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March 29, 2013Culture, Leadership

Salon.com Uses Steubenville Rape to Connect to Dangers of "Evangelical" Youth Conferences

I'm a regular reader of Salon.com to keep up with trends in culture. However, I am struck by its continual bad reporting on matters of religion.

Now, I usually rely on GetReligion.org to critique religion stories, and they do a great job. However, earlier in the week I ran across this gem, "My Steubenville" as the main article on the front page. (It is no longer the main story and was soon replaced with an article, "Anti-Gay Bigots Humiliated" with a nice picture of Rick Santorum.)

But, hey, this is what some parts of progressive America look like. That's the reason I read the magazine.

The "My Steubenville" story is what we often see in progressive magazines-- a story of leaving faith. Fair enough. There are many people who have done so. Salon has quite a history of religion reporting, as you can see from reading their religion search page.

My favorite Salon approach is the "let's find the obscure 'pastor' whom no one has ever heard of and write a big story on his nutcase views." For example, there is an article about "Bible analyst John McTernan," who makes a great straw man for Salon-- though no one I know has ever heard of him or his foolish comments. Unfortunately, there are lots of nutcase "pastors" that make Salon's job easier, though (for some odd reason) I don't see them doing the same thing with Muslim Imams-- but that is for another day.

So, what is the agenda in their most recent article? And, why does it bother me so much?

First, the author ties her experience of attending a religious youth conference to the rape at Steubenville.

Does the fact that some attended a youth conference (and later left religion) and the fact that a girl was victimized in Steubenville really need to be connected in a story? It leaves us wondering-- why would such a connection be made? As she points out that, unlike her leaving religion, "Not everyone can leave Steubenville on the back of a bus."

Really? You use a devastating rape case in Ohio to talk about how you, unlike the girl raped, made it out of Steubenville? Wow. As the father of three daughters, I'm stunned.

Let me quote the full context lest I be accused of selective quoting.

The story of Steubenville has captivated the nation, and with cause. The casual brutality of it, the shocking way the spectators related the events on camera, later spread via social media. It's a horrifying reminder that we were all young once, and vulnerable. That girl was 16, too, and the Steubenville she saw was a much darker place than the one I experienced. Her tale rips me up, because she was victim of a culture that was not safe, where football was the religion and the boys were the chosen ones. Not everyone can leave Steubenville on the back of a bus.

Perhaps football was a religion there. And, clearly the culture was not safe, as she discussed regarding her religious upbringing. But, rape is never something to be used as a hook in a story to describe the disappointments of a religious experience. Never.

Second, does no one at Salon know what an "evangelical" is?

According to the article's subtitle, Steubenville was "a base for the teen evangelical movement, where I saw fundamentalist Christianity's power, and its danger." Hmm. Well, I am an evangelical and know lots of fundamentalists, and I have never heard anything about Steubenville being a "base" for, well, anything evangelical or fundamentalist.

Lest we think that it is the fault of the editors (who choose these article titles and really should know better) the author breathlessly informs us of the sinister fact: "What most people don't know is that Steubenville is home to North America's largest evangelical teen gathering."

Really? Well, what might that gathering be?

Is it Acquire the Fire? Nope.

Extreme? Nope.

If it is the "largest evangelical teen gathering," maybe it is a college thing like the Passion Conference.

Again: Nope.

So I took about 6 seconds to find out what this massive evangelical teen event was that I've somehow never heard of while traveling and speaking across the country at hundreds of events over the past couple of decades. Wouldn't you know that the event is sponsored by the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Their web page is www.franciscan.edu, which might provide a hint.

So would reporting that fact sidetrack the emphasis of the "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" bastion? Would that fact mess up the desired connection?

Why let facts get in the way of a good story? A few bloggers I know seem to do that all the time, so why not Salon? It's the internet after all, and everyone knows that everything you read on the internet is true anyway.

Now for the actual facts: According to Newsweek, this is a place that takes Catholicism seriously, but to the author of the Salon piece, the closest we get is a reference to, "We rocked out to Christian music with our hands in the air, watched people convulse in spiritual conversions as they were 'saved' or 'born again' and heard priests speak in tongues."

Priests? Aha! What kind of priests? (Evangelical and fundamentalist ones, it appears.)

Well, with about two minutes of Internet work on this neat site called Google (maybe that site is blocked by Salon's firewall?), you can discover that Steubenville is an historic home of the Charismatic Catholic renewal movement. Actually, this conference was originally called, the "Catholic Charismatic Conference for Young People." It seems to me that this distinction would have been worth reporting accurately.

Unless, of course, you just wanted to make a shocking "connection" between an "evangelical" youth conference and a Steubenville rape.

If that's your agenda, just stop there.

If that is not your agenda, the story could be a lot easier to write (and does not connect to rape as a literary tool). Try this:

Steubenville has been in the news lately. When I was a youth I went there to a Catholic charismatic conference. It was strange. I walked away from all of this strange religion and told the world in my Salon article.

Still a good story done by a talented writer, but does not use a rape as a story-telling tool and does not tie to a group that was not involved but is easy to demonize today.

Let's be clear. Evangelicals are not perfect, and have never claimed to be. And I have never been one who is willing to turn a blind eye to those real problems-- a lot of people wish I would speak up less on the problems of evangelicalism. So this is not an attempt to sweep something that is real under the rug or a rant about how mean the media can be.

This is about bad writing, the inappropriate use of a rape, and an agenda that bends facts.

I am genuinely sorry that the author of this article had a difficult religious experience, as has unfortunately been the case for many. But use integrity when engaging evangelicalism, and don't take advantage of such a horrific situation to do so.

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