NYTimes: ‘On Religion’ columnist commits … journalism!

Yes, that headline is written with tongue somewhat in cheek: The New York Times‘ “On Religion” column, authored in alternate weeks by Samuel G. Freedman and Mark Oppenheimer, both academics, is at turns fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating when it finds, as will be discussed here, good, solid faith-based stories. Frustrating — to this more traditional believer, at least — when the column appears to delight (in column fashion) at those sticking a finger (or a fist) in the eye of, well, traditional believers.

Just when I’m about to lament this or that fawning column about someone rather far removed from the religious mainstream — let alone evangelicalism — “On Religion” comes along and reminds me that they can get this right. In fact, there are columns that are more news-focused than some New York Times news stories that approach religious matters.

Witness Freedman’s Nov. 29 spiritual profile of the late Oscar Hijuelos (shown here in a 1993 photo) the famed Cuban-American novelist who died in October at age 62 following a sudden collapse on a tennis court:

Nearly 20 years ago, when he was three books into an acclaimed literary career, Oscar Hijuelos delivered the manuscript of his new novel to his editor. It was a Christmas tale filled with the joy Mr. Hijuelos had always taken in with the trappings of yuletide, from manger scenes to oratorios to evergreens strung with lights.

From a lesser writer, perhaps, the new novel would have been perfectly fine. From one who had already won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” who had received fellowships and honorary doctorates and a dinner invitation to the White House, it felt lacking.

At least it did to Mr. Hijuelos’s editor at HarperCollins, Robert S. Jones. He rejected the book, telling its author something cryptically critical along the lines of, “This is not what I had in mind for you to write.”

The evening after receiving the verdict, Mr. Hijuelos and his girlfriend at the time, Lori Carlson, sat together in their living room in Upper Manhattan, depression suffusing the air. Finally, Mr. Hijuelos told Ms. Carlson, “O.K., I’m really going to the heart of Christmas then.”

That exploration, Freedman noted, wasn’t a walk in the park, yielding the now-classic “Mr. Ives’ Christmas”:

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NYTimes on Ukraine ‘ghost’: Great minds like a think?

Cause-and-effect is difficult to prove sometimes, but it is curious how things follow in a sequence of events. The recent round of protests in the Ukraine, particularly in the capital city of Kiev, have upended the country (not to mention a statue of Vladimir Lenin).

A point of curiosity around these parts: Did this Dec. 3 GetReligion post about the dearth of examination of faith-related elements of the protests move one of the world’s top newspapers to cover that point?

While the protests, which began in November, have captured the attention of the world’s media, analysis of the religious dimensions of the protest had not been much of a priority in the secular press, a point ably made by GetReligionista George Conger.

Now that’s changed: The New York Times ran a substantial piece on Dec. 4, one day after the GetReligion item, telling readers a good deal of what they’d need to know about this interesting, historically deep, backstory:

KIEV, Ukraine – After riot police officers stormed Independence Square here early Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons, dozens of young protesters ran, terrified, scattering up the streets. It was after 4:30 a.m., the air cold, the sky black. As they got their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery beckoned.

Inside, the fleeing demonstrators found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived in a bastion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, where they were welcomed not only on a humanitarian basis but because the church, driven by its own historical tensions with Moscow, is actively supporting their uprising. It strongly favors European integration to enable Ukraine to break free from Russia’s grip, and has joined the calls to oust the Ukrainian government.

From the conversion of Princess Olga, the regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally flourished by acting in close concert with political powers. Its efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go badly, as when Philip II, the metropolitan of Moscow, protested political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was jailed, chained around the neck and strangled.

But in recent days, the Kyivan Patriarchate, which controls St. Michael’s, has emerged as a powerful ally of the thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich and the revival of the far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union that he has refused to sign. Some priests have even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, which protesters have occupied.

After discussing and clearly identifying the major religious players in the Ukraine, and noting that the Kyivan Patriarchate is not as influential as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Moscow Patriarchate, the Times clearly shows the impact of the Kyivan Patriarchate’s moves on the people:

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Not 5Q+1: Thoughts from Michael Luo on faith and ink

A long, long time ago, during the gentle, mild reign of GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we used to have “5Q+1″ features in which we asked journalists — including many not on the religion beat — a set of questions about their views on religion and the news.

Maybe we will bring that back sooner or later. That think ye?

As time went by, Sarah broadened the feature to include a wider variety of questions. In one such interview, she e-chatted with Michael Luo of The New York Times about a variety of subjects, including that whole “Linsanity” explosion in Madison Square Garden and the NBA in general. Click here for a refresher on that. One of the key exchanges went like this:

I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. …

Now, journalist Paul Glader of The King’s College faculty (best known for his Wall Street Journal reporting) has explored some of the same material with Luo in an interview featured in the current issue of Christianity Today.

There is material in this piece that I know will interest regular GetReligion readers, since it relates directly to interactions between religion and journalism and religion in major newsrooms, such as The Times. The key is that Luo sees the connections between religion and real life, including his own work covering criminal justice.

For starters, there is this:

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The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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Hey WPost: What did Pope Francis say about abortion?

It is a serious understatement to note that Pope Francis has made more than his share of news during the honeymoon months of his papacy. Mainstream reporters have rushed to cover almost everything this charismatic leader has had to say.

The “almost everything” clause is, however, rather important.

It was news, for example, when the pope said that the church has been unbalanced in its approach to promoting it’s teachings on the sanctity of life, stressing public-square politics over pastoral care. Yes, the word “obsessed” was worthy of big headlines. However, days later, journalists on this side of the Atlantic ignored his ringing words at a global conference focusing on abortion and other family life issues. So some pronouncements on abortion are newsworthy and others are not.

Now, Pope Francis has released an important “apostolic exhortation” — the title is Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in which, in very popular language, he addresses a wide range of topics, everything from global economics to improving the preaching in local pulpits.

So what is grabbing the headlines? Consider the top of this The Washington Post report:

Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.

In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction.

Viewing the document through a DC Beltway lens, the Post team also jumped — appropriately, I think — on the fact that Pope Francis used a strikingly American term during his discussion of the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. His content was very similar to similar statements by the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but in this case the style is crucial.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking. The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.

This is certainly a very important section of “The Joy of the Gospel.” However, it is very, very interesting to note that the Post article — after the earlier media firestorm about this pope’s words on abortion — completely ignores the strong passage in the new document about abortion and related issues. The passage even, like the “trickle-down” reference, includes a word that can be seen as linked to political and theological battles in America and elsewhere.

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Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the NYTimes

As a rule, conflicts between church and state are extremely complex and often produce headaches, even among those who have years of experience working in such dangerous intellectual terrain. Frankly, I have no idea how general-assignment reporters can handle this stuff without the help of thick research folders and very experienced editors.

Today’s New York Times article on the Hobby Lobby case is, in my opinion, a better than average effort when it comes to church-state coverage in the mainstream press. This is important because the Hobby Lobby case is quite strange, since it focuses on whether the leaders of for-profit corporations can argue that their institutions are protected by religious liberty. In other words, this is a “church-state conflict” — I added the distancing quote marks — that does not involve a church.

This report does, however, oversimplify one or two important pieces of the maddeningly complex HHS mandate story. I’ll get to that shortly.

So what went right? I thought that the top of the piece was especially strong:

WASHINGTON – Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, closes on Sundays, costing its owners millions but honoring their Christian faith.

The stores play religious music. Employees get free spiritual counseling. But they do not get free insurance coverage for some contraceptives, even though President Obama’s health care law requires it.

Hobby Lobby, a corporation, says that forcing it to provide the coverage would violate its religious beliefs. A federal appeals court agreed, and the Supreme Court is set to decide on Tuesday whether it will hear the Obama administration’s appeal from that decision or appeals from one of several related cases.

Legal experts say the court is all but certain to step in, setting the stage for another major decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act two years after a closely divided court sustained its requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

So Hobby Lobby is clearly not a non-profit, religious voluntary association, like a Catholic school, an Orthodox Jewish clinic or a Pentecostal homeless shelter. So why is this case complex? Why is this even an issue?

This is where the Times report is quite strong. You see, there was that 2010 decision called Citizens United, the one the Obama White House detests so much because of its impact on campaign financing, the one that said corporations have free speech rights.

The question now is whether corporations also have the right to religious liberty. In ruling for Hobby Lobby, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said it had applied “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.”

“We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich wrote for the majority.

A dissenting member of the court, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, wrote that the majority’s approach was “nothing short of a radical revision of First Amendment law.”

But Judge Harris L. Hartz, in a concurrence, said the case was in some ways easier than Citizens United. “A corporation exercising religious beliefs is not corrupting anyone,” he wrote.

However, the religious owners of such a corporation may in fact be denying basic health care to their employees — employees of a company that is ultimately seeking profits, rather than operating under the defining umbrella of a doctrinal mission statement.

Then again, Hobby Lobby is not your normal corporation, as the story notes, because founder David Green and his family control it through a privately held corporation. At this point, Hobby Lobby has “more than 500 stores and 13,000 employees of all sorts of faiths.” It faces federal fines of $1.3 million a day if it fails to offer “comprehensive” health-care coverage, as defined under Obamacare.

So what is missing from this otherwise detailed and rather balanced report?

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NYTimes: Mouseketeer-turned-Pagan-turned-Christian trip

One of the staples of evangelical Christianity — at least so far as I can remember — is the story of the spectacular sinner who found redemption, preferably on the “sawdust trail” of a tent revivalist’s “canvass cathedral.”

One of the more dramatic examples is the 1949 conversion of songwriter/actor Stuart Hamblen under the ministry of a then-very-young Billy Graham; Hamblen went on to write a gospel music staple, “It Is No Secret,” about that experience.

It is equally true — for those of us with a bit of experience in the evangelical realm — that sometimes these testimonies should be viewed with skepticism. Evangelicals, myself included, were entertained and impressed by “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke in the late 1970s and 1980, He regaled audiences with tales of his being a “high Satanist priest” and having later come to the light of faith in Jesus. Sadly, Warnke’s testimony was later challenged and shown to be suspect, at the very least, which is why we don’t see him much on TBN these days, although he still professes Christian belief, and has an independent ministry.

Both of these elements popped into my mind as The New York Times featured a former member of the “Mouseketeers of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1996 on the Disney Channel,” a cable outlet. Born and raised as Matt Morris, the onetime-Episcopalian embraced Paganism, with a capital “P,” and, “under a red moon” one night pledged fealty “to the unseen forces that guide my life.”

“Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer sets the ex-Mouseketeer tone here:

They’re an august alumni association. … Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake top the charts. Keri Russell was Felicity. Christina Aguilera stars with CeeLo Green on “The Voice.” Ryan Gosling starred with his own abs in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

But Teo Bishop, while keeping up a career in pop music, accomplished something less predictable and altogether curiouser. Beginning about three years ago, he began a rise to prominence in the Pagan community. Then, last month, he shocked the Pagan community by re-embracing Christianity.

“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope. … I don’t know what to do with all of this.”

For American Pagans, Mr. Bishop’s defecting to a big, bad mainstream religion is bigger news than winning a Grammy, bigger than shooting a Vanity Fair cover. If you’re a Druid, a Wiccan or any of the nature-religion followers grouped under the label Pagan, you’re not talking about Britney, JT or Xtina. You’re talking Teo Bishop.

Bishop — he legally changed his name from Morris — found great success with the “Bishop in the Grove” blog, earning plaudits in the pagan (or is it still Pagan here?) community:

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NYTimes frames snake handler issue — correctly!

Even though The New York Times is the newspaper I sometimes “love to hate” for its often-casual approach to religion news, there are occasions when the “Gray Lady,” as the paper is historically known, gets it right. Too much of this and I might just get the vapors.

Come with me now (click here for the story itself) to the steps of a courthouse in East Tennessee, where the forces of one famous form of fervent faith and the power of Caesar are butting heads:

JACKSBORO, Tenn. – In a mix of old-time religion, modern media and Tennessee law, a 22-year-old preacher who has become a reality television star because of his experience in handling poisonous snakes pleaded not guilty on Friday to illegally keeping dozens of them that he and his congregants routinely touch during worship services.

Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in nearby LaFollette and a star of “Snake Salvation,” a recent series on the National Geographic Channel, said he hoped to turn the case against him in Campbell County General Sessions Court into a new front in the battle for religious liberty.

“This ain’t no longer just a fight for snake handling,” Mr. Hamblin, the father of five, told a group of supporters wearing red — to symbolize the blood of Christ — before his arraignment on a misdemeanor wildlife possession charge. “This is a fight for freedom of religion.”

As Mr. Hamblin, holding a Bible, spoke from the third step of the Campbell County Courthouse, several women cried and shook.

Looks as if your blogger isn’t the only one who might be vapor-prone.

But I digress.

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