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Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

It’s another busy week in the world of religion reporting. Once again, I’m having trouble keeping up with all the headlines.

Today is the March for Life, and the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer had an interesting preview piece, exploring how political polarization is leading some to view the anti-abortion gathering as a Republican event.

Meanwhile, The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer offered insightful coverage of a Lifeway Research survey. Gannett flagship USA Today picked up the story. The key finding: Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church. 

And with those headlines, we’re just getting started.

Look dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Religion News Service published an important, compelling three-part series on dementia and religion by national reporter Adelle M. Banks.

You really need to check it out.

Also, read my GetReligion commentary on the project.

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The Intercept: The mix of hijabs and high fashion do Muslims no favor

The Intercept: The mix of hijabs and high fashion do Muslims no favor

In this age of bare-bones journalism, a number of private investigative websites have sprung up to report on news that’s important to their owners. One is The Intercept, an online news site dedicated to “adversarial journalism” and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Such sites tackle education, politics, the environment and more — but surprisingly not religion, even though huge percentages of Americans are involved in some kind of faith. Recently, The Intercept made its religion debut with a piece on Islamic fashion and its relation to capitalism.

Its main point was that although the hijab and the flowing robes of the Saudi abaya may be glamorized on the world’s catwalks, actual women who wear them are vilified.

NIKE RELEASED ITS first sports hijab last December, heralded with sleek, black-and-white photographs of accomplished Muslim athletes wearing the Pro Hijab emblazoned with the iconic swoosh. The same month, TSA pulled 14 women who wear hijab out of a security check line at Newark Airport; they were then patted down, searched, and detained for two hours.

From February to March, Gucci, Versace, and other luxury brands at autumn/winter fashion week dressed mostly white models in hijab-like headscarves. Around that time, two women filed a civil rights lawsuit against New York City related to an incident in which the NYPD forced them to remove their hijabs for mugshots.

Gap, a clothing brand known for its all-American ethos, featured a young girl in a hijab smiling broadly in its back-to-school ads this past summer. Meanwhile, children were forced to leave a public pool in Delaware; they were told that their hijabs could clog the filtration system.

Muslim women and Muslim fashion currently have unprecedented visibility in American consumer culture. Yet women who cover are among the most visible targets for curtailed civil liberties, violence, and discrimination in the anti-Muslim climate intensified by Donald Trump’s presidency.

Then comes an utterly clueless paragraph.

By selling modest clothing or spotlighting a hijabi in an ad campaign, the U.S. clothing industry is beckoning Muslim women to be its latest consumer niche. In order to tap into the multibillion-dollar potential of the U.S. Muslim consumer market, large retailers have positioned themselves as socially conscious havens for Muslims, operating on a profit motive rather than a moral imperative.

Now when has Gucci, Prada, Nike, Gap or all the other brands out there ever had a moral imperative?

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Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

What he said.

Once again, Adelle M. Banks has produced a story — actually, make that a series —  that illustrates why she’s one of the best journalists on the Godbeat.

Banks, production editor and national reporter for Religion News Service, is known for her balanced, impartial journalism. Regardless of the subject matter, it’s generally impossible to tell which side Banks favors because she treats everyone so fairly.

Last year, her story on a 75-year-old sanitation worker reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was one of my favorites.

And now — in a world of nonstop hot takes on why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump — Banks has tackled another fascinating subject off the beaten path.

It’s a series on dementia and religion that is filled with interesting, informative details and respected, knowledgable sources.

And the lede? It’s pretty much perfect:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (RNS) — When geropsychologist Benjamin Mast evaluates dementia clients at his University of Louisville research lab, there’s a question some people of faith ask him:

“What if I forget about God?”

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This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

How did I miss this story?

Apparently, there is some kind of move afoot in elite media to push for the establishment of the Episcopal Church, or perhaps the United Church of Christ, as the state-mandated religion in the United States. Have you heard about this?

That’s one way to read the remarkable media response to Second Lady Karen Pence’s decision to return to the teaching at an ordinary evangelical Protestant school that attempts to defend ordinary conservative or traditional Christian doctrine on sexuality. (Yes, I am writing about this issue again.)

Why bring up Episcopalians? Well, Episcopal schools are allowed to have lifestyle and doctrinal covenants that defend their church’s evolving pronouncements blending liberal Christian faith with the editorial pages of The New York Times. Private schools — on left and right — get to define the boundaries of their voluntary associations.

These institutions can even insist that teachers, staff, parents and students affirm, or at least not publicly oppose, the doctrines that are the cornerstone of work in these schools. Try to imagine an Episcopal school that hired teachers who openly opposed the church’s teachings affirming same-sex marriage, the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, etc.

Now, after looking in that First Amendment mirror, read the top of the Times report on Pence’s heretical attempt to freely exercise her evangelical Protestant faith. The headline: “Karen Pence Is Teaching at Christian School That Bars L.G.B.T. Students and Teachers.

Actually, that isn’t accurate. I have taught at Christian colleges in which I knew gay students who affirmed 2,000 years of Christian moral theology or were willing to be celibate for four years. These doctrinal codes almost always focus on sexual conduct and/or public opposition to traditional doctrines. But back to the Gray Lady’s apologetics:

Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, returned to teaching art this week, accepting a part-time position at a private Christian school that does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

You could also say that the school requires its employees not to publicly oppose the teachings on which the school is built. That’s a neutral, accurate wording that would work with liberal religious schools, as well as conservative ones. Just saying. Let’s move on.

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Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

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Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

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Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

United Methodists are, of course, getting ready for their extraordinary global conference next month in which they will try to decide if the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian doctrine have anything definitive to say about marriage and sex.

One powerful pack of lobbyists on the doctrinal left — the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church — have come out swinging, urging the conference to allow “full inclusion” for all in the denomination’s life and work, no matter what their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation.”

It’s safe to say that leaders of these 93 schools — including universities such as Emory, American, Duke, Syracuse and SMU — have created campus policies that encourage or require students, faculty and staff to embrace this modernized approach to moral theology.

That’s fine, as long as these schools are very up-front about the doctrines that define life in their private associations. Private schools on the left and right are allowed to do that. (Click here for a column that I wrote several years ago about efforts at Vanderbilt University to require on-campus ministries to toe the evolving LGBTQ line: “The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies.”)

Once again let me stress: Private schools on the left and right have a First Amendment right (think freedom of association) to defend the doctrines that define campus life.

Some journalists continue to struggle with this First Amendment concept, leading to lots of GetReligion posts trying to explain the law and history behind “lifestyle” and doctrinal covenants at private schools.

For a perfect example of this problem, see the new Washington Post report with this headline: “The school that hired Karen Pence requires applicants to disavow gay marriage, trans identity.” Here is the lengthy, but essential, overture to this story.

The school where Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen, has accepted a part-time job teaching art requires potential employees to affirm certain religious beliefs that seek to exclude homosexual and transgender applicants, including that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

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China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a piece on Vice.com about China’s social credit system, a mix of “Brave New World,” “The Hunger Games” and Revelation 13:16-17.

Do you think the Chinese government would use this system to punish religious believers? We will come back to that angle.

For those of you not familiar with end-of-the-New Testament prophecy, the latter concerns a “mark” (barcode?) one must have to do any financial transactions worldwide. It all sounded like something out of the 22nd century until I began reading about China’s creepy citizen tracking system.

A short piece at Vice started thus:

RONGCHENG, China — Here and in other cities across China, monitors have been tracking people's behaviors — good and bad — for the country's new Social Credit System. It’s kind of like the American credit score system, except it tracks far more than financial transactions.

And the consequences can be pretty serious.

Part of the system is a neighbor watch program that's being piloted across the country where designated watchers are paid to record people's behaviors that factor into their social credit score. Zhou Aini, for one, gets paid $50 USD a month to watch her neighbors as an "information collector." She records observations in a notebook and then shares it with a local government office that determines the results.

A high score could bring you lower interest loans and discounted rent and utility bills, but if your score is low, you can be subjected to public shaming or even banned from certain kinds of travel. Basically, your life gets harder.

While the score is not exactly the biochip everyone must have embedded in their hand or forehead mentioned in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, it is unsettling.

China’s persecution of its Muslim, Falun Gong and Christian minorities is getting worse by the day, so you can guess which groups would immediately suffer losses of their social credit. Today they might not be able to buy tickets for a plane flight. Tomorrow they may not be able to buy food.

Various media have been covering this trend for the past year. However, when it comes to religion, I haven’t seen much connecting of the dots.

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'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

"This is truly, truly an awful story to report,” tweeted a Dallas Morning News sportswriter involved in the coverage of a child sexual abuse charge against former baseball star John Wetteland.

Actually, it’s beyond awful.

It’s sickening, especially for a diehard Texas Rangers fan like myself who remembers cheering for Wetteland and appreciating his focus on his Christian faith.

According to the Dallas newspaper, the former closer is accused of sexually abusing a young child:

Wetteland, 52, is accused of continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14, according to Denton County jail records. The Trophy Club resident posted $25,000 bond and was released from custody the same day as his arrest.

He had forced a young relative to perform a sex act on him, according to the arrest warrant affidavit, beginning in 2004 when the child was just four years old.

The abuse occurred at Wetteland's home in Bartonville, the affidavit stated. It happened twice more over a two-year period, the victim said.

And sadly, there is a strong and absolutely relevant religion angle as Wetteland — who was the 1996 World Series MVP while pitching for the New York Yankees — is well-known for touting his Christian beliefs.

“Wetteland Is Just a Closer Who Walks With the Lord,” declared a 1995 New York Times sports column.

That column opened this way:

John Wetteland is drinking coffee from a large mug with the words "Jesus Lives" emblazoned across it in big, black letters. He grins and nods when someone comments on the mug. His Bible is resting on a shelf in his locker and he has a personal computer at his disposal so he can retrieve morning devotionals from an on-line program and pray before the Yankees begin another day of baseball.

"I honestly try and walk with Jesus Christ every day," he said, describing his most important relationship, more important than his relationship with his wife.

Obviously, the facts of the criminal case are the most important element of the news reports on Wetteland’s arrest.

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