Missing half of America’s changing ecumenical landscape

A long, long, long time ago I covered a press conference featuring leaders of the various bodies linked to the Colorado Council of Churches. The key was that the organization — in support of an essentially liberal political cause of some kind — was claiming that it spoke for the vast majority of the state’s churches.

The problem was that, by the 1980s, the conversion of the Colorado Front Range into an evangelical hotbed (including evangelicals in many oldline Protestant bodies) was well on its way. Also, a more doctrinally conservative Catholic archbishop had arrived in town, one anxious to advocate for Catholic teachings on public issues on both sides of the political spectrum (think opposition to death penalty and to abortion).

Still, it was an important press conference that helped document one side of a religious debate in the state.

Near the end of the session, I asked what I thought was a logical question: Other than the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, did any of the CCC leaders present represent a church that had more members at that moment than during any of the previous two or three decades?

The church leaders in attendance were not amused.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state, there were budding signs of increased talks between Southern Baptists, Catholics, charismatic Episcopalians, African-American Pentecostals, Latino evangelicals and, from time to time, Orthodox Jews and Mormons.

I kept telling my editors that this was a new development in ecumenical and interfaith work. This was news — the other half of an important state story. One key editor kept saying, “But this is not part of the Colorado Council of Churches, right?”

Now, if you look at the membership of the CCC these days you will see many of those old familiar church names, a pretty solid vision of the progressive Protestant left. What you will not see — no surprise — is the name of the Catholic archdiocese.

I described both sides of that journalism parable to say that — decades later — this same story continues to unfold across the nation. Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran under the headline, “Interfaith movement struggles to adapt to changing religious landscape.” The lede will surprise few readers who have been watching demographic trends in American religion.

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How to write a bland story about the March For Life

As expected, the journalists at The Washington Post were pretty careful with their coverage of this year’s March For Life. As I wrote the other day, in a challenge to GetReligion readers:

I would imagine that the Post team will be rather careful in its coverage this year, after receiving rather stark criticism from its own reader’s representative. I predict some photos and even videos that capture the size of the crowd. I expect quotes from the young women who are the backbone of the event, year after year. …

As you read the coverage … pay special attention to the variety of voices who are interviewed on both sides. Were you impressed with the quality of those allowed to explain what this event, what this day, meant to them and to America? Was the language loaded and packed with “scare quotes” and labels? Did you hear from liberals who oppose abortion, as well as the political (as opposed to cultural) conservatives who support abortion rights?

In other words, I wanted to see more coverage, but I also wanted to see coverage that was more complex, that featured voices that journalists rarely include in this ongoing national debate.

I was seeking a more complex journalistic picture, not a picture that ignored one side or the other.

However, one long-time GetReligion reader saw things differently, even though Thomas Szyszkiewicz was moderately pleased with what the Post served up, this time around:

Actually, the Washington Post coverage was pretty decent this year: No “counterbalancing” opinions, no unattributed commentary — just straight reporting of the people who were there and even noting that most of the people were young. Even the photo gallery was good — only two out of 23 photos were of counter-demonstrators. … [A] good and fair job. … Overall, though, a vast improvement on past years.

Actually, that isn’t the kind of journalistic coverage that your GetReligionistas seek to promote, week after week, year after year. No “counterbalancing” opinions? Why not? There are plenty of crucial voices out there on the pro-abortion-rights side — voices on the left and the libertarian right, for starters. Those voices are part of the story.

Meanwhile, I do appreciate the salute to copy that is free of “unattributed commentary,” but there is no need for one-sided copy on an issue as complex as this one.

That doesn’t mean that journalists can’t cite the best version of the facts that they can assemble. There are ways to describe the size of a crowd of marchers and ways to count and describe the much, much smaller number of counter-demonstrators.

The main Post story attempted to do that — a bit. Here are a few samples, with my commentary:

Buses from around the country, mostly chartered by Catholic schools and organizations, brought groups of people to the Mall for a pre-march rally in which politicians, religious leaders and activists decried the 55 million abortions they said had been performed since the Roe v. Wade decision.

Wait a minute: There are no estimates from the cultural left and right over the number of abortions performed in the past 40 years?

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Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites

For some reason or another, quite a few folks who read this here weblog want to know what I, and the other GetReligionistas, think of the decision by leaders of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — better known as Washington National Cathedral — to officially begin performing same-sex union rites.

Well, for starters, that’s a question about an event in the news, not a question about mainstream-media coverage of an event in the news. So that really isn’t a GetReligion question.

Personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I don’t have a horse in that race. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that modern Protestant bodies who hold votes to decide major doctrines are free to do whatever they want to do. However, various camps within the 600,000 or so Episcopalians who continue to worship in their local parishes on a regular basis will, and should, care deeply about this development. Press coverage should make note of that.

However, does this liturgical decision really surprise anyone? The trends in the Episcopal Church establishment have been steady for a decade or two. Episcopal clergy here in DC Beltway-land have been performing forms of same-sex union rites for three decades.

Now, a national rite has been approved and the contents are there for all to see. It would be a much bigger story if this symbolic cathedral declined to use these rites.

One longtime GetReligion reader did raise another interesting question, one that could be a hook for valid journalistic coverage. She wrote:

A friend told me yesterday that it’s irritating to keep reading about the National Cathedral in the news — as if that Episcopalian church was really the official US cathedral. So I was checking it out and see that the Washington National Cathedral is the church’s official name and it claims “it is called to serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” …

In spite of the … provision that we have no established church, why does the press continue to treat the Episcopal Cathedral in DC as if it is the official US religious center for political events? … Why is this situation not seen as a church-state difficulty by the press?

It is certainly true that, in terms of history, Episcopalians have, well, outperformed their numbers when it comes to having an impact on national news and American history. At this point, I think few would challenge a statement that National Cathedral is America’s most important liberal Protestant sanctuary. But, in terms of numbers and demographics, does that make it the “spiritual home for the nation”?

That might be a hook for an interesting story, but it really isn’t the key issue in this story about same-sex marriage.

When I started reading the coverage, I wanted to know if the teams in our major newsrooms realized that this symbolic action was a typical Episcopal-Anglican story, one with implications at the local, national and global levels. I also wondered if journalists would consider the ecumenical impact of this decision, in terms of the cathedral’s relationships with larger bodies of American believers — such as Catholics, evangelicals, charismatics, etc. Who knows, there was even a chance that journalists might interview one or two important religious leaders who opposed this action.

Hey, it could happen.

But don’t hold your breath.

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Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage?

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Back in my Rocky Mountain News days, I covered an ecumenical gathering in Boulder, Colo., focusing on contemplative prayer and meditation. One of the main speakers was a leader at the Nada Carmelite monastic community — part of the Spiritual Life Institute — located in Crestone, Colo., at on the western face of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

During the question-and-answer session, the mother abbess was asked why she kept insisting that her prayers and meditations were focused on the person of Jesus Christ, and not on her own spirit, her own soul, her own personality. Why, she asked, did she keep insisting that the Divine was outside of herself.

For starters, she said, the reality of the Holy Trinity and a transcendent God is at the heart of Christian theology. Deny that and you have denied the faith. Plus, she added, “I have never enjoyed dancing alone.”

I will help to keep that quote in mind while reading the recent Washington Post Style section feature about the urban hermitage that has been opened by the Franciscan brothers of urban Washington, D.C. Here’s the top of the story, which sets the tone for this three-pronged news feature:

The headline in the monthly Ward 5 newspaper described what sounded like an antidote to the nonstop iPhone-checking, list-making, ladder-climbing, goal-setting, Washington mind-set: “Refuge for the Metropolitan Hermit.”

The article described a postage stamp of a cabin, urbanely designed and gloriously sunlit, standing alone amid four acres of maples and white oaks on a protected hilltop you’ve probably never seen, although it’s in the middle of the city. Dubbed “the hermitage” by the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Northeast Washington, the space has no WiFi, TV or radio, and its occupancy limit is one.

It’s been booked nearly solid since it opened in October.

Now, I called this a three-pronged story for a simple reason. On one level, it’s a story about this unique and interesting hermitage. On another level, it’s also about the noisy crush of urban life and the challenges faced by those trying to flee it, even for a brief period of time.

So far so good. The problem, from my perspective as an orthodox and Orthodox Christian, is that the story also seems to have assumed that all theories, doctrines and methods of contemplative prayer are one and the same or, at the very least, they are all seeking the same end.

The journalistic question this story raised for me is whether that this story accurately represents the beliefs and ministry of this hermitage and the brothers who operate it. More on that in a moment.

The strength of the story focuses on that second point, with the Style team reaching out to its core readers, those urban folks trapped in their noisy ruts. This is the “we” in the story, the assumed point of view.

What do we complain about more these days than the tyranny of constant stimulation? Our attempts to tune out the outside world — the occasional radio-less drive to work, the concerted decision to leave the phone at home for a few hours — are often ineffectual. It has come to this: True solitude is such a rarity in our modern lives that we have to buy it — or, in this case, rent it for $70 a night.

But it turns out solitude isn’t that simple. Although participation in silent retreats is on the rise, many of those preparing to spend time at the hermitage said they were so unaccustomed to unstructured time alone that they made to-do lists — then feared they were doing “solitude” wrong and scrapped them. They agonized over what to bring and wear and eat, as if they were traveling to an exotic land.

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher, wife and mother who lives near the monastery, was happy to pay $140 for two nights at the hermitage. But as the days drew closer, a stressful question surfaced. “I thought: ‘How am I going to fill my time?’”

This is a serious question.

The Catholic University architecture students who designed the RV-size space worked to envision the needs and rhythms of tenants who were unplugged. They were asked to turn off all their own devices and spend an hour alone and silent. Of the 12, only three were able to do it.

This explicitly Catholic context is then linked to a larger trend in American culture, broadly defined, which is the interfaith quest for silence and peace, as represented by the rising numbers of people attempting spiritual retreats of various kinds.

Various expert voices are marshaled to help flesh out this perfectly valid story. However, things get interesting — some would say distressing — when we jump into the history of the Franciscans.

The 350-square-foot hermitage was the idea of brothers whose order is named for Saint Francis, the legendary Catholic preacher who ditched his wealthy upbringing in pursuit of a material-free life of contemplation. Typically hermitages — the word means a place for someone who wants to live in seclusion, usually for spiritual reasons — are in remote areas, but the Franciscans wanted to create one in the middle of the city.

The 42-acre monastery grounds lent themselves to the project; the property sits on one of Washington’s rare hilltops and feels almost Mediterranean. Its main building is a huge Byzantine-style church built in the late 1800s and modeled after Istanbul’s 4th-century Hagia Sofia. Its grounds include sprawling rose gardens tended by a 100-volunteer guild and the four-acre wooded hillside that is home to the hermitage. Although 20 friars live in the monastery, the property emphasizes aloneness, its design intended to facilitate contemplation of the inner self. (For the Franciscans, such contemplation ideally deepens one’s relationship with God.)

This website has many informed Catholic readers of various stripes. Thus, I would like to ask them to chime in as I ask one or two basic questions.

First and foremost, which description best describes St. Francis? Was he a “preacher” or was he someone whose ministry primarily focused on “contemplation”? I know some Franciscans and I have written about members of contemplative orders, such as the Carmelites. These are not the same ministries. The brothers in D.C., for example, describe their work this way, stressing that:

… 800 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church entrusted the guardianship of the Holy Land and other shrines of the Christian religion to the Order of St. Francis. This work has grown to include support of schools and missions in the Holy Land, as well as care for refugees and other needy people throughout the region.

The Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., sustains this 800-year mission of the Franciscan Friars in the Holy Land through education, fundraising, recruiting vocations, promoting pilgrimages and providing pastoral ministry locally to religious and lay Catholics and to all of good will.

Also, it is rather strange to say that their spirituality focuses on the “contemplation of the inner self,” even if — the Post hastens to note the order’s narrow Christian vision — the purpose is to deepen “one’s relationship with God.” I thought that the primary purpose of self examination, in Franciscan and Catholic thought, was to lead to repentance of sin and, ultimately, to a state of thankfulness and union with a forgiving God. The goal, as the Carmelite abbess said, is the opposite of dancing alone.

In the end, I was left wondering about the purpose of this beautiful urban hermitage. This is a fascinating news story about a fascinating and timely subject. Still, I was left asking: Did the Post team get this right or not? Were the views of the Franciscans accurately reported or not?

Hurricanes and political storms, near my desk in D.C.

A long time ago (in digital terms), back at the beginning of this here weblog, I sat at my desk in West Palm Beach, Fla., listening to the sound of an oncoming hurricane and thinking about a very practical issue: How does one blog about religion news on a daily basis if the power goes out for, let’s say, a week?

Well, that happened to me twice back in the fall of 2004.

That led me to write about a whole mess of bizarre religion stories in short, machine-gun bursts of commentary — on topics ranging from Britney Spears (still in the news today, alas) to the voice of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, one of the last of the old-school, culturally conservative Democrats. The whole idea was to get some news into cyberspace for GetReligion readers to think about when I vanished.

But I also ended that post this way:

… (You) know what, I am really more interested in requesting the prayers of GetReligion readers who are into that kind of thing. The hurricane shutters on our house are almost totally up and we have just made the decision that, unless something changes radically, we are riding the storm out here in West Palm Beach. …

Palm Beach Atlantic University, where I teach, is on the canal in downtown. If we take a direct hit and Palm Beach island goes under water, the campus will suddenly be facing the storm surge. This has not happened since 1928 or so and the city is a radically different place now. No one really knows what will happen downtown. …

This morning, I took the “essentials” out of my campus office. It is an interesting thing, trying to choose what goes in one box to take out of the flood zone.

All my academic books are still there on the shelves, covered by plastic trash bags. Then there are the four tall filing cabinets full of notes from 25 years of reporting. They could be ruined. All those manila folders full of notes scribbled in Flair pen — the ink that runs when it gets wet.

I saved things that cannot be replaced, like lecture notes, icons from Greece, a few marked-up books and old video tapes. Oh, that and the large oil painting of Aslan. Further up and further in.

One box. To go. It was a sobering process. And not a bad thing to have to do, every now and then.

So now my office is a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the streets here inside the ultimate Beltway are very, very quiet — people-wise. No buses. No subways. No Amtrak or commuter trains. I am here, with my students, riding out the storm. All of those files full of Flair pen notes survived the Florida storms and are now stashed in a leaky basement in our blue-collar neighborhood just south of Baltimore. I would appreciate prayers that they survive Sandy and that the giant tree in front of our creaky old house stays upright, in its current location.

So what should we talk about today, as the winds begin to howl? I am told by the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway that the power rarely goes down here on The Hill, so I think I will be around, or back online, pretty quick this time. So let’s talk about another kind of storm — the volatile combination of race, moral theology and politics that is swirling around several ballot-box issues in Maryland, with same-sex marriage in the middle of all of it all. That mix came up the other day, of course, in my post about the interesting case of Angela McCaskill, the Gallaudet University diversity officer.

Now, The Washington Post has waded into similar waters with a piece that ran under this headline: “Maryland referendums on gambling, gay marriage and immigrant tuition prompt soul-searching among black churchgoers.”

A GetReligion reader offered this viewpoint via email:

WaPo had an interesting article about PG County churches and voters and their relationship with the big ballot issues in Maryland this election (the Dream Act, same-sex marriage and casinos). I wish it were a bit longer, but it’s quite good. It gives a lot of context for the religiosity of PG County, and it’s not “brainless Biblical literalists vs. nuanced progressives” on the gay marriage stuff, which is nice. It even gets into the idea of the Dream Act being a social justice issue that Maryland religious groups are mostly supporting, so it’s a wonderful change from the “religious = Republican” meme.

It’s kind of hard for me to comment on this particular piece, because one of the authors is a close friend of mine — veteran Post metro reporter Hamil Harris, a man with a seminary degree to his credit (as well as a NCAA national-championship ring from his Florid State University football days). However, let me note the following as an example of the kind of material that reporters are looking for if they want to take African-American believers seriously.

This is how the story opens.

With the fog still burning off at 7:30 a.m., the Rev. Henry P. Davis III was just warming up, settling into the rhythm of a sermon about relying on faith during hard times. But two hours later, as the congregants filed out, many still remembered, word for word, one line.

“No matter what is on the ballot, I am going to stand on the word of God,” said Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park, a brick building with a white steeple just over a knoll from FedEx Field in Prince George’s County.

Although he’d been vague, his flock knew exactly what he meant. And on a Sunday morning before the Nov. 6 election, in a county with 800 mostly black churches, it was a familiar refrain.

What didn’t need to be said was that Davis believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality and gambling are sins; that he will vote against measures to legalize same-sex marriage and to allow the state’s largest casino. And he would hope his congregants would do the same. On a third controversial measure, which would allow in-state tuition breaks for some illegal immigrants, Davis sees it as many other clergy do — as the kind of charity lauded by the Bible.

Not since Maryland voters were asked to weigh in on abortion 20 years ago has a ballot so deeply drawn church leaders in to the state’s political fray. Then, however, there was one emotional issue, and most were on the same side. This time, the religious community has focused on three key measures, and conflicting interpretations of Scripture and priorities have roiled congregations statewide.

And what are the basic facts on the ground?

… Maryland’s ballot measures have come to a head in Prince George’s more than anywhere else. And with polls showing that voters are leaning slightly in favor of same-sex marriage and the gambling measure a toss-up, the county could play a pivotal role in whether the measures pass.

The county is among the most religious in the state: Three quarters of likely voters in the majority African American county say they attend services at least monthly, according to a mid-October poll by The Washington Post.

Fully 45 percent of registered voters in the county who are African American say they have heard about same-sex marriage from their clergy, compared with 31 percent of blacks in the rest of the state.

And when religious leaders have spoken about gay marriage, fully 80 percent of the voters say they have heard their pastor register opposition and 9 percent heard a supportive message; 11 percent heard a mix of opinions. Roughly two-thirds of voters — black or white — who oppose same-sex marriage say their religious beliefs have the biggest influence on their views.

Read it all.

That is, assuming that YOUR power stays on.

IMAGE: Hurricane Sandy, via NASA.