August 3, 2012

First things first.

Yes, I am the sister of Daniel Pulliam, former GetReligion writer extraordinaire. I began reading GetReligion back in the day because Daniel set my home page to the site. Little did I know I would end up writing for tmatt & co. one day.

I began covering religion news almost five years ago, thanks to an internship at Christianity Today, a highly symbolic magazine that covers the evangelical mainstream. I worried that religion reporting would put a dent in my journalism plans because I wondered whether editors thought it was a legitimate beat. I then discovered that it was one of the most compelling news beats — period — since it plays such an important part of many people’s lives.

For example, I found that in the military town of Colorado Springs, people were more interested in discussing the local Episcopal church’s split than the recent death toll in Afghanistan. I spent my college summers at newspaper internships, including the Gazette in Colorado Springs and The Columbus Dispatch where I wrote for the religion section (starting the religion podcast) and the state desk.

I studied communication at Wheaton College where I spent most of my time in the college newspaper office. That’s where I discovered for myself that Christians don’t understand journalism just as much as journalists don’t understand religion. But that’s the chicken and the egg question, right? Like every good Wheaton student, I took several Bible/theology classes, plus sociology of religion and sociology of evangelicalism.

Post-Wheaton, I began full time at Christianity Today, where I covered religion and politics during the 2008 election. These days, I focus mostly on writing news, updating the politics and women’s blogs, and also do book interviews and profiles.

In August, I moved to Green Bay where beer, cheese and Packers reign supreme (insert Brett Favre joke). In September, I married my college boyfriend, who is a copy editor and page designer for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

I grew up in Indianapolis attending a Reformed Presbyterian church (an itsy bitsy denomination) while my husband grew up in a Christian & Missionary Alliance church. Neither of us currently identify with a specific denomination, so we are “church hopping” in Green Bay. On the side, I read, try to cook, and pretend to play the violin again. I’m also an avid LOST fan, so come January, I’ll be looking for those religion hooks.

But back to the work here at GetReligion.

As my sociology of religion professor put it, “how do you capture lightning in a bottle?” In other words, how do you empirically measure religion’s impact on a society? There are no convenient Dow numbers, touchdowns or votes to report. So while journalists attempt to cover the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions, they often miss the “why” question. Why did he vote for that candidate? Why does she spend every Saturday at a homeless shelter? Why did he give 10 percent of his income?

If journalists keep exploring that “why” question, they’ll often find a religion angle hidden right there in the facts of the story. That’s where GetReligion comes in.

July 2, 2014

In case you hadn’t figured it out — examples here, here and here — baseball ranks as a holy subject at GetReligion.

Sadly, my beloved Texas Rangers are enduring a forgettable season, much to the amusement of tmatt, a Baltimore resident and Orioles fan. Former Ranger Nelson Cruz, who signed with the Orioles in the offseason, has been one of the major leagues’ top sluggers this season, just as Chris Davis — another former Ranger-turned-Oriole — was last season.

Speaking of baseball — and one can never do that too much — ESPN The Magazine just published an amazing, 5,000-word profile of a pastor who ministers to umpires.

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who got kicked off our blogging island for not loving baseball enough (I kid, I kid), said this was her favorite part of the story:

The thing is, Pastor Dean hates baseball. He always has. (“I can’t stand baseball! It’s crazy!”) It gets really boring, he says, but he’s committed to watching all nine innings, to reciprocate the respect his umpires pay him when he’s preaching.

It’s a really fascinating story, filled with rich detail and insight into umpires’ lives that will resonate with baseball fans and people of faith alike.

A big chunk of background that sets the stage for the rest of the narrative:

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June 3, 2014


Usually, GetReligion focuses on critiquing mainstream media coverage of religion and pointing out holy ghosts.

Occasionally, we share news on personnel changes on the Godbeat — such as Jim Davis’ must-read interview this week with laid-off Tampa Tribune religion writer Michelle Bearden.

And sometimes — as with this post — we can’t resist recommending an article or essay that hits at the core of our passion for informed, thoughtful religion reporting.

“Building Religion IQ in Reporters” is the title of the piece that Andrea Scott — a former Washington Journalism Center student of GetReligion editor tmatt — wrote for the spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine:

Much news today is somehow related to religion, as a glance at the headlines reveals: Turmoil in the Middle East. Church relief missions after a natural disaster. The actions of Pope Francis. Challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The ebb and flow of local religious programs that feed the hungry, operate schools, fight addictions, and run hospitals. Statements by the Dalai Lama. Same-sex marriage and abortion debates. Jihadist terror. Differences in community life and politics that link to spiritual perspective. Many of today’s evolving stories are intricately entwined with religious issues.

And beyond its role as a factor in news events, faith is of deep and urgent personal relevance to many citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, while another 26 percent say it’s “somewhat important.” This can powerfully influence both private and public actions.

Despite its pervasive importance, religion is a foreign land to many, perhaps most, reporters. “I was practically born and raised in the news business, and know firsthand that newsrooms are exceedingly secular places,” says veteran journalist Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics. “But the people we cover—and our audiences—are steeped in religious faith of all kinds. So to accurately cover the political and civic life of this country, journalists need to know what’s going on in the spiritual life of their fellow Americans.” This, however, is a struggle for under-informed reporters.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

The article goes on to describe the development of a conference designed to improve reporters’ religion IQ, as the title indicates:

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May 27, 2014

Yes, it’s time to head into yet another oldline Protestant summer of sex.

This leads to a painful, and very old, oldline Protestant question. Here it is: Just how long have United Methodists been debating whether (a) local bishops have the right to ignore passages in the denomination’s Book of Discipline linked to homosexuality and (b) this means that it is inevitable that schism will result?

At this point, the evangelical (and international) wing of the denomination is openly discussing this equation, which led to a Religion News Service feature on the subject by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. After months of mainstream news coverage of the actions on the doctrinal and cultural left, her piece focuses on the painful discussions now being held on the other side of the denominational aisle.

Here is the section of the piece — the background, context material — that caught my eye:

Amidst a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but refused.

And here is the crucial statement that grew out of that:

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however, after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.

The key words, of course, are “tipping point.”

In other words, the alleged point of no return was McLee’s failure to enforce the teachings that he, as a bishop, is supposedly committed to enforcing — even more than one clergyperson’s actions in violation of the Book of Discipline. Bishops are supposed to be the doctrinal backstops, the defenders of the faith. It’s right there in their vows, to one degree or another in the various churches that claim to have bishops.

I do not doubt that Bailey is quoting her sources accurately. I also do not doubt that it is possible that McLee has created a “tipping point” for this long divided denomination. However, I do think it’s crucial to note that this is merely the latest in a long, long, long series of alleged “tipping points” for this Protestant body. Is this the one that cracks through the denominational inertia? Do the lessons of the past matter?

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April 25, 2014

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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April 17, 2014

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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March 27, 2014

So what about that World Vision story? Several things need to be said right up front.

First of all, what we have here is a perfect example of what GetReligion does and doesn’t do. In the past 24 hours all kinds of people have sent me notes asking what “GetReligion thinks” of the World Vision decision. Note: They were asking what we think about the DECISION itself, not the press coverage of that decision.
www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html
Well, I was not surprised that many World Vision leaders wanted to take some kind of legal step toward the acceptance of gay marriage. I was surprised that they played that card at this moment in time. I was then surprised that, 24 hours later, they reversed themselves.

But what does all of that have to do with GetReligion? After all, we are interested in the press coverage of this story, as opposed to arguing about the issue behind the story. Again and again let me note: This is not a religion blog, this is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news.

So what about the coverage of this story? Four quick reactions on my part:

* It’s rather awkward that the must-read mainstream story about this firestorm was written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, a former member of the GetReligion team. More on that in a moment. It also must be noted that the news team at Christianity Today, while operating inside the evangelical world, drove all of the early coverage.

* Frankly, mainstream news outlets have not jumped on the World Vision story to the degree you would expect. Why? Let’s say that, when it comes to religion, journalists are currently focused on the pope, the president and politics. Throw in the Hobby Lobby/Mennonite story at the U.S. Supreme Court and it has been a busy week.

* The World Vision story is, however, causing major earthquakes in cyberspace, with evangelicals and progressive evangelicals tearing each other to pieces. The story is unfolding online, folks. That’s where the action is at this point.

* Finally, gentle readers, if anyone had doubts that there is a doctrinal left wing developing in contemporary evangelicalism, those doubts should be dead and buried at this point. This is probably the most important angle to this sad news event.

So what about the coverage? At this point, in the mainstream, this question leads to the Associated Press. This link is to the version posted at The Washington Post site. Here is the crucial information at the top of the report:

Facing a firestorm of protest, the prominent Christian relief agency World Vision on Wednesday dropped a two-day-old policy that would have allowed the charity to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.

The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage “and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.

Based in Federal Way, Wash., and started by evangelicals, World Vision has an international operating budget of nearly $1 billion and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects. In a conference call with reporters, Stearns said World Vision had not consulted enough with its partners before announcing the initial policy change. Since Monday, Stearns said the board had heard from major evangelical groups and leaders who had told them they had strayed from their core beliefs.

So what is missing from that?

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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”).

(more…)

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