media bias

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.

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.

Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Reporter Lee Strobel was investigating the story of his life and he knew it.

As legal-affairs editor at The Chicago Tribune, he had covered plenty of hot-button issues -- like abortion rights -- that required him to wrestle with the views of people on the "other side." Strobel knew what he believed, as an atheist committed to abortion rights and other liberal causes. But he knew -- as a journalist -- that he had a job to do.

"I grew up in the era of old-school journalism, when you really had to try be balanced and fair and accurate. You had to listen to what other people had to say," he said. "Besides, I knew that if I turned in a story with holes in it my editor would come down on me. He'd bounce that thing right back."

But this story was different. The person on the other side of this Strobel investigation was his formerly agnostic wife, Leslie, whose 1979 conversion to Christianity rocked the foundations of their marriage. Suddenly, their home contained a new set of expectations when it came to anger, alcohol, ego and workaholism.

"I was mad and I wanted my wife back," Strobel said. "I decided that the Resurrection was the key to this whole thing and I set out to prove it was all nonsense."

The result was 19 months of research and interviews with experts on both sides of centuries of arguments about the claims of Christianity. As a graduate of the famous University of Missouri journalism program, followed by a Yale Law School degree, Strobel worked through a library of classic texts by atheist and Christian scholars.

The result was Strobel's own conversion, a career shift into ministry and, in 1998, the first of his many books, "The Case For Christ." This year, that book evolved into a movie built on a screenplay by Hollywood veteran Brian Bird -- a former reporter. The indie film made a modest $15 million at the box office. Here is the surprise: It drew an A-plus rating from CinemaScore and 79 percent of Rotten Tomatoes ratings by critics were positive.

The key to many reviews was that journalism remained front and center in the story, creating what Variety film critic Joe Leydon called a cross between an a basic "investigative-journalism drama" and a "theological detective story."

Taking a closer look at the pope's 'Who am I to judge?' quote

Soon after same-sex marriage became law in Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield offered a highly symbolic liturgical response -- an exorcism rite.

"Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture," he said, in his sermon. "These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye. … The deception of the Devil in same-sex marriage may be understood by recalling the words of Pope Francis when he faced a similar situation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010."

So Paprocki quoted then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, facing the redefinition of civil marriage in Argentina: "Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention (which is) destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project … but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God."

"Father of lies" is a biblical reference to Satan.

When it comes to gay-rights issues, this is probably not the first Pope Francis quotation that springs into the minds of most people following the news in preparation for his Sept. 23-27 visit to the media corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The papal visit is linked to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

An Internet search-engine query for "Francis" and the precise phrase "Who am I to judge?" yielded nearly 200,000 hits, including 4,540 in current news articles.

Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That can be dangerous

For more than a century, Western diplomats and scholars were sure of one thing -- that religion's role in world affairs would decline as humanity evolved toward a future rooted in logic and science.

 Those who didn't accept this vision were considered naive, irrational or perhaps even dangerous.

 The problem? There is little evidence that this secularization theory is true. In fact, it has become increasingly obvious that journalists and diplomats must pay more attention to religious traditions and practices if they want to understand many of the conflicts shaping and shaking our world, argued historian John Wolffe of the Open University in England.

 "Precisely because mainstream Western society is predominantly secular, a positive effort needs to be made to enable those who do not have a religious faith to have a better understanding both of the significant minorities in the West itself who have a religious commitment and of a continuing, and arguably growing, influence of religion in much of the rest of the world," he said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and Lapido Media.

 To be blunt, he said, confusion about the role that religion plays in the real world is dangerous. But how will religious believers and unbelievers learn to understand each other if journalists don't learn to cover religion accurately and fairly?

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."

The pope, the media and balance on pro-life ministries

It was the telephone call heard around the world, because the pope made the call. On the other end of the line was a single woman in central Italy, who mailed Pope Francis a confused, anguished letter after learning she was pregnant by a man who turned out to be married. The man demanded that she have an abortion and she refused.

Then a strange telephone number appeared on her caller ID screen. It was the pope, who called to say that she made the right decision because the "child was a gift from God" and that he wanted to help.

Pope Francis, she told The Catholic Herald, assured her that "as Christians we should never be afraid. He told me I had been very brave and strong for my unborn child. I told him that I wanted to baptize the baby when it was born, but I was afraid, as I was divorced and a single mother. ... He said he would be my spiritual father and he would baptize my baby."

If the baby is a boy, she plans to name him Francis.

A few news organizations, but not many, covered this media-friendly parable.

But two weeks later, the pope unleashed a media tsunami with a long, candid interview published exclusively in America and other Jesuit magazines around the world. While the pope talked about confession, sin and mercy, one quote leapt into news reports and headlines more than any other.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit. "The teaching of the church ... is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Stressing the need for improved pastoral responses on hot-button issues -- such as abortion and homosexuality -- Pope Francis said the church "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. .... We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

The pope, of course, stressed the need for balance between pronouncements and pastoral care, not the end of the church's public advocacy on its moral doctrines. He said that Catholic leaders cannot insist "only" on issues linked to sexual ethics, which is not the same as saying they should be silent on them.

The church, he said, must be a "field hospital" for the wounded and its most important message is "the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

The world of Catholic bloggers, insiders and experts exploded, both on the doctrinal left and the right. Some traditional Catholics expressed sadness and concern, focusing on secular media editing of the pope's remarks, more than on the content of the actual interview.

While the media storm raged, Pope Francis did an interesting thing -- especially in light of his alleged call for the church to tone down its teachings on abortion and other hot-button issues. He addressed, with little media fanfare, a gathering of Catholic gynecologists, urging them to remember that a doctor's "ultimate objective" must always be the protection of life.

"The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker," he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.

"Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant 'yes' to life. ... Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don't have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life's most defenseless."

In the end, stressed the pope, the church must continue to proclaim that, "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."

Rather faith-free WPost story about ministry to the hungry

As happens about this time every summer, tmatt headed to the Southern Highlands to take a week off. Thus, there was no new Scripps Howard column. There was, however, this post from GetReligion.org that I think will interest the readers of my weekly column. Enjoy. For the past two decades, I have spent quite a bit of time driving the back roads of the Southern Highlands, which is one of the many names that locals use to describe the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

One of my very favorite East Tennessee roads runs from the back of Johnson City — where my family lived during our Milligan College years — down the Nolichucky River into the back side of Greeneville. The mountains there are high, lonesome and as beautiful as any in the region. They are almost completely free of development, especially when it comes to tourists.

But as any local knows, there are mountain people up in there and their lives are very hard. The word “Appalachian” has many meanings and extreme poverty is part of the picture.

The Washington Post ran a fine, but haunted, news feature the other day about a rolling food-bank project to fight hunger among the shattered families along those mountain roads above the Nolichucky. Please read it all, because it’s well worth the time.

If you look carefully at the photo that ran with the piece, you learn that this particular anti-hunger project has a name, a name that is not mentioned in the article for some reason. However, readers do find out quite a bit about the bus driver and the people he feeds.

The driver’s name was Rick Bible, and his 66-mile route through the hills of Greene County marked the government’s latest attempt to solve a rise in childhood hunger that had been worsening for seven consecutive years.

Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.

So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.

Good stuff.

However, as a former resident of the region, my religion-ghost alarm went off immediately when I saw — in that photo, not in the story text — that the name of the food bank was Second Harvest. As it turns out, this charity is linked to Greeneville Community Ministries.

The obvious question: Is this a purely government project or, as one would expect deep in the Bible Belt hills, is this worthwhile and remarkable effort just as much a ministry among the volunteers and donors as it is a tax-funded project? It could, of course, be both. If so, that’s a very interesting angle to include in the story.

As it is, the story is poignant, moving and essential reading — yet strangely faith-free if you know anything about that part of Tennessee. Why write the story without including the religion angle?

For the full text, click here.