Beltway

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

The debates began during World War II and raged through the following decades among human-rights advocates, private art collectors, museum leaders and others.

The Nazis stole astonishing amounts of Jewish art on an unprecedented scale (something like the legendary 1204 rape of Byzantium by Crusaders). Some of that art vanished. Some went to art collectors, and museums, with leaders who argued that the greater good was to save it for viewing by future display. Some insisted these treasures must be returned to the heirs of the families who owned them. But what if there were no heirs?

Now, similar arguments are raging about antiquities looted by the Islamic State as it ravaged the ancient communities, monasteries, churches, mosques, libraries, etc., of Iraq and Syria. Treasures hit the black market in the Internet age and, again, arguments raged about whether it is legal or moral to purchase these items, rather than leaving them in the hands of ISIS. But did purchasing them fund terrorism? It would appear so. Would it have been better to have let these items vanish into the hands of collectors who would hoard them out of sight? How could these treasures be returned to religious communities that, in some cases, no longer exist?

To say the least, the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame and its Museum of the Bible got caught up in these scandals, producing waves of headlines. The crucial issue: At what point does trading for these items cross the line into theft and encouraging theft?

So what makes a museum controversial? That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

As it turns out, there are all kinds of reasons for people -- secular and religious -- to argue about the new Museum of the Bible, just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of these issues ended up in a Washington Post feature that was the focus of my recent post on this subject. Headline: "Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible."

At the heart of the Post piece was a fascinating, and perfectly valid, damned if you do, damned if your don't question about this museum.

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Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

From the very beginning, there have been several ways of viewing the Museum of the Bible, the ambitious project near the National Mall spearheaded by the wealthy Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby. For example:

* This is Washington, D.C. This is all about politics, like everything else.

* Some critics claimed that it would be a church-state violation to allow the museum to be built close to the mall, and the Smithsonian museums -- even with private money on private land. That argument might work in France, but in the United States of America?

* There's no other way to say this, except to say it: Many folks inside the DC Beltway simply thought this whole idea was TACKY, a kind of Religious Right theme park near sacred secular ground covered with Real Stuff.

* From the beginning, there were tensions between people with evangelical dreams that the building would witness to their brand of faith and scholars around the world -- in a variety of traditions, including evangelical Protestantism -- whose expertise would be essential to completing the project.

* A more subtle point: Is the Museum of the Bible simply too big, too ambitious, to survive as a tourism-driven project? The natural comparison is to the Newseum, a massive, expensive, valid project (I used to take Washington Journalism Center students there every semester) that is now swamped in millions of dollars of red ink. Note, however: Admission to the Bible museum will be free. Can that last?

You can see all of these themes, and more, swirling through the recent Washington Post feature about the Bible museum, which -- here is the crucial point -- was produced by the newspaper's religion-desk professionals (as opposed to the Style section or even the political desk). The headline: "Sneak peek: D.C.’s huge new Museum of the Bible includes lots of tech -- but not a lot of Jesus."

But "not a lot of Jesus"? What's that all about? Here is the overture:

The Museum of the Bible, a massive new institution opening next month just south of the Mall, is just as notable for what it ­includes -- vivid walk-through re-creations of the ancient world, one of the world’s largest private collections of Torahs, a motion ride that sprays water at you, a garden of biblical plants -- as for what it leaves out.

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Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Now this is what the DC chattering classes desperately needed right now -- something to talk about other than President Donald Trump and his wife's controversial choices in footwear.

If you have followed post-1960s life in Washington, D.C., you will not be surprised that the person in the center of this hurricane of whispers is none other than journalist and social maven Sally Quinn. Yes, we're talking about the much-talked-about lover and much-younger wife of the great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Once the most feared "New Journalism" scribe covering DC social life, Quinn later used her personal charisma and clout to create the "On Faith" blog at the Post -- opening a window into the religious beliefs of her corner of the DC establishment. Hint: Mysterious progressive faith is good, traditional forms of religion are bad, bad, bad. Meanwhile, the former atheist became -- in her public persona -- a rather visible Episcopalian.

Now she is tweaking that image with a spiritual memoir entitled "Finding Magic" in which, in the words of a must-read Washingtonian profile, the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Journalists reading this profile will marvel at the personal details. However, it's also important to keep remembering that Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

OK, back to the Washingtonian article itself, which details the degree to which Quinn has decided to let her "spiritual freak flag fly." The summary statement is:

It’s a spiritual memoir, called Finding Magic, that charts her path from “angry atheist” to -- well, Quinn’s spiritual classification is a bit hard to define, even for her. A sort of Eat Pray Love for the This Town set, the memoir offers an intimate, at times painful look inside her exceedingly public life. There’s less glamour and cutthroat ambition, more vulnerability and personal anguish. She outs herself as a believer in the occult and as an erstwhile practitioner of voodoo, and she packs the book with moments that have made anxious friends wonder: Are you sure you want to share that?

Really? #Really.

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Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

A constant commandment for journalists is to “assess thy sources.”

The running debate on “what is an evangelical,” so pertinent for newswriters during this presidential campaign, involves “who speaks for evangelicals” and consequently “who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention”? The sprawling SBC is by far this category’s  largest U.S. denomination, with 15.5 million members, 46,000 congregations, and $11 billion in annual receipts.

As noted by Jonathan Merritt in Religion News Service, the issue has been pursued with a vengeance by Will Hall, the new editor of the state Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana. Hall targets as unrepresentative the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president since 2013, the Rev. Russell D. Moore, 44, who’s the Southern Baptists’ prime spokesman on moral and social issues in the public sphere.

An editorial by Hall charged that Moore’s dislike for presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular “goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently” while Moore otherwise “has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists.”

Moore is certainly outspoken about Trump. In a New York Times op-ed last Sept. 17, he said evangelicals and other social conservatives who back the billionaire “must repudiate everything they believe.”  He joined the 22 essayists in the “Against Trump” package in the Feb. 15National Review. Moore said with Trump, “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power” that religious conservatives should view as “decadent and deviant.”

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After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

Building and operating cathedrals has never been an easy or noncontroversial task. In recent years, several Episcopal Church dioceses have simply given up and closed the doors of their cathedral sanctuaries, often because of the decline of the congregations inside those buildings.

At the same time, far too many Episcopalians on the doctrinal left and the right have been lawyered up for decades, involved in lawsuits that are rooted in disputes about doctrine, but almost always end up focusing on property, buildings, trust funds and sacred assets.

It doesn't help if your cathedral is shaken by a literal earthquake, as well as the tremors of lawsuits and demographics. As most journalists know who follow trends in American religion, membership in the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the glory days of the '60s to about 1.8 million today.

This brings us to a recent New York Times story talking about the struggles to rebuild the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. -- both the earthquake-damaged sanctuary and the human congregation in its pews. Here are the crucial summary paragraphs that set the stage:

Almost four years after a magnitude-5.8 earthquake shook the site -- cracking finials and half a dozen flying buttresses and sending pieces of pinnacles tumbling hundreds of feet -- the National Cathedral is struggling to piece itself back together, physically and financially, even as contractors put the finishing touches on the $10 million first phase of repairs to the interior.
Before the earthquake damage, years of shortsightedness by church leaders, little known to outsiders, left the cathedral in need of millions of dollars in repairs and exposed to the worst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it had to cut its budget in half and lay off almost 100 out of its 170 full-time employees.

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