Are evangelicals America’s only real moral conservatives?

Nearly a decade ago, the conservative Weekly Standard ran a very newsy story on its cover under this ominous double-decker headline:

Banned in Boston

The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

The story shocked quite a few people and, behind the scenes, I know that many journalists linked to the religion beat passed it around, in part because so much of its reporting — even in the pages of a consevative magazine — centered on the complex and at times clashing legal views inside gay-rights groups.

The story opened like this:

Catholic Charities of Boston made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. “We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. … The issue is adoption to same-sex couples.”

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. “Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list,” Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. “It’s a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes.” Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, “This is a tragedy for kids.”

How did this tragedy happen?

It’s a complicated story.

Please note that this was also a Catholic story. It centered on a conflict between Catholic doctrines and a trend in American life. You can find similar stories about Orthodox Jews, if you dig deep enough. And, of course, you can find stories about conflicts linked to the life and work of evangelical Protestants, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby.

Now, let me stress that this is not a post about gay marriage and it’s not a post about religious liberty (sort of).

This is not even — as is the norm here at GetReligion — a post about a piece of mainstream news writing on a religion news or trend. Instead it’s a post pointing readers toward an Atlantic Monthly essay that, while puzzling, is must reading for people who work on the religion beat or who frequently consume religion news.

So what is so puzzling about this important article?

Things get strange right in the headline:

Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?

And here is the opening of this essay by Alan Noble:

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The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

Then in the body of the story:

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination’s national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a “task force” on the sect’s “evangelistic impact.”

A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings — weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state — and a lot of other nations as well?

Think I’m making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.

Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:

* “A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.”

* “A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches.”

* “A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.”

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The Atlantic slips — somehow — inside mind of Benedict XVI

During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).

Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.

Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.

Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?

A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.

That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.

Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Dismantles? Pope Francis has dismantled orthodox Catholicism?

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Breivik the liar

The news that Anders Behring Breivik has written a letter to the Norwegian media stating his protestations of Christian faith, pro-Israel opinions and anti-Nazi convictions were a calculated lie has left me stunned.

Breivik now says his manifesto and early statements were a bluff designed to focus public and media outrage on Christians, Jews and conservatives by tainting them with his actions. His early denials of being a racist or hyper-nationalist were false, Breivik writes. He lied in order to protect the good name of the neo-Nazi movement (Yes, I find that to be incredible on several levels, but that is what he said.)

What is one to believe? It is easy to dismiss this latest prison epistle as the ravings of a madman. Save that he is not mad (according to psychiatrists). Does being merely evil make them less credible?

On July 22, 2011 the 32-year old Norwegian detonated a bomb outside an Oslo government building killing eight and then proceeded to shoot to death 69 people,  mostly teenagers, attending a Worker’s Youth League (AUF) camp on the Island of Utøya. The Oslo District Court rejected Breivik’s insanity defense and on August 24, 2012, found him guilty of murdering 77 people. He was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, but is likely to serve a life term as he can only be released if the courts determine he is no longer a danger to society.

The narrative adopted by many press outlets was to label Breivik a “Christian fundamentalist” terrorist. My colleagues at GetReligion: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Terry Mattingly and Arne Fjeldsted questioned this conventional wisdom. And their concerns about the snap judgments made by many news outlets about Breivik have been proven prescient.

In her piece “The Atlantic has this terrorist all figured out” Mollie noted the welter of confusing claims and statements from the shooter, but questioned The Atlantic for its dogmatic assertion as to the man’s motives. She wrote:

But The Atlantic has figured it all out. Turns out the shooter was led to do all this by his fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. This hasn’t been a good week for The Atlantic and religion news, but let’s see. Maybe they have something to teach us.

Note the url: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/christian-fundamentalist-charged-death-toll-norway-soars-past-90/40321/. The headline? “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre”

Wow! They must really have access to some exclusive information. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

Turns out there wasn’t any.

A week out from the attack, Tmatt noted some newspapers were moving away from the Christian claims.

At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a “Christian,” (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a “fundamentalist,” in any historic sense of the word.

The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, “Christian” European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the “Christianist” template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion (“When Christianity becomes lethal“) Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

Tmatt closed his piece by asking reporters to keep digging.

Well, we now know more about what he has said — the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a “Christian,” where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.

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Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?

There has been another development in the canonization case of the Blessed John Paul II, which means it’s time for another round of news stories that — to one degree or another — mangle what Catholics and members of other ancient churches believe about prayer and the saints.

Before we get going, here is a handy doctrinal reminder: For Christians, only God can perform miracles. Here’s how Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C., explained it to me in 2011:

“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said.

“You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”

Now with that in mind, check out the lede on this quick online story from The Atlantic:

The Vatican has reportedly “approved” a second miracle that can be attributed to the memory of Pope John Paul II, opening the door for him to become a full saint faster than anyone in recent history. The Vatican won’t reveal the details of the miracle just yet, but it allegedly concerns the “extraordinary healing” of a woman in Costa Rica, who recovered from a brain injury after praying to the deceased pope. A similar healing miracle was attributed to John Paul in 2011, giving him the two miracles required to reach full sainthood.

Whoa, that contains at least one totally new twist on the usual errors.

What in the world does it mean to say that the “memory” of Pope John Paul II was the cause of a miracle? Later on in the same paragraph, we have the more familiar error — the part about the healing talking place after someone “prayed to the deceased pope.”

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Critical thinking would help reporters cover gay debates

Yesterday we looked at some of this week’s worst examples of some major media’s trouble covering homosexuality or same-sex marriage. It was what I was thinking about as I ruminated on a first-person essay on TheAtlantic.com headlined:

There Probably Isn’t Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality
Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won’t be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

The Atlantic piece, written by Conor Friedersdorf, is a highly personal essay about how he would run a newspaper. He argues that he’d advocate for changing marriage law, and viewing this as a “civil rights” issue — but he’d do so in a transparent manner. He sees the problem with the approach taken by some mainstream media outlets, those that share his partisan views but aren’t forthright about it, as one of failing to be honest and transparent about their grounding premises.

And, he says, he’d want to be fair to those who disagree but are not bigoted. But, he says, let’s not pretend that bigotry isn’t a driving force here:

But let’s be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their “facilitating public discourse” mode, they oughtn’t give the impression, in their “conveying reality as it is” mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that’s driving the debate. It’s been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won’t pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don’t want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.

You get where he’s going. I’d argue — and have argued strenuously — that sharing the fullness of the debate on this topic requires digging deep. Part of that means digging deep into the views of those who would retain marriage as a heterosexual institution.

But even in Friedersdorf’s essay we see a failure to recognize a distinction many traditionalists make between disapproval of a particular behavior and disapproval of a person. Later, Friedersdorf says he’d like to know what marriage traditionalists such as Eve Tushnet would do if they ran a style section to a newspaper. It’s an interesting choice because Tushnet is rather famously same-sex attracted and also celibate for religious reasons. One of the problems with the current media approach to this topic is how many journalists lazily prejudge any disapproval of any aspect of homosexuality with bullying, bigotry and hatred.

A correspondent, who is a journalist, had some challenging remarks in response that everyone should read:

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Scientology comes to The Atlantic

The internet freaked out this week when an advertisement done in the “Sponsored Content” style was discovered on The Atlantic‘s web site. I have to be completely honest that this made little sense to me.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve read cheesy ads in my favorite magazines that say “sponsored content” at the top but are otherwise made to appear as part of the magazine. I fancy myself a discerning reader who is able to figure out that the sponsored content is making claims that are, shall we say, less than journalistic. Why should it matter whether the miracle being pitched is for face cream or a secretive religious group?

But I was in the minority. The most common sentiment Americans can muster — outrage, obviously — was mustered and the ad was pulled down within 12 hours (you can see the cached version here). The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple had a good explanation of what happened, along with some key points, including:

  • Native ads are critical to The Atlantic’s livelihood. They are one element of digital advertising revenue, which in 2012 accounted for a striking 59 percent of the brand’s overall advertising revenue haul. Unclear just how much of the digital advertising revenue stems from sponsor content. We’re working on that.
  • Though the Atlantic has done many such advertorial packages in the past, Raabe says that it hasn’t received complaints — at least that she’s aware of.
  • This is the first such package that The Atlantic has done with Scientology.

The Atlantic issued a statement about the matter, which began:

We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.

The New York Times noted that other digital media outlets ran sponsor content, adding:

But no instance of sponsored content has come under as much criticism as this one. Gawker called the sponsored Web page “bizarre, blatant propaganda for Scientology.” Others raised questions about why all the comments on the page were supportive of the church, indicating that critical comments were being deleted. A spokeswoman for The Atlantic said that the comments were moderated by its marketing team, not by the editorial team that moderates comments on normal articles.

At the same time, others defended the arrangement as a smart business move. The church’s ad buy comes at a time when it is trying to blunt the impact of a new book about the secretive religion by Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.” The book will be published on Thursday.

The Onion, the satirical newspaper, decided to run content from its partner, “The Taliban.” Headline:

SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement

What I didn’t see much of, however, was an explanation of why it was so awful that The Atlantic takes money from groups such as The Church of Scientology. I’m more than willing to hear that argument, I just noticed that there was a lot of outrage, and not much argument. What would a policy look like that bans such content, I wonder?

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