Jonathan Merritt

Two Corinthians walk into a public school: Some tips for journalists covering Trump and Bible literacy

Two Corinthians walk into a public school: Some tips for journalists covering Trump and Bible literacy

Speaking at Liberty University in January 2016, then-candidate Trump referred to “Two Corinthians,” as opposed to the more common American usage of “Second Corinthians” in oral communications.

Back then, a lot of people (yes, I’m one of the guilty ones) enjoyed a good laugh at The Donald’s apparent lack of biblical expertise in trying to appeal to a Christian audience. Trump got the last laugh, though, receiving — in case you hadn’t heard — 81 percent of white evangelicals’ votes in defeating Hillary Clinton that November.

Fast-forward to today: The president stirred a new discussion with this tweet:

Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!

“Happy Monday, religion journalists!” responded Betsy Shirley, an associate editor with Sojourners magazine.

Yes indeedy, Godbeat friends!

Vox noted that Trump’s tweet was posted minutes after Fox and Friends — one of the cable TV new shows that the president enjoys watching reported on proposals in a half-dozen states to offer Bible classes in public schools.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Let's see: In the Urban Dictionary, the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" is defined like this (with a joke thrown in for good measure, in the full text): "To await an event that is expected to happen, due to being causally linked to another event that has already been observed."

However, one gets the impression that the words "the other" in that phrase imply the existence of only one other show. It still sounds like the newsroom at Religion News Service contains lots of other shoes and some of them have yet to drop -- following the now infamous meltdown linked to the forced exit of former editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, after clashes with publisher Tom Gallagher, who is best known for his opinion work on the Catholic left.

Lots of digital ink was spilled during that episode, including two lengthy GetReligion posts by our own Julia Duin. Check out, "RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)" and "RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant."

Now there is this, from columnist and blogger Jonathan Merrett: "Why I am leaving Religion News Service after 5 years."

If you follow Merritt's work, you know that he is one of the most important journalistic voices who has emerged on the evangelical left -- both at RNS and at The Atlantic -- especially on issues linked to LGBTQ debates and women's rights.

Now, some of his critics would say the "post-evangelical" left, but I'm not sure that nuance is justified since it is almost impossible to define what the word "evangelical" means, these days. In terms of heritage, Merritt is best understood as a liberal Baptist. Yes, doctrinally liberal Baptists exist and there's a lot of history there. Ask Bill Clinton.

Anyway, Merritt has posted his take on what happened, at his own website. Here is that text:

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ChurchClarity.org is back, but Newsweek offers only one side of this crucial LGBTQ story

ChurchClarity.org is back, but Newsweek offers only one side of this crucial LGBTQ story

The activists at ChurchClarity.org are back, with another narrow, but important, set of numbers detailing what some strategic American churches are, and are not, saying about LGBTQ issues and other causes that are crucial to the Christian left.

Anyone who cares about the development of an open, candid, evangelical left has to be paying close attention to this project. That means bookmarking two essential websites -- ChurchClarity.org itself and the Religion News Service columns of Jonathan Merritt, the scribe who has done the most to provoke and define debates on the evangelical left on these topics.

The goal of the project, simply stated, is to examine the public statements of various churches -- symbolized by doctrinal documents on websites -- in order to determine where the leaders of these congregations stand on LGBTQ issues.

While some may see the project as hostile to Christian orthodoxy, the bottom line is that it's offering newsworthy material that reporters need to know about. It is also providing links to its source materials. Journalists can respect that (as demonstrated by this Rod Dreher post reacting to these surveys). 

The bottom line: Reporters can use ChurchClarity.org as a key voice in an important debate.

That is, journalists can choose to do that. It appears that some will settle for a public-relations approach. For example, see the Newsweek piece with this headline: "AMERICA’S LARGEST CHURCHES ARE ALL ANTI-LGBT AND LED BY MOSTLY WHITE MEN." Yes, the all-caps thing appears to be Newsweek style. Here is the overture:

None of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBT-affirming and almost all of them are led by white men, according to ChurchClarity.org, an organization that reports churches’ LGBT policies and rates congregations based on their level of clarity.

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Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece

Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece

Up until recently, I'd never heard of Jen Hatmaker, an evangelical wunderkind who is a one-woman columnist, book-writing machine, conference speaker and all-around mom of five kids and pastor's wife. This has been a winning combo in terms of book deals and speaking engagements for some time. 

Maybe it's because she inhabited a corner of Christianity that most of my single, childless or married-to-a-guy-who-isn't-into-God-at-all female friends could never enter. This is not a criticism of Hatmaker, as none of us were into Beth Moore, either. These Christian superstar women inhabited a universe that us lesser beings couldn't hope to aspire to.

Plus, I wasn't writing about women like her. I was more after cutting-edge Christianity that sent people to India or led then to share all their possessions in a Christian community or do chain-themselves-to-the-clinic-doors activism against abortion clinics. 

Hatmaker is an ordinary person who got where she is by monetizing her life experiences into an evangelical Christian paradigm. Her more recent foray into politics -- linked to her shift on issues linked to sexuality and marriage -- got discovered by secular media, most recently by Politico, which published the following profile:

Last fall, Jen Hatmaker, a popular evangelical author and speaker, started getting death threats. Readers mailed back her books to her home address, but not before some burned the pages or tore them into shreds. LifeWay Christian Stores, the behemoth retailer of the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled her titles off the shelves. Hatmaker was devastated. Up until that point, she had been a wildly influential and welcome presence in the evangelical world, a Christian author whose writings made the New York Times best-seller list and whose home renovation got its own HGTV series. But then 2016 happened, and, well, of course everything changed.

Then it tells how she came out against Donald Trump some time in 2016. This might have been a minority opinion, but she was hardly alone in it and she was not the only person taking heat for it (or even the only woman in that niche).

A lot of evangelicals were unhappy with Trump, whom they saw as crazy, but who was up against Hillary Clinton, who they saw as evil. The fact that 81 percent of evangelical Christians said they voted for Trump doesn’t mean that all of them liked doing so.

So what was the key factor in the Hatmaker story?

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More intrigue at Liberty University over free speech, followed by more blurring of news and opinion

More intrigue at Liberty University over free speech, followed by more blurring of news and opinion

It's the story that everybody's talking about.

I'm referring to Jonathan Merritt's intriguing piece in The Atlantic on "Why Liberty University Kicked an Anti-Trump Christian Author Off Campus."

"That Liberty incident is really interesting," said a tipster who emailed me. "Merritt column scoops have a way of turning into actual news. Or did someone get to this one before him?"

Indeed, Merritt's column is a mixture of straight-news reporting and first-person opinion, some of it negative toward Liberty. That's a fact, not a criticism. The column is definitely worth reading.

But to the question: Did Merritt break news yet again in a commentary piece?

Not this time, if I'm reading the time stamps correctly on other stories.

It looks like The News & Advance, the newspaper in Lynchburg, Va., published the first report on the latest Trump-era controversy at Liberty,

 

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Eugene Peterson, RNS and gay marriage: Wave good-bye to clarity and objectivity

Eugene Peterson, RNS and gay marriage: Wave good-bye to clarity and objectivity

Religion News Service definitely made headlines on July 12 when it reported that the revered author Eugene Peterson had changed his mind on same-sex marriage.

Note that I said “reported.”

The news was actually broken in an opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt, a blogger and columnist who is same-sex attracted and writes frequently on LGBTQ issues.

Merritt is passionately on the side of gays to the point where, in March, he opined that it was “good news” that reparative therapy pioneer Joe Nicolosi had died. So I don’t expect objective reporting from that quarter.

But with RNS, as we’ve said previously, the difference between news and opinion is often pretty thin. Also, it's crucial that some RNS material that is opinion -- Merritt is clearly labeled as a columnist -- may run, in some places, with a simple byline. In the online world, clear labeling of news and features is crucial. Readers are getting confused.

So Merritt, we find out later, had heard rumors that Peterson had changed his mind on gay marriage. So why not get all this on the record? The piece starts out:

When a journalist has a chance to interview a paragon of the Christian faith like Eugene Peterson, there’s a lot of pressure to pick the perfect questions. I’d asked him about why he was leaving the public eye and if he was afraid of death. I’d asked him about Donald Trump and the state of American Christianity. But there was one more topic I wanted to cover: same-sex relationships and marriage.
It’s one of the hottest topics in the church today, and given Peterson’s vast influence among both pastors and laypeople, I knew his opinion would impact the conversation. Though he has had a long career, I couldn’t find his position on the matter either online or in print. I did discover that “The Message,” Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible, doesn’t use the word “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in key texts. But this wasn’t definitive proof of anything. After all, those words never appear in any English translation of the Bible until 1946.

The article then veers into a Q&A, which in my book qualifies as news.

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Anti-clickbait 2.0: Warning! This post asks readers to think about messy life in Russia

Anti-clickbait 2.0: Warning! This post asks readers to think about messy life in Russia

Alas, it's true. As our own Bobby Ross Jr. mentioned earlier today, nothing seems to push readers away from a news-driven blog quicker than headlines about complex stories on the other side of the world.

Well, culture-wars readers on left and right might click to read something about a Pope Francis statement attacking President Donald Trump's refusal to put gender-neutral bathrooms at gateway facilities in a new border wall. Maybe. Just thinking out loud about that one.

So USA Today had an international story the other day that I ran into on Twitter, before I saw coverage of this topic elsewhere. The headline: "Russia parliament votes 380-3 to decriminalize domestic violence."

Now, that's a rather shocking headline, especially when we are talking about a culture that leans toward the authoritarian, to say the least. However, when I read the overture to the piece I found the details a bit more complex and nuanced than I expected.

Russia's parliament voted 380-3 ... to decriminalize domestic violence in cases where it does not cause "substantial bodily harm" and does not occur more than once a year.
The move, which eliminates criminal liability in such cases, makes a violation punishable by a fine of roughly $500, or a 15-day arrest, provided there is no repeat within 12 months. The bill now goes to the rubber-stamp upper chamber, where no opposition is expected. It then must be signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has signaled his support.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists that family conflicts do "not necessarily constitute domestic violence."

Now, I am no expert on Russia. Most of what I know is from books, from other Orthodox believers (my current parish includes more than a few Russians) and from an intense two weeks in Moscow a few days after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union (click here for info on that).

When I read that lede, as opposed to the headline, I immediately had several reactions as a journalist:

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"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

It was about noon Tuesday -- Pacific time -- when news of yet another mass shooting started hitting the news. This time it was in a facility for the disabled in San Bernardino, Calif. 

Of course, this produced the same sickening it’s-now-happening-every-week feeling that Americans keep getting in their gut. We followed the sounds of the cop cars racing through the streets, the press conferences by the local police chief and wishes of anger, disbelief and prayers emanating from Twitterland.

Except that something really interesting happened on Twitter that placed the blame for the whole mass-shootings trend not on the shooters but on those who prayed for their victims. I’ll let the Atlantic describe what happened next in a story headlined “Prayer Shaming:”

Directly after a mass shooting, in the minutes or hours or days between the first trickle of news and when police find a suspect or make arrests, it is very difficult to know what to do. Some people demand political action, like greater gun control; others call for prayer. In the aftermath of a violent shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, in which at least 14 victims are reported to have died, people with those differing reactions quickly turned against one another.

The story showed a compilation of reactions from Twitter, contrasting Hillary Clinton’s “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now. -- H” with vapid comments from GOP presidential candidates offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims.

No doubt Clinton got the media zeitgeist right on this one. The Atlantic continued:

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