When political reporters discover religion

I attended the Values Voters Summit to do some reporting for Christianity Today, and I feel like I attended a different event than some of the reporters there.

Why’s that? Most publications sent their political reporters instead of their religion reporters, which shaped the coverage in particularly interesting ways. For instance, one of the major storylines out of the summit was Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Jeffress then called Mormonism “a cult” and reporters found their story for the day.

If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that Jeffress’ belief that Mormonism is a cult isn’t terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. I tweeted about the endorsement because I thought it was something to note but not something to write a story about. Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice.

In fact, Jeffress debated publicist Jay Sekulow on this point in front of religion reporters at the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association conference, and even by then, it was starting to feel like older news with Romney out of the race. For instance, you’ll see the Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke notes Jeffress’ endorsement but doesn’t lead with it.

One ironic part about the whole coverage is, if you asked an evangelical voter in South Carolina or Iowa before the coverage of this conference whether they knew who Robert Jeffress or Bryan Fischer (who suggests similar ideas) is, they probably couldn’t tell you who they are. When the media covers them, they give them a platform.

Someone asked me why Jeffress was being described by some outlets as the Southern Baptist Convention leader. Perhaps they went with that line because the press release headline was “Southern Baptist Convention Leader to Endorse Perry at Values Voter Summit.” As someone in the SBC told me, “he is a local church pastor, no denominational office (like Rick Warren, or Joe Blow from Arkansas). Influential, but not an ‘official.’”

I overheard a reporter from a prominent newspaper say, “Thank God for Rev. Jeffress. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anything to write about.” I can understand the pressures reporters have to produce interesting stories quickly, but sometimes it takes a little more creativity than the staged events to find compelling stories. The idea that Jeffress considers Mormonism a “theological cult” isn’t a new fact.

What makes all of this even more interesting is how Internet readers think this is a new idea and it starts to trend on various sites. Then the media pack follows with just about every angle they can think of, so everyone is often following the same story. There’s a chicken and egg question: which comes first, the media’s coverage or the Internet’s interest in the story? In other words, it seems like media-generated news more than anything.

Web analytics suggest to us that people love to talk about religion on the Internet. You would think that would tell editors something new, like how you might need more religion reporters to cover all the spicy theological debates. Unfortunately, analytics also sometimes suggest particular stories often do pretty well. Westboro, anyone? The media’s job is to help us sort through what’s news and what’s expected.

With a brave new web world, reporters are facing pressures to produce a lot of content and many are encouraged to meet certain quotas or metrics, which create implications for how we cover news. When you need to meet specific numbers, of course you will pursue the easier story.

Sure, Romney’s Mormonism may still be an issue for many GOP primary voters, and we still need to explore those implications. If Romney is the GOP candidate, it will be pretty interesting to see what that means for religion reporters. Will editors begin to perk up and realize they need people on staff who understand the intricacies of religion? Or will we watch political reporters stumble along with their copy of Mormonism for Dummies?

Resigned to partial coverage

As I read The New York Times’ somewhat celebratory coverage about the first legal same-sex marriages in the Empire State, I sensed that everyone was happy, save those predictable few cranks from the Westboro church.

Among the happy were judges and clerks who came in on their day off to officiate at these history-making unions, which led me to imagine that had I been the editor in charge, I would have asked the scribes in the trenches: Were there any clerks who weren’t happy about their broader duties?

A few taps of the keys took me to a July 13 story by the Times‘ Thomas Kaplan, who answered the question.

Laura L. Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, N.Y., a small community north of Binghamton, looked at the calendar, looked at her Bible and knew what she had to do.

She drafted a letter to the Town Board and said she would resign on July 21, three days before same-sex marriage becomes legal, because she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

“I believe that there is a higher law than the law of the land,” she wrote. “It is the law of God in the Bible.”

Ms. Fotusky’s resignation is the starkest illustration yet that the same-sex marriage debate, although settled in Albany, is continuing to roil New York.

In his well-reported piece, Kaplan included a discussion about the potential effect of the law on people like businessman “Clifton S. McLaughlin, 45, the president of Christian DJ Enterprises in the Bronx, who said in an interview that while no same-sex couples had inquired yet about his services, he would decline their business if any did.”

“I would just let them know that I love them as God’s creation,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “but based on my Christian faith and my belief in God and what the Bible teaches, I cannot and I don’t support gay lifestyles.”

At least two other clerks found the new law at odds with their faith-based conscience. In the July 19 edition of the Post Standard in Syracuse, Paul Riede wrote about one of them:

Ruth Sheldon was knee deep in work Monday. As town clerk in Granby, she was busy with the census of the town’s dogs.

… “I’m getting so many distractions from these reporters and so forth that are calling, and I have an enormous amount of work to do,” she said.

The reporters weren’t interested in the dog census. They were calling about her decision to resign her post rather than honor the state’s same-sex marriage law. Her last day is Saturday — the day before the law goes into effect.

Every time the phone rang, Sheldon, 65, had to shift gears from counting dogs to discussing matters of law and faith. Like the other 931 town clerks across the state, she is suddenly on the front lines of an issue that is drawing international attention.

So we know some were out there, and we know what they were thinking before July 24. But I couldn’t find either of their names in the Times‘ coverage of the day. How about vignettes about how each of the women spent her day?

I referred to the Times‘ coverage as celebratory, a conclusion that I’m not alone in drawing. In a 2004 piece, Daniel Okrent, former (and first) Times ombudsman, concluded that the Times reported about the same-sex marriage issue “in a tone that approaches cheerleading.”

A slice from the lives of the civil servants who stood their ground on conscience would not have been rain on the parade and might have blunted the perception that the Times was the head cheerleader for the event. Once again, the goal is more voices, more points of view. In other words, diversity. In other words, journalism.

Pod people: Repent! If God will listen, saith Phelps

This is the last that you will hear from me for some time, I hope and pray, about the Westboro Baptist Church crew. Dear God in heaven, make it so.

Nevertheless, my most recent Westboro post and the new Scripps Howard column on the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., provided the base for this week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to it, or you can download it at the same link or over at iTunes. The emphasis, once again, is on the legal and theological issues behind the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of this truly radical independent congregation.

However, thinking back on this podcast chat, I realize that we didn’t dig any deeper into one of the questions that people kept asking me in response to my Scripps column this week. People wanted to know what I THOUGHT about this bunch, on the emotional level, the spiritual level, a personal level.

How to respond? Well, much of what they have to say is outright heresy, from the point of view of orthodox Christian and Orthodox Christian theology. I could call it “smoke from the pit of hell” and that would be accurate. But that would also be accurate, in terms of describing my own sins.

So here is a serious answer. In an earlier Scripps Howard News Service column I tried to do a bit of reporting on a key plank in the Phelps doctrinal platform, which is why the church has such a harsh view both of gays and, well, Southern Baptists. Hang tight.

The words of the fifth Psalm are not for the faint of heart.

“Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness. … The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity,” warned the psalmist.

Obviously, says the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, this passage teaches that God hates the evil liberals who run the Southern Baptist Convention, along with legions of other Americans. Phelps also believes that God hates the pope and plenty of other religious leaders who are called “conservatives,” “traditionalists” and even “fundamentalists” in public debates about faith, morality and culture.

And at the end of the column, there’s more:

According to his reading of Psalm 5 and many other scripture passages, Phelps believes that God hates what he calls “kissy-pooh” sermons that refuse to proclaim that God never, ever forgives homosexuals and many other sinners.

The Westboro website once warned preachers who claim that God will forgive those who repent, no matter what: “You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God’s decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites!”

“That’s Bible preaching,” Phelps told Baptist Press, in a 2003 interview about his beliefs. “You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You’re lying on God.”

Has anyone ever seen this information in a mainstream NEWS report about the Westboro troops? It seems crucial, to me. They literally worship a God who does not love all repentant sinners. They shout “Repent!” but do not believe that all sinners can repent. That is, I believe, a big part of the Westboro story.

This Westboro voice sounds strangely familiar

The Westboro Baptist Church saga has always intrigued and appalled me, in large part because of my background in church-state studies and First Amendment rights. I am also intrigued with people who are so radical that they defy easy description. As the old saying goes, sometimes people go so far to the right that they end up on the left (and vice versa).

Thus, I have always wondered what would happen if mainstream reporters actually listened to the Westboro Baptist folks and tried to describe, for example, why they think that Southern Baptists and ordinary evangelicals are raving liberals. Dig deep into this search file and you can see traces of that, as well as in this Scripps Howard News Service column from last fall. Note, in particular, the links to a 2003 Baptist Press piece about the radical theological beliefs of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his flock.

Anyway, last week something unusual happened during the spring ’11 College Media Convention in New York City. One of the legal minds in the Phelps family — which is full of lawyers — sat down and took questions from a room packed with young journalists, no holds barred. Before the Q&A session, attorney Margie Phelps was interviewed by a top-flight journalist and researcher, Gene Policinski, the executive director of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum. Both of them took the encounter very seriously (click here for a rough, but helpful, video).

I learned all kinds of things from taking notes while biting my lip and listening carefully to this event. But here is the key. For the Westboro Baptist believers, the “you” in all of those “God Hates You” signs they carry is not primarily the family of the dead soldier whose funeral is the location of their media-friendly picketing. No, they insist that the “you” is America, especially America as symbolized by what Phelps & Co. call the pro-America “pep rally” that surrounds them wherever they go.

As Margie Phelps told the young journalists: “We’re not picketing the funeral. We’re picketing the pep rally.”

So why am I sharing this with GetReligion readers? Here’s why.

For almost 23 years, I have kept my Scripps column rooted in a kind of news analysis style, as opposed to a full-on, first-person opinion style. However, it is a column and my point of view is in there and I know that. Still, I rarely take big leaps of logic and ask readers to jump with me.

Maybe I should have done that this week. As I worked with pages of Margie Phelps quotations, I kept hearing another specific voice inside my head. To tune in that voice, please read the end of the column:

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church’s tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals. For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro’s leaders concluded that, “It’s too late now. … This nation is doomed.” Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

“We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers’ deaths to publish a viewpoint,” said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. “And we said, ‘We don’t agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.’ …

“That is not a blessing of God. … The soldiers are dying for your sins.”

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply “joined that public debate” on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

“These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears,” she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist “know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols — the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. … We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back.”

Do you hear another voice? Yes, it could be one of these guys — because the theological approach is similar. The formula goes something like this: America takes a certain set of actions, refuses to repent and, thus, calls down the wrath of God.

However, I also heard the voice of someone else who made big headlines three or so years ago by using the same basic theological point, only with a different sin as his theological starting point and framing device. Can you say, “God damn America!”

So, here is my question: How big a leap would it have been to have included the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in this column? After all, this would have meant explaining what he said and why he said it, as well as what I mean when I say that he is using essentially the same theological approach as the Phelps crew. This would have required a big leap by the readers, to follow the thread of that analysis.

Yes, I know that. But does anyone else hear that voice?

Phelps: ‘We’re thanking our god’

By definition, Supreme Court decisions are national stories. However, the Westboro Baptist Church case remains a local story here in Maryland because this is where this particular case started — with the tiny independent church’s hateful media fest near the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Baltimore Sun devoted more ink to the story than other newspapers. All news is local.

The story is quite conventional in its coverage of the court’s decision.

The ruling, issued a day before the anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s death, was a bitter disappointment for the Marine’s father, Albert Snyder, who sued the Topeka, Kan., church for picketing his son’s funeral in 2006, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the ruling was expected by free-speech advocates, who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to align with a group that protests against gays, Roman Catholics, Jews and others.

“It’s an opinion that supports very fundamental First Amendment principles,” said Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. … “A lot of people react to the church itself and its message … not focusing on larger issues of public speech and free speech,” Zick said.

In a telephone interview, Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro’s founder, called the opinion “a victory by God” that was “10 times better than I ever imagined.”

That’s the tough message of this First Amendment case. However, what hit me in this report was some strangeness of a religious nature later in the story.

Yes, I realize that the Westboro take on religion is strange in the first place. After all, these are people who literally believe that there are sins that God refuses to forgive, even after repentance (check it out). For these folks, the Southern Baptist Convention is on the religious left.

Now, in that earlier chunk of the story, notice that in the “victory by God” quote from Margie Phelps, the reference to the deity begins with an uppercase “G.” That’s normal under the Associated Press Stylebook.

However, something strange is going on in another quote from Ms. Phelps, hear the end of this lengthy report. Check this out.

Even Margie Phelps, who argued the case on Westboro’s behalf before the Supreme Court, acknowledged that the opinion wasn’t likely to be popular.

“The whole country’s going to rise up in rage against this,” Phelps said, “But we’re thanking our god. We’re going to have a special thanksgiving prayer service this very evening, and our pastor is recording a video news release as we speak. It will get tweeted and blogged all over the universe. … This case put a megaphone, an international megaphone to the mouth of this little church.”

What’s up with the lowercase “g” in the “we’re thanking our god” quote?

The stylebook instructs reporters and editors: “Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions.” However, it also notes that journalists should “Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.”

Trust me: I would be the first to wonder, as an Orthodox Christian, whether the Phelps family creed doesn’t focus more on court fees and hate that it does on the Holy Trinity. However, can there really be any doubt about whether this “thanking our god” reference isn’t to the God of the Bible? That’s painful, but that is clearly what Margie Phelps meant in this case.

I just checked and this Sun reference has not been corrected. Like it or not, it should be.

Define ‘anti-Semitism;’ give one example

It’s newspaper-style puzzler time.

As a journalist, I know why we are supposed to use the word “alleged” over and over in crime stories. The accused is not guilty until his or her trial has been completed.

Now, this drumbeat use of “alleged” may drive readers crazy — as in the “pilots who allegedly flew the planes into the two towers” — but it is a linguistic device that represents an important legal reality.

However, I have to admit that a twist in the language that frames the following Los Angeles Times report drives me a bit nuts, as in, more nutty than usual. Yes, it’s about THAT STORY from the world of allegedly high fashion. Here’s the top of the report:

As Paris Fashion Week began … there was only one thing anyone could talk about.

The venerable French haute couture house of Christian Dior, credited with putting Paris fashion back on the map after World War II, was rocked in scandal. John Galliano, the flamboyant fashion designer at the helm of the luxury label, and a man known for his over-the-top runway collections, romanticism and love of the bias cut, was being fired. Not because of a collection of clothes but because of a collection of words.

The fast-moving chain of events began … when Galliano was arrested in the Paris bar La Perle, accused of hurling anti-Semitic insults at a nearby couple in an alleged violation of French laws designed to curb anti-Semitism. Dior, where he’s worked for nearly 15 years, suspended him Friday pending investigation. … (A)nother woman came forward with a similar complaint. And … video began surfacing on the Internet apparently showing an earlier incident involving Galliano, who appears to be drunk, taunting two off-screen women, saying he “loved Hitler” and that their ancestors should be “gassed … and dead.”

Now, I understand why the word “alleged” is used in the sentence that raises the question of whether Galliano has violated French laws, in effect, on hate speech. In France it is much easier to go on trial for offensive words than in the United States of America (thus the Westboro Baptist Church crew).

However, here is what has me confused.

Please recall that the famous designer’s remarks are on tape. There are few, if any, questions about what he said or did not say.

Thus, here is the question that we face: Is there any question whether it is anti-Semitism to tell Jews that their loved ones should have been “gassed … and dead” during the Holocaust? What if Mel Gibson had made this remark, on tape? (The remark about loving Hitler is a bit harder to nail down.)

Thus, what irked me was the headline on the story:

Galliano’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks unleash a storm

Once again, I know that it is “alleged” that he broke the French law. Got it.

But is it “alleged” that he made anti-Semitic remarks, in light of the fact that the words are on tape? I am questioning the headline.

In effect, I am asking if it can be stated as fact that the words that journalists know that he spoke can be accurately described as anti-Semitic. Or, has relativism made this term impossible to define and defend? Is it now impossible to make a factual statement that a person has uttered words that are anti-Semitic?

Just asking.

Westboro’s winnings

Westboro Baptist Church keeps popping up in GetReligion territory thanks to its ability to capture attention through protests and lawsuits. Of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor is impossible to ignore.

Assuming readers don’t necessarily know what Westboro is, it can be difficult to find a short headline that gets to the point. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times went with: “Supreme Court sides with churchgoers who picketed military funeral.” The descriptor “churchgoers” is about as vague as you can get. Print editions may have space constraints, but editors could consider search engine optimization and come up with clearer headlines online.

Most of the coverage focused on the Supreme Court decision, reporting the majority and minority opinions. Space is limited, but it would be nice if reporters would slip in a sentence or two explaining who Westboro is and what they believe. Barbara Bradley Hagerty gave a “peek” inside Westboro in her round-up for NPR.

The Phelpses and their church are isolated in more ways than one. Few news organizations have profiled them. One exception is Bill Sherman, the religion writer for newspaper Tulsa World. He visited them in their compound in an upscale neighborhood of Topeka. He found them polite, normal people–and a model of success.

“They’re college educated. They’re well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the United States Supreme Court,” Sherman says. “They’re not what I expected.”

This took me back to Bill Sherman’s Tulsa World piece that explains how the congregation is mostly made up of Phelps’ own family.

Phelps, a Topeka civil rights lawyer during the 1960s through the 1980s, has 13 children. Eleven are lawyers, and nine are directly involved in the church and the ministry. Four of them practice in the law firm that Phelps founded.

Most of his children – as well as 56 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren – live in the compound or within a block or two of it. The school-age children attend public schools, where they make good grades. Most of the adults hold professional jobs. Some of Phelps’ children are estranged from the family and have spoken publicly against it.

The church is fenced and gated, but contrary to some rumors in Topeka, its services are open to the public, family members say.

Phelps still preaches a 45-minute sermon every Sunday to a congregation of about 70, nearly all of them related to him by blood or marriage.

This kind of context gives people a picture that this isn’t like your average church around the corner. Overall, it would be helpful to explain that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties any Baptist conventions or networks.

When the arguments came before the Supreme Court, Terry noted that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news outlets filed friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church’s right to hold protests.

After yesterday’s decision, Poynter promoted Kelly McBride’s column on how to cover hate speech. She drew on earlier ideas when she wrote a planned Quran burning in Florida.

When you give hate speech too much attention, or the wrong kind of attention, you cause more harm than good. Here are some of the common negative affects of hate speech stories that miss the mark:

You alienate your audience and they turn away.
Like rewarding a toddler who throws a tantrum, you encourage the speaker to keep talking.
You embolden others to share their hate speech, so they too can get attention.
You create a climate, both virtual and real, that fosters screaming instead of civil dialogue.
You inadvertently pile harm onto innocent individuals who are the target of the speech.

Many of these points may be true, but they feel a bit too utilitarian when journalists can’t always try to predict the outcome of coverage. A basic question local newspaper editors should ask is, “Is this really news? Westboro protests at lots of funerals, how does this particular one make it different.” Westboro is considered outrageous by many, but it’s unclear is how McBride decides what consists of hate speech and who decides whether it’s worth covering.

We’ve looked at a few slices of the coverage, but feel free to let us know if you have come across particularly good or bad stories.

Ghosts of Sundance? Present!

It’s always nice to see a writer on some other site cut loose and give the “GetReligion” treatment to media coverage.

Anthony Sacramone has a piece up at First Things that does just that. He looks at mainstream media coverage of the religious angles at the Sundance Film Festival. He begins by highlighting The Los Angeles Times piece “Sundance Film Festival: Movies look at faith in all its forms“:

Five films are singled out — out of 120 entries, or a little under five percent. This, apparently, constitutes a significant number in what is ostensibly a very religious country. But this is Hollywood (actually, Utah, but you get the picture.)

As you read on, you quickly realize that these “submissions focused on faith” reflecting how “filmmakers [are] considering issues larger than themselves,” as Peter Cooper, the festival’s director, put it are about psychos, hypocrites, quasi-fascists, and empty, lonely believers looking for something more out of life.

Now, I have not seen any of these films. Very few people have. They’ve yet to be put into general release. But what I found interesting was that the Times writer didn’t stop to google a little film history as a basis of comparison for this new generation of films that “use faith — and specifically Christianity–as either a narrative fulcrum or key expositional backdrop.” From Going My Way and Song of Bernadette and A Man for All Seasons to The Mission and Shadowlands and The Passion of the Christ to five films for which Christianity is, apparently, a fool’s paradise only.

One exception to this may be Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, in which the central character, a Pentecostal Christian, “is a seeker. She’s got to find herself,” as Farmiga, the film’s director, describes her. While the director sounds like she attempted to provide some nuance, and is not particularly hostile to faith, I couldn’t help asking, Is this is as good as it gets? A case study in which everyone’s lost and no one is found, to twist the lyrics of “Amazing Grace”?

OK, I can’t excerpt the whole thing so you’ll have to go over to First Things to read more. But Sacramone notes the review of one of the films in which The Hollywood Reporter says that one character “is so plainly unhinged and his view so extreme within Christianity that the debate is meaningless.”

Another film by Kevin Smith, Red State, is a “religious thriller and a horror film” based on, of course, the Westboro crowd. Apparently a hate-filled preacher lures gay men into his compound in order to kill them. Sacramone writes “So, no, A Man Called Peter this is not.”

The angle the media took in covering this film could not be more devoid of religious understanding and Sacramone has a few questions.

Back to the Times‘ piece, Sacramone wonders why there was no reaction from filmgoers themselves:

Were any of the audience members who saw these films Christians, by chance? Did they perceive the films as mere hatchet jobs, the product of some anti-fundamentalists with an ax to grind? Were any of the Christians depicted in any way as three-dimensional — flawed but perhaps strengthened and ennobled by their faith? Did anyone come away seeing something positive in Christianity, something they might like to explore? Or did all these entries do nothing but confirm an already anti-religion, anti-Christian bias?

In which case, would that be all that surprising? Even to the Los Angeles Times?

In other words, does the story have more than one side? Any diversity of viewpoint?

Just asking.