Weekend Plug-in: April 3, 2020

A roundup of analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith.

Editor’s note: “Weekend Plug-in,” featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced by Religion Unplugged.

A while back, I found myself asking a woman I’ve known all my life, “Do you really believe the news media is ‘the enemy of the people?’”

“Yes, I do,” she replied.

I shook my head in amazement.

“You realize,” I said to my sweet, loving mother, “that you’re talking about your son and your daughter-in-law and your grandson, who is a journalism major.”

“No, I don’t mean you,” she insisted.

I’ve spent 30 years in the news profession — working both for secular and religious publications — and believe in the vital role of a free press in a democratic society.

Yet many of the people I love most in the world have lost all respect for journalism. That’s evidenced by the snarky Facebook memes they post, making comments like, “Something our major news media will never tell you.” (Forget that the information supplied often comes from a news source.)

If I’m being fair, I understand how my friends and relatives — many of them Bible-believing Christians — arrive at the conclusion they do.

Their perception of the news media is The New York Times arguing for more, not fewer, abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the same newspaper publishing an op-ed blaming Christians for the coronavirus crisis.

I would counter that, yes, the Times is a liberal newspaper editorially, but there’s a difference between news and opinion content. The problem is that the line often becomes much grayer than it should be. 

When journalists constantly treat President Donald Trump as their opponent, it’s difficult for Trump’s supporters not to determine that journalists must be their adversary, too.

“Just as in our politically polarized time, I doubt much can be done about either side of the mess you identify,” said Richard Ostling, retired religion writer for The Associated Press and Time magazine. “Sad to say, MSM (mainstream media) are too ignorant and hostile and isolated from Christian conservatives and vice versa, both with shared reliance on First Amendment rights.”

Ah, yes. Freedom of the press. And freedom of religion.

“Neither walks in the others’ shoes,” Ostling said. “Our national trauma does not seem to bridge these gaps. The American way should be that those of differing belief discuss the gap as respectfully as possible.”

Amen. 

I wish all my Christian friends and all my journalist friends could sit down, enjoy a Diet Coke and get to know each other better (after we’re finished socially isolating, obviously).

Kenneth Pybus, a journalism professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said — if I may paraphrase him — that he feels my pain.

“I roll my eyes at some things Christians say about journalism, but I’m just as annoyed by many journalists when they venture into religion,” Pybus said in an email.

More excellent thoughts from Pybus: 

I’m afraid social media forces us ‘off the bubble’ and into one camp or another in general, and this is no exception. Friends who see individual examples of anti-Christian bias in the media will offer that as evidence of a systemic and overarching bias within the entire industry — essentially assuming the worst. 

Other friends who want to defend the importance of media and journalism, especially Christians who don’t want to be lumped in with ‘those’ Christians, will deny any bias entirely. Of course, that blows their credibility entirely because it’s obvious to most of us that there are at least a few bad actors in the media — people framing the news who have a contempt for Christianity in particular that has been laid bare in the age of Twitter. Just as there are bad actors within Christianity. 

I suppose the answer is not to assume the worst about whichever side you’re not on and, conversely, not to assume the best about your side. Oh, and stay off of social media — especially when talking politics.

David Duncan, minister for the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, was quoted on the front page of the Houston Chronicle this week about why his congregation will keep meeting online rather than in person.

Duncan said he appreciates that Houston’s major metro daily has appointed a reporter, Rob Downen, to cover the religion beat full time.

“If journalists are going to cover religion on a regular basis, then I would expect them to get to know the religious world,” Duncan said. “Oprah isn’t hosting ‘Monday Night Football,’ and Tony Romo isn’t delivering the 6 o’clock news. Cover what you know when you can.

“As a Christian, I am going to give secular journalists covering religion a break because I know often they are working toward a deadline and don’t have time to know all the details of church polity and doctrine,” the Texas preacher added. “In the meantime, I hope full-time religion journalists are having lunch with religious leaders, attending worship services, taking religion classes and getting to know their field more in-depth.”

Peter Smith is the religion editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the president of the Religion News Association.

His advice?

“From the journalist’s point of view, I think we keep doing our jobs,” Smith said. “Tell stories about what’s important, about what’s compelling. Identify our sources in all but exceptional circumstances that can be explained and justified. 

“Provide context. Be empathetic. Be humble. Be aggressive. Be relentless. Those aren’t mutually exclusive and, in fact, are necessary complements,” he added, noting that when religious scandals occur, the victims are usually the faithful themselves.

Finally, Smith said that news organizations should hire religion journalists — “both so they can provide coverage themselves and so they can guide their colleagues on things minor (reverend is not a noun) and major (understanding the varieties of Islam, say).”

Smith was part of the Post-Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. He said he tries to “meet people from as many walks as I can.”

“If a Sunday school class invites me to speak, I accept if at all possible,” he said. “Oh, and did I mention that news organizations should hire religious journalists? Just making sure.”

Smith is nobody’s enemy.

If Mom met him, I have no doubt she’d invite him over for roast, mashed potatoes and homemade brownies after the Sunday assembly.

Power up: The week’s big questions

Just how “essential” are houses of worship during the coronavirus crisis?

CNN’s Madeline Holcombe and Stephanie Gallman report on states that are exempting religious groups from stay-at-home orders.

Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins offers the latest details on a Florida pastor arrested for holding in-person religious gatherings.

ABC News’ Ben Gittleson explains Vice President Mike Pence’s request that Americans not attend church services of more than 10 people.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, William Bender and Jeremy Roebuck delved into some Catholics still receiving Communion on the tongue despite virus concerns.

For other compelling takes, see these reports by the Los Angeles Times Jaweed Kaleem and the Deseret News Kelsey Dallas.


How big a financial disaster are religious institutions facing?

Meagan Clark and Liza Vandenboom report for Religion Unplugged (and Newsweek) on evangelical churches bracing for a cash crunch.

Religious groups are reeling from lost collections, fundraisers and more, as highlighted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Peter Smith.

Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller notes that “Giving is down, attendance is up and a good number of pastors still aren’t sure what they’re going to do about Easter.”

Black and Latino startup churches are working to stay afloat during the pandemic, according to RNS’ Alejandra Molina.

And we might as well ask: Is this the end of the world?

“For people of many faiths, and even none at all, it can feel lately like the end of the world is near,” the New York Times’ Godbeat pro Elizabeth Dias writes.

Yes, the possibility of the apocalypse made the front page of Thursday’s New York Times.

The Times story follows one of my favorite headlines of the year. It appeared atop a Washington Post piece by religion writers Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey a few weeks ago: “This is not the end of the world, according to Christians who study the end of the world.”

That is good to know!

Etc.: In life’s last moments, U.S. clergy minister to the sick and dying via FaceTime and Zoom, Julie Zauzmer, Washington Post … Virus lockdown changes how Hindus celebrate holy period, Biswajeet Banerjee and Gary Fields, The Associated Press … As the coronavirus spreads in Florida, a priest struggles to reach his flock, Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times … Is the mikveh safe from COVID-19? Some women opt for the ocean, Kelsey Osgood, The Forward … This Catholic priest wanted to pray over Tennesseans amid the coronavirus outbreak. So he got in an airplane, Holly Meyer, The Tennessean … Oh no! New Yorkers upset about Franklin Graham’s hospital tents near Central Park angel, Terry Mattingly, GetReligion … Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone, Daniel Burke, CNN.

Inside the Godbeat: Behind the bylines

Religion Unplugged’s stories on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ secretive $100 billion investment stockpile and the whistleblower complaint that exposed Ensign Peak Advisors earned national recognition.

The online religion magazine’s Paul Glader and Emma Pemrod got an honorable mention in the prestigious 2019 Best in Business contest, sponsored by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.

Congrats to Paul and Emma!

Charging station: In case you missed it

Recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged.

The final plug

In these troublesome times, we could all use a laugh now and then.

Thank you to Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller for her recent feature on the clergy bloopers that have occurred as COVID-19 has forced congregations online.

Enjoy the fun read, everybody, and be careful out there.

(Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor in chief of The Christian Chronicle. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)