Journalism

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

There is more, of course:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

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Friday Five: New D.C. archbishop, United Methodist left, Pete Buttigieg, LDS shift, Ed Stetzer's tweet

Friday Five: New D.C. archbishop, United Methodist left, Pete Buttigieg, LDS shift, Ed Stetzer's tweet

I know I’m about a week behind, but how exciting is it that baseball is back!?

You know it’s early because my Texas Rangers and tmatt’s Baltimore Orioles both have winning records. How long can that last? (Shall we pray?)

Speaking of America’s favorite pastime, I hope you caught (pardon the pun) Clemente Lisi’s recent post titled “Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?”

But enough about balls and strikes.

Let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Wilton Gregory’s appointment as the new Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., was the biggest news on the Godbeat this week.

Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein didn’t mince words in her assessment of the choice.

See coverage by the Post, The Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and America magazine.

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Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

At first glance, it might seem like a simple solution.

The state of Texas had a quick response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Buddhist death row inmate who asked for his spiritual adviser to be in the execution room with him.

In case you missed it earlier, the high court granted a rare stay of execution to Patrick Murphy last week. This came, as we noted, after a different high court ruling in an Arkansas case concerning Muslim inmate Domineque Ray.

The Lone Star fix? Ban all religious chaplains from the death chamber.

OK, problem solved. Or not.

The better news reports I’m seeing — both in Texas papers and the national press — reflect the crucial legal arguments in Patrick Murphy’s case and not just the simplified sound bites.

Among the incomplete coverage, CNN reports the Texas change as if it’s the end of the discussion:

(CNN) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will bar chaplains, ministers and spiritual advisers from execution chambers in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that halted the execution of an inmate who sought to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The move is the latest step in a controversy that pit the religious liberty concerns of death row inmates against security concerns of prisons.

The justices agreed to stay Patrick Henry Murphy's execution, but weeks earlier, had denied a similar request from an inmate in Alabama.

Murphy's initial request had been denied by Texas because officials said for security reasons only prison employees were allowed into the chamber, and the prison only employed Christian and Muslim advisers.

Lawyers for Murphy challenged the policy arguing that it violated Murphy's religious liberty rights. The Supreme Court stepped in and put the execution on hold.

In a statement released Wednesday, the state now says that, "effective Immediately," the protocol now only allows security personnel in the execution chamber.

To its credit, CNN notes:

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The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites — especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry — to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III) isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.

King goes on to say that the films are “full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere.”  

The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions.

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Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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