Framing fundamental moral issues as political

On August 21, Vice President Joe Biden was giving remarks on U.S. China relations to people gathered at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. Here’s a portion of what he said:

But as I was talking to some of your leaders, you share a similar concern here in China. You have no safety net. Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.

So hopefully we can act in a way on a problem that’s much less severe than yours, and maybe we can learn together from how we can do that.

That the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t second-guess a policy whereby families can’t have more than one child and are forced to abort their children is pretty shocking. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, you probably know that this policy is notoriously brutal, and one of the most legendary human rights violations ever implemented under a dictatorship. Women are routinely forced to abort their children and undergo sterilizations. They are given huge fines for pregnancies. As many as 35,000 abortions take place in China each day. The human suffering we’re talking about is staggering.

Gaffes happen all the time with Washington players and they don’t just happen in one administration or one party, but this is certainly a sad one. Or, if you prefer, a noteworthy one.

But what I find interesting is that the media didn’t pick up on this story until pro-lifers started noticing it a day or so later. Presumably the Vice President of the United States had media following him around China that day, right?

The New York Times still hasn’t noticed it. At least in the paper — a blog covered it. This article about Biden’s trip, however, didn’t mention it.

And then when the media did notice it, they covered it kind of bizarrely. An NPR blog didn’t report on the words so much as defend the Vice President (and this is the only mention of the remarks I see on the site, for what it’s worth). It’s rather odd treatment:

While in China, Vice President Biden inadvertently stepped into the U.S. culture wars with a seemingly off-hand comment about China’s one-child policy that has caused American abortion opponents to rebuke him. …

Then, in what appeared to be an attempt at striking a sympathetic chord with his Chinese audience, Biden alluded to the looming demographic disasters faced by both China and the U.S — ever fewer workers paying to support ever more retirees …

Those who want to give Biden the benefit of the doubt will see this comment, culturally relativistic as it sounds, as his way of doing nothing that would add to the tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations.

After a week in which Chinese and U.S. officials got into a shoving match at the Great Hall of the People and American and Chinese athletes got into an actual brawl, the vice president’s solicitude, if not choice of words, makes a certain amount of sense.

But not everyone wanted to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement to the Washington Post’s Right Turn blog:

China’s one-child policy is gruesome and barbaric. Vice President Biden’s acquiescence to such a policy should shock the conscience of every American. Instead of condoning the policy, Vice President Biden should have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no defense of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control.”

I don’t know why I bothered italicizing any of that since it’s all kind of odd. I mean, I know that NPR is federally funded and all that, but I think the VP has his own media operation.

Other sites did better but focused on the political angle. See, Vice President Biden is a Democrat. And there’ll be a presidential election in 15 months. Which means we’ve hit the part of journalists’ liturgical calendar where all stories are about politics. And since some Republican presidential contenders knocked him for this, that’s where the stories focused.

I get that politics is important. But they’re not every thing. It’s pretty easy to knock Joe Biden for saying he has no beef with a one-child policy and I’m sure candidates took their swipes. But can’t we talk about this in a way that’s more than political? China’s policy is presumably something that most Americans want to fight. To make this a story about Biden failing to defend Republican values — rather than American values — is inappropriate, isn’t it? And yet that’s what most of the coverage did. Democrat Biden supports one-child policy while Republican candidates bash him for it. This story is much more complex than that and much more important than the Republican horserace. It’s not a story that should be ignored, excused or painted as a partisan battle. And even those political stories — so otherwise obsessed with politicians’ religious views — don’t do a great job of mentioning Biden’s Catholicism.

The White House did release a statement that they oppose the policy and that Biden believes the practices associated with the policy are “repugnant.”

Israel a la Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is back–at least his rallying cry is–this time in Israel. The former Fox News host headed up his “Restoring Courage” rally this week, one year after his “Restoring Honor” rally in DC last year.

The rally comes with some controversy with some of Beck’s previous statements and perceptions in Israel. Unfortunately, some coverage leading up to the event muddies our understanding of Beck’s own faith and associations. The LA Times published a fairly confusing piece where the reporter used the terms evangelical, Christian and fundamentalist interchangeably without really explaining where Beck, as a Mormon, fits in.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before conservative American commentator Glenn Beck, viewed by many supporters as a modern-day prophet, brought his messianic message to Jerusalem.

Where’s some support for the suggestion that his supporters see him as a “modern-day prophet”? By messianic message, the reporter means what?

The visit is focusing renewed attention on the growing, and some say unlikely, alliance between right-wing Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.

Sorry, tell me again, who are the Christian fundamentalists? Apparently the LA Times is above AP style on this one.

The support comes, in part, from a belief among some Christian fundamentalists that Jews are God’s “chosen people” and that a return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem are signs of the second coming. Beck, who converted to the Mormon faith in 1999, frequently discussed such end-of-the-world prophecies and biblical themes on his program.

So is Beck a Christian fundamentalist? Does he suggest these ideas as the basis for his rally? The reporter continues this theme that there is some partnership going on between American Christians and Israelis, but he pulls from a seemingly random television show in Texas, and it’s unclear why he’s connecting it to Beck’s rally.

But Ricci and others see potential fault lines in the partnership. For starters, evangelicals are often active in missionary work, something Israelis do not tolerate.

Last week, Texas-based Daystar Television Network hosted “Israel Day,” in which it broadcast live from Jerusalem. In between on-air solicitations for $1,000 pledges, the program’s hosts condemned efforts to make part of East Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state, and they vowed unconditional support for Israel.

Yet at the same time, the station boasted of “bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the land of Israel.” One host said that more Jews have been converted to Christianity in the last 20 years than in the last 2,000.

Yes, I imagine that Beck has a little bit of a following among some evangelicals, but even that relationship has occasionally been dicey. Evangelicals don’t usually consider Mormons to be evangelicals the same way that Mormons don’t consider evangelicals to be Mormons. This was the lead for the Associated Press:

Conservative Christian commentator Glenn Beck capped a contentious visit to Israel Wednesday by hosting a rally next to a hotly disputed holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

I don’t really understand why the reporter didn’t just say that Beck is Mormon, since that seems more specific and less debated than “conservative Christian.” Overall, I’m still curious how interfaith this event is, whether it’s generically religious, generally Christian, or what? For many reasons, you can’t really lump everyone together under the “Christian fundamentalist” label as one big happy family on an Israeli mission.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Can the National Cathedral afford a quake?

As you may have heard, there was an earthquake in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the center-of-the-universe Northeast corridor. While people immediately started joking about the ratio between news reports and the actual damages (my personal favorite, here), the event has served up one major story (so far) for folks who cover the religion beat.

I am referring, of course, to the stunning amount of damage at the highest point in Washington, D.C. — the National Cathedral. Does this event have theological content (like, maybe, this act of God over in England)? Stay tuned.

But this much is certain: Journalists are going to be doing an unusual amount of coverage of ecclesiastical architecture in the months ahead. It is time for reporters to learn the difference between a “pinnacle” and a “finial,” for example. Also, a cracked flying buttress is nothing to shake a stick at.

In light of the spectacular nature of some of the damage — see some striking new pictures over at The Atlantic site — I have been amazed that most of the solid coverage has been online and outside the Beltway, as opposed to a solid sidebar and graphics package at the Washington Post.

Unless I have missed something, the best story seems to be Dan Gilgoff’s piece at CNN.com, on the religion weblog. Here’s the key round-up of the damage:

Three of the church tower’s four corner spires lost their ornate capstones, or finials, during the quake, and the building remained closed to visitors on Wednesday.

Called the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the cathedral’s central tower is the highest point in the nation’s capital, rising to a greater height than even the Washington Monument. Cracks have appeared in some of the cathedral’s flying buttresses around the apse, the area around the altar, though the buttresses supporting the central tower appear to be sound, the church said in a statement.

The cathedral’s mason foreman, Joe Alonso, said he is most concerned about any cracking in the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling.

“I just did a quick walk through the knave with my naked eye, just looking up at the vaulted ceiling,” he said in a video posted to the cathedral’s website. “I didn’t see anything just from the floor but that’s my big concern.”

This Episcopal Church facility is highly symbolic, of course, because of the cathedral’s reputation as a “spiritual home for the nation.” However, in terms of news, the larger story is likely to center on efforts by the local diocese and the national church to raise money for repairs.

Why? Because of the financial struggles that surrounded the resignation of the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III earlier this summer as the dean of the cathedral. As the Post noted at that time:

… (After) his first three years of rapid expansion, Lloyd and the church confronted the 2008 economic slowdown. Faced with a rapidly dwindling budget and endowment, he instituted several budget cuts, reducing the 104-year-old church’s staff from 170 to 70 and slashing its spending from $27­ million to about $13 million.

The church closed its popular greenhouse; reduced choir performances, lectures and classes; and outsourced its gift shop. It even hinted that it might sell its rare-book collection to the Folger Shakespeare Library, although in the end it did not.

His colleagues noted that Lloyd has led the organization back to firmer financial footing in the past two years, balancing its budget and returning its endowment, which had fallen by 25­ percent, to $67.6 million.

Now the parish has, literally, been hit by an earthquake. How big will the damages be? Who can pay the bills? These questions will eventually be asked.

While it is obvious that the damage at National Cathedral is a major story, I have been struck by the lack of coverage of the possible impact of this earthquake at the city’s largest and, arguably, most important cathedral-sized sanctuary. I am referring, of course, to the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic hierarchy calls “America’s Catholic Church.”

What is the status of that soaring 329-foot campanile, or bell tower, next to the Romanesque-Byzantine sanctuary? At the moment, I can find nothing online — in news or the wider web — that even mentions this often-overlooked sanctuary.

I mean, how many Episcopalians are there in this country? That would be about 2 million and falling.

How many Roman Catholics are there in this country? That would be about 64 t0 68 million, depending on who is doing the counting and how they define who is and who is not a practicing Catholic.

Anyway, do the math. Someone should give the basilica press office a call. Anything shaking out there? Did any tiles fall out of the mosaics?

UPDATE: It appears that the embed code for the excellent National Cathedral video about the damage has been changed or disconnected. The video can be seen here. This still photograph is from the cathedral’s home page.

Guilt files, Pagan edition

We sometimes reference our guilt files and my guilt file is reaching epic levels so I’m going to try to unload three recent stories into one post. I’m grouping them together under what I’ll call The Wild Hunt banner — they’re all stories that would or could be covered over at that blog that deals with Pagan and Heathen communities. The Wild Hunt, for what it’s worth, is now appearing over at Patheos so it’s interesting to see how Patheos is landing various bloggers across the religious spectrum.

STORY ONE
The first was a story from The Tennessean about how Wiccan holidays have been added to the academic calendar at Vanderbilt University. What that means is that students may be excused from class that day should they need the day off for religious observances. It’s a fine story, as these things go, but reminds me of how much I enjoyed Associated Press reporter Tom Breen’s story on a similar situation at Marshall University four years ago. And you can read Wild Hunt coverage of the story with the hilarious headline “Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays.”

STORY TWO
The second story was a weird little piece I found at an NBC Philadelphia site. But it’s about a practitioner of Palo Mayobe in Massachusetts. His barbershop was, we’re told, shut down after authorities found evidence of animal sacrifices in the building’s basement. Animal control removed the animals — two chickens and four roosters, one dead — but the shop remains closed indefinitely. The shop owner says his religious rights have been violated.

A much better story ran in the local paper South Coast Today. Here’s how it begins:

William Camacho has practiced Palo Mayombe, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion similar to Santeria, since he was a child.

Camacho, 41, said his religious practices, which include animal sacrificing, have gotten him into trouble with the city, which is considering filing animal cruelty charges against him.

“They violated my moral rights,” said Camacho, owner of Bad Boyz Cutz, a downtown barbershop that was closed Tuesday after city inspectors found evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice there, officials said.

The story does leave some questions. For instance, why is the shop closed indefinitely? We learn that the animals were found after reports of a possible cockfighting operation. Animal control officers realized the animals were instead being used for religious sacrifice. Camacho says those sacrifices take place in rural settings. The technical reason the animals were seized was because they aren’t allowed in the city. Animal cruelty charges are pending against Camacho.

The story gives a description of Palo Mayombe which, we’re told “incorporates elements of Roman Catholicism along with West African and native Indian traditions. The religion venerates ancestors’ spirits and holds a belief in natural earth powers” and:

Like Santeria, Palo Mayombe features animal sacrifices, such as goats and chickens. The animals’ blood is thought to have a sacred, powerful life force capable of healing and warding off evil spirits. After the sacrifice, the animals are cooked and eaten.

“The roosters go to heaven after the sacrifice. It’s the traditional way,” said Camacho, who has tattoos on his arms of his children’s names, Jesus Christ and an Indian female warrior. He added that he occasionally uses spells for protection.

The story includes plenty of explanation from Camacho but it might have also been nice to talk to an outside expert on Palo. Still, other context was nice. The reporter mentioned how the law handles ritual animal sacrifices in various municipalities. The ending also wasn’t bad:

Also saying that Palo Mayombe has prophetic powers, Camacho said Tuesday’s events were actually predicted four days ago in a friend’s dream.

“And who shows up at my door today? The cops.”

It’s a nice combination of including actual religion in a story with some colorful quotes.

STORY THREE
And the final story I wanted to look at was the dramatic release of the West Memphis Three. This is a very sad story all around. Three young boys were murdered two decades ago. Three men were imprisoned for 18 years for the crime. They walked free this week, one of them leaving death row to do so.

The case itself is complex, as was the arrangement that got them released. The men maintained their innocence while pleading guilty and the state considers them child killers but safe enough to be set free.

There are also interesting religion angles. Here’s a snippet from the New York Times report:

It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.

After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.

Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.

The story is lengthy, mentions some documentaries that got the convicted men some help, and also that for all of the celebrity involvement in the case, some local people believe strongly in the guilt of the men who were released. But it’s even more complex:

But even some of the victims’ families began to doubt the men’s guilt, including Stevie Branch’s mother, Pamela Hobbs, and John Mark Byers, the father of Chris Byers. Both attended the hearing. “Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away,” said Mr. Byers, who appeared in the original documentary profanely condemning the men. “To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing from God.”

It’s an interesting story and one that I expected would receive far more coverage. The part that interested me even more than the guilt or innocence of these particular men was the mood of the era in which they were convicted. The whole Satanic Panic thing. I had hoped to see a few more stories about the Satanic panic and maybe some benefit of hindsight into what was real and what was imagined from that era. Once again, The Wild Hunt has some interesting analysis.

CNN on porn: Smart people vs. Bible folks

It seems that the comments pages at the CNN religion blog have been on fire for several days — with good reason. That’s what happens when you publish a feature about Christians hooked on pornography and you top it with a photo of a man reading a copy of Playboy hidden inside his Bible.

That staged illustration didn’t freak me out, truth be told, although I must admit that I share many readers’ doubts that CNN would have run the same photo with a Playboy inside a Koran.

The more serious issue, for me, is the story itself.

On the surface, this long news feature looks like a pretty balanced take on a hot-button topic. The emphasis is on the Christian ministry itself, with lots of color and commentary from the evangelical believers who are at the heart of this work. Then there are voices who express doubts about the ministry, at crucial points.

That’s all good. Pretty normal stuff.

However, as many GetReligion readers have noted through the years, it is possible to do a story that appears to be balanced, when in reality it is skewed one way or the other. In this case, the basic outline of the story looks — to me — something 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.

In other words, this story presents a one-sided debate between Bible thumpers and brilliant mainstream people. The End.

You must read the story. Let me stress that this is a valid topic and serious subjects are raised. There is quite a bit of good info in the story. But what should readers make of this reference, which opens with material from an evangelical pastor, Jeremy Gyorke (no “the Rev.”, by the way):

Though the words “porn” and “masturbation” don’t appear in the Bible, Gyorke believes the biblical verdict is clear. “Sexual immorality is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and that is what porn is,” he says. He quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

Many religious scholars say that such a view reflects just one of many interpretations.

“One school of biblical study says that desire is a problem and needs to be monitored as a serious threat to salvation,” says Boston University theology professor Jennifer Wright Knust.

But Knust points to scriptural passages that appear to endorse sexual desire, including the Song of Solomon, a poem that some scholars say depicts two lovers graphically describing each other’s anatomy in an ode to unmarried sex.

For me, that vague “some scholars” reference sticks in the journalistic throat. Clearly, this particular scholar has a point of view. That’s fine. But why is it the only viewpoint quoted in the piece? Take that Song of Solomon reference. An “ode to unmarried sex”? How common is that interpretation, out of centuries of biblical interpretation and scholarship among, oh, Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, etc.? The story accepts this one point of view as, well, gospel.

And how about the following references to a — CNN says “the” — pioneer in the field?

The father of Christian-based porn and sex addiction therapy has a word for this “pray-away” method of sobriety.

“Hooey.”

Dr. Mark Laaser pioneered the Christian response to porn and sex addiction in the 1980s and chides counseling centers like Pure Life for what he says is their near-total reliance on prayer.

“Alcoholics don’t wish really hard to not be addicted to alcohol,” he says in a phone interview from his busy therapeutic practice in suburban Minneapolis. “The field of addiction is much deeper than opening your Bible.”

Once again, we are dealing with a “devout Christian” whose credentials are openly stated. He has, readers are told, a “doctorate in psychology from the University of Iowa and a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.” Laaser also has ties — it would seem to be broken ties — to some of the evangelicals quoted on the other side of the church aisle.

Thus, we reach the following crucial info:

In Laaser’s care, a patient will undergo psychiatric evaluation, just as he would in the secular world. Laaser wants to know if the patient has any symptoms of depression, ADHD or anxiety. He says many sex addicts suffer from other mental health issues.

And then:

Richard Blankenship, the Atlanta-based Christian therapist, studied under Laaser in the early 2000s. When Blankenship set up his practice in Atlanta to treat sex addicts, he used the same name as Laaser’s ministry, “Faithful and True,” adding only the word “Atlanta.”

But Laaser wants to make it clear that he has no association with Blankenship’s practice and doesn’t agree with some aspects of Blankenship’s program. Blankenship doesn’t rely enough on psychological expertise, Laaser says.

Note the crucial factual claim that the more Bible-based program is not that committed to “psychological expertise.” And what defense would Blankenship or others make in the face of that serious charge? Do they not work with trained counselors at all? Are they all devoid of formal training in this area?

Maybe. Maybe not. The key is that the story contains no information — positive or negative — from the other side about these important issues. This rather damning claim is made. It is accepted. So what did the other side say when asked questions about the no “psychological expertise” accusation?

Silence. There is nothing there. The story ends with another prayer scene, thus pounding home the crucial thesis. One side has the Bible. The other side has facts, books, experience, prestigious degrees, science, etc.

Is that, in fact, the truth in this case? Well, how would the reader know?

IMAGE: Screen shot of part of the CNN package.

Could church make you skinny?

Back in March, we tackled that age-old question: “Could church make you fat?”

That post explored media coverage of a study claiming that young adults who attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than those with no religious invovlement.

Six months later, fat people in the pews are again making news — this time in The New York Times.

The headline:

Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta

The top paragraph of the 1,200-word story:

HERNANDO, Miss. — Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by. But here in the fellowship hall of a little Baptist church on a country road is an astonishing sight: a plate of fresh fruit.

“You get used to it,” said Arelia Robertson, who has been attending the church for almost eight decades.

Despite a dirge of grim health statistics, an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and campaigns by heath agencies and organizations, the Delta diet, a heavenly smorgasbord of things fried, salted and boiled with pork, has persisted.

It has persisted because it tastes good, but also because it has been passed down through generations and sustained through such cultural mainstays as the church fellowship dinner. But if the church helped get everybody into this mess, it may be the church that helps get everybody out.

Now, that first sentence impressed me as vague beyond belief. My first response: “Huh?” But the piece picks up a little steam with the mention of a plate of fresh fruit in the second sentence.

Then there’s the opening quote, which seems less than overwhelming. Why not give the woman’s age and compare the fruit to the chicken-fried main dish served at fellowship meals 80 years ago? That might add some life to the story up high.

Keep reading, and we get to the nut graf:

For over a decade from his pulpit here at Oak Hill Baptist in North Mississippi, the Rev. Michael O. Minor has waged war against obesity and bad health. In the Delta this may seem akin to waging war against humidity, but Mr. Minor has the air of the salesman he once was, and the animated persistence to match.

Years into his war, he is beginning to claim victories.

The National Baptist Convention, which represents some seven million people in nearly 10,000 churches, is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor, which aims to have a “health ambassador” in every member church by September 2012. The goals of the program, the most ambitious of its kind, will be demanding but concrete, said the Rev. George W. Waddles Sr., the president of the convention’s Congress of Christian Education.

Nowhere does the story mention that the National Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest African-American denomination. For journalists, the question of when race is relevant in a story is always touchy. In this case, however, the omission seems strange.

The reference to this program as “the most ambitious of its kind” made me wonder: What other smaller programs like this are out there? Is Waddles the source on the “most ambitious” statement? Or did the Times determine that this is the “most ambitious” program of its kind. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure I’m clear on what it means.

It’s not a bad story. It provides some interesting insight on society’s overall obesity problem and some nice examples of Delta churches fighting obesity. But for a story about churches, it lacks much in the way of actual religion.

We’ve got Minor waging war from his pulpit, but no clear idea of exactly what it is he’s saying — from a spiritual or biblical perspective, that is. In other words, is this a religious undertaking — or a secular campaign that just happens to occur at a church?

More from the story:

When he began preaching his health gospel right from the start, he was met not by outright resistance — that would have been rude — but by a polite disregard. This is the way people have always cooked here, church members said, and they ignored him.

He argued that while the food may be the same, people’s lifestyles had changed, and few put forth the physical effort that life in the Delta once required. Preparing pork chops used to involve raising and slaughtering a pig; now it requires little more than a trip to the grocery store. But he eventually realized he would have to adjust his strategy.

Around 2000, he began enlisting his ushers and those from other churches to go after hesitant pastors with a baldly practical line of argument.

“Your sick members can’t tithe,” he said with a laugh.

Health gospel? What are the tenets of that gospel? Any actual biblical references or spiritual principles attached to it?

Did anyone — anyone at all — mention God? 

Photo taken just now by my wife, Tamie, of a cup of fruit. I’d prefer a chocolate chip cookie.

Is Jon Huntsman a Jack Mormon?

I wondered back in March whether or not the fact that we had two Mormons running for President would create an “LDSapalooza” in the news coverage. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, in part because Jon Huntsman is polling just above Pat Paulsen. Even though Romney is the nominal frontrunner in the GOP primary his faith was quite heavily covered in 2008, and this time around the media seems far more interested in covering — or ginning up — the controversies surrounding Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I bet Romney’s pretty happy about that.

So I’m kind of surprised it’s taken this long to see an article, “GOP rivals have different takes on Mormon faith,” where the raison d’etre is explicitly comparing Romney and Huntsman’s approach to their Mormonism. (If there are any other articles that do this I missed, let me know in the comments.) It’s in Romney’s local paper the Boston Globe, but the focus is mostly on Huntsman.

Despite Huntsman’s failure to spark interest among actual voters, if the GOP primary were decided by East Coast magazine and newspaper editors the former Utah governor would win in a walk. Huntsman has been quite favorably covered by a number of news organs that are usually either hostile or GOP politicians, see for example this this Esquire profile. And Huntsman recently got a large and glowing feature in Vogue(!) of all places, replete with Annie Liebowitz photos. It was even written by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, a journalist who wears his liberal credentials on his sleeve.

So then, what accounts for all of this media gushing over Huntsman, even though he’s been irrelevant to the actual election? It could be that the media is attracted to the fact that on a number of issues Huntsman has rather heterodox, even liberal, views for a Republican. And part of that same appeal is that, while other Republicans are eager to emphasize how fervently religious they are, Huntsman seems lukewarm about many of the cultural and doctrinaire aspects of Mormonism.

This is what the Globe piece focuses on:

But in public remarks they have drawn strikingly different religious self-portraits. Romney is highly active and orthodox – he was a top local lay leader in Massachusetts for years, and he has embraced his church unequivocally: “I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it,’’ he said in a major speech in 2007.

Huntsman has called his adherence to Mormon practices “tough to define.’’ He has described himself as more spiritual than religious and as someone who gets “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.’’

As someone who was raised Mormon, I have to say that a self-professed Mormon saying they get satisfaction from other religions and philosophies is striking coming from a church body whose adherents routinely profess the belief they belong to “the one true church.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg — Huntsman’s sons didn’t go on missions (which isn’t a requirement of the church, but strongly encouraged), his wife plays up her Episcopalian background and they’re raising their foreign-born adopted daughters in their “native faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism.”

Now the Mormon church is very hierarchical and specific about many of its beliefs. While there is room for personal interpretation, there are limits to this as well. I’ve personally talked to several Mormons who are, at a minimum, less-than-enamored with how Huntsman is publicly representing his commitment to his faith.

But oddly, the Globe article by Lisa Wangsness, seems heavily weighted toward those that are very bullish on Huntsman’s heterodoxy:

“Normally it’s either all in or all out – that’s both how Mormons view themselves, and that’s how people view Mormons,’’ said John Dehlin, a Mormon from Logan, Utah, whose “Mormon Stories’’ podcast (mormonstories.org) has drawn a growing audience of nontraditional and ambivalent Mormons. “Liberals and progressive [Mormons] were elated at Huntsman’s characterizing himself that way, at least the ones I know, because it helps contribute to opening up the discourse about unorthodox Mormonism.’’

I also found it a bit strange the way Wangsness treats Huntsman’s at-times ambivalent relationship with the church as some sort of new or emerging movement within Mormonism:

Some of the questions gripping Dehlin’s audience are unremarkable in older faiths but still provocative in Mormon circles. In a strict church that asks much of its members, is it possible to be selectively observant, yet still a part of the community? Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon’’ – as some engaged in the debate have described a person who embraces some church teachings, but rejects others? Do some Mormons, like secular Jews, share cultural and genealogical bonds that remain intact even when religious beliefs fray?

For those of you that don’t live out West, let me explain the problem with this. Wangsness is writing an entire article about “Jack Mormons” without using the word Jack Mormon. It’s a pretty common term in the church, and Wikipedia tells me it dates all the way back to 1846. Basically, Jack Mormons are people that have cultural or family ties to the church, or maybe are even lapsed or half-hearted members who attend sporadically who maintain some positive feelings toward the church. So when Wangsness asks “Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon”? The answer is yes, and this has been a part of the church’s culture for a great while. And there are lots of people that could talk about this in a historical and cultural context. I will say that perhaps this oversight is not entirely her fault, as Wangsness quotes Joanna Brooks to this end:

Huntsman “may be living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet – the equivalent of reform Mormonism,’’ said Joanna Brooks, a literature professor at San Diego State University and a Mormon who blogs on religion and culture at religiondispatches.org. That is, she said, “someone who is culturally Mormon, who identifies with the tradition, who has been shaped by Mormon thought in his upbringing, but doesn’t necessarily maintain orthodoxy on doctrinal beliefs.’’

As a source, Brooks gets brought into a lot of stories on Mormonism in a cultural context. I doubt I share her politics or many of her views on religion, but I’ve always found Brooks particularly insightful on Mormonism in a cultural context. So I would like to know more specifically about how she thinks Huntsman is “living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet.” It’s true Huntsman is more high profile than most and perhaps a little more eclectic in his dabbling of other faiths, but broadly speaking Huntsman is hardly a new phenomenon.

So why does someone like Brooks specifically avoid the term Jack Mormon? It’s not a pejorative term, but in some select contexts Jack Mormon is not exactly a compliment. It’s often shorthand for “Mormon who drinks alcohol.” Jack Mormon may refer to fully lapsed or inactive members more often than not, though the definition is highly fungible. Given that Brooks seems to have a similar Mormon identity as Huntsman, I wonder if there’s not some overt attempt at rebranding going on. For what it’s worth, here’s how Weisberg handled the same issue in the Vogue profile:

People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren’t question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. He describes his family on his father’s side as “saloon keepers and rabble rousers,” and his mother’s side as “ministers and proselytizers.” The Huntsman side ran a hotel in Fillmore, Utah’s first capital, where they arrived with the wagon trains in the 1850s. They were mostly what Utahans call “Jack Mormons”—people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don’t follow all of its strictures. “We blend a couple of different cultures in this family,” he says.

Well, Weisberg did get the Jack Mormon thing. But I also think the comparisons to Reform Judaism are curious — barring a really, really radical change in the culture of the laity and Mormonism’s governing structure, a similar movement would a) probably not emerge and b) if it did, it would be unlikely to remain in the LDS church. But it is an attractive concept to a lot of liberal Mormon intellectuals (yes, they do exist).

So long as the media are very excited about the Huntsman candidacy, it might be helpful to get a few more orthodox Mormon voices and perspectives commenting on Huntsman’s religious approach.

Hello Yankees, this is (sorta) Texas

When people ask me where I’m from — a common question for anyone in Washington, D.C. — my standard response is that I am a prodigal Texan.

What, you might ask, do I mean by that?

I mean that I will always, to one degree or another, be a Texan. It’s in there deep in the DNA and in the emotions. However, I have never understood the concept that Texas is the greatest place on earth and that it is paradise to live on a slab of concrete that has two seasons — burnt and mud. Now, does this attitude of mine have something to do with me being from Port Arthur, which has to be one of the ugliest places on earth (please turn up Janis Joplin singing “Ego Rock” on her live album)? Sure thing. Are there nicer places in Texas? I will admit that, but I’ve never heard the siren call of Austin.

Which brings me to the point.

Right now, Rick Perry’s desire to seize control of the White House seems to have lots of national journalists sorta nervous. I mean, they might have to go back DOWN THERE to YOU KNOW WHERE. Thus, a few journalists in the great state have started writing articles to help foreigners do a better job of getting Texas. Here is a key piece of the “Dear Yankee” piece in the progressive pages of Texas Monthly, a guide for journalists who are about to fly down to Austin (as opposed to the really unwashed parts of the state, like College Station):

I am writing you this note in the hope that it will help you avoid the political and sociological clichés that Texas is subjected to every time one of our politicians seeks the national stage.

It’s an experience we’re all too familiar with. A Texan has occupied the White House in 17 of the past 48 years—just over a third of the time. Texas has become an incubator for presidents, as Virginia and Ohio were in America’s distant past. I’ll grant you that the presidents we have sent to Washington, from LBJ to George W. Bush, have not always served as the best advertisements for Texas. Nevertheless, we have endured a disproportionate amount of bad writing about our state from journalists who don’t know very much about the place, and I for one can’t bear to suffer through another campaign of it.

At that point, the article suddenly morphs into a reporter’s guide to Perry, as opposed to some guidelines to help reporters wrestle with TEXAS itself. So we get, “Perry is not George Bush,” “It’s not a big deal that Perry was once a Democrat,” “Perry is cannier than you think,” etc., etc. There’s notes about the governor being an Aggie, about his hair, about small town life and other things, but something important is missing.

In fact, a subject is missing that is at the heart of quite a bit of the messed up Texas coverage I have seen down through the decades since I crossed the border headed north.

What’s missing? Try to guess, or just read through the Texas Monthly list for yourself.

Once you’re done with that, you can read through the similar list in the “Advice to Yankee media coming to Texas” article in the Houston Chronicle. It starts like this:

Welcome back to Texas! We almost missed you the past couple of years. But you seem to have suffered amnesia. In eight years in Crawford, did you learn nothing, or did you just forget? Yesterday, I heard a national TV guy say “Plano” as if it rhymed with “guano.” Another national guy called our governor “too big for his britches” and expressed irritation with men who wear boots and formal wear. … So let me help you out.

1. Lose the folksy talk. You don’t do it well.

2. Yes, they really do wear the hats and boots. Not all the time and not ironically. Deal with it. …

Once again, a big subject is missing from the list — the same big subject, in fact.

The closest that Kyrie O’Connor, the paper’s deputy managing editor for features, gets to religion or morality is in this rather snarky lol item in the middle of the list:

If you spend any time on our highways, you will see a vehicle with a bumper sticker that says “Secede.” Shocking, I know. But some Texans think of secession the way you think of a three-way: Interesting idea, but it probably won’t happen in this lifetime.

My fellow journalists from outside the Texas borders, let be shoot straight with you. If you’re headed to Texas to cover politics or anything else you had better get up to speed on religion. Religion is a big deal in Texas, a really big deal. It’s been known to influence how millions and millions of Texans think and how they act — even if they are backsliders whose main goal in life is to avoid acting like holy rollers or church ladies. Ask the editors of the Dallas Morning News if religion matters in Dallas and in the city’s suburbs.

So, Texans who read GetReligion! Help me out. What should the urbanites at Texas Monthly and the Houston Chronicle have included in their lists to warn Yankee reporters about religion, Texas style?

Keep those comments focused and clean, folks.

VIDEO: A previous blue-zip-code attempt to explain Texas. No, the joke at the beginning about the true story of how God created Texas does not appear to be on YouTube, alas.


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