Burning the ties that bind

It’s the question that I have heard many times over the past week or so.

But, first, let’s state the question a different way.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Was this a news story?

Was it protected “symbolic expression” when demonstrators, back in the Reagan White House era, burned the American flag? Should the media have covered this event and the resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision?

Was it acceptable for Muslims to burn copies of “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie? Was it acceptable for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa calling for the novelist’s death? Was that a news story?

Does the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist crew have a constitutional right to do that thing that they do? Should journalists cover these media-friendly shock-a-thons as he waltzes from sea to shining sea (a frequent subject for debates here at GetReligion)?

And, yes, all of these questions are in some way related to the debates about the rights of Muslims who want to build the proposed Cordoba mosque near Ground Zero.

We face the question yet again: Would the Rev. Terry Jones simply vanish if all of the journalists in America and around the world simply clicked their heels together three times and chanted, “Can’t we all get along?”

Does Jones have a right — in the name of symbolic expression and free speech — to create a small stack of Korans, carefully keeping his mini-bonfire materials within the limits of local laws, and then strike a match?

Yes, it’s stupid. It’s wrong. It’s reckless. It shows disrespect and worse.

Yes, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for U.S. soldiers, for missionaries, for diplomats, for journalists, for Christians and other members of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands. It’s just plain dangerous.

Yes, almost every Christian on the face of the planet — left and right — would agree that this act is truly sinful, for a wide range of reasons. Ditto for the faithful in other flocks.

But, yes, Jones has a right to light that match.

It’s tragic, but that’s the truth. Otherwise, America has decided to enforce what amounts to a blasphemy law. Do journalists really want to see the First Amendment edited in that way?

Yes, other nations are taking steps in that direction. But as my friend Paul Marshall, and his colleague Nina Shea, have written in a commentary for National Review Online:

… (The) United States is an exception, with its strong protections of free speech under the First Amendment. In the United States, neither blasphemy nor hate speech are violations of the law. … At stake are the freedoms of religion and expression that lie at the heart of our liberal democracy. …

If Islam, and Islam alone, were to be protected by the state from critique, an illiberal interpretation of Islam would attain a de facto privileged status in the United States. Conversely, should Christianity, Judaism, and other religions also benefit from such state protection, fundamental individual freedoms would be essentially negated.

Pastor Terry Jones’s Koran-burning spectacle potentially holds the danger of hurting the war effort, General Petraeus has warned. Jones should be criticized, denounced, and urged — but not coerced — to give up his insensitive publicity stunt.

There is one other angle to this story that — for a very specific group of mainstream religious leaders — is as urgent as the last moments before a train wreck.

By far, my favorite quote in mainstream coverage of this story thus far is found in a Washington Post report (look inside the paper, not out front) about evangelical protests of “International Burn a Koran Day.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he decided not to approach Jones because he believes that the pastor would disapprove of Land’s advocacy for the rights of religious minorities and his general engagement with pluralism.

“If I know my boy, he thinks we’re apostate liberals anyway,” Land said. “My guess is my call would be counterproductive. My calling him would just encourage him to do it.”

He’s right, of course. Phelps thinks the Southern Baptists are doctrinal wimps, too. You know that, right?

Yes, once again we are dealing with a sad reality of this post-denominational age, the age in which more and more local congregations have absolutely zero ties that bind them to anything other than whatever stuff is located between the ears of the pastor who calls the shots (and maybe a few donors). As the old saying goes, for many people these days “church history” is defined as whatever has happened since their pastor preached his or her first sermon.

Who has any valid authority over Jones, other than a local police official who manages to find some legal loophole that the preacher has failed to plug while planning his firestorm? No one.

This is truly a subject worthy of a cover story in The Atlantic (please let the great Peter J. Boyer write it). It’s a subject that would require months of research to even dent — the impact of completely independent evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and, yes, fundamentalist churches on the shape of the Christian faith in American and around the world. But the subject is so, so huge. I am not even sure that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life could assemble a research team to get a handle on it.

Meanwhile, columnist Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel is asking the question that millions of Americans are asking: “What if media had ignored Terry Jones?” Here’s the end of his piece:

I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren’t there to film it, is it news?

Of course not.

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we’ll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention. … We could help head off such future nonsense if we folded up the circus tent and left Jones alone with his blowtorch and 30 followers.

Maybe if Gen. Petraeus told the media that it isn’t Rev. Jones who is endangering troops. That it is our coverage of Rev. Jones. That without us, this book burning would be little more than a grainy video on YouTube.

Put the onus on a responsible party and hope it acts responsibly.

Fat chance.

Sadly, Thomas is wrong. But with his column in mind, return to the top of this post and start over. Read through that list again.

Yes, this topic may burn us up. But it’s news.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Rev. Old, the Quran burning TN Baptist minister, thinks that Land is dead wrong about religious liberty and about showing any respect/courtesy to Muslims.

  • Jerry

    Hani Almadhoun in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hani-almadhoun/america-vs-america-koran-_b_709199.html made a critical point that ties in with this story. Most non-Americans don’t understand American freedoms and assume out of ignorance that our country works like theirs where what happens is controlled by the government especially what appears in the media. And he asks another question: When does an act rise to the ‘fire in a crowded theater’ test?

    many of my Muslim and Arab peers do not fully comprehend the concept of freedom of speech. Even though the majority of Americans think the Pastor’s actions are idiotic and unwise, there is little one can do to stop him from his planned event. This can easily be viewed as a hate speech, which is not protected under any law. I echo the sentiment in On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

    This also illustrates something about how many Muslims are ignorant of what is in the Quran and Hadith such as that given here: http://muttaqun.com/anger.html

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Great post, Terry!

    This could have been a “teachable moment” for the world about the concept of free speech if our leaders had taken that tack.

    American Muslim leaders could be comparing and contrasting the Muslim/ Sjarioa views on protecting religion and the the US founding laws on freedom of speech and religion.

  • Julia

    Yes, once again we are dealing with a sad reality of this post-denominational age, the age in which more and more local congregations have absolutely zero ties that bind them to anything other than whatever stuff is located between the ears of the pastor who calls the shots (and maybe a few donors).

    There are countries in Europe such as Germany who have a list of approved “denominations”. Scientology has been denied approval.

    My guess is that the German government wants to be able to identify somebody who can take responsibility for whatever the folks in that denomination are up to. In the case of Scientology, it doesn’t trust the folks who appear to be the responsible parties.

    Our country is rather unique, I surmise.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    So Islam is a different issue, covered differently by the law, because a small minority kills blasphemers? That trumps the First Amendment?

    That concept should shape JOURNALISM coverage?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Reuters is reporting that he’s called it off.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, that reference is weird since the headline is about calling off the burning but the text is about moving the Park51 project elsewhere.

    Terry, I explicitly referenced ‘fire in a crowded theater’ in my comment on the commentator’s similar point because it is a clearly American legal principle so I don’t understand where you derived the idea I was suggesting anything about making this incident a special case. To me it is the same area as the Wikileaks issue where there were claims about a clear and present danger being caused to US troops.

  • Roberto

    I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren’t there to film it, is it news?

    Of course not.

    Maybe not in Orlando but it most definitely is in the Islamic world. Lat month, I was in India, staying in hotel a short walking distance from the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the third or fourth-largest Muslim country in the world.

    People I met knew all about the Park 51 controversy. The hotel’s travel manager, a Kashmiri Muslim, and I talked about it (we also talked about Katy Perry, go figure).

    If the American media had ignored the “sad little man” and he had burned the Qu’ran anyway, trust me, the Islamic world would have known and the result would have been the same. At least this way we got to show the world what a “sad little man” he is.

    After all, we aren’t the only country in the world.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Even more chilling in all this brouhaha is the fact that some people are already proposing that burning Korans be covered by “Hate Crimes” legislation. So where will our groveling to Islamic threats end??? I have regularly argued here and elsewhere that, as well intentioned as “hate crimes” legislation- pushed and promoted by liberals who worship government power to set things straight- is a dagger thrust right into the heart of the Bill of Rights and all press and media freedoms.
    This minister is free to “burn, baby, burn” and everyone else is free to yell and shout: “Foul! Don’t Do It” But to rape First Amendment freedom , as already being promoted by many liberals on other issues, is just plain wrong and far more dangerous than anything this minister can do.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note: On Sept. 7 on this site I suggested that the minister ought to voluntarily not use his right to burn Korans if the NY Mosque builders would voluntarily not use their building rights and move their project.
    Needless to say I nearly fell off my chair when this suggestion became this afternoon’s hot possibility across the media.

  • Ann

    The Park51 Imam said he has not talker with Jones and he has no plans to move.

    “The city of Gainesville’s top administrator said Wednesday that he will send Terry Jones, the senior pastor at the Dove World Outreach Center, a bill for the estimated tens of thousands of dollars it will cost to police the area if the church goes through with its plan to burn the Quran on Saturday.”

    “The Joneses or their corporation, TS and Company, own six properties in the Gainesville neighborhoods of Pineridge and Phoenix, purchased between March 2006 and August 2007 for a combined total of $647,500. Financing information was not available. In addition, Terry and Sylvia Jones bought a home in Slidell, La., in January 2007 for $303,900. They also own a condo in the Paradise Island Towers Condo on Treasure Island, which was bought before Jones’ first wife died.”

    http://www.gainesville.com/article/20100909/ARTICLES/9091049/1118?p=1&tc=pg

    The above article ha additional information about Jone’s background. He has been more than a 50 person pastor.

  • Jerry

    Apparently the story about a deal was not true from what I’ve been reading now.

    I have a thought about emotional reactions: For guys, tell your wife or girl friend that she should not wear what she’s weFroaring because it makes her look fat and 10 years older. Many Muslims have a very strong emotional feeling about the Quran and Muhammad. Given how strong emotions are, it’s critical that media reports are well-written and properly balanced.

    And I hope we see some follow-up stories about the reactions in the Islam world to how this incident played out.

  • kjs

    Jerry,

    “Hate” speech is protected by law in the U.S. Slander & incitement to violence (neither of which Koran burning inherently is) are not. If the KKK can burn crosses, Rev. Jones can burn the Koran.

    No one that I’ve heard has suggested that the Park51 project doesn’t have a First Amendment right to build their mosque. I find it quite striking that Mr. Almadhoun is even suggesting that Rev. Jones might not have a right under U.S. law to burn the Koran.

  • Martha

    It’s a hard question.

    On the one hand, the international publicity this has received has been exactly what Pastor Jones has been looking for.

    On the other hand, if the media decide not to cover things like this, then it’s a kind of censorship – ‘we have a list of approved activities and non-approved ones’.

    I really don’t know what the best course of action is here, except to keep emphasising that this is one man and his little shock! horror! stunt.

  • michael

    It’s censorship if the state prohibits the press from covering certain things. It’s editorial discretion to determine that some yokel pulling an obscene publicity stunt down in Florida is no big deal and not worth the ink, a judgment the media are apparently willing to make all the time where the desecration of other faiths is concerned.

    “News” is not some occult quality that mysteriously attaches itself to certain events. News is whatever the media, and to some extent those who can claim a share of media attention, ultimately decide it is. Its boundaries are determined by the (narrow) interests of our politico-entertainment complex. This is why some things are news and other, perfectly analogous things are not (and why some perfectly serious thoughts and questions are never permitted to raise their heads in public at all). And it is why the things that are news tend to be all consuming for as long as their brief candle burns.

    Mike Thomas is not all wrong, and the reason he is partly right, not to mention one reason why all of Terry’s analogies break down, is because the media now possess an uprecedented power, made possible by a network of instant global communication, to determine the contents of the world’s consciousness–at least in its public dimensions. A few weeks ago Terry Jones was nobody. Today he’s the focus of world attention, not to mention the object of the ire and breathless indignation of the world’s most powerful people. If you are anywhere within the media echo chamber that is contemporary society, you can’t get away from the guy. This is an emerging pattern that repeats itself with ever greater frequency, and it is very worrisome for a whole bunch of reasons.

    The medium is the message, much moreso now than a half century ago when Marshall McLuhan coined that phrase, and treating journalistic questions as a matter of message or technique in abstraction from the media which make it so dominant is a recipe for a shallow understanding of journalism. And even worse, shrugging one’s shoulders and saying “but it’s the news,” is a bit like the media exec who disclaims his smut by sayng, “we simply give people what they want.” It disguises the fact that the media are not just descriptive of the world around them but profoundly prescriptive. Not only does this kind of analysis absolve the media of acting responsibly–or reduce the definition of ‘acting responsibly’ to ‘getting the facts straight’–it absolves them of rigorous thinking or of understanding the place and power of journalism within our culture. It thereby disguises this power, and so obscures where the deeper danger lies in controversies such as these.

  • Jerry

    kjs,

    It sounds like I confused you on what he wrote. He wrote:

    The Pastor is within his constitutional rights to burn any book he chooses.

  • str

    One says:

    “In the United States, neither blasphemy nor hate speech are violations of the law.”

    Another says:

    “This can easily be viewed as a hate speech, which is not protected under any law.”

    Now which is it?

    IMHO, the concept of “hate speech” is not even recognised. What is hate speech anyway. And burning something is not speech at all.

  • str

    Julia,

    There are countries in Europe such as Germany who have a list of approved “denominations”. Scientology has been denied approval.

    My guess is that the German government wants to be able to identify somebody who can take responsibility for whatever the folks in that denomination are up to. In the case of Scientology, it doesn’t trust the folks who appear to be the responsible parties.

    Didn’t we have this discussion before or was it somebody else?

    It would be great if you informed yourself first before making such declarations.

    There is no “list of approved denominations” in Germany but the status of a “corporation under public law”. A religious or ideological group that is sufficently large and loyal to the constitution (that is the only “approval” part) can apply for that status and then 1. get membership fees collected by the revenue service as church tax (the state however gets a fee) and 2. set up its course of religious education in public schools (with the state providing teachers and the curriculum according to the religion’s views, under state supervision).

    No matter how much Scientology propaganda one believes, the case about that group was something else entirely. The “Church of Scientology” by German authorities and courts was deemed not a religious group but a for-profit enterprise (and rightfully so!). The CoS never even considered applying for that special status.

    J’s Witnesses OTOH successfully obtained that status (though they went through the courts, as the Berlin state government was unwilling).

  • str

    Michael,

    It’s censorship if the state prohibits the press from covering certain things. It’s editorial discretion to determine that some yokel pulling an obscene publicity stunt down in Florida is no big deal and not worth the ink, a judgment the media are apparently willing to make all the time where the desecration of other faiths is concerned.

    I agree with. Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel is spot on. If the media left the man alone, nothing would come of it and the next guy wouldn’t even do it.

    But such responsibility is probably too much to ask for, especially given the competetive nature of journalism. And certainl nobody can force them, if the government for the last 40 years isn’t even allowed to protect classified material (Pentagon Papers) or if the Wikileaks makers go free.

  • michael

    Str,

    I harbor no illusions about the likelihood of the media taking responsibility for–or even acknowledging–their enormous and growing power, especially since this power works partly by concealing itself. And the echo chamber of instant global communication makes such an acknowledgment even less likely.

    At the same time, I would want to resist any argument–in any field–that abdicates human responsibility where human decisions are in fact made–by off-loading these decisions onto some allegedly blind mechanism such as the ‘competitive market’ or some inevitable process such as ‘technological progress’. This is really a counsel of resignation, urging us to resign ourselves to fate or destiny.

    It is better to try to understand the nature of contemporary media and the power they exert and to call them on the abuse of that power, knowing full well that such abuses are likely to continue, than simply to throw up one’s hands and give in to it.

  • kjs

    Jerry,

    You didn’t confuse me. I read the entire article by Mr. Almadhoun. He says that the Koran burning could “easily be viewed as a hate speech, which is not protected under any law.” This is saying that hate speech is not protected, & it is suggesting that this particular act might not be protected since it can be seen as hate speech. That he goes on to assert that it is within constitutional bounds is true; but I found his suggestion surprising.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Several posts ago, about this same subject, Mollie said something to the effect of that nothing should be ‘censored’ by the media. I asked her if ‘declining to cover’ was the same thing as ‘censoring’; she did not answer me.

    I bring this up again because I see reflections of the same question among the comments here. If the MSM refuse to cover this a*sclown in Florida, is that ‘censoring’ in any meaningful sense? I don’t think it is. My understanding (from journalism school) is that most reputable journalists do not cover naked publicity stunts, which (to me) this obviously is.

    I would never suggest that this guys is outside his First Amendment rights in burning the Quran; he certainly has that right. I have the First Amendment right to do all kinds of things, but the MSM is not bound to cover any of it. They don’t cover it, it doesn’t happen.

  • Dave

    michael, I cannot agree with your self-referential definition of news. If no organized news media cover this event (possibly now a non-event), but that “grainy Youtube video” goes viral, it’s news without intervention of the media.

    Jon, the definition of censorship has long been warped in the heat of argument. The core meaning is government fiat, but the word has come to refer to any third-party intervention between a willing supplier of words, images etc and a willing customer. Coordinated media refusal to cover a subject would certainly fit under the expanded definition.

    Terry, I went carefully over your list of provocative free speech episodes from recent history and was surprised to see the fatwa against Salman Rushdie included. Given the political power exercised by the late Ayatollah, I would say that goes beyond speech. YMMV.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jon in the Nati,

    Sorry that I didn’t see your earlier question. I’ve had some internet troubles this week.

    I think that there is a difference between declining to take part in a publicity stunt and censoring important information. I think this could have received a little coverage but the level of coverage and input it’s receiving has far surpassed what’s appropriate.

    The fact is that people burn Korans, Bibles and other books all the time. Why don’t they receive this level of media coverage? Simply because of the date?

    Or was the media so desperate for proof of “Islamophobia” that they jumped all over this story? There is really no justification for this level of coverage, in my view.

    If they were going to cover this at this frequency, at least they could have more interesting stories. For instance, something about the freedom of speech issue, or about how speech can be protected but still be unwise, or more about that group of Muslims that we’re told will violently riot if flame touches a page of a copy of the Koran? I’d rather not have another interview with this pastor.

  • str

    Censorship is the prevention of publication by a third party. Government intervention afterwards is not censorship, nor is prevention by the publisher.

    Mollie,

    how do you define “important information” – quite a large part of the news is utterly unimportant. This event ranks among the least important things ever, IMHO.

    Dave,

    youtube is part of the media.

  • Dave

    str, you’ll note I said “organized news media.”

  • northcoast

    Please excuse the disjointedness if my comment. When the news media are reporting events, how can we expect them to downplay something that is already getting attention? If they are doing a poor job in a free country it is up to the readers/consumers to discern what news and opinion providers are worthy of their time.

    I don’t know why everyone from the President on down had to provide a lecture about the Koran thing. How about just saying that you accept that it is legal but you would rather that they had better manners. Of course whenever there was a new comment there had to be new news coverage.

    Free speech, like democracy, has its weaknesses but seems to beat the alternatives. Recent experiences of Canadian writers and clergy with their Human Rights Commission provides a perfect example of good intentions gone wrong.

  • northcoast

    I forgot to add that flag burning was a popular feature of protests in the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

  • Maureen

    It’s a bit beside the point to critique Phelps’ biblical interpretations, when he teaches that only his family will survive God’s wrath because of their descent from one of David’s mighty men. It’s not entirely clear that he’s a Christian, actually.