November 6, 2013

One of the first signs that the religion beat was in trouble at USA Today was the decision to shutter veteran scribe Cathy Grossman’s “Faith & Reason” weblog.

Using a question-and-answer format — Grossman asked a news-related questions and readers would chime in — it allowed her to put quite a bit of interesting material into play for people who wanted more than a few religion headlines in the regular news pages. Day after day, Grossman used the blog to point readers toward interesting links and information sources.

Then it vanished.

Then Grossman left USA Today, one of many veterans on the beat who have been on the move in the past year or two.

Now the blog is back, as part of her duties at Religion News Service. I saw a link on Twitter, commented on one of her early posts, and Grossman dropped me a line or two, adding this background.

When I accepted the USA TODAY buyout offer in May, RNS folks and I began discussing the right role for me at Religion News Service. High on all our lists was to revive Faith & Reason — my news-based blog designed to build a community of thoughtful, civil (mostly) readers.

I joined RNS in mid-September and took six weeks to get my footing as senior national correspondent. Covering news is my first love. But if you know me, you know I love questions — particularly those with more than one answer. The timing was right to reboot.

I hope you, the GR staff, and, of course, your readers, will subscribe, comment, react, club me now and then (what¹s life without a smart critique from peers?!)

For more info, check out the post that announced the Faith & Reason 2.0 project.

The first question?

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June 21, 2014

Day after day, week after week, month after month, religion-beat reporters receive emails from pollsters, academics and think-tank experts promoting new blasts of data about religion, politics, culture or some combination of the above.

Honestly, I think I could write a column a month about the material pouring out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life without sinking into PR territory.

There is no way to write about all of these surveys. Some, quite frankly, appear to be probing questions so obscure that one wonders if anyone would have asked them, without grant money being involved in the process.

But not all.

The other day, I read a press release about a study probing the impact of religion on hiring practices in this new complex America in which we live. I filed it, hoping to get back to it in a week or so. Yes, guilt-file territory.

Veteran religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman — now with Religion News Service — went straight there, with sobering effect. The bottom line: Americans claim to respect religious faith, but there is evidence that they are getting nervous about that. This is especially true when it comes to religions — think Islam — that they think might be bad for business.

Thus, the headline: “Got religion on campus? Leave it off your resume.” Key material here:

Two new sociology studies find new graduates who included a religious mention on a resume were much less likely to hear back from potential employers. The studies used fictitious resumes — with bland names that signaled no particular race or ethnicity. These were sent to employers who posted on the CareerBuilder website to fill entry-level job openings in sales, information technology and other fields suitable for first jobs out of college.

The researchers tested seven religious categories including: Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, and one faith they just made up, “Wallonian,” to see what would happen compared to people who made no faith reference.

Fewer employers called back the “Wallonians,” as well as the others, reacting to “a fear of the unknown,” said University of Connecticut sociology professor Michael Wallace who led the studies.

Yes, there are regional differences, but some themes stand out. The hurdles facing Muslim job applicants are obvious and exist everywhere. But is there a rising animus against Catholics in the Northeast?

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May 28, 2014

Insult + injury? It could look that way, but it was probably just a blunder by the Tampa Tribune. The newspaper set out a tradeshow table at a community event May 15, prominently showing a poster of Faith and Values writer Michelle Bearden — six days after she was laid off.

“Perhaps this means I got my job back and no one told me,” Michelle commented dryly on her Facebook page.

Her layoff, one of six from the newsroom that week, ends a much-honored specialty career of 20 years just in Tampa. By my estimate, Michelle was also the last fulltime veteran newspaper religion reporter in Florida.

Michelle will be hard to replace with her several hats. Besides the print edition, she did a weekly segment, Keeping the Faith, for WFLA-TV. She also did video presentations and interactive items for TBO.com, the newspaper’s online version.

Even before the Tribune, she wrote about religion across Tampa Bay for the St. Petersburg Times, as well as The Florida Catholic and the National Catholic Register. During the 1980s, she also covered religion and general assignment stories for the Phoenix Gazette in Arizona.

The trend of laying off religion writers reaches across the nation, as Julia Duin showed in a guest column on Feb. 18. Last September, GR’s Bobby Ross reported the layoff of Nancy Haught from the Oregonian and the exit of Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today via buyout.

And the beat goes on: In January, longtime Godbeat writer Cathleen Falsani was laid off from the Orange County Register. And even across the Atlantic, The Times in London has laid off Ruthie Gledhill after 27 years as its religious affairs correspondent.

Gledhill’s departure got an acid reaction by Clifford Longley, her predecessor at The Times. He accused the press of being prepared to risk “making a mess of the coverage of religion … In a subject of considerable misunderstanding, expertise is no longer, by and large, thought necessary.”

Here’s what Michelle told us about her experiences, and her career.

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March 4, 2014

I doubt that many news consumers who do a quick read of the recent Associated Press news feature about the growth of Trail Life USA — a small, explicitly Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts — will hear loud warning sirens.

But the main photo that accompanied that story? That’s another matter.

You simply must CLICK HERE to see it.

This is a hot-button topic, of course, because it involves centuries of Christian doctrine and America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, both in terms of orientation and sexual behavior. The Boy Scouts voted to accept openly gay Scouts, but not openly gay leaders, a tricky stance that angered both conservative religious groups and the cultural left. Boy Scout executives stressed that they still expect Scouts to keep sex out of their lives as scouts.

The AP report by Nomaan Merchant does have a bit of that neo-National Geographic tone to it as readers are introduced to this strange tribe of Christians who dare to enroll their sons in a voluntary association that teaches the doctrines affirmed in their homes and churches. But these believers get to defend their beliefs in their own words, which is good.

Let it be noted, however, that this story — for some strange reason — gives zero attention to the views of those who criticize Trail Life USA. Why not include the secular and Christian left in this picture? The story does give a small amount of space to BSA leaders who defend the evolution in their membership guidelines. And there is this concise summary of the conflict at the heart of this story:

Trail Life promotes itself on its website as the “premier national character development organization for young men which produces Godly and responsible husbands, fathers and citizens.” Its official membership standards policy welcomes all boys, but adds, “We grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the program.”

For over a century, Scouting banned openly gay youth and leaders, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its right to do so. Leaders who were revealed to be gay were excluded, and some boys were denied Eagle Scout awards by regional councils that were notified of their sexual orientation.

But the Scouts eventually began to face pressure from sponsors and CEOs who serve in Scouting leadership but lead companies with anti-discrimination policies. BSA surveys also showed that youths and parents of Scouting-age children were supportive of allowing openly gay Scouts. Scouting leadership proposed a compromise: Accept openly gay youth, but exclude gay adult volunteers. BSA’s National Council voted in May to enact it.

Readers who have closely followed this story will note, of course, that Trail Life stresses that if will not admit those who “promote sexual immorality of any kind” — note the loaded word “promote.” The Boy Scouts now allow “openly” gay Scouts, while local leaders struggle with the precise meaning of that term.

The story also includes this telling detail:

The boys and their parents are still getting used to a world of new names, new ranks and new uniforms that haven’t arrived yet. They hold up five fingers while reciting their oath, instead of three. Scouts are now “Trailmen,” and troops are now units. There is a new handshake and a new salute.

This brings us to that troubling Associated Press photo that ran with this story. Those who follow Twitter may have noted this tweet (which now appears to have been deleted):

Grossman, to her credit, has apologized for that dashed-off tweet. But this only raises another question: What was going on in that photo? How did this image end up on top of the AP story?

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February 20, 2014

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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January 9, 2014

Earlier this week, I posted on Ryan Bell, the Seventh-day Adventist pastor who gave up his faith to focus on granting media interviews.

I kid. I kid.

What I meant to say is that Bell has decided to “live without God” for a year so that he can flirt with atheism. The free national headlines are, apparently, just a bonus.

In my previous post, I raised concerns about missing voices in a Religion News Service story:

RNS quotes a few sources besides Bell, including the author of a book on clergy who lost their faith and an atheist who considers the experiment flawed.

But the wire service doesn’t quote anyone directly involved with Bell’s past employment. The report, lacking any measure of normal journalistic skepticism, doesn’t quote anyone from his former church or ask denominational leaders about his performance and why they asked him to resign. The story doesn’t identify the “highly regarded Christian universities” or ask university officials about his performance and why he was asked to resign.

Those missing voices leave a big hole in an otherwise intriguing story.

So, what would a report look like that included those missing voices?

Enter CNN’s “Belief Blog,” which produced its own account of Bell’s experiment:

(CNN) – In the past, at times like these, when his life foundered and frayed around the edges, Ryan Bell often prayed for help. But this year, at least, the pastor has resolved not to.

For the next 12 months, Bell says he will live as if there is no God.

He will not pray, go to church, read the Bible for inspiration, trust in divine providence or hope in things unseen. He’s taking the opposite of a leap of faith: a free fall into the depths of religious doubt.

Bell’s “intellectual experiment,” which began January 1, has already borne dramatic consequences.

In less than a week, he lost two jobs teaching at Christian schools near his home in Los Angeles. He’s 42 and has been a pastor or in seminary for most of his adult life. Now he faces the prospect of poverty and taking odd jobs to feed his two daughters, 10 and 13.

“There have been times, usually late at night and early in the morning, when I think: What have I done? It really undermines the whole structure of your life, your career, your family,” Bell said.

But just as the man of God began to despair, he found help from an unlikely source: atheists.

But what about those missing voices?

CNN offers one:

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October 25, 2013

It would be impossible to compare coverage among major news outlets, so plentiful have been the stories this week hailing His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism into the Church of England.

The event, as with all activities attended by several senior members of the royal family, was well publicized in advance and blanketed with coverage. Bets were placed on the colors the ladies would wear, which family members would carry the infant in and out of the chapel and who would be selected as Godparents. The usual questions, I suppose, for most who only care to scratch the surface.

Significant stories, however, went beyond the royal family hype, the fashion and the newly added fourth generation to the line of succession to give us a glimpse at the bigger picture: Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?

The Spectator says it already has:

In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the (Church of England), with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.

Not among our usual lineup of religion reads, granted, but the Spectator’s story was interesting enough that I wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Back to our usual circle of coverage, Godbeat pro Elizabeth Tenety of The Washington Post does an excellent job of leveling things a bit, contrasting Prince George’s baptism with that of any baby:

George’s baptism and future role in the church make him both a typical British boy, as well as a historic figure in the Church of England.

And Tenety provides a good primer for infant baptism, a partial list of the faith groups that subscribe to the practice and the subtle differences:

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October 21, 2013

BOBBY ASKS:

Who are the “Mainline” Protestants today?

DOUGLAS LIKEWISE ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) What do we make of proposals for “Mainline” Protestants to drop that label for themselves? And where does that leave me, an “evangelical” who remains in the Episcopal Church “as a grain of sand in the oyster”?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The dictionary definition of “mainline” signals mainstream prestige, so “Mainline” Protestantism’s decline over recent decades could mean this designation has long since outlived its usefulness. In his email, Douglas considers it “adjectival mayhem.”

The discussion has been renewed by the Christian Century magazine, often considered the bible of the Mainline or at least of the Mainline Left, such that Elesha Coffman’s new history is titled “The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism” (from the excellent Oxford University Press). The book provoked a piece for the “Century” by Carol Howard Merritt urging fellow “progressives” to rebrand: “It’s time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It’s time to call forth another name.” Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary agreed via the First Things journal that the Mainline was “unfortunately named” and “liberal” or “ecumenical” would be “slightly better” adjectives.

Some context: The inexorable shrinkage among Mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s — and simultaneous growth among non-Mainliners, though lately plateauing in some cases — is a sweeping trend that has reshaped American religion. It ranks in significance with the large influx of immigrant Asians and Hispanics. The origins of the commonly used Mainline label are obscure (anyone have information on that?). But it certainly raises thoughts of suburban Philadelphia and “Establishment” standing.

The Guy’s definition: The predominantly white, long-existing, and relatively affluent U.S. Protestant denominations with pluralistic theology, which are easily categorized by ecumenical affiliations with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches (alongside major African-American and Orthodox denominations).

We’re talking about (in order of size) the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and several smaller bodies often called the “Seven Sisters.” Together they remain an important bloc with 20 million adherents, but that compares with 30 million at the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented slump as memberships both declined and aged.

Meanwhile, these groups generally floated leftward, in doctrine, politics and culture.

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