Huh: fundamentalist Catholics protest provocative art

Sometimes we come across a story that could be called “The Onion, GetReligion style.” It’s so strange that you’re not even sure where to begin. We have a story like this from AFP, and it appears the media outlet released two versions of the same story yesterday.

Initially, the headline read “Catholic extremists target Champs Elysees theatre” but many of the websites hosting the AFP report later changed it to “Catholics picket Champs Elysees theatre.” Not only was the headline changed but the first few paragraphs were rewritten. Here’s the version that runs on Breitbart (bolded words are my own):

One of Paris’s top theatres was bracing Thursday for a showdown with Catholic extremists vowing to disrupt the opening of “Golgota Picnic”, a virulent on-stage attack on consumerism and religion.

French fundamentalist Catholics have been waging a sometimes violent campaign of protests in recent months against works they perceive as blasphemous, picketing plays and pelting theatre-goers with eggs.

Again. Where do we begin? Picketing plays and egg pelting just don’t seem to go with the “extremist” description. And you know how we feel about using the f word.

Let’s go through portions of the rewritten piece, looking at some of the reporter’s choice of words.

The Champs Elysees theatre was braced for a showdown after Catholic fundamentalists — who have been campaigning in recent months against works they perceive as blasphemous — vowed to disrupt the play.

Two men linked to the fundamentalist Catholic movement were arrested in the basement of the theatre Saturday as they tried to disable its alarm system.

“These people are crazy,” theatre director Jean-Michel Ribes said before the play began.

How, as a reporter or an editor, do you let that quote stand by itself?

The Catholic Church had distanced itself from those protests. This time, however, mainstream Christians have also voiced offence.

Answering a rallying call by the Archbishop of Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, some 4,000 Catholic faithful, including some 200 priests, joined a prayer vigil at Notre Dame Cathedral in protest at a play which the archbishop says “insults the figure of Christ”.

It’s helpful to distinguish between the official church leaders and those who have gone rogue. But why does AFP focus on the fringe group instead of the main one? It’s not as fierce to write about? A vigil of 4,000 people at Notre Dame Cathedral sounds like a story by itself, at least stronger in numbers than the “dozens” at the theater.

“Golgota Picnic”, a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture as well as religion, is peppered with provocative references to Christanity, with a musical epilogue performed by a naked pianist.

We went from words like “vowed” and “crazy” for the protesters to “peppered” and “provocative” for the artwork. Where’s the phrase “the artist perceives” in this sentence that we saw earlier about the protests? This piece was made for GetReligion.

In atheist blitz, where’s the other side?

Evangelical atheists again?

I confess: That’s generally my reaction when I read news stories (and the mainstream media seem to publish them with increasing frequency) about atheists trying to win nonbelievers to their cause.

A new Religion News Service report caught my attention today. The top of the story:

(RNS) The young man in the video pulls in close to his computer camera with the trappings of a typical college dorm room — a loft bed and the clutter of cast-off clothes—piled behind him.

Alex Fiorentini isn’t talking about girls, beer or football. Instead, it’s a coming-out moment of sorts.

“Is it acceptable to the majority of the population to be an atheist?” he asks the camera. “Nope. Are all of your friends going to accept you as an atheist? Probably not all of them. And yeah, those things are gonna suck. But the real question is, ‘Is it OK to be me?’ That is the real question if you are an atheist.”

For Fiorentini, a student at the University of Illinois, the answer is yes. He and scores of other atheists, young and old, have made similar videos for a new campaign designed to build community and support among nontheists around the world.

As puff pieces go, this one isn’t terrible. It contains the relevant facts. It does a nice job of explaining the concept behind the “We Are Atheism” campaign.

The story draws a connection between gays who have been bullied and atheists:

Brown was inspired to start the campaign with her husband and a friend when she attended a talk by Jessica Ahlquist, a teenage atheist who was taunted and bullied after she objected to a “school prayer” banner hung in her Rhode Island high school.

These stories are valid, of course.

However, my problem with most of these pieces is that they only tell their stories from one perspective: that of the atheists. Specifically, it’s framed through the lens of those atheists trying to draw attention to their cause — which, of course, a news story does.

But while the heroes in the story are quoted by name, the villains — those God-believers out there allegedly persecuting atheists — are left vague and nameless. No one who believes in a higher power get to react to the atheists. No one gets to debate the facts in any of these clashes. No one engages in dialogue. No traditional theologians are enlisted to discuss whether, in fact, the atheists are becoming a religious group. Minus the F-word (faith), that is.

Maybe I’m alone, but I read this type of story and want to scream: Wait a minute! I believe in God, and I think atheists are wrong, but this is a free country and they have every right not to believe. Is it asking too much to want to see that point of view reflected?

My point is this: If we’re going to keep reading evangelical atheist stories, wouldn’t it be nice to see journalists approach this topic from a wider, more diverse, perspective? Wouldn’t it be nice to see some believers and scholars quoted? Wouldn’t it be nice to see some actual journalistic skepticism brought to the atheists’ publicity campaigns?

Just asking.

<a href="michael rubin /“>Atheist photo via Shutterstock.

Got mojo? Evangelicals and the 2012 election

Guess what?

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has the “faithful in his corner.”

At least that’s what a Columbus Dispatch headline asked readers to believe. According to the Sunday story in the Ohio newspaper, evangelicals may play a bigger role in the election next year than they did in 2008. The top of the 900-word report:

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — An event Thursday night at Ohio Christian University combining equal parts religion and politics suggested that God has returned to Ohio’s presidential campaigning.

Evangelical Christian voters, largely dormant in the 2008 election of Democrat Barack Obama after taking a dominant role in the 2004 re-election of Republican George W. Bush, appear to have their mojo back heading into 2012.

The lead source on this breaking news?

Read on:

“Whoever the Republicans nominate against Barack Obama, this vote is going to turn out, and it’s going to turn out big,” said Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition whose new group, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, sponsored the university rally.

Um, OK. The event organizer and lead advocate reports that — yessiree — the evangelical troops are much more fired up than they were four years ago. Who needs any actual survey data or hard facts to back up the claim? Let’s take Reed’s word for it and report it as news.

But that’s just the beginning of the squishy-as-Jello reporting in this vague story filled with unattributed assertions and generalizations.

More of the same:

Cain, whose 28-minute speech — er, sermon — was more the grist of a preacher than a politician, drew enthusiastic applause from an overwhelmingly white audience that seemed eager to replace the nation’s first black president with the man who would be the Republicans’ first black nominee.

Now, exactly what did Cain say that transformed his speech into a sermon and gave his words “more the grist of a preacher than a politician?” That’s a crazy question, I know. And unfortunately, I have no answer.

Based on reading this story, I don’t know if Cain quoted Scriptures. I don’t know if he discussed a personal relationship with Jesus. I don’t know if he used the F-word (faith), prayed or referenced his Creator.

All I know is the amount of his 28-minute speech — er, sermon — that the Dispatch actually quotes. That would be zilch. As in zero. As in none.

Keep reading, and the report detours into a discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and then quotes a couple of political scientists (including the respected John Green), both of whom talk in general terms about evangelical voting trends. Strikingly, neither expert says anything remotely close to confirming the lede’s assertion about evangelicals reclaiming their mojo — assuming they ever lost it.

Guess what? I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in this report.

Israel a la Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is back–at least his rallying cry is–this time in Israel. The former Fox News host headed up his “Restoring Courage” rally this week, one year after his “Restoring Honor” rally in DC last year.

The rally comes with some controversy with some of Beck’s previous statements and perceptions in Israel. Unfortunately, some coverage leading up to the event muddies our understanding of Beck’s own faith and associations. The LA Times published a fairly confusing piece where the reporter used the terms evangelical, Christian and fundamentalist interchangeably without really explaining where Beck, as a Mormon, fits in.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before conservative American commentator Glenn Beck, viewed by many supporters as a modern-day prophet, brought his messianic message to Jerusalem.

Where’s some support for the suggestion that his supporters see him as a “modern-day prophet”? By messianic message, the reporter means what?

The visit is focusing renewed attention on the growing, and some say unlikely, alliance between right-wing Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.

Sorry, tell me again, who are the Christian fundamentalists? Apparently the LA Times is above AP style on this one.

The support comes, in part, from a belief among some Christian fundamentalists that Jews are God’s “chosen people” and that a return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem are signs of the second coming. Beck, who converted to the Mormon faith in 1999, frequently discussed such end-of-the-world prophecies and biblical themes on his program.

So is Beck a Christian fundamentalist? Does he suggest these ideas as the basis for his rally? The reporter continues this theme that there is some partnership going on between American Christians and Israelis, but he pulls from a seemingly random television show in Texas, and it’s unclear why he’s connecting it to Beck’s rally.

But Ricci and others see potential fault lines in the partnership. For starters, evangelicals are often active in missionary work, something Israelis do not tolerate.

Last week, Texas-based Daystar Television Network hosted “Israel Day,” in which it broadcast live from Jerusalem. In between on-air solicitations for $1,000 pledges, the program’s hosts condemned efforts to make part of East Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state, and they vowed unconditional support for Israel.

Yet at the same time, the station boasted of “bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the land of Israel.” One host said that more Jews have been converted to Christianity in the last 20 years than in the last 2,000.

Yes, I imagine that Beck has a little bit of a following among some evangelicals, but even that relationship has occasionally been dicey. Evangelicals don’t usually consider Mormons to be evangelicals the same way that Mormons don’t consider evangelicals to be Mormons. This was the lead for the Associated Press:

Conservative Christian commentator Glenn Beck capped a contentious visit to Israel Wednesday by hosting a rally next to a hotly disputed holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

I don’t really understand why the reporter didn’t just say that Beck is Mormon, since that seems more specific and less debated than “conservative Christian.” Overall, I’m still curious how interfaith this event is, whether it’s generically religious, generally Christian, or what? For many reasons, you can’t really lump everyone together under the “Christian fundamentalist” label as one big happy family on an Israeli mission.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There goes the F-word LA Times, again

Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

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.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

Breaking news: Rick Perry prays

When I first read about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming prayer event, I thought “Meh, PR event. Who cares?” Little did I realize that the media would freak out over it.

Today’s the big day, and even though Perry is not speaking at the public, it’s gained him quite the media attention. It’s hard to know why the coverage has gotten out of control.

People are protesting, but that’s a nice way for them to get automatic media attention, right? It’s specifically Christian, but it’s not paid with taxpayer money, right? Perry might run for president, but a lot of people are running for president, right? Someone please help me understand the news value of this event, because we are seeing some embarrassing media coverage come out of this.

Let’s start with NPR (bolded phrases are my own to illustrate some loaded language).

While the governor claims it’s nothing more than a Christian prayer rally, the event has touched off a holy war among critics, who claim it is Jesus-exclusive and political.

Then there’s some misinformation.

Among prominent religious leaders expected to speak: James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Um, did you miss the memo that Dobson left Focus and started his own show? Oh yes, there’s a correction at the top, but it illustrates that the reporter must be new to religion coverage.

The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes the AFA as a hate group because of its fierce anti-gay agenda.

Does the Southern Poverty Law Center actually set the standard for hate groups? What are some examples that they cite?

The Associated Press leads off with some vague description of Perry’s own religious views.

Openly and deeply religious, Texas Gov. Rick Perry organized what seemed like a slam-dunk event for a politician in a state where religion and politics walk hand in hand: He would fill Houston’s Reliant Stadium with fellow believers in a seven-hour session of Christian atonement by some of the nation’s most conservative preachers, exhorting believers to pray about the nation’s moral decline.

Um, how is he openly and deeply religious? Where does he attend church?

The gathering could give the Texas governor a chance to further demonstrate his bona fides with the Republican Party’s social conservatives, who are being aggressively courted by several candidates already in the race. Others worry a rally of Christian fundamentalism, and one involving several controversial religious organizations, could alienate independent voters and conservatives who are more focused on economic issues.

So as long as you say “others worry,” then it’s okay to go against AP style on “fundamentalism”?

Locally, the Dallas Morning News published a piece with the headline, “Rick Perry says he doesn’t endorse extremists participating in prayer meeting.” I just assume that politicians attend lots and lots of functions and don’t necessarily endorse every one of them, but I missed the expectation here. Here’s the Houston Chronicle‘s piece:

Dubbed “The Response,” the all-day event is attracting an inordinate amount of attention, not only because of the governor’s presidential ambitions, but also because of his embrace of Christian groups and leaders known for their theocratic tendencies, fringe beliefs and intolerance toward nonbelievers.

Do any of the leaders coming to this event embrace theocracy? Or is this just because they oppose gay marriage and abortion (hardly fringe beliefs)? How do they act intolerant toward nonbelievers?

Noting that Perry himself has expressed the conviction that he is, perhaps, “called” to the presidency, they contend that the prayer event is prelude to his White House pilgrimage.

The reporter doesn’t explain the context of when he said he felt “called” to the presidency or that he walked back on that statement later (referencing how he can feel called by his mother). Do these supporters back him politically, or do they just support his idea of public prayer?

Perry’s own political alliance with fundamentalist pastors has its antecedents in ties forged some years ago.

So he hasn’t come into religious ties until recently (never explained further) but he forged the fundamentalist ties some years ago? Let’s review: Associated Press style says avoid the term fundamentalist.

The only person that the reporter finds to support him is a former aide. It’s like he is trying to only do a perfunctory attempt at “balance.” Surely someone can speak to larger role of public prayer in politics?

The same paper ran a much more calm, informative piece from Kate Shellnutt* (and, if you want to follow the prayer event, follow her live tweets and liveblog). Please let us know what you find in post-event coverage, the good, bad and ugly.

Update: To be clear, I don’t think the media should ignore this event. I just think the coverage has been overblown and poorly executed. *This post has been updated to correct Kate Shellnutt’s name. My apologies.

Pod people: Breivik a liberal Lutheran terrorist?

Sorry about the headline, I just couldn’t stop myself.

Actually, I don’t think that’s a good label for this loner and his unorthodox church-of-one approach to religion.

But stop and think about it for a minute. One of the only things we know about him, religion-wise, is that he chose to be baptized into the Church of Norway, which is a mainline form of Lutheranism and a state church that, for the most part, leans to the left in unity with its government. We also know that Anders Behring Breivik, by his own admission, is not a “personal Christian” (to use the Norwegian phrase) and that he is not a very religious person, implying that the basics of the faith are not essential to his life.

So he is a Lutheran who doesn’t claim a relationship with Jesus, nor does he believe the core tenets of orthodox Christianity. That would make him, uh, a Lutheran agnostic? A doctrinal liberal?

Actually, this just shows us that (a) his church identity is national and ethnic and (b) his church identity is not based in belief, practice and experience (unless facts emerge that say otherwise). It would be wrong to call him a liberal Lutheran. It would be wrong to call him a conservative Lutheran. The f-word? Forget it.

GetReligion podcast listeners will not be surprised that the “let’s label Breivik” discussion was still on my mind when we recorded the “Crossroads” episode for this week (click here to head straight to it or head on over to iTunes).

While we were recording this, it suddenly hit me that I had better warn listeners to brace themselves, to sit down and to prepare the be shocked. Why? I needed to praise the New York Times, more than once.

Now I need to do that again. The Times is still wrestling with coming up with a fair, fact-based ID for this terrorist. Here is the top of another story that offers another take on this:

OSLO – The prime minister of Norway acknowledged … that his country had fundamentally changed as a result of the attacks on a youth camp and government complex last week, but he vowed to protect the culture of openness that is a source of Norwegian pride.

The attacks have prompted officials to start reassessing Norway’s policy on public security, which seemed defined by a belief that bad things happen elsewhere. Anders Behring Breivik, a self-described Christian crusader who has admitted to the attacks, appeared to face few obstacles when he detonated a car bomb on a busy government plaza last Friday, killing 8 people, then traveled 19 miles and took a ferry to the youth camp on the island of Utoya, where he slaughtered at least 68 people.

You can see the editors distancing themselves from the label, right?

So Breivik is a “self-described” (yes, that’s one of the only facts we have) “Christian” (Church of Norway, on the books) “crusader.” Now that last word calls up all kinds of language in his manifesto and it also points toward the nature of his violence — what he views as a necessary war with Islam.

Frankly, this is one of the better labels that I have seen in the mainstream.

Meanwhile, we have to keep waiting for some hard facts, as journalists try to see what role religion played — if any — in his man’s political war on the political doctrine called multiculturalism.

Enjoy the podcast.

Skirting at edges of faith

I love to read stories about real people.

Even better, stories about people who hit rock bottom and find their way out of the pit appeal to me.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had just such a story over the weekend — filled with color, emotion and drama, not to mention s-e-x.

The top of the 1,200-word feature:

COLLEYVILLE — Lynn Kiselstein seemingly had it all — a big house, slick car, expensive clothes and a country club membership.

A stripper at clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas, she was rolling in cash.

“At first it was fun,” she said. “I was making money hand over fist, bought a Corvette, built a house and had the wedding of my dreams.”

But the job that afforded her luxuries also led her down a path of self-destruction, causing her to lose her home, marriage, possessions and self-worth.

Now 42, Kiselstein is working in a resale store in Irving and studying for her GED certificate thanks to help from We Are Cherished, a nonprofit that helps women get out of the sex industry by providing encouragement and resources.

Now, I have written a few stories along these lines in my career. In 2002, I did a profile for The Oklahoman on a former stripper’s bumpy road to ministry. In 2006, I did a feature for The Christian Chronicle on a minister’s escape from sexual addiction. In each case, the F-word — faith — played a starring role in the person’s transformation.

As I read the Star-Telegram story, my immediate suspicion was that religion was — or should be — a key element of this piece, too.

Sure enough, we find out pretty quickly that there’s a religious tie to the “nonprofit”:

She was released from jail in February and through a friend was led to the faith-based organization that is headquartered in the Cherished House in Colleyville. The house was donated by First Baptist Church Colleyville, which also provides financial support to the organization.

“We had dinner; they greeted us with gift bags. It was amazing,” said Kiselstein, who plans to eventually attend culinary school. “From the moment I walked in, it literally felt like arms were around me, but no one was standing next to me.”

The ministry is the brainchild of Polly Wright, 38, who is a member of the church.

So, we’ve got a faith-based organization. There’s a church involved. The dancer felt like “arms were around” her. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a spiritual reference.

Nevertheless, this story — purposely or not — skirts at the far edges of faith, its religion ghosts exposed for all the world to see.

We read about one of the ministry co-founders “selling her soul” to earn a ton of money dancing. We see a reference to “emptiness in her life” but never learn precisely how she filled it. She “became a Christian.” A “God thing” led her to meet the ministry’s co-founder. But it’s all very vague and antiseptic — as if really getting religion might make the story too real.

I love to read stories about real people.

But please enlighten me on what really makes them tick, even if it’s religion.