Yes, Newsweek missed the Church Ladies

NewsweekOprahFor the past week or so, something kept bothering me about the Newsweek cover story titled “How Women Lead.”

I mean, I survived reading the thing (it is soooooo neo-People magazine) and I even marked it up a bit. Then I tossed it on my desk and it has been there ever since, staring at me. If you want to see the basic, non-ghostly holes poked in it, I suggest that you turn to Myrna Blyth’s “Girly Gobbledygook” column at National Review Online.

But I decided pretty quick that there wasn’t much to write about, looking at “How Women Lead” from a GetReligion point of view.

Then somebody sent me a reminder about the recent Christine Rosen “Houses of Worship” essay in The Wall Street Journal. That’s the one with this punchy, even pushy headline: “Church Ladies — Women dominate America’s pews. Is that a problem?” Here is the opening of that essay:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

Bingo. Now I knew what was bugging me about that shallow Newsweek cover story. Somehow, the team that produced it forgot about the Church Ladies and the tremendous impact that women are having on modern sanctuaries.

This is a big news story. Some social critics will even say that this rise in female power is directly linked to at least three major Godbeat stories — the lack of men in pews, the decline of the liberal mainline and the rise (sort of, the stats suggest more like a plateau) of the new conservative mainstream. 0785260382

Here is what that argument sounds like, with Rosen riffing on the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

(Personal note: Before people start leaving comments on this, let me confess that my family worships in an Eastern Orthodox parish, the most ancient of churches and one in which women can be saints, theologians, professors, iconographers, apologists and all kinds of things, but not priests.)

The power of religion does show up — very briefly — in the Newsweek mini-profile of Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I had noticed this reference, with its strong faith language, but this theme had really not been woven into the piece. Baxter testifies:

The other thing that is very important is my spiritual background. I received my calling in the ministry in 1988 when I was stationed in Germany. The Lord called me through a dream. It was 2 in the morning and I jumped up out of the bed. I heard his voice clearly. The next day I talked to my pastor and he put me into a training program. I was licensed with the Church of God in Christ. When I retire, I plan to go to seminary and pursue a divinity degree.

However, note that the Church of God in Christ is a very conservative denomination, in terms of its culture and social views. It ordains women, but this is not a flock that most people would put on the left side of the sanctuary when it comes to moral issues and basic doctrine. This is not the United Church of Christ.

No, I think that the most important piece of Godtalk in the Newsweek package, the one most closely linked to the skyrocketing statistics about women in pews and mainline pulpits, can be found in the profile of the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, this paragraph is the closest thing this cover package offered to a thesis statement. Maybe there is a ghost in there after all.

And behold, Oprah said:

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I’ve made a bad business decision is when I didn’t follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: “Let me pray on it.” Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning.

And millions of Americans said: “Amen.”

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Newsweek’s mailbag

mail callThe mail call for Newsweek‘s splash on the Mormon Church was thick and heavy, judging by those letters published in this week’s issue. There are a total of 15, by my count. Here’s a good summary:

One member “anxious about inaccuracies” was “pleasantly surprised at the great job of compactly presenting such a huge topic.” Another insisted that “the Mormon Church has no need to ‘confront’ its past.” Still another wondered how an article by “a current member of the church could offer a ‘fair and balanced’ portrayal.” Many readers took exception to calling Mormonism a Christian denomination, and others criticized the church for its secret ceremonies and exclusivity. “The Mormon Church is a Masonic lodge dressed up for public view as a Christian church,” a former member said. Others questioned Mormonism’s history, pointing to the frequently altered Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith’s reported discovery of gold plates. Charged one, “This obviously fairy-tale religion was founded by a boy magician and latter-day con man.”

Some of the letters are quite vicious, many voicing the opinions already voiced on this blog, but in Newsweek, as with most publications, full names and localities are published. The effort involved and the publication of a bit more personal information somehow give them more weight.

The highlight for me was the letter addressing the issue of Newsweek‘s allowing a lifelong Mormon to report the piece:

Elise Soukup may be a lifelong Mormon, but her reporting displays little knowledge of Christianity. She wrote a nice PR piece for the Mormon Church, which fits well into its campaign to promote itself as mainstream and Christian. When Soukup notes the wonderful care the Mormon Church gives the daily needs of its members, she is correct. The Mormons are unlike the Lutherans or Catholics who, with their huge social-service programs, take care of anyone in need. Caring for all, not just one’s own church members, is what Jesus taught his followers to do.
Charles Jones
Chicago, Ill.

So is Mr. Jones being sarcastic? I believe so. But I’m having trouble sorting out his exact point.

More importantly, is this a big issue? Frequent GetReligion commenter Stephen A. first brought this to our attention early on. It’s something I wish I had known for the original post, because part of me believes this should have been disclosed in the article, but that could establish a bad precedent for religion reporting.

In an online chat, Soukup is quick to disclose this fact. Perhaps that’s a more appropriate forum for disclosing personal information like this.

She addresses it later in the chat and is quite upfront about it:

Salt Lake City, UT:
How can you write a cover with your conflict of interest, without disclosing your bias in your article?
Elise Soukup: Good question. In the [editor's] note at the front of the magazine, I’m identified as “a lifelong member of the Mormon Church.” I am definitely upfront about it! But the larger question is the one of, how can you write an article about a church if you are a believing member? First off, I have to say that I am just one of the many people that worked on this article before it made it to print. It went through several senior editors — none of them Mormon. So there’s definitely a checks and balance system! With that said, it’s not uncommon for reporters to write about what they know (e.g. I believe that the person who wrote last week’s TIME article about gay teens was gay himself). But my job became easy when I realized that I didn’t have to take sides. Really, what I tried to do was provide a straightforward and candid account of founder Joseph Smith, the church he established and the most common debates or controversies that are discussed. I’ve gotten angry letters on both sides, so I feel that I’m doing my job.

Just doing her job, trying to be straightforward, receiving angry letters from both sides … as a journalist, this works for me.

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Face it, the Miers nomination is …

Toast btIn a city that is already buzzing with gossip, it takes a really hot story to crank the chatter up another notch. Well, the latest Washington Post twist in the saga of Harriet Miers and God certainly did that. Here’s the bottom line in reporter Jo Becker’s fine story (which deserved much better headlines): Bush’s legal sidekick, while serving as president of the Texas Bar Association, told elite female audiences that she backed what is essentially a libertarian position on abortion.

That will be very hard to spin in Colorado Springs. Thus, Becker reports:

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate said that Miers’s speech … appears to contradict a position she took just four years earlier, when she was running for the Dallas City Council. Then, she told activists at the Texans for Life Coalition she personally believed that abortion was murder and filled out a questionnaire for an antiabortion group in which she checked a box pledging to “actively support” a constitutional amendment banning abortions except to save a woman’s life.

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman said the right to self-determination is at the heart of the case law granting a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If you take what she said at face value, you would conclude that she recognizes the right of a woman to choose an abortion as a matter of self-determination,” Michelman said. “She seems to be a woman who over time is pulled in different directions, as many of us are, as she searched for answers.”

Journalists will want to note that the website package includes links to the two key speech texts, both in PDF, here and here. I would imagine that many, many copies of these texts are being printed out in several Christian right offices today, and we can expect MSM stories tomorrow on reactions from all of the usual zip codes.

Unless, of course, somebody you know where leaks you know what about you know who.

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Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

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Fred Phelps in the European news

fred phelpsOh to be back in London right now. Or even Paris.

Europe’s Sky News is reporting an undercover “investigation” on highly controversial religious leader Fred Phelps. With reporting like this in Europe on religion in America, Europeans will be loving us about as much the Israelis appreciated their Roman rulers. The problem in this case is that you can’t really fault the Sky News report for overly hyping the basic facts in the story.

A peek at Phelps’ website makes the Sky report seem tame, and his Wikipedia article confirms the belief system portrayed in the article, which follows:

The Sky Report has secretly filmed one of America’s most controversial Christian ministers praising the London bombings.

Fred Phelps says that terrorist outrages and natural disasters such as Hurricane Rita are examples of God’s wrath against countries such as America and Britain for tolerating homosexuals and homosexuality.

Fred Phelps, who set up the controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, told our undercover reporter about the attacks, which killed 52 people:

“Oh I am so thankful that happened. My only regret is that they didn’t kill about [a] million of them. England deserves that kind of punishment, as does this country (America)”.

This is just great. Phelps and his 150 followers (about 90 percent are related to him in one way or another) are now the face of American fundamentalism (a much-abused term, I might add). But according to Wikipedia, even fundamentalists don’t like this guy.

And it gets worse:

Phelps made news just last month when the Daily Telegraph reported that the Swedish royal family were consulting lawyers after discovering that he had made outrageous claims about their sexuality on the internet.

Several members of the Westboro Baptist Church congregation were planning to visit Sweden — placards in hand — ready to spread their message that Sweden is, “a land of sodomy, bestiality and incest”.

I remember how The Washington Post Magazine handled a profile of perennial candidate Lyndon Larouche a year ago. Rather than hyping the craziness of Larouche and his campaigns, it took a very thorough look at the organization and showed it for what it is and how dangerous it can be.

Sky News is doing us all a disfavor in this report. Sure, Phelps has made outrageous comments, but he by no means represents any serious group of Christians or Americans. While you can’t ignore people like this, because there is an obvious news angle for the European broadcasters, this type of reporting does not qualify as quality journalism.

(Note: my criticism in this piece is on the media coverage, not Phelps, who we’ve written about here and here. People can say what they want to say, in my humble opinion, so try to keep comments focused on the Sky News report, not Phelps and his group.)

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Another Passion fan: Anne Rice

RiceCoverDavid Gates of Newsweek makes a nearly perfect comparison regarding novelist Anne Rice’s late work, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt — “It’s the most startling public turnaround since Bob Dylan’s ‘Slow Train Coming’ announced that he’d been born again.”

Entertainment Weekly gave a preview of the book’s contents in May, drawing largely from Rice’s messages on Now Gates delivers fresh observations from a visit to Rice’s home in La Jolla:

Rice knows “Out of Egypt” and its projected sequels — three, she thinks — could alienate her following; as she writes in the afterword, “I was ready to do violence to my career.” But she sees a continuity with her old books, whose compulsive, conscience-stricken evildoers reflect her long spiritual unease. “I mean, I was in despair.” In that afterword she calls Christ “the ultimate supernatural hero . . . the ultimate immortal of them all.”

To render such a hero and his world believable, she immersed herself not only in Scripture, but in first-century histories and New Testament scholarship — some of which she found disturbingly skeptical. “Even Hitler scholarship usually allows Hitler a certain amount of power and mystery.” She also watched every Biblical movie she could find, from “The Robe” to “The Passion of the Christ” (“I loved it”). And she dipped into previous novels, from “Quo Vadis” to Norman Mailer’s “The Gospel According to the Son” to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s apocalyptic Left Behind series. (“I was intrigued. But their vision is not my vision.”)

Include me among those relieved that Rice has not signed on to a pre-trib rapture eschatology. Nothing would send her career to a quicker doom than becoming a featured speaker at National Religious Broadcasters.

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The case of the buried lead

bsg buried treasure2If the news is buried, is it really news? Certainly, if GetReligion points it out.

The Boston Globe‘s Amalie Benjamin profiles the “comeback victory” of New England Patriots linebacker Don Davis. Nice bit of reporting and writing, but as our reader Mark pointed out in a letter to the paper’s ombudsman, the article’s real news was buried deep inside the yarn.

But first, here’s the nut graph of the article:

His playbook was gone, left behind in New Orleans, as the Saints had requested. He had been released that November day in 1998, a linebacker sent out into the unforgiving abyss that greets NFL castoffs. He hitched the U-Haul to the Mustang and drove, his tears obscuring the highway.

What am I going to do with my life? How am I going to recover? Who am I?

He had no answers.

”I drove straight from New Orleans to Kansas City with my phone off and nothing but hate and anger and sadness,” said Davis. ”Those 14 hours, I would say, were critical. That’s when everything came to a head. That’s when I really needed that time to look at me and see who I was and what I was planning on doing. I really had no idea, outside of football, who I was.”

He made no plans, had no unsettling thoughts of how and when, but suicide was in his mind.

Tremendous reporting, excellent narrative, but it’s not until the 35th paragraph do we read what Mark believes to be the hook of the story:

Those eyes, ever shifting, have caught only one player with the potential to hit the depths he experienced. Davis, deeply religious, thanks God that the player didn’t act.

I’m with Mark in that this aspect of Davis’ life certainly deserved a bit of digging. I can’t imagine that this is all Benjamin knew of Davis’ religious beliefs. Otherwise how would Benjamin be able to write that he was “deeply religious”? The problem is that that assertion is not backed up and leaves the reader hanging.

And here is what our reader Mark wrote to Benjamin and the ombudsman:

Here’s a man whose life was in the pits, but seven years later is a calm, mature leader on a championship football team. What made the difference? What produced this life change? How did this transformation take place? What people, conversations, or organizations assisted him? We get nary a whisper of answers to these questions — except those two words, “deeply religious.”

I am reasonably certain that that Don told you quite clearly what his salvation was, and I don’t think it was sleep (para. 10). By failing to let him tell us also you not only didn’t address the basic 5 Ws of journalism but also did your readers a grave disservice.

We’ll see if the ombudsman gets back to Mark on this, but I am curious why this aspect of the story was buried. I don’t know whether the religious aspect of his life belong in the lead, but certainly questions were unanswered.

Other sportswriters have no problem covering sports figures’ faith. Indianapolis Star sportswriters covering the Colts often cite head coach Tony Dungy’s deep faith. Here’s an example in coverage leading up to his 100th win:

“He was a huge reason why I came here,” [Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey] Simon said. “He doesn’t allow the game to run his life. Family is very important to him and his faith in God and his relationship with Jesus Christ is very important to him, and those are two things that I value very highly in a person, especially a person who’s going to be my coach.

Could this just be an East Coast media thing?

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Holy Ghost in the Cash story

walk the lineFirst of all, I need to state the obvious. A long time ago I was I was a rock columnist in a mainstream newspaper, and you only have to do that job for, oh, a week or so to learn that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times is one of the giants. So that is a given.

I also realize that Hilburn’s recent feature story about Joaquin Phoenix was a story about the young actor and his craft. But this story was also about the actor’s attempts to submerge himself into the larger-then-life persona of the late Johnny Cash while filming the Oscar-hot movie Walk the Line.

Hilburn — who actually attended the legendary Cash concert in Folsom Prison — knows he is dealing with material soaked in faith, sin, grace and redemption. At least, I think he does.

But he ended up writing a story that talks about how Phoenix looked into the soul of the country-rock-folk-gospel legend, but never gets around to telling us much about what he saw in there. He says that Phoenix was having trouble shaking loose from some parts of Cash’s story and personality, now that the movie is done. OK, that’s interesting. Like what?

There is even hint that the actor’s own background may have a religion ghost or two in it. For example:

“I’m into exploring characters, exploring the human condition,” he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. “I’m into psychoanalyzing people. I think it’s something I grew up around.”

He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early ’80s.

“In the early days, we were definitely poor,” he says. “We didn’t have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don’t recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up.”

Now one rarely sees words like “missionary” and “hippie” in the same sentence, but the story of the Children of God — church, cult, movement, all of the above — includes many plot twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Joaquin Phoenix comes from interesting stock. It would have been nice to see Hilburn explore that issue.

Cash, of course, was a famous sinner as well as an evangelist, a man always aware of the blackness of his own heart. This is a key element in his life and legend.

Does Walk the Line explore this side of Cash? How did Phoenix wrestle with those lively angels and demons? It turns out that the iconoclastic Christian T-Bone Burnett helped the actor learn how to handle the musical side of this difficult role. Did they talk about the role that faith played in Cash’s life and music?

Hilburn is a great writer. Maybe he’ll get around to the Holy Ghost side of the story of Cash and Phoenix in another article. Frankly, I have no clue how he avoided it.

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