Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted in one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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Members mourn Atlanta church; why don’t they talk?

Friendship Baptist ChurchWhen a congregation has to leave its church building, it’s like moving away from home. Members remember all the things that happened there. They think of fun and funny anecdotes, and the crises they weathered. They recall what the church meant to the community.

All that is even more intense when the church is 152 years old, as is Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Which makes a New York Times story on its last service all the more puzzling.

The story has not a single quote from any longtime members, although it says that up to four generations of members were at the farewell service. It offers some appetizers on the church’s influence, but doesn’t serve the main course. And even after three readings, I didn’t see a clear reason the building was to be demolished.

Not that the story lacks some telling details. The lede paints Atlanta as a city so proud of its racial harmony that it neglects its heritage:

So it was perhaps not surprising that Friendship Baptist, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church, founded by former slaves with help from whites and still thriving, found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door. The church is to be taken down, as early as Monday, 152 years after it was established.

Friendship, one of two churches whose multimillion dollar relocation/reconstruction tab will be covered by the city, is steeped in history. Two historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman, held classes in its basement, Morehouse moving into the church from Augusta in 1879 and Spelman starting there two years later. Trained musicians led the flock in song, with an emphasis on preserving old Negro spirituals. Nine other houses of prayer spun off Friendship, earning it the appellation “mother church.”

Kneeling at its pews were up to four generations of families; one longtime worshiper died recently at age 108. Prominent judges, politicians, educators and entrepreneurs attended, filling the collection baskets to the brim. (The church’s security guard said he saw a check for $50,000, someone’s annual tithe.)

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Migrant children crossing the border: the religion angle

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Amid the ongoing headlines – mostly political – over the thousands of migrant children crossing illegally into the United States, I’ve been pleased to come across some excellent reports on the religion angle.

New York Times national religion reporter Michael Paulson produced a thorough overview of U.S. religious leaders embracing the cause of immigrant children:

After protesters shouting “Go home” turned back busloads of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, Calif., a furious Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, sat down at his notepad and drafted a blog post detailing his shame at the episode, writing, “It was un-American; it was unbiblical; it was inhumane.”

When the governor of Iowa, Terry E. Branstad, said he did not want the migrants in his state, declaring, “We can’t accept every child in the world who has problems,” clergy members in Des Moines held a prayer vigil at a United Methodist Church to demonstrate their desire to make room for the refugees.

The United States’ response to the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, many of them fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America, has been symbolized by an angry pushback from citizens and local officials who have channeled their outrage over illegal immigration into opposition to proposed shelter sites. But around the nation, an array of religious leaders are trying to mobilize support for the children, saying the nation can and should welcome them.

“We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, who said leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met last week to discuss how to help. He said that in his own congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping.

From there, Paulson notes the broad spectrum of religious leaders — from left to right — speaking out:

The backlash to the backlash is broad, from Unitarian Universalists and Quakers to evangelical Protestants. Among the most agitated are Catholic bishops, who have long allied with Republican politicians against abortion and same-sex marriage, and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose adherents tend to lean right.

The NYTimes piece links to other recent stories, including a Chicago Tribune report on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago seeking to house child refugees, a Boston Globe report on Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts tearfully citing the Bible in suggesting that migrant children could be temporarily housed at military bases in his state and a Dallas Morning News report on Catholic bishops in Dallas and Fort Worth calling for lawyers to represent the children at immigration proceedings.

The Dallas Morning News featured a front-page story Sunday on religious groups rallying to help the migrant children:

Piles of Superman underwear sit among the pyramids of protein formula in the atrium of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas. Soon, the stash will be trucked to South Texas to help with relief efforts for the influx of children and teenagers from Central America.

Down the street on Ross Avenue, welcome boxes sit in an office of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. So many people called the church wanting to help that a parishioner organized a welcome-box drive. She asked for toiletries, a small toy and a handwritten note.

“Esperamos que te guste el juguete! Con cariño, tus amigos en Dallas.” We hope you like the toy, with affection, your Dallas friends, one reads.

Across North Texas, across political divides and theological differences, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and others in the local faith community are stepping up with assistance for the children who have crossed the border illegally without a parent. Congregations moved by the plight of the children are finding practical ways to help, even as governments and politicians argue and scramble over solutions.

“It’s a beautiful illustration of loving thy neighbor,” said the Rev. Linda Roby, an associate minister at First Methodist, patting packets of pajamas.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, distributed an Abilene Reporter-News story on a ministry helping at the border:

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Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

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Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: “Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique — I’ve just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!”

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME – Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome … to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here’s the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under “Islamic law” or is the matter more complex than that?

The question, once again, is linked to a basic reality that many journalists struggle with — that this is on one monolithic, consistent approach to Islamic law. It is certainly true that, in many or even most Islamic lands, sharia law includes a death sentence for apostasy, including the act of converting from Islam to another faith. However, there are different approaches to sharia in different lands. In some cultures, the death penalty may be found in the laws, yet this crime is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Yes, it adds another layer of complexity — adding at least a sentence or two of information — to note this conflict inside Islam. However, accuracy is accuracy and the public needs to know that not all Muslims believe that the death penalty is normative for this issue of conscience, which is clearly defended in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18 to be precise).

And what about the mysterious hole in some of the news stories?

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The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Yo editors: Can the state pay Catholics to help immigrants?

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As usual, there was a stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers waiting for me at the end of last week when I returned from a consulting trip to a campus in Iowa. One of the papers contained a very timely and newsworthy story.

My goal here is to argue that — just possibly — this story was even more newsworthy than the Sun editors thought that it was. More on that in a minute.

The immigrant children crisis is one of the hottest stories in America right now and justifiably so. As it turned out, there was a totally logical local angle here in Baltimore, one that ended up on A1:

Here is the top of the story:

Catholic Charities wants to care for about 50 children from Central America at a campus in Baltimore County, seeking a role in the immigration crisis even though the consideration of other sites in Maryland has met with fierce local opposition.

The organization plans to apply to federal officials to house the children at St. Vincent’s Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road, Catholic Charities head William J. McCarthy Jr. confirmed. … McCarthy said housing the children would amount to his organization doing its job.

“Our role and our mission is to meet the needs of these children,” he said. “This is obviously the result of things beyond my control — policies and political posturing that has left these children as victims.”

And more:

The Catholic Charities proposal would be on a much smaller scale than government proposals that would have placed hundreds of minors in an unused Social Security office in Baltimore or at the army center in Carroll County. … Catholic Charities developed the plan in response to a request from a federal agency that was looking for ways to house immigrant children before the crisis rose to the top of the national political agenda this summer. …

And the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church has already received grant money to house immigrant children at a home in Woodlawn. The organization is caring for about two dozen children there.

It seems to me that the implication is that Catholic Charities is doing this service as a partner with the federal agency. Are tax dollars involved, similar to the grant to the United Methodists? I am not sure.

Why do I raise that financial question?

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In NYTimes piece, bias against AA is a hard habit to break

Sometimes our readers are sharper than us professional word pushers. One of them just dismantled a New York Times feature with the skill of a soldier field-stripping a rifle.

The article in question looks at the Center for Motivation and Change, an anti-addiction program that favors secular counseling, therapy and medication. Well and good, as far as that goes.

But the article also notes how CMC shuns the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous. No, more than that. It tries again and again to prove the superiority of the secular method, via biased wording, cherry-picking research and mainly quoting one side.

Again and again, CMC is held up as the enlightened, proven, “evidence-based” approach to kicking substance abuse:

It is part of a growing wing of addiction treatment that rejects the A.A. model of strict abstinence as the sole form of recovery for alcohol and drug users.

Instead, it uses a suite of techniques that provide a hands-on, practical approach to solving emotional and behavioral problems, rather than having abusers forever swear off the substance — a particularly difficult step for young people to take.

And unlike programs like Al-Anon, A.A.’s offshoot for family members, the C.M.C.’s approach does not advocate interventions or disengaging from someone who is drinking or using drugs. “The traditional language often sets parents up to feel they have to make extreme choices: Either force them into rehab or detach until they hit rock bottom,” said Carrie Wilkens, a psychologist who helped found the C.M.C. 10 years ago. “Science tells us those formulas don’t work very well.”

We’ll get to that question of how well the CMC works in a moment. For now, let’s note the code words of “strict” and “traditional,” as if AA and Al-Anon are based on some Amish settlement. Those and other forms of gaming raised the ire of our friend Jean Lahondere.

Underneath the psych talk and success anecdotes, Lahondere says, the Times article is a standard parable on the alleged triumph of science over faith.

The article “treats recovery as either a completely ‘faith-based’ (Alcoholics Anonymous) or ‘evidence-based’ (C.M.C.) ordeal,” she writes. “As if A.A. is a stand-in for religious belief and the new method is firmly rooted in the empirically correct foundation of SCIENCE. It really is more effective as an insight into the writer’s world view than as a story about addiction recovery.”

The Times does muster some scientific allies of CMC:

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NYTimes revisits high court’s abortion buffer zone ruling

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In grading first-day coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law, I gave The New York Times a D.

My explanation for the near-failing grade:

The NYTimes’ front-page story does an excellent job of explaining where the justices came down. But the Old Gray Lady shows her bias when it comes to reporting reactions to the decision, giving top billing — and much more space — to Planned Parenthood than the winning plaintiff.

The newspaper improved its performance — let’s give it an A for enterprise and a B for overall content — with a second-day story out of Boston exploring what the Supreme Court decision means for both sides.

The NYTimes gives readers a firsthand view of a clinic where the yellow line no longer matters:

BOSTON — Lorraine Loewen, 74, says she comes here once a week to demonstrate against abortion outside of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts health care center.

On Friday, the morning after the Supreme Court struck down restrictions that had created no-protest buffer zones near abortion clinics, she stood inside the yellow line on the pavement that marked a 35-foot radius around the clinic’s entrance.

Ms. Loewen, a retiree from Dedham, Mass., approached a woman and a man who had climbed out of a taxi and were walking toward the clinic, which provides an array of sexual health services, including abortions, and spoke softly in the woman’s ear. She handed the woman a pamphlet depicting a woman’s face and the words, “It’s your choice.”

“I asked her if we could be of any help,” Ms. Loewen said, adding that she preferred talking close up with the people going to the clinic rather than yelling at them from outside the line.

On Friday, Ms. Loewen and a handful of other demonstrators were among the first anti-abortion activists, as a few police officers looked on and a volunteer escort stood ready to bring patients inside the clinic.

From there, the story offers brief background on the high court ruling and then turns to a long section outlining concerns of state officials and abortion-rights advocates who favored the buffer zone law.

The NYTimes allows one couple to complain anonymously about the protesters:

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