Mark Silk

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden emergence from the cloister may well prove to be the religion story of the year.

The media speculated on how things would work six years ago when Benedict broke precedent to abdicate instead of serving as pope till death, to be  succeeded by Pope Francis. Benedict largely maintained silence, lest Catholics think they had two popes. That period ended with a flash last week when conservative Catholic outlets released Benedict’s remarkable 6,000-word  analysis of the Catholic Church’s unrelenting scandals over priests’ sexual abuse of underage victims.

Benedict, who said he cleared the publication with Pope Francis, evidently felt he must plunge into the debate because he thinks the reigning pontiff’s February summit meeting on the sexual-abuse crisis was a flop and the church has not solved this severe and enervating crisis (nor did it when Benedict himself was in charge). Media on both the Catholic right and left said Benedict and his allies are setting up a  clash with his more liberal successor on the causes and cures of the scandal. 

Benedict sees alienation from God as the heart of the matter, with relaxed attitudes toward sin and sex from secular culture that infiltrated the priesthood from secular culture, while “homosexual cliques … significantly changed the climate” in seminaries.

Meanwhile, Francis and his allies stress the need for internal structural reforms in the church. (For what it’s worth, The Guy suspects both pontiffs are correct on the Catholic emergency.)    

What should reporters be doing in the wake of Francis’s summit,  Benedict’s breakout, and ongoing news?

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Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

The latest Pew Research Center survey amalgamates (that's our word of the day) 257 surveys over 23 years about the  political alignments of some 350,000 U.S. registered voters, with important data on gender and other demographics.

We also find valuable context for religion reporters covering political dynamics, and for political reporters covering religious dynamics. Rather than lumping all Protestants and Catholics together, Pew’s data carefully distinguish between the two main and very different Protestant camps, white “mainline” vs. “evangelical,” and between white non-Hispanic Catholics and the politically distinct Hispanics who are now 34 percent of U.S. Catholics.

The following numbers will compare January of 1994, the year Republicans regained control of the U.S. House after a 40-year drought, with last December, the end of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The percentages combine those who identify with a political party with those who “lean” that way.

For Democrats, some patterns are stable. Black Protestants’ overwhelming support rose a notch, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Hispanic Catholics’ Democratic affinity slipped from 69 percent to 64 percent. Jews’ loyalty was virtually unchanged at 69 percent vs. the current 67 percent.

White "mainline” Protestants are split between the parties, with Republican support edging up a bit, from 50 percent in 1994 to the current 53 percent. Mormons’ strong Republicanism (a major irony in 19th Century terms) was 80 percent during the 1994 sweep but sagged to 72 percent last December, presumably reflecting some distaste toward Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the three big shifts that will shape national and state elections in 2018 and beyond.

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Russia pulls trigger on Jehovah's Witnesses and, this time, mainstream media take notice

Russia pulls trigger on Jehovah's Witnesses and, this time, mainstream media take notice

This will be no surprise to anyone who's paid attention, but President Vladimir Putin's Russia has officially lowered the boom on its Jehovah's Witnesses.

The government's plan is to obliterate the organization's ability to function as a viable religious movement within its borders, treating it as a dangerous, hostile movement from outside Russian culture. The key slur is "Western."

That's a growing trend in Russia, as you have not noticed.

Here's the meaty top of a New York Times piece that delivered the news last week:

MOSCOW -- Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that rejects violence, an extremist organization, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipers in the same category as Islamic State militants.
The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denomination be “liquidated” — essentially eliminated or disbanded — had been widely expected. Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions, no matter what the evidence.
Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the denomination, said Jehovah’s Witnesses would appeal the ruling. He said it had focused on the activities of the organization’s so-called administrative center, a complex of offices outside St. Petersburg, but also branded all of its nearly 400 regional branches as extremist.
“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Mr. Zhenkov said in a telephone interview. “We will, of course, appeal.”

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Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

The growing public rift between Washington and Moscow following our missile attack on a Syrian military airport couldn't come at a worse time for Russia's relatively small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Why? Because President Vladimir Putin's Russia appears ready to outlaw the sect for engaging in "extremist activities," a catch all legalism in Russia used to ensnare any group or individual the Kremlin is politically unhappy with.

What? You didn't know this?

I'm not surprised because other than The New York Times, no member of the American media elite appears to have done its own story on the Issue.

Of course the wires, including the Associated Press and Reuters, pumped out bare-bone versions of the story. But from my limited search it appears to me that the wire stories were largely relegated to media web pages.

Why's that? Perhaps because the few newsrooms with the ability to do their own story out of Russia view the plight of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a mere sidebar to the far more globally engrossing story of U.S.-Russia friction.

Not to mention that the sect never gets much media attention anyway. I'm guessing that's because the only familiarity the preponderance of American journalists have with the group is when it's members knock on their door to hand out tracts -- something they seemingly always manage to do at an inopportune time.

(Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christians. But almost all mainstream Christians reject that claim, because of conflicts over the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because this post is about journalism, not theology, I'm making no judgement here about that. Click here for more information.)

Here's some important background on the issue from the Times piece.

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What sociologists told us two years ago about religion and a 'political backlash'

What sociologists told us two years ago about religion and a 'political backlash'

Washington University made the shocking announcement in 1989 that it would disband its sociology department. Those of us who greatly value this academic discipline are encouraged that this distinguished school revived the program with new courses last fall.

Journalists are trying to comprehend the most astonishing U.S. political campaign since 1948. Or 1912, or 1860, or 1800. Political scientists have been working overtime, but sociologists can provide the media significant longer-term understanding. One example was a 2014 article (.pdf here) by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley, in the online journal Sociological Science.

The Religion Guy missed this piece when released (it’s hard for news folk to monitor all pertinent academic journals) and thanks New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter for highlighting it as evidence of “the waning place of religion in American politics.” Religion journalists note: The Hout-Fischer (hereafter H-F) analysis combines U.S. political currents and that much-mulled increase of “nones” without religious identity

The H-F piece is cluttered with algebraic formulas and arcane lingo (“multicollinearity,” “sheaf variable”), but fortunately the conclusions are in standard English. Much data comes from the University of Chicago’s standard General Social Survey.

H-F notes that Americans born after 1970 are less religious than previous generations. In past times those raised in church who dropped out often returned in adulthood, but that’s much less likely today. Also, those raised without religion  are becoming less likely to turn religious later. Religion writers know this, but -- how come?

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How scary is this? GetReligion critic joins us in opposing 'religious liberty' scare quotes

How scary is this? GetReligion critic joins us in opposing 'religious liberty' scare quotes

Here at GetReligion, we've made no secret of our disdain for scare quotes on "religious liberty" and "religious freedom."

But I was delighted to see this week that Mark Silk, who writes the liberal "Spiritual Politics" blog for Religion News Service, has jumped on the bandwagon.

Now, if Silk's name doesn't ring a bell, he's most famous among your friendly GetReligionistas for writing a series of posts that he dubbed "GetGetReligion." I haven't seen such a post in a while, so I don't know if he's still trying to understand us or not. Hopefully, he hasn't decided to ignore us rather than flatter us with (negative) attention.

However, I come today not to question Silk's logic but to praise his astute take on scare quotes.

Just in case there's anybody not familiar with that term, here's how Dictionary.com defines scare quotes:

A pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.

And here's a big chunk of why Silk believes scare quotes have creeped into news coverage of religious liberty/religious freedom legislation and why he argues they're not the proper approach by journalists:

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Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Time for a "think piece" trip into the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt. Two weekend birds with one shot, in other words.

As you would expect, in recent weeks I have had quite a few people ask me what I think of the Greek debt crisis and, in particular, whether I -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- see any religion "ghosts" hiding in this major global news story.

The short answer is "no." The longer answer is that I have sense -- in the muddy details of this crisis -- a kind of cultural clash between Greece and the European heartland, especially Germany. But what is the religious content there?

That's hard to nail down. I mean, the typical crisis report usually has a passage or two that sounds like this, drawn from a recent New York Times report:

Many Greeks have taken Germany’s resistance personally, plastering walls with posters and graffiti denouncing what they see as the rigidity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. ...
What many outsiders view as the rigidity of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble is widely viewed within the country as the best way to resolve the Greek debt crisis and ensure the stability of the European currency used by 19 nations.
“There are clear rules, and anybody who doesn’t stick to the rules cannot be an example for others,” Julia Klöckner, a senior member of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said in an interview Thursday.

And so forth and so on. There isn't much Godtalk in that passage, is there?

Lo and behold, a recent Religion News Service commentary by Mark Silk -- "The moral theology of the Greek crisis" -- nailed down the vague ideas that I have had in recent weeks about this drama.

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What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

A hearty "Amen!" in this corner for the key points in Mark Silk's Religion News Service take down of a really, really strange Time magazine interpretation of a poll on the Bible and religion.

Let's let the man preach:

This week the American Bible Society (Protestant) released its annual survey ranking the “Bible-Mindedness” of America’s 100 largest cities (well, actually, America’s 100 largest media markets). Conducted by the Barna Group (evangelical), the ranking is based on “the highest combined levels of regular Bible reading and expressed belief in the Bible’s accuracy.” This year, Birmingham/Anniston/Tuscaloosa AL won the top spot while Providence RI/New Bedford MA came in dead last for the third year in a row.
OK, so far so good. However, Time, in its story, transformed the results into, in the words of the headline, “These Are the Most Godless Cities in America.” Holy Misconception, Batman! Since when does non-Bible-mindedness equal Godlessness?

Silk, with justification, notes that this interpretation slants everything away from cultural Catholicism and in the Bible-driven direction of Protestantism and, especially, evangelical Protestantism. That's accurate. However, I would argue that Time missed at least two other crucial points in this tone-deaf piece.

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RNS (cherry-)picks a cardinal: More on that Dolan & St. Pat's story

RNS (cherry-)picks a cardinal: More on that Dolan & St. Pat's story

My GetReligion post on Religion News Service's article concerning Cardinal Dolan and the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade has caught the attention of RNS blogger Mark Silk, who counters my claim that the article conflates news with opinion.

Calling me "the latest horse in Terry Mattingly’s GetReligion stable" (to which I say "neigh"), Silk writes that, in my book, "[RNS reporter David] Gibson’s journalistic crime is to suggest in a piece of reportage that the cardinal’s position is of a piece with Pope Francis’. "

Well, yes, that is my claim, and you can read my post here to see how I back it up. Silk argues that I am misjudging Gibson, "because the offending sentence points beyond the issue at hand":

It’s not just that Francis’ widely reported remarks about not taking criticism from the Vatican too seriously, about not overemphasizing abortion, about the dangers of an excessively purist church provide more than enough evidence for such a “more inclusive posture.” Or that Catholic conservatives have been upset with Francis for exactly that reason. It’s that Dolan himself is quoted specifically pointing to the pope’s inclusiveness. Which makes Gibson’s characterization a journalistic statement, pure and simple.

Here is the section Silk cites from Gibson's piece that quotes Dolan on Francis:

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