Maryland

Friday Five: Capital Gazette journalists, SCOTUS news, an unsung hero's passing and more

Friday Five: Capital Gazette journalists, SCOTUS news, an unsung hero's passing and more

"I’m just undone by what happened at the Capital Gazette," said my friend Carla Hinton, religion editor at The Oklahoman. "These are strange and heartbreaking times we are living in. Praying for my fellow journalists and their families."

"It's especially traumatic because so many of us started our careers at newspapers like the Capital Gazette," responded my friend Steve Lackmeyer, a longtime business reporter at The Oklahoman. "We know these people, we know these newsrooms..."

Amen and amen.

No, the senseless slaying of journalists isn't any more tragic than the mass shootings — at schools, churches and other businesses — that keep making headlines in America.

But for those of us in this profession, the Capital Gazette tragedy hits especially close to home.

Want to understand the heart and passion that make many journalists tick? Read this Twitter thread by Nyssa Kruse, an intern at the Hartford Courant.

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Church gives away $100 bills; Waffle House workers get $3,500 tip; and more feel-good headlines

Church gives away $100 bills; Waffle House workers get $3,500 tip; and more feel-good headlines

Annual church giving tops $50 billion, according to one report.

The average Christian puts roughly $800 a year into the collection plate.

But that's dog-bites-man kind of news, meaning it's not really news. It's too routine. 

On the other hand, you know what makes for interesting stories? Churches giving away cash for members to go out and do good deeds, that's what. I like those kind of headlines, especially at Christmastime.

Enter Julie Zauzmer, religion writer for the Washington Post, with a feel-good report out of a Maryland suburb:

On the first Sunday of December, the Rev. Ron Foster invited his congregants to step up to the altar to receive the bread and wine of Communion — and to receive a $100 bill.
“Listen to where the Holy Spirit’s leading you,” he said to the stunned congregation as he distributed a stack of money at Severna Park United Methodist Church, located in a Maryland suburb. “Listen to the need that’s around you, that you find in the community. You may be in the right place at the right time to help somebody, because you have this in your hand.”
One hundred congregants walked out into the Advent season, with the money burning a hole in their pockets.
One stack of bills totaling $10,000, dropped off at the church by an anonymous donor, has turned into 100 good deeds in the Severna Park community this Christmas season.
Ginger ale and soup and warm socks for a cancer patient. Snow pants and gloves so a child with a brain tumor can play outside. Christmas presents for children who are homeless, for children whose parents are struggling with drug addiction, for children whose parents have suffered domestic abuse, for children in the hospital. Cash for dozens of grateful strangers, from waitresses to bus drivers to leaf collectors.
One hundred donations go a long way.

Amen.

The story notes that the donor — who asked to remain anonymous but granted an interview to the Post — "had heard about other communities, including her mother’s church in Texas, where everyone in the congregation was entrusted with money to distribute."

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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When searching for 'evangelical' voters, maybe journalists should start with folks in pews?

When searching for 'evangelical' voters, maybe journalists should start with folks in pews?

Anyone who has lived in Texas knows that, in some communities, it seems like there are more Baptists than there are people. For every 100 folks who say they are Baptists, about 20-30 are going to be seen in a pew on a regular basis.

Anyone who has lived in, oh, Maryland knows that the state has a rich Catholic heritage. But what is the percentage of "Catholics" in the state who actually attend Mass on a regular basis, let alone practice the teachings of the faith?

Anyone who has lived in New York knows there is a wide gap between the people who are identified as Jews (the Bernie Sanders non-Jewish Jews niche is in here) and the number of people who practice any version of the Jewish faith, either on the doctrinal left or right.

Let's do one more. Anyone who has lived in or near Utah knows that when people talk about the Mormon population, that includes many "Jack Mormons" who are part of this flock on the cultural level, sort of, but are not active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What's my point? If you ask Americans if they are "born-again Christians," you are going to get totals that are way, way higher than the number of people who frequent church pews.

Clearly, if journalists (and pollsters) are actually interested in what is happening in this year's bizarre Republican race for the White House, someone is going to have to come up with questions that probe the gap between people who self-identify as "evangelicals" (or who say they are part of evangelical churches) and those whose beliefs and lifestyles have anything to do with mainstream evangelicalism.

The bottom line: What does it mean to say that Citizen Donald Trump is winning the "evangelical" vote with 30-plus percent of that vague, undefined total?

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Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Obviously, my personal relationship with The Baltimore Sun has changed in the past few weeks.

As I sit here at my home office desk, looking out into an East Tennessee forest, I no longer have a copy of the Sun sitting nearby, retrieved from my front yard. Every few days, I get one of those computer-driven emails from the Sun circulation department proclaiming, "We want you back!" or words to that effect. I filled out my ex-subscriber online feedback form the other day and it was totally about cyber-issues, without a single question on news content.

Nevertheless, I am trying -- sorting through the online summaries and waves of pop-up ads -- to keep up with some of the important, ongoing religion stories in Maryland.

Take, for example, the obvious Baltimore angles in the national Episcopal Church gathering out in Utah. I have been looking for references to two important Episcopalians -- former bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook and current Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton. You just know that Episcopalians have been talking about the DUI bishop case and the state of legal affairs in Maryland. Right?

The Sun team did, leaning on Associated Press wire copy, run a short story about the election of the church's new presiding bishop, noting a strong Baltimore connection. That little story began like this:

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the first African-American to lead an Episcopal diocese in the southerm United States and a former rector in Baltimore, will become the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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How quickly will journalists grant O'Malley that 'Pope Francis Democrat' label?

How quickly will journalists grant O'Malley that 'Pope Francis Democrat' label?

If Martin O'Malley hired an army of public-relations pros he could not have produced a better White House campaign slogan than the one offered by Religion News service the other day in an online headline about the former Maryland governor. This short news-you-can-use feature was part of its ongoing series offering background on the religious views of various candidates. It proclaimed:

5 faith facts about Martin O’Malley: ‘A Pope Francis Democrat’

Some folks in pews on the cultural and doctrinal right may want to contrast the tone of that with this selection from another RNS digital newsletter:

Southern Baptist bruiser:
5 faith facts about Sen. Lindsey Graham: religious right spear carrier

The RNS mini-feature -- as is the norm with this handy series -- did contain some direct links to information about O'Malley, while editorially stressing that he is, well, read this:

He’s a pray-every-morning, church-every-Sunday (St. Francis of Assisi in Baltimore) believer who sent all four of his kids to Catholic schools. Democratic Party activist and author Jonathan Miller called him, “the rare progressive to frame his strongly felt policy positions in the language of faith.

And toward the end there is this:

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Baltimore Sun ignores religion ghosts in Maryland debates on 'death with dignity' bill

Baltimore Sun ignores religion ghosts in Maryland debates on 'death with dignity' bill

Baltimore is the kind of place where a Super Bowl ring does grant someone a certain level of moral and cultural authority.

Thus, I was not surprised that Baltimore Ravens executive O.J. Brigance, a linebacker and special-teams star in the team's first Super Bowl win, was asked to testify during the legislative hearings on a proposed "death with dignity" law in Maryland. Also, I was not surprised that The Baltimore Sun decided to lead its report on these hearings with this unique man's testimony.

However, I was surprised that Brigance -- one of the most outspoken Christians on the Raven's staff (click here for previous GetReligion posts on this) -- did not say anything about his faith during his testimony. Or, perhaps, the members of the Sun team were anxious to avoid the Godtalk during the debates about this hot-button moral issue?

First, here is what readers were told about Brigance:

On Tuesday, testifying with a machine that replaced the voice taken from him by ALS, the former linebacker told Maryland lawmakers that his most significant feat came after he grieved over his degenerative condition and decided to live.
"Because I decided to live life the best I could, there has been a ripple effect of goodness in the world," Brigance said. "Since being diagnosed, I have done a greater good for society in eight years than in my previous 37 years on earth."
His testimony came during an emotional hearing in Annapolis on a proposed "death with dignity" law, a measure that is named in honor of Richard E. "Dick" Israel, another prominent Marylander with a neurodegenerative disease. While Israel is spending his final months fighting for the right to end his life, Brigance says his terminal disease brought meaning to his.

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Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

The accident in which a car driven by Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland hit and fatally injured a cyclist has continued to receive coverage in the back pages of some major newspapers. As I mentioned the other day, much of the discussion has focused on her previous DUI arrest. The big question now: Was she using a smartphone at the time of the accident, perhaps one owned by the diocese?

Meanwhile, the following passage in a Washington Post follow-up story raised eyebrows among religion-beat professionals for reasons that transcended the facts surrounding Cook's election, the importance of the fatal (some insist hit-and-run) accident and the ongoing investigative work being done by police:

Several people who were part of the bigger convention that voted for Cook this spring said they were not told about the arrest.
Cook was initially charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and possession of marijuana, among other charges, but received “probation before judgment” and completed her probation.
The diocese’s statement Tuesday said Cook disclosed the 2010 case to those considering electing her a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a small but historically prominent American Protestant denomination.

Say what? Have we really reached the point where journalists need to offer readers explanatory material about the existence of the Episcopal Church?

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The Sun talks (just talk, no facts) about an Episcopal hero

I didn’t know much about the Rt. Rev. David Leighton — the 11th diocese of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — before reading the recent Baltimore Sun news article about the funeral rites held in his honor.

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