Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

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How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. – Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

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Pod people: Stopping in again at the Death Café

Pull thoughts and words from my head and form sentences with them on a screen? No problem.

Speak into the air for those interested to hear? A little more of a challenge.

Yet this week my number came up; it was my first turn at the mic for GetReligion’s “Crossroads” podcast.

I chair-danced while the introductory music played. I tried to answer host Todd Wilken’s questions honestly and succinctly while adding the insight he asked. I prayed silently throughout that my daughter’s small, white pet rabbit sitting next to me wouldn’t start loudly munching on the wicker basket in the corner.

I’m told these things become easier with time and practice — not to mention professional voice coaching, a dialect makeover and a stint living somewhere outside the proverbial Bible Belt.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee first, though, because we’re stopping in again at the Death Café. In summary, I wanted to order up an item that wasn’t on the menu: any real spiritual discussion related to death, the destination of souls or thoughts about the afterlife.

I enjoyed reader FW Ken’s take on the subject and appreciated his thoughts on the journalistic questions I raised:

Finally got around to reading the article, and I’m here to tell you, is hard to take seriously a program called a Death Cafe. It sounds like a Deathmetal eatery. Maybe like that one in Chicago serving unconsecrated hosts on a burger.

Mulling over the critique that the article lacks substantive discussion of the afterlife, I would be fearful of such a discussion going in the circles illustrated in the comments on this thread. I can’t imagine that such a cheerful program would allow such theoretical discussions, but it would be nice to know if they happen, and how they are handled.

We also looked back at a BBC installment in its series on kindness regarding Keshia Thomas, an anti-KKK protester at a KKK rally that took a dangerous turn when a white supremacist was spotted in the anti-KKK section. Thomas said her instinct to shield the supremacist with her body was born of faith, and that she felt like angels were picking her up and placing her across him to protect him. The follow-up questions about her spiritual background and religious convictions were nil, however.

I haven’t seen a retrospective of this 1996 rally that has done Thomas’ story justice, but I’m still looking. I’m sure it will be a good one, if a reporter is willing to really listen to her replies and delve into the answer as to why she kept this man from being harmed that day.

Enjoy the show, and remember I’m the rookie around these parts!

Too little news, too much analysis?

A flurry of e-mailed links to religion news stories flies back and forth each day among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

If a contributor wants to take a crack at a particular story, that person calls “Dibs!”

We review many more stories than we have time or space to critique, evidenced by the 3,798 items in my “GR story possibilities” folder. In the case of the story I’m about to highlight, the e-mailed link drew an immediate question from one member of our team, who asked:

Is this a news story?

I replied to the question by attaching an image of the Sunday front page of The Tennessean, where Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s story on the Christian right received prominent play.

But the connotation of my colleague’s question was clear.  And in the case of this particular report, it’s a fair question, I believe.

As is typically true, Smietana quotes excellent sources who provide interesting insight. But in a number of places, this story reads more like an editorial than a news account, starting at the very top:

Since the day Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, white Christians have considered themselves the home team in American politics.

As the dominant social group, they’ve shaped the country’s moral and political culture for nearly 400 years.

But the recent presidential election is a sign that those days may be over, a prospect that’s encouraging or terrifying, depending on which side people are on.

For some, the change leads to fear that America is no longer a Christian nation. For others, it’s an opportunity to separate faith from the quest for political power.

What’s missing? Specific attribution (named sources) certainly would help back up the claims stated as facts.

Perhaps labeling such a piece a “News Analysis” would alert readers that they’re in for a heavy dose of the reporter’s perspective and opinions, but that did not occur in this case.

The writer’s choice of Bible teachings to reference provides additional hints of editorialization. For example, there’s this:

Mansfield points out that conservative politics and the Bible don’t always match up. Take immigration. The Bible teaches believers to welcome strangers and immigrants and not to mistreat them, he said, but conservative politics dictates illegal immigrants be deported and a wall built to keep them out.

I wrote a story myself this year in which I noted that Leviticus 19:33 declares, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.” On the flip side, however, Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Also in The Tennessean’s story:

The Bible tells believers to care for the poor. Religious conservatives often put a priority on personal responsibility.

Again, I would expect that an objective news story would allow the religious conservatives, too, to offer a biblical perspective. For example, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’”

Before closing, I should remind GetReligion readers that I am a fan of Smietana’s generally first-class work on the religion beat, evidenced by my previous posts praising his stories. That’s probably why I did not immediately call “Dibs!” on this latest story but rather was encouraged to take it.

But in this single case, a talented and competent journalist (and his newspaper) fell short of the mark, in my humble opinion. As always, I welcome opposing viewpoints in the comments section. However, please take a moment and read the whole story before weighing in.


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