Changing climate — of church views on the environment

USA Today has been eroding its standard of short, shallow stories. And for a complex newsfeature like its recent story on religion and global warming, that is an exceedingly good thing.

The article focuses on the effort to sell global warming to church people. Religion and the environment is an evergreen topic — I wrote a long feature on it more than a decade ago — but USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya takes the interesting tactic of leading with a rabbi in Kansas:

Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a Psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber says. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

An admiring nod not only to the canny rabbi, for combining verses from both testaments of the Bible, but also to Zoroya for grabbing our attention right from the lede.

The story does a great survey of the environmental wings in the various religious bodies, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to United Methodist. Zoroya’s also touches base with veteran para-religious organizations, including the Evangelical Environmental Network and Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. (He bobbles a bit, though, in mentioning an “Episcopalian” priest; it’s “Episcopal.”)

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Pod people: Gunga Galunga goes CNN

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Carl: So I jump ship in Hong Kong and I make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas.

Angie: A looper?

Carl: A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier. Do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga … gunga, gunga-lagunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

Caddyshack (1980)

The Dalai Lama has an impressive resume: chief monk of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, symbol of Tibet’s aspirations for independence, human rights leader, champion of interfaith dialogue, Nobel peace prize laureate, and cultural icon. While he may be heartily disliked by the Chinese government, Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama is his title) has achieved a degree of renown in his lifetime equal to statesmen such as Nelson Mandela, or faith leaders such as John Paul II.

But this renown, coupled with the Western worldview held by most reporters, serves to obscure news reporting about the Dalai Lama.

In this week’s episode of Crossroads, a GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the tendency of Anglo-American journalism to hang the Dalai Lama in a Christian frame. The first 15 minutes of our conversation focused on bullying by The Guardian newspaper of the Church of England in the run up to its vote on July 14, 2014 on women bishops, while the second half moved to Tibet to examine a CNN report on a statement made by the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 79th birthday last week.

The Tibet story was drawn from my GetReligion article: “Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?”, where I argued:

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

In his birthday address to the faithful, the Dalai Lama called upon Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Mynamar to halt their violent campaign against Muslim minorities and act in a way more befitting their faith. CNN quoted him as saying:

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

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Are evangelicals America’s only real moral conservatives?

Nearly a decade ago, the conservative Weekly Standard ran a very newsy story on its cover under this ominous double-decker headline:

Banned in Boston

The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

The story shocked quite a few people and, behind the scenes, I know that many journalists linked to the religion beat passed it around, in part because so much of its reporting — even in the pages of a consevative magazine — centered on the complex and at times clashing legal views inside gay-rights groups.

The story opened like this:

Catholic Charities of Boston made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. “We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. … The issue is adoption to same-sex couples.”

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. “Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list,” Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. “It’s a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes.” Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, “This is a tragedy for kids.”

How did this tragedy happen?

It’s a complicated story.

Please note that this was also a Catholic story. It centered on a conflict between Catholic doctrines and a trend in American life. You can find similar stories about Orthodox Jews, if you dig deep enough. And, of course, you can find stories about conflicts linked to the life and work of evangelical Protestants, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby.

Now, let me stress that this is not a post about gay marriage and it’s not a post about religious liberty (sort of).

This is not even — as is the norm here at GetReligion — a post about a piece of mainstream news writing on a religion news or trend. Instead it’s a post pointing readers toward an Atlantic Monthly essay that, while puzzling, is must reading for people who work on the religion beat or who frequently consume religion news.

So what is so puzzling about this important article?

Things get strange right in the headline:

Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?

And here is the opening of this essay by Alan Noble:

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On Hobby Lobby, explain that ‘deeply held religious belief’

You got so close, Philadelphia Inquirer.

You got so close to a fair, enlightening news story on a Democratic senator who says he opposes abortion but rejects the religious concerns raised by Hobby Lobby in its recent U.S. Supreme Court win.

But here’s where you fell way short: in providing crucial details concerning the actual religious objections involved. Your story seems to get politics. Religion? Not so much.

The Inquirer report, of course, was published before a Democratic bill to reverse the high court’s Hobby Lobby ruling failed in the Senate Wednesday.

Let’s start at the top:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, an antiabortion Democrat, plans to vote Wednesday for a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision and force most businesses to offer employees the full range of contraceptive coverage, even if the owners raise religious objections.

The Pennsylvanian is siding with fellow Democrats – who argue that they are protecting women’s right to decide their own health care – and against many religious groups and Republicans, who say the court ruling protected religious liberties.

Casey, who is Catholic, said Tuesday in an Inquirer interview that he draws a distinction between abortion – which he still opposes – and contraception, which he has long supported and which he believes can reduce the number of abortions.

“The health-care service that’s at issue here is contraception, which means prior to conception,” Casey said.

But abortion has been a central part of the Hobby Lobby firestorm, which has also touched on health care, religious freedom, individual rights, and election-year politics.

OK, fair enough. Casey believes that the contraception involved here “means prior to conception.” But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Don’t expect an answer anytime soon in this story.

More from Casey:

Casey on Tuesday became the first antiabortion Democrat to cosponsor the bill, aimed at reversing the Supreme Court decision allowing business owners to exclude certain contraception options from their employee health packages. Some business owners said certain types of contraception could amount to abortion, an idea disputed by many doctors and scientists.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat, always have been, always will be,” Casey said. He later added: “I’ll go with the scientists on what contraception is, rather than a religious viewpoint of what science is.”

But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Oops. I already asked that. Still no answer.

Deep in the story, the Inquirer finally gets around to that question — but answers it only vaguely:

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Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

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Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Dead men file no lawsuits. They also don’t defend themselves to TV reporters. And live priests don’t divulge what they hear in the confessional.

That frees news media like WBRZ-TV to pile on the bias without being sued or contradicted.

Rebecca Mayeux, 20, told the Baton Rouge station that she was molested when she was 14 by George Charlet Jr., a fellow parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. She says she went three times about it to the pastor, Father Jeff Bayhi, only to be rebuffed. “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” she says he told her.

When she finally told her parents, they hired a lawyer, but the case has been complicated by the sudden death of the alleged molester of a heart attack. That puts pressure on Bayhi to talk about what he heard during confession.

WBRZ’s so-called Investigative Unit totally takes Mayeux’s side. It paints her as “an intelligent college student in the prime of her life” and that “reading is one of her favorite hobbies” — as if she’d be less credible if she were old, dumb and illiterate.

Chris Nakamoto, the main inquisitor, er, reporter, switches between saying what happened “according to Mayeux” and assuming that it all happened as she says. He shows a picture of Mayeux and Charlet “during the time frame Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture.” Interestingly, the text version of the story softens that accusation to “when she claims Charlet was abusing her” (emphasis mine).

WBRZ tries a “gotcha” moment with a TV videoclip of a YouTube homily by Bayhi, in which he urges parents to take action when they learn their children are being hurt. The clip “appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,” Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.

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A chilling account of Boko Haram targeting Christians

Last month, I highlighted the New York Times’ must-read profile of a Christian convert on the run in Afghanistan.

Now, I write again to recommend an indispensable story on a persecuted Christian — this one by the Los Angeles Times.

LATimes Johannesburg correspondent Robyn Dixon provides a chilling account of the plight of Nigerian church members:

When Boko Haram invaded her village last year, the Islamist extremists burned the churches, destroyed Bibles and photographs and forced Hamatu Juwanda to renounce Christianity.

“They said we should never go back to church because they had brought a new religion,” the 50-year-old said. “We were going to be converted to Islam.”

The head of the village, a Muslim, presented her with a thick nylon hijab to cover her head and renamed her Aisha.

She submitted, smarting with rage. Women who didn’t wear the hijab were beaten.

“When I went to the market, I wore the veil,” she said. “But at home, I took it off and prayed.”

The gunmen returned time after time to the village of Barawa, shooting people, burning houses and wearing down the resistance of the villagers.

Like the best journalism is apt to do, Dixon’s story puts a real human face on this tragedy.

The LATimes report does so while placing Juwanda’s experience into a larger context:

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‘Reformers’ win British battle over women in the episcopate

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The Church of England has taken what appears to be a definitive step toward women in the episcopate and, as you would expect, journalists at our major newspapers are pretty pumped up about that. You can see this quite clearly in language near the top of the Washington Post report about the historic vote in this symbolic national church.

The move effectively shatters the glass ceiling that prevented women here from being promoted to top church jobs and was made possible after reformers and traditionalists reached a compromise that would satisfy parishes opposed to female bishops. …

That it has taken this long for the church, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, to make the move may seem baffling to Anglicans in countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, where women already serve as bishops. It has been baffling for many here, too, with churchgoers and even the prime minister accusing the Church of England of being out of step with the times.

Once again, note the language used to frame this event.

The word “traditionalists” is certainly appropriate, since this was a debate about centuries of Christian tradition in churches that claim apostolic succession from the early church.

But what about that other word, “reformers”? As I have noted in the past, that is a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed. This term pretty much settles the issue, telling readers precisely who the good people are in this story, which means that folks on the other side are the kinds of blokes who are opposed to “reform.”

Do an online search for definitions of “reform” and you can see what I’m talking about. Here are some samples:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”

* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …

* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …

* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”

* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

So we are talking about the defeat of traditionalists who oppose the correction of abuses, the righting of injustices, the defeat of evil, etc., etc. Needless to say, the bad people on the losing side of the vote are not given much room to discuss their beliefs and concerns.

The Post team does mention people in the opposition, however, even while failing to listen to their voices.

… (The) issue of women as bishops remains highly divisive in the global Anglican community. The majority of the world’s 80 million Anglicans reside in Africa, where many vehemently oppose the idea.

In concessions to opponents with theological objections, the package of measures passed Monday allows a parish unsatisfied with a female bishop to ask for a male alternative and take its complaints to an independent body.

“You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in reference to the traditionalists during a lively, five-hour debate that preceded the vote.

Oh, those backward Africans.

Meanwhile, an analysis piece at the BBC — which was more balanced than the hard-news piece at the Post — dug a bit deeper and noted that quite a few of the major players in the highly Evangelical Protestant churches of Africa have no major objections to allowing their female priests to be considered as bishops. That piece also hinted at one of the major issues looming in the background, based on past history here in the United States and elsewhere:

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