A ‘Duck Dynasty’ profile that actually gets religion

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The Tennessean had a story this weekend that made me “happy, happy, happy.”

In a March post titled “Duck, duck, goose: Media miss faith angle on ‘Duck Dynasty,’” I complained about the media’s failure to get religion in its coverage of the Duck Family Robertson. Ever shy about touting my own stories (not), I referred to the “Faith, family and ducks” piece I wrote for The Christian Chronicle.

Well, as a leading newspaper in the heart of the Bible Belt should do, the Nashville daily nailed the faith angle (and Godbeat pro Bob Smietana wasn’t even the one wrote the story). It’s also the lead story at this moment on Gannett flagship USA Today’s home page.

Let’s start right at the top:

It took only days for famed Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow to sell out a Nashville lecture at Lipscomb University in 2010.

“Duck Dynasty’s” Robertson family did the same thing this year. Only they did it three times over.

They’re so popular, Lipscomb has to have one of their appearances for the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence in the afternoon.

Friday night marked at least the third time since December a member of the popular A&E reality-show clan took a Nashville stage to spread hunting tips and their brand of “happy, happy, happy” Christianity, to steal a phrase family patriarch Phil Robertson made popular. He’ll speak again this afternoon and tonight with wife Kay and brother Si.

Their third-season finale Wednesday set an A&E series record with nearly 10 million viewers. More in the Nashville market watched “Duck Dynasty” than any other show that day, said Mark Binda, program and research director for WTVF-Channel 5.

I’ll acknowledge that I’m not entirely “happy, happy, happy” with the reference to “happy, happy, happy” Christianity because I think some readers could misconstrue it and link the Robertsons to prosperity gospel theology, which I don’t believe they preach.

But I like that The Tennessean explores the religion behind the Robertsons’ appeal:

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Putting a human face on illegal immigration

Get Religion crickets, prepare to chirp.

You guessed it: I’m going to write about media coverage of evangelicals and immigration reform. Again

To read my previous posts, click here, here, here and here. My basic complaint in each of those posts: broad generalizations about a complicated issue.

More than once, I have voiced my desire to see a reporter interview ordinary Christians about the issue rather than rely on an advocacy group’s talking points.

Enter Bob Smietana, award-winning Godbeat scribe for The Tennessean.

A recent feature by Smietana focused on one family — and one Tennessee church — touched by the immigration issue:

NASHVILLE — The smiling faces of Heren and Ricardo Morales flashed on the screen just before the start of a recent Sunday morning service at MJLife Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Below the photo, taken on their wedding day, was a simple, three-word prayer: “Bring Ricardo Home.”

In March 2012, Ricardo Morales, who’s 24, traveled to his home country of Mexico in the first step toward becoming a legal resident in the United States. He left behind his 26-year-old wife Heren, his stepson Ozman, 8, and daughter Miranda, 3.

A year and more than $7,000 in legal fees later, Ricardo is stuck in immigration limbo. His case may not be resolved for another year or more. As his wife and church family pray and write letters in his support, their pastor says Ricardo’s story has changed his own views on immigration reform. Church members say Ricardo’s plight shows just how broken the system is.

“They have done everything they are supposed to do,” said Richelle Tramel, a church friend. “They have paid every dime they are supposed to pay. He is still not home.”

Here’s the beauty of a story such as this: It takes a gigantic issue — immigration reform — and puts a real human face on it.

Read on, and we learn that Ricardo and Heren, a U.S. citizen, met and fell in love and became a beloved part of the church family.

That leads to the drama at the heart of the story:

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Meet Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey, minus the faith

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A decade ago, as a Tennessee-based religion and enterprise writer for The Associated Press, I profiled Dave Ramsey.

I opened my 2003 story this way:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A chorus of cheers filled the Cornerstone Church’s arena-style sanctuary as Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey snapped a pair of metal scissors.

The crowd squealed with delight as Ramsey sliced a credit card in half.

“It’s called plastic surgery,” joked Ramsey, whose syndicated radio talk show airs daily on 160 stations.

Ramsey, 42, spent the past decade building a multimillion-dollar business by dispensing to the masses simple financial principles: Live on a budget. Don’t spend more than you make. Start an emergency fund. Get out of debt and stay out of debt.

It’s advice people crave. His financial how-to books have sold 2 million copies. “Financial Peace University,” a 13-week video series offered at churches, military bases and offices, will reach an estimated 75,000 people in 2003. And he’s written a money management curriculum used at 250 high schools.

I wrote about Ramsey again in 2009, covering his appearance at an Oklahoma City megachurch for Religion News Service.

Again, Ramsey’s faith figured prominently in my story:

As evidence of the significant interest in the one-time bankrupt real estate salesman who turned around his financial life based on biblical principles, consider the scene at an Oklahoma City-area megachurch on Thursday (April 23).

About 1,500 people showed up at Life Church that evening to hear Ramsey give a history of capitalism and explain why he believes the economy will survive the current woes.

But the crowd that saw the syndicated talk-show host in person was far from alone.

His free, nationwide “Town Hall for Hope” meeting was simulcast live to more than 6,000 churches, businesses and military bases — 10 times more venues than Ramsey initially thought might participate, he said.

“The one thing America needs right now is hope,” Ramsey said. “All we’re hearing in the news is how bad things are, and no one is talking about hope for the future. The truth is, fear is running rampant in America today, and people are making bad decisions based on that fear.”

Ramsey said he almost bought into the fear himself. But then he prayed.

“I talked to my dad and the fear left me,” he said, referring to God. “Fear is not a fruit of the Spirit.”

Ramsey’s message: “Hope doesn’t come from Washington. Hope comes from you and me. Hope comes from God.”

The private company that Ramsey founded in 1992 is called The Lampo Group. Lampo is the Greek word for “light” as referenced in Matthew 5 of the New Testament. If you go to the “About Dave” page at DaveRamsey.com, Ramsey touts The Lampo Group’s mission statement as not just lip service but the company’s mantra:

 “The Lampo Group, Inc. is providing biblically based, common-sense education and empowerment which gives HOPE to everyone from the financially secure to the financially distressed.”

After that long-winded introduction, here’s my question for GetReligion readers: Would it be possible for a major newspaper to profile Ramsey without mentioning his Christian faith? Until a couple of weeks ago, my answer would have been an emphatic no. Then I came across a profile that — amazingly — accomplished that feat. (Talk about a holy ghost!)

Would you believe that said faithless profile appeared in Ramsey’s hometown newspaper, The Tennessean? Written by a reporter who normally covers the music industry, the story avoids any mention of religion. The top of the report:

When Sarah, a 28-year-old Atlanta woman, found out that her parents had forged her signature to receive a student loan, she called someone she trusted for advice on how to clear her name.

“Is there any way I can get my name taken off of this?” Sarah asked.

Exasperated, the voice on the other end of the line responded, “Good gosh. Financial child abuse.” The speaker told Sarah to file a police report if her parents didn’t repair the damage in a month.

It’s that kind of tough love, mixed with familial nurturing, mixed with financial advice, that people like Sarah, a recent caller into “The Dave Ramsey Show,” have come to expect over the past two decades from the voice on the other end of the line, show namesake and financial guru Dave Ramsey.

More than 8 million people tune in every week to hear the Brentwood-based radio personality dole out homespun financial advice, the kind prudent grandmothers gave and that generations built on credit have ignored.

Tough love. Familial nurturing. Homespun financial advice. But no biblical principles?

Ramsey has been known to quip, “Stupid is not illegal.” I won’t characterize The Tennessean’s exclusion of religion from this profile as stupid. It may just be that I’m not smart enough to understand it.

Too little news, too much analysis?

A flurry of e-mailed links to religion news stories flies back and forth each day among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

If a contributor wants to take a crack at a particular story, that person calls “Dibs!”

We review many more stories than we have time or space to critique, evidenced by the 3,798 items in my “GR story possibilities” folder. In the case of the story I’m about to highlight, the e-mailed link drew an immediate question from one member of our team, who asked:

Is this a news story?

I replied to the question by attaching an image of the Sunday front page of The Tennessean, where Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s story on the Christian right received prominent play.

But the connotation of my colleague’s question was clear.  And in the case of this particular report, it’s a fair question, I believe.

As is typically true, Smietana quotes excellent sources who provide interesting insight. But in a number of places, this story reads more like an editorial than a news account, starting at the very top:

Since the day Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, white Christians have considered themselves the home team in American politics.

As the dominant social group, they’ve shaped the country’s moral and political culture for nearly 400 years.

But the recent presidential election is a sign that those days may be over, a prospect that’s encouraging or terrifying, depending on which side people are on.

For some, the change leads to fear that America is no longer a Christian nation. For others, it’s an opportunity to separate faith from the quest for political power.

What’s missing? Specific attribution (named sources) certainly would help back up the claims stated as facts.

Perhaps labeling such a piece a “News Analysis” would alert readers that they’re in for a heavy dose of the reporter’s perspective and opinions, but that did not occur in this case.

The writer’s choice of Bible teachings to reference provides additional hints of editorialization. For example, there’s this:

Mansfield points out that conservative politics and the Bible don’t always match up. Take immigration. The Bible teaches believers to welcome strangers and immigrants and not to mistreat them, he said, but conservative politics dictates illegal immigrants be deported and a wall built to keep them out.

I wrote a story myself this year in which I noted that Leviticus 19:33 declares, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.” On the flip side, however, Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Also in The Tennessean’s story:

The Bible tells believers to care for the poor. Religious conservatives often put a priority on personal responsibility.

Again, I would expect that an objective news story would allow the religious conservatives, too, to offer a biblical perspective. For example, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’”

Before closing, I should remind GetReligion readers that I am a fan of Smietana’s generally first-class work on the religion beat, evidenced by my previous posts praising his stories. That’s probably why I did not immediately call “Dibs!” on this latest story but rather was encouraged to take it.

But in this single case, a talented and competent journalist (and his newspaper) fell short of the mark, in my humble opinion. As always, I welcome opposing viewpoints in the comments section. However, please take a moment and read the whole story before weighing in.