Denver

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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Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

For a brief period of time in 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder made headlines by attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for president.

This is the kind of thing that leads to press conferences, especially in Denver.

Schroeder was, to say the least a freethinker on a host of cultural and political leaders, including gay rights. At one press conference, I asked the congresswoman a question that went something like this (I am paraphrasing): You have said that you believe people are born gay. Do you believe that, at some point, there will be genetic evidence to back this stance and strengthen your case?

She said “yes,” but didn’t elaborate. However, she did allow me to ask a follow-up question. I asked: If that is the case, and this genetic information could be shown in prenatal tests, would you support a ban on parents choosing to abort gay fetuses?

The press aide in charge was not amused and shut that down immediately. However, I was not accosted by other journalists in the room. A few Rocky Mountain News (RIP) colleagues used to refer to this as “that Mattingly question.” They may not have approved, but some thought it was logical and, thus, fair game.

This anecdote popped into my mind when I read a re-posted 2015 think piece by Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway at The Federalist. The headline: “Why Do The Media Keep Helping Nancy Pelosi Avoid Abortion Questions?” While, obviously, she offers commentary about abortion, Hemingway is primarily asking a journalism question about bias linked to mainstream news coverage of an issue that always involves religion, morality and culture.

This media-bias question remains relevant, after all of these years — as readers could see in the comments attached to this recent Bobby Ross post: “Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote.” Thus, let’s look at this older Hemingway work.

Here’s my take: Yes, I have seen some improvement in abortion coverage, if your goal is balanced, accurate reporting that shows respect for people on both sides of the debates. Some religion-beat reporters have worked hard to talk to both sides. However, in my opinion, political-desk coverage of abortion issues has been as bad as ever — or worse.

This brings us back to that Hemingway piece.

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NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

Four different GetReligion readers — two of them journalists — sent me notes about an NBC News feature that ran the other day about liberal reactions to that special General Conference that reaffirmed, and even strengthened, the United Methodist Church’s support for old-fashioned, traditional teachings on marriage, sex and the Bible.

One note simply said “wow,” over and over.

Two used the same word — “ridiculous.”

Another added, “Something seems to be missing.”

You get the idea. If you are looking for some kind of gold-standard when it comes to one-sided, biased news coverage of this event — this is the story for you. This is a shake-your-head classic when it comes to assuming that there is only one side in this argument that deserves serious attention and, yes, respect.

Let’s start with the report’s coverage of the conservative side of the story. Ready?

Well, actually, there isn’t anything to quote. Sorry about that.

The story does not include a single sentence of material drawn from African, Asian or American delegates or insiders who support the church’s teachings that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin. That’s a stance that would be affirmed by leaders of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority of the world’s Anglicans, almost all Baptists and, well, you get the idea.

Journalists do not, of course, have to agree with this approach to doctrine. However, there’s no way around the fact that this point of view is crucial, in this debate, and it would help if readers had a chance to understand why traditional religious believers defend this stance.In this case, it’s crucial to know that the growing regions of the global United Methodist Church back this doctrinal approach, while the liberal corners of the church — in the United States, primarily — are in numerical decline.

Try to find that fact anywhere in the NBC News report. The story opens with the voice of a gay pastor — the Rev. Mark Thompson — and everything else that follows affirms the same perspective. You can catch the tone in this passage:

Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.

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'Geographic solution' for predators? Hide bad priests in parishes with lots of immigrants

'Geographic solution' for predators? Hide bad priests in parishes with lots of immigrants

Back in my Denver days in the late 1980s, I started work on a large project that, at first, was viewed with great favor by my editors at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP).

The starting point: The city included several growing Protestant churches, evangelical and Pentecostal, that were attracting many, many Hispanic believers. As you would expect, it didn’t take long to realize that most of them were former Roman Catholics or were the children of former Roman Catholics.

The goal was to report (a) why this was happening and (b) how this affected life inside large, extended families of Hispanics who now worshipped in radically different sanctuaries.

After a week or two of work, we dropped that first goal — because one of the most common answers was raising lots of questions that made editors uncomfortable.

Yes, many people were leaving the Catholic church for predictable reasons, from their point of view. They thought the preaching in evangelical/Pentecostal churches was stronger and “more biblical.” They liked the thriving Sunday schools for their children and youth programs for teens. They liked the contemporary church music, blending folk, pop and Latino themes.

But I kept hearing one more thing in many interviews: They wanted married pastors.

I would ask: “Married? Why was this so important?” Some were reluctant to discuss the details, but some were blunt: Their parishes were being sent too many gay priests. There were rumors and tensions. People were not sure they could trust the church. I kept hearing: Pastors should have wives and children of their own.

I wrote the divided-families story, but editors shied away from the “married” pastors angle.

I thought of that story when I heard about this strong National Public Radio report: “Immigrant Communities Were the ‘Geographic Solution’ to Predator Priests.”

Let me stress again (see this recent post) that there is fierce debate among Catholics over whether these two hot-button topics — large numbers of gay priests and decades of scandals linked to the abuse of teens and also prepubescent children — are connected. Many activists on the Catholic left and right salute the work of priests who wrestle with same-sex orientation, while living celibate lives and defending church doctrines on sexuality.

Here is the NPR overture:

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The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

It's easy to understand why the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber has always received so much attention from the mainstream news media.

Many journalists start with The Look, referring to her many tattoos, edgy hair and love of weight-lifting. Then there is the message -- a jolting mix of traditional religious language, lingering traces of her work in stand-up comedy, candor about her complicated personal life and a set of moral and political views that place her solidly on the religious left. And the aging world of old-line Protestantism is not full of pastors, male or female, who built growing urban congregations that appealed to the young.

The bottom line: Bolz-Weber is a media superstar.

So it was totally logical for Religion News Service to produce a long feature about her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church that she started a decade ago in Denver. Here's a crucial passage:

Bolz-Weber said she had decided to step away only recently and still can’t entirely explain what made her feel like it was the right time. She reached a point, she said, where “the church still loves me, but I don’t think the church still needs me.” ...

But there were signs, too, that she had done all she could do at HFASS. “I didn’t come to this job with everything, but it felt like I was equipped with the ability to welcome thousands of people through the doors,” she said. “I was at a retreat recently where there were 30 people I didn’t recognize, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I can’t welcome any more people.’”

Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them. The eight people who showed up in her living room for a Sunday evening service in 2008 were mostly LGBT people, those with religious baggage, addicts and others who don’t fit at many Sunday services but want to experience God’s grace.

After a decade, the church has roughly 500 members. That's a rather average-sized church in megachurch friendly Denver, but that is a very large church in the context of liberal Protestantism.

Needless to say, Bolz-Weber has critics as well as fans.

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

During the years I worked at The Rocky Mountain News, one of my favorite people was the great columnist Gene Amole. Frankly, most people in that newsroom would have said the same thing about him.

Amole was all about simplicity and writing with his own, unique voice. For example, his columns always opened with single-word ledes. One word, like I simple jab.

So when the crusty World War II vet announced that he had cancer, everyone could imagine how his final column about this fight (The Los Angeles Times noted that the 78-year-old Amole kept writing columns every single day -- for 17 weeks) would begin.

Sure enough, Amole started with: "Goodbye." Then he said what he had to say.

Now, when Americans think of the Rev. Billy Graham, they probably think of lots of things, starting with his preaching.

However, lots of his preaching and other commentaries were -- for decades -- filed away or transcribed and then filed by topics. When people wrote him letters with questions, this material was used in Graham's short "My Answer" newspaper features for the Tribune syndicate.

Thus, when Graham died, you knew that there was a syndicated column that had been filed away many years earlier, during his prime, to answer a logical final question, one that I am sure the great evangelist heard many, many times (almost as many times as the "who will be the next Billy Graham?" question).

That question: "Mr. Graham, how would you like to be remembered?"

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Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Over the past few days, I have heard one question more than any other: How do I think the Rev. Billy Graham would have handled the current divisions inside American evangelicalism? When you dig a bit deeper, what people are really asking is how Graham the elder (as opposed to Franklin Graham) would have handled Donald Trump.

GetReligion readers will not be surprised that this topic came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in

In the old tradition of Southern preaching, I would like to answer with three points and a poem.

(I) How would Graham, in his prime, have handled Trump? Well, how did he relate to Bill Clinton, another man who had a loose connection to truth and fidelity? Graham praised the good in Clinton and then gentled criticized the bad, primarily by affirming basic Christian standards of life and behavior. He didn't endorse, but he provided personal support. He never, in public, attacked Clinton or his partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Graham took flak for this stance, but he was used to that.

(II) My second point is a story, a kind of parable, about the 1987 Graham crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium.

One morning during the crusade, the evangelist's crack media team called all of the major newsrooms in that very competitive news market (where The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News were fighting an epic newspaper war). They wanted us to know that Graham was going to preach that night -- his first sermon on this topic -- about AIDS. This was news, because of Graham's de facto status as the Protestant pope, in the eyes of editors.

Graham's staff knew that reporters would be on deadline that night (press runs for early state editions would have been soon after 10 p.m.) and would need to line up quick telephone interviews with people who could react to whatever he said in the sermon.

Through a series of connections, I ended up interviewing a local associate pastor in an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. This man was a former Southern Baptist pastor, now out gay, who was HIV positive. As a child, he had made his profession of Christian faith at a Graham crusade. He still considered Graham a hero, although he disagreed with the evangelist's beliefs on sexuality.

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Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

The Rev. Billy Graham must have told the turtle story a million times, so surely -- somewhere in the tsunami of analog and digital news ink we will see tomorrow -- there will be journalists who include it in their features marking the great evangelist's death.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday morning at the family's rambling log home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. They bought the land 60 years or so ago, when it cost next to nothing and that's where Billy and Ruth stayed. What will happen to it now? Getting to spend part of a day there while interviewing him was certainly one of the highlights of my reporting career.

But I digress. Members of the GetReligion team will start looking at the actual coverage of his life and career tomorrow. With only a few hours before deadline, I wrote my own piece on Graham and you can read it right here (with the permission of my Universal syndicate editors).

Please send us links to the good and the bad. Obviously, there is a massive package already at Christianity Today, which Graham founded long ago, and at The Charlotte Observer (main story here). Here is the  main Associated Press story.

But let's return to the turtle and the fence post. Here is how I retold that story soon after the creation of this blog:

For decades, Graham has been asked -- thousands of times, I am sure -- why he has been so remarkably successful, preaching to more people in person than anyone else in history. Why have so many people, from the earliest days of his career, responded to his call to accept Jesus Christ as Savior? What's so special about Billy Graham?
At this point, Graham almost always offers the following explanation. If you are walking down a road, he says, and you happen to see a turtle sitting on top of a tall fence post, what would you assume? You would, of course, assume that the turtle did not climb up there on his own. You would assume that someone far larger than the turtle picked him up and then placed him atop the tall post for some mysterious reason.
Get the point? Clearly Graham did not get on top by his own merits.

That's a perfect example of Graham being folksy and safe, but there is content there if you think about it.

Obviously, Graham was a skilled media personality, with decades of experience in the trenches facing journalists who knew his life and work inside out as well as general-assignment reporters who, believe it or not, were sent to cover him after reading little more than a sheet of PR material.

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