Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.

The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013 Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

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A Hobby Lobby family profile that gets religion

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Before my teenage daughter left on our church’s annual spring break mission trip last week, we made one of our regular visits to Hobby Lobby. Kendall loves to knit and wanted to make sure she had plenty of yarn for the all-day van ride to the U.S.-Mexico border.

As regular customers of the arts and crafts retailer — which is based in Oklahoma City, where we live — my family has followed the national chain’s legal fight over Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

Much of the media coverage is, of course, filled with complicated legalese and robotic talking heads on the right and left.

Enter Religion News Service senior national correspondent Cathy Lynn Grossman with a refreshing profile of Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, whose stores are closed on Sundays to “allow employees time for family and worship”:

(RNS) Once Steve Green sets his path, there’s no turning back.

Not when he and his high school girlfriend, Jackie, totaled their cars playing chicken. “No one turned off,” he said, recalling how he aimed right at her and she just kept coming. A year later, she married him.

Not when he saw no point in college, going directly into his family’s Hobby Lobby craft store business. Green, now 50, rose up from assembling picture frames for “bubble gum money” at age 7 through every job, including cleaning toilets, to president of the $3.3 billion national chain, one of the nation’s largest private companies.

And certainly not now when, he says, the U.S. government is challenging his unshakeable Christian faith and his religious liberty.

Here’s what I like about Grossman’s 1,500-word profile of Green: It puts a real human face on a newsmaker at the center of a case headed to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, it cuts through the noise and rhetoric and describes the legal fight in terms that ordinary readers can understand:

Next week (March 25) Green’s path leads straight up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to witness oral arguments in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

That’s Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The department included all Food and Drug Administration-approved forms of contraception among services required for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby has provided insurance with contraception coverage for years, paying for 16 of the FDA-approved forms, from barrier methods to pills that prevent fertilization. Not covered: intrauterine devices and morning-after pills such as Plan B. Those, the FDA acknowledges, could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Blocking implantation would “terminate life” says Green. “We won’t pay for any abortive products. We believe life begins at conception.”

RNS sprinkles personal anecdotes about Green throughout the piece and deftly steps back and allows him to describe his faith — and how it motivates Hobby Lobby’s stand on Obamacare — in his own words:

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Sausage making and news reporting on Zanzibar

Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.

Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.

Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.

If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.

But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so. Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismark never said anything about laws and sausages.

These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.

In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.

Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.
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So what is happening with Anglican gay marriage?

Wire service reporting takes a special skill that not all writers posses. In less than 300 words, for most stories, a reporter must present the relevant facts and sufficient context to allow a reader to understand the story, while also be entertaining and interesting.

A problem arises when a wire service story substitutes analysis or opinion for news. While some stories are labeled news analysis or opinion — and as such it is proper to load a story with the author’s views of what should be rather than what is — when a news story substitutes opinion for journalism we have a problem.

An item from the Religion News Service that came across my desk yesterday illustrates this peril. In a story entitled “Church of England’s bishops defer gay marriage decision” that came in at a little under 300 words, RNS devotes only half of the story to reporting on what happened at the meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops and what they said and the balance to what RNS thinks we should think about the story.

And RNS neglects to mention the most news worthy portions of the report — that the bishops are hopelessly divided over the issue of homosexuality.

The lede is rather anodyne, but does mention one fact from the report:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With little more than two months to go before Britain’s first same-sex marriage, the College of Bishops issued a statement saying that “no change” to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisioned.

Next comes a sentence providing the setting:

The statement came after an all-day meeting at Church House in central London Monday (Jan. 27) attended by 90 bishops and eight women participant observers.

And then a paragraph on the purpose:

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the recommendationsof the Pilling Report on human sexuality that was published in 2013. That report was the result of a recommendation made by church leaders at the end of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 that Anglicans should embark on a discussion process to help heal the rift on the subject of full rights for Christian homosexuals.

Followed by a quote from the report on what happens next:

“The House of Bishops will be meeting again next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England and Wales,” the statement reads.

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Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

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RNS: It’s no rumor; Turks want Hagia Sophia as a mosque

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Talk about a trip into my guilt file.

I just did a quick search in my email files and it appears that I started receiving alerts about the following story in 2007 — all linked to appeals for Eastern Orthodox Christians to sign petitions opposing Turkish efforts to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

I’ve been receiving emails about this topic ever since. The journalistic problem, of course, was that Turkish leaders dismissed these reports, attributing them to the paranoid imaginations of the leaders of a tiny, although ancient, minority group in Turkey and their troublemaking international Christian allies.

Now, it appears that there is a bit of movement towards coverage. Let me praise the Religion News Service for weaving together some of the recent public, factual developments into an important wire-service story.

Will other media pay attention? For that matter, will the U.S. State Department pay attention?

Here’s the top of the report. Note the emphasis on the fact that other Byzantine-era churches have already been reconverted to mosques by the current Turkish government, which is usually referred to in media reports as one committed to using a more moderate Islamist approach, one that often clashes with Turkey’s recent history of alleged secularism.

ISTANBUL (RNS) – In this ancient city, there are few sights more iconic than the dome of the Hagia Sophia, towering over the old city for more than 1,400 years.

But recent conversions of former Byzantine-era churches from museums into mosques, encouraged by religious and political leaders, have caused alarm among religious minorities and Turkey’s Christian neighbors.

“We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, remarked last month during a dedication of a museum of Caucasus carpets and rugs in the Hagia Sophia complex. “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc, also a senior Cabinet minister from the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, mentioned two recent conversions of smaller Byzantine-era museums — in Trabzon in the northeast and Iznik near Istanbul — that have become working mosques.

The speech was just the latest call for the building to be converted into a mosque after a sermon in October by the imam of the neighboring Sultan Ahmet mosque. He told worshippers a conversion must take place, and his comments were soon followed by a campaign launched by the far-right National Turkish Student Association.

Now that is an impressive parade of facts, all of which center on statements and events in the public square. How can they be ignored?

For those seeking a bit of history on this building, which is one of the architectural wonders of the world, click here for a summary found at the rather neutral LiveScience website. Many readers will also want to click here for an Orthodox summary of its past. Suffice it to say that there has been a great church on this site since 360 and the sanctuary, in its current form, was constructed between 532 and 537 (which is amazing to even contemplate).

The key at the moment?

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Where’s the other side in atheist lawsuit story?

Religion News Service had an interesting story recently about atheists challenging Uncle Sam over nonprofit financial reporting.

It’s a pretty straightforward account:

Nonbelievers are challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s special exemptions for religious organizations in a federal court in Kentucky, saying churches and other religious groups should have the same financial rules as other nonprofit groups.

If they prevail, it will change the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations, and require the same transparency of donors, salaries and other expenditures that secular nonprofits must currently meet.

So far, so good.

Then comes this quote:

“This is a very strong case,” said Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, a national advocacy group and lead plaintiff in the case. “It seems to be straight-up discrimination on the basis of religion.”

Wow, the public relations director and lead plaintiff thinks it’s “a very strong case.” I’m sorry, but that made me chuckle. He’s not exactly an unbiased source.

I kept reading:

The case centers around who must file IRS Form 990, an annual reporting statement that provides information on a group’s mission, programs and finances.

Current tax law requires all tax-exempt organizations to file a Form 990 financial report — except churches and church-related organizations. A few state, political and educational organizations are exempt as well if their annual revenues fall below certain amounts.

This means the IRS treats religious organizations differently than it does all other organizations, the suit holds. It claims the IRS policy is a violation of the First Amendment and the due process promised under the Fifth Amendment.

The deeper I got into the story, the more I wondered if RNS would quote anyone besides the atheists.

The answer: Not really.

Perhaps RNS felt like it satisfied its journalistic responsibility with this note:

IRS spokesman Anthony Burke said the agency’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

But given the broad complaints made about churches and church-related organizations, why not quote a religious source?

Earlier this year, Bob Smietana wrote a piece for USA Today about the federal government trying to give a tax break to Annie Laurie Gaylor, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

From that story:

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Pod people: Don’t mess with C.S. Lewis

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Dorothy Parker in her review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).

I cannot read Ayn Rand. I have tried. As a teenager, friends assured me I would love Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t.

In college and in my 20′s I was pressed to try again. I did, this time cracking open The Fountainhead. I detested it. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal could not budge me either. I can’t stand Ayn Rand.

The inimitable Whitaker Chambers spoke for me when he wrote in The National Review in 1957:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

Yet among my circle of acquaintances are serious thoughtful individuals who number Rand among the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Her economic and philosophical theories are on the tip of their tongues — and passages of her fiction are committed to memory. I have learned over the years to be certain of my references to her life and work when she pops up in a story — for if I make a mistake I will hear from her legions.

Rand is one of a select group of authors who have maintained a devoted following. Monty Python, Star Trek, Karl Marx, and the Aubrey-Maturin naval adventures in literature, Bob Dylan in music, for example, have spawned fans who have memorized the canon of their classics.

C.S. Lewis is one such figure. In this week’s Crossroads podcast I spoke with Lutheran Public Radio host Todd Wilken about the perils of C.S. Lewis reporting, citing my GetReligion post “C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors”.

In that post, I recounted a series of unfortunate errors about C.S. Lewis’ life — mistakes that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, but ones that cropped up in the filler — background material about Lewis’ life and work used to round out the story. I noted the claim that Lewis was involved in the occult was untrue, and cited a portion of his autobiography. I wrote:

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult. (citation follows in the original.)

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