Church to boycott Redskins? Not enough to fill a stadium

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The Washington Redskins are changing their name because of its negative connotations, a friend posted on Facebook.

Apparently, the National Football League team will drop the “Washington” and be known simply as the Redskins.

Bah-duh-BOOM!

But seriously, folks, check out this Washington Post lede:

Eleven days before the United Church of Christ will vote on a resolution calling for its 22,000 members to boycott the Washington Redskins, a team official called a top minister and asked him to speak to three Native Americans who support the controversial name.

Does anything about that opening sentence strike you as a little off?  How about the 22,000 members? I mean, I knew that mainline denominations had shrunk in recent decades, but the last time I checked, the United Church of Christ had almost 1 million members across the U.S.

Alas, since the Post functions often as a national newspaper, I assumed that the figure related to the national denomination. Wrong.

Keep reading:

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WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou’s soul, if at all possible

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In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes:

Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

Who can imagine American civil religion without the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement? I argued that the religious wing of the protest movements against the Vietnam War — with the massive, coast-to-coast Moratorium as its peak — represented a very important, yet ultimately unsuccessful, example of this process in civil religion.

So what does all of this have to do with Maya Angelou and with, when it comes to religion, her great popularizer — Oprah?

Angelou lived a roller-coaster of a life and she ended up being a religious voice, as much as anything else. What kind of religion? It was a mixture of African-American religion, readings in deeply religious literature and Unity Church, a New Thought movement that I have heard referred to as a prime example of the “old” New Age.

In other words, some would see this as a kind of lowest-common-denominator religion branching off of Christian roots. A kind of mystical civil religion? Here is an interesting take on that from the conservative Catholic Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal:

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WPost profiles ‘evangelical Catholic’ Bobby Jindal

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I know this will shock — SHOCK! — you, but your friendly GetReligionistas don’t agree on everything.

Those of us who contribute to this journalism website have a tremendous amount of freedom to pick the stories that we critique. But frequently, editor tmatt pushes potential items our way. And in rare cases, he even proposes an angle that we might take.

That’s the case with today’s post on a recent Washington Post story profiling Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — A dozen politically active pastors came here for a private dinner Friday night to hear a conversion story unique in the context of presidential politics: how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal traveled from Hinduism to Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, became what he calls an “evangelical Catholic.”

Over two hours, Jindal, 42, recalled talking with a girl in high school who wanted to “save my soul,” reading the Bible in a closet so his parents would not see him and feeling a stir while watching a movie during his senior year that depicted Jesus on the cross.

“I was struck, and struck hard,” Jindal told the pastors. “This was the Son of God, and he had died for our sins.”

Jindal’s session with the Christian clergy, who lead congregations in the early presidential battleground states of Iowa and South Carolina, was part of a behind-the-scenes effort by the Louisiana governor to find a political base that could help propel him into the top tier of Republican candidates seeking to run for the White House in 2016.

The angle that tmatt suggested for a post: the lack of a liberal viewpoint in the 1,200-word report. That’s certainly a different twist for GetReligion, which often takes issue with the lack of conservative or right-leaning voices in mainstream news accounts. So I called dibs.

The only problem: After reading and reflecting on the Post story, I’m not so certain that I agree with that criticism. (Hashtag: #awkward.)

From my perspective — and as the headline itself points out — this is a story about Jindal trying to “woo (the) GOP base.” Are liberals really part of the GOP base? And more specifically, it’s about a dinner with a dozen politically active pastors from two battleground states. Are any of these pastors liberals? Based on reading the rest of the story, I doubt it.

So, it seems perfectly logical to me that all of the pastors quoted are conservative evangelicals:

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Nuanced portrait of a rising Catholic star: Cardinal Wuerl

Well, darn. Someone in the media remembers that there are other Catholic leaders besides Pope Francis. For a recent profile in the Washington Post, it’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

The head of the influential Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., received a long-form, 1,500-word look in his hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. That in itself is a welcome change from wire style: The Associated Press has announced that most of its stories will henceforth run 300-500 words.

Blending a seasoned eye with a fluid writing style, Michelle Boorstein of the Post packs several sage observations into a few paragraphs:

With his unassuming and reserved style, Wuerl is not a well-known figure to the region’s growing number of Catholics, many of whom probably don’t realize that their leader is one of the world’s most influential bishops. Pope Benedict had already named the slender 73-year-old in 2010 to craft the church’s modern-day evangelization message, but Pope Francis in December further solidified Wuerl’s stature by picking him as the only new American on the powerful, 30-member Vatican body that selects bishops.

With popes typically replacing about a third of bishops every five years or so, Wuerl will play a key role in shaping the next generation of church leaders. As a careful insider, he is in some ways a surprising choice of partner for Francis, who makes constant news with spontaneous, often provocative comments and came to Rome without experience there.

But the pope’s and the archbishop’s contrasting personalities — one longtime bishop’s aide jokes that Wuerl has “cuff links on his pajamas” — could be seen as appropriate at a time when people seem to be seeking a spirituality both timeless and flexible.

The Post article paints Wuerl as a cautious diplomat, a “savvy and gifted administrator who knows how to get things done without a lot of drama.” That’s a big difference not only from Francis but, of course, from the flamboyant John Paul II. But if the reporter’s picture is accurate, Wuerl may help bridge the rift between church liberals and conservatives.

Boorstein (surprise, surprise) seems to lean a lot on the omnipresent priest-journalist Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, who offers quotes and anecdotes on Wuerl’s measured speech and self-effacing style. But she seems to have trouble figuring out how the archbishop will work in the influential position — the 30-member Congregation of Bishops, the pope’s brain trust for recommendations for new bishops.

She scans the numbers on Wuerl’s successes in raising millions for social service and for needy students. She also notes how he listens to parishioners, including a request for feedback on an upcoming archdiocesan synod — reaping 15,000 responses. But how will he do on the world stage?

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Boko Haram leader’s profile: chilling but incomplete

“His name is Abubakar Shekau. He is the leader of Boko Haram. And he has your girls.”

So begins a chilling profile in the Washington Post on the leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist gang that abducted more than 300 girls in mid-April. It’s a great start, but it isn’t sustained.

Under Shekau, Boko Haram has bombed churches and massacred people by the hundreds — and it abducted eight more girls on Monday night. Victims include not only Christians but also Muslims who don’t want his ruthless version of Sharia.

The article fills in absorbing details on the man the writer calls “both an intellectualizing theologian and a ruthless killer.” But like much other secular coverage, the profile doesn’t quite get to the bottom of Shekau’s reasons for his brutality — including the mutant breed of radical Islam his group pushes. This despite saying that “one of the few unifying factors is extremist ideology.”

Not that religious references are lacking, largely in Shekau’s own words:

“It is Allah that instructed us,” Shekau said in the video released Monday. “Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses — smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush and [Goodluck] Jonathan — will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.”

Yet this horrendous paragraph is chased with a hand-wringing “why” question: “Where does such vengeance come from? What does he want? Who is he?” As if some terrible injustice must have driven this poor man to terrorism and kidnapping. Incredibly, the story actually offers an excuse. More on that later.

We get long but spotty background. The story says Shekau was “raised Muslim” without saying which branch of Islam. (Yes, it matters.) It says he was raised “in the heart of the former Sokoto caliphate,” an unwitting clue on the aims of Boko Haram. As the BBC says, the Sokoto caliphate once ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon.

The profile says he became a follower of a leader named Muhammad Yusuf, but it gives no details on Yusuf — although such details are readily available online.

Still, that’s further than many accounts go in the religiophobic mainstream media. An AP story the same day tells a gripping story of how some of the girls escaped their kidnappers. But beyond saying three times that the group is made of Islamic extremists, AP doesn’t dwell on reasons for Boko Haram’s violence.

Tmatt has discussed this selective blindness often on GetReligion. He recently called out the New York Times for saying Boko Haram wants to “destabilize” Nigeria without saying why it’s trying to do so.

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Little argument, and little religion, after botched execution

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This is the headline on a Washington Post follow-up on the recent big story in my home state:

In Okla., little argument over the final outcome for inmate who died after botched execution

Little argument and little religion, based on this rather shallow Post story.

At GetReligion, we often refer to “holy ghosts.” In fact, as our editor tmatt explained at the very beginning (well, not that beginning), that’s why we’re here:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The first ghosts appear way up high in this Post story:

McALESTER, Okla. — Geneva Miller was a bit annoyed as she dug into an egg salad sandwich at the Heavenly Delights bakery, where wooden signs line the walls bearing affirmations of food and family.

She can’t believe that her state, with its strong support for capital punishment, is being pilloried across the nation because of one botched execution.

“We’re just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty,” Miller said. “We just don’t understand how they could think otherwise — that it wouldn’t be right.”

Um, Heavenly Delights? Affirmations of food and family? Is there a chance that religious faith might be a factor here? If so, the Post chooses to ignore it.

Let’s read on:

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Did Washington Post offer reporting or cheerleading?

The religious left gets sympathetic treatment, not only from a new report by the Brookings Institution, but by a Washington Post article on it.

The story uncritically quotes the report, though it also offers some background on the Old Left, including its religious wing. And it doesn’t ask for reactions from anyone on the right, or even the moderate middle.

Instead, the article starts out by choosing the good guys:

The religious left was never as cohesive and effective as the religious right. But a new report based on interviews with religious progressive leaders finds that the Obama era may have further weakened Democrats’ interest in the non-secular.

The report, released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, argues that religious progressives could be heading for a renaissance if they can focus on what some see as the civil rights issue of today: economic justice.

We’ll leave aside how the Post knows the religious left was “never as cohesive and effective as the religious right.” Instead, we’ll note the first signal of bias: the simple title “the Brookings Institution.” If the article was about, say, the Heritage Foundation, the newspaper would have likely tacked on “the conservative.” But as a liberal organization, Brookings is simply a normal, moderate think tank. The good guys don’t get labels.

The story does look honestly at reasons for the decline of the religious left, as indeed the 56-page report itself does. Among them:

*More diversity, less homogeneity within the ranks.

*Ambivalence and suspicion from secular leftists toward religion.

*Decline of the unions, once a strong ally of religious groups.

*Disagreement on whether the poor are helped better by the govt or by churches and private foundations.

Fair enough, all of it. But the Washington Post apparently didn’t ask about other possibilities for the decline — from a conservative viewpoint. I can think of a few myself:

*Boosting practices like abortion and same-sex marriage as private rights, then pushing them as social and political issues.

*Sapping doctrinal authority in the name of relativism, then campaigning for social issues in the name of truth.

*Preaching equality for everyone, then pitting groups against each other with the rhetoric of class warfare and racial privilege.

The Post article also suffers from a lack of definitions. It throws around “progressive” and “economic justice” as if they’re household terms, although the report itself explains the latter. And the Post docilely quotes the Brookings report for saying the leftists may benefit from a “broadly felt need for a new social contract” — without explaining the terms of such a contract or offering evidence that the need is, in fact, broadly felt.

There’s at least one other way to write about the Brookings report, and the Dallas Morning News took it.

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Falwell’s 2014 Liberty: ‘Fundamentalist Baptist’ university?

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Here at GetReligion, the “F-word” always catches our attention.

I’m referring, of course, to fundamentalist.

It’s a loaded word that can carry a negative connotation when applied to religious groups or institutions.

The Associated Press Stylebook — “the journalist’s bible” — contains this entry:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That brings us to a Washington Post story this week on former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell taking a part-time teaching job at Liberty University.

From that story:

McDonnell began the job this semester by giving a few lectures at the fundamentalist Baptist college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007. He will resume the lectures in the fall, making six to eight appearances per semester, said Johnnie Moore, a senior vice president at the school.

Here’s the question — actually, two questions: Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty officially Baptist?

In an email thread among your inquiring-mind GetReligionistas, editor tmatt noted:

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