Politics

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

It was another wild week, to say the least, for people who are following the hellish details of the Jeffrey Epstein case and the fallout from his death.

I am referring, of course, to his reported suicide in his non-suicide-watch cell, which contained no required roommate (check), no working video cameras (check) and no regular safety checks by his sleeping and maybe unqualified guards.

Forget all of that, for a moment. While you are at it, forget the mystery of how he ended up with a broken hyoid bone near the larynx, something that — statistically — tends to happen when a victim is strangled, as opposed to hanging himself with a sheet tied to a bed while he leans over on his knees. And go ahead and forget about that painting (or print) of Bill Clinton photographed in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, the portrait of the former president wearing a vivid blue dress, red women’s high-heeled shoes and a come-hither look while posed relaxing in an Oval Office chair.

No, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on some of the hell-based rhetoric unleashed by the disgraced New York City financial wizard’s death. This was hooked to my “On Religion” column for this week, which opened rather bluntly (if I say so myself):

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds, playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal contacts file — politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others — was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people. … The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation — a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

By the way, would this discussion or moral theology and eternity be any different if we were talking about the Rev. Jeffrey Epstein or Rabbi Jeffrey Epstein?

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Friday Five: Racist Trump, Mayor Pete, clumsy Oregonian, sex and consent, Sarah's new boss

Friday Five: Racist Trump, Mayor Pete, clumsy Oregonian, sex and consent, Sarah's new boss

Racist Trump?

Did that headline grab you?

If so, score one for clickbait. Now to the point: In a post Thursday, I raised the question of whether news organizations should label certain tweets by President Donald Trump as racist — as a fact — or simply report his comments and let news consumers decide.

The post has generated an interesting discussion so far. Check it out.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Terry Mattingly had a must-read post this week on Mayor Pete’s faith emphasis. That would be Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg (and please let me have spelled his last name correctly).

In the post, tmatt suggests that a recent Washington Post story that ran with the headline ”Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign” came “really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.”

More from tmatt:

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Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

NPR’s Sarah McCammon visited two Friendship Baptist Churches for a report that aired this week.

I loved the idea behind her story on congregations in the same state with the same name but different perspectives on President Donald Trump. And I mostly loved the implementation.

But before we delve into her feature, let’s start with the online headline: I’m not 100 percent sold on it.

Here it is:

In Virginia, 2 Churches Feel The Aftermath of Trump’s Racist Rhetoric

My problem with the headline is this: It labels Trump’s rhetoric — as a fact — as “racist.” I’m an old-school- enough journalist that I’d prefer the news organization simply report what Trump has said and let listeners/readers characterize it as racist. Or not.

I know I’m probably in the minority on this — evidence of that fact can be found here, here, here and here.

But back to the story itself: It opens this way:

A welcome sign on the way into town reads "Historic Appomattox: Where Our Nation Reunited." But here in Appomattox, where the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, there are still reminders of division.

Not far away, a sign posted in front of Friendship Baptist Church reads "AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT."

Pastor Earnie Lucas said he posted that message on his church sign several weeks ago. It was around the same time that President Trump tweeted an attack on four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — saying they should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

Lucas, 85, is white and has been a pastor in this community for decades. He defends his sign and expresses anger about the response it has received online and in news reports.

"Don't talk to me about that flag out yonder, or that sign out yonder!" he thundered from the pulpit. "This is America! And I love America!"

Lucas asks if anyone in the small, all-white congregation is "from Yankee land." No one raises their hand

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Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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Spot the news here: First openly gay presidential candidate in 'Arab' or 'Muslim' world?

Spot the news here: First openly gay presidential candidate in 'Arab' or 'Muslim' world?

To answer a question I hear every now and then: Yes, we do hear from Ira “Global Wire” Rifkin from time to time. If you follow him in social-media circles you know that he is doing well, especially when hanging out with his lively family.

Also, he sends us URLs and cryptic hints when he bumps into GetReligion-ish stories linked to international news. Take this Washington Post story, for example: “An openly gay candidate is running for president in Tunisia, a milestone for the Arab world.”

How important is this story? Rifkin had this to say: “This is not nothing, though I think his chances of ending up in exile in Paris (or dead or in jail) are greater than his winning.”

There are several interesting angles in this story, as far as I am concerned. All of them are directly or indirectly linked to religion. However, I’m not sure that the Post foreign-desk squad wants to face that reality head on. Here is the overture:

Lawyer Mounir Baatour officially announced his candidacy for the Tunisian presidency …, becoming the first known openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world and heralding a major step forward for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes gay sex.

Baatour, the president of Tunisia’s Liberal Party, presented his candidacy to the country’s election commission a day ahead of a Friday deadline to qualify for the Sept. 15 election. He received nearly 20,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — double the required number — according to a statement posted to his Facebook page.

“This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country and to concretely nourish its democracy,” the statement said, calling Baatour’s candidacy “historic.”

OK, is the newsworthy hook here that we are talking about political “first” in the “Arab” world or in the “Muslim” world? Yes, I realize that the answer could be “both-and.” But that is a different answer than simply saying “Arab” and leaving it at that.

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Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Every profession has a national convention. Bankers, plumbers and even electricians hold them. Journalists have several each year (I have attended some in the past), as do journalism college professors (I have attended those as well). Earlier this month, The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication — a mix of both professions — held their annual conference in Toronto.

That begs the question of when is a national convention worthy of news coverage?

The answer goes to the heart of journalism, potential bias and why reporters and editors choose to cover an event over another. It’s a no-brainer when the gathering is the Republican or Democratic National Conventions held every four years. After all, that’s where each party officially nominates a presidential candidate. It’s where speeches are delivered and news is made.

What’s the bar for coverage when it comes to lesser-known gatherings? Two very distinct conventions earlier this month may shed some light on who is worth covering these days and why.  

The Democratic Socialists of America held their convention last week in Atlanta. By coincidence, the Knights of Columbus held their annual convention in Minneapolis. Readers of this space should find it to be no coincidence whatsoever that the Democratic socialists received plenty — and perhaps more favorable — coverage compared to a Catholic group.

Most can infer who the Democratic socialists are. They have gained lots of influence in the Democratic party and broader political debate since Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. Many of the group’s anti-capitalist policy positions have gained traction among those running for president in 2020.  

The New York Times wrote about the gathering in an August 6 feature. This is how the piece opens:

Three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America had 5,000 members. Just another booth at the campus activities fair, another three-initialed group an uncle might mention over lunch.

Today, dues-paying D.S.A. members exceed 56,000. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American politics, is one. So are a couple of dozen local elected officials across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate, is not, but he may as well be: He identifies as a democratic socialist and enjoys a totemic status with the group’s members.

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Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

That was kind of a delayed reaction. Hang on a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that a side issue had emerged at President Donald Trump’s infamous “Send her back!” rally in Greenville, N.C.

The controversy, as I noted, involved Trump’s choice of words.

Here’s how I opened that post:

If I told you that Donald Trump uttered a curse word, it probably wouldn’t surprise you.

We are talking, after all, about the future president caught on videotape uttering the famous “Grab-em-by-the-*****” line.

But how might Trump’s evangelical supporters react if the leader of the free world took God’s name in vain at a nationally televised politically rally?

That’s the intriguing — at first glance — plot in a Charlotte Observer news story.

So what brings us back to that same, profanity-laced subject?

That would be Politico, which has taken the story national with a relatively in-depth piece headlined “‘Using the Lord’s name in vain’: Evangelicals chafe at Trump’s blasphemy.”

Here’s Politico’s overture:

Paul Hardesty didn’t pay much attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., last month until a third concerned constituent rang his cellphone.

The residents of Hardesty’s district — he’s a Trump-supporting West Virginia state senator — were calling to complain that Trump was “using the Lord’s name in vain,” Hardesty recounted.

“The third phone call is when I actually went and watched his speech because each of them sounded distraught,” Hardesty, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said.

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Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

What a country we live in, these days. If you have been following the controversy surrounding the now-delayed movie “The Hunt,” you know that this is — according to mainstream media reports — yet another controversy about politics, anger, guns, violence and America’s Tweeter In Chief.

Oh, and there is no way to avoid the dangerous word “elites” when talking about this Hollywood vs. flyover country saga. However, if you probe this media storm you will find hints that religion ghosts are hiding in the fine print — due to the movie’s alleged references to “deplorables” and “anti-choice” Americans.

But let’s start with a minimalist report at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: “Universal cancels satirical thriller about ‘elites’ hunting ‘deplorables’ in wake of shootings.” Here’s the overture:

Universal Pictures has canceled its plan to release “The Hunt,” a satirical thriller about “elites” hunting self-described “normal people,” amid a series of mass shootings and criticism that the film could increase tensions.

“We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal said in a statement.

The studio already had paused its marketing campaign for the R-rated movie, which was slated for release on Sept. 27. … “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah”) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, follows 12 strangers who are brought to a remote house to be killed for sport. 

Everything in this media-drama hinges on how this movie is alleged to have described the beliefs and behaviors of these “normal” Americans — who are stalked by rich, progressive folks defined by high-class culture and political anger issues. The elites are led by a character played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

If you are looking for facts in this oh so Donald Trump-era mess, journalists at The Hollywood Reporter claim to have details deeper than the innuendoes glimpsed in the hyper-violent trailers for the movie (trailers that appear to be vanishing online). Here is a chunk of that story, which is referenced — aggregation style — in “news” reports all over the place.

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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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