bathroom wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

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Playing 'Think like a Godbeat pro': Let's look for religion hooks in big Amazon.com search

Playing 'Think like a Godbeat pro': Let's look for religion hooks in big Amazon.com search

One of the big themes through our years of work here at GetReligion is that reporters with experience and training on the religion beat do a better job of handling stories with strong religious themes than reporters with zero experience on this complicated beat.

I know, I know. #DUH

So why, I am asked all the time, do the editors that staff major newsrooms (a) fail to see the big religion hooks (we call them "ghosts" here at GetReligion) in so many stories and (b) fail to include religion-beat professionals in the teams covering these stories? Obviously, those two questions are connected. It's a big journalism mystery.

With all of that in mind, let's look at a major national story and then play a little news-coverage game. Let's call it, "Think like a Godbeat pro." In this case, we are talking about the much-ballyhooed process to select a home for a massive new Amazon.com headquarters, with thousands of jobs attached.

This story is everywhere, as you would expect, since the 20 "finalist" cities are spread across much of the map of North America. To save time and space, let's look at a new report on this topic by the team at Axios, with this punchy headline, "Jeff Bezos’s brilliant PR stunt." Here is the overture:

Elected officials across the country have spent the past three months falling all over themselves to show Amazon just how much their cities love the e-commerce giant and would do just about anything to house its new headquarters.

Bottom line: The real winner is Amazon, which has created a feedback loop of positive press and fawning politicians just as the company increasingly needs both.

Big picture: Amazon, the world’s largest Internet company by revenue and the fourth-largest company by market cap, is reshaping everything from industries to main streets to homes. But this omnipotence also has put Amazon in the bullseye of a burgeoning "tech-lash," alongside gilded peers like Facebook, Google and Apple.

Now, that "tech-lash" angle is interesting and it involves all kinds of issues, from the brutal side effects of economic libertarianism (must-read book here) to religious, moral and cultural battles linked to gender and sexuality.

Now, let's keep reading. This brings us to the religion hook for this little journalism game.

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Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

What we have here is a New York Times story that would appear to fit perfectly under the umbrella of "Kellerism," the emerging journalism doctrine (click here and here for background) stating that there is no need for balance and fairness on many moral and religious issues because the Times already knows who is right.

The headline on this story from Illinois puts it right in the middle of one of America's hottest clashes between the Sexual Revolution and heartland values: "A Transgender Student Won Her Battle. Now It’s War."

It appears that the goal of this story, however, was to let readers actually hear the voices of ordinary people on both sides of this debate. That's different than the new mainstream-media normal in which the hero or heroine gets to narrate the story and then the opposition appears via one quote from a press release or an appointed lawyer. The key is that only one side sounds human.

But the Times team -- to its credit -- took another approach this time. Here is the rather standard overture:

PALATINE, Ill. -- Tall and sylphlike, an athlete with delicate features and a blond topknot, she changes clothes behind a privacy curtain in the girls’ locker room at her high school. But just being allowed to set foot in that locker room was a huge victory for the girl. She is transgender.
She graduates in May -- but the war over how to accommodate transgender students is far from over in her Chicago suburb.
A new legal challenge is making its way through the courts. And a coalition of insurgent school board candidates, an evangelical church and conservative parents are looking to reshape district policy. The goal: preventing transgender girls and boys from sharing the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice with other girls and boys, on the grounds that they are “the opposite biological sex.” Their presence, the opponents argue, violates community standards of decency.

Yes, the basic DNA issue is treated with scare quotes. However, note the passing reference to the evangelical church that is involved in this debate.

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