On Religion

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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Bonus podcast: tmatt and Eric Metaxas sift through 30 years of 'On Religion' work

Bonus podcast: tmatt and Eric Metaxas sift through 30 years of 'On Religion' work

Every Friday, our own Bobby Ross Jr., adds a dose of what he calls "shameless promotion" to his Friday Five wrap up of GetReligion stuff.

Let me add a bit of that of my own, a bit early. My apologies in advance.

Readers may have noticed that the "On Religion" column I filed on April 11 marked the 30th anniversary for my weekly analysis piece, which began with Scripps Howard News Service then moved to the Universal syndicate. Our friends at Lutheran Public Radio also did an extra-long "Crossroads" podcast that week, focusing on what I saw as the five "Big Ideas" in that period.

I finished that anniversary column soon after I arrived in New York City for two weeks of teaching and, literally while doing the edits, I took an hour-plus off to head up Broadway a couple of blocks to appear on The Eric Metaxas Show.

Now, Eric and I have been friends for two decades and I have been on the show several times, either by telephone from here in Oak Ridge or live in the New York studio when I'm in town. There are now video cameras in there, which I find disturbing since I have a face for radio (see proof in this video from a lecture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford).

Metaxas and I agree on a lot of things (love of C.S. Lewis, for example) and disagree on others (artistic quality of bubblegum pop in '70s-'80s). He was raised Greek Orthodox and is now an Evangelical. I was raised as a Southern Baptist "moderate" and am now Orthodox. And then there is the Donald Trump thing. I was #NeverTrump #NeverHillary and Eric's views are best expressed as #NeverHillary, period.

Anyway, during this hour of his program, we went all over the place -- but the heart of the discussion focused -- as you would expect -- on events and trends in religion news.

Consider this a bonus podcast, with an occasionally sarcastic (in a nice kind of way) host.

Click here to tune that in.

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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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'On Religion' meets GetReligion -- tmatt's national column turns 29, with nod to Dean Baquet

'On Religion' meets GetReligion -- tmatt's national column turns 29, with nod to Dean Baquet

A long, long time ago -- 29-plus years to be precise -- several editors at the old Scripps Howard News Service noticed something.

At the time, I was the religion-beat reporter and columnist at The Rocky Mountain News in Denver (memory eternal). The national wire desk in Washington, D.C., noticed that, when they put my national-angle columns on the wire -- as opposed to something completely Colorado-centric -- they would get picked up by quite a few smaller and mid-sized papers.

Plus, there was a pending request from the editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel -- Harry Moskos at the time -- for a weekly Scripps Howard wire piece on religion to serve as one anchor for his newspaper's planned Saturday section on issues of family and faith. Those two subjects, you see, kept showing up near the top of lists about subjects that interested his local readers.

So the national editors worked out a deal with my bosses in Denver to free me up to do a weekly column for the national wire.

Thus, my national column was born 29 years ago last week. An editor asked me what I wanted to call it and I proposed "Get Religion."

That name struck one of the editors as a bit aggressive. You see, he didn't get that I was (wink, wink) linking the old Southern saying that someone "got religion" -- as in got saved, in a revival tent sort of way -- with the modern idea that some people just "don't get it," as in feminist lingo. So they changed "Get Religion" to "On Religion."

Anyway, I rarely run anything from "On Religion" (the column is now carried by the Universal syndicate) here at GetReligion, but I thought I would let readers here see this past week's piece -- as I open my third decade doing that column.

Yes, 29 years is a long time. This particular column is also about -- well, do you remember that turn of phrase used by New York Times editor Dean Baquet?

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Slashing at freedom: New York Times Magazine targets attacks on Bangladesh 'freethinkers'

Slashing at freedom: New York Times Magazine targets attacks on Bangladesh 'freethinkers'

While liberals carp about the religious right allegedly chipping away at freedom in America, some Muslim extremists are hacking away -- literally -- at dissenters. So it's a grimly welcome surprise when the New York Times, the Gray Lady of liberalism, spotlights jihadi atrocities in Bangladesh.

The massive magazine feature, nearly 5,300 words strong, tells of the "freethinker" movement of secularist bloggers who have been stabbed and slashed by extremists in that south Asian land. In particular, the story centers on Asif Mohiuddin, a secular atheist journalist who fled to Germany after being stabbed several times.

And he's just one of more than a half-dozen victims, most murdered, some mangled. The attacks have leaked into western media for years, but retelling them in a single story carries its own visceral punch. The bottom line: It's good to see coverage of the rights of religious liberals, agnostics and atheists in troubled lands.

Some examples:

* Ahmed Rajib Haider was stalked by a five-man team, who "studied his movements over a period of days" and even played cricket outside his home. When he ventured out alone at night, the men pulled machetes and killed him.

* Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, were attacked after a book fair. Two men with machetes "struck him three times on the head, penetrating his brain and killing him. His wife lost a thumb trying to protect him."

* "Weeks after Roy’s killing, two men armed with meat cleavers struck down the satirical blogger Rhaman."

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Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat

Granted, 25 years is a rather long time, especially in the Internet age.

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