Evangelical News and an Alternate Universe

Evangelical news operations have stepped up
recently. They are offering people interpretation for a worldview in uncertain

We don?t just
tell them what
the news is…We
tell them what
it means. And
that?s appealing
to people, especially
in moments of
cultural instability.
–Frank Wright
National Religious Broadcasters

Evangelical news operations offer more than the news, according to an article in Columbia Journalism Review. They offer an alternate view of the universe.

This is not a new idea. Many creators of content for evangelical audiences are intentional in presenting a point of view consistent with evangelical faith. They view their work as an alternative to the mainstream culture. And the market for it has been growing.

The marketing strategy is clear. News is a way to broaden the audience. It reaches out to a wider audience than currently watches religious television, or listens to religious radio. Audiences have leveled off in the past several months, but the public attention given to the Schiavo case, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and the judicial filibuster provide a forum for commentary and outreach.

Consider this: there are 2000 religious radio stations, 3 direct broadcast satellite systems and 1700 members of the National Religious Broadcasters. They have demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with.

In her comprehensive article, Stations of the Cross, Mariah Blake provides helpful detail that not only explains the structure of evangelical religious broadcasting, she also surveys its influence on the mainstream culture. She presents one of the most accurate and dispassionate assessments of the use of media by the religious right that’s been written recently.

10X10 News Site

Thanks to Matt Carlisle for sharing the news aggregation site ten by ten. It’s more than the traditional text-based site, however, so try it and see if it doesn’t present the top stories of the hour in a more creative and engaging format.

Ugly Children

“He’s got a face made for radio.” That used to be a commonly heard statement in the media business. Of course, it was a satirical way of saying someone did not have the physical attributes to be accepted by television viewers.

The study by University of Alberta researchers that finds parents are less attentive to children considered unattractive takes that putdown to even more tragic levels.

It’s the story of the ugly duckling without the swan at the end. It makes me wonder about how we are conditioned by media perceptions of beauty. It’s also said today that “the camera loves” this person. We mean the person’s physical attributes are suited for display in an electronic box.

There has been a ton of writing about young girls and body image. The diagnosis of bulimia has been associated with self-image and perceptions of beauty. This is a cultural distortion that is taking a toll on impressionable young lives.

Maureen Dowd is correct when she writes that the thought of being cared for less by those who are supposed to give us unconditional love is a sad commentary if it’s true. Let’s hope the study is an abberation.

Gallup Sees Decline in Future Clergy

When I first told Aunt Vesta I was going to enter the ministry her first words were, “Well, you’re never going to make any money, that way.”

My Aunt was imminently practical and brutally frank. She kept groping for something positive to say about my announcement. It was obvious my decision didn’t excite her. Her next rejoinder was, “Well, at least I won’t have to worry about you getting some girl pregnant.” That was the extent of her positive acceptance of my career direction.

Her view of preachers, as she called them, was that they were poor and sexless.

Apparently she was years ahead of the times. A Gallup Poll that says fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Americans would advise a young person to enter the ministry as a career. It doesn’t say why, so I can’t tell if they agree with Aunt Vesta, or not.

Thanks to Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, for sending a note about the release of the poll. It was linked at Ethics Daily.

Pat Roberston on Culture

I suspect that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have limited following today. They are interesting to the media for their peculiarities, more than than their influence. They make for readable copy and engaging television because they’re so peculiar. The website ethicsdaily.com reports the latest example. Rev. Robertson says the U.S. Supreme Court is a greater threat to the U.S. than terrorists. It’s hard to imagine that any but a handful take him seriously anymore.

But this points to a need for articulate people from the middle to speak to these issues in order to influence the conversation toward identifying real issues that should be addressed–poverty, peace, health care, care for the environment–and propose constructive solutions to the problems the world faces.

At the same time, we must work for judges that respect the Constitution and uphold the principles upon which the nation was founded, and in that debate the voice of moderation must be heard as well.

The Bishops and President Bush

The meeting yesterday of five United Methodist bishops with President Bush is an encouraging first step. Hopefully, it will open the door to getting the voice of these mainline Christians into the discussion of public issues. Bishop Weaver, the president of the Council of Bishops, is expressing the hope for further dialogue with public officials on the matters that make for a better world.

The absence of the mainline, moderate voice in public discussion is widely recognized. The manner in which mainline leaders study and speak is at odds with the shoot-from-the-lip media style that gets attention today. That’s a disadvantage they must overcome simply to be heard.

And I’m not critical of this style, I believe it’s served the church and the society well over the years. But the challenge is how to be heard when you’re moderate and measured rather than bombastic and extreme. Bombast makes headlines. Extremes grab soundbites.

In a world where media shape perceptions, if you are not seen or heard, your ability to shape public opinion is almost impossible. Influence in other ways, of course, is an option. Meeting with public officials and lobbying for policies is a proven method. But you need support behind you and more often than not that comes from public perception, or at least the ability to communicate broadly with constituent groups.

When, during the last election, there was a concerted attempt to organize pastors of local churches to support the Republican party candidates and to distribute mailing lists of local churches to the party, it was clear that some political operators are playing hardball.

Further, the public comments of people such as James Dobson demonstrate a willingness to use rhetorical flourish that is out of character for mainstream leaders. In that regard, the challenge they face is how to get a hearing without resorting to such tactics.

That in itself will need to be an ongoing conversation. But, for now, I’m proud of the bishops for the way in which they have handled this meeting with the President. I’m pleased that the President met with them. I think this is a good first step and I am hopeful it will lead to other steps that will result in the participation of mainline leadership in the discussion of public policy that will make the world a safer, more compassionate and more humane world for all people.

Runaway Bride and Media Trivialization

If anyone needed an excuse to criticize cable news, Jennifer Wilbanks has given it to them. This is the young woman who got cold feet about getting married and hopped a bus from Duluth, Georgia to Albuquerque.

I was rushing to get to the airport the other day and saw a news bulletin on MSNBC. I stopped and discovered it was really just continuing coverage of this young woman’s story. There are times when I just can’t take newscasts seriously and this is one.

This young woman’s behavior isn’t national news. It doesn’t deserve a breakaway news insert. It’s a measure of how far news has fallen. And it’s why viewers don’t care that much about what these folks say anymore. Part of the trust we give to journalists we give because we expect them to tell important stories that have some relationship to our lives. But that kind of journalism is increasingly difficult to find on the cable news channels. I went to the airport muttering to myself about trivializing cable newscasts.

United Methodist Bishops Meet President Bush

A delegation of United Methodist bishops presented President George W. Bush with a leather-bound Bible today in a tradition that goes back more than 200 years. The Bible was signed by United Methodist bishops from around the world. the practice of giving Bibles to U.S. presidents began in 1789 with President George Washington.

Five representatives of the Council of Bishops, which is meeting this week in Washington DC, met with President Bush to talk with him about shared concerns and to express their commitment to working together for the future of a better world.

The bishops expressed appreciation for the cordial welcome they received from President Bush, and said they felt the visit was an important step in continuing to build a relationship for working together.

“We wanted him to know that we are praying for him, and that we share with him the commitment for a better world. We are looking forward to finding ways to work together on common issues such as AIDS in Africa,” said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, President of the Council of Bishops and Bishop of the Boston episcopal area.

The delegation included officers of the Council of Bishops, as well as bishops from the Metropolitan Washington, DC area. Accompanying Bishop Weaver were “Bishop Janice Huie of the Houston area, president-designate; Bishop Ernest S. Lyght of the West Virginia area, secretary; Bishop John R. Schol of the Baltimore-Washington area and Bishop Charlene Kammerer of the Richmond area.

After their meeting with President Bush, the bishops also participated in a meeting with other religious leaders to talk about world concerns.

Religion and Politics

A few years ago when there was an organized left and a smaller and less organized right it was often said that religious people should stay out of politics. Religion and politics don’t mix. It was evangelical leaders who promoted this message.

They spoke out of genuine belief that faith is not something that can be contained in a political wrapper. They believed the central mission of the Christian was to make disciples, individual by individual. They were suspicious of government intervention in the affairs of religious organizations. And they felt, I suspect, marginalized in the majority culture.

Today, the situation is almost totally reversed. There really isn’t a left in the traditional sense. I think it’s a misnomer to call moderates “left.” The landscape of Cold War categories doesn’t apply to contemporary social and political realities on the ground, at least not in the United States. Those who call the leadership of the mainline churches leftist today are simply mischaracterizing those leaders, in my opinion. There is no leftist, radical voice advocating change by taking to the streets, tearing down institutions and upsetting the social order today as was the case in the sixties.

Neither are there theoretical frameworks advocating for socialism or state capitalism coming from the the left. That form of sixties radicalism has either been co-opted, marginalized or abandoned. Those who in former times would have been known as moderates or progressives are called leftists by some today, but, that doesn’t make it so. As I view the leaders I’ve seen in mainline religious groups, they don’t have a leftist agenda, nor any political agenda.

A few have called the federal budget a moral statement. Surely, that’s not a radical position. A few have called for social justice for the poor and vulnerable, but within existing public policies, and that’s not a radical position. It’s simply calling for critical review of priorities about how we expend national and state resources. I can’t figure out why this is viewed as politically unacceptable. It’s a fundamental part of the democratic process.
At most, those who advocate this position say that our values should inform our decisions about how we spend our money. That is hardly radical.

If I step back from the super-heated rhetoric of James Dobson and others who share his views, and look dispassionately at the religious landscape, I see a great moderate middle that is not prone to taking extreme positions from any direction. And if we are to believe the Barna Group’s polling over the past ten years, it confirms that there has not been significant shift in the religious landscape. Evangelicals still account for approximately 7% of the religious population, as they did ten years ago. Other groups have waxed and waned slightly, but not by precipitous change. National elections have hinged on razor thin margins. Votes in the General Conference of The United Methodist Church reveal a consistency that is tenuous at best. If a mere 10% of delegates changed their votes on some of the most contentious issues the church faces, the outcome would be very different. That’s not a church caught up in the grips of extremists on any side.

So, I see more reason to hope than to be discouraged. We need to keep hope alive. And we need to stay in dialogue

The Difficulty of Dialogue

As an interviewer I learned early on that an individual sharing a story with me is engaging in a relationship of trust. Trust is a two-way street. The person must trust that I will tell his or her story as truthfully and accurately as possible. I generally was not engaged in investigative or political reporting in which other dynamics come into play.

If an interview is a relationship, however brief, it demands respect for the other person, give-and-take, a basic commitment to truth and a commitment to discover the full context of the individual’s story. I’m probably leaving out some essential components of this relationship, but the point is, communication at this level, if it is to have depth, requires respect and trust. Authentic communication is fundamentally about mutuality.

If I got God
on my side,
what’s a Microsoft?
What’s a Microsoft?
It’s nothing.
–Rev. Ken Hutcherson

This thinking comes about because two stories I’ve been watching are receiving treatment today in major media. One is the conversation between officials at Microsoft and a local pastor who opposes anti-discrimination legislation in Washington state designed to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. He’s outspoken as the quote from the New York Times illustrates. There is no room for dissent, “misbehavior,” or subtlety. It’s apparently his way or the highway.

The story has been reported for several weeks. Microsoft has shifted positions. It is taking a neutral position on the legislation and the pastor claims credit.

A second is the struggle at Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also widely reported, that pits the chairman against some of the executive leadership. He claims liberal bias in program content, a long-standing complaint by the right against PBS and National Public Radio.

In this debate the issue being raised is balanced and objective reporting of all sides. It is, of course, a legitimate concern. What leads one to be slightly suspicious is the partisan environment, the connections to political appointments in government and the use of staff who have had partisan jobs to conduct the content review.

But at the heart of it is the lack of mutuality. The public dialogue today isn’t really a dialogue for some. It’s a shouting match or an exercise in bullying. If we continue down the road we’re on–shouting and bullying–the quality of our community life is damaged, the quality of our national conversation is notched downward to slogans and braggadocio and our ability to live in mutually respectful ways is undermined. What we need is a higher commitment to dialogue.