Terry Mattingly

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Let’s face it, mass-communications researchers are going to be studying the Covington Catholic High School media meltdown (click here for GetReligion files) for years to come.

I’d still like to know why the Lincoln Memorial drama was an earth-shaking event, but attempts by Native American protest drummers to invade a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was a “conservative” non-story. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Of course, there’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

Now we have an early Washington Post story about a a private investigation of the Covington encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, as well as those angry black Hebrew Israelites. The headline is rather blunt: “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ by Covington Catholic students during Lincoln Memorial incident.”

Yes, I would like to know who hired the private investigators. Nevertheless, here is the overture. The key findings: No “build the wall” chants. But isolated tomahawk chops.

An investigation released Wednesday into an encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial last month largely supports the students’ accounts of the incident, which prompted immediate and widespread condemnation of the boys after a video of the encounter went viral.

A short video clip showed Nathan Phillips, playing a traditional drum, in an apparent standoff with student Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, which arranged the trip, were among those who initially condemned the boys’ actions in the video.

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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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Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

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Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

The Atlantic ran a headline the other day that really made me stop and look twice.

(Wait for it.)

I realize that The Atlantic Monthly is a journal of news and opinion. Every now and then, that means running essays by thinkers who challenge the doctrines held by the magazine’s many left-of-center readers in blue zip codes.

This was especially true during the glory years when the Atlantic was edited by the late, great Michael Kelly — an old-school Democrat who frequently made true believers in both parties nervous. Click here for a great Atlantic tribute to Kelly, who was killed while reporting in Iraq in 2003.

It really helps for journalists to read material that challenges old lines in American politics. In my own life, there have been very few articles that influenced my own political (as opposed to theological) thinking more than the classic Atlantic Monthly piece that ran in 1995 with this headline:

On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice

This brings me to that Atlantic headline the other day that made my head spin. In this case, my shock was rooted in the fact that the headline actually affirmed my beliefs — which doesn’t happen very often these days when I’m reading elite media. Here is that headline, atop an essay by Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review:

Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion

In New York and Virginia, state governments are working to loosen restrictions on late-term abortion—and giving the anti-abortion movement an opportunity.

Here are two key chunks of this piece, which includes all kinds of angles worthy of additional research. Journalists would have zero problems finding voices on left and right to debate this thesis. And there’s more to this piece than, well, Donald Trump.

So part one:

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Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

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About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

As the political soap opera in Virginia rolls on and on and on, I think it’s important to pause and remind journalists where all of this started — with an argument about religion, science and philosophy.

I am referring, of course, to Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about the proposed Virginia legislation that included controversial language about late-term abortions.

In this firestorm about race — a totally valid story, of course — it has been easy to forget the role that abortion played in this equation.

I say this because of a story that ran the other day at The Washington Post that, in my opinion, should have received more attention. Here’s the bland headline from that: “A tip from a ‘concerned citizen’ helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime about Northam.” Let’s walk through this, starting with the overture:

The reporter who exposed the racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page said a “concerned citizen” led him to the story that has prompted widespread outrage and calls for the Democrat’s resignation.

Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported … the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

“It’s very easy to explain,” Howley, 29, said in an interview. …. “A concerned citizen, not a political opponent, came to us and pointed this out. I was very offended [by the photo] because I don’t like racism.”

Ah, but why was the “concerned citizen” acting? Isn’t that the big idea here, perhaps worthy of mentioning in the lede and the headline?

The Big League Politics editor, naturally, wanted to talk about politics. However, to its credit, the Post team dug deeper and hit this:

The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

Now, why was the “concerned citizen” so angry about the abortion debate, going so far as to use the “infanticide” language of Northam’s critics?

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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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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