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When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

I recently come out with a book on 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers who publicize their exploits on social media, so I know a few things about what it’s like to cover this unusual group. I’ve handled a lot of topics on the religion beat, but this was one of the most difficult.

First, most of their churches are tough to find, as they typically wish to stay hidden from the media. Worship, to them, is not a spectator sport and services are four hours or more. Most of these churches are tucked into remote corners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; south West Virginia, western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Alabama, western Virginia and northwestern Georgia.

You need to earn the trust of those handling the snakes. You don’t just walk into a service and expect to be handed the right to interview people or take photographs. It takes several visits to for them to know you. I stuck out because I was bringing a 7-year-old with me.

I was also fortunate that the photographer I worked with for my first article on these folks, which ran in late 2011 in the Washington Post, had done all the prior groundwork for this first encounter. That meant that I simply needed to drive 420 miles from inside the Beltway to a famous church in Jolo, W. Va., and stay there three days.

I learned these handlers are some of the most vilified people in American religion. I explain why in a Wall Street Journal “Houses of Worship” column running today. It says, in part:

In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.

Thanks to a reality show, "Snake Salvation," on two serpent-handling families that ran in September 2013 on the National Geographic Channel, coverage of this culture has exploded. All sorts of media flocked to eastern Tennessee when one of the photogenic leaders of the movement ended up in court. The following February, Jamie Coots, one of the stars of the reality show, died at the age of 42 from rattlesnake bite, leading to more coverage.

A lot of handlers have faded into the woodwork since then, but there are still reporters out there seeking to cover this culture.

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Depending upon your point of view — and in their purist iterations — demands for equal rights for gay people are either about justly extending social and legal parity, or a moral struggle to uphold traditional religious doctrine and cultural ideas about sexuality and gender.

Either way, homosexuality is one of the three biggest culture war issues dividing Americans, along with questions about abortion and the legal parameters of religious freedom.

It's also a prime issue internationally. Globalization has fostered the spread of contemporary Western liberal values. That, in turn, has prompted push back in some non-Western nations enmeshed in the global market’s whirlwind of change.

Some of the more recent stories referencing the issue have come out of Egypt, where homosexuality, while not explicitly outlawed, is harshly condemned by the majority Muslim and minority Coptic Christian religious establishments.

Every so often Egypt’s authoritarian government, led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, appears to use the issue as a political cudgel to bolster support among Muslim and Christian traditionalists, who together comprise the vast majority of the nation’s population.

Click here for a recent Washington Post piece summing up the situation.

The story begins thusly:

CAIRO -- A crackdown on gay people in Egypt intensified in recent days as security forces raided cafes in downtown Cairo and courts delivered harsh prison sentences, further driving the nation’s LGBT community underground.

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New York Times omits crucial faith detail when covering release of some #ChibokGirls (updated)

New York Times omits crucial faith detail when covering release of some #ChibokGirls (updated)

So what details do you remember from the #ChibokGirls news coverage? We are talking about the 300 or so girls who were kidnapped more than three years ago from a Nigerian village by Boko Haram militants and forced to marry the fighters, to serve as slaves or even to take part in terrorism raids.

Do you remember the online activism campaign, led by First Lady Michelle Obama and others, with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag?

Maybe you remember the remarkable photos and videos from 2014, with the images of the girls sitting on the ground -- dressed in hijabs -- chanting Muslim prayers and verses from the Quran in Arabic.

This was a highly symbolic moment, since most of the kidnapped girls were from Christian families and they were forced to convert to the radicalized, violent brand of Islam pushed by Boko Haram.

Do you remember reading that most of the 300 girls were Christians?

That's a rather important detail that, believe it or not, the editors of The New York Times either forgot to include or chose to omit from the newspaper's main story -- "Years After Boko Haram Kidnapping, Dozens of Girls Are Freed, Nigeria Says" -- about the release of about 60 of the Chibok girls.

It's a gripping story. Still, search through this report and try to find the missing word "Christian" and the fact that these girls were forced to convert to Islam. Here is one key passage:

To much of the world, the mass abduction of nearly 300 girls from a Nigerian school as they prepared for exams three years ago was a shocking introduction to the atrocities and humanitarian crises caused by Boko Haram, galvanizing global attention to a militant group that had already been terrorizing Nigerians for years.

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Don't write off capital punishment just yet — Tuesday's elections gave death penalty a boost

Don't write off capital punishment just yet — Tuesday's elections gave death penalty a boost

To hear opponents tell it, the death penalty is under fire and losing favor in America.

But is that really true, based on election results in California, Nebraska and my home state of Oklahoma?

And if not, what does religion have to do with it?

We'll get to those questions in a moment. But first, a little background might be helpful: This subject long has interested me, particularly since I spent a few years covering state prisons for The Oklahoman, where I witnessed four executions and wrote a narrative story on a "typical execution day."

More recently, in a freelance piece last month for the French-based global news agency Agence France-Presse, I reported on an Oklahoma referendum on capital punishment:

The ballot measure comes at a time when 36 US states have paused executions, or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This November, a ballot measure in California -- which has 741 death row inmates -- might end the practice in that state. Conversely, Nebraska voters will decide whether to restore the death penalty.
A key factor is the pharmaceutical industry's mounting opposition to supplying lethal injection drugs, causing a supply shortage.

An opponent that I interviewed voiced optimism:

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