Finding religion during acts of God

I’m in New York City right now. The party I’d planned for the weekend was canceled and my friends and I spent all day yesterday getting ready for Irene to strike. I taped up windows, bought provisions, moved things away from windows, filled up bathtubs, you name it. And while the storm did pass us by without too much damage, we did have to flee where we were staying last night when the ceiling began caving in because of water.

But we made it through without losing power and so I’m reading papers. The most interesting media criticism question has to be whether the media behaved responsibly in preparing people for this storm. Some people say it’s best to prepare for the worst — with media playing a huge role in doing that — while others say that hyping up a dangerous storm only makes subsequent storms more dangerous. That’s because no one will believe subsequent calls to evacuate.

My own view is that the media need to learn different settings than just “ignore” or “hype.” This was a dangerous storm and many people lost their lives and property. It’s also true that it was known for days that it wouldn’t be as devastating as feared earlier in the week.

I wish everyone who’s making fun of how this storm was handled would think about those folks who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina. It’s really hard to know when to evacuate and when not to.

In any case, I was also curious to see media coverage of religion angles. One of the things I noticed yesterday on local New York news was how openly religious institutions were discussed. People were discussing sheltering, if needed, in religious institution facilities.

This Associated Press story mentions churches in the lede, but then drops it.

This Washington Post blog did updates throughout the weekend of what was going on in the area. The 7:46 AM update today was about several thousand “Crusaders for Christ” having worship at the Washington Hilton and helping out as able:

On Saturday afternoon, crusade volunteers distributed 25,000 pounds of food to the needy at the 13th Street Church of Christ in Northwest to people who came out and accepted donations in the rain.

Brother Graylon Freeman, minister of the 13th Street congregation, said the food giveaway was important. “We wanted people to know that the church is concerned about people’s needs,” Freeman said.

This Associated Press story about the storm included an interesting religion angle:

Near the epicenter of the quake, in Mineral, Va., trees were down, but the power stayed on.

“I was telling people, ‘All I can say is we all better go to church on Sunday,’” Mayor Pam Harlowe said. “But unfortunately a bunch of them are closed.”

My congregation still had Divine Services this morning but I got the feeling — from folks on Twitter, for example — that many churches were closed due to the storm. I wonder why that wasn’t mentioned in many stories.

Incidentally, a reader sent in this other Associated Press story about Mineral:

For Virginia town at epicenter of earthquake, near miss by Irene is proof they’re not cursed

Staring out at her shell-shocked congregation Sunday, the Rev. Marian Windel felt the need to reassure her flock that God was not “mad at us in any way.”

“For us, this past week has been trying at the least,” the Episcopal minister said, her clear voice echoing off the high-pitched ceiling of the Church of the Incarnation, Mineral’s oldest house of worship. “There was little, if anything, that we could have done to prepare for the earthquake. And who would have thought it would be followed by a hurricane?”

A great idea for a story but perhaps not enough time for good execution. In the next day or so, I imagine we might see some good stories about Irene that have solid religion angles. Do let us know if you see any particularly good or bad examples. I did find it interesting that when I searched the New York Times for stories about churches, the top hit was that bizarre piece by Bill Keller. Does that reflect the paper’s editorial outlook about the role religion plays in public life?

Pod people: Faith vs. (one-sided) facts, round II

What do you know? It’s almost midnight here in Baltimore, the eye of Hurricane Irene is just off the coast of Maryland and I still have power. How long can that last?

So let me take a moment or two to alert others — especially those who are burning hurricane lamps — that this past week’s GetReligion podcast is now up on iTunes and on our site (click here to listen to it in a browser).

On one level, this podcast is about my recent critique of the CNN news feature about an evangelical ministry that attempts to help men and women escape their addictions to pornography, the post with the headline, “CNN on porn: Smart people vs. Bible folks.”

But what this discussion is really about was my snark attack on a form of journalism that really gets under my skin. It’s the story that looks balanced, but really pits faith-based quotes on one side against supposedly fact-based quotes on the other — with no real interaction between the two sides. The idea seems to be that progressives are smart and religious traditionalists are, well, not so much dumb (that would be judgmental), but sadly naive.

In reality, it the questions — including valid questions — raised by the critics of this ministry who are quoted by CNN are never really answered. Readers cannot even tell if the questions were ever asked, with the criticized having a chance to offer (or not offer) fact-based answers to their critics.

In the post, I argued that this format looks like this:

* Evangelicals describe their ministry, which centers on faith in the Bible, etc.

* A smart critic from a name-brand university or seminary, speaking on behalf of the vague and omnipresent “many religious scholars,” says that the leaders of the ministry are simplistic and naive in their approach to the Bible and the issues at hand.

* More commentary from the evangelical ministry leaders, but without any direct response from scholars on their side of the biblical issues to the comments of the brilliant name-brand scholar from secular and/or liberal Christian academia.

* More commentary from another critic of the ministry with roots in name-brand academia who does similar work (in this case with believers wrestling with pornography) and believes the evangelicals are naive and simplistic.

* Final faith-based words from the evangelicals, once again with no responses to the issues raised by the critics.

Now here is the question that I hope sends readers to the podcast: What does all of this have to do with the fiery, bloody 1993 siege that ended with the deaths of all of those strange believers who were living in the Branch Davidian compound near Waco?

Enjoy the podcast.

Anonymous source confirms: Couples divorce

News travels fast. Sometimes.

Back in 1999, The Associated Press reported on Bible Belt states battling the highest divorce rates in the nation.

As religion editor of The Oklahoman nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce the state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate (I reflected on that series in a GetReligion post earlier this year).

Enter CNN with breaking news this week — in the year 2011:

(CNN) – While the Bible Belt is known for its devotion to traditional values, Southerners don’t do so well on one key family value: They are more likely to get divorced than people living in the Northeast.

Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.

“In the South, there are higher rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce for men and women,” said Diana Elliott, a family demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau and co-author of the new report. “In the Northeast, you have people who are delaying first marriages, and consequently there are lower rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce.”

Keep reading, and CNN quotes a variety of experts. However, for a story about the Bible Belt, there’s a glaring absence of religious voices in the story, except for one Georgia author and minister. There’s no mention of the resolution passed by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce.” (By the way, ReligionLink provided a nice primer this month for Godbeat reporters covering marriage and divorce. And a Wall Street Journal column this week provided an enlightening take on how the media frame bad news and religion.)

But four of the lamest paragraphs ever written by a major news organization tell you all you need to know about the level of reporting in this CNN piece:

A divorced mother of two who grew up in Virginia and is now living in the Atlanta area, Lynn (not her real name) said she knows why her eight-year marriage failed. She and her ex-husband got married after a whirlwind three-month courtship, and she now knows, “You really don’t know somebody after three months.”

She didn’t have a college degree when she got married, although she did eventually graduate from college and is now a teacher.

Lynn said she can see some reasons that Southerners divorce at higher rates than the nation as a whole.

“Where I grew up in Virginia, I saw some of my peers not finishing high school, some not going to college and some not finishing college,” she said. “I saw a lot of people just staying in my hometown, staying in dead-end jobs, just settling, taking very little risk-taking for their careers.”

Seriously, CNN?

Did CNN really just grant anonymity to a source to allow her to share the shocking news that she married too soon and it didn’t work out? I used a pseudonym like that in a high school cheating story one time, but my excuse is that I was writing for the high school newspaper at the time.

Are there no divorced mothers of two willing to go on the record in Atlanta? It’s been a few years since I visited the CNN Center, but I bet CNN could send an intern down to the mall food court and find at least one divorcee — or 50 — willing to speak on the record and use her real name in a story such as this.

If the goal is producing actual journalism, quoting a named source would be a step in the right direction.

‘Christian warrior’? Time to dig a bit …

We are, of course, living in the post-Anders Behring Breivik world, a world in which journalists will — for valid reasons — be digging into the faith connections of anyone who launches any kind of violent attack on Islamic institutions or who attacks anyone who is somehow related to the growth of Islam in the West.

Let me stress this again: Journalists should be looking for the facts about this subject, they should be probing for any connections between acts of violence and Christian organizations and networks (or groups that are Jewish, atheist or simply anti-religious). This is a valid subject for journalistic digging.

This brings us to the following Religious News Service update about an attack on a mosque in Oregon. I cannot find a working URL for this story in Google News or on the RNS site (if you find one, let me know), so I will simply share the key parts of this short story.

Needless to say, the phrase “Christian warrior” made it into the headline.

Federal officials have charged a self-styled Christian warrior with a hate crime for allegedly setting fire to an Oregon mosque last year.

Cody J. Crawford, 24, was charged with setting fire outside the Salman Alfarisis Islamic Center in Corvallis, Ore., last November after a man who attended the mosque was charged in a plot to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland. …

Assistant U.S. Attorney William “Bud” Fitzgerald said Crawford suffers from “a pattern of bipolarity and alcohol addiction.” Crawford’s court-appointed lawyer, Bryan Lessley, said he intends “to spend awhile trying to get to the bottom of that.”

A federal search warrant affidavit recalled rants Crawford made about Muslims and descriptions of himself as a Christian warrior during two unrelated contacts with police last December.

“You look like Obama. You are a Muslim like him. Jihad goes both ways, Christians can jihad too,” he told an officer in McMinnville, Ore., on Dec. 14. …

It’s important to note that neither conservative Christianity (especially Protestantism) nor traditional Islam have anything positive to say about the abuse of alcohol. However, local authorities believe that this self-proclaimed “Christian warrior” has a history of alcohol addiction, as well as abuse. Odds are good that this man is not a Bible-thumping Baptist or some other kind of evangelical or fundamentalist.

Should reporters mention this man’s rants about being a “Christian warrior”? Of course they should. The question, however, is whether they should stop there or dig deeper. Otherwise, many readers could be confused.

This is kind of like a news organization reporting that an anti-abortion activist attacked a clinic, without digging deeper to find out if this violent activist is flying solo or is linked to any congregation or organization. It also helps to know if the attacker (as has often been the case) is a loner BECAUSE he has been tossed out a church or pro-life group due to his insistence that violence is justifiable.

In other words, it’s crucial to know if a religious believer is linked to his or her claimed religious tradition in any meaningful way. Do they practice this faith that they claim? Are they linked to specific religious community or have they been sheltered by one? Are they, in other words, believers or heretics?

To cut to the chase: Is this self-proclaimed “Christian warrior” a church of one?

These are the same questions — obviously — that should be asked when reporters deal with acts of violence by those who are claiming to be Muslims or members of any other faith. As I wrote after the Norway bloodshed:

… (What) are journalists looking for? I would say they are seeking the exact kinds of facts and leads that they would be seeking if this person was alleged to be a radical Muslim. We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money. … To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In Oregon, let’s start with one basic question: Where did Crawford go to church? Have police investigated this? Has this “Christian warrior” been worshiping with others who support his actions? Are there any other “Christian warriors” out there?

Find those facts — if they exist — and journalists would have a deeper and more accurate story.

God in a Sooner’s huddle

Did I mention that I’m an Oklahoma Sooners football fan? Did I mention that my team is ranked No. 1 in both major preseason polls?

So repeat after me: Boomer Sooner!

Now, on to business: The Tulsa World recently featured a 1,700-word profile on the faith of Sooners quarterback Landry Jones, one of the early frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy.

The top of the story:

When Landry Jones led eight University of Oklahoma teammates on a mission trip to Haiti last spring, he thought he would be the one who was helping others.

Instead, it was Jones who was lifted up.

Jones, a junior from Artesia, N.M., the Sooners’ preseason All-Big 12 quarterback and among a handful of early frontrunners for the 2011 Heisman Trophy, was, again, humbled by the events unfolding around him, humbled by the twists and turns his own life had taken.

“I was kind of embarrassed,” Jones said, “because I thought I was going to go down there and help these people out, but at the end of the day, you come back and realize they helped you more than you helped them. They gave you more than what you gave them.”

Now, what do you think of that lede?

Up high in a feature such as this, you’re wanting to grab readers’ attention and — if you can — strike some kind of emotional response, maybe surprise them, make them want to read more. Did that lede do that for you?

If so, terrific. In my case, I gave it more of a ho-hum response. I’ve been on a number of mission trips to Third World countries — Mexico, Ghana, Guatemala — and inevitably, those who go say the same thing that Jones did. It’s certainly true, but I wonder if there’s a fresher picture a reporter could paint up high. Of course, I could be absolutely wrong on this point and would invite you tell me so if that’s the case. (Not that you’ve ever needed an invitation to do in the past. Ha.)

Overall, it’s a pretty good story, and I enjoyed reading it. Two frequent complaints here at GetReligion are that (1) reporters don’t let people simply express their faith in their own words and (2) reporters make light of people’s faith or write about it in a cynical way. Neither is the case with the World story, which actually quotes Jones referring to a specific book of the Bible.

In fact, this is one of those cases where I wonder if the story suffered from too much of a cheerleading tone, at the expense of allowing typical journalistic skepticism to force answers to basic questions.

We read about the downward spiral of Jones’ life and how he believed Satan’s lies his freshman year, leading to this:

Jones said he went through such a dark depression that year he simply became lost.

“I started really getting into drinking, trying to get all the girls, I was sick all the time, my stomach was in knots,” he says. “So I get done with that first year of college not knowing if I wanted to continue at OU, or if I wanted to quit. I just wanted to crawl in a hole and be left there by myself. How could I go through another miserable year like that?

“I just wanted to die.”

Jones eventually found peace. In “one of the greatest moments of my life,” he says God came to him in his room and said He didn’t care whether Jones was the starting quarterback.

“Instead of Landry Jones the athlete, I was Landry Jones the son of God,” Jones says. “And that’s what my identity was now.”

(An aside: The Associated Press Stylebook calls for uppercasing God but not personal pronouns of God such as “he.” Not sure if the World has a different style, but the uppercased “He” surprised me in a secular newspaper story.)

Now, after hearing about Jones’ encounter with God, what do you do as a reporter? I’d ask some follow-up questions. I’d want to know some more specific details on this life-changing encounter. I’d also want some more facts about how Jones began expressing his faith. Did he start going to church? If so, what kind of church? Does he go every Sunday? But unfortunately, the story stays pretty vague and generic as far as Jones’ Christianity.

I also was curious about one of the fellow missionaries quoted:

“That’s one of the biggest things that’s influenced me, the way he follows the Lord Jesus Christ,” said senior wide receiver Ryan Broyles, one of OU’s Haiti missionaries. “I’m so happy to say my quarterback is a believer. I think that trickles down in the way he produces on the field. He’s a great role model. He never says anything negative. But at the same time, he’ll shoot you straight. He’ll let you know if you’re walking off that path.”

While I’m a Sooner fan, I don’t follow the team religiously (pardon the pun). It surprised me to hear Broyles talking about Jesus because I had read about off-the-field troubles early in his Oklahoma career. Did Broyles have a come-to-Jesus experience of his own? The story provides no clue. But thanks to the magic of Google, I did find this statement from a sports broadcaster here in Oklahoma:

What many don’t know is that Landry Jones who is a solid Christian went to Broyles before last season and shared Christ with the guy, and God used that to change Broyles’ life. Here is the new Broyles just last weekend (link includes a photo) at the Antioch Community Church Block party sharing his testimony of how God changed him. I know this is the sports section, but I think it is pretty cool that Landry had the guts to go to Broyles and that God used that to change Broyles’ life!

Hmmmmm. That might have been a relevant bit of context to include in the World story, huh?

What am I missing? Am I being too harsh on this story? By all means, read the whole thing and weigh in.

And don’t forget: Boomer Sooner!

Bill Keller’s modest proposal

When I read Bill Keller’s bizarre piece in the New York Times yesterday morning, where he proposes a loaded religious quiz for potential candidates, I actually gasped. Considering I’ve been reading dozens of religion stories a day for years, it’s hard to surprise me. I’m not saying I haven’t heard these types of comments uttered against religious believers, be they Pagan or Mormon or Catholic. And there’s even a counter-Jihad movement that says similar things to what Keller has said, only about Muslims.

But it’s not like Pamela Geller is given space in the New York Times to share her views about creeping Sharia. Far from it. She’s attacked for her views — in the news pages. I couldn’t quite process this piece. It just seemed too hard to believe that Bill Keller, whatever his well-known bias against Catholics, would do this.

So here’s my theory: I think that Keller didn’t do this. I mean, he did, but only to make a point. I’m not entirely sure what that point is, but he’s clearly pulling everyone’s leg. Hear me out.

The whole piece is about the need to ask more questions of presidential candidates. He has general questions and then specific questions. But he doesn’t have any for President Barack Obama. As in, no questions (one writer offers 20, should Keller be having trouble developing them for some odd reason). Certainly the case can’t be made that questions for Obama aren’t newsworthy. I mean, “people” may have “questions” about the religious views of Michele Bachmann. Sure. But are you really going to pretend that “people” don’t have “questions” about the religious views of President Obama? Are you joking? So why the disparity?

Is it because his paper, under his direction, thoroughly vetted the religious views of President Obama? Heh. Um, no. One data point: Back in 2008, it took six months for readers of the paper to even learn of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God Damn America!” words by seeing them in a news story. The news broke in March and first appeared in the paper literally six months later.

If the piece isn’t satire, why would Keller say that Rick Santorum is part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity”? He’s Roman Catholic.

If the piece isn’t satire, why would the lede mention space aliens, much less compare belief in an alien invasion to Christianity?

If the piece isn’t satire, why would he claim that “many Americans” view Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and Mormonism as “mysterious or suspect”? Does he have any concept of what percentage of Americans fall into one of those three categories? Of course he does. It’s clearly satire.

Why would he traffic in the type of crude stereotypes about Mormons that result in condemnation from liberals?

If this weren’t satire, why would he mis-state what Catholics believe about Communion? What’s more, would he really call that sacrament “baggage” and “bizarre” unless he was trying to make a point about bigotry? I can’t imagine he would.

If this weren’t satire, would he really say that the Christian relationship to the Bible is one of lord and servant? Would he really pretend that in order to be a good candidate for office you have to believe that the Constitution is a higher authority than the Bible? Would he really pretend that the laws of this country are inerrant?

Would he come up with laugh lines such as this?:

I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.

If this weren’t satire, would he really confuse inerrancy with literalism?

If this weren’t satire, would a respected news man really be pushing the threat of Dominionism? Would he call someone a Dominionist who explained just two weeks ago that she had to literally Google the term to learn what it meant? Someone who explained quite clearly why the slur is inaccurate when used against her? I mean, I know he’s biased, but he’s not a hack.

If this weren’t satire, would he pretend that his loaded gotcha questions were “respectful”? He knows readers aren’t stupid.

If this weren’t satire, would he believe no one notices that there sure seems to be a lot of emphasis on religion for a race that’s largely about an unemployment rate of 9.1%?

If this weren’t satire, would he really raise a question about whether the candidates have fealty to something above the Constitution, but then criticize squeamishness about appointing Muslim judges because of questions raised about some Muslims placing Islamic law above the constitution?

If this weren’t satire, would he really suggest that it’s only problematic if Republicans are endorsed by people Keller doesn’t like — and not mention, I don’t know, that Hamas officials endorsed President Obama? No!

There’s got to be more to this. There’s just no way that Keller would be blowing up his paper’s relationship with religious people on his way out from leading the paper. There’s no way. Not the man who wrote that famous call for improved, accurate, fair coverage of religious believers.

New York Times religion reporters have enough trouble of their own building up rapport and relationships with religious adherents. I can’t help but imagine they’ve been working hard to restore trust with some of the leaders who have given up even talking to them. That’s what reporters do. Something like this would make it so easy for religious people to dismiss the Times in perpetuity. There’s no way that an executive editor would do something like that to the pros in his newsroom.

Now, I did fall for the Krugman hoax earlier this week, to my shame, so perhaps I’m overreacting. But I am not going to be had twice.

There must be some deeper meaning here. There’s no way that the Times would openly display such bigotry or destroy its credibility so thoroughly. Is this a point about how campaign coverage should focus on the economy or role of government? Is this a point about counter-jihadists? Is this a point about how we should handle bigotry in the public square? What’s the point of it? I know it’s been done to prove a point, but I’m just not sure what.

And before you say, “Come on, Mollie! Keller’s anti-Catholic writing has such a long history from his questioning the Pope’s Catholicity to his more recent ‘collapsed Catholic‘ ax-grinding phase,” I’ll remind you — yet again — that he also wrote this.

Perhaps that’s our answer. Maybe he’s trying to show his reporters the difference between just giving lip service to diversity and actually living it. And maybe even the anti-Catholic stuff was one long piece of performance art. It would certainly make much more sense than the idea that Keller actually believes these things about Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, right? Like all good satire, it works because it’s almost believable that the New York Times would promote such thinking in its pages. But it was over-the-top in a way that reveals it’s really a brilliant piece of satire by outgoing executive editor Bill Keller. Good work, sir. Good work.

NYT takes on aliens, baggage, Trojan horse faith

It gets terribly exhausting trying to convince people that The New York Times publishes some pretty interesting and solid pieces. It consistently gets accused of liberal or anti-religious bias, but it employs some good reporters. Unfortunately, The New York Times Magazine has just published a terribly embarrassing column from its outgoing executive editor Bill Keller that only fuels the anti-Times fire.

Keller is determined to ask Republican candidates for president tougher questions about their faith, which is a good idea, if you can agree to hold the same standard to both sides. Unfortunately, you know the column is off to a poor start when it leads with, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” I’m not joking. Please do read the whole thing and then come back for some editing breakdown.

Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos — for the question, not the answer.

Perhaps this is a legitimate question (as I explored earlier), but most people seemed to boo because her submission views have nothing to do with her policies. Presumably one could learn to distinguish between professional and personal decisions while getting a tax-law degree. I’m assuming that the the standard for questions about faith is something like, “How does your faith influence your policies?” Keller seems to want to take it further.

This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a “cult” and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not “overly religious.”)

If Keller’s standard is “how does your faith influence policies,” what do these views have to do with their policies? If that’s not his standard, what is? Is he implying that we shouldn’t support them because they are weird enough to support a “cult?” Why does it matter that other people think someone’s views are “just weird?”

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.

Speaking of fact and fiction, Rick Santorum is not an evangelical. He is Roman Catholic in good standing. Besides, where is the basis for these raised concerns?

I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism’s founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890).

But Keller does care — otherwise we wouldn’t have to read this paragraph.

Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.

Did he really just dismiss a belief that most Catholics hold as “baggage” and “bizarre to outsiders”?

It’s almost as though he is saying “I don’t care,” while demonstrating that he does. It’s OK, he’s not judging them because he was once an idiot, too. He’s just enlightened now, or something.

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country.

Is there any evidence to suggest these candidates have supported the idea that some other text but the Constitution will be their authority? Whatever you think about her as a candidate, it seems like Michele Bachmann hit this home in her interview with David Gregory.

And I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.

Are we really talking about a Trojan horse? Is there any evidence that Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics, etc. would be Trojan horses? Did we not get past this idea with John F. Kennedy’s candidacy?

So this season I’m paying closer attention to what the candidates say about their faith and what they have said in the past that they may have decided to play down in the quest for mainstream respectability.

From Ryan Lizza’s enlightening profile in The New Yorker, I learned that Michele Bachmann’s influences include spiritual and political mentors who preach the literal “inerrancy” of the Bible.

Yes, Bill Keller, perhaps you should pay closer attention to what candidates say about their faith. Without getting partisan about this idea (but acknowledging the glaring difference), you certainly avoided this in 2008 when covering Barack Obama’s campaign. We already dealt with Ryan Lizza’s profile, but it really isn’t terribly unusual that Bachmann might believe in “innerancy” of the Bible.

Neither Bachmann nor Perry has, as far as I know, pledged allegiance to the Dominionists. Possibly they overlooked those passages in the books and sermons of their spiritual comrades. My informed Texan friends tell me Perry’s relationship with the religious fringe is pragmatic, that it is more likely he is riding the movement than it is riding him. But as we have seen with the Tea Party (another political movement Perry hopped aboard in its early days), the support of a constituent group doesn’t come without strings.

Does he really expect them to pledge allegiance to the Dominionists? (Which is what, by the way? Who created and defined that term, since there is no movement by that name?) Keller needs to make the jump from who Perry and Bachmann are courting to what kind of influence they have on the candidates. Is there any proof that these are political constituent groups and not more general, spiritual supporters of a prayer campaign?

And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war. But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

News flash for Keller: many, many people take their personal faith more seriously than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Are we to assume that someone with strong religious beliefs would not be open to intelligence?

To get things rolling, I sent the aforementioned candidates a little questionnaire. Here’s a sample:

* Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian nation?” and what does that mean in practice?

* Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?

* What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

Sure, I wouldn’t mind knowing the answers to these questions in a nice bullet-point list. But I don’t know, this list of questions just strikes me as pretty strange. Some of these candidates have already addressed these questions (Perry on evolution, Bachmann on appointing a Muslim/atheist, for instance).

Why does Keller get to decide which questions voters actually care about? Help us out, dear readers. If you were in Keller’s shoes, what are you actually interested in?

God in lede and at the end (ghosts in between)

It is a principle that has been voiced many times here at GetReligion through the years: If religion is important enough to dominate a story’s lede then religious content should probably be included in the body of the story, as well.

A recent Time magazine piece about the revolt in Syria (subscription required) offers a textbook example of this syndrome, before going another step further. In this case, religion is in the lede and in the closing paragraphs. In between? The story is a ghost town, when it comes to facts about the role religion is play in this drama.

So here is the lede:

The firecrackers explode just before 10 p.m. as groups of men, in twos and threes, stream out of al-Kabir mosque after prayers. The noise signals not a celebration but the start of another of the nightly demonstrations in Rastan, a town of 65,000 halfway between Homs and Hama. The organizers of the demonstrations use fireworks to alert residents who aren’t in the mosque that a protest is about to begin.

The men and clusters of women quickly congregate near the building that once housed the dreaded state security intelligence, across the road from the mosque. The intelligence agents abandoned their post in early June after weeks of protests, when the military decided to withdraw to Rastan’s outskirts, leaving the town free of President Bashar Assad’s minions for two months. The building is now plastered with antiregime graffiti: BASHAR IS A DONKEY, BASHAR IS A TRAITOR, BRING DOWN BASHAR!

So I will ask: What is happening in the mosques? What is being said? And might that “donkey” reference have some religious significance?

More importantly, what is the brand of Islam, the basic approach, that is advocated by the religious leaders of these demonstrations, as opposed to the approach that is linked to the life and work of Bashar Assad? There is no need for this information to dominate the report.

Without that information, how can readers understand the coded symbolism in a paragraph such as this one:

After weeks of antigovernment protests, Assad’s army stormed Rastan on May 29, killing scores of people. Army tanks remain on its perimeter. Some are in its neighborhoods, and a few are just streets away from the demonstrators emerging from al-Kabir mosque. Nonetheless, the residents remain defiant. On this night, the chants start up in earnest, led by a small group of young men standing on the first-floor balcony of the intelligence building. “The people demand the execution of the President!” they roar. Their energy is infectious, the mood more festive than fearful. The crowd claps along, creating a thunderous rumble that shifts in rhythm and intensity as the protest leaders switch between slogans. “We will kneel only to God!” they cry. …

“Everybody here is a martyr in waiting,” says Ahmad, a 20-year-old in the center of the crowd.

So is the story arguing that these people are flooding out of mosques into the streets and preparing to lose their life in order to become POLITICAL martyrs? Or is this an example of an approach to public life and Islam (always remember that there are multiple views) in which there is no wall whatsoever between a political act and a religious act? The editors at Time seem to be MIA on these issues.

Thus, if you are looking for facts about the role of Islam in this complex drama there is no need to keep reading this particular report. Move along.

At the very end, there is this haunting note:

But on a warm night in Rastan, the dozen or so men gathered in a residential courtyard are not thinking about what’s next. They are dealing with what’s happening right now. Many have snippets of video on their phones that they are eager to share. Some of these show homes being shelled by soldiers. One shows a bloodied male corpse with a piece of masking tape across its chest that reads corpse no. 5. “The Syrian people have made the decision to bring down Assad and his regime, and the regime is determined to bring down the people,” says a lawyer who gives his name as Abu al-Hakami. “These are the only options.”

A few days later, shortly after 10 a.m., the cellular and landline telephone networks in Rastan suddenly cut out. The Internet also stops working. The town is isolated from the rest of the world. The tanks stationed around the perimeter of the city move into some neighborhoods. I hear several shots in the distance. “Quickly, get out of here before you no longer can,” my hostess tells me. “May God have mercy on us, and may God damn them.”

Like I said, haunted. And haunting, too.