Open for hurricanes: Mosques in the South got the best public relations coverage

Open for hurricanes: Mosques in the South got the best public relations coverage

I’m writing this from Alabama, just after having attended the Religion News Association’s annual confab in Nashville. While visiting friends near Huntsville, I learned that hotels and motels on every nearby interstate are booked out with Florida refugees.

Those who can’t find lodging are bunking up with friends or in churches

Also in mosques. Unlike church sanctuaries, which are filled with pews, mosques have wide open large carpeted spaces for worship that can easily be transformed into places where people can camp out. (Of course churches and synagogues have community or parish halls that can accommodate people but mosques can offer the actual worship space.)

The website Mic.com has especially concentrated on mosques, such as this feature about an Orlando mosque offering shelter from Irma and this piece about Houston mosques offering shelter from Harvey.

The Tampa Bay Times managed to insert a bit of religion into this account

TAMPA — For now it's their hurricane shelter, but Muslim rules about removing your shoes are still being observed at a makeshift shelter set up at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque.
More than 500 people are planning to hunker down at the makeshift shelter set up at the mosque's multicultural center, which is now full. Most are Muslim, but the shelter was open to all people and is providing refuge for at least 50 non-Muslims, said Aida Mackic, a shelter organizer who is also the interfaith and youth program director with Council on American-Islamic Relations
Three large conference rooms are being used as the main sleeping quarters. One is for men, one for women, and there is a common area for families who want to remain together.

It's the first time, the Tampa paper said, that the newly built mosque has been used as a hurricane shelter. The Washington Post ran a piece about mosques in Atlanta as did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. WGCL, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, also ran a list of available mosques.

Were mosques getting better PR than other houses of worship?

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Vice.com's take on climate change blames same old fundamentalist hobgoblins

Vice.com's take on climate change blames same old fundamentalist hobgoblins

I know journalists are seeking good click-bait headlines, but Vice.com’s “The Fundamentalists Holding us Back from a Climate Change Solution” sounded overwrought right from the get-go.

But I wanted to linger, as I’m interested in what all these news/feature/opinion forums, aka millennial niche sites (Quartz, Vice, Vox, Vocativ, Mic, BuzzFeed, OZY, Fusion, The Ringer, etc.) offer in terms of religion reporting. Most don’t seem to have a specialist on staff.

So they get a freelancer or staff writer, who may or may not know anything about religion, to hold forth. Which is why I was interested in Vice.com’s take on climate change problems. The use of “fundamentalists” in the headline is a red flag, in that this term is hardly used these days (and the Associated Press Stylebook says it should be used carefully). The folks described in the opening paragraphs are actually evangelicals.

It's unclear whether the writer knows the difference between the two, but our own Richard Ostling explains things for the uninitiated. Vice says:

Rachel Lamb grew up thinking that climate change was a liberal hoax. That's what everyone thought at the rural Michigan church where her dad was the pastor. The world was slowly getting hotter, but that fact was rarely mentioned in the Baptist social circles she spun through, and when it was, it was in the context of something Democrats blew way out of proportion. Her attitude about the subject was more wary than antagonistic. If someone were to come up to her clique and suggest that the climate was changing, their response would most likely be a sarcastic, Where'd you hear that from?
Although the 27-year-old used to go hiking in national parks with her family as a kid, she was taught to think of her love of Jesus and her appreciation of nature as being separate—two puzzle pieces that made up the larger picture of her personality but didn't fit together. Then she took a climate change politics course at Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois, where her worldview coalesced and she found her purpose.

We next learn that she is a member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, but that progressive groups like hers are foiled by that:

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Does God really aim storms at sinners? Does Mother Nature aim storms at right-wingers?

Does God really aim storms at sinners? Does Mother Nature aim storms at right-wingers?

Are there conservative Christians who, from time to time, like to claim that God makes sure that bad storms happen to bad cities?

Yes, anyone who has scanned mainstream news headlines during the Pat Robertson era knows that this is true.

Right now, it appears that there are a few people on the religious right who think Houston -- in the conservative state of Texas -- had a thing or two coming, too. As in this, care of People for the American Way:

Extremist anti-LGBTQ pastor Kevin Swanson is joining other radical Religious Right activists in declaring that Hurricane Harvey is God’s judgment on Houston and other cities that refuse to repent for their embrace of “sexual perversion.”
“Jesus sends the message home, unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, unless New Orleans repents, they will all likewise perish,” Swanson said on his radio program today. ...
Swanson said that it is no coincidence that Houston was hit by this storm because “it was persecuting pastors and churches” and recently had “a very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor.”

You say that you've never heard of Swanson? Well, me either. But my point -- once again -- is that there are a few conservatives who keep saying this kind of thing. Thus, this old story angle drew fresh mainstream news coverage, as discussed a GetReligion post with this headline: "Religion News Service offers readers one half of the 'Why did God smite Houston?' story."

But here is the second half of the equation that host Todd Wilken and I discussed in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

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The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

It's not often a news story or feature geared toward the general public mentions the indigenous Chinese religion known in the West as Taoism (also spelled Daoism), but The New York Times managed to produce one last week. So how’d America’s newspaper of record do?

Let’s call it a less than “A” effort. But it did expose the difficulties that Western news media tend to encounter when trying to explain Eastern traditions that view religious beliefs through an entirely different lens — which is why it merits a GetReligion post.

I'll say more about that later. But first let’s deal with the merits of this particular Times story. Please read it in full to better follow my reasoning.

The focus was the impact that organized religion -- China’s traditional faith movements, in particular -- are contributing to the nation’s newfound emphasis on environmental awareness. Taoism, in the form of a $17.7-million “eco-friendly” temple located on a “sacred site” named Mao Mountain, provided the anecdotal lede.

The piece itself only superficially sought to explain Taoist beliefs and their role in contemporary Chinese society. It utterly failed to address questions such as, what’s the justification for a $17.7-million temple when Taoist philosophy has a clear emphasis on the virtue of simple living?

(One thing Eastern and Western religions apparently share is the human affliction we’ll refer to as the edifice complex — also known in some American Buddhist circles as “spiritual materialism.” Ah, but that’s a post for another time.)

Nor does the Times story break new ground -- but how many news features actually do?

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Top U.S. diplomat quits China post because of his faith. Journalists ignore the story?

Top U.S. diplomat quits China post because of his faith. Journalists ignore the story?

A few days ago, America’s acting ambassador to China did a most curious thing. He resigned over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Note that this person was posted in the capital of the world’s largest carbon polluter while representing the world’s second largest carbon polluter.

He’s not the first U.S. official to quit over Trump’s policies, nor will he be the last, but the way he did so and what he said while doing it has a religion ghost -– a religious element to the story that’s simply not covered -- as big as the White House itself.

It’s what this man said that got my attention. The Washington Post explains it this way:

The No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing resigned Monday, telling staff his conscience would not permit him to formally notify the Chinese that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.
David H. Rank, a career Foreign Service officer of 27 years, had been acting ambassador until former Iowa governor Terry Branstad (R) was confirmed as the new ambassador last month. Rank held a town meeting with embassy employees to explain he had offered his resignation and it had been accepted.
As the head of the embassy until Branstad arrives, it was Rank’s responsibility to deliver a formal notification of the U.S. intention to withdraw from the climate pact.
According to a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, Rank was unwilling to deliver the demarche.
He told his staff that as “a parent, a patriot and a Christian,” he could not in good conscience play a role in implementing President Trump’s decision to withdraw, according to a colleague familiar with Rank’s comments.

A parent, a patriot and a -– what?

I was hoping the article would elaborate on what Rank meant, but it did not.

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Trump, the Paris climate change accord and the accepted Kellerism that shaped the coverage

Trump, the Paris climate change accord and the accepted Kellerism that shaped the coverage

Some of you undoubtedly will consider this post naive.

If that includes you, please take a moment to bust my bubble in the comments section below. Hopefully, you'll do that only after you read this post to its end.

Nonetheless, I think it's worth acknowledging an unspoken Kellerism, one I'm taking the liberty of labeling the Ultimate Kellerism.

(Kellerism is a GetReligion term referring to the newsroom attitude that a particular issue has been sufficiently settled -- to the satisfaction of a newsroom's leaders -- so as to negate the need for dissenting voices to receive fair and accurate coverage.)

Moreover, I believe it's worth pointing out now because of its behind-the-scenes role in the uproar over President Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate change accord.

The Kellerism in question?

That would be the widely, if not near universally, shared human belief that the pursuit of ever more material wealth trumps -- sorry, but the word seems appropriate -- all other human motivations, and should be the prime determinate when making political calculations. This is a doctrine so universally accepted that it is guiding both the politicos and the journalists (on left and right) involved in this story.

Or, to put it another way, that jobs and personal finances are what people care about above all else. It's corollary is that this is so because material security is the quickest way to achieve the sense of inner security that is the deepest of human cravings, and perhaps the most difficult to satisfy. (More on this below.)

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Media warming: How to — and how not to — report on evangelical skepticism on climate change

Media warming: How to — and how not to — report on evangelical skepticism on climate change

Many journalists were less than thrilled with President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. In fact, a commentary writer for the right-leaning Washington Examiner suggested that the news media "dropped all pretense of objectivity" in bemoaning the decision. 

A short USA Today story — published before Trump's announcement — illustrates the "It's settled science" approach to climate change coverage that's so common.

The report concerns a Michigan congressman who said he believes God can take care of any global warming.

The headline:

GOP congressman on climate change: God will 'take care of it' if it's real

And the lede:

WASHINGTON — Michigan GOP Rep. Tim Walberg isn’t concerned about the effects of climate change — if it exists — because God will “take care of it.”

Am I the only one who finds that headline and lede a little snarky?

Keep reading, and — to its credit — the national newspaper includes Walberg's full quote. That is helpful because it allows readers to assess for themselves what he said:

“I believe there’s climate change,” Walberg said, according to a video of the exchange obtained first published by the Huffington Post. “I believe there’s been climate change since the beginning of time. I think there are cycles. Do I think man has some impact? Yeah, of course. Can man change the entire universe? No.”
“Why do I believe that?” he continued. “Well, as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

But USA Today's short piece of clickbait offers next to no background or context on Walberg, the climate change debate or — this is a biggie — why a statement from one of 535 members of Congress is national news.

For readers interested in more serious reporting, Religion News Service had a nice roundup of various religious leaders' reactions to Trump's decision.

Moreover, The Washington Post's all-star religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey — a former GetReligionista — produced a quintessential take on "Why so many white evangelicals in Trump’s base are deeply skeptical of climate change."


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Weekend think piece: The New York Times offers R.R. Reno's take on America's new cold war

Weekend think piece: The New York Times offers R.R. Reno's take on America's new cold war

If you have been paying attention to gossip about the news industry lately, you may have heard that many New York Times readers were not amused when the leaders of the great Gray Lady's editorial pages decided to add another conservative voice to the mix

Ever since the first column by one Bret Stephens -- a piece criticizing how the cultural left pushes climate change (but he does not reject the reality of climate change) -- large numbers of Times nation citizens have been voicing their wrath about this invasion of a beloved safe space, primarily by canceling their subscriptions.

I have not heard of a similar reaction to the recent Times opinion essay by the Catholic scribe R.R. Reno, who is editor of the conservative interfaith journal First Things. The title: "Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party."

Now, let me stress that this Reno think piece does not contain large chunks of theology or commentary about religion. Instead, it's about how one Donald Trump has moved the ground under the feet of Republicans who had, for a long time, assumed that the GOP orthodoxy of Ronald Reagan would last 1,000 years or so.

The central theme: The new GOP enemy is globalism, not big government.

As I read this Reno piece, I kept waiting for religious material, for cultural and moral material, to show up. After all, I read newspapers through the lens of the great historian Martin Marty, as described in an "On Religion" column I wrote a year after 9/11 (at an event that started the dominoes falling that led to the birth of GetReligion). Here is the top of that 2002 column (this is long, but essential):

It is Martin Marty's custom to rise at 4:44 a.m. for coffee and prayer, while awaiting the familiar thump of four newspapers on his porch. ... America's most famous church historian prepared for a lecture in Nebraska by ripping up enough newsprint to bury his table in headlines and copy slashed with a yellow pen.
A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up – again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.
Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.

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Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

It would be hard to imagine a subject more intriguing to some editors at The New York Times than suggestions that the Darth Vader of the Donald Trump administration -- that would be Stephen K. Bannon -- was somehow working with forces close to the Vatican to undercut Pope Francis.

Thus, there has been quite a bit of online buzz about the rather BuzzFeed like feature (in terms of its sourcing) that Times editors ran under the headline, "Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican." 

Catholic insiders -- on the left and right -- will be able to see more in the thin tea leaves of this piece than I can. I am primarily interested in journalism issues linked to how the piece was reported and presented. The bottom line: It is very rare to see such sweeping, conspiratorial language used in a news feature that -- on its key points of fact -- appears to have one crucial named source, other than quotes from other journalists. Hold that thought.

The intrigue, as you would expect, starts right where it should -- in the overture.

ROME -- When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon -- who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence -- bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.

Harnwell appears to be the main source for this entire story. He is founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a foundation that -- as the Times piece notes -- is currently displaying prominent images of Bannon, linked to quotations praising Harnwell.

The timing of the meeting is fascinating and, for journalists, a bit problematic.

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