Horny dads at a prom: Too juicy to get the whole story

http://youtu.be/h8nAE2c94Fo

Let’s talk about Clare, the homeschooled teenager in Richmond, Va., who was thrown out of a prom because of her dress. The facts are …

Well, actually, we don’t know many of the facts, whatever you may have read in “news” accounts. Nearly all of them are based purely on her blogging rant about the flap.

In one of the most shameful abuses of social media ever, story after story takes as gospel truth how the girl conformed to the dance dress code, yet was thrown out by horny dads and intolerant chaperones. Even The Telegraph in London had to get in on the act, from across the Atlantic.

The Telegraph’s may be the cheapest, most garish version:

A teenager in America says she was forced to leave her prom after fathers complained that their children would experience “impure thoughts” towards her.

The fathers, who were acting as chaperones at the dance, complained that she was dancing provocatively and her skirt was too short.

Clare Ettinger from Virginia, described how her dress was checked to see it met the dress code requirement of being longer than the fingertips when her arms were by her side.

However despite meeting the requirement a female chaperone told her to keep her dress “pulled down” down so it didn’t look too short.

She then gets told by a female chaperone that “some of the fathers had complained that her dancing was too provocative, and that she would cause the men at the prom to think impure thoughts,” the Telegraph says. Clare says she felt “violated,” that it was “sick and wrong,” and she wants ticket refunds for herself, her date and the friends who came with her.

The Telegraph then contacted the school authorities and the prom chaperones for their side. No, sorry, I mean they didn’t call anyone. They quoted no one but Clare — effectively lowering news to the level of gossip.

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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

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Pod people: To the end of the secular universe and beyond!

Imagine that you are caught in the middle of the following puzzle.

You are a journalist who works for a mainstream newspaper, broadcast network or wire service. According to decades of tradition about your craft, you are supposed to write news copy that ordinary Americans — some say middle-school level readers — can read and understand.

So you are sent to cover a story that is linked to a very complicated scientific event that, in order to understand it, would require people to grasp bites of scientific data as well as a complex concept or two. Now, the problem is that very, very few of the experts involved in explaining this scientific breakthrough speak ordinary English (or whatever language is spoken in the land in which this event is taking place).

Instead, they keep using terms that are very hard for journalists to quote, without bulking up their stories with lengthy explanations of what those terms mean. This assumes, of course, that the journalists can find qualified scientists who can provide said explanations without blurring the specifics to the point that the core scientists will consider the news report shallow or, even worse, inaccurate.

So the goal, here, is to produce news copy that is accurate enough to be granted a passing grade by elite scientists at Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet also can be understood by ordinary Americans reading a newspaper or, Lord help us, glancing at some version of the story on their smartphones.

Good luck with that.

Now, let’s raise the bar on that journalistic challenge — way high. We will get to the second part of this puzzle in a moment. It involves theology.

This is precisely the double-edged scenario that host Todd Wilken and I contemplated in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen), which focused — among other things — on the Washington Post daily story about that massive breakthrough, maybe, in Big Bang theory. It’s the story that started like this:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

The universe created “transformed itself”?

As I wrote in the GetReligion post that launched the podcast:

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Breivik the liar

The news that Anders Behring Breivik has written a letter to the Norwegian media stating his protestations of Christian faith, pro-Israel opinions and anti-Nazi convictions were a calculated lie has left me stunned.

Breivik now says his manifesto and early statements were a bluff designed to focus public and media outrage on Christians, Jews and conservatives by tainting them with his actions. His early denials of being a racist or hyper-nationalist were false, Breivik writes. He lied in order to protect the good name of the neo-Nazi movement (Yes, I find that to be incredible on several levels, but that is what he said.)

What is one to believe? It is easy to dismiss this latest prison epistle as the ravings of a madman. Save that he is not mad (according to psychiatrists). Does being merely evil make them less credible?

On July 22, 2011 the 32-year old Norwegian detonated a bomb outside an Oslo government building killing eight and then proceeded to shoot to death 69 people,  mostly teenagers, attending a Worker’s Youth League (AUF) camp on the Island of Utøya. The Oslo District Court rejected Breivik’s insanity defense and on August 24, 2012, found him guilty of murdering 77 people. He was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, but is likely to serve a life term as he can only be released if the courts determine he is no longer a danger to society.

The narrative adopted by many press outlets was to label Breivik a “Christian fundamentalist” terrorist. My colleagues at GetReligion: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Terry Mattingly and Arne Fjeldsted questioned this conventional wisdom. And their concerns about the snap judgments made by many news outlets about Breivik have been proven prescient.

In her piece “The Atlantic has this terrorist all figured out” Mollie noted the welter of confusing claims and statements from the shooter, but questioned The Atlantic for its dogmatic assertion as to the man’s motives. She wrote:

But The Atlantic has figured it all out. Turns out the shooter was led to do all this by his fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. This hasn’t been a good week for The Atlantic and religion news, but let’s see. Maybe they have something to teach us.

Note the url: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/christian-fundamentalist-charged-death-toll-norway-soars-past-90/40321/. The headline? “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre”

Wow! They must really have access to some exclusive information. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

Turns out there wasn’t any.

A week out from the attack, Tmatt noted some newspapers were moving away from the Christian claims.

At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a “Christian,” (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a “fundamentalist,” in any historic sense of the word.

The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, “Christian” European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the “Christianist” template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion (“When Christianity becomes lethal“) Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

Tmatt closed his piece by asking reporters to keep digging.

Well, we now know more about what he has said — the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a “Christian,” where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.

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Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

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Religion ghosts in the politics of abortion? Obviously …

It happens at least once a year.

A GetReligionista will write a post about media bias in mainstream coverage of abortion (click here for that classic series on this topic by the late David Shaw, media-beat reporter for The Los Angeles Times) and then someone will post a comment saying that abortion is a political, not a religious, issue and that this site should stick to religion. Often, these correspondents will note that the only people who think abortion is a religious issue are crazy fundamentalists and radical Catholics, etc., etc. — an observation that does little to help make their case.

Truth is, lots of people oppose abortion for different reasons. Tomorrow’s annual March For Life will draw thousands of Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and the usual suspects. However, those paying close attention will also see banners for pro-life atheists and agnostics, as well as the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians (“Human Rights Start When Life Begins”). Marchers will show up from Feminists For Life, Democrats For Life, Libertarians For Life and a host of other groups from off the beaten journalistic path.

However, it is safe to say that the majority of the marchers will be there for reasons that are based, in part, on their religious convictions. In the United States of America, and lots of other places, that is the statistical reality.

Thus, it was rather strange to see such a faith-free approach used in that New York Times story that ran under the headline, “Parties Seize On Abortion Issues in Midterm Race.” As a reader noted, in an email to this site:

Other than quoting someone from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, there is no allusion that some people see this as an issue of faith or morality.

As a person of faith who is against legalized abortion on demand, this bothered me. It seemed very deliberated on the part of the writer. Most people, however, probably know the basics of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Does an article mentioning this debate as it pertains to an election have to mention the religious aspect? Or should readers already just know?

That’s a very good question.

Consider the top of the story, for example. Can one address the political clout of those who oppose abortion inside the modern Republican Party without mentioning the “pew gap” or the role played by married, religious women in this cause?

WASHINGTON — When the Republican National Committee gathers for its winter meeting here on Wednesday, the action will start a few hours late to accommodate anyone who wants to stop first at the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion demonstration on the National Mall. And if they need a lift to the meeting afterward, they can hop on a free shuttle, courtesy of the Republican Party.

“We thought it only fitting for our members to attend the march,” said Reince Priebus, the party chairman.

Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, through state ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, are using it to stoke enthusiasm among core supporters. Democrats, mindful of how potent the subject has been in recent campaigns like last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, are looking to rally female voters by portraying their conservative opponents as callous on women’s issues.

This story does cover a lot of ground, but the reporters are following a strictly political map. At several times it was easy to spot the ghosts that the Times team either didn’t see or made a conscious decision to avoid. For example:

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NYTimes offers labels-free look at key free-speech fight

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

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