NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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The ongoing spectacle of NYTimes contempt for religion

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Yes, this was a piece of commentary. In other words, it was not a news story that automatically fell into GetReligion territory.

Yes, this mini-essay was about a new reality-television show way off in the outer reaches of cable land.

But, well, it was also a piece that was published with a staff byline in the pages of The New York Times under one of those double-decker headlines that simply demands attention, right this very moment:

Seek and Ye Shall Find a Hottie

In ‘It Takes a Church,’ the Congregation Helps Pick Your Date

Said review also contained an out-of-the-blue statement that, well, you just knew GetReligion readers were going to bring to our attention again, and again, and again, world without end, amen. More on that in a moment.

Nevertheless, your GetReligionistas passed the URL around for a day or so and we concluded that we would let this one pass us by. Then GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway jumped in, over at The Federalist, and went all GetReligion on it. Thus, we are choosing to pass along what she had to say.

So what’s this all about? The Times explains:

Each week the show visits a congregation and matches up one of its single members with a prospective mate. The first episode travels to the Rock Worship Center in Charlotte, N.C., where 30-year-old Angela laments, “I can’t find a man.” Apparently, she hasn’t been looking very hard, because when the TV cameras come to town one Sunday, bachelors pop up from the congregation like weeds, each accompanied by a “matchmaker” — his mother or some other advocate — extolling his virtues.

The gimmick of the show is: It’s not Angela who does the initial winnowing. It’s the congregation, though the criteria the parishioners are using to thin the field are not clear. Anyway, after the elimination round, the usual shallow banter ensues — here, devoid of the sexual innuendo common on other dating shows — and Angela eventually picks one fellow for a date, the results of which we do not learn.

M.Z., tongue only slightly in her cheek, noted that this scenario does not sound all that unusual to her. Why is that?

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About those Nigerian Christian girls, chanting in Arabic

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As I have said many times, I have no idea how foreign correspondents do the work that they do, especially when working in regions that are being torn apart by civil war and complex events linked to terrorism. While readers tend to see events in terms of good guys and terrorists, the reporters on the ground know that reality is much more complex than that.

The events unfolding in the overwhelmingly Muslim northeast corner of Nigeria are a perfect example of this, once you dig deeper than the Twitter #bringbackourgirls hashtag and the vague words of various government spokespersons.

Consider, for example, the role of Islam on both sides of this story. Over and over, your GetReligionistas note the accuracy of the post-9/11 media mantra “there is no one Islam.” That is absolutely true, yet many journalists have hesitated to cover the complex and often violent divisions inside this major world religion.

Think this through for a minute. At the very least, you have four different “Muslim” camps in this kidnapping story.

* Obviously, you have Boko Haram and its hellish, truly radical take on sharia law and Islam.

* Then you have, at the other extreme, the small number of Muslim families who were willing to enroll their daughters in the non-Islamic Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, in a heavily Christian corner of the primarily Muslim northern half of Nigeria. A dozen or more of the kidnapped girls were Muslims, while the vast majority have been identified as Christians or animists.

* However, it’s important to remember that many radical Islamists in Nigeria and abroad — those who seek a strong form of sharia law — clearly oppose Boko Haram’s fiercely violent methods and have rejected, in particular, the kidnapping of these girls. So that’s a third camp.

* Finally, there are those who could be called the mainstream Muslims of northern Nigeria, those who work with the regional government, the local police and the military. I do not know quite how to describe their faith perspective, but it clearly represents an approach different than the various Islamist groups. Yes, this could overlap with the viewpoint of the Muslim parents in my second camp.

Why bring this up? This past week, I read two news reports that seemed to offer radically different, even clashing, takes on a crucial recent development, the release of the video claiming to show some of the kidnapped girls, wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers in Arabic. One story ran in The New York Times and the other at a religious outlet, Baptist Press. First, here is a crucial section of the Times piece, the lede anecdote:

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There he goes, there (Bill Keller) goes again …

In light of the latest newsroom drama at The New York Times, let’s pause and reflect once again on why it matters so much who leads America’s most influential news institution.

I know that it only seems like yesterday that editor Jill Abramson was the new boss and we were trying to gauge how that would change the whole theology of journalism at the Times, so soon after the fascinatingly candid (you knew this was coming) remarks on religion, culture and the press by former editor Bill Keller. More on that in a minute.

Now Abramson is out and her top deputy has taken the top chair. Dean Baquet — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of The Los Angeles Times — now serves as another historic figure in the newspaper’s history, as it’s first African-American executive editor. In a press release (questions were apparently not welcomed in this newsroom session), he remarked:

“It is an honor to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that is actually better than it was a generation ago, one that approaches the world with wonder and ambition every day,” he said in a news release.

The Times is certainly better at some things than it used to be, especially in multi-platform journalism. However, many will still debate whether it remains a traditional newspaper or has evolved, on many subjects, into a neo-European advocacy publication.

Some of the best quotes on this matter have, ironically, been printed in the Times — under the bylines of various public editors. I still think Arthur S. Brisbane’s 2012 farewell included some of the best material, from a GetReligion point of view:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Does some of that sound familiar?

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So #bringbackourgirls is finally a news story! Why now?

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At this point, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria are officially “A News Story,” which means that CNN is even breaking into its coverage of missing airliners to get into the big details. Of course, it helps when the details are on video:

(CNN) – The girls sit quietly on the ground, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, barely moving, clearly scared.

“Praise be to Allah, the lord of the world,” they chant.

The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, purports to show about 100 of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters nearly a month ago. It’s the first time they’ve been seen since their abduction April 14.

This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone is completely comfortable with the clearly religious foundations of this hellish story.

In the print version of this CNN report, for example, the editors waited for 12 paragraphs to offer background on why it mattered that the girls — in the heavily Islamic Northern half of Nigeria — were wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers.

In separate shots filmed against a green backdrop, the man who claims to be Shekau says the girls — who come from a Christian stronghold — have converted to Islam.

So the girls have been kidnapped, forced to convert to another faith and face threats that they will be sold into forced marriages and/or slavery. How many violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are included in that equation?

Big issues. Nevertheless, that’s pretty much it in terms of the religion content in this lengthy CNN report.

Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, this moving report on the crisis features photographs showing mothers weeping in church pews for their missing daughters — but the story itself never mentions that religion played any role in why these girls were targeted. The bottom line: The girls were taken from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and the vast majority were Christians and the others were Muslims who were willing to attend a non-Islamic school with Christians, a violation of Boko Haram’s vision of true Islam.

Still, some mainstream reporters are realizing that religion has something to do with this story and that Boko Haram’s reign of terror in this corner of northern Nigeria is, in fact, a story.

Why? Why now?

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Gasp! NYTimes covers the heart of Kennedy’s argument!

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print.

Wait. Say what?

Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

Readers quickly learn some important facts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion. …

Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” …

She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”

The situation in Greece, N.Y., is pretty familiar. Town officials insist that all kinds of people are welcome to line up to give prayers — atheists included — but, as the story notes, in practice “almost all of the chaplains were Christian.” Some believers have even made references to offensive concepts such as Jesus dying on the cross.

This has, of course, offended some citizens who have lawyers.

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It’s not hard! WPost offers some crucial Boko Haram facts

In the past month or two, I have been really, really hard on the editors at The New York Times because of their mysterious — that word is carefully chosen — blind spot when it comes to basic, on-the-record facts about the beliefs, motives and tactics of the radical Islamist network Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) in Nigeria.

Rather than hit you with a wave of URLs, just click here for an earlier wrap-up of some of the basics. And here is a now-classic quote that offers an example of what’s happening in one of the world’s most influential newsrooms:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

That still amazes me.

In previous posts, I praised a BBC background piece that nailed down many of the essential facts. You know, like the fact that the ultra-violent network’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” and the unofficial name, Boko Haram, is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” A crucial fact is that, in addition to slaughtering Christians and other minorities, Boko Haram specializes in killing Muslims who cooperate with the West, especially in the education of women and children.

Now, are other major newsrooms struggling with the blind spot that is seen at The Times? Yes and no. Consider this news feature in The Washington Post focusing on the history that looms over the story that is currently dominating the headlines, the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian school girls. Here is the top of that piece:

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Archbishop sells his fancy digs; NYTimes digs a bit deeper

What we have here is a very solid New York Times story about a somewhat controversial issue in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let me repeat that, for regular GetReligion readers who may have fainted.

What we have here, under the headline “Bishops Follow Pope’s Example: Opulence Is Out,” is a very solid story about the trend among Catholic prelates to down-size their lives a bit, when it comes to the cost of their housing. In fact, I have only one minor criticism and that focuses on an interesting, but perhaps not essential, angle that this fine story could have mentioned.

But let’s focus first on the good news. The story opens with the decision by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta to sell his new $2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion in the ultra-high-rent Buckhead neighborhood which, the Times properly notes, was being built on donated land with funds donated for this purpose.

Then there is this obvious news hook in the summary paragraphs:

… (As) Pope Francis seeks “a church which is poor and for the poor,” expectations for Catholic leaders are changing rapidly. So on Monday night, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory apologized, saying that laypeople had told him they were unhappy with his new house, and promising to seek guidance from priests and laypeople and to follow their advice about whether to sell it.

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed,” he wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin. He added, “The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.”

The unhappy reaction of local Catholics to the archbishop’s new house in Atlanta is the latest in a series of lay uprisings since the new pope altered the landscape by choosing to live in a modest Vatican residence rather than the opulent apostolic palace, to travel in a Ford Focus and to denounce overspending by church leaders.

Now, the Pope Francis superstar factor cannot be denied here. It’s there and it’s very real. However, I think it’s crucial to note that other factors are playing a role in this trend.

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