Brazil

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms.

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Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Over the nearly 15 years of GetReligion's run, I have learned quite a few lessons about content and online clicks.

No, I'm not talking about the sad reality that hardly anyone reads and retweets positive posts that praise good religion reporting in the mainstream press.

I am referring to the fact that GetReligion readers are way, way, way, way less interested in sports that most readers. However, the GetReligion team has always included some sports fans -- in addition to me -- and we persist in thinking that "religion ghosts" and quality reporting on faith issues matter just as much in sports journalism as anywhere else. And we're not just talking about Tim Tebow updates.

This brings me, of course, to the biggest thing that is happening in the world right now. Yes, a news event bigger than that open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We're talking about World Cup 2018, of course. When you look at global media and passionate fans, nothing can touch it.

Now, there are always religion-news hooks during a World Cup, because religion plays a huge role in most cultures around the world. In the past decade or so, for example, there has been lots of coverage of the strong evangelical and Pentecostal presence on the high-profile squad fielded by Brazil. Of course, some scribes have found political implications of that trend.

This year, if you've been tuned in, it’s been interesting to watch Fox Sports trying to figure out how to handle all of the Russian churches that keep showing up whenever the graphics team needs to produce dramatic, sweeping images of the host nation. Was it just (Orthodox) me or, early on, had the Fox digital tech team removed some crosses from the top of some of those signature onion domes?

Anyway, the religion-news coverage has been rather right, this time around. However, Christianity Today just ran a story that I would like to recommend to journalists who are looking for valid news angles in the Russia World Cup.

Once again, the Brazilian squad is involved, but there's more to this story than that. Check out the dramatic double-decker headline:

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Another journalistic take on Brazilian tribes killing their young? Consider this cautious view

Another journalistic take on Brazilian tribes killing their young? Consider this cautious view

This post may -- but is by no means calculated -- to tick off some GetReligion readers.

That possibility is undoubtedly magnified by my taking an alternative position to one of last week’s most popular GR posts, one I believe was so well received because readers identified strongly with its moral point of view.

I’m referring to my colleague Julia Duin’s post on a Foreign Policy story about the Brazilian government’s efforts to outlaw infanticide as practiced by a handful of indigenous tribal groups.

This paragraph gets to the core of the debate tackled in the Foreign Policy piece:

The controversy over child killing has raised a fundamental question for Brazil — a vast country that is home to hundreds of protected tribes, many living in varying degrees of isolation: To what extent should the state interfere with customs that seem inhumane to the outside world but that indigenous peoples developed long ago as a means to ensure group survival in an unforgiving environment?

It comes as no surprise to me that Brazil’s burgeoning evangelical Protestant community is leading the legislative effort. It’s no surprise because as you’d expect, this comports with traditional Christianity’s reverence for human life.

Now, I'm not here to argue theology or public policy. Rather, there’s a journalism point to be made.

Specifically, it's about  journalists' ability to mentally and emotionally distance themselves from their core beliefs about religious and cultural mores long enough to intellectually grasp an alternative viewpoint that's very different than their own -- and even strikes them as appalling.

I'll say more about this a bit below. But first I think it's important to explain my biases.

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Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren't sure

Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren't sure

In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals.

I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.

Call it cultural appropriation, if you will.

Now, the question you know we are going to ask, here at GetReligion, is this: Did journalists pay any attention to religion angles in this story, in terms of critics of these customs or among those defending the tribes? The story begins:

More than a decade ago, Kanhu left the homeland of the Kamayurá, an indigenous tribe with some 600 members on the southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon. She was 7 years old. She never returned. “If I had remained there,” Kanhu, who has progressive muscular dystrophy, told Brazilian lawmakers last year, “I would certainly be dead.”

That’s because her community would likely have killed her, just as, for generations, it has killed other children born with disabilities.

The Kamayurá are among a handful of indigenous peoples in Brazil known to engage in infanticide and the selective killing of older children. Those targeted include the disabled, the children of single mothers, and twins -- whom some tribes, including the Kamayurá, see as bad omens. Kanhu’s father, Makau, told me of a 12-year-old boy from his father’s generation whom the tribe buried alive because he “wanted to be a woman.” 

 I know this is a bit long, but please stay with me.

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Real dangers in India, Indonesia and Brazil as the religious pendulum swings way right

Real dangers in India, Indonesia and Brazil as the religious pendulum swings way right

Human history may be explained as a pendulum that swings, uninterrupted, between religious and political extremes that have profound consequences for those affected. Our limited time here is no different.

This metaphor for perpetual change is currently swinging to the right in much of the world. A prime reason why, is that the most recent political and religious pull to the left failed to deliver on its promises of economic justice, political equality, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of inner security and calm craved by all.

Impatient and needy creatures that we are, such failures inevitably shift the underlying gravitational momentum that sets the pendulum in motion. When liberal (pluralistic in outlook, government and rationalism viewed as essentially positive forces) views fail us, large numbers inevitably swing to the right. A similar dynamic occurs when right-leaning ideas (top-down tribalism, traditionalist “cures” for society's ills) leave us dissatisfied and feeling threatened.

The hope is always the same, of course; finding a quick, earthly salvation to get us through the day.

In recent days, several elite media stories about events in India, Indonesia and Brazil have illustrated the problematic impacts of the current global shift to the right. (I’m covering lots of ground here so rather than use wordy block quotes, please click on the links provided to better understand my point.)

All concern religious freedom issues. All illustrate how religious, and ethnic, minorities have been treated miserably by majorities who use religious and political dominance to trample the rights of the powerless.

You could argue that none of this is new, that it’s just more of the pendulum at work. And you’d be correct.

But I cite them here not because they're new under the sun, but simply as a reminder that the human desire to dominate those who are different -- religiously or otherwise -- continues to wreck havoc on the weakest among us.

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WSJ pins Brazil's swing to right on evangelicals, but the truth may be more complex

WSJ pins Brazil's swing to right on evangelicals, but the truth may be more complex

Brazil is definitely taking a swing to the right, so who should we credit for that?

Let's think logically about this. Law and order folks? Business owners? Evangelicals? Pentecostals? Politicians? 

The societal transformation of this once-majority-Catholic country to a majority-Pentecostal republic is fascinating to watch and there's been a procession of mainstream reporters going to Brazil to check it out. You can see the latest here: a Wall Street Journal piece on how all this may pan out. 

NIOAQUE, Brazil -- It looks like a scene from Marlboro Country. Cattle ranchers drive their Chevy pickup trucks to the local rodeo. Cowboys in washed-out jeans entertain the crowds.
In fact, it is Brazil’s conservative heartland, a 14-hour drive from the nearest beach and a world away from the country’s reputation for liberal hedonism.
Over much of the past 15 years, Brazilian conservatives have watched the rise of socialism in this continent-sized nation with unease. They’ve seen farmers go to jail here for defending their land against indigenous tribes; they’ve recoiled as same-sex couples starred in their favorite soap operas; and they’ve grumbled at the local shooting club about high taxes, high crime and the corruption scandals in two successive leftist presidencies…
Conservatism is making a comeback here. It is already playing out in the battle over women’s health and across politics, religion and the arts.

Sounds a bit like Texas, does it not?

Brazil is witnessing the political rise of a fiery army captain-turned-congressman named Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who speaks fondly of the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship in which he once served. The blue-eyed nationalist, whose middle name means “Messiah,” is a devout Christian who was recently baptized in the Jordan River. At 63, he is running for president on a pro-gun, antiabortion and anti-gay-rights platform.

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#Reformation500: Washington Post tackles the modern Protestant Reformation happening in Brazil

#Reformation500: Washington Post tackles the modern Protestant Reformation happening in Brazil

When a former GetReligionista asks you to read her story, you do it.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, now a respected religion writer for the Washington Post, traveled to Brazil to report on "How the prosperity gospel is sparking a major change in the world's most Catholic country."

Yes, the in-depth piece is tied to today's 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Bailey wrote on Facebook:

I'm not kidding you, I've thought about this anniversary for at least the past 10 years.
I grew up in a family that didn't celebrate Halloween (have never been trick-or-treating!) but we DID have Reformation Day parties. Yes, it's true.
When I realized there was going to be a big anniversary, I plotted ways to get to Germany. I really, really wanted to go see the town where Martin Luther did his thing.
But I've been to Germany. Religion isn't exactly booming there right now. So I started to think about the question: where is a Protestant Reformation happening RIGHT NOW?
That led me to Brazil. As I mentioned a few months ago, I received a grant from The International Reporting Project to spend a few weeks in Brazil to write about Pentecostalism for the Washington Post. While I was there, I was stunned by the prosperity gospel's power, the immense influence they have, especially in poor areas of the country. I watched exorcisms, healing services, prophesies and donations pour in.
The same debates over money, power, authority that Germany saw 500 years go are happening now--just in another country with a very different twist. Check it out and please share with your friends.

So:

1. I checked it out.

2. I'm sharing it with all my friends who read GetReligion.

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There they go again: Digital gods at Facebook zap some big Catholic pages (news media yawn)

There they go again: Digital gods at Facebook zap some big Catholic pages (news media yawn)

Every now and then, the principalities and powers at Facebook do something that ticks off lots of religious people, usually morally and doctrinally conservative people.

Most of the time, Facebook leaders issue a kind of "the technology made us do it" apology and life rolls on -- until the next time. In most cases, these alleged Facebook sins are treated as "conservative news," with coverage at Fox News and various alternative, religious news sources online. Something like this.

The GetReligion "mirror image" question, as always, is this: How much media attention would these news stories have received if Facebook folks had shut down lots of pages belonging to LGBTQ groups (or Muslims, or environmentalists, or #BlackLivesMatter networks). I know this is hard to imagine, but please try.

So this time, a bunch of Catholic websites were taken down. Here is the entire Associated Press report on this, at least as it appeared at ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc.

Facebook is blaming a technical glitch for knocking several Catholic-focused Facebook pages with millions of followers offline for more than a day.
Catholic radio network Relevant Radio says on its website that its "Father Rocky" Facebook page went down on Monday and wasn't restored until late Tuesday night. It says more than 20 other prominent Catholic pages were also suspended.
The shutdown prompted speculation among some page administrators that they were being intentionally censored.
A Facebook spokesperson apologized for the disruption Wednesday, telling The Associated Press in a statement that all pages have been restored. Facebook says the incident "was triggered accidentally by a spam detection tool."

My favorite detail missing from that little story is that one of the sites knocked offline was the "Papa Francisco Brazil" page dedicated to the life and work of Pope Francis.

Now there's a nice headline, for those included to write it: Facebook zaps Pope Francis page in Brazil.

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Here's some of what Reuters missed in its investigation of Brazil's growing evangelical flock

Here's some of what Reuters missed in its investigation of Brazil's growing evangelical flock

I've only visited once, but even after a short trip, I understood that faith in Brazil is a complex affair.

These days, the traditionally Roman Catholic population is influenced by all kinds of spiritualistic forces, while at the same time evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism, Seventh-day Adventism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are playing increasingly important roles.

Reuters, the global newswire, dropped in on an Assemblies of God congregation in a favela, or slum area, of Rio de Janiero, Brazil's second-largest city, and extrapolated much about the spiritual condition of the entire nation:

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -- Pastor Marcio Antonio stands at the pulpit in a one room evangelical church built precariously above barbed wire fences and illegally hung electrical cables, exhorting his flock in a Brazilian favela to improve their morals.
A former drug dealer in Cantagalo, an informally built hillside settlement where most residents lack official property rights, Pastor Antonio and his flock at the Assembly of God Church are part of a growing trend.
Evangelical churches are expanding rapidly in Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic community, especially in poor favelas, experts and parishioners said.
These communities, which developed from squatter settlements, often do not have the same services as formal Brazilian neighborhoods in terms of healthcare, sanitation, transportation or formal property registration.
"The government doesn't help us so God is the only option for the poor," Pastor Antonio, 37, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation following his Sunday sermon.

It is the "Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters," which claims responsibility for the story. The foundation "covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience," and an end note to the piece says the foundation should get the credit for this piece. So noted.

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