Joe Carter takes closer look at that New York Times coverage of partisan pastors

Joe Carter takes closer look at that New York Times coverage of partisan pastors

Every now and then, GetReligion readers send us URLs pointing to commentary pieces -- weekend "think piece" type stuff -- with a recommendation that sounds something like this: "You guys ought to run this. It reads like it was written for GetReligion."

What they mean, of course, is that it is a piece of media criticism written about something that ran in the mainstream press, a piece noting what this or that news organization did really right or really wrong while covering a religion event or trend.

It's especially nice when people sent us something addressing a news piece that we sort of intended to get around to dealing with ourselves, but ran out of time because of all the other stuff various GetReligionistas wanted to write about. This is the kind of article that gets filed in a "GetReligion guilt folder" in someone's email program.

As you probably guessed, this happened the other day with a piece that ran at the Acton Institute "Powerblog" site with this headline: "Are pastors particularly partisan?" This short piece asked some interesting questions about a recent New York Times piece that ran with this interesting headline: "Your Rabbi? Probably a Democrat. Your Baptist Pastor? Probably a Republican. Your Priest? Who Knows."

In this case, when I looked at the byline on the Acton piece, it was easy to see why this item resembled a GetReligion piece. It was written by former GetReligionista Joe Carter, who wears various hats right now in cyberspace.

So, before we get to a chunk of Carter's work, let's look at the top of the Times piece:

America’s pastors -- the men and women a majority of Americans look to for help in finding meaning and purpose in their lives -- are even more politically divided than the rest of us, according to a new data set representing the largest compilation of American religious leaders ever assembled.

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Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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Does traditional faith equal hate? Southern Poverty Law Center coverage raises unasked questions

Does traditional faith equal hate? Southern Poverty Law Center coverage raises unasked questions

Here's a proactive journalistic question: Does expressing one's faith and beliefs always and without exception equal hate?

Maybe that's too broad. Let's try a variation on that question: Does expressing ancient and/or traditional forms of religious beliefs always and without exception equal hate?

I ask because of an important news story that's gotten some traction in evangelical and conservative media and may soon cross over into the mainstream press. I'm hoping -- and not against hope, I pray -- that journalists will pause and ask some serious factual questions if and when that coverage takes place.

To be sure, it's tough being a conservative Christian or interfaith public policy group these days. Just ask Christianity Today, reporting on something new that's taking place at the influential charity watchdog website GuideStar.org:

Several Christian organizations known for their advocacy on behalf of traditional marriage and families were recently labeled hate groups on one of America’s top charity research sites, 1
In response to “hateful rhetoric” during a “highly politicized moment” in American history, the portal began incorporating designations from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) this month. Profiles for Christian nonprofits like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Liberty Counsel, the Family Research Council (FRC), and the American Family Association featured a banner saying they had been flagged as a hate group.
The SPLC’s “hate group” label, though often-cited, is controversial, particularly among conservatives. The Alabama-based watchdog charity applies the term to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage and certain LGBT rights as well as to violent and extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, and Nation of Islam.

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Mummies and saints: Scientists found 'dark,' 'secret' lair under church altar in Lithuania? Really?

Mummies and saints: Scientists found 'dark,' 'secret' lair under church altar in Lithuania? Really?

If you know anything about the history of sacred architecture, you know there is nothing strange about believers being buried inside church sanctuaries.

In fact, there is an ancient tradition of celebrating the Mass on altars built directly on or over the tombs of saints (see the New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia). In Eastern Orthodoxy, altars and sanctuaries still contain relics of the saints, usually fragments of bones. Consider this 2014 column I wrote about efforts to rebuild St. Nicholas Orthodox parish at Ground Zero in New York City.

Some people find these traditions creepy. But the whole idea was to link heaven and earth, for believers in this life to worship with the saints of old.

Perhaps this is rather advanced material, in terms of church history. Still, I assumed that some journalists (maybe even at the New York Times copy desk) would know that the altar of the most famous church on Planet Earth -- St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican -- is build directly over catacombs containing the tomb of St. Peter and other popes. Don't these people read Dan Brown novels?

I bring this up because of a strange passage in a recent Times science piece that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Mummies’ Medical Secrets? They’re Perfectly Preserved
Mummified bodies in a crypt in Lithuania are teaching scientists about health and disease among people who lived long ago.

As it turns out, the crypt in question is located underneath an altar in a Catholic church in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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When a 12-year-old Mormon says she's gay, CNN is all over it. But is this really a news story?

When a 12-year-old Mormon says she's gay, CNN is all over it. But is this really a news story?

Just in time for Pride Week or Pride Month, we have a story from CNN about a 12-year-old girl coming out to her Latter-day Saints congregation. On May 7, a girl named Savannah stood up during a service to give a brief speech about being a lesbian.

After about three minutes, the leaders turned off her mic and asked her to sit down.

Since then, the story of the girl from Eagle Mountain, Utah, has spread, culminating in an article on CNN a few days ago.

There are all kinds of journalism challenges in this story: The big questions are whether the CNN team is actually interested in what is going on right now, in terms of Mormons adapting some -- repeat, "some" -- of their doctrines to the LGBTQ age. Also, there is this: How stable is the sexual identity of a 12-year-old female?

Let's work our way through this:

(CNN) Savannah, 12, made a decision this January; she was going to come out as lesbian at her Mormon Church. Nothing was going to stop her.
She's a normal almost-teenage girl in Utah: She loves to draw and make art. When she grows up, she wants to be a Disney animator. Her favorite bands are Imagine Dragons and Fall Out Boy.
On June 22, 2016, one day after her birthday, Savannah came out to her parents as lesbian. Mom had suspicions and knew that day might come.
"I looked at her and said, 'OK, I love you. And I'll support you no matter what you do,'" said Heather, her mother.
The family felt strongly that they didn't have the right to prevent Savannah from telling her story publicly, including sharing it with CNN, but asked that their hometown and last names be withheld to give them a measure of privacy.

The story went on to describe -- quoting printed documents, of course -- Mormon policy on same-sex relationships.

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Refusing service to gays? Is pollster asking the right question? Journalists should inquire

Refusing service to gays? Is pollster asking the right question? Journalists should inquire

Religion News Service, a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance, reports that no major U.S. religious group opposes refusing service to gays.

The lede from RNS:

(RNS) In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.
This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.
In a 2015 PRRI survey that asked the same question, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons approved of those who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers.
But in the new 2016 survey, only 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed such approval, as opposed to 56 percent the year before.
Mormons showed the second-highest rates of approval. About 42 percent of Mormons backed businesspeople who deny services in the latest survey, as opposed to the 58 percent who favored them the previous year.

RNS notes that the question asked by PRRI is this:

Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs?

Here's what I wonder: Is that the right question for the pollster to ask?

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Are Southern voters really different? Washington Post political desk avoids religion, again

Are Southern voters really different? Washington Post political desk avoids religion, again

We are, of course, talking about the most important news story in the history of the universe. That is, until the next political proxy war takes place between Citizen Donald Trump and powers that be in elite American culture.

So Republican Karen Handel defeated House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- as well as 30-year-old documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff -- for a traditionally Republican seat in the greater Atlanta area.

If the GOP had lost, the news media powers that be would have hailed it as a tremendous loss for Trump -- even though this was a rather pricey, highly educated district that wasn't fond of Trump (as noted in this New York Times fact piece).

Since the Democrats lost, this affair was hailed -- by Trump supporters -- as a great win for their bronze-tinted leader, as opposed to Handel, a pro-life Catholic.

One thing was clear: Acela-zone journalists knew that this race was about money and jobs, as well as politics, money and jobs. Here's the most recent Washington Post overture:

Narrow losses in two House special elections had Democrats once again trading recriminations Wednesday and pondering anew whether their leaders have them on a path back to power.
Especially painful was Jon Ossoff’s three-percentage-point loss Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District after his campaign was buoyed by more than $23 million in donations, much of it from grass-roots Democrats across the country eager to oppose President Trump.
That funding surge was blunted by millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads and mailers from Republican victor Karen Handel and from outside GOP groups. A common theme in those efforts was to tie Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- a figure both well-known and widely reviled, according to Republican polling.

You can hear the same dirge here, in the Times. However, down near the bottom of that long Post report there were some interesting thoughts from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), assistant House Democratic leader. He was concerned about weak efforts to turn out African American voters, but he also added:

But Clyburn said he asked the DCCC “not to make it a national cause” and that he “intentionally did not want it nationalized . . . because I know how South Carolina voters are.” ...
“Southern voters are a totally different breed,” he added. “And Southern voters react parochially.”

Maybe, just maybe, there were some cultural issues at play in this race? Down South, issues of culture, morality and faith tend to be rather important. Can I hear an "Amen"?

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Mammon AND God: What the Detroit News missed in a church's bitter succession battle

Mammon AND God: What the Detroit News missed in a church's bitter succession battle

I've been in plenty of church services where the message, or a personal testimony, or a worship music presentation, has arrested my attention.

So far, I've not been present when an actual arrest was made during the worship hour.

Parishioners at the Detroit World Outreach congregation, in the suburb of Redford Township, were treated to the latter a few months back, part of a succession battle after the sudden passing of its senior pastor. The Detroit News picks up the story:

Local religious leaders are warring with a bishop’s widow over a $3 million mansion and control of the soul and mega bank accounts of one of Metro Detroit’s megachurches.
The war is 4 months old, triggered by the death of Bishop Benjamin Gibert, the charismatic, leather-clad leader of Detroit World Outreach in Redford Township, a megachurch whose leaders believe wealth is God’s reward.
Within days of the bishop’s death, church leaders fired his widow, Charisse Gibert, from her church post and announced plans to sell her home, an 11,000-square-foot parsonage in Northville Township that was controversially removed from the tax rolls 10 years ago.
Church leaders also are trying to block Charisse Gibert from collecting on her late husband’s $2 million life-insurance policy.

Well, now! A megachurch, a mega-mansion, a mega death benefit and a "mega bank account." If ever a story screamed for newspaper attention, this might be it. Add in the widow's arrest (see video above) and it's practically a journalistic Sutter's Mill.

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Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime?

That's a key question after the slaying of a 17-year-old Muslim girl in the Washington, D.C., area.

Regardless of the motivation, of course, the death of Nabra Hassanen is an unspeakable tragedy. My daughter is 17, and I can't help but identify with what the local sheriff told the Washington Post:

“I can’t think of a worse instance to occur than the loss of a 17-year-old on Father’s Day, as the father of a 17-year-old myself,” Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said

From the beginning, the Post has offered strong, insightful coverage of the murder case — boosted in large part by the expertise of the newspaper's stellar religion reporters, including Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a former GetReligionista.

That coverage has included excellent, factual stories (examples here, here and here) updating readers on the police investigation as well as how the victim's family and friends are handling the loss:

The Virginia teens were up late observing Ramadan, so they did what young people often do in the wee hours of the weekend: They went out for a bite to eat at McDonald’s.
But as they walked and biked back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, along a major thoroughfare, a red car approached from behind about 3:40 a.m. Sunday and chaos erupted.
The driver, Darwin Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old construction worker from Sterling, got into an argument with a teen on a bike and then drove his car over a curb, scattering the group of as many as 15 teens, police said. He caught up with them a short time later in a parking lot and chased them with a baseball bat, striking 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen and then abducting her in his car, police said.
Martinez Torres assaulted Nabra a second time, in Loudoun County, before dumping her body in a pond next to his apartment complex, where it was discovered about 3 p.m. on Sunday, police said. The medical examiner ruled Monday that the girl died of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck.
The horrific slaying of the South Lakes High School student reverberated beyond Virginia on Monday, as social media lit up with anger and grief, politicians expressed condolences and groups of various faiths condemned the violence. Many feared it was another hate crime targeting Muslims, coming shortly before a man driving a truck in London plowed into a group of people who had just finished Ramadan prayers. It follows a national upswing in attacks targeting Muslims since the November election.
So far, Fairfax County police said they have no indication that Nabra was targeted because of her religion, saying her killing was probably a “road rage incident,” although they continue to investigate the motivation.

Beyond the straight-news stories, though, the Post has supplemented its coverage with pieces such as Bailey's overview of "What happens when tragedy strikes Muslims during Ramadan."

This is a case where, obviously, it helps to have a Godbeat pro — or in the case of the Post, more than one — on the team:

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