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Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.

Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.

Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”

Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?

If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).

Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.

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Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

As many pro-life Democrats and others have noted in social media: That didn’t take long.

After years of opposing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion — supporting the Hyde Amendment — former Vice President Joe Biden bowed the knee to primary-season realities in this “woke” era of Democratic Party life and reversed himself on this issue. Thus, he erased one of his few remaining ties to his old role as a centrist, compromise figure in his party on moral, cultural and religious issues.

Needless to say, the word “Catholic” may have something to do with this story. That term even made it into the New York Times coverage of this policy flip. See this all-politics headline: “Behind Biden’s Reversal on Hyde Amendment: Lobbying, Backlash and an Ally’s Call.

The overture focused on the political forces that yanked Biden’s chain, from members of his staff to rivals in the White Race. The Planned Parenthood team called early and often. Then, down in the body of the story, there was this:

A Roman Catholic, Mr. Biden has spent decades straddling the issue of abortion, asserting his support for individual abortion rights and the codification of Roe v. Wade, while also backing the Hyde Amendment, arguing that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

But Mr. Biden, his allies acknowledge, had plainly misread what activists on the left would accept on an extraordinarily sensitive issue. For all his reluctance to abandon his long-held position on federal funding for abortion, Mr. Biden ultimately shifted in order to meet the mood of emergency within his party’s electoral base.

The big word, of course, is “base” — which usually means “primary voters.” The question is whether the “base” that turns out in primary season has much to do with the mainstream voters that are crucial in the Rust Belt and the few Southern states that a Democrat has a chance to steal in a general election.

So where, in this Times report, were the voices from pro-life Democrats and progressive and centrist Catholics who wanted to see Biden try to reclaim blue-collar and Catholic votes that, in 2016, ended up — #LesserOfTwoEvils — going to Donald Trump? I would imagine they are hiding between the lines in the following material:

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Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips. 

Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock,  America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.

Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds. 

Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998.

That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).

Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes.  Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in  the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).

Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors.

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Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Let’s start with this question: Does the following sequence of events add up to a news story or not?

I. The world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution — Baylor University (I’m an alum) — gets involved in some heated debates about whether the campus LGBTQ group will be recognized as an official campus organization. That would (a) give it student-fee funds and (b) signal that regents consider the group’s work to be in accord with Baylor’s mission.

II. Representatives and “Baylor Family” supporters of the group Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY) start a petition asking the regents to affirm what previously was known as the Sexual Identity Forum.

III. Doctrinally conservative Baylor-ites respond with a petition of their own.

Here’s an interesting point to note: Only the progressive half of that online-petition equation draws coverage from The Waco Tribune-Herald.

IV. Shortly after that, the Baylor regents decline to meet with representatives of GAY. This draws more ink from the Tribune-Herald, once again with the left side of this debate receiving coverage. There is no content from those supporting Baylor’s doctrinal stance on sex and marriage (other than quotes from university policy and doctrinal statements).

V. Things got kicked up a notch, in terms of heat and public conflict, when the Rev. Dan Freemyer of the progressive Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth delivered the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites. Baylor traditionally gives this role to a Baptist clergyperson who is the parent of one of the graduates.

There’s more. Here is the top of my national “On Religion” column this week, which served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in): 

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

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Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

News consumers who have been paying attention to religion trends may have noticed this one: There are lots of church buildings for sale these days.

This is especially true with old-line Protestant sanctuaries located in older neighborhoods — often on prime property deep inside zip codes that are evolving due to gentrification.

What to do? Well, lots of urban folks — singles, cohabitating couples, married-without-kids folks — are attracted to unique condos and apartments that don’t look like they are assembled using cookie-cutters and one or two sets of design plans.

That brings us to the following real-estate headline at The Chicago Tribune: “Logan Square church gets new life as 9 luxury apartments.” Let me stress that I realize that this is a real-estate story. One should not expect that news desk to provide a lot of depth, when it comes to the religious implications of some of the information in a news report of this kind.

But let’s see if you can spot the detail that I think would have been worth a follow-up question or two — a click of a computer mouse, at least, or even a telephone call. Things start in a rather predictable manner, with a bad pun:

Living in one new Logan Square apartment building is a heavenly experience. The former church was converted into nine distinctive residences, incorporating many of the original architectural features.

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

That brings us to the colorful details that caught my attention. Read this carefully and think, well, sort of like a liturgist, or a religion-beat professional:

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety.

“Any of the elements that were left here, the developer was able to repurpose and reuse,” said Mark Durakovic, principal at Kass Management Services, which is managing and leasing the building.

Wait a minute!

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RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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Los Angeles Times updates Scouting abuse: Religion angles? What religion angles?

Los Angeles Times updates Scouting abuse: Religion angles? What religion angles?

Journalists who have covered decades worth of stories linked to the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy know that there are church leaders and laity who believe all or most discussions of this topic are fueled by some form of anti-Catholicism.

Yes, these in-denial Catholics are out there. Editors will hear from them.

But, in my experience, most Catholics who complain about news coverage of this hellish subject do not attempt to deny the size or the severe nature of this crisis and, especially, they want more digging into topics linked to the sinful and illegal cover-ups of these crimes.

So what angers these Catholics?

Truth is, they want to know why so much of the news coverage seems to assume that this is a CATHOLIC problem — period. They want to know why there isn’t more ink spilled (and legislation passed) that addresses these scandals in a wider context that includes at least three other groups — public schools, other religious bodies and the organization previously known as the Boy Scouts of America.

This brings us to a giant Los Angeles Times update on documents linked to the Scouts and years fog and confusion surrounding adults abusing Scouts. As this story makes clear, the Times has played a large role in dragging lots of this information out into the open. It’s strong stuff.

When I saw this story (behind the usual firewall), I wondered: Is this story going to offer some kind of perspective on how the Scouting scandal, and even public-school cases, compare with the Catholic scandal. Also, will it get into the religious implications of the Scouting scandals, in terms of how religious groups — hosts for many, many Scouting operations — have responded?

The answer to that: No.

We will come back to that. First, here is the overture:

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Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

If you are of a certain age, then you know that there was a decade or two in which Tim Conway was the funniest man alive. If you looked into the details of his life and personality, then you knew that he was more than that.

Watching The Carol Burnett Show was one of the few pop-culture rituals in the Southern Baptist preacher’s home in which I grew up. Conway was the star of the show, as far as I was concerned. It was interesting, last week, to read the mainstream media obituaries and tributes that followed his death.

The key? It was all about the adjectives — “kind,” “gentle,” “loving,” “impish,” “humble,” etc. — as today’s reporters tried to hint at the style and content of the work done by this master of the semi-improvised variety show skit.

I kept looking for one more crucial word — “Catholic.” Check out the EWTN interview at the top of this post.

As you would expect, scribes made that connection in the Catholic press, but nowhere else that I could find. Here’s the faith-free opening of the tribute at The Hollywood Reporter. Maybe the angel reference in the lede is supposed to be a hint?

Tim Conway, the cherub-faced comedian who became a TV star for playing the bumbling Ensign Parker on McHale's Navy and for cracking up his helpless colleagues on camera on The Carol Burnett Show, has died. He was 85. 

A five-time Emmy Award winner, Conway died Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. at a health care facility in Los Angeles, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter. According to recent reports, he was suffering from dementia and unable to speak after undergoing brain surgery in September.

For four seasons beginning in October 1962, the impish actor provided the heart and a lion's share of the laughs on ABC's McHale's Navy as the sweet, befuddled second-in-command on a PT boat full of connivers and con men led by the show's title character, played by Ernest Borgnine.

When dealing with Hollywood royalty, what really matters is the obituary in The Los Angeles Times.

Of course, Burnett was featured right up top:

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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