunning AK47 quote?

Here’s the context. You will not be surprised to know that it follows a reference to Salman Rushdie, his “The Satanic Verses” novel and a global fatwa calling for his death.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a “rather nasty ace” that can be played by those who are willing to say, “I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you.”

Thompson responded: “Well, clearly it’s a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms’ is different from ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms and I’m loading my AK47 as I write.’ This definitely raises the stakes.”

So there you go. How does this Thompson proclamation apply to the work of journalists who want to do accurate, balanced reporting on religion-news stories linked to blasphemy, heresy and sacrilege?

It seems to me that, much like that advocacy journalism sermon delivered last October by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, the BBC leader is essentially saying that there is one set of rules for news and then there is a different set of rules for religion news. In the end, race trumps religion.

And one more thing: Did Thompson actually say that it doesn’t matter if Christianity is no longer, on a typical weekend, the majority religion in England in comparison with Islam? It still deserves harsher treatment?

Read it all. Please.

Someone’s confused about Santorum

An editor, whose religion I don’t know, sent this Associated Press story along with the note, “Maybe I’m too sensitive to these things, but this strikes me as kind of a vile headline if you think about it–not that some people mistake him for a Protestant, but the implication is that they wouldn’t support him if they knew he was Catholic.”

What’s the headline?

Santorum benefits from mistaken religious identity

Here’s the lede:

Rick Santorum’s political good fortune in the Republican presidential primaries has come about in large part because of his appeal to evangelicals. A Roman Catholic, he is a beneficiary of more than two decades of cooperation between conservative Protestants and Catholics who set aside theological differences for the common cause of the culture war.

Doctrine – and anti-Catholic bias – once split Protestants and Catholics so bitterly that many evangelical leaders worked to defeat John F. Kennedy because of his religion. When Kennedy sought to confront suspicion about his Catholicism, he made his now-famous faith speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of evangelical Protestants in Texas. Five decades later, when some prominent evangelical leaders gathered at a Texas ranch to discuss backing a 2012 GOP candidate, Santorum was their choice.

The headline and the lede are just weird, aren’t they? First off, the people who seem particularly confused about Rick Santorum’s religion are the media, right? In one breath, they call him an evangelical, in another, they deride him for (for instance) wearing his Catholic faith on his sleeve.

In August Bill Keller, then executive editor of the New York Times, was telling us that Rick Santorum is part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity.” Only a few months later, he tweets:

@nytkeller A friend poses this GOP debate question: Wasn’t yesterday Ash Wednesday? Aren’t Santorum and Gingrich devout Catholics?

When a couple of reporters pointed out that it’s not a holy day of obligation for Catholics and that you’re not obliged to wear your ashes all day, he responded:

@nytkeller No, it’s not an obligation. But these guys wear their faith on their sleeves. Why not on their foreheads?

Which is it, Bill? Fervid subset of evangelical Christianity or a Catholic who wears his faith on his sleeve? By the way, it’s just been a banner week in religious bigotry at the New York Times. There was the Charles Blow nonsense (no, not about sex or his eliminationist rhetoric about conservatives but, rather, his mockery of Mormon garments. He did apologize for the mockery.). And then there’s this Dick Cavett nonsense that begins with some bigoted discussions of Catholic teaching and Rick Santorum before speaking utter nonsense about homeschooling, trotting out just about every ill-informed prejudice out there.

OK, but back to the point of this Associated Press piece. He “benefits” from “mistaken” religious identity. What’s the proof? Well, there is none. So I guess that settles that. Actually, the proof is just a mention of a Christian Post article headlined “Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical.” It is more like a blog post and I kid you not that three of the five folks “you” thought were evangelical are Justice Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich and Bobby Jindal. I don’t even think that Bill Keller thought any of these folks was evangelical. The justification for thinking Santorum was evangelical? A link to that Time story saying he was.

The headline oversells a piece that should have been about how Santorum appeals to evangelicals. But the story struggles, too. I’m not even sure I think the “good fortune” language is right. Fortune is “chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs.” Not even a majority of evangelicals are behind Santorum (it still being a four-way race) but is whatever large portion of them he holds due to chance or luck? That Roman Catholics and Protestants have become cobelligerents on some of the major issues of the day may have as much to say about those external forces as it does about them. Perhaps much more, in fact.

The piece could also have benefited from some additional facts and figures. Even just this part:

The high regard extends to Santorum’s personal life. His seven children have been home-schooled, a practice much more common among conservative American Protestants than Catholics, who have a network of parochial schools built over centuries.

I know many home schoolers and while many of them could be described as Protestant (they’re Lutheran), that doesn’t mean they’re evangelical — sort of the point of the story. I also know many Catholic home schoolers, atheist home schoolers, plain old hippie home schoolers, etc. Is there data on the practice of homeschooling relative to a religious population? I’m sure there is, but maybe some specifics would help us see how disparate the practice is. Heck, I’d love to know how many Catholics send their kids to parochial schools.

We’re told that Santorum frequently questions the authenticity of other Christians but the first substantiation for it is a reference to when Santorum criticized Obama’s drilling policy. If he does it so frequently, at the very least we could have an instance that’s not such a great example of what happens when the media take things out of context to support a political agenda, right? Again, I get that every reporter I know loathes Rick Santorum with the fire of a thousand suns. But that’s no excuse.

The only other example is a reach back to 2008 when Santorum gave a speech as a private citizen to coreligionists about how academia, and the liberal Christianity had been ravaged by a liberal agenda. It’s not the best example of his current public campaign, as much as the Drudge Report and various other media have tried to make it so.

Another area where data would have been nice is here:

Romney, Santorum’s main rival for the nomination, struggles with conservatives not only because he once supported legalized abortion, which he now condemns, but also from distrust of Mormon teaching among some Christians. He rarely speaks directly about his faith or any other.

Now, the list of why various conservatives don’t trust or like Mitt Romney is pretty long and goes far beyond his former support for abortion. That should be mentioned. But how do we know that he suffers from distrust of his Mormon teaching? I mean, I’m familiar with this Gallup study showing that self-identified Democrats are more hostile to Mormons than self-identified Protestants. And I know that the percentage of folks who say they would be hesitant to vote for a Mormon has remained pretty constant since at least the 1960s. But are there studies showing that Romney’s struggle to connect with conservative voters is because he’s Mormon? I’m sure there must be, in order for this report to assert it so steadfastly, but why not mention which study it is? Inquiring minds and all that.

The story includes some mention of Evangelical and Catholic efforts over the year and then ends with a quote from a Republican who is critical of Santorum.

Like I said, it’s just kind of a weird piece. Perhaps it would have been better to speak to some actual Santorum supporters of the evangelical variety in a story about them and about how they’re so confused about his religion.

Picture of confused man via Shutterstock.


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