Julia Duin

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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Gay students clashing with Christian clubs: Inside Higher Ed needs more balanced coverage

Gay students clashing with Christian clubs: Inside Higher Ed needs more balanced coverage

Usually I like the articles that Inside Higher Education comes up with, but its recent piece about a lawsuit involving the University of Iowa was so biased, I first thought it had appeared in a college newspaper.

The intro read thus: “Judge says university cannot deny recognition because of antigay rules. But decision says main flaw at Iowa is inconsistent enforcement, not the rules themselves.” As in, it’s wrong to use one standard for religious groups and another for secular causes?

Why is believing that marriage between a man and a woman — a concept supported by every major religion for thousands of years — automatically “anti-gay?” That slur tints the article, which continues:

A Christian student group at the University of Iowa can’t be stripped of its affiliation with the institution, even if its members follow a “statement of faith” that bans those in LGBTQ relationships from leadership roles, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The decision by Judge Stephanie M. Rose has alarmed advocates for queer men and women. They are worried it would open the door for a challenge of a U.S. Supreme Court case from 2010 that allows colleges and universities to enforce anti-discrimination policies, even when student religious organizations claim those policies infringe on their beliefs. That ruling requires colleges that want to enforce such anti-bias rules to apply them to all groups equally. Judge Rose's decision, however, suggests that her ruling may be relevant only to circumstances at Iowa.

But how did the other side respond to the ruling? We’re not told up front.

The clash between Iowa officials and Business Leaders in Christ began in 2016.

A gay student had approached the then president, Hannah Thompson, about becoming vice president and, during a discussion, disclosed to her his sexuality.

Did this student just show up from out of nowhere or was he a part of this business club? We’re not told. (This Associated Press piece on the matter says he was.)

The student, whose name has never been publicly released, was denied the leadership post. Thompson said this was because of his “desire to pursue a homosexual lifestyle/relationship,” according to court documents.

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Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others. …

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

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Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

It’s a compelling story; an Oregon woman who was gang-raped by Oregon State football players 20 years ago and has made it her life mission to stop sexual violence, especially by members of sports teams.

Ever since the Oregonian first reported Brenda Tracy’s story four years ago, she’s founded a non-profit: Set the Expectation, conducted a crusade for victim protection laws and worked to extend statutes of limitations for rape.

How is she managing to do this? Where is she getting the strength to carry on? And, yes, is there a religion angle here? Let’s look.

The Los Angeles Times caught up with her recently as she spoke at Sacramento State University and ran a Column One story about her on Thursday. It says in part:

Tracy has no memorized speech, no notes or litany of statistics about sexual violence in America. She hits her audience with something different: sheer honesty, a graphic and unflinching description of that night.

“The next time I came into consciousness, one of the men was cradling me in his arm and he was pouring a bottle of hard alcohol down my throat and I was choking and gagging on it,” she says. “And I passed out again.” …

Tracy estimates she was conscious for only a small fraction of an ordeal that lasted six hours. Her fragmented memories include pleading with the men at some point, telling them she felt nauseated.

“So one of them picked me up kind of like a rag doll and carried me to the bathroom,” she says. “He laid me over the counter and he shoved my head into the bathroom sink and, as I was vomiting on myself in the sink, he was raping me from behind.”

The next morning, she woke on the floor, still naked, with food crumbs and bits of potato chips pressed into her skin. Gum was stuck in her hair.

“I mostly just remember, in that moment, feeling like a piece of trash. I was a piece of trash they had forgotten on the living-room floor,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like a human.”

Later, there is this:

Oregon State conducted a separate investigation, but when the next season came around, the two football players inside the apartment received suspensions of only one game each.

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When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

I’ve covered enough stories about the cultural battles endured by Christian colleges to wonder why they don’t team up with similar schools from other faith traditions to get more support. This week I saw a story from Religion News Service about a meeting that did just that.

Imagine presidents of several evangelical Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic schools together on a panel. What was interesting was not so much what they did discuss but what they didn’t.

Let’s see: What’s the most newsworthy topic that you can think of right now in the world of Christian education?

It would have to be the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that many faith-defined schools require people to sign — students, staff, faculty, etc. — when joining these voluntary, private institutions. This is often referred to as “freedom of association,” for this who follow First Amendment debates.

In terms of news, I’ve written before about how the California state legislature went after 42 faith-based institutions not long ago in an unsuccessful effort to forbid these colleges requiring statements of faith in order to attend. Keep that thought in mind.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.

They also want to support their students’ rights as people of faith.

Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation’s capital last week (Feb. 1)…

Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.

The most interesting comments in the piece came from Yusuf.

(Berman and Yusuf) defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.

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Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Probably the most unusual religion story out this past weekend was an Associated Press piece on the underground Christians of North Korea. They have been ranked the most persecuted church in the world for the past 18 years.

It’s tough to get people to talk about what really goes on in North Korea, as so few people survive escaping the Hermit Kingdom. This Fox News story gives an idea of the hell that prison life is and no doubt these stories don’t tell half of it.

Still the AP gave us a few ideas on how the North Koreans keep on keeping on.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — One North Korean defector in Seoul describes her family back home quietly singing Christian hymns every Sunday while someone stood watch for informers. A second cowered under a blanket or in the toilet when praying in the North. Yet another recalls seeing a fellow prison inmate who’d been severely beaten for refusing to repudiate her religion.

These accounts from interviews with The Associated Press provide a small window into how underground Christians in North Korea struggle to maintain their faith amid persistent crackdowns…

One woman interviewed said she converted about 10 relatives and neighbors and held secret services before defecting to the South.

“I wanted to build my church and sing out as loud as I could,” said the woman, who is now a pastor in Seoul. She insisted on only being identified with her initials, H.Y., because of serious worries about the safety of her converts and family in the North.

The pastor and others spoke with AP because they wanted to highlight the persecution they feel Christians face in North Korea. Although the comments cannot be independently confirmed, they generally match the previous claims of other defectors.

My one problem with the last paragraph; “they feel” Christians face in North Korea? Isn’t it pretty established by now that Christians are persecuted there? Some have compared it to Nero’s Rome, so let’s drop the caveats, OK?

The account tells of some haunting stories.

Another defector in Seoul, Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004.

“She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.

Actions like that strike many defectors and South Koreans as extraordinary

I’m not sure what that last sentence means. Does it mean the story is unbelievable?

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Colorado's proposed sex ed curriculum: Which religious groups protested it?

Colorado's proposed sex ed curriculum: Which religious groups protested it?

Maybe I’ve been sleeping under a rock recently, but I didn’t realize that half the metro Denver area was abuzz with a proposed sex education curriculum for its public schools.

As I looked at various media accounts, only one religious group — Catholics — stood out as opposing the substantial changes in how Colorado kids would learn about sex. There’s no mention of organized resistance from other groups, even the evangelical behemoth, Focus on the Family, an hour south of Denver.

Here’s the big question: How far into the story do readers need to dig to find out the crucial question here is parental rights, in terms of having the ability to opt out of classes that violate their religious convictions?

We’ll start with the Denver Post’s coverage, then branch out.

After more than 10 hours of debate and the testimony — both written and spoken — of more than 300 people, Democrats on a Colorado House committee approved a sexual education bill shortly before midnight Wednesday.

If it passes the General Assembly, the bill would amend a 2013 law by removing a waiver for public charter schools that lets them pick other sex ed criteria. It would also fund a grant program for schools that lack the resources to teach human sexuality and expand upon the LGBT relationship portion of the curriculum requirements.

The new section on teaching about “healthy relationships” and the “different relationship models” students may encounter appeared to be the touchstone for most of the objections from parents, educators and faith leaders Wednesday. Dozens of speakers told the committee they worry that if the General Assembly passes the bill, school districts will be teaching kids about sexual acts and lifestyles their faith disagrees with.

“If you’re for House Bill 1032, then you’re for exposing 9-year-olds to sexually explicit techniques,” said James Rea, a father of four. “We don’t want to expose our children to this kind of forced sexual education.”

Who are the “faith leaders” involved? One, according to CruxNow, is the Catholic archbishop of Denver. Crux said:

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Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries

Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries

It’s not so much that the Washington Post is running feel-good stories these days about drag queens appearing at libraries.

That’s a valid story and many readers would be interested. The problem is that the opponents of this trend are drawn in such stark, dramatic negativity. And, yes, religion is in the mix there.

The Post’s recent story about drag queens doing the story hours for children in a Detroit suburb is drawn in predictable lines. The pro folks are described in colorful adjectives and attractive personalities who come with “lots of hugs.” The librarian comes with “a thoughtful air, nose ring and cat-eye glasses.” What’s not to like?

The dreaded antis are colorless people with signs and no disarming descriptions. Even the hapless city commissioner who was forced out of office for being against the drag queens didn’t get much sympathy.

I happen to like this quote from the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber about every church needing at least one drag queen, but the issues with a public library are different. The story starts here:

HUNTINGTON WOODS, Mich. — The last time drag queens came to the public library here, two dozen children and their parents crowded into a cozy room to enjoy holiday stories. Jessica J’Adore — decked out in a curly red wig, a shiny green cocktail dress and elaborate makeup — read “The Night Before Christmas,” while another costumed queen offered up a lively Hanukkah rhyming book. One little boy gave a pipe-cleaner bracelet to his favorite performer.

“There were a lot of hugs,” librarian Joyce Krom said. “Kids love holidays, and they’re just very excited. It was a lot of fun.”

It was also the latest flash point in what’s become a noxious national controversy. Variations of Drag Queen Story Hour — which aims to teach children gender diversity and acceptance — have been sprouting nationwide in libraries large and small. But their popularity has provoked an increasingly fierce backlash from conservative religious groups, with Huntington Woods the latest target.

Who could be against “gender diversity and acceptance?”

Four paragraphs down, we’re told there’s an anti-campaign “stoked by outsiders.” Way further down, we hear of the (local) city commissioner who opposed the drag queens. Would the reporter have mentioned outside help had the demonstrators been from Planned Parenthood or organizers from the national Women’s March?

Then we get a dissenting point of view.

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Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

You do have to wonder at the tone deafness of folks at major newspapers.

Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reintroduced its Column One feature, a “showcase for medium-form journalism,” and the piece is on a valiant doctor who flies to Texas to do 50 abortions in 60 hours.

If you had to pick a piece that seemed to have been created in order to anger a respectable share of the population, this was it. Why not a puff piece on Louis Farrakhan? A feel-good piece about workers at the Diablo Canyon (nuclear) Power Plant? Oh, no, that would offend people.

It’s not unusual for the MSM to glamorize abortionists and this feature is a gripping story. But it goes out of its way to portray Texas as some kind of theocratic Republic of Gilead out of The Handmaid’s Tale being serviced by the enlightened medics from the Golden State.

I’ll get to the actual piece in a moment but I had to first point out the LAT’s unusual history in abortion coverage. Please look at this May 23, 2003, memo by then Editor John Carroll that excoriates his staff for allowing in a biased piece about Texas abortionists being mandated to warn their patients about a possible link of abortion to breast cancer.

(One does wonder why the Times has this fixation with Texas being this medieval place with back-alley abortion laws, but I digress). The Carroll memo says, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

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