Religion

Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

The 2020 presidential race is in full swing. The political press and its insatiable appetite for all things Donald Trump has subsided in as much as it needs to dedicate column space and airtime to the Democrats looking to replace him.

At last count, 20 people are running in the Democratic primary. Those include long-time frontrunners like Bernie Sanders, according to various polls and based on money raised, as well as those you may never have heard of before now like John Hickenlooper.

Overall, religion and faith, as expected, has gotten little to no coverage thus far. Only Pete Buttigieg has seen crossover coverage and that’s only because he injected his Christian faith (as a shot against Vice President Mike Pence) into the conversation.

The religion of these candidates and history with the dogma of their respective faiths — what they believe, why they believe it and, in some cases, when they changed their minds — is an issue many Americans care about. Journalists in the New York and Washington, D.C. bubbles may not think so (or even be aware of it), but the rest of the country (from the Bible Belt to the Western Plains) cares.

One candidate whose faith does need examination is Joe Biden. The former vice president has been in the news a lot recently — even before he announced a 2020 bid — but the faith angle (and his history with Catholicism over the decades) has sadly been overlooked.

For starters, Biden was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Were he to win the presidency, Biden would only be the second Catholic — after John F. Kennedy — to occupy the Oval Office. That’s no longer a big a story as when JFK did it in 1960. Nonetheless, Biden’s brand of Catholicism (past and present) is worth lots of news stories and TV segments. One can't run a Biden is running in 2020 story without including his faith and how it has influenced his life and politics.

It's true that Biden winning wouldn't make the same headlines JFK did in 1960. Or can they? After all, Catholics have come a long way in this country — both in terms of political clout and in overall population — that a Biden win wouldn't do much in the way of cementing Catholicism in any way. After all, a majority of the Supreme Court now features Catholic judges. Issues like abortion (Biden was once a pro-life Democrat) and religious freedom are at the center of the culture war being waged primarily by conservative Catholics, with help from Evangelical Christians, Mormons and other Protestants.

Overall, the Biden coverage has been devoid of any faith.

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New York Times ignores key faith facts when covering Michael Chamberlain's fight for justice

New York Times ignores key faith facts when covering Michael Chamberlain's fight for justice

I'll be upfront about my interest, or perhaps "bias," in the case of Michael Chamberlain, 72, who passed to his rest on Jan. 9 from complications of leukemia.

Chamberlain, an Australian, was a Seventh-day Adventist, as am I.

Knowing a few Australian Adventists, I can attest that the case of Michael and his former wife, Lindy, was a searing moment in the 131-year history of the movement in that country. (Adventism -- founded by some veterans of the Millerite movement -- itself dates back to 1863, when its General Conference was first organized.)

The Chamberlains were a young pastoral couple serving in Australia when they went on a camping trip in 1980 with their children, including a nine-week-old daughter, Azaria. At one point, Azaria vanished from the campsite, with Lindy claiming to have seen a dingo, a wild dog native to Australia, in the vicinity. Azaria's body was never found.

Almost immediately, public suspicion fell on the Chamberlains: No one else heard or saw an animal in the area when the child disappeared. Was baby Azaria's name some sort of cultic reference to a child sacrifice? (It wasn't.) And what about the Chamberlain's religion -- aren't those Adventists a weird sect that does kooky things?

While some may wish to debate the pros and cons of Seventh-day Adventist belief and practice, I can't think of too many rational people who believe that Adventism is a blood-sacrifice-loving cult. But in the heated antipodean media environment of the early 1980s, it was easily possible to lose sight of that.

But 37 years after Azaria's tragic death — ruled, in 2012, to have indeed been caused by a dingo and without the parents being at fault — the faith angle of this story is, or should be, widely known. Apparently, however, these crucial details slipped past The New York Times (paywall), which reported on Michael Chamberlain's passing thusly:

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Religious Trump reaction: RNS struggles to find a range of actual human voices

Religious Trump reaction: RNS struggles to find a range of actual human voices

When news spread that Donald Trump won the presidential election, I got the sense that the various elites -- cultural, political, mainstream media -- were reacting like Family Guy's Chris Griffin:  "Whaaaattt??"

The Religion News Service, at least, tried to gather responses from religious leaders, rather than have secular pundits opine about them. But that mechanical approach -- which tmatt likes to call post-Interview Journalism™ -- has weaknesses of its own.

It's not that RNS lacked effort. It compiled a long list of comments. A long, long list. Nearly 2,400 words, with 17 sources.

RNS also attempts some balance, backed up by numbers, as the top shows:

Some celebrated and congratulated the victor. Others prayed and called for unity. It was clear early on that evangelical Christians had been key to Donald Trump’s stunning upset.
Meanwhile, others including atheists and Muslims reacted in shock and vowed to defend against what one group termed “unconstitutional and undemocratic actions.”
According to exit polls, 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians cast their ballots for the reality TV star-turned-Republican presidential candidate.
It was a higher figure than voted for Mitt Romney (79 percent) in 2012, John McCain (73 percent) four years before that or George Bush (79 percent) in 2004.

From there, we get a smorgasbord of quotes. Here's a sample.

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Atheist ranks aren't solid, even in politics, says an eyebrow-raising RNS piece

Atheist ranks aren't solid, even in politics, says an eyebrow-raising RNS piece

Atheists differ strongly on views of religion, of themselves, even what group to join; Richard Dawkins famously compared organizing atheists to herding cats. But I'll confess that I never thought of political differences also -- not until I read a new story from the Religion News Service.

The article is couched in terms of the presidential race -- as almost every American news story this season seems to be -- but have patience. It's a fresh approach to a little-reported facet of religious (or non-religious) life.

RNS veteran Kimberly Winston starts with the event that may have gotten her attention: a video by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. He gets pretty strident in his opposition to Trump and to whoever supports him:

"I don’t want a president who couldn’t even explain evolution. I don’t want a president who can’t tell fact from fiction and seems to believe anything someone tells him on Twitter," Mehta says in a recent You Tube video that has garnered a lot of attention in atheist corners.
"If I wanted to hear people whose best evidence for their belief is, ‘Well, some people have said,’ then I’d go to church."
So, Mehta, best known as "The Friendly Atheist"  on his popular blog, will vote for Hillary Clinton — and he spends more than seven minutes trying to persuade other atheists to do the same because, he believes, she — a lifelong Methodist — is the only candidate who shares their core values of separation of church and state, LGBT equality and science-based education.

Winston then reveals what may surprise: Despite their commitment to pluralism and liberal politics, Democrats cannot expect a bloc vote from atheists.  "For some, the choice is not clear," the story says of the 2016 race.

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Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

When I last looked at the Rev. Gretta Vosper, the famously atheistic pastor in Toronto, I praised Canadian media for their measured coverage. "In the United States," I wrote, "we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric."

Well, I take it back. Now that a national committee of the United Church of Canada has recommended Vosper's ouster, the report from at least one American publication -- the Washington Post -- isn’t quite that fierce. Just cartoonish. And inferior to the writeup in a Canadian newspaper.

Let's start with the good first. The National Post, that Canadian paper, starts with a straight account of the facts:

A United Church of Canada minister who is a self-professed atheist and has been the subject of an unprecedented probe into her theological beliefs is one step closer to being removed from the pulpit.
Sub-executive members of the church’s Toronto Conference announced Thursday they have asked the church’s general council, the most senior governance body, to hold a formal hearing to decide whether Rev. Gretta Vosper, who does not believe in God or the Bible, should be placed on the disciplinary "Discontinued Service List."
"Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity," it said in a statement.
"Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith. There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

This is what Terry Mattingly likes to call the "American model" -- fair, straight, honest. Sad that we had to look outside America to find it.

The National Post continues to say that the conference committee found Vosper "not suitable" as a UCC minister for deserting her beliefs. The 700-word article also allows space for some back-and-forth:

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Strike up the banned: The Bible is among the most-challenged library books, RNS reports

Strike up the banned: The Bible is among the most-challenged library books, RNS reports

Secularists often chide evangelical Christians for nursing a persecution complex, but you know the old saying: Just 'cause you're paranoid …

And the paranoids among us won't be reassured by a new report thatthe Bible was one of the most challenged books in libraries last year.

The holy book, says the Religion News Service, sits among other books that many church people would reject:

(RNS) What does the Bible have in common with "Fifty Shades of Grey" or one of John Green’s best-selling young adult novels?
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Bible made the list of the American Library Association’s 10 most frequently challenged books last year.
The 2015 list was released Monday (April 11) as part of the ALA’s 2016 State of America’s Libraries report. It includes books that have drawn formal, written complaints from the public because of their content or appropriateness, according to the ALA.
The Bible, which came in at No. 6, was challenged for its "religious viewpoint," the ALA said.

The story reveals a trend since 2009 of growing complaints about books in libraries that contain "religious viewpoints," the article says. Sounds like the RNS writer, Emily McFarlan Miller, asked some penetrating questions.

What about before 2000? Well, back then, most complaints were about "sexually explicit material, offensive language or being unsuitable for the intended age group," the article says. Today, the growing edge is over religious content.

From the list, though, ALA seems to include sexuality in what constitutes a religious viewpoint:

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Is European-style, opinion-marbled journalism playing a bigger role in American news?

Is European-style, opinion-marbled journalism playing a bigger role in American news?

I'm often frustrated by one of American journalism's most cherished, but abused, conceits. 

I'm referring, broadly, to "he-said she-said" journalism (HSSS, from here on), the standard news format of contrasting statements meant to convey a sense of fair-mindedness no matter how much stronger, by which I mean believable, one statement is compared to another. It's just so easy to cheat and hide bias and a lack of fairness, even while appearing to do the opposite.

I'm sure you've read an HSSS story with some quote that had you mumbling to yourself, "That's utter crap." Or perhaps you've worded it more strongly? I sure have.

We're taught HSSS in college Journalism 101. It's the mark of "objectivity" (yes, those are scare quotes meant to convey skepticism), the promised redemption of American journalism that never really was and never will be.

Of course, we are talking about a mythical objectivity that represents a kind of blank-slate mental state, as opposed to "objectivity" defined (classic work here, "The Elements of Journalism") in terms of professional standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for the many voices involved in public debates. Those kinds of professional standards are exactly what GetReligion keeps trying to defend.

I struggle with poorly executed HSSS journalism just as "omniscient anonymous voice" journalism bugs GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly. Click here if you need a refresher on his views. He is primarily opposed to hard news newspaper and wire-service journalists -- as opposed to the authors of magazine essays and opinion pieces -- using massive amounts of information and opinion without giving readers any clear indication of where all that material is coming from.

i do not disagree with Terry on that. The raw material leading to journalistic conclusions should be spelled out. Think of it as connecting the dots. Think of it as simple honesty.

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The papal encyclical: Challenging coverage and advancing the story

The papal encyclical: Challenging coverage and advancing the story

Remember Joseph Stalin's nasty and dismissive line, one version of which goes, "The pope? How many divisions does he have?”? Or maybe he actually said, “How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?”

Hard to say. Both versions are floating around the Internet.

No matter. The implication is clear in both instances. The Vatican long ago lost a considerable portion of its worldly power that once allowed it to impose its will not only on the preponderance of Roman Catholics, but on much of non-Catholic humanity.

This should be obvious to GetReligion readers. Should you require evidence, however, the recent vote legalizing same-sex marriage in once staunchly traditional, Catholic Ireland should serve as a clincher.

The Vatican's diminished influence is also obvious in much of the general media's coverage of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical, Laudato Si -- notwithstanding all the headlines it generated. 

Francis emphasized the moral challenge he believes is key to slowing human-influenced climate change and to furthering a sustainable global environmental policy that fosters economic justice. His moral argument -- a harsh critique of rapacious capitalist practices and unbridled consumerism -- warned of the negative consequences of current policies for all the world, but, in particular, for the poor and powerless. 

But get past the lede of most renditions of the story -- most prominently in the follow up coverage -- and you find that the Vatican's message was not the dominate theme.

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Catholic university acts, well, Catholic -- media stunned

“Is the pope Catholic?” is an old question, suggesting a rather obvious answer. Of course the pope is a Catholic, so the old saying flourished.

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