The New Republic

Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Certain places in the world have problems that seem to be intractable. South Sudan. North Korea. And El Salvador.

The latter is the homicide capital of the world. Zillions of dollars have been poured into it. The U.S. government has declared war on its criminal elements. And nothing’s changed.

One institution, however, is dealing with the gangs. I was fascinated to see Molly O’Toole’s piece in The New Republic on how evangelical churches have the only solution that’s working.

Who would have thunk it?

At a small jail outside San Salvador, Brother David Borja lifted his sunglasses to talk a guard into letting us inside. The cell, originally intended for temporary holding, smelled of sweat and urine. In the center was a roughly ten-by-ten-foot cage, and inside it, a tangle of limbs and hammocks.

At the sight of Borja, a street preacher from the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, bare-chested, tattooed young men began crawling down from the hammocks and pulling on T-shirts.

As Borja started to pray, the men crossed themselves and bowed their heads. A few cried silently; others testified, “Truth.” … As the guard latched the thick steel behind us, we could still hear the men’s applause, and pleas for the pastor to pray for them to be saved.

Prisons are obviously fertile missionary grounds here.

Founded in 1977, the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, known as “Taber,” is now believed to be El Salvador’s largest church. Taber claims a congregation of more than 40,000, with millions of converts and more than 500 churches across the country. The megachurch also owns a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers, extending its reach. In 1950, El Salvador was around 99 percent Catholic, but Protestantism has shot up since the 1970s, with 40 percent of adults today identifying as Protestant.

That makes Taber one of the most influential institutions in a country otherwise dominated by gangs.

The switch-over of Latin and Central Americans from Catholicism to Protestantism is still one of the more under-covered stories of modern religion reporting. It is a fait accompli one never thought would happen as recently as the 1970s. Here we read about an evangelical church that's taken on the gangs that rule the country.

According to experts, one of the gangs’ golden rules is that members can never leave with their lives. But in the past few years, there’s been a fascinating development: Gang bosses are increasingly granting those under their command desistance—a status change from “active” to “calmado,” meaning “calmed down”—if they convert to evangelicalism. At El Salvador’s San Francisco Gotera prison, about 1,000 ex-gang members have become evangelicals, nearly all of the overcrowded prison’s occupants.

The phenomenon can also be seen outside, at smaller Pentecostal parishes such as Ebenezer, whose ministry to gang members, The Final Trumpet, is known for speaking in tongues. Newfound-religious who stray from the righteous path, however—whether by drinking, doing drugs, beating their wives or girlfriends, or not attending church—can face deadly consequences from their former compatriots.

It’s an open, urgent question whether evangelical megachurches like Taber can use their influence to bring peace to El Salvador . . .

Actually, according to the link provided in the above paragraph, Ebenezer is simply a Pentecostal church and is known for a lot more than tongues-speaking. I am guessing the reporter is not too familiar with the doctrines of these various congregations.

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Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

More fallout continueth from the Religion News Service explosions of two weeks ago with the release of a press release that sounds like a directive out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

A quick review: tmatt’s April 24 post was the first reporting by anyone on this on RNS’s problems. Then I offered this mega-piece on the 26th,  which beat two magazine stories on the topic by almost a day. Then I followed up with this piece on the 27th, which looked at those pieces in The New Republic and the Columbia Journalism Review and then included the first official word of the Religion News Foundation's upcoming $4.9 million Lilly Endowment grant.

Make sure to bone up on the history of this conflict before going further. All that, plus Richard “Religion Guy” Ostling’s memo a few days later has resulted in some pretty decent coverage and commentary from the team here at GetReligion.

So this past Monday, RNS, through its crisis PR firm Athene Strategies, released the following:

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Recent announcements at Religion News Service, including new staff and a pending $4.9 million grant, demonstrate the strategic adjustments RNS is making to honor its 84-year legacy and ensure its bright future.

With these changes, RNS aims to do more than simply survive in a 21st century media landscape. Our vision requires bringing renewed energy and an innovation mindset to the field of religion journalism. By educating and informing a growing audience, we can help cultivate mutual understanding among people of different cultures, faiths and traditions. The result? More peaceful, pluralistic communities around the world.

So RNS holds a key to world peace? That's quite a journalistic mission.

We can do better. This reminds me of the “community journalism” craze of a few decades back mixed with UNESCO agitprop. Am also curious why the story is datelined out of Missouri. Yes, I know there are administrative ties to the University of Missouri, but why not dateline it in Washington, DC where RNS is based? 

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RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

Since I came out yesterday with the first news analysis on the implosion at Religion News Service, two other publications have published solid stories on the imbroglio.

This, as I was finishing this follow-up post, a Lilly Endowment press contact got back to me to confirm a whopping grant that RNS, through the Religion News Foundation, is poised to get. That's one of the major pieces of this giant, painful, puzzle.

There's been a lot of discussion about a pending deal between RNS, the Associated Press and, a related web news curator (see this earlier post by our own Richard Ostling about this site), that will be funded by the Lilly Foundation, the base funder for RNS throughout the years. Communications director Judith Cebula just emailed me the following:

Lilly Endowment approved a grant to Religion News Foundation in December, 2017, in the amount of $4.9 million subject to a favorable determination regarding private foundation tax law requirements. Because the condition has not yet been satisfied, no grant payments have been made. For additional information about the grant, please contact the Religion News Foundation.

The words "subject to" are always important. So stay tuned.

I don't know who first suggested that Lilly facilitate broader distribution of religion news to publishers thru AP but the deal has been percolating for some time. AP would get the lion's share of the money, but RNS and would also make out well.

Apparently enlightened minds at AP want to strengthen their religion reporting (AP only has one national reporter, Rachel Zoll, out of New York), via RNS content. This would be a major coup for RNS in terms of visibility and distribution of their work. What this would be for their current subscribers, fees for content, etc., I have no idea.

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Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

When former gymnast Rachael Denhollander stood up in court at the end of January and stunned the country with her speech to her abuser, Larry Nasser, she was a media star. Here she was the first woman to publicly accuse Nasser and the last -- after a long string of some of America’s best-known gymnasts -- to tell him what she thought of his years of criminal sexual contact.

As my GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross reported, her speech was notable for many reasons. She talked about God’s forgiveness, tossed in a C.S. Lewis quote near the end, then added that she lost her church over the matter.

That's news. Only Christianity Today really went after what happened and named the organization: Sovereign Grace Ministries, whose flagship church -– Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. –- got hit with a sexual abuse lawsuit. Sovereign Grace Ministries issued a rebuttal on Feb. 13. 

Sadly, no reporters are pursuing what Denhollander is alleging: That Sovereign Grace Ministries is really the tip of the iceberg and that sexual abuse of the young in Protestant churches may dwarf the horrors exposed, starting 16 years ago, in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton is going after the story and has posted more from Denhollander’s Facebook page about the issue. And I want to cut and paste a few of her remarks, because it speaks to what reporters are not getting about this issue. She says.

This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals.

The italics are mine. For those of you who’ve read any religion reporting in the past decade and one-half, including many posts on the blog, the story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church has gone on for many years and still continues. So, how does one process the claim that what has happened among Protestants may have been worse?

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Hey reporters and critics: Please add a dose of reality to coverage of The Handmaid's Tale

Hey reporters and critics: Please add a dose of reality to coverage of The Handmaid's Tale

I’ve never read The Handmaid’s Tale but I could not miss the recent PR blitz about the Hulu version that has been running on TV nor the fact that the wait list for borrowing the book is in the hundreds (at least in Seattle’s King County library system).

I’m not sure how long Hulu has been developing the series, but the timing couldn’t have been better for folks who feel that this is how the country will end up if Donald Trump has his way. Looking at trends in modern America, many still see our nation poised to become a theocracy.

Published in 1985 during the Ronald Reagan administration, the book was the Hunger Games of the 1980s; a description of a dystopian universe in a future post-cataclysmic America. For those who think this is just a TV series, with zero impact on the news, take a look at this June 13 piece that ran in The Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sixteen women dressed as handmaids from the novel and TV series "The Handmaid's Tale" walked the halls of the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday to protest an bill that would restrict abortion here.
The women donned red robes and white bonnets and sat in silence as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard initial testimony on Senate Bill 145.
"The Handmaid's Tale," a Margaret Atwood novel turned Hulu series, takes place in a not-so-distant future where the United States. has become a totalitarian society led by men and plagued by infertility. To solve that problem, child-bearing women are forced to become "handmaids" and birth babies fathered by men leading the regime.
"The handmaids are forced to give birth and, in so many cases, because of all the restrictions on abortion access, women in Ohio and across the country are being forced to give birth," Jaime Miracle, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio said.

The article did have one reference to an opponent who felt demonstrators “were making a mockery "of the issue, but that was way down in the article.

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Another Kim Davis? Christian government worker attempts to skip LGBT diversity video

Another Kim Davis? Christian government worker attempts to skip LGBT diversity video

Guess which topic posted on the Washington Post’s “Morning Mix” blog got 2,000 responses within 20 hours?

Yep, it was about a government official who balked at having to watch an “LGBT diversity and inclusivity training” video at his workplace, who’s planning on losing his job over it and who has asked his fellow Christians to join him.

Anyone who’s applied for any job recently –- particularly in academia -- finds oneself having to check certain boxes. I’ve also had to include a statement pledging my troth to diversity and give examples the Muslim family I helped sponsor back in the 1990s and the Native American students I encountered or taught at the University of Alaska. However, one gets the feeling that this is not the button that they're asking you to push.

Anyway, one guy in Illinois decided he’d had enough. Here’s how the News-Gazette, the local paper, played it: 

 CHAMPAIGN -- A Social Security Administration employee who believes he shouldn't have to watch a workplace diversity video about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, because it violates his religious beliefs, fears he may lose his job because of it.
David Hall, 42, of Tolono has worked for the federal agency for 14 years, based in the Champaign office as an area systems coordinator, an information technology position. In late April, Hall said, employees nationwide received an email from the agency about a 17-minute LGBT diversity and inclusion training video that they were told to watch at their work stations. Employees were required to certify that they had seen the video.
Hall said he is a Christian -- "not anti-anyone or anything," but "for God, for Jesus" -- and believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin.
So, he didn't watch it.

A quick question: Was he arguing that homosexual orientation alone is "sin," or that gay sexual acts are sinful?

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The New York Times asks: Is that historic Bernie Sanders win 'good for the Jews?'

The New York Times asks: Is that historic Bernie Sanders win 'good for the Jews?'

I guess this really is the year of the outsider -- even the Jewish outsider.

Take a look, if you will, at the following New York Times piece about the historic New Hampshire Primary win by Sen. Bernie Sanders. We're talking about the sidebar that ran under this headline: "As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means."

I realize that this piece is little more than a round-up of clips from Jewish newspapers and commentary publications. The goal, apparently, was to raise topics, one paragraph after another, that Jewish thinkers are talking about (with little new reporting).

If that was the goal, it is amazing what is NOT in this piece. Here is a sample, including the question-mark lede:

But is it good for the Jews?
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ... became the first Jewish candidate in history to win a presidential primary election, setting off a familiar mixture of celebration and anxiety among Jews in the United States and abroad, who pondered what his milestone victory meant for the broader Jewish community.
“Did Bernie Sanders Just Grab Jewish Crown In New Hampshire?” asked a headline in the The Forward, which questioned why Mr. Sanders’ victory received less attention as an emblem of acceptance and accomplishment than the selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 2000.
The likely reason: While Mr. Sanders was raised Jewish and even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s, he has been muted in his own embrace of the faith.

His own embrace of the "faith"? Or are we talking about a matter of heritage and culture?

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Stephen Glass confesses in The New Republic: Sin, penance and a search for redemption?

Stephen Glass confesses in The New Republic: Sin, penance and a search for redemption?

During a graduate-school readings class on trends in 20th Century Judaism, I was asked to read Simon Wiesenthal's classic book, "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness." Here is the Amazon description of this amazing and unforgettable book:

While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to -- and obtain absolution from -- a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing.  But even years after the way had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? 

After the actually telling of this real-life parable, the book offers a large collection of short essays in which Jewish and Christian ethicists and theologians discuss that haunting question. With a few exceptions, the Christians say that -- after the soldier's repentance -- Wiesenthal should have offered words of comfort, if not forgiveness. Most Jewish thinkers -- citing the tradition that forgiveness should be granted by victims, alone -- support Wiesenthal's silence.

This brings me to Hanna Rosin's 6,000-word piece in The New Republic about her encounter with Stephen Glass, the former journalist whose faked stories (see the movie "Shattered Glass") sparked a crisis that threatened the magazine's future. This story, as you would imagine, has been the subject of a tsunami of water-cooler chatter here in Beltway land.

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When Worlds Collide II: Scientology and the Nation of Islam

The 25 October 2012 issue of The New Republic carries a story entitled “Thetans and Bowties” that I can’t quite get my head round. By this I do not mean I do not understand what the article says – but I am having a hard time classifying its species.

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