Ku Klux Klan

A church's long-dead founder and the KKK -- New York Times article raises a question of relevance

A church's long-dead founder and the KKK -- New York Times article raises a question of relevance

How far back must journalists dig into the history of a given denomination or congregation, and how might a given founder, dead more than seven decades, be viewed in light of today's mores?

Do we really have to know everything about the earliest leaders of a denomination or movement? Just ask biographers of Martin Luther, the complicated ex-Catholic who sparked the Protestant Reformation but who also has been accused of virulent anti-Semitism.

Or how about Baptist or Presbyterian leaders in pre-Civil War America who supported, or tolerated, slavery? Shall we hold modern-day Lutherans, Baptists or Presbyterians responsible for the sins of their spiritual forefathers?

The New York Times raises the general issue in a rather lengthy profile of the Zarephath Christian Church in New Jersey's rural Somerset County.

We start out in conventional territory. This passage is long, but it's important to sense the tone of this piece right up front.

Hundreds of people each weekend drive up the hill to a newly built $12 million church surrounded by soccer fields in a New Jersey community named Zarephath. They worship by singing along with rock-ballad style prayer songs, following lyrics projected on three overhead screens. They sway and lift their arms high overhead, or say the words quietly with their eyes closed.
Drums, several guitars, keyboards and backup singers accompany the prayers. Spotlights shift from purple to blue to red as the mood builds.
“O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide,” about 300 congregants sang during a recent Sunday service, in a sanctuary that resembles a warehouse-style concert hall, save for two small crosses near the stage. “Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

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Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

The late Phillip Graham, onetime publisher of The Washington Post, is widely credited with saying journalism is "the first rough draft of history." But, as journalist Jack Shafer noted seven years ago, another writer named Alan Barth may have originated it.

Regardless of who said it first, and as Shafer noted in the article linked above, the words ring true. A news story is generally the first take on something that's happened. Many newspapers will stay with an important local (or national) story as events unfold. Conscientious newspapers will flesh out their follow-up reporting with greater detail and insight.

Fortunately for those of us who decry when the media fails to "get" the religion angle, The Washington Post has -- in one recent case -- come through with reporting (and even a first-person commentary) that shows they do "get" it.

I'm speaking of the continuing story of the Rev. William Aitcheson, a Catholic priest who once-upon-a-time wore a very different set of vestments: the robes of an "exalted cyclops" in an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The Post, which broke the story in the general media, has stayed with it, From its follow-up story:

The reason behind Aitcheson’s revelation also has been called into question. Maria Santos Bier, a freelance journalist and member of the Arlington Diocese, had contacted the diocese a few days before Aitcheson wrote the essay to ask about Aitcheson’s KKK history -- and told them she might write about it.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Santos Bier described her experience as a history student of Aitcheson’s while she was home-schooled in the early 2000s in Woodstock, Va. Aitcheson was a “fervent advocate of the Confederacy” who would joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in homilies at the church, and seemed so knowledgeable about history, Santos Bier wrote, that “I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just.”

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Klanner-turned-Catholic priest story raises question about (wait for it) repentance

Klanner-turned-Catholic priest story raises question about (wait for it) repentance

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more exciting in the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., where a protester was mowed down and killed by a white-supremacist, there comes a story that I can't imagine anyone anticipated.

An active, currently serving Roman Catholic priest admitted he had been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and burned crosses on people's lawns, before entering the priesthood. The priest, Father William Aitcheson, has now taken a leave of absence from his role as an associate pastor at a parish in the Arlington, Va., archdiocese.

While it didn't make front page news in The Washington Post -- of which more here shortly -- it was the lead item on the local NBC-TV station, WRC. Their story, buttressed by an online version, was a very basic account:

A Virginia priest took a leave of absence on Monday after he admitted that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, burned a cross on an African-American couple's lawn in College Park, Maryland, in the 1970s. 
Aitcheson, 62, wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper. He currently is an associate pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax, Virginia.

The WRC-TV story offers an intriguing insight into the genesis of this disclosure, but then tapers off:

Aitcheson wrote in the essay that images from violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to speak out. But a reporter's inquiry may have played a role. 
The diocese said in a statement issued Wednesday that a "freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner" contacted the diocese and said she knew that Aitcheson's name matched that of the man convicted of cross-burnings. 

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Were many journalists right when they blamed 'white Christians' for Charlottesville riots?

Were many journalists right when they blamed 'white Christians' for Charlottesville riots?

On the face of it, the riots in Charlottesville didn’t have a religious component. Yes, there were pastors marching in protest against the white nationalists, but so were lots of other people.

Then, everything went very wrong very fast. What I saw next, mainly on Twitter, were people demanding that white clergy nationwide condemn the white nationalist protest in their Sunday sermons. I was fascinated by how some media – who wouldn’t be caught dead implicating certain other groups when one of them does an act of violence – decided that all white Christian clergy have to answer for the violence in Charlottesville.

Do you think I’m painting with too broad a brush? Read this NBC News opinion piece blaming all of Christianity for the Ku Klux Klan and – by extension – the events in Charlottesville. 

I saw a lot of lecturing at evangelical Protestants – who are reminded nonstop that 81 percent of them polled as voting for Trump last year – that they are responsible for what happened this past weekend. Much of this came in the form of opinion pieces ranging from an essay on Fox News’ site by a white Southern Baptist seminary professor to an essay in the Washington Post’s Acts of Faith section – written by a black clergyman – telling white pastors to speak up.

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