Writing on houses of worship? Ignore the religious

Pop quiz: When you write about baseball or surgery, whom should you quote?

That’s right. And when you write about playing a piano or cello, whom should you quote?

Right again. And when you write about religion, whom should you quote?

Nope, missed that one. When writing about any field, you must include its practitioners — unless it’s a religious group.

NBC News and the New York Times followed that rule faithfully — in this case, faithlessly — in stories about efforts to save church and synagogue buildings, although both have long lost their congregations.

First, the NBC story, the more facile of the two. Travel writer Rob Lovitt found a team store for a minor-league baseball team in South Bend, Ind., that was once the home for the Sons of Israel Synagogue.

Granted, it’s meant to be a light feature by a travel writer. Still, when he includes details like foam fingers but leaves out details on the “rich history” of the synagogue, it’s like leaving a shoe dangling in the air rather than letting it drop.

He’s clearly charmed by the idea of keeping a revered site, quoting Joe Hart, the president of the team:

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The silent swan song of Wojciech Jaruzelski

The silver Swan, who living had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Orlando Gibbons, “The Silver Swan” (1612)

Poland’s last communist leader has been laid to rest at Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery following a funeral Mass, reports The New York Times. Written with a Warsaw dateline, the May 30 story entitled “Walesa Among Ex-Leaders at Funeral of Political Enemy” recounts the political controversy surrounding the funeral of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the article omits the religious controversies that animated the Polish press in the week following his May 25 death. And that is a shame. For in focusing on one strand of the protests to the exclusion of all else, the Times has missed a significant element of the story.

Now the New York Times was not alone in omitting the faith element. Reuters and the BBC also reported on the controversy over giving a state funeral to the last Communist president of Poland; the  man who in 1981 imposed martial law to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. It is unlikely the Times reporter in Warsaw was unaware of the religion angle in light of the attention given to the topic by the local media. Was this the right editorial decision, to focus on politics alone?

The lede begins:

WARSAW – With demonstrators chanting on the streets outside and the three surviving Polish presidents in attendance, perhaps the most polarizing figure in modern Polish history was honored on Friday at a funeral Mass in the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army.

The article reports that while the prime minister stayed away, the current Polish president and two former presidents, including Lech Walesa sat in in the front row of the service.

Perhaps to bury Jaruzelski, not to praise him? The political angle appears at the top of the story, while we get a slight hint of the religious controversy.

Just a few blocks from the city’s tourist-choked historic district, several hundred gray-haired protesters held up signs denouncing General Jaruzelski as a “traitor,” a “murderer” and a “servant of Moscow.” Many carried banners from Solidarity, the trade union led by Mr. Walesa, who said he had agreed to attend the funeral because, among other reasons, a Roman Catholic Mass, celebrated by Bishop Jozef Guzdek, was included. (During the Communist years, General Jaruzelski would not have gone to a Mass.) …

The protesters followed the funeral to the Powazki Cemetery complex, the most prestigious in the country. Many were angered that the general was being buried there. Nearly a thousand people clustered in the narrow pathways between the headstones, some whistling and shouting against the general, others offering support. A small group from the National Movement, a far-right party, staged a mock funeral across town at the cemetery where 20,000 Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis in World War II were buried, saying the general did not deserve to be interred at Powazki.

The Times summarized the reasons for the protests with this paragraph:

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Bratwurst fest in Wisconsin: You never sausage intolerance

(Rubbing eyes) This is the New York Times, isn’t it? They’re being nice to conservatives and not so nice to liberals!

Madison, Wisc., is known for at least two things: a liberal, accepting mindset, and an annual brats-and-beer festival. But this year, according to the Times, organizer Tom Metcalfe added a new ingredient. Two, actually. Christian music and Bob Lenz, a motivational speaker on teen suicide.

What’s not to like? Wellllppp ….

But this month, a local newspaper noted that Mr. Lenz had ties to anti-abortion groups, particularly one called Save the Storks, which parks buses in front of abortion clinics and offers ultrasounds to pregnant women, a practice that some people consider harassment. Many liberal-leaning residents of Madison (and there are a lot of them) publicly said they would rather skip the Memorial Day weekend festival and its four-day extravaganza of bratwurst and beer.

“My reaction was, this doesn’t have a very Madison feel to it,” said Lisa Subeck, a member of the City Council, who declined to attend. “It really will turn many people off.” With Mr. Lenz appearing as a speaker, she said, “you really have to think, this isn’t reflective of our values.”

Within days, Mr. Metcalfe called Mr. Lenz to deliver a message: You are no longer invited.

Yep, guilt by association again. Just like when residents of Portland, Ore., announced a boycott of a grocer for his anti-gay views. And when HGTV canceled a planned show because the creators had voiced disapproval of gays and abortion.

Each case amounts to speech police: punishing people who dared voice unpopular socio-political views — views that had little relationship with their jobs.

The Times writer is sharp-eyed about the furor in a city — indeed, a state — that prides itself on its liberalism. First, she appears to mourn the way they were:

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Is Cardinal Dolan’s star fading? NYTimes ‘somes’ it up

I’ve just made up a rule for reading news: The confidence a writer places in an article is inversely proportional to the number of times he/she uses “some.” Such words often substitute for actual findings.

I know, because I occasionally did it myself as a reporter. But I’m not sure I used it six times in one story, as did a New York Times article on Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his place in the Catholic power structure.

The story’s basic assessment is that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was Pope Benedict XVI’s American culture warrior, fighting trends like abortion and same-sex marriage. Benedict was also fine with Dolan’s upper-middle-class lifestyle, and with Dolan delegating archdiocesan matters to his vicars instead of handling them himself.

But with a new pope in town, Dolan — well, isn’t on the outs, exactly; he’s just out of step with the newer, humbler, more pastoral church of Pope Francis. So says the Times.

But to make that case, the arguments get pretty, well, argumentative.

In the last years that Benedict XVI served as pope, Cardinal Dolan, 64, was America’s top bishop as the president of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. Ever the genial guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he led the charge against the Obama administration’s efforts to require some religious employers to cover birth control for employees. Some church experts say he was also the go-to cardinal for many in the Vatican when they wanted to know what was going on in the American church.

See that? Even that nut paragraph, as journalists call it, uses the “some” qualifier. Here are others:

Some see the influence of Cardinal Dolan, once considered a possible candidate for pope himself, waning in the era of the new pontiff.

And:

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Forget Genesis: Adam and Eve make NYTimes front page

From the Bible’s Genesis account of creation:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

That’s, of course, just a small section of the story, but it provides a nice flavor of it. Genesis will come into play — in a crucial way — later in this post.

But first, let’s consider this intriguing headline on the front page of today’s New York Times:

College Is Torn: Can Darwin and Eden Coexist?

And the top of the story:

DAYTON, Tenn. — William Jennings Bryan earned a permanent place in American history nearly nine decades ago in the Scopes trial, when he stood in a courtroom here and successfully prosecuted a teacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school.

While not quite “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” as Time magazine put it, that captivated the nation in 1925, a similar debate is again playing out in Dayton, this time at an evangelical Christian college named for Bryan, which is being sued as part of a controversy over its own stance on the origin of humans.

The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are, even splitting an institution whose motto is “Christ Above All.” Playing out at a time when the teaching of evolution remains a cultural hot spot to a degree that might have stunned its proponents in Bryan’s era, the debate also reflects the problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.

Um, did I read that last part right? “The problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.”

Is that, in fact, what Christian colleges are doing? Are they providing “secular education” with a little religion sprinkled on top? Or is “balance religious beliefs with secular education” a nice turn of phrase gone factually awry?

Bryan College belongs to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an international association of 120 “intentionally Christ-centered colleges and universities.” How many of those institutions would suggest they are trying to “balance religious beliefs with secular education?”  My guess: zero.

On the other hand, how many would suggest they are working to “transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth,” as CCCU’s mission statement puts it? My guess: all.

The real tension seems to be: How do Christian colleges balance their strong biblical worldview with rigorous academic scholarship and freedom? And later in the piece, the Times does a little better job hitting at that question.

But after that long tangent, let’s get back to the center of the Bryan College dispute. This is important:

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Persecution in India: It matters only if it’s about Muslims

Nice to know the New York Times cares so much about religious freedom in India — at least for Muslims.

“For Nation’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory,” warns a headline in an 1,100-plus-word story on that nation’s elections Friday. And the newspaper wastes no time in sympathizing, with these as the third and fourth paragraphs:

Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination a key reason. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans.

Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.

The article then quotes an amazing nine sources: journalists, small businessmen, even a professor in London. They remind us of modern India’s violent birth in 1947, when most Muslims were split off into Pakistan. They tell about housing discrimination, with some Hindus even complaining that Muslim neighbors would lower property values.

The sources tell about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, who died in riots in 2002 in Gujarat, Modi’s home state in India. (However, Modi was personally cleared of any participation.) And a member of the “liberal intelligentsia,” as the Times calls him, fears that Modi is a “threat to India’s secularism.”

All that is certainly newsworthy stuff when 15 percent of all Indians belong to the world’s second-largest religion. Helping nearly 190 million people feel safer is a good idea. But what about the safety of Indian Christians and other religious minorities?

Sure, they may amount to less than 28 million Indians, but they’re members of the world’s largest religion — which, of course, is the majority of the Times’ American readers. Yet a search of recent Times stories, especially connected with the election, shows no such concern for them.

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Missing elements in NYTimes marital rape report from India

Marriage was a hot topic this week in the Indian press following rulings by two Delhi Courts. The High Court held that apostasy was automatic grounds for granting a divorce under the country’s Muslim Marriage Act, while the Court of Additional Sessions in Delhi ruled that there was no such thing as “marital rape” under Indian civil law and the Hindu Marriage Act.

Religion — in this case the intersection of Hinduism and Islam — played a prominent role in the reporting of the first story. But it was absent from overseas reports on the second. The Hindu reported that a Muslim wife who quits her faith for another may be granted an automatic divorce from her Muslim husband.

A Division Bench of the High Court, rejecting an appeal of one Munavvar-ul-Islam against a decree of a family court in Saket, has held that dissolution of his marriage with Rishu Arora, who first converted to Islam but later reconverted to her original religion, was valid under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939.

“It is an admitted fact that the respondent (Rishu) was initially professing Hinduism and had embraced Islam prior to the marriage, and then reconverted to Hinduism. … The trial court was right in specifying that the marriage stands dissolved from the date on which the respondent apostatised from Islam,” stated the Bench, comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Najmi Waziri, in its 30-page verdict delivered on Friday.

The Indian Express’s lede typifies the interpretation of the ruling.

One’s religious faith is above any law, the Delhi High Court has ruled while granting divorce to a girl who converted to Islam for marriage and then reconverted to her original religion.

The New York Times picked up the marital rape story, running a piece on page A7 of its May 13 print edition entitled: “India: Court Rules That Marital Sex, Even When Forced, Is Not Rape.”

The Times story, which was reprinted by some Indian outlets, comes down on the side of the wife, while other Indian newspapers were skeptical of the claims made in her pleading. The Times wrote:

NEW DELHI – A Delhi court has ruled that sex between a husband and wife, “even if forcible, is not rape.” The judge’s decision, which was made public Saturday, upheld section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which does not recognize “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age,” as rape.

Last October, a Delhi woman filed a complaint against a man she accused of drugging her, abducting her and taking her to Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to register their marriage. Afterward, she told the court, he raped her.

The judge in the case wrote that there was “no clinching or convincing evidence on record to show that the accused had administered any stupefying substance.” The man accused in the case said that the couple was married in 2011 at the woman’s home in Delhi in the presence of her family, and that they had decided to register with the court only last year on the insistence of the woman. He also said, according to court documents, that the rape complaint was filed by the woman under pressure from her family members, who were not in favor of their marriage.

The Indian Express came down on the side of the husband. Adding these details:

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NYTimes leans to the right in Christian legal profile?

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No, the “socially liberal” New York Times didn’t lean all the way to the right.

But it’s difficult to imagine a conservative Christian legal organization receiving fairer, more serious coverage than the Alliance Defending Freedom did in Monday’s newspaper.

With the headline “Legal Alliance Gains Host of Court Victories for Conservative Christian Movement,” the Times used the group’s major Supreme Court victory last week in the Town of Greece, N.Y., prayer case as a timely news peg:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Alan Sears, who has run the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom since its founding 20 years ago, turned to a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office here and noted the decades of blood and tears it took to abolish slavery.

“I think there is no question that one day, this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Sears, a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department.

The comparison may or may not prove apt, but these are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.

A meaty section of the story highlights the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Christian roots:

Alliance Defending Freedom was created by Christian leaders including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James C. Dobson Jr., the founder of Focus on the Family. In the early 1990s the groups had watched with growing dismay as secular groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used the courts to ban school prayer and advance abortion rights even as an emerging gay-rights movement threatened, in their view, to upend the country’s social values.

“People of faith were being outgunned in court,” said Mr. Sears, 62, a Roman Catholic in an organization populated with evangelical Protestants. So the group — then called the Alliance Defense Fund — was founded to foster Christian legal firepower.

The new Christian lawyers have proved to be sophisticated litigants in court, wielding constitutional arguments without invoking religion. But outside the courtroom, the group has provoked the enmity of gay-rights advocates, in particular, by expressing harsh views such as those in a book Mr. Sears co-wrote in 2003, “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” It describes gay people as “trapped” and gay-rights advocates as bent on creating a nation of “broken families and broken lives.”

I was pleased that the Times contrasted Sears’ Catholic background with the prevalence of evangelical attorneys. That detail intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about that dynamic and how, if at all, it plays into the group’s culture and approach. Alas, the Times story ran only 1,200 words. Granted, that’s a full-length novel by concerning new Associated Press standards, but it’s hardly enough space to cover every angle or conceivable question.

Later in the piece, the Times provides more interesting background:

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