LATimes shreds old-school language in religious liberty story

The following information cannot be examined too many times during the media storm that has followed the so-called Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Back in 1993, early in the right-wing reign of terror led by the Clinton White House, the U.S. Senate voted 97-3 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The “nay” votes were cast by two Democrats and one Republican, each hailing from somewhere on the political right. Taking a stand in favor of a traditional, “liberal” approach to religious freedom — no scare quotes needed back then — was not controversial.

I urge journalists covering First Amendment issues today to study this graphic from that now-distant age.

This must be contrasted with the 56-43 vote the other day — a mere four votes shy of cloture — to bring a bill to the floor that would have, for all practical purposes, reversed the Hobby Lobby decision.

What has happened in the past two decades? What turned religious liberty into “religious liberty”?

This is one of the most compelling political questions of our day. This mystery is one reason that I have, in recent years, been asking the following question: What should journalists call a person who waffles on free speech, waffles on freedom of association and waffles on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

This brings me to the top of a new Los Angeles Times story that perfectly demonstrates the degree to which standard political labels are being mangled in our culture’s current meltdown on sex and religion. The lede:

The Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby decision has thrust a once-little-known boutique law firm into the center of a growing conservative movement to make faith-based exemptions as potent a legal tool as free speech has been for liberals.

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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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Back in Boston with abortion protesters and fair reporting!


I wasn’t expecting gifts for July 4 weekend, but I feel like I got one in this feature story in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a follow-up on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a law in Massachusetts meant to keep protesters away from abortion clinics.

The article is a good example of old-school long-form journalism. It’s nuanced, detail-rich and balanced — at least more balanced than I might have feared. We’ll discuss my reservations later.

For now, the Times joins Eleanor McCullen and fellow prolifers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. McCullen, you may recall, was the main plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court.

First lesson is not to judge a story by its headline, any more than you’d judge a book by its cover. This story starts with a hostile-sounding “Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones.” Sounds like they’re waving and yammering in people’s faces.

But no. Times reporter Alana Semuels joins the protesters on the sidewalk, watching as they gently try to dissuade women from aborting their babies:

The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

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Mormon reformin’: Putting the antics in semantics

Welcome to the Latter-day Saints Trivia Game! Here is today’s question:

When did the Mormon Church ordain women?

Tick … Tick … Tick … Tick … Ding!

Sorry, time’s up. But it’s a trick question anyway. The Mormon Church has never ordained women.

Dumb question, you say? Then you may know Mormon history better than some reporters and editors. More than one injected a “reform” angle into the story of a Mormon woman who was just excommunicated.

It’s Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, a group whose motives are evident from its name. The church said no ordination, she pushed the issue, and the church pushed her out this week.

Pretty standard internal dispute, right? Not from where many journalists sit. They’ve been making it into a matter of “equality,” “rights,” and yes, “reform.”

UPI — yep, they’re still around — may have said it best, or worst. Its article uses “reform” and “reformer” three times in its spare, 344 words.

The story also uses “prominent women’s rights activist” and specifies that she was drummed out of the church by “an all-male panel.” And it mentions the church’s ire with John Dehlin — “a prominent reformer who faces similar charges for his advocacy for gay rights.”

Longtime GetReligion readers will recognize this tactic as an attempt to win by semantics. As our guru tmatt said years ago, to “reform” something means to improve it by correcting errors, defects or abuses. But see, you can correct something only if it has strayed from its original condition. When have Mormons ordained women? You already know that one.

It’s a matter of viewpoint, you know. The journalists could have said the church is trying to reform Kate Kelly, to get her back to the historical position. Why didn’t they? One guess: They’re reporting not just on what happened, but on what they want to happen.

Some media use other terms than “reform,” though no less tainted. For the Los Angeles Times, the catchword is “gender equality,” for which the newspaper says Kelly’s organization pushes.

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Faith and fitness: LATimes explores God’s role in weight loss

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There’s a healthy dose of religion news on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times.

“God is their fitness co-pilot,” proclaims the print headline on this Column One feature. The online version goes with “Cross training” (get it?).

Believe it or not, there’s no mention of that Northwestern University study from a few years ago that prompted Time magazine to report  “Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat” and USA Today to suggest “The devil may be in the pepperoni.” But I digress.

Let’s start with a large portion of the LATimes opening:

When Jim Black leads people on a robust walk three times a week on the grounds of the 120-acre Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, he’s got powerful company: God.

The several dozen people who join him have shown up with the same hopes that anyone brings to an exercise plan: They mean to lose weight, ditch inhalers, get stronger.

But at Saddleback, there’s a lot more going on. Pastor Rick Warren is using the power of his church, one of the biggest in the country, to impress upon his followers that their bodies need the same care as their spirits.

After two months on “The Daniel Plan,” Black gave up his diabetes medication. He has given up wheat, dairy and sugar. He recently bought a bicycle. In a year, he lost 90 pounds; his wife lost 40.

“It’s that one scripture: My body is not my own, my body is on loan and someday I’ll have to account for it,” said Black, 48. “I wanted to serve God at a higher level. And I wanted to be able to fit in the seat of a roller coaster and buy one seat on the airplane instead of two.”

Yeah, that one Scripture (AP style is uppercase when referring to the religious writings in the Bible).

But just to be clear, exactly which Scripture are we talking about? The LATimes just brushes right past that obvious question. I assume Black is referring to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. From the New International Version of the Bible:

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The missing Scripture aside, I like the LATimes lede. It is interesting and draws me into the story. I am compelled to read more (even if I weren’t a GetReligion critic):
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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

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Pentecostal gap in that LATimes immigration reform story

There was an important interfaith gathering the other day in Los Angeles that allowed some highly symbolic religious leaders to make a faith-based appeal for immigration reform. As you would expect, The Los Angeles Times produced a short news story that focused on the basic facts.

The double-decker headline pronounced:

Local religious leaders unite for change in immigration law

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Southern California hold vigil calling for a revamp in federal immigration laws.

As noted in the lede, the service attracted several of “Southern California’s most prominent religious leaders,” led by the local Catholic archbishop. The presence of a Catholic leader was par for the course, especially in this case:

Immigrants who are in the United States illegally “need mercy and they need justice,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, welcoming an array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to the gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Gomez, who has made changing immigration laws a hallmark of his three-year tenure leading the L.A. Archdiocese, described the current system as “totally broken,” adding that federal laws punished families and children unfairly.

“These are human souls, not statistics,” the archbishop said. “These are children of God. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering.”

I appreciated the fact that the Times team candidly reported that hardly anyone was in the cathedral’s pews during this event. The actual phrase was “only a few dozen in attendance.”

The story also noted that it was important that leaders from “each of the three main Abrahamic traditions” were in attendance, instead the usually rally for Christians, alone. That is certainly a newsworthy point.

So what is missing in this short report?

Read the following material from the story quite closely and tell me who is missing. What is the major hole in this coalition, especially if the goal is to make a faith-based case for immigration reform in the context of modern-day Southern California and the lands to the South of the United States?

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