journalism

Pope Francis speaks out on 'snake news': But the Devil's in the details on solutions

Pope Francis speaks out on 'snake news': But the Devil's in the details on solutions

Maybe it's author Michael "Fire and Fury" Wolff hinting that President Donald Trump is having an affair with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Maybe it's the waves of lies from Russian hackers that have flooded major social-media sites, causing global confusion and chaos.

Maybe it's rumors that Pope Francis has a brain tumor or that he's preparing for a Third Vatican Council, one sure to split the Church of Rome.

Whatever "fake news" is, the pope's World Communications Day message made it clear that he believes Satan is behind it all, whether journalists and mass-media leaders know it or not.

"We need to unmask what could be called the 'snake-tactics' used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place," wrote the pope. "This was the strategy employed by the 'crafty serpent' in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news, which began the tragic history of human sin."

The pope released this text on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales -- the patron saint of journalists -- even though World Communications Day will be on May 13. The "fake news" hook is in the title: " 'The truth will set you free.' Fake news and journalism for peace."

The problem is that few people -- especially in culture-wars America -- agree on what "fake news" means. It's hard to imagine a more partisan term, when President Donald Trump shouts it at a rally. Meanwhile, many journalists have downplayed Gallup polls showing that public trust in the news media is lower than ever.

Concerning the crucial definition issue, Pope Francis wrote:

The life and Times of John McCandlish Phillips

The word on the Brooklyn streets in 1959 was that a crazy preacher from Pennsylvania was helping addicts find the power to kick heroin and gang members to trade their weapons for Bibles. Reporter John McCandlish Phillips heard the talk in local churches and took the tip to his metro editors at The New York Times. This was more than a religion story, he argued. This was something truly new in urban ministry in a rough corner of the city.

The editors just didn't get it.

"The New York Times could not see ... validity of this approach to any issue as serious as addiction. Editors said, 'You can't put a few religious ideas up against something as real as addiction and expect any results,' " said Phillips, in a 2000 interview in Riverside Park.

The young preacher was David Wilkerson, whose story would eventually be told in the bestseller "The Cross and the Switchblade." Phillips kept bringing this editors detailed reports about Teen Challenge's work, which would eventually expand worldwide.

Again, Phillips stressed this was not a story full of mumbo-jumbo. As a veteran reporter, he knew he needed a foundation of hard facts about subjects --- drug addiction and gang warfare -- that were clearly newsworthy. After a decade, his editors surrendered and let him write the story.

"The results were there," he said. "Lives were being changed. ... It was news. We miss too many stories like that and that's a shame."

Phillips died on April 9 at the age of 85. His brilliant two-decade Times career ended when he left the newsroom in 1973, at the peak of his journalistic powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher on Manhattan's upper West Side. His flock was small, but included some Christians in major newsrooms who considered him a discreet and invaluable mentor.

No one questioned the man's journalism skills. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker -- "The Man Who Disappeared" -- writer Gay Talese was quoted calling him the "Ted Williams of the young reporters," even on a legendary staff that included David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas.

"There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips," said Talese. "Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize. He is not interested in demeaning people. …He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle."

On the management side, the Times obituary noted that former managing editor Arthur Gelb once called Phillips "the most original stylist I'd ever edited."

The reporter's death also fired online discussions of a controversial issue in mainstream journalism: Whether many newsrooms are hostile environments for religious believers. A provocative piece at The Week ran under a headline stating, "Why newspapers need to hire more Christians: For starters, it would help rebut conservative concerns about media bias."

Decades before today's "culture wars," Phillips noted that he was the one born-again, evangelical Protestant in a Times newsroom in which -- literally -- there were more bookies than people with Bibles on their desks. With a tired cackle, he told me, "God must love journalists, because everyone knows He loves sinners."

Yes, it would help if there were more religious believers at The Times, he said, but only if they had the skills to work there. He couldn't understand why so many young believers simply assume they could never work in real newsrooms, thus increasing the cultural and intellectual diversity in modern journalism.

"We live in a world that is, in fact, rife with evils, is rife with excessive ambition, is rife with a willingness, by far too many people, to cut any corner or to practice any deception in order to advance their purposes. They will hide, if they can, their practices from the public eye," he said.

"Journalism at its best pursues the facts about certain situations in which evildoers are at work and assembles those facts and judges them fairly. It's not a crusade, so much as it's a responsible gathering of a body of evidence that, when it's finally presented, is so persuasive that evil must skulk, retreat or be subjected to strong public remedy."

Phillips looked out across the Hudson River, into a setting sun.

"Why," he said, "wouldn't Christian believers want to be part of that?"

Yet another preying Presbyterian?

Once again, shocked onlookers painted from familiar palettes as they described the latest young man to march into the public square with his guns blazing. The alleged killer was a moody, quiet loner who excelled at school. He was a normal guy who loved movies and super-hero tales, only he cheered for the villains. When seen in bars, he was usually sitting alone.

Journalists also quoted people who knew the family and said that James Holmes was once, as The Los Angeles Times noted, "heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church" in San Diego.

You see, even a kid from a normal church can evolve into someone who dyes his hair red, buys 6,000 rounds of ammo, girds himself in a full body-armor suit and, when surrendering to Aurora, Colo., police, identifies himself as The Joker, the incarnation of postmodern evil.

"What does 'Presbyterian' mean in this context? ... It's like no one really stopped to ask if there was there something about this particular label -- the actual content of this word -- that connected in any way to this event," said Aly Colon, a nationally known journalism ethics consultant.

"Does this kind of label give readers anything to stand on? ... It's like these words are hovering up in the sky, with no connection to the facts on the ground."

Truth is, in Southern California "Presbyterian" can describe everything from evangelical megachurches to oldline Protestant congregations on the religious left.

So was the Holmes family active in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? How about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or the American Presbyterian Church?

Then again, journalists were soon reporting that this family has been active -- for nearly a decade -- in some brand of Lutheran congregation.

The problem, explained Colon, is that journalists assigned to cover these media storms in the digital age are trying to report as much information as they can, as fast as they can, as easily as they can, while competing against legions of websites, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable news and, often, smartphone videos uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses. Reporters are tempted to use as many easy labels and stereotypes as possible, simply to save time and space.

Almost a decade ago, Colon wrote a Poynter.org essay entitled "Preying Presbyterians?" about a similar media blitz in which a gunman who killed an abortion-clinic doctor was constantly identified as a "former Presbyterian minister." As it turned out, Paul Hill had become so radical that he had already been ejected from a small Presbyterian flock that was very conservative, but also opposed to any use of violence during protests.

None of the mainstream news reports he read, wrote Colon, explained why it mattered that this man had once been some kind of Presbyterian. It was just a religious label with no real content.

"As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain," wrote Colon. "So when I see the word 'Presbyterian,' I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as 'Catholic,' 'Episcopalian,' 'Christian,' 'Hindu,' 'Jew,' 'Mormon,' 'Hindu,' 'Buddhist,' 'Muslim' or 'Pagan.' "

What he wrote then remains true today, as journalists try to find and assemble the pieces of the bloody Aurora puzzle. If religion is going to be included in the coverage, stressed Colon, reporters must work to "connect faith to facts."

In other words, it will be crucial to learn the details of Holmes' real life, in the here and now. Journalists must learn how he spent his time, spent his money and made the decisions that appear to have ended and altered so many lives. If faith -- or some other worldview -- is part of that equation, then so be it.

"It's our duty to drill down and to find facts that add clarity," said Colon. "Maybe this young man once had a membership in a particular Presbyterian church with a particular theology. So what? How is that faith connected to the facts of what happened in Aurora? There must be a connection or what's the point?"

God, Allah and Rick Warren

At the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, centuries of Islamic doctrine have literally been carved into the shrine's walls. Two quotations on the northwest wall will be of special interest to anyone interested in the latest whirlwind of controversy linked to evangelical superstar Rick Warren and his giant Saddleback Church.

The outer face inscription states, in part: "Praise be to God who has not taken a son and who does not have any partner in dominion. ..." On the inside, after a reference to Jesus, is written: "Peace be upon the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is raised up alive. That is Jesus, son of Mary. ... It is not for God to take a son."

In other words, Islam proclaims a strict monotheism, while rejecting the Christian belief that God is One, yet has been revealed as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thus, it matters that fundamentalist critics are circulating excerpts from a recent Orange County Register report claiming that Warren and his megachurch have joined with nearby mosques to promote a "set of theological principles" -- called the King's Way -- proclaiming that "Christians and Muslims worship the same God."

Warren is never quoted affirming these crucial claims and the article also reports that leaders on both sides have agreed to cease evangelistic efforts to convert members of each other's flocks.

The preacher and bestselling author has attempted to distance himself from the online firestorm, which builds on longstanding claims by religious broadcaster Jack Van Impe that Warren has become a proponent of "Chrislam" -- an alleged attempt to blend Islam and Christianity.

Warren's defenders have, however, posted an interview transcript in which he has responded to these "Chrislam" allegations.

"Christians have a view of God that is unique," stressed Warren. "We believe God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three separate gods but one God. No other faith believes Jesus is God. The belief in God as a Trinity is the foundational difference between Christians and everyone else."

The Saddleback leader also denied that King's Way efforts to build a "bridge" of understanding and tolerance represents a change in his Southern Baptist congregation's commitment to evangelism.

"Building a bridge" to the Muslim community, said Warren, "has nothing to do with compromising your beliefs. It's all about your behavior and your attitude toward them. It's about genuinely loving people. ... Before people trust Jesus they must trust you. You cannot win your enemies to Christ, only your friends. ... Besides, it is Christ like to treat all people with dignity and listen to them with respect."

Meanwhile, the conservative "Apprising Ministries" website has posted what it claims is a piece of a King's Way document obtained by the Register from a source close to the interfaith effort.

In its section on God, this report claims that both sides -- backed with quotations from the Bible and the Koran -- agreed that "God is one," "God is the Creator," "God is different from the world," "God is good," "God loves," "God is just" and that "God's love encompasses God's judgment."

The problem, of course, is that Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, have for centuries proclaimed that "God is one" -- while disagreeing on whether this oneness can be reconciled with Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity.

Contacted by email, Warren insisted that public discussions of an official King's Way doctrinal statement -- as opposed to a program by that name that promotes interfaith understanding -- caught him by surprise. "Neither I, nor my staff had ever seen such a document UNTIL the article mentioned it. It wasn't created or even seen by us. ... Saddleback church as a church was not involved," he said.

However, the bitter cyber-debates continue, similar to those surrounding Warren's efforts to promote dialogues with atheists, gay-rights leaders and President Barack Obama and his supporters on the Christian left.

Asked directly if he is "promoting Chrislam," Warren released this blunt reply.

"It's the lie that won't die," he said. "Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation. Period. If I didn't believe that, I'd get into much easier line of work! But I do believe that everybody needs Jesus and I am willing to put up with false statements and misunderstandings in order to get the Gospel out."

Religion 2010 -- Rose petals in Pakistan

In terms of giant headlines and spilled ink, there is no question that the lightning strike by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden was the year's most spectacular news event, featuring a deadly brew of religion, politics and violence. Thus, it isn't surprising that members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected the death of the world's most infamous radical Muslim as No. 1 in their poll to name the year's top 10 stories on the religion beat. In addition to the symbolism of bin Laden's death in a post 9/11 world, the poll's organizers said the killing spurred “discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace, justice and retribution.”

However, when I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind -- a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer's back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation's secular political leaders -- including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer -- declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer's role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan's blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan's minister of minority affairs -- the only Christian in the national cabinet -- died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized -- persecuted Christian and other minorities -- these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti's bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides ... especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. ... In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

The assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti placed 16th in this 2011 poll. As for me, I fear that these events say as much, or more, about the future of Pakistan and trends worldwide than the long-expected death of bin Laden.

Here's the rest of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 list:

No. 2 -- Congress holds intense hearings on trends among American Muslims, with the House focusing on evidence of radicalism in some mosques and the Senate focusing on crimes reported against Muslims.

No. 3 -- Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child -- the first active American Catholic bishop to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

No. 4 -- Catholic leaders introduce a new English version of the Roman Missal, the first major change to this translation since 1973.

No. 5 -- Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) vote to allow “local option” on the ordination of partnered, noncelibate gay clergy.

No. 6 -- Pope John Paul II is beatified -- the last step before sainthood -- in a Vatican rite attended by a million-plus people.

No. 7 -- Radio preacher Harold Camping predicts the end of the world, twice.

No. 8 -- Evangelical progressive Rob Bell publishes “Love Wins,” a controversial book challenging centuries of Christian doctrine about hell and damnation.

No. 9 -- The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion, fails at the polls in Mississippi. The number of laws restricting abortion, however, rises nationwide.

No. 10 -- Historians and readers celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, while traditionalists, including Southern Baptist leaders, criticize the latest gender language tweaks in the New International Version.

God and The New York Times, once again

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.

When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."

Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

Keller's Austin remarks were the latest in a series of candid comments in which the man who has called himself a "crashed Catholic" has jabbed at his newspaper's critics, especially political conservatives and religious traditionalists.

Shortly before stepping down as editor, he wrote a column insisting that religious believers -- evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, in particular -- should face strict scrutiny when running for higher office. After all, he argued, if a candidate believes "space aliens dwell among us," shouldn't voters know if these kinds of beliefs will shape future policies?

In another recent essay, Keller flashed back to an earlier national debate about the integrity of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness and accuracy. It was in 2004 that the newspaper's first "public editor" wrote a column that ran under the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Then, in his first sentence, Daniel Okrent bluntly stated: "Of course it is."

Discussions of this column continue to this day. The key to that earlier piece, noted Keller, was its admission that the Times' outlook is "steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city," which means that it tends to be "skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan."

This socially liberal worldview does have its weaknesses when it comes to covering news outside zip codes close to Manhattan.

"Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered," noted Keller. "Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or...)."

As for the future, the newspaper's new executive editor has carefully offered her own opinion on the worldview of the newsroom she leads. In an interview with current Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, Jill Abramson joined Keller in stressing that it's crucial to remain unbiased -- when covering politics.

"I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America," she said. "I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians, that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight."

Bill Keller vs. the religious aliens

Less than a year after 9/11, a New York Times columnist stunned the newspaper's remaining conservative readers by suggesting that both the Vatican and Al Qaeda were on the wrong side in the global war against oppression. "The struggle within the church" in recent decades, he argued, is "interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance)."

After all, he noted: "This is ... the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."

The symbolism of "Is the Pope Catholic?" increased a year later when the self-proclaimed "collapsed Catholic" who wrote the essay was selected as the new executive editor of the Times.

Now, shortly before stepping down as editor, Bill Keller has ignited another firestorm with a Times column arguing that religious believers -- especially evangelicals and conservative Catholics -- should face stricter scrutiny when seeking higher office.

After all, he noted, if a candidate insists that "space aliens dwell among us," isn't it crucial to know if these beliefs will shape future policies?

Yet Keller also claimed: "I honestly don't care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism's founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). Every faith has its baggage. ... I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ."

What gave this manifesto legs online was his decision to draft tough questions for suspicious believers such as Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. After all, he argued, voters need to know "if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed."

For starters, he said, journalists should ask these candidates if America is a "Christian nation" and what this would mean in practice. And if elected, would they hesitate before naming a Muslim or atheist as a federal judge? Voters also need to know if candidates hold orthodox Darwinian views on evolution.

Journalist Anthony Sacramone, who blogs at the journal First Things, was one of many conservatives who immediately turned Keller's questions inside out. For example, he thought reporters could ask some candidates: "Do you think that anyone who believes in the supernatural is delusional? If so, do you believe they should be treated medically?" Here's another one: "Do you believe that there is such a thing as life unworthy of life? Explain."

The problem with Keller's essay, argued Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap," is that it settled for aiming tough questions at Republicans, instead of seeking relevant questions sure to probe the beliefs of all candidates.

"If a candidate brings up his faith on the campaign trail," she noted, blogging for Time, "there are two main questions journalists need to ask: (1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? And (2) If so, how?"

Another reason Keller's piece created controversy and hostility was that it contained crucial errors, such as grouping Santorum -- an active Catholic -- with GOP candidates "affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity." It didn't help, noted Sullivan, that his piece "read like a parody of an out-of-touch, secular, Manhattan journalist," with its references to evangelicals as "mysterious" and "suspect."

It was also easy to contrast the tone of Keller's broadside with the values he preached in a 2005 letter -- entitled "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf)" -- that tried to address the concerns of his newspaper's critics, including many who frequent religious sanctuaries.

It is especially important, he concluded, for all members of the Times staff to make a "concerted effort ... to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. … This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

God hates almost everyone, saith Phelps

The true believers from Westboro Baptist Church carried their usual battery of offensive signs on March 10, 2006, as they staged their fateful protest near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. One contained a stick-figure cartoon of two men having sex. One proclaimed "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and another "God Hates You." During the demonstration these signs faced what the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his family call the pro-America "pep rally" that greets them wherever they go -- throngs of counter protesters, journalists, military veterans and police.

"We're not picketing the funeral," stressed attorney Margie Phelps, in a standing-room-only showdown with student journalists at the recent College Media Convention in New York City. "We're picketing the pep rally."

That may sound like a trivial detail, but it was central to the legal and, at times, theological arguments that unfolded when the Snyder family's lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This led to a sweeping 8-1 ruling on March 2 in favor of Phelps, his family and their tiny independent congregation in Topeka, Kan.

When arguing her case -- both to the high court and the young journalists -- daughter Margie Phelps stressed that a key point in the Westboro message is that the "you" in the slogan "God Hates You" was not a reference to Matthew Snyder, alone. The central idea of their protests is that God hates all sinners who have not repented and embraced their church's hellfire-and-brimstone view of America's moral decay.

When Phelps discussing those facing God's wrath, she included just about every imaginable religious and political group. While Westboro is best known for its conviction that America is speeding toward judgment day because of its acceptance of gay rights, her conference remarks also included nasty shots at Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Pentagon officials, among others.

Most of the students cheered her critics, mocked her stabs at humor and jeered her attempts to justify her beliefs. Yet the crowd remained rather quiet when, in a taped dialogue with First Amendment Center leader Gene Policinski, she repeatedly noted America's long heritage of protecting the free speech rights of dissenters.

"The Christian in me could barely sit still and listen to Phelps twist the Bible. ... Yet almost paradoxically, the American journalist in me felt a little bubble of pride," said Rebecca Young of the University of Dayton, in an essay posted online afterwards. "As angry and upset as I was at the ideas espoused, I was proud of a profession and a country that acknowledges their freedoms don't just exist when it's convenient."

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church's tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals.

For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro's leaders concluded that, "It's too late now. ... This nation is doomed." Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

"We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers' deaths to publish a viewpoint," said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. "And we said, 'We don't agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.' ...

"That is not a blessing of God. ... The soldiers are dying for your sins."

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply "joined that public debate" on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

"These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears," she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist "know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols -- the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. ...

"We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back."

When did Baptists stop making news?

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed scores of blunt resolutions in recent decades urging America's leaders to reject the sexual revolution and defend marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman. But something different happened during this summer's convention. In a jolting statement on the divorce crisis, leaders from America's largest non-Catholic flock looked in the mirror and decided that their own sins were just as bad as everyone else's sins.

"Studies have indicated that conservative Protestants ... are divorcing at the same rate, if not at higher rates, than the general population," stated the resolution, which passed unanimously. Other studies indicate that areas in which "Southern Baptist churches predominate in number often have higher divorce rates than areas we would define as 'unchurched.' "

In other words, Southern Baptists have "been prophetic in confronting assaults in the outside culture on God's design for marriage while rarely speaking with the same alarm and force to a scandal that has become all too commonplace in our own churches."

The convention urged its churches to walk their conservative talk by offering improved premarital counseling, by uniting in marriage "only those who are biblically qualified to be married" and by intensifying efforts to heal broken unions.

Press coverage of this text was next to nonexistent. Media coverage was light of a strong SBC statement on corporate sin and the environment, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The convention also approved, after some emotional debates, a sweeping program to change key elements of its national structure and finances.

This is the stuff of national news, noted religion-beat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing for Politics Daily. The question is why this SBC gathering received so little attention, while gatherings in the 1980s and '90s created waves of ink.

Back then, he noted, the "pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance. ...

"Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so."

Of course, the troubled state of the news business played a role. There are fewer journalists on the religion beat and there are fewer travel dollars to invest in covering subjects other than those most editors consider holy, such as politics and sports.

At the same time, the era of intense coverage of Southern Baptist life coincided with what journalists perceived as a major change in American politics -- the growth of the religious right. Journalists took note when the nation's largest Protestant body spoke out on abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, Hollywood's influence on families and the need for evangelism around the world, including among Jewish believers.

Hot buttons were being pushed, year after year.

"Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called 'conservatives' and 'moderates.' That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base," noted Weiss.

In other words, more politics.

These days, the SBC is primarily wrestling with issues of theology and polity, especially the culture's slide into a post-denominational age in which people are increasingly moving into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name -- think "Southern Baptist" -- on their signs. People are drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

This is a giant story and, in part, is what that reorganization plan is about -- granting more independence to churches, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old Southern Baptist tent a bit closer to contemporary megachurch realities.

Consider, noted Weiss, the news value of this dramatic plan to restructure "its organization and the way it funds missionaries -- which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked."

Imagine that. That's would be news, wouldn't it?