10 years of GetReligion: Labels, labels, labels, labels!

It is my understanding that there was some kind of Jerry Springer-esque debate last night between young-earth creationist Ken (hello dinosaurs) Ham and Bill (The Science Guy) Nye.

Let me state up front that I am not terribly interested in what either man had to say.

However, I am curious to know if any of the thousands of religion-beat pros who live and move and have their being on Twitter can answer the following questions:

(1) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “creationist” defined? Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

(2) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “evolution” defined? If so, was the process described as being “mindless, unguided, and without purpose or goal” or words to that effect?

Also, was anyone involved in the debate whose viewpoint resembles the following?

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

And also:

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

These words, of course, were spoken by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Which simplistic term commonly used in mainstream articles about these debates — “creationism” or “evolution” — is best used to describe this soon-to-be-official saint’s perspective on God, man and creation? Which label, as commonly used by way too many journalists, deserves to be stuck on the forehead of John Paul the Great?

If there is one thing that your GetReligionistas do not like, at all, it is the degree to which the mainstream press accepts the use of vague, simplistic labels. Want to imply that you accept someone? Then call them a “moderate” (like that crucial New York Times self study noted). Want to imply that someone is stupid? Then you know what F-word to pin on them.

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That oh-so-predictable CNN article on ducks and doctrine

So color me confused.

At the moment, CNN is hailing this article — “Does Phil Robertson get the Bible wrong?” — as the “best, fairest, article on Christians and homosexuality you’ll ever read. Fact.”

Of course, we are talking about the Duck Dynasty doctrine wars and the GQ interview with duck patriarch Phil Robertson. Thus, the crucial passage of the CNN religion-blog post:

Robertson, 67, … paraphrases a Bible passage from the New Testament: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

That’s a pretty close citation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which is a letter from Paul, often called the father of Christianity theology, to a fledging Christian community in Corinth, Greece. Here’s what Paul’s passage says, as rendered in the New International Version, by far the most popular translation among evangelicals and conservative Christians such as Robertson:

“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, tend to take that passage at face value.

Uh, and among traditional Christians, precisely who doesn’t take that passage seriously when it comes to talking about the reality of sin in this fallen world? Catholics? The Eastern Orthodox? Most of the world’s Lutherans and Anglicans? Pentecostal believers (the fastest growing flock in worldwide Christianity)?

Pretty quickly, CNN sets this up as a rather typical battle between a country-fried preacher (or two) and a real biblical scholar. Yes, that is ONE biblical scholar, from one seminary. The hero of the piece is introduced in this manner:

But other Bible experts said the Scripture Robertson cited isn’t quite clear about homosexuality.

“A lot of people misread this text because it’s so complicated,” said O. Wesley Allen Jr., an associate professor at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

Now, what pray tell is the theological orientation of this seminary?

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Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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CNN puts religious liberty in scare quotes, but corrects it

It was one of the most famous First Amendment cases in American history. As the American Civil Liberties Union website notes:

One of the most noted moments in the ACLU’s history occurred in 1978 when the ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.

Everyone knew that this was a First Amendment case testing the limits of free speech, both literal speech and free speech in the form of symbolic actions.

Some people thought that letting the Nazis march through Skokie was a valid application of the First Amendment. Others disagreed and thought that this case crossed a line and that the First Amendment didn’t apply.

But no one doubted that this was a free speech case that raised First Amendment issues.

No one tried to argue that this was actually a “free speech” case or a “First Amendment” case. There was no need for news-media “scare quotes” implying that the conflict didn’t really center on free speech and the First Amendment.

This brings me to an interesting lede in a CNN.com piece the other day. Here is the top of the story, as it first appeared on the Internat. See anything interesting?

Washington (CNN) – The high-stakes fight over implementing parts of the troubled health care reform law will move to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months, in a dispute involving coverage for contraceptives and “religious liberty.”

The justices agreed … to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay. At issue is whether private companies can refuse to do so on the claim it violates their religious beliefs.

Now, hours later the wording changed.

You got it. That scare-quote formula — “religious liberty” — changed to a plain, simple factual reference to religious liberty, minus the quotation marks.

Why mention this in conjunction with the famous Skokie case?

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CNN goes long to say little about clergy and Obamacare

In Ecclesiastes 12:12b, we read: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

Alas, the same might be said for this story from CNN’s Belief Blog, which spends an eye-popping 2,746 words to tell us something truly astonishing: some Protestant pastors don’t want to talk about aspects of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, also popularly known as “Obamacare,” from the pulpit.

All righty, then. Next!

Well, there is a tad more to the story: CNN reports that while some pastors — at least one — are happy to discuss the granting of access to health insurance to many individuals who could not get coverage before, such pulpit pounding is rare:

The Rev. Timothy McDonald gripped the pulpit with both hands, locked eyes with the shouting worshippers, and decided to speak the unspeakable.

The bespectacled Baptist minister was not confessing to a scandalous love affair or the theft of church funds. He brought up another taboo: the millions of poor Americans who won’t get health insurance beginning in January because their states refused to accept Obamacare.

McDonald cited a New Testament passage in which Jesus gathered the 5,000 and fed them with five loaves and two fishes. Members of his congregation bolted to their feet and yelled, “C’mon preacher” and “Yessir” as his voice rose in righteous anger.

“What I like about our God is that he doesn’t throw people away,” McDonald told First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta during a recent Sunday service. “There will be health care for every American. Don’t you worry when they try to cast you aside. Just say I’m a leftover for God and leftovers just taste better the next day!”

McDonald’s congregation cheered, but his is a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s willing to condemn state leaders whose refusal to accept Obamacare has left nearly 5 million poor Americans without health coverage. But few of the most famous pastors in the Bible Belt will join him.

Shocking, isn’t it?

Here we have one of the most controversial questions of the day, on a subject that is grabbing daily, if not hourly, headlines, fraught with complications on all sides, and some preachers — how dare they? — won’t be caught on camera or in an e-mail expressing an opinion about a public policy drama that hasn’t fully played out as yet.

One has to get 727 words into the text before coming to a highly logical explanation why many in the “Bible Belt,” as CNN deems it, might be skittish about jumping into the topic:

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Toasting the Godbeat

Last night the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Eric Marrapodi, manager of CNN’s Belief Blog, with its first Vine & Fig Tree Journalist Award. I had the pleasure of attending and had an absolutely fantastic time and enjoyed meeting or seeing again many folks on the Godbeat.

I hadn’t really thought about what the evening would be like going in so I was pleasantly surprised at what a celebration of religion reporting it was. It’s really unusual to have even a small portion of a day set aside to honor good work or reflect on the importance of religion reporting.

Becket Fund President William P. Mumma got things going by talking about the Becket Fund, which fights for religious liberty on behalf of believers and non-believers alike. I wasn’t recording what he said but I was touched by his discussion of how difficult it is to cover religion, pointing out that believers are particular about their doctrines and that it can be difficult to navigate the conflict between religious adherents. He said he admired those who did it well. He noted that religion and the press are linked by a desire to find truth — a rather important point that I think we neglect. I recently read an essay about how the United States’ emphasis on a free press is actually rooted — from the infamous Zenger trial on — in a particular understanding of the importance of voluntarily seeking religious truth.

Sally Quinn toasted Marrapodi with a nice speech about how every story is about religion and how CNN’s BeliefBlog has done a great job showing that.

But it was Marrapodi’s speech that was the best. He joked about how he grew up freelance Protestant (which, he said, just meant that they went to a lot of different churches). When he was younger, he was utterly convinced that the media were biased against believers. Once he got into actual journalism work, he came to realize it wasn’t bias so much as ignorance. As he matured, he realized he was also ignorant of some things, which motivated him to study religion at Georgetown. He thanked his bosses who let him leave work early to take advantage of Lilly religion grant-funded courses at Georgetown. For three years!

Marrapodi talked about CNN’s Belief Blog and how he started it, giving props to fellow founder Dan Gilgoff. He joked about the site’s “broccoli and ice cream” approach — a balance of light and substantive stories. “You’ve got to keep the lights on folks!” he said. “This is a business!” The site has been wildly successful, with some 90 million hits in its first year. And I think he said the site had some 250 million hits at this point. Marrapodi said that there is a great audience for good, honest reporting on religion — and no religion.

It was all lovely. Marrapodi is a gracious award winner (and a great guy). And the night was a fun celebration of religion reporting. Congratulations to Marrapodi and to all who cover religion news well.


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