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Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

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Matt Chandler's Southern Baptist Convention 'interview' shows how not to deal with bad press

Matt Chandler's Southern Baptist Convention 'interview' shows how not to deal with bad press

Earlier this week, tmatt wrote about and spotlighted a New York Times bombshell about what certainly appeared to be the cavalier approach a major Southern Baptist megachurch took to dealing with a sexual predator in its midst.

A summation of the Times piece is further down in my post, but the damage done by this article was so extensive that the Rev. Matt Chandler, the pastor, broke away from his sabbatical to fly to Birmingham in an attempt to salvage his reputation. He showed up at a lunch meeting of Baptist pastors to answer questions from an emcee but — here’s the key — not to take questions from the audience.

The video of that “interview” is atop this piece. It’s a headshaker and a perfect example of how way too many religious leaders think journalism is supposed to be public relations. The pastor’s first sentence out of the blocks is, “I’m here because I don’t want what we’re trying to do to lose momentum and steam.”

It’s not “I’m concerned for the victim and her family,” or “I feel we messed up and I want to apologize,” but no, he doesn’t want to derail his church’s expansion plans. (Additional note - it’s been pointed out to me that Chandler was referring to movement within the SBC for a meaningful resolution on the abuse issue, not about his church’s future, so I stand corrected there.)

The Times reporter who’d broken the story tweeted that she planned to attend the pastor’s appearance. I still haven’t found out whether she managed to nab him in the hallway beforehand or afterwards.

She did run this piece on his speech:

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Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics.

This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer. In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

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Democrat takes political stand against abortion: Wait a minute, isn't this governor a Catholic?

Democrat takes political stand against abortion: Wait a minute, isn't this governor a Catholic?

Let’s start here: Is it news when Democrats who are, to one degree or another, Catholic take actions that support abortion rights, especially with legislation linked to late-term abortions?

Well, ask Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pretty soon, we may hear discussions of this issue linked to former Vice President Joe Biden.

So now let’s ask a variation on this question: Is it news when a prominent Democrat who is a Catholic takes actions to limit abortion rights, while openly linking his political views on a variety of progressive “life issues” to the teachings of his faith?

I would say a strong “yes.” Then again, I spent decades attempting to vote as a pro-life Democrat. (Confession: I gave up and registered with a third-party in 2016.)

The political desk at The Washington Post (mildly) agrees, on this point, when covering the current drama unfolding around Gov. John Bel Edwards, down in the complex political state that is Louisiana. The headline: “Louisiana’s Democratic governor just defied his party and signed an abortion ban into law.

How about The New York Times? Hold that thought. First, here is a key passage that is buried pretty far down in the Post coverage. It does contain a crucial word — “Catholic.”

In Louisiana, the nation is seeing some of the last remaining antiabortion Democrats, a class of politician that has grown obscure in recent decades.

Edwards has been a high-profile member of that group since he was elected governor in 2015. Like other antiabortion Democrats, he likes to say he’s “pro-life for the whole life,” because he opposes abortion and supports policies such as Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage. In his post-vote statement, he said he believes that “being pro-life means more than just being pro-birth.”

The Army veteran and Catholic has said he traces his long-held views on abortion to his faith — and so do many of his constituents, he said.

“That’s the way I was raised,” Edwards said in an October episode of his monthly radio show. “I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that’s not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day.”

Yes, it would have been interesting to have heard more about how these “consistent life” Democrats apply their beliefs to political realities linked to immigration, gun control, the death penalty and a host of other “seamless garment” issues discussed in Catholic circles.

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Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

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New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

Holly Meyer’s mama tried to raise her better.

Actually, I think her mother did just fine. That opening was my rather feeble attempt to set the scene (with thanks to Merle Haggard) for this post on “God and Country Music.”

Meyer, The Tennessean’s religion writer, had a big piece on Sunday’s front page about a religious revival in country music.

It turns out that the story idea came from, well, Meyer’s mother.

“And a good story idea is a good story idea, especially when it comes from your mom,” Meyer said.

Amen!

Full disclosure: I love country music. In fact, I wrote a column several years ago exploring country songs as “modern-day parables.” So I was pretty certain I was going to appreciate Meyer’s piece. And I did.

Her timely lede:

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The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

What made Creole chef Leah Chase so unique?

There’s at least two ways to look at that question. You can ask, “What made her famous at the national level?” Fame is important, especially a person’s life and work is connected to A-list personalities in politics, entertainment and culture.

However, in this case I would say that that it was more important to ask, “What was the ‘X’ factor that made her a matriarch in New Orleans culture?” When you focus on that question, the word “Catholic” has to be in the mix somewhere — a core ingredient in the strong gumbo that was her life.

Thus, I was stunned that the NOLA.com tribute to Chase hinted at her faith early on, but then proceeded to ignore the role that Catholicism played in the factual details of her life. Look for the word “Catholic” in this piece: “Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, dead at 96.” You won’t find it, even though the overture opened the door:

Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, who fed civil rights leaders, musicians and presidents in a career spanning seven decades, died Saturday (June 1) surrounded by family. She was 96.

Mrs. Chase, who possessed a beatific smile and a perpetually calm demeanor, presided over the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant until well into her 10th decade, turning out specialties such as lima beans and shrimp over rice, shrimp Clemenceau and fried chicken that was judged the best in the city in a poll by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Every Holy Thursday, hundreds showed up to enjoy gallons of her gumbo z’herbes, a dark, thick concoction that contains the last meat to be eaten before Good Friday.

What, pray tell, is the importance of community life and faith linked to Holy Thursday and Good Friday?

Maybe editors in New Orleans simply assumed that Catholicism is a given in that remarkable city, something that does not need to be explained or, well, even mentioned. (Watch the NOLA.com video at the top of this post.)

In this case, if readers want to learn some facts about the role that Catholic faith played in this Creole queen’s life, they will need — wait for it — to dig into the magesterial obit produced by The New York Times: “Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96.”

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Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

According to the New York Times, the nation’s long run of recent bad weather might wind down by the weekend.

Speaking on behalf of Oklahomans and residents of other states hit hard by tornadoes and flooding, I pray it’s so.

Now, let’s dive into the (hopefully sunny and calm) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Perhaps you (like the New York Times so far) missed this big scoop concerning restrictions placed by the Vatican on former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick way back in 2008.

Not to worry: Our own Julia Duin can fill you in on a former aide to McCarrick spilling the beans to Crux and CBS.

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