Is “marriage equality” our term, their’s and everyone else’s?

Back in May, I noticed a curious decision by some media outlets to scare quote the term “religious liberty.” Religion News Service defended the use of the scare quotes. Contributor Mark Silk had one defense and editor Kevin Eckstrom had another, writing:

Mark makes a good point here. And I’m troubled by Mollie’s not-so-subtle implications. Mollie’s implying that we’re using scare quotes as a way of signaling our disagreement with the religious liberty cause. Not so.

We put “religious liberty” in not-scary quotes simply to signal to the reader that this is not a neutral term. As Mark pointed out, there’s vast disagreement about whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough. There are countless others on the other side who see this as a fight over contraception, or government mandates, or health care, or whatever else you want to call it.

If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded, because it would signal to the other side that we, too, share the idea that this is a fight over religious liberty. It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one.

So, Mollie, no, there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.

Smart readers wondered if this policy would be applied consistently for other debates.

I think we have an answer. From an RNS story this weekend about “Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a former Arizona state senator, Mormon-turned-nontheist and a bisexual” who just won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives, replacing outgoing Rep. Pete Stark as the only atheist in that body:

Sinema, 36, has much in common with Stark ideologically. Having previously served as both an Arizona state senator and representative, she has a long record of supporting women’s rights, marriage equality, gay rights and science education.

Marriage equality?

Marriage equality? Is there any journalistic defense of using this term in a non-propaganda sense? I get that this is the preferred advocacy term used by people who want marriage law changed to include same-sex couples or other groupings. This is the label of choice for people on one side of this debate. This is, to cite a debate from the past, movement language — like “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

But what’s the journalistic defense for using this label, particularly sans scare quotes, in a hard-news article such as this? (I should mention that the article itself is quite interesting and written by RNS’ great reporter on the atheism beat.)

Would you say “marriage equality” is “their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s”? Of course. Would you describe this term as “neutral”? Of course not. So why the lack of scare quotes?

Live action scare quote image via Shutterstock.

Which religious group should be blamed for the election results?

Well, everyone, we made it through another presidential campaign year! Congratulations to the winners and condolences to the losers and all that.

With the election over, we’re now in the stage of the airing of grievances and assigning of blame.

It’s usually much easier to do this than this year, where the campaign wasn’t about big issues. Or as it was put in this fantastic Washington Post piece explaining how Obama won:

The campaign bore almost no resemblance to the expansive one Obama waged in 2008 — by strategic choice and by financial necessity. Without the clear financial advantage it had last time, Obama’s campaign relied more on the tools of micro-marketing than on the oratorical gifts of the nation’s first black president.

Gone were the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago. Instead the president focused on Romney. Meanwhile, his campaign spoke early and often with “persuadable” voters, selected for targeted e-mails and doorstep visits through demographic data unavailable last time.

“We turned a national election into a school-board race,” a second senior Obama campaign official said.

Before the effort to define Romney began, before they even knew for certain Romney would be the opponent, the Obama campaign laid the groundwork for victory in a race that would be won in the margins of a polarized electorate.

The lack of big issues led, perhaps, to an obsession with polls. That obsession continues as journalists look to exit polls for meaning. The New York Times has a great interactive page with election information. It begins with the note:

Most of the nation shifted to the right in Tuesday’s vote, but not far enough to secure a win for Mitt Romney.

Weird, right? Most of the nation shifts to the right but the big story is that the right lost. Big time. How to make sense of that? The first thing I might suggest is caution. Whether it’s on election night or the first few heady days after, people are desperate to make sense of things. But sometimes it takes a while for actual vote totals to come in or good local data that explain particular elections.

Just for instance … I really enjoyed this Denver Post/Eric Gorski piece about the Pew data, which mentioned:

The initial speculation and preliminary evidence was white evangelicals and other conservative Christians might not enthusiastically support Romney, either for theological or other reasons, [University of Akron political scientist John] Green noted. Ultimately, though, exit polls showed nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Romney, an improvement over John McCain’s 73 percent in 2008 and on par with George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Romney received less support from his fellow Mormons than allegedly skeptical white evangelicals – although it was just 1 percentage point less.

That’s fascinating, no? The evangelical voters increased their support for the GOP candidate in 2012 over 2008 and 2004? And Mormon support was below that of white evangelicals? Crazy! (The piece also has great discussions on the “nones” and why Obama lost seven points among white Catholics — Green suggests the “religious liberty” issue was a factor.)

But what we also need to know are whether those percentages reflect changes in the actual voters. Meaning, did some evangelicals sit out the election this year? And did Mormons come out to vote more than usual? Both of those things could have happened as well. Or not. We’ll have to wait a bit to find that out. Going back to that New York Times map mentioned above, it shows that the country went more Republican everywhere with a few exceptions. One of those areas was the South. Is that partly a religion story? I don’t know. (There’s some great analysis on these questions here.)

One interesting approach taken by Religion News Service was the piece headlined “What’s next for religious conservatives?” Even though the Romney campaign was laser-focused on the economy at the expense of getting out the vote over social conservatism or other issues Americans care about, the piece suggests that the problem lies with … social conservatives. It includes lines such as:

The electorate today is increasingly Latino, and younger, and both those groups are turned off by anything that smacks of righteous moralizing.

I only wish that young people were turned off by anything that smacked of righteous moralizing. But the ratings success of Glee would suggest otherwise. As for this claim that Latinos are all turned off by, um, “anything that smacks of righteous moralizing” … I’m not quite sure how to respond to it. I mean, maybe it’s true. Maybe Latinos were turned off of Romney (and the GOP) not because of his comments about self-deportation, or his lack of outreach to them, or this (from ABC/Univision):

Nationally, 74 percent of Latino voters said that Romney did not care about Latinos or was outwardly hostile to them, with a whopping 56 percent believing the latter. Compare that to what Latino voters thought of President Obama: 66 percent said he truly cares about Latinos.

But maybe RNS is right and the failure to crack 35 percent of the Latino vote — which one analysis says would have changed the outcome of the entire election — had something to do with social conservatism. Journalistically, though, it would be better to substantiate claims such as this about youth and Latinos rather than just assert it without any evidence.

This was an interesting election and one that, despite how narrowly divided the country is, had some decisive results with serious implications for religious adherents and the issues they care about. But it’s always good to proceed with caution when trying to make sense of why voters made the decisions they did.

Note: Please keep comments focused on media coverage as opposed to personal political preferences, etc.

Recriminations image via Shutterstock.

Bloodshed in Saudi Arabia, for some non-religious reasons

Some of the world’s most important religion-news stories are also the hardest for your GetReligionistas to write about because they happen over and over and over. Are we supposed to do a post a week on some of these topics? Criticize the same holes in mainstream stories again and again?

It’s hard. Trust me.

Take, for example, coverage of human-rights stories linked to life in majority Muslim lands — especially stories linked to the persecution of religious minorities. The key issue is whether the press buys and sells the familiar argument that these conflicts are actually about politics and economics, not religion. No matter what the mobs are yelling about God and Sharia, these stories are, supposedly, sparked by class conflict, ethnic concerns, etc. Truth be told, these tragedies are driven by multiple factors — including religion.

One of the news subjects that, over the past decade, has frustrated me the most is the bloody split between Shia and Sunni Islam. How is the American public supposed to understand the recent history of Iraq without understanding that deep and bitter divide? Yet, day after day, week after week, year after year, American newsrooms produce floods of ink on these conflicts without giving readers any information about why this divide exists in the first place. There have been a few exceptions — such as this Time cover story.

I used to write posts on this subject all of the time.

I quit, after GetReligion readers responded with waves of apathy — which is often the case with posts about international stories, especially those centering on coverage of human rights. We need more liberal readers, I guess, in the old meaning of the word “liberal.”

Anyway, The Washington Post recently served up another long news story of this kind that ran under this simple headline: “Shiite protests pose major challenge for Saudi Arabia.” The top of this report tells a familiar story:

AWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia – This much is beyond dispute: Khalid al-Labad is dead.

Labad, 26, and two teenage relatives were fatally shot by police Sept. 26 as they sat in plastic chairs on the narrow sidewalk in front of their house in this broken-down little town in the far east of Saudi Arabia. To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the government for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority.

The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The sectarian uprising in the kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking the Middle East.

Yes, there are major political and economic components to this story, starting with the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But this is also a story about the treatment of a minority form of Islam in the context of a majority Sunni culture. It’s a story about a religious minority, in other words, even though Islam is — inaccurately and simplistically — often portrayed as a monolithic religion.

So why do the Shia and Sunni clash? What are the historical and, thus, doctrinal roots of this conflict?

As usual, Post readers learn nothing about that. Nothing at all. There is no room, in this long report, for even a paragraph or two on the “why” in this who, what, when, where, why and how equation. The following is interesting, but it’s simply not deep enough:

Shiites, who form a majority in Iran, have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite in Saudi Arabia. They account for about 10 percent of the country’s 28 million people and are concentrated here in the Eastern Province’s industrial center, sandwiched between the vast Arabian desert and the glistening Persian Gulf.

The death toll here — 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent rebellions in other Arab countries, especially the civil war in Syria. And, unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family.

So what are the differences between these two communities and how do they affect daily life? How do they affect the content of Islam and Islamic law? What is the difference between a Sunni mosque, of which there are many in Saudi Arabia, and Shia mosques, of which there are few? What happens if a Shia Muslim tries to pray in a Sunni mosque? Etc., etc.

Are there economic elements in this conflict? Of course there are and this story covers them well. Ditto for the ties into larger Middle East conflicts. The story covers a wide variety of important themes — pretty much everything except, of course, religion.

Sorry, but I felt the urgent need to point this out. Again.

Church angles matter, in Prince George’s County

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The state of Maryland is bluer than blue, when it comes to politics, so it’s no surprise that supporters of same-sex marriage are expecting a rare victory at the ballot-box on Nov. 6. It will be a stunning upset if cultural conservatives carry the day on this hot-button issue in such a liberal state.

However, there is one twist in this story that simply cannot be ignored and that is the power of culturally conservative African-American Christians in this state, especially in highly symbolic Prince George’s County — one of America’s most influential regions, in terms of black political and social power. This is particularly true when it comes to the county’s many black Protestant megachurches. In these pews, it is perfectly normal to find legions of enthusiastic Barack Obama supporters who consider themselves political progressives, yet they also plan to vote against changing the definition of marriage.

This brings us to the interesting case of Angela McCaskill, the Gallaudet University administrator who was suspended from her job after a gay newspaper published the fact that she had signed a petition to hold a referendum on Maryland’s same-sex marriage law.

The story has generated a lot of press, especially now that opponents of same-sex marriage are citing her case as an example of what could happen in the future to traditional religious believers in the public square. Meanwhile, many supporters of same-sex marriage — especially African-American liberals — have spoken out in her defense, saying that she had the right to sign the petition and keep her job.

It also helps to know that Gallaudet is a private institution, not a state school. Thus, the university has the right, as a voluntary association, to make same-sex marriage one of the school’s defining doctrines, so to speak. Its leaders simply have to state this clearly and publicly, so that students, donors, faculty, etc., know this fact in advance.

Note to journalists covering this story: In other words, was the school’s opposition to traditional Christian teachings on this matter articulated to McCaskill and others as a condition of their employment? That would be a good question to ask. On the other side, the leaders of private conservative schools are required to articulate the doctrines that they intend to enforce, in lifestyle covenants, for those who voluntarily study, teach and work there.

So, is support for same-sex marriage part of a written-and-signed Gallaudet lifestyle and doctrinal covenant? Did McCaskill voluntarily sign away her free-speech rights on this issue? This question will come up in court, if this case ends up in court.

Anyway, The Baltimore Sun ran an update on this story the other day that, in my opinion, left a crucial fact out of the lede.

Read this and see what you think. What is missing, if one wants to understand the Price George’s County context?

The Gallaudet University diversity officer who was suspended from her job after signing a petition to put Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to referendum said she wants her post back and is owed compensation for the emotional toll caused by the firestorm.

“This has been a tremendously horrific time for myself and my family,” Angela McCaskill said at a news conference … outside the Maryland State House. “The university has allowed this issue to escalate out of control. They have attempted to intimidate me. They have tarnished my reputation.”

McCaskill, who is deaf and spoke via an interpreter, said she signed the petition because she is “pro-democracy.” She was joined by members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus — including some who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage measure and some who opposed it.

What is missing from the lede?

I think it is missing two crucial words — “at church.”

The Sun does get this fact into print in a background paragraph a few lines later, which is good. But anyone who knows Maryland politics knows that the church angle — the freedom to proclaim religious belief outside the pews — is the key to this whole story, at least for half of the people involved in it. Among African-Americans, the church angle is especially important.

Nearly 200,000 Marylanders signed the petition pushed by opponents of same-sex marriage, who hope to defeat the law at the ballot box Nov. 6. McCaskill said she signed it after listening to a sermon in her Prince George’s County church that focused on the importance of marriage. …

McCaskill, the first deaf black woman to receive a doctorate from Gallaudet, was suspended with pay last week from her post. At the time, the university president issued a statement saying he wanted to consider whether it was appropriate for an officer in charge of cultivating diversity to sign the petition. McCaskill said the university acted after a fellow faculty member lodged a complaint about her decision to sign.

So, how did The Washington Post handle this development in the story? Here’s that newspaper’s lede:

Gallaudet University’s embattled chief diversity officer said she wasn’t taking an anti-gay stance when she signed a petition advocating for Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to be put to a vote. Instead, Angela McCaskill says she was joining 200,000 others in standing up for the rights of voters to make decisions at the ballot box.

In other words, “ditto” on the church thing in the lede. Later on, the newspaper did add some additional background:

McCaskill, 54, was the first deaf African American woman to earn a PhD at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the District. She has worked at Gallaudet for more than 24 years and was named top diversity official last year. McCaskill said she rearranged her budget to find money to open a resource center on campus for sexual minorities, hired an openly transgender employee and hosted many events centered around discussing LGBT issues.

This summer, McCaskill and her husband attended Reid Temple AME church and heard a sermon about “different types of marriage,” then signed the petition there, Gordon said. That petition was obtained and made public by the Washington Blade. A faculty member saw McCaskill’s name on the petition and confronted
her in early October. …

As the firestorm escalated, McCaskill was told that she should issue an apology — but refused.

Also, it’s interesting to note that she signed the petition at a politically progressive, mainline Protestant church, not in one of the county’s massive Pentecostal or evangelical churches. By the way, is she a member of that congregation? You see, this is one of those religious-liberty stories that cannot simply be described in terms of political left and right.

The bottom line: When you’re writing about Prince George’s County, the African-American church angle goes in the lede — period. Otherwise, the story is avoiding the key fact in the story.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Needless to say, the goal here is to discuss the journalism issues in these two stories, not McCaskill’s action or the contents of her statements — unless you want to discuss how her actions or statements have been cited in the press.

God-shaped hole in story on Hong Kong protests

Every now and then, when I a traveling, I discover another layer of torn-out articles for GetReligion review buried deep inside some pocket of my shoulder bag. It’s sort of like the analog, portable version of the gigantic digital tmatt “folder of guilt” in my email program that I open up from time to time.

You see, there’s just so much to write about and so little time. There are religion-news ghosts all over the place.

Consider, for example, that recent Washington Post story about the ongoing tensions between Hong Kong and its rulers on the Chinese mainland. There was no real news hook in this one. Still I appreciated the update, since I was fortunate enough to have attended a journalism conference in Hong Kong during the final days and, literally, hours before the 1997 handover.

As you would expect, I focused — in my writing for the Scripps Howard News Service — on ways in which that great city’s future unity with the mainland could affect human rights and religious freedom. Click here and especially here, if you wish, to see what I wrote way back then. The key, according to the people I interviewed in Hong Kong, was Article 23 of the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law, especially the part stating that the city’s new leadership:

“… shall enact laws … to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People’s Government, … to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Of course, to paraphrase a famous statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during the apartheid era, one man’s street-corner evangelist is another man’s dangerous political activist. Anyone who has studied church-state history at the global level knows that governments often like to say that religion equals politics, when the religious believers in any way clash with the state. That’s a formula for conflict in the United States, as well. Ask Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Anyway, I was disappointed — to say the least — that the Post team included zero, zilch, nada, religious content in this story. Clearly, the goal of the story is to talk about tensions in Hong Kong about human rights. That’s clear, right up front, with its talk about protesters marching in the street waving flags “emblazoned with the British Union Jack.”

The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule. But, after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.

Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a “crown colony” into a “special administrative region of China,” marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: only the party can “wipe clean the shame” of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese. Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as “anti-communist” but now vilifies them as “anti-China,” an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.

What does this have to do with religion? That’s the question I would like to see addressed.

Why? Check out this crucial paragraph in this long news feature.

Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.

So things are going fine, except for those issues linked to “defense and foreign relations.”

Thinking back to 1997, that leads me to ask this question: When it comes to “foreign relations,” are the Chinese authorities starting to get entangled in relations between, let’s, Catholics and the hierarchy in Rome? There are plenty of reasons — millions and millions of them — for Chinese Catholics to worry on that front. And when it comes to self-censorship, how are Hong Kong’s other religious leaders doing these days?

The bottom line: Find me a land in which journalists are worrying about freedom of the press and I will find you a land in which religious believers have good cause to worry about religious freedom. The equation works the other way around, too (and more journalists need to ponder that).

So what’s the state of religious liberty in Hong Kong? Are any of those flag-waving protesters concerned about that? I’d like to know, how about you?

IMAGE: Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong.

Why didn’t Catholic bishops call Biden out by name?

I’m on the road right now, in Montana, and haven’t had a chance to catch Saturday Night Live yet but apparently in the comedy show’s skit on the Vice Presidential debate, the Joe Biden character said:

“I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. But then, like most Catholics, I ignore them and do what I want.”

Hardy har har. The joke was in reference to a portion of the debate where the moderator treated abortion as a question of faith and then asked both candidates to explain — as Catholics — their position on abortion. During the answer to that question, Republican candidate Paul Ryan brought up the threats to religious liberty posed by the Health and Human Services mandate requiring individuals and organizations to provide health insurance coverage that may violate the teachings of their faith.

In response, Biden said something most interesting (according to this Washington Post transcript):

With regard to the assault on the Catholic church, let me make it absolutely clear, no religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.

Well, like almost everything uttered by politicians, that’s not a fact. And a few hours later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called him out. Religion News Service had a story that some people brought to our attention:

In a rare public rebuke, Catholic bishops chided Vice President Joe Biden for saying during Thursday’s vice-presidential debate that Catholic hospitals and institutions will not be forced to provide contraception coverage to employees.

Without mentioning Biden by name, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “inaccurate” statement “made during the Vice Presidential debate” was “not a fact.”

I think some people thought RNS was having fun with scare quotes again. But this is just quote-quoting it. What’s really interesting about this statement from the bishops isn’t just that they called Biden out for lying. They did it without using his name and in a quite passive manner. The quote mechanism used above conveys that.

There was a bit of a problem with inconsistency in using such an approach later in the story, however:

The White House later offered a complex compromise that would allow insurance companies, rather than employers, to pay for the contraceptive coverage. Critics — including the bishops — say it doesn’t go far enough.

“They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries,” the bishops’ conference said.

It’s true that the White House claims that its compromise is not a shell game but rather a totally legit way to keep employers from being too involved in paying for things they oppose. Claims should be put forth as just that, however. It’s easy to say that “The White House later offered a change that it says would ….” There’s no reason to adopt the White House talking point. Just say what it is. Obviously people opposed to this mandate think it’s no compromise at all and that the claim is laughable — that the underlying issue is unchanged. So just let them make their case, too — as this story does above.

Anyway, a good story that lays out the bishops’ view and the curious way they made the statement. That might even be worth more coverage — why did the bishops play the passive game of saying some mysterious person at the debate erred? Why did they not call out Biden by name? Religion reporters definitely noticed this. Perhaps there’s some coverage of this I haven’t seen yet. Of course, I also haven’t seen mainstream coverage of another Biden claim on abortion. Many Catholic sites and individuals have lambasted his claim that the basis for Catholic opposition to abortion is de fide. There’s no reason that this interesting debate — along with those about whether the Catholic religion requires particular legislative approaches when it comes to care for the poor — can’t get more mainstream coverage. It really lies at the heart of these important political differences on how society can best protect the lives of the unborn and how society can best take care of the weakest among us.