Deseret News

When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

I’ve covered enough stories about the cultural battles endured by Christian colleges to wonder why they don’t team up with similar schools from other faith traditions to get more support. This week I saw a story from Religion News Service about a meeting that did just that.

Imagine presidents of several evangelical Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic schools together on a panel. What was interesting was not so much what they did discuss but what they didn’t.

Let’s see: What’s the most newsworthy topic that you can think of right now in the world of Christian education?

It would have to be the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that many faith-defined schools require people to sign — students, staff, faculty, etc. — when joining these voluntary, private institutions. This is often referred to as “freedom of association,” for this who follow First Amendment debates.

In terms of news, I’ve written before about how the California state legislature went after 42 faith-based institutions not long ago in an unsuccessful effort to forbid these colleges requiring statements of faith in order to attend. Keep that thought in mind.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.

They also want to support their students’ rights as people of faith.

Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation’s capital last week (Feb. 1)…

Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.

The most interesting comments in the piece came from Yusuf.

(Berman and Yusuf) defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.

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Yo, Super Bowl scribes: You missed another chance to explore Tom Brady’s complicated faith

Yo, Super Bowl scribes: You missed another chance to explore Tom Brady’s complicated faith

I never waste an opportunity to write about sports and religion when there is a natural connection.

That happens all the time. Sports and religion are often intertwined by our culture and society. My trip to Moscow last summer for soccer’s World Cup led me to do a feature on St. Basil’s Cathedral and how it had come to become one of the tournament’s biggest symbols alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

This takes us to this coming Sunday. With America preparing for another Super Bowl — and yet another appearance by quarterback Tom Brady — this great athlete (and his faith) are worth another look.

In Brady’s case, let’s just say it’s complicated.

It’s true that two weeks of Brady storylines since the conference championships didn’t do sportswriters a lot of good. Brady’s been here (nine Super Bowl appearances to be exact) and done that (in the form of five titles). The bigger story was the bad officiating in the NFC Championship Game, how the New Orleans Saints were wronged and the fallout that has ensued.

Super Bowl LIII festivities officially kicked off on Monday with Opening Night — previously known as Media Day — at the State Farm Arena. The media circus that has descended upon Atlanta for Sunday’s big game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams means hundreds of hours of TV coverage and lots of articles and feature stories.

Lost in all the Brady quotes, news stories and features over the past week was any focus or mention of Brady’s faith. For any athlete who has won so much, religion can often play a central role. Is that the case here?

In a January 2015 piece, Deseret News writer Herb Scribner explored the very question of Brady’s spiritual life, piecing together what was known about his faith from past interviews and feature stories.   

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Editors: Try to imagine using 'Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' in all those headlines

Editors: Try to imagine using 'Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' in all those headlines

Any journalist who has ever worked on a newspaper copy desk knows the following to be true, when it comes to religion news.

It would be absolutely impossible to write headlines about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- especially dramatic, one-column headlines in big type -- without using the word "Mormon" or the abbreviation "LDS."

Well, we're about to find out if journalists are willing to develop some new "work around" to address that style issue. Here is last week's big news out of Utah, care of The Salt Lake City Tribune:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really, truly, absolutely wants to be known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not the LDS Church. Not the Mormon church.

It made that clear Thursday -- even though the last attempt to eradicate those nicknames for the Utah-based faith flopped. The new push came from God to President Russell M. Nelson, the church said in a news release Thursday.

“The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church,” Nelson is quoted as saying, “even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Attention members of the Associated Press Stylebook committee: Here is that new release from on high. You need to see this, before we get to an interesting think piece on the implications of this change, care of a thoughtful journalism professor at Brigham Young University.

The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will.

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In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

I covered the National Prayer Breakfast once or twice, which sounds glamorous, but it was a thankless job in that the organizers loathed the media and the only sure way to get access was to be part of the White House press pool.

One rises at some ungodly hour to get to downtown Washington, D.C., through the security at the White House and into the press room, where we were all crammed into three black SUVs at the end of a long line of cars headed for the Washington Hilton.

Reporters were ordered into one corner of the room, then told to leave as soon as the president took his leave. This was confounding in that I’d been told I needed to report on the main speaker, which the president doesn’t always linger to listen to. During my first time at this event, as the pool headed out the back door, I leapt into the audience where I grabbed an empty seat. The Secret Service was not happy with me.

You see, I knew that the real story of the gathering wasn’t so much the massive breakfast, but all the wheeling and dealing going on before and afterwards. A lot of foreign officials showed up, with the mistaken impression they could get face time with the president, while a small army of people did their best to introduce these foreign contingents to Christianity. 

Which is why I was pleased to see the recent New York Times story on the machinations behind the breakfast. Unfortunately other publications have chimed in by alleging that what’s behind the breakfast is actually a right-wing conspiracy involving the Russians.

The truth is more complex. Here is the top of the Times piece:

WASHINGTON -- With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

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Today’s low point for American news media affects all beats -- including religion

Today’s low point for American news media affects all beats -- including religion

Instead of the usual focus on religion coverage, this Memo scans the over-all news-media landscape as viewed by a newshound of (embarrassingly) long experience.

The Religion Guy, who strives to be non-partisan, believes with others that America’s news media -- in terms of economics and public trust -- have reached the low point of the past half-century.

This affects the religion beat as surely as every other segment of journalism.  

There’s chaos at the storied Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, with other forms of newsroom turbulence that shakes even Gannett’s DC monolith honoring journalism's role in American life.

With GetReligion readers, there’s no need to detail the economic travail and consequent death of countless dailies and magazines, with staff shrinkage for those that still struggle to survive.  Can online ad revenues sustain decent coverage? Will twittery Americans read substantive copy any longer?   

But forget media economics and corporate maneuvers. Worst of all is sagging esteem. Consider TV shallowness and bile, stupendous screw-ups forced by 24/7 competition, and the eclipse of objectivity -- or even minimal fairness -- amid the glut of opinion. There’s also simple bad taste, the StormyDanielsization of daily news budgets.  

In September, 2016, the Gallup Poll found Americans’ trust in the media to report “fully, accurately, and fairly” was the worst since it first asked this question in 1972. Only 32 percent had a “great deal” or “fair” amount of trust, down 8 percent in just a year. A mere 26 percent of those under age 50 felt trust, capping a decade of decline. One year later, 37 percent of respondents thought the media “get the facts straight” but with a worrisome partisan breakdown: 62 percent of Democrats versus only 37 percent of Independents, and a pathetic 14 percent of Republicans.  

However, it was a good sign that less than one-fifth of those of whatever partisan identity or educational level had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Internet news.  

There was much to mourn before Donald J. Trump came down that golden escalator.

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Mormon Church practices discipline; news reports missed key transparency question

Mormon Church practices discipline; news reports missed key transparency question

Usually when an organization has bad or embarrassing news, it'll release the details on a Friday, perhaps in the afternoon, realizing that Saturday's newspaper is (or was) perhaps the least-read edition of the week.

In the fictional White House of TV's "The West Wing," this was referred to as "taking out the trash day."

In the real world, however, some organizations will release bad news when it happens, which explains the wide media coverage of Tuesday's announcement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormon Church. Elder James J. Hamula, a general authority of the 15 million-member denomination, was "released" from his church administrative position as well as removed from the church membership rolls.

The Salt Lake Tribune gave us the facts:

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Mormon church has excommunicated one of its top leaders.
On Tuesday morning, James J. Hamula was released from his position in the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after disciplinary action.
LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins provided no details about the removal. But the church did confirm Hamula was no longer a member of the church and that his ouster was not for apostasy or disillusionment.
In cases involving members of Mormonism’s presiding quorums -- rare as they are -- the faith’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles form a disciplinary council to consider such actions.

There was no gloating of any sort by the Tribune and certainly none at the Deseret News, the general-interest daily owned by the LDS Church. (Disclosure: I served as a national reporter for the DNews in 2014 and 2015.) And as you might expect, the "hometown" newspapers provided solid coverage of the dismissal.

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New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

Does anyone recall the 1991 comedy classic "What About Bob?", in which Bill Murray plays an obnoxiously self-absorbed client who cluelessly and unrelentingly pesters his psychotherapist (Richard Dreyfuss) during his annual summer vacation until the therapist suffers a breakdown?

Alright. So maybe it's not a classic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it -- perhaps not the least because I'm married to a psychotherapist who, if you ask me, has had more than her share of clients with professional boundary problems.

Which is to say that it was easy for me to relate to this movie because the situation it satirized is of more than passing interest to me.

That I have this personal bias because of my particular circumstance, should surprise no one. Likewise, it should come as no surprise to GetReligion readers that journalism functions similarly.

The greater the potential impact of a story on a news outlet's core audience, the greater the attention the outlet will lavish on the story. In short, if all politics is ultimately local, so is all news.

Which is why, I'm surmising, the media coverage of the Pew Research Center's survey report on the explosive growth of religious identity -- if not actual religious practice -- in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Central and Eastern Europe has played out as it has so far.

Mainstream media attention was relatively scant. While The Economist provided a well-rounded report, this Newsweek story is more representative of the thin coverage overall that I found.

In truth, to anyone who's been paying attention, the survey's findings are far from surprising.

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Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

In late 2016 the Colson Center for Christian Worldview assembled endorsements from dozens of Christian leaders for a conservative declaration decrying problems with religious freedom with the gay and rapidly emerging transgender issues.

Coverage to date underscores a perennial rule of thumb in religion coverage: Carefully monitor parochial religious media -- and in this case also gay media -- to catch developments that might have broader significance.

Apparently the earliest story on this occurred in the Seattle Gay News (December 2), and then online postings by religious and conservative media. Eventually, mainstream press articles appeared, but in outlets like the Deseret News of Salt Lake City (January 12) and Colorado Springs Gazette (January 13).  As of this writing, The Guy found nothing in major national media (or The Advocate).

Did the sponsors try and fail to gain publicity? Or was this designed to rally activist insiders, not to sway public opinion?

Either way, there’s ample room left for reporters to take a look.

Activists and ideologues continually pepper the media with such petitions on this or that, signed by the highest-profile endorsers they can manage to muster. Amid the glut, why would this document be worth journalistic consideration? Hold that thought till we scan what the text says.

It contends that laws and administrative rulings to protect “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) interests “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association” and “violate privacy rights.” Such pressures “attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female,” through a range of penalties for both individuals and organizations.

On marriage, it explains, a small business may be willing to “serve everyone” yet in conscience cannot be involved with a same-sex wedding. On the transgender question, people may want “to protect privacy by ensuring persons of the opposite sex do not share showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other intimate facilities.” 

What’s significant?

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Hopping on, once again, the old GetReligionista merry-go-round ...

Hopping on, once again, the old GetReligionista merry-go-round ...

If there really is "nothing new under the sun," I suppose a return to GetReligion isn't really "news," however pleasant it might be for a particular writer.

But here I am again, friends, happily climbing into the saddle to critique -- well, whatever tmatt and company permit.

There will be one exception. I will not be taking on the Deseret News, where I served 20 months as a national team reporter covering faith and freedom. That's a fine paper with good people, but having been in their employ, I can't be as fair-minded as you should expect a GetReligionista to be.

There remains, of course, a ton of material out there to examine, so, the Good Lord willing, I won't be short of subjects.

Take, for example, that religious freedom divide. That very timely subject -- though I agree with the crew here that we could all do without the "scare quotes," please -- is a particular interest to me. This blog has always been concerned with First Amendment issues, on both sides of the equation (religious liberty and freedom of the press).

So, too, is the way the media does (or doesn't) understand religious movements with which they are unfamiliar.

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