David French

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

Hey journalists, can you say “Premillennial Dispensationalism”?

Believe it or not, the odds are very good that, in most elite newsrooms, some editor or reporter on the political desk knows — or thinks that he or she knows — the meaning of this theological term. Hint: It’s a modern interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testament, producing a kind of “how many Israeli fighter jets can fit on the head of a pin” view of the end of the world.

After all, there are all of those “Left Behind” novels all over the place. Then the books led to several movies that, in some corners of the evangelical subculture, are kind of like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” They’re so over the top that they have become high-grade camp.

The key is that there are some modern Protestants who can accurately be called “Premillennial Dispensationalists.”

Repeat after me — “some.”

As in, “not all.” As in, not even a majority of conservative evangelicals fit under this doctrinal umbrella. Why does this matter, in political terms? Here is David French of National Review to explain, in this weekend’s think piece. If fact, this is a think piece inside of a think piece. Hold that thought.

It never fails. Whenever a Republican president makes a controversial or contentious move to support Israel — such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, or yesterday’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — you’ll see various “explainers” and other stories that purport to inform progressives why the American Evangelical community is so devoted to the nation of Israel.

The explanation goes something like this — Evangelicals believe that the rebirth of Israel is hastening not just the second coming of Christ, but a particular kind of second coming, one that includes fire, fury, and war that will consume the Jewish people.

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Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

It’s another day and we have yet another chapter closing in the First Amendment drama of Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Is this the last chapter?

That’s hard to tell. It’s especially hard to tell in the bland Associated Press report that is being published by many mainstream newsrooms. While the story does mention that Phillips has won another partial victory, it misses several crucial details that point to the anger and animus that has been driving this case all along and could keep it going.

Animus” against Phillips and his traditional Christian faith was, of course, at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court’s sort-of decision on this matter, but, well, never mind. Why cover that part of the story?

So here is the latest from AP:

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds — a stance partially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — and state officials said Tuesday that they would end a separate legal fight over his refusal to bake a cake celebrating a gender transition.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and attorneys representing Jack Phillips said they mutually agreed to end two legal actions, including a federal lawsuit Phillips filed accusing the state of waging a “crusade to crush” him by pursuing a civil rights complaint over the gender transition cake.

Phillips’ attorneys dubbed the agreement a victory for the baker. Weiser, a Democrat, said both sides “agreed it was not in anyone’s best interest to move forward with these cases.”

So what about the future? Here is what readers are told:

The agreement resolves every ongoing legal dispute between the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver and the state. Weiser’s statement said it has no effect on the ability of the Denver attorney who filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to pursue her own legal action.

The attorney, Autumn Scardina, told the commission that Phillips refused last year to make a cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside for a celebration of her transition from male to female. She asked for the cake on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would consider Phillips’ appeal of a previous commission ruling against him.

The lede for this story, as is the mainstream news norm, fails to note the key facts that were at the heart of the original case.

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A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

Stop and ask yourself the following journalism puzzler (I apologize for the length of this thing).

Why did the Covington Catholic High School “smirk” incident with Native American elder Nathan Phillips seize the American media and even cause waves overseas, while the effort by Phillips and his drummers to march into and interrupt a Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (security personnel stopped them) drew a radically mainstream media response (something like this, click here)?

The answer is clear: The gatekeepers in key, elite newsrooms thought the first story was big news and the second one was not.

But why did they feel that way? Why ignore one story and carpet-bomb the other?

That gets us into the media-bias minefield that I have been exploring my entire professional career, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s (click here for my 1983 cover story for The Quill, a professional journal). But that answer only raises more questions: Why do so many journalists ignore, downplay or even mangle religion stories? What kind of bias is involved? As for that topic, click here for my second cover story at The Quill, in 1993. There is no one bias linked all this — there are four of them.

Welcome to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which — #DUH — returns to the Covington Catholic story. Click here to tune that in.

I want to point readers to a new mini-essay by one of my favorite writers, David French of National Review. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in religious liberty cases. As an outspoken #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservative, he has been caught in the middle of many media flash fires in recent years.

The headline on this piece: “We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.” It focuses on the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in many newsrooms. This reality affects decisions about what is and what is not news.

But before we get to French, let me remind readers of the following language in the amazing 2005 self-study conducted by the New York Times, during a time of turmoil over journalism ethics. The title: “Preserving Our Readers' Trust.

Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

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Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

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Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

If you have heard of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, then you have probably heard of three things — a land called Narnia, “Mere Christianity” and a demon named Screwtape.

The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”

Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.

Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.

Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?

With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.

Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.

Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.

Please read the Times piece for yourself.

Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.

But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:

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Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Welcome to the Monday Mix!

What's that? Well, nine months ago, we introduced Friday Five, an end-of-the-week feature highlighting important and interesting links from the world of religion news. Readers have responded positively to that approach.

So today, we add this feature as another avenue to offer quick information and insight, focused on headlines you might have missed from the previous weekend and late in the week. You see, lots and lots of religion news gets published on Saturday and Sunday, when readership of this blog tends to fade a bit (some people go to lots and lots of baseball games, for example).

Frankly, there are times when it's hard to keep up, pointing readers toward some of what comes out over a typical weekend. Thus, we're trying out this new feature.

Please note: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

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This week's podcast: Colorado fine-tunes legal campaign against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner

This week's podcast: Colorado fine-tunes legal campaign against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner

No doubt about it, there was a big, big religious-liberty story back on June 28 out in the often-overlooked Rocky Mountain Time Zone.

This was a story that had been cooking for some time and, yes, it involved Jack Phillips of Colorado, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. 

To understand the significance of this news story -- the goal of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) --  it helps to look at the following timeline:

* On June, 26, 2017 -- the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission -- a Colorado lawyer named Autumn Scardina called the bakery and made a rather simple request. Scardina requested a cake with blue icing that was baked with pink batter. The lawyer told a Cake Shop employee that the goal was to celebrate Scardina's birthday, as well as the seventh anniversary of the day he came out as transgender she.

* On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, by a 7-2 margin, that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown anti-religious animus during proceedings leading to its actions punishing Phillips for refusing to create one of his one-of-a-kind wedding cakes to celebrate a same-sex couple's marriage. Phillips offered to sell the couple any of the other cakes or goods in his shop, but -- because of his faith -- refused to create a special cake to celebrate that rite.

* On June 28, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that there was evidence that Phillips had discriminated against Scardina because of anti-trans bias, as opposed to this action being another act of conscience by the Christian baker, protected by the First Amendment.

You can assemble those dates in your mind with a bit of editing as you read the Washington Post (or New York Times) coverage of this new chapter in the Masterpiece Cakeshop drama.

So why is the story breaking this week? You can see that in the overture to the Post story:

Add another layer to the legal drama surrounding the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple -- and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday filed another federal lawsuit against the state alleging religious discrimination.

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Re-Up on #MuslimBan post: What did religious liberty have to do with SCOTUS decision?

Re-Up on #MuslimBan post: What did religious liberty have to do with SCOTUS decision?

What a train wreck.

Please be patient with me here, because I'm trying to do something with a post that I have not done before.

I thought the online slang for this act was "re-up," but the urban dictionaries say that has turned into a drug-culture term. I was looking for the term online writers use when they put one of their old posts back up again, since they really don't want to add anything to an earlier comment that they made about a controversial topic.

It's kind of like #WhatHeSaid, only you're doing it for yourself (if that makes any sense). It's something like this "re-up" definition at Merriam-Webster:

2 : to officially agree or persuade someone to officially agree that an existing arrangement will continue for an additional period of time

In this case, the main thing that I am trying to say is (a) I am depressed about public discourse in the Donald Trump age, (b) I am depressed about news coverage of events in the Trump era and (c) I am depressed about the impact of Trump and news coverage of Trump on American culture.

The end result is sort of like this, care of a tweet by bipartisan political activist Bruce Mehlman:

AMAZING. Dems assume 44% of Republicans earn $250k or more (it's really only 2%). Republicans assume 38% of Dems are LGBTQ (it's really 6%).

Why are these (and other stats in this chart) so skewed? It hard to avoid the conclusion that it's linked to the advocacy media that Republicans and Democrats are consuming. And that's what depresses me the most, when we are talking about issues like the so-called #MuslimBan.

This brings me to my re-up of a January 30, 2017, post that I wrote with this headline: "A weekend of #MuslimBan: Did it help for press to ignore key contents of executive order?"

I offer this as a sad response to the post earlier today by colleague Bobby Ross about the mainstream coverage of the Supreme Court's rather reluctant decision that Trump's "Muslim Ban" executive order. Click here to see Bobby's post.

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