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Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

The terrorist set out to massacre Muslim believers as they gathered for Friday prayers in their mosques.

He covered his weapons with names of others who committed similar mass murders and military leaders that he claimed fought for the same cause.

The terrorist left behind a hellish manifesto built on themes common among radicals who hate immigrants, especially Muslims, and weave in virulent anti-Semitism themes, as well (BBC explainer here). He claimed to have “been in contact” with sympathizers of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people — most of them children — in 2011.

1. Religion story of the week. The gunman’s motives may have been pure hatred, with no twisted links to any world religion, but it’s clear that the New Zealand massacre is the religion story of the week — because of the faith of the 49 victims and the faith statements of millions of people that are offering prayers and help in the wake of the attack.

The gunman labeled his own motives, as seen in this New York Times report:

Before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum known for extremist right-wing discussions. …

In his manifesto, he identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia and listed his white nationalist heroes. Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,” he wrote.

The Washington Post noted:

The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Also this:

Video on social media of the attack’s aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person could be heard saying, “There is no God but God,” the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.

Please help us spot major religion themes in the waves of coverage that this story will receive in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, with Bobby Ross Jr., still in the Middle East, here is a tmatt attempt to fill the rest of the familiar Friday Five format.

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One thing about Lent: There are lots of stories to cover, including this valid Twitter hook

One thing about Lent: There are lots of stories to cover, including this valid Twitter hook

It’s that time again. Great Lent is here and my home fridge has gone almost completely vegan, following ancient traditions (no meat or dairy) in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

If you live in an area with a significant Orthodox population, there might be some interesting stories linked to this. For example, when do most Orthodox children begin following a meat-free version of this fast (as much as possible) during Lent? How do things go at school, in this age in which more children are already vegetarians? I’m just thinking out loud here.

However, for most reporters, Lent means one thing — literally. Yes, it’s time for waves of stories about people giving up “one thing” for Lent. A decade or so ago, I attempted to find the roots of this “one thing” idea (I assumed Anglicanism) and, well, found out that this alleged tradition isn’t really a church tradition at all. It seems to have come out of nowhere.

I don’t know: Maybe some reporters should give up one-thing Lent stories for Lent this year? There are newsy alternatives around. For example, what are the actual Catholic fasting traditions in Lent? Does anyone know? How many Catholics follow them?

Meanwhile, a veteran freelance writer for Religion News Service just moved a thoughtful piece linking the one-thing Lent concept with another hot news hook — the acidic impact of Twitter on the lives of journalists and “public intellectuals” whose jobs require them to spend many, many hours swimming in those snark-invested waters. The headline: “Pundits repent of Twitter sins, apply faith to social media.” Here’s the overture:

On March 5, Fat Tuesday, Paul Begala, a consultant for CNN and veteran D.C. insider who has spoken publicly about his Catholic faith, made a public act of contrition, tweeting:

“I love Twitter, but I fear it’s making me more superficial, snarky, and judgmental – flaws I already have in abundance,” Begala announced. “So I’m giving up Twitter for Lent. I want to apologize in advance to my neighbors for shouting out the window in rage for the next 40 days.”

Then he signed off.

Begala wasn’t the first to admit his Twitter sins.

Now, I should mention the byline on this piece — Elizabeth Evans. Longtime GetReligion readers may ask if this is the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, the former GetReligionista.

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'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

So, GetReligion readers: Are any of you among the dozen or so people interested in American life and political culture who has not seen the famous Weekend Update appearance by Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw on Saturday Night Live?

That face-to-face meeting with Pete Davidson included lots of memorable one-liners (and one really snarky cellphone ringtone), but one of Crenshaw’s first wisecracks carried the most political weight: “Thanks for making a Republican look good.”

No doubt about it: The new congressman’s popular culture debut has become a key part of his personal story and his high political potential.

Thus, that recent Politico headline: “Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?”

The basic idea in this feature is that Crenshaw is a rising GOP star whose approach to politics is distinctly different than that of President Donald Trump and that the former Navy SEAL and Harvard guy is striving to maintain independence from the Trump machine. Then there is personal charisma. That SNL appearance is as much a part of his story as his eye patch.

Naturally, this means that more than half of the Politico article is about Trump and how Crenshaw is walking the fine line between #NeverTrump and #OccasionallyTrump.

Repeat after me: Politics is real. Politics is the only thing that is real.

However, since this is GetReligion I will once again note that certain facts of life remain important in this era of Republican politics. How do you write a major feature story about Crenshaw’s GOP political future without addressing his appeal to cultural and religious conservatives? As I wrote before:

… (It) is hard to run for office as a Republican in Texas (or even as a Democrat in large parts of Texas) without people asking you about your religious beliefs and your convictions on religious, moral and cultural issues. This is especially true when your life includes a very, very close encounter with death.

So let’s start here: If you were writing about Crenshaw and what makes him tick, would it help to know what he said, early in his campaign, during a church testimony that can be viewed on Facebook? The title is rather blunt: “How faith in God helped me never quit.” …

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The universe sent me a message. It's time to take heed

The universe sent me a message. It's time to take heed

The thing about insight is that you never really know in its initial energy burst whether it’s delusional. Still, one has to act.

So with the insight gained from having my heart stop a few times, I’ve decided to step away from my weekly GetReligion responsibilities and devote myself to self-healing.

It's going to take months to fully recover from the two major surgeries, hospital pneumonia and series of seizure-like heart stoppages (cardiovascular syncope, to be more medically precise) I’ve experienced in recent weeks. This followed a steady health decline over the previous several months. I want to give myself every advantage in the process.

I owe at least that much to the many people, my family and friends, that have bathed me in love and compassionate devotion during this time.

(In case you're wondering, prior to my decline I did take care of myself. I was super careful about diet and exercise. But I’m 76 and this is what happens to us all, sooner or later. Life is transient.)

I was fortunate that the heart stoppages — I’m actually unsure of the precise number I suffered — did not diminish my intellect; I did not stroke out. My new pacemaker should handle the stoppage problem.

I’m also fortunate that Medicare, my supplemental health insurance and my personal finances are likely more than sufficient to handle my bills. I fully realize that in 2019 America, and in the larger human family, I’m privileged to be able to say this.

I still have great curiosity about this amazing creation in which we get to sojourn and I’m so blessed to be deeply connected to my wife, Ruth, who taught me how to commit to love, and who I wish to show love toward for many years to come.

There’s much ahead. I remain an adventure-seeker.

I've written for GR for about four years, and as professional journalists know well, one column a week of analysis or commentary is hardly a backbreaking pace. So it's not the deadline pressure that I need to step away from.

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Covington Catholic update: Was that epic late-Friday Washington Post correction a good move?

Covington Catholic update: Was that epic late-Friday Washington Post correction a good move?

If you’ve ever worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., you know that things often go crazy right about 5 p.m. on Fridays.

It’s the end of the work week. Most of the power brokers have headed for home, their home back in their home district (or state) or that special weekend home where they relax in private. They have turned off their “official” cellphones or left them at the office. Many of their gatekeepers — the folks who negotiate media contacts — have flown the coop, as well.

In newsrooms, the ranks are pretty thin, as well.

Professionals inside the Beltway knows that this dead zone is when savvy press officers put out the news that they hope doesn’t end up in the news. This tactic worked better before Twitter and the Internet.

Thus, the Washington Post posted an interesting editor’s note or correction at the end of the business day this past Friday linked to one of the biggest religion stories of the year — the March for Life drama featuring that group of boys from Covington Catholic High School, Native American drummer-activists and amped-up protesters from the Black Hebrew Israelites (click here for various GetReligion posts on this topic).

It appears that Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway was either the first pundit or among the very first to spot this interesting Friday dead-zone PR move by the Post.

If you travel back in time, here is the lede on one of the key “Acts of Faith” pieces about this controversy:

A viral video of a group of Kentucky teens in “Make America Great Again” hats taunting a Native American veteran on Friday has heaped fuel on a long-running, intense argument among abortion opponents as to whether the close affiliation of many antiabortion leaders with President Trump since he took office has led to moral decay that harms the movement.

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Reporters who have followed decades of fighting inside mainline Protestant churches over marriage and sex will remember that doctrinal conservatives have always been promised that they will be able to continue to believe and practice their church’s old doctrines at their own altars.

In practice, that can be summed up as two beliefs that go back to the early church and scripture: Marriage is the union of a man and a women and sex outside of marriage is sin. Both doctrines affect who can be ordained as clergy.

These promises usually took the form of "conscience clauses,” such as those given long ago to reassure Episcopalians who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Over time, these clauses have a way of being erased — a trend that is highly relevant to debates currently taking place among United Methodists at a special national conference in St. Louis. (Click here for the Bobby Ross, Jr., post on coverage of yesterday’s actions.)

Two of the plans to shape the future of America’s second-largest Protestant flock promised, to one degree or another, to allow believers on both sides of the marriage and sex divide to be able to coexist — protected by structures to protect their doctrinal convictions. A crucial aspect of these debates is that the doctrinal conservatives (who want to retain current United Methodist doctrines) are arguing:

(a) That these “conscience clause” structures will not work over the long haul, in part because the church’s bishops have already endorsed allowing doctrinal progressives to carry on with same-sex marriages and other LGBTQ changes, such as the ordination of women and men who are sexually active in same-sex relationships or other unions short of traditional marriage.

(b) Passing “agree to disagree” doctrinal plans of this kind can be linked to the demographic disasters that are shrinking liberal Protestantism, in general. (The left, of course, argues that doctrinal innovations are required to reach out to young people in a changing America.)

Reporters who are not covering these two themes in the debates are not, well, covering the debates.

This leads me to the top of the current Associated Press report — “United Methodist Church on edge of breakup over LGBT stand” — about the St. Louis meetings. Here is the overture.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church teetered on the brink of breakup Monday after more than half the delegates at an international conference voted to maintain bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy.

Their favored plan, if formally approved, could drive supporters of LGBT inclusion to leave America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

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What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

This week’s “Crossroads” feature post is brought to you by the letter “A,” as in “Atlantic ocean.”

In other words, I am writing this while looking out a window at the Atlantic Ocean. I think this week’s podcast introduction will be a bit shorter than normal.

Oh, the podcast is the normal length (click here to tune that in) and it focuses on reports about an investigation into the basic facts of the Covington Catholic High School media storm. Here’s my previous post on that topic: “Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists.”

The main subject that host Todd Wilken and I discussed was the lessons that two groups of people — journalists and church leaders — could learn from that encounter between a bunch of Catholic boys, a circle of black Hebrew Israelites and Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

I hope that everyone learned to be a bit more patient when considering “hot take” responses to short, edited YouTube videos prepared by activist groups. That includes Catholic bishops, if and when they face withering waves of telephone calls from reporters (and perhaps other church leaders).

We may have a new reality here: When news events take place and lots of people are present, journalists (and bishops) can assume that there will be more than one smartphone video to study.

The stakes for journalists (and perhaps a few Hollywood pros) could be high. Consider this passage from my earlier post, focusing on What. Comes. Next.

… 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.

So, are journalists pausing to think about what happened in this Twitter-fueled train wreck of a story?

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Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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