RNS

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

It’s hard to live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., without learning a thing or two about civil disobedience, especially demonstrations linked to nuclear weapons. No matter what goes on inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — in terms of energy, medicine, the digital future, etc. — this top-secret research facility will always be known for its role in America’s history of atomic bombs and beyond.

This leads to protests. Some of them cross the line into civil disobedience, which raises interesting historical, legal and even theological questions. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

There is a very similar story unfolding elsewhere in the Bible Belt, as seen in a recent report — “Judge denies nuclear protesters’ religious freedom defense” — from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

(RNS) — A federal judge has denied a request by a group of Catholic peace activists to dismiss charges against them for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, last year to protest nuclear weapons.

The seven activists, individually and through their lawyers, used a novel defense, citing the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.

But Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, denied that defense and scheduled a jury trial for Oct. 21.

The activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison each for trespassing on the U.S. Navy base, which houses six Trident submarines designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads apiece. The seven, mostly middle-aged or elderly, will each stand trial on three felonies and one misdemeanor: destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, trespass and conspiracy.

Now, there are all kinds of questions I’d like to ask at this point.

First of all, I assume we are talking about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as opposed to the “Religion” Freedom Restoration Act that is mentioned here. RNS needs to make a correction.

But it would appear that the basic idea is that the protestors had a right to violate the law as an act of religious conscience. It would be interesting to know more the specifics of their claims.

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Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Here is a mild complaint that I never expected to make about an elite newsroom’s coverage of a hot-button Catholic issue. The Washington Post just produced a story about married Catholic priests — “A bid to allow married priests in the Amazon ignites debate about celibacy“ — and didn’t quote Father Thomas Reese. In this case, I really think they should have quoted him.

Imagine that.

Who is Reese? He is a Jesuit who has, for several decades, been an omnipresent news source and quotable progressive Catholic insider for religion-news reporters. He writes for Religion News Service and used to write for National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of America until a 2005 clash with the Vatican on doctrinal matters. Need I say more?

So why did I miss the familiar voice of Reese in this Post report on celibacy and the ongoing shortage of Catholic priests? Here is a key chunk of this story:

One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests. South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.

A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy. …

The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.

There’s more that could be said, right there, about church history.

The key is that this new door into the priesthood could be used elsewhere. And this worries You Know Who.

… Conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.

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Quebec religious symbols law gets fair, if bewildered, treatment by news media pros

Quebec religious symbols law gets fair, if bewildered, treatment by news media pros

It’s called the Quebec religious symbols law and it’s an odd one.

Passed in June, public employees, such as police officers, government workers and school teachers, are forbidden from wearing any religious regalia. It’s been on appeal ever since and just got approved for a hearing in front of Canada’s highest court.

After plowing through several Canadian newspapers, I found the most succinct explanation in The Atlantic::

Bill 21, or its official name, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” was passed last month, after Quebec’s center-right government held a marathon parliamentary session—and curbed debate in the face of staunch opposition. Yet polls nevertheless show the legislation is popular—63 percent of Quebecers support a ban on judges, police officers, and prison guards wearing religious symbols; 59 percent back such a restriction on teachers, too. The legislation, which applies only to new hires or those who change jobs within an organization, means workers in positions of authority in public schools, courtrooms, law enforcement agencies and other places can no longer wear such symbols.

Being that this includes public school teachers (and aides too, I’m guessing), that’s a lot of now-forbidden jobs.

That this debate is happening in Quebec is no surprise, given its history and how it views itself compared with the rest of Canada. Some Quebecers fear that the broader Canadian policy of multiculturalism will erase their “distinct identity” as a French-speaking province. These concerns have translated into efforts such as Bill 21.

Actually, the Quebecers are copying what’s going on in France, where it’s been illegal to wear full face-coverings in public in France since 2010. (There is not a national ban on hijabs, which simply cover the woman’s head and hair.) Since 2004, it has also been illegal to wear conspicuous religious symbols, including headscarves but also yarmulkehs and crucifixes, in French state schools.

The province’s version of laicity is not quite the laïcité most commonly associated with France, which has a complete separation of religion from the public space, but it’s not too far off either…

However, the Canadian law is stricter than what was passed in France.

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RNS: Fuller seminary is 'homophobic' after it kicks out a married lesbian student

RNS: Fuller seminary is 'homophobic' after it kicks out a married lesbian student

Here at GetReligion, we’ve critiqued endless stories where a gay student (or faculty member) didn’t get the memo about the sexual standards of an evangelical Protestant or Catholic institution that they have chosen to attend — even when they actually signed the documents.

Whether they’re called covenants, creeds or behavior codes, such standards are moral, doctrinal and increasingly legal agreements between students and these private voluntary associations. Sometimes students are made to sign some sort of statement attesting that they’ve been informed of what these standards are.

Typically, the standards demand, among other things, that students not engage in extramarital sex. And “marital” is defined as marriage between a man and a woman.

Alas, a recent Religion News Service story forgot to ask those basic questions in its story about a lesbian seminary student married to a woman. Instead we hear of the “homophobic” seminary and the guileless student.

(RNS) — Over her four years at Fuller Theological Seminary’s campus in Houston, Joanna Maxon had come out to most of her teachers and classmates, and many knew that she was married to a woman.

But after Maxon turned over a copy of her tax return, filed jointly with her wife, as part of her annual financial aid application earlier this year, a complaint about her marriage was brought to the dean. In October 2018, less than a year before she expected to graduate, she was suddenly dismissed.

Months went by before Maxon could stand to make the situation public.

“It took me a while to get to the point where I could talk about it,” Maxon said. “It feels like trauma.”

But once she was ready to share her story in June, Maxon’s wife and friend got into contact with Brave Commons.

Then the story turns into a press release.

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Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

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Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Long ago — in the mid-1980s — I covered an event in Denver that drew quite a few conservative Catholic leaders. There was lots of time to talk, in between sessions.

During one break, I asked a small circle of participants to tell me what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the Catholic church. This was about the time — more than 30 years ago — laypeople people began talking about the surge in reports about clergy sexual abuse of children and teens.

Someone said the biggest challenge — looking into the future with a long lens — was the declining number of men seeking the priesthood. At some point, he added, the church would need to start ordaining married men to the priesthood. Others murmured agreement.

I made a mental note. This was the first time I had ever heard Catholic conservatives — as opposed to spirit of Vatican II progressives or ex-priests — say that they thought the Church of Rome would need to return to the ancient pattern — with married priests as the norm, and bishops being drawn from among celibate monastics. Since then, I have heard similar remarks from some Catholics on the right.

That hot button term — “married priests” — is back in the news, with open talk in the Amazon region about the ordination older married men, drawn from their local communities, to the priesthood.

Could this happen? Let’s look at two think pieces by well-known Catholic priests, one on the left side of the church and one on the right. The conservative priest — a former Anglican pastor — is married, with a family.

First up is the omnipresent — in U.S. media circles — Jesuit journalist Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analysts at Religion News Service. He used to be the editor at America magazine. Here is a crucial chunk of a recent Reese commentary for RNS:

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed. … Although Pope Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

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Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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