The New York Times

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.

Was that 2017's most important religion story?

What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies.

For me, the year's biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.

But that wasn't the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.

Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after "his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism," said the RNA announcement.

Meanwhile, in a variety of public debates, bitter Trump-era rifts among Christian conservatives kept getting deeper and wider. This was perfectly captured in a New York Times forum after the Alabama defeat of old Religious Right hero Roy Moore.

Year 29 for this column -- Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

Year 29 for this column --  Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

It was a month after Donald Trump won the presidency and, to be honest, many stunned journalists were still trying to figure out how they missed the tremors that led to the political earthquake.

That was the backdrop for an appearance by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet on the Fresh Air program at National Public Radio. While the focus was politics and journalism, Baquet also offered a refreshingly candid sound bite about mainstream media efforts to cover religion news.

I think those remarks are worth a flashback this week, which marks the end of year 29 for my syndicated "On Religion" column. You see, I am just as convinced as ever that if journalists want to cover real stories in the real lives of real people in the real world, then they need to be real serious when handling religion.

Quoting a pre-election Times column by Jim Rutenberg, Fresh Air host Terry Gross said: "If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century."

For Baquet, this topic was linked to stirred-up populist emotions out in the heartland. Journalists must strive, he said, to understand the "forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much" that they were willing to back Trump.

"I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans," said Baquet. "I think that the New York-based, and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. …"

Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

The young Jerry Falwell meets the old, high-flying Donald Trump

When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."

Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."

People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.

"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.

"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."

The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.

Soli Deo gloria -- The true legacy of a church musician

NEW YORK -- When choirmaster John Scott looked into the future he saw a spectacular addition to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, a new organ at the heart of worship services, concerts and expanding efforts to train young musicians.

The 100-stop organ would blend past and present, preserving the delicately carved 1913 cabinet and some of it distinctive pipes, but as part of an expanded design that would add both grandeur and gentleness, as well as many new tones.

"We are eager to hear our gallery horizontal trumpet put into first-class condition and just as excited that it will be joined by a new stentorian Tuba Mirabilis of imperial strength. These two stops will allow majestic fanfares to dialogue east and west," said Scott, in an enthusiastic May 31 update about the $11 million project.

"So, to sum up -- 2018 cannot come soon enough."

But Manhattan's famous Anglo-Catholic parish was stunned on August 12 when the 59-year-old Scott died of a heart attack, hours after returning from a European concert tour. Scott and his wife Lily were awaiting the birth of their first child in September.

Church leaders held a requiem Mass -- with no music -- the next day and began planning for a solemn funeral Mass on Sept. 12, allowing more people to travel to New York City for the rites. Many would come to honor an artist hailed by The New York Times and other prestigious publications, a man known for his recordings, compositions and concert-hall performances.

But people in the pews are mourning the loss of a fellow believer whose most cherished duty was to help lead others in worship, while teaching the faith and its musical heritage to their children, said the Rev. Canon Carl Turner.

New battle in the old media-bias wars? #LoveWins #ReligiousLiberty

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision backing same-sex marriage, gay and straight journalists at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., were in a celebratory mood, sharing hugs, laughter and tears.

Then online reader comments began arriving -- some calm, but others angry.

Opinion editor John Micek responded with this policy statement: "As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage." His Twitter take, complete with a typo, added: "We would not print racist, sexist or anti-Semitc letters. To that, we add homophobic ones. Pretty simple."

Welcome to the latest battle over media bias, one linked to decades of debate about whether journalists do a fair and accurate job when covering news about religion, morality and culture.

The Patriot-News policy ignited another online firestorm and Micek soon tweaked it to say the newspaper will "very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage" and "for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court's decision and its legal merits."

The problem is that while some livid readers rushed to call Micek and his colleagues "fascists," others argued that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision would soon clash with the First Amendment's right to the "free exercise" of religious convictions.

Is this pope Catholic? The debate heats up

With Catholic leaders still sweating after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family firestorm, Pope Francis has once again tried to cool things down -- by publicly affirming core church doctrines.

The question, however, was whether Catholics could balance edgy front-page headlines about sex, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality and modern families with the pontiff's orthodox sermons, which have received very little ink in the mainstream press.

"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," said Pope Francis, opening this week's Vatican conference on "The Complimentarity of Man and Woman in Marriage." It drew 300 leaders from a many world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and several branches of Christianity.

Rather than yielding to the "culture of the temporary," the pope said, it's time to stress that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother. ... Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact -- a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can't think of conservative or progressive notions."

Praying for better journalism at The New York Times

NEW YORK -- It was a perfectly ordinary invitation to gather for Christian fellowship, the kind of message believers often circulate among colleagues that they know share their faith. In this case, Michael Luo invited a circle of fellow journalists in the New York Times newsroom to breakfast, including one former pastor of an evangelical church.

Yes, this tiny Times flock plans to gather again. No, the veteran reporter was not willing to name any names.

"The Times is like a lot of other elite cultural institutions," said Luo, speaking at The King's College in lower Manhattan's financial district. The newsroom is full of "cosmopolitan, urban types, highly educated people who went to the top colleges whose cultural sensibilities are probably more shaped ... by the upper West Side and Park Slope, Brooklyn, than, you know, the Bible Belt.

"So it's certainly not the easiest place to say that you're a Christian. In fact, some of those people at that breakfast who have confided their faith to me have often sworn me to secrecy."

After giving the matter careful thought, Luo did mention his public lecture at the evangelical college -- "Articles of Faith: A Believer's Journey Through The New York Times" -- on his Facebook page.

The Harvard graduate has faced more than his share of tricky situations, whether reporting in war-torn Iraq or in the culture wars of two White House campaigns. After one of his many Times pieces on loopholes in gun-control laws, AmmoLand.com ran his photo with a caption that called him a "biased anti-gun" reporter.

During the 2007 Values Voters Summit, Luo tried to assure participants that he was a churchgoer who genuinely wanted to understand their beliefs. One activist then introduced Luo to a prominent conservative Christian by saying, "Don't worry, he goes to church." The leader responded, "Well, he'll have to prove it," with a snarl.

"I was thinking," Luo recalled, "what am I going to have to do, quote my favorite Bible verses or give him the Four Spiritual Laws?"

On the other side of the church aisle are well-meaning Christians who insist that Luo's goal should be to "bring Christian truth to the pages of the Times." The implication, he said, is that he should smuggle an evangelical agenda into the "newspaper of record" and let it shape his work.

That would be a disaster, Luo said, and would allow other professionals to label him that "Jesus freak guy" or a "religious zealot." This would destroy whatever trust and respect he has earned during his decade at the Times, which recently led to his appointment as deputy metro editor with much of his work focusing on investigative reporting and, yes, religion coverage.

Luo stressed that one of his goals is to live out the recommendations of a 2005 Times self-study -- entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" -- that urged editors to do more to cover "unorthodox views," "contrarian opinions" and the lives of those "more radical and more conservative" than those usually found in their newsroom.

In addition to seeking diversity of gender, race and ethnicity, the report said: "We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason -- to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it." It would help, the report noted, if Times editors sought out "talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths."

Thus, Luo said he has tried become a resource to help the newspaper do fair, accurate, informed news coverage of a wider variety of religious believers. The goal is to avoid "loaded language" that frequently confuses "theological terms with political ones." It also would help, he said, if journalists spent more time covering religion stories rooted in the details of daily life, rather than focusing almost exclusively on political conflicts, both in pews and in public life.

"I would argue that when we screw up, it's not because of some sort of overt prejudice," he said. "The problem usually is that you can't know what you don't know. ... So ignorance can obviously lead to inaccurate and misleading characterizations and, yes, it can lead to bias sometimes seeping into the ways Christians are depicted."