Religious Liberty

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Despite the non-stop hubbub in U.S. politics that dominates the news, and the sexual molesting crisis that consumes Catholic media outlets, history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula achieved some spot coverage. But journalists now need to offer richer analysis of the longer-term significance of the February events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

You want pertinent news angles? You want some valid follow-up stories?

Islam and Catholicism each claim the allegiance of more than one billion souls. Terrorists claiming inspiration from Islam vex the entire region, with fellow Muslims frequently among the victims of carnage, while targeted Christians have been pushed out of their faith’s ancestral heartland. In the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report, six of the 10 worst nations “of particular concern” are majority Muslim (Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), with others on State’s “special watch” listing.

There was substance alongside the pageantry and photo ops in the UAE, a joint declaration issued by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who leads venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is generally considered the chief intellectual center in Islam’s dominant Sunni branch (though long tainted by links with Egypt’s authoritarian regimes). Tayyeb is no pope but as authoritative as any figure in Sunnism. The joint statement results from years of intricate diplomacy between the Vatican and Al-Azhar.

Among the many moral evils addressed, the pope and imam called upon the world’s leaders “to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” adding that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people. … Terrorism must be condemned in all its forms and expressions”

The declaration also proclaimed that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and opposed forcing people “to adhere to a certain religion.” It stated that “protection of places of worship — synagogues, churches and mosques — is a duty” under both religious teachings and international law. It upheld women’s rights to education, employment and political action. And so forth, including some interesting theological commentary on God creating the various world religions.

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In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

Some news stories are more balanced than others.

Take, for example, the Washington Post’s coverage of a controversy over whether faith-based foster care agencies that work only with parents who share their religious beliefs should qualify for federal funding.

This is one of those quasi-balanced stories that eventually gets around to quoting both sides. But the 1,250-word piece has the feel — almost from the beginning — of leaning toward one side of the debate. That imbalance can be seen in the negative terminology used to describe those arguing for religious freedom.

This is the headline:

Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that reject LGBTQ parents

That’s opposed to more neutral wording, such as, “Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that defend doctrines on marriage.”

The Post’s lede:

President Trump made religious leaders a contentious promise at this week’s National Prayer Breakfast: Faith-based adoption agencies that won’t work with same-sex couples would still be able to get federal funding to “help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”

The president offered no details, but a plan is already in motion.

In a 2020 draft budget request that has not been made public, the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking broad authority to include faith-based foster-care and adoption groups, which reject LGBTQ parents, non-Christians and others, in the nation’s $7 billion federally funded child-welfare programs. That request follows a waiver granted last month to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries — which requires foster-care parents to affirm their faith in Jesus Christ and refused to work with a Jewish woman seeking to be a mentor — to continue to receive federal funds.

HHS’s Office of Civil Rights argues in the draft proposal that some of the country’s oldest religious agencies in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington have gone out of business because of nondiscrimination requirements that are themselves discriminatory.

Concerning that last paragraph, is it an argument or a fact that religious agencies in those places (Boston, Philadelphia and Washington) have stopped providing foster care services rather than violate tenets of their faith? A sentence or two by the Post to provide details of those closures would seem to be appropriate there.

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Concerning Trump and the National Prayer Breakfast: Here's a byline you'll be glad to see again

Concerning Trump and the National Prayer Breakfast: Here's a byline you'll be glad to see again

I clicked the link and couldn’t help but smile at the byline.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, an award-winning religion writer for the Washington Post, took several months off after the death of her baby girl.

Those on the GetReligion team have prayed often for our friend and former colleague, who was one of the regular contributors when I first started writing for this journalism-focused website back in 2010.

So I was pleased when I clicked the link to the Post’s coverage of today’s National Prayer Breakfast and saw Bailey’s byline again. The Godbeat has missed her exceptional reporting skills and insight.

Here is the lede from Bailey and fellow Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer:

Since his campaign, President Trump has taken a page from President Reagan’s playbook.

“I know you can’t endorse me,” Reagan famously told a room full of evangelicals in 1980. “But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.”

Whenever he takes the stage in front of conservative Christians, Trump uses those opportunities to remind them of his promises, like appointing Supreme Court justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade and making “Merry Christmas” a more common greeting during the holidays.

“We’re going to protect Christianity,” Trump said during a 2016 speech at Liberty University.

On Thursday morning, during an address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump was explicit. 

“I will never let you down. I can say that. Never," he told leaders from all over the globe, including clergy, diplomats and lobbyists. The annual event at the Washington Hilton especially attracts conservative evangelicals jockeying to rub shoulders with Washington’s elite. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event that draws several thousand people, and this year’s event was co-chaired by Sen. James Lankford, (R-Okla.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).

Coons, by the way, was the focus of a recent Religion News Service profile by national correspondent Jack Jenkins. The headline: “In polarized Washington, a Democrat anchors bipartisan friendships in faith.” Earlier, I profiled Lankford, an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, for RNS.

Keep reading the Post story on the National Prayer Breakfast, and Bailey and Zauzmer offer helpful analysis from experts on Trump’s relationship with evangelicals and how his positions on certain issues resonate with them.

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Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

It was on the first day of February in 2004 that GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc clicked a mouse and put the first version of this website online. That post — “What we do, why we do it” — is still up, for those who have never seen it.

That was the day after my birthday, the last day of January. That was a coincidence, back in 2004, and that fact has never been all that relevant.

But now it is, because today is my 65th birthday and, as old folks know who read GetReligion, for many people that starts all kinds of clocks ticking. In my case, that means I am one year away from retirement as editor of GetReligion.

That doesn’t mean that I will vanish. After all, for a decade GetReligion was my part-time work, while I was a full-time professor in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then Washington, D.C., while also writing my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard and then the Universal syndicate.

But Jan. 31, 2020 will mean changes at GetReligion, of one kind or another. That’s fine with me, since the realities shaping news and commentary work about religion have radically changed, over the past decade and a half. Still, I hope to keep doing some GetReligion-esque work at this site or whatever evolves out of it. I’d like to do more writing, for example, about the religious content of popular culture — one of the topics that pulled me into teaching back in 1991, at Denver Seminary.

But back to the our digital world and the American Model of the Press. Consider, for example, the current mini-wave of coverage of drag queen story hours.

Yes, Julia Duin just wrote a post on this topic: “Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries.” I would urge you to read it. Here’s a key quote:

Just what is the religious case against drag queens, as it would be articulated by people who hold that point of view? Is there one?

Think like an old-school journalist. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have heard more about what that is, like there was an actual debate taking place?

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Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

One characteristic of our religion beat is that old story themes never die. Sometimes they don’t even evolve very much.

You know the headlines. “Local family redoes this year’s [pick a religious holiday] or “[Name of denomination] elects first [race or gender] official” or “Sensational find proves [pick your favorite Bible story]”or “Sensational find disproves [your most disliked Bible story]”

Another perpetual theme can be seen in the occasional announcements that a new “religious left” (lower case) is arising to challenge the “Religious Right” (usually upper case). This is rather strange, since through much of the 20th Century, religious politicking was largely liberal and it never disappeared. Activism remained especially central among African-American Protestants.

So the media were caught by surprise when the Rev. Jerry Falwell first joined the political thrum in 1979 with Moral Majority, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, et al. Such upstarts continued to monopolize ink through evident (though uneven) impact, amplified by their opponents’ continual clear-and-present-danger alarms.

Now the man-bites-dog angle works in favor of religious liberals and a good story hunch to keep in mind is whether the religious left might launch an effective counterattack. Which brings us to this January 24 item on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” by veteran, award-winning correspondent Tom Gjelten, now a religion specialist.

“The provocations of President Trump may finally be changing” the religious right’s monopoly, he reported, bringing forth “a comparable effort” by religiously motivated liberals.

Gjelten’s exhibit A is Faith in Public Life (FPL), led by a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, the Rev. Jennifer Butler. Her organization says it has recruited nearly 50,000 local faith leaders and seeks broad support from “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, Jews and those in other religions, in contrast with the right’s narrower religious constituency (as in conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics and many Orthodox Jews).

The FPL website assails President Donald Trump’s “white racist” policies. On immigration, the group opposes adding any miles to the border wall and the hiring of more border agents, wants the 2020 Census to fairly count people regardless of immigration status and fights “Islamophobia.” FPL favors “reproductive rights,” criminal justice reform, voting by felons, and “common sense” gun laws. It works for LGBT protections, and against efforts to “use religious freedom as a justification for discrimination.”

Gjelten admitted that “the religious left, having been largely eclipsed in recent years, has a ways to go before it can match the clout of the religious right.”

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