Rounding up Madrid’s ‘Popestock’

I’m often amazed by anything that can get a million or so young people to do anything or gather anywhere in one location. The Roman Catholic Church managed to do that at World Youth Day (or, what Rocco Palmo calls “Popestock”), which concluded in Madrid yesterday.

“The pope draws 1.5 million young people to Madrid – but that’s not news?” Andrew Brown writes for The Guardian. He notes how German broadcaster Deutsche Welle ran with this angle:

Pope Benedict XVI urged Spain to preserve its Christian heritage during a visit to the Spanish capital Thursday as part of the World Youth Day celebrations. Spain’s Christian identity was a “great treasure” which should be “cared for constructively,” the pontiff said.But the pope’s taxpayer-funded trip to Madrid has stirred much anger in a country where the economy is floundering and 40 percent of youth have no jobs.

Around 5,000 people turned out on Madrid’s streets late Wednesday to protest the pope’s arrival for the six-day youth festival. The demonstrators included members of secularist, feminist, gay and lesbian, alternative Christian and leftist groups.

Brown argues the following over at The Guardian.

Of course this demonstration is news. But the ability of mainstream Christianity to attract a crowd of 1.5 million young people seems to me a damn sight more newsworthy, since we expect people to protest against the pope, and we do not expect them to turn out in large numbers to support or see him.

Numbers don’t prove truth, of course. But they are measures of commitment, and of political importance. Three hundred times as many people have travelled to Madrid to see the pope as have travelled to protests against him. Which group is more important to know about?

As Laura commented in Mollie’s earlier post, the New York Times noted at the end of their story that the event might offer a financial advantage to Spain’s struggling economy.

The organizers of the pope’s visit, however, have strongly defended its cost, 50 million euros, or about $71 million, insisting that it has been covered by pilgrims’ registration fees and corporate sponsorship. On Wednesday, José Blanco, spokesman for the government and one of Mr. Zapatero’s most senior ministers, added his support, saying that the government’s calculations showed that the event would yield a financial benefit for the Spanish economy.

This paragraph, however, ends an article that mostly focuses on the protests. Commenter Passing By noted that many outlets focused on the economic side of the event. Christopher Stefanick thinks that the concept of mainstream media is changing anyway. How many Catholic youth are looking for CNN or New York Times articles about the event, compared to those reading their Facebook feeds?

Along those lines, it could well be that this article is your first wind of any bad press at all about World Youth Day. That’s understandable. If you Google “World Youth Day,” there’s so much Catholic news, positive press, and so many youth group websites that it takes several pages to find a negative story from mainstream media.

Maybe what constitutes “mainstream” is changing. A million youth that just got home from Spain probably think so.

This tends to be the argument people use when they don’t like media coverage, but it’s difficult to ignore the mainstream media’s influence on how others perceive World Youth Day. The pope announced at the end of Mass on Sunday that the next international event would be in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Let us know if you found particularly good or bad angles from this year’s event.

Ethics evolve with technology

It’s been well over a week since the New York Times published a provocative piece where women are interviewed who, after using fertility drugs and procedures, become pregnant with twins and decide to undergo “selective reduction” for lifestyle reasons. That’s a euphemism for the killing in utero of one perfectly healthy twin in a pregnancy. It’s an unbelievably difficult read if you’re of the mind that ending these lives is a major human rights crisis. But I can’t help but think it’s a difficult read even if you support the right of people to abort any child for any reason at any time in the pregnancy. I wanted to write about it all week but found it too difficult to broach.

Reporter Ruth Padawer and the New York Times itself have been criticized for the treatment of the story. Blogger Bad Rachel uses choice words to compare the twin-culling of Josef Mengele with the practice and asks: “Is there one member of Jill Abramson’s religious order who views the subject of this article … as a piece of awfulness? Maybe not.”

I suppose the interviews with these women do bring to mind one of the most amazing pieces I ever read in the New York Times, that 2004 “Lives” column by an abortion rights activist who took the lives of two of her unborn children because otherwise, and I quote, “I’ll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise.” And I literally think of that each and every time I’m at Costco buying bulk food to feed my non-selectively reduced children.

But I actually thought this story was pretty darn good. I didn’t think it praised the practice and, in fact, I think it was good journalism that permitted people to tell their own stories without any gaming. There are perspectives that are left untreated, to be sure, but on the whole, the piece was well done, I thought. It begins by emphasizing the consumer nature of in vitro fertilization and referring to the reduction practice as “almost as if having half an abortion.” Later we learn about the practice:

The procedure, which is usually performed around Week 12 of a pregnancy, involves a fatal injection of potassium chloride into the fetal chest. The dead fetus shrivels over time and remains in the womb until delivery.

The moral quandary is not shied away from. It’s presented up at the top of the story, in fact. We learn quite a bit about how fear motivates the women who reduce their pregnancies. The fear of twins taking up too much time from the parents. One parent justifies taking the one twin’s life by saying she thought she couldn’t give them both enough attention. So, she says, “This is bad, but it’s not anywhere as bad as neglecting your child or not giving everything you can to the children you have.” We learn that no one, not even the surviving twin, will be told about what happened to his mate in the womb.

The writer asks a provocative question:

What is it about terminating half a twin pregnancy that seems more controversial than reducing triplets to twins or aborting a single fetus? After all, the math’s the same either way: one fewer fetus. Perhaps it’s because twin reduction (unlike abortion) involves selecting one fetus over another, when either one is equally wanted. Perhaps it’s our culture’s idealized notion of twins as lifelong soul mates, two halves of one whole. Or perhaps it’s because the desire for more choices conflicts with our discomfort about meddling with ever more aspects of reproduction.

I would have loved for the article to answer that question more. I mean, from the pro-life perspective, the taking of life in the womb is what’s controversial or problematic. That question really needs to be put to others. I wish that it had been. We do learn that one anonymous commenter at a mothering site said she couldn’t sleep at night after having terminated her daughter’s twin brother, but what about some more prominent folks?

Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat said the practice showed the “failure of liberal bioethics.” He points to a section where we learn that Mark Evans was among the first to reduce a pregnancy and in 1988 he issued ethical guidelines including that reducing below twins was a violation of ethical principles. A couple of years later, he said such reductions cross “the line between doing a procedure for a medical indication versus one for a social indication” and he urged his colleagues to resist becoming “technicians to our patients’ desires.” Within 20 years, though, we learn that he had completely reversed course and supported these terminations on social grounds:

In 2004, however, Evans publicly reversed his stance, announcing in a major obstetrics journal that he now endorsed twin reductions. For one thing, as more women in their 40s and 50s became pregnant (often thanks to donor eggs), they pushed for two-to-one reductions for social reasons. Evans understood why these women didn’t want to be in their 60s worrying about two tempestuous teenagers or two college-tuition bills. He noted that many of the women were in second marriages, and while they wanted to create a child with their new spouse, they did not want two, especially if they had children from a previous marriage. Others had deferred child rearing for careers or education, or were single women tired of waiting for the right partner. Whatever the particulars, these patients concluded that they lacked the resources to deal with the chaos, stereophonic screaming and exhaustion of raising twins.

It’s fascinating. The headline is actually a quote from the doctor himself.

The article does include a couple of interesting religion angles. One comes from the story of Dr. Ronald Wapner, director of reproductive genetics at Columbia and a reduction pioneer who now refuses to do elective reductions. He used to do them:

As word spread, a stream of patients called Wapner’s office, scheduling reductions to a singleton. A few months later, after the last patient of the day left, the sonographer who had worked with Wapner for nearly 20 years stopped at his office. She told me what happened next, on condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want her relatives to know everything her work entails: “I told him I just wasn’t comfortable doing a termination of a healthy baby for social reasons, and that if we were going to do a lot of these elective reductions, I thought he should bring in someone else who was more comfortable. From the beginning, I had wrestled with the whole idea of doing reductions, because I was raised in the church. And after a lot of soul searching, I had decided there were truly good medical reasons to reducing higher-order multiples to twins. But I had a hard time reconciling doing reductions two to one. So I said to Dr. Wapner, ‘Is this really the business we want to be in?’ ”

Wapner met with his staff and all of them — the sonographer, the genetic counselors, the schedulers — said they weren’t cool with the elective reductions.

The article includes some interesting details about how consumerism has spread to other areas where technology and infertility collide. We learn a bit about how some parents pick children based on sex — a major issue in other countries, of course. A bioethicist talks about how the seemingly limitless bounds of choice has placed greater burdens on women and that choices are not always as liberating or empowering as they seem, sometimes. In other words, if you have the choice about whether to give birth to a child, rather than receiving it as a blessing (or curse!), you’re suddenly held more socially responsible for how well you provide for the child or how difficult life is made for your previous children.

The article includes a brief discussion of the psychological effects that the reduction might have on the surviving child. And there’s a discussion about how the reasons for reducing a pregnancy aren’t that different from aborting because of a child’s imperfections. Obstetrician Naomi Bloomfield goes on record saying she would have aborted one of them if one of them had “an anomaly.” She further states that this is not selfish but “Parents who abort for an anomaly just don’t want that life for themselves, and it’s their prerogative to fashion their lives how they want. Is terminating two to one really any different morally?”

The author reveals that she had twins just a couple years after her first daughter. She talks both about how difficult it was and also what a blessing. The piece ends with a discussion of a lesbian couple that each got pregnant with twins after rounds of IVF. They also have a 14-month-old son. They decided to reduce one pregnancy and the other pregnancy miscarried shortly thereafter:

For the sake of the boy they already had, they decided to reduce A.’s pregnancy to one, and right after that A.’s partner lost her whole pregnancy. “I don’t wish this on anyone,” A. says. “I’m very grateful that we had this option at our disposal, that it can be done safely and in a legal way, but it was very difficult for both of us. I still wonder, Did we choose the right one? — even though I wasn’t the one who chose. That idea, that one’s gone and one’s here, it’s almost like playing God. I mean, who are we to choose? Even as it was happening, I wondered what the future would have been if the doctor had put the needle into the other one.”

I’m curious what you all think of the article. Was it a barbaric endorsement of twin-culling? Or a powerful indictment of the current mentality of childbirth as consumer and lifestyle choice? The article, with all of its emphasis on ethics, certainly should have had much more discussion of religious views on the topic. Anything else missing? Either way, it read much differently to me than the Associated Press story cheerily headlined at the Beaumont EnterpriseOne-child policy a surprising boon for China girls.” The alive ones, I’m guessing.

Evangelical royalty’s game of thrones

Frank Schaeffer has, as The Economist once put it, “made a career out of criticising his evangelical parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer.” While I and my people were not influenced by the Schaeffers, they’ve had a tremendous influence upon some of my favorite people (including GetReligion’s Douglas LeBlanc). They founded a Christian retreat center in Switzerland where many people transferred from fundamentalism to evangelicalism or to greater engagement with the culture, including secular culture. They are known for their apologetics and influence on a wide swath of people including everyone from Jesus People organizer Jack Sparks to musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard. To say those parents were very well regarded among evangelicals, even by their evangelical critics, is an understatement.

Late in his ministry, Francis began to be greatly influenced by his son Frank (according to Frank and others), who got him more involved in political engagement. Frank became known for his demonization of political opponents. At that time, those opponents were political liberals. Now they’re political conservatives. He’s written extensively about his break with the Christian right and wrote a memoir about his parents just three years ago. Author and social critic Os Guinness reviewed it in Christianity Today Books & Culture, refuting its central claims, but also saying that “Frank’s portrayal of his mother is cruel and deeply dishonoring, monstrously ungrateful.”

I have a rather intractable bias against children of famous people writing tell-alls so I wouldn’t be the target audience of that type of memoir. But he’s out with another, titled “Sex, Mom, & God.” New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer uses this latest memoir as a hook for “Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale.” Here’s how it begins:

In every line of work, there are family businesses. But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching. Lyman Beecher, Bob Jones, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Robert H. Schuller, Jim Bakker: all had sons who became ministers.

Interesting. I don’t actually regard the office of ministry as a business. But apart from that, is this really true? No line of work is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching? I mean, yes, we’ve named six really well known dudes but as a percentage of preachers, I’m not sure it’s that impressive. When I think dynasties and nepotism, I think of the auto industry. Oil. Journalism. On the other hand, Guinness’ review of that previous memoir suggested nepotism was Schaeffer’s downfall and a major problem with many other evangelicals. It goes on:

It is never easy stepping into Dad’s shoes, of course. But when the family business is religion, it is especially perilous. That is one of the central laments, anyway, of “Sex, Mom, & God,” a new memoir by Frank Schaeffer. To secular Americans, the name Frank Schaeffer means nothing. But to millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives.

I’m not entirely sure. I mean, every time I read someone talking about the younger Schaeffer’s “crime,” they’d say it’s neither financial profligacy nor turning his back on political Christianity. They might even oppose those things themselves. What they tend to say is that he’s an ungrateful son or that his work is “cruel, distorted, and self-serving,” that he manipulated his father, stuff like that.

I think an article that mentions the actual complaints of his critics and had Schaeffer respond to them would have been much more interesting.

Oppenheimer’s piece explains that this memoir focuses on how Schaeffer was disillusioned with his faith but faked it for financial gain. And that’s all very interesting. For instance:

“I had been home-schooled,” Mr. Schaeffer told me. “I had no education, no qualifications, and I was groomed to do this stuff. What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”

Two questions. In his previous memoir, he claimed his tutor had given him a “‘great books’ British university-level literature course.” Guinness, who had been the elder younger Schaeffer’s best man, had pointed out in his review that the younger Schaeffer had been a boarding school drop out and that his tutor would have been surprised by that characterization. But what changed in the last four years to result in such a drastic change in how that education was characterized?

But the other question I’d ask is whether there are still two lines forming, one with a $10,000 honorarium (to go to a different conference, of course) and one that requires you not to speak. Has something changed? What changed? Or are we seeing the same decision making? Schaeffer is getting quite a high profile — including multiple book deals, profiles in the New York Times, speaking opportunities and new recognition and what not — from his new religion. Is that relevant to the discussion? Why not ask?

I love Oppenheimer’s columns in part because they are so darned friendly. But sometimes that friendliness to one subject is unfriendly to another. If you’re profiling someone who’s speaking ill of folks not in a position to defend themselves, is friendliness the best or only posture? Maybe even just a couple of tougher questions?

Also, for a religion column, the profiled subject isn’t given a chance to tell us much about his religion. The article tells us that Schaeffer “opted out of evangelicalism” but we don’t learn what he now believes or adheres to. That’s what I’d be most interested in. That Economist piece tells us that Schaeffer is now conflicted about abortion but was speaking at a conference on alternative Christianity. He rather famously converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Is that where he remains?

Will Islam affect future for Egyptian gays?

Anyone who closely followed the events of the Arab spring knows that the demonstrations that rocked Egypt and other lands drew a unique and highly complex mix of people into the streets in opposition to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

The public faces of these events were young, urban and, by the standards of the region, “liberal.” Some could even be called “secular” — some, but not many (check the confusing, but fascinating data from a well-timed Pew Forum survey).

Now the Washington Post has jumped behind those early images to ask a logical question: How have these events affected the lives of gays and lesbians in urban Egypt (as opposed to smaller cities, villages and rural areas)? In particular, what does the future look like for homosexuals in light of the large majority of the population that has, to one degree or another, Islamist views about governance?

This news feature is, as you would expect, packed with urban details. But here is a crucial passage — featuring the voice of Kholoud Bidak, a 33-year-old lesbian — dedicated to a crucial fact:

On Jan. 25, the day the demonstrations began, Bidak remembers spotting a large group of young gay men with tweaked eyebrows, shiny lip gloss and skinny jeans among the protesters. The next time she saw them, on Jan. 28, the day security forces cracked down most violently on the revolt, the men had ditched the glam and braced for battle, carrying vinegar and onions to make the sting of tear gas bearable.

“I think being queer played a huge part,” she said about their motivation to protest. “It was useful for us to be visible and prove that we’re here, that we’re human beings, that we do exist. You can see us.”

Bidak said she spent several days fighting alongside bearded members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As she perfected the art of assembling molotov cocktails using plastic bottles, some of her comrades didn’t realize she was a woman.

Days after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster, Egyptian women expressed hope for greater rights. Fundamentalist Muslims started plotting a political comeback. Coptic Christians spoke of a more visible role in society. Although gays celebrated largely in silence, many began feeling somewhat empowered.

The goal, you see, is open acceptance in Egyptian society and in its law. The story makes that clear.

So if that is the case, and large slices of the Egyptian people are on the record as saying that Egyptian law and life should be based on the Koran and Islamic teachings (several competing views of sharia are in play), wouldn’t it be logical for this story to offer some factual material on how Islam views homosexuality?

I ask this question with the assumption, of course, that there is no one, iron-clad view of the subject. I assume that the increasingly visible Salafi minority has somewhat different views from the slightly less conservative Islamic Brotherhood. I know that the Coptic Orthodox would teach that homosexual acts are sinful, but would almost certainly have differing views on how this would be addressed in the nation’s laws. A crucial question: Are there any Muslim voices in Egypt that openly favor gay rights to any degree?

Behind this looms a more basic question: What are the specific sources in the Koran and Islamic tradition that are being debated, when these issues are discussed? How about one or two sentences or even paragraphs that offer insights into these facts?

How does a reader grasp the serious, practical hurdles that are facing these activists without a few of these facts?

Do not look for them in this piece. Instead, readers are merely told:

… (For) Bidak and many other Egyptian gays, the enthusiasm has fizzled. Islamists, all but certain to become politically powerful in the coming elections, have been calling for a strict religious state; dogmatic politicians have been ascendant in Tunisia, which is among the most liberal of Arab nations.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s security forces, now run by military chiefs, are resorting to tactics the old regime used to silence critics.

Once again, what is missing? What is missing is even the most basic facts about religion, law, tradition, etc.

Once again….

IMAGE: Cairo nightlife

Faith-free (almost) cooking on Egyptian TV

Anyone who knows anything about religious communities — especially ethnic communities — knows that food plays a crucial role in both public and private life. Wednesday-night Lutheran church suppers (hello Garrison Keillor) in the Midwest, or in Baptist fellowship halls in Texas, have quite a bit in common with breaking-the-feast dinners during Ramadan.

Does food matter in Orthodox Judaism? In a Catholic parish in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn? For Hindus celebrating the seasons in Delhi? It’s almost impossible to name a religion that does not, in one way or another, include some symbolic role for food and fellowship.

Here’s a highly personal example. A few years ago, I wrote the following near the top of a Scripps Howard column about one man’s journey from Greek Orthodoxy into a charismatic Protestant ministry and ultimately back to Orthodoxy. This Orthodox deacon is now a close friend of mine. It helps to know that his mother was raised Jewish, in Poland.

“They were married in the Greek church,” said Peter Maris, 42. “She learned to speak Greek. She learned to cook Greek. She did everything she could to show her commitment to the faith.”

Then came the parish Christmas party when his mother brought a plate of Polish cookies. His father didn’t tell this story often, because it was too painful.

“Some of the women got upset,” said Peter Maris. “They told my mother, ‘What are you doing, bringing those in here? We don’t need you and we don’t need your Polish cookies. We are Greek.’ ”

The family walked out and never returned.

Why were the cookies so important on both sides of this divide?

Food matters. It has something to do with making faith incarnate in real life.

I thought of all of this when reading the Washington Post feature about Ghalia Alia Mahmoud, an unlikely new television chef in the rapidly changing land that is post-Arab-spring Egypt. Here is the top of this fascinating story:

Only in the new Egypt could Ghalia Alia Mahmoud have become a celebrity.

A woman from a poor neighborhood, she cooks in tin pots with no handles, on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without measuring cups. She uses simple, cheap ingredients such as beans, pasta and vegetables, all she can afford.

In the old Egypt, Mahmoud worked as a maid. But that was before Jan. 25, the beginning of the upheaval in which the destitute and the affluent stood shoulder to shoulder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the ouster of a dictator and the end of a system that celebrated the elite while a huge underclass barely subsisted.

The goal of her show is to teach basic, affordable cooking skills to the middle- and lower-class masses in Egypt, to teach ordinary people — as the story says — to “prepare dishes they can actually afford.”

A core concept is that Mahmoud will show viewers how to feed a large family a filling meal for the equivalent of $4. This is a subject that she knows all about, based on first-hand experience.

At home, she feeds 15 people in her immediate and extended family on an income that even now does not exceed $200 a month. She cooks meat just once a week, because that’s all she and her husband, a minibus driver, can afford; on the show, meat is prepared only on Fridays. …

On camera, Mahmoud is genuine and bubbly. She measures out ingredients in cheap plastic cups and buys vegetables for the show at the market in her poor neighborhood of Waraa. She wears fuchsia jackets and polka-dot aprons; her face is plump and inviting.

She reminds people of their favorite aunt, and her popularity has skyrocketed. Her Facebook page — which had to be set up by a producer, Habiba Hesham, because Mahmoud can’t afford the Internet or a computer — has drawn nearly 4,000 followers in less than two weeks. Hesham sees her as a future Oprah Winfrey, a poor girl who became an American icon.

As you would imagine, as I read this story I kept waiting — especially with the ties between the birth of her cooking show and Ramadan — for religion to enter the picture. How does one talk about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, especially those who are not numbered in the often secularized urban elites, without discussing the role of food and fasting in Islam? How did the creators of this story avoid using the word “halal”?

Surprisingly, the story’s lone reference to the religious significance of food comes near the end. While the Post team gives us no details about Mahmoud’s own religious alliances or even the ways in which her skills (and new status as a celebrity) affect the practice of her faith, readers do learn one highly symbolic detail.

It is the subtle messages on her show that carry bigger lessons than the food. She offers to teach recipes to Coptic Christians who abstain from meat and dairy products during their time of fasting. She said she does it to prove that heightened sectarian tensions, which she believes are stirred up by the government, don’t exist in Egyptian neighborhoods.

(By the way, it would have been more accurate if this paragraph had said, “their times of fasting” — plural — rather than singular. Coptic believers fast to one degree or another more than half the year, at various times.)

What kind of response has the maid-turned-chef received with these peacemaking overtures? How is her work viewed by Muslims on the cultural left and right?

Perhaps it is too early to know, since her show is only a month old. Nevertheless, some kind of reaction is likely, since food plays such a symbolic and emotional role in daily life and in religion. Also, it is clear — from the one example given — that the cook in this kitchen knows that faith and food are often mixed and cannot be separated.

IMAGE: A tourist photo of an ordinary street market in Cairo.

Republicans give, but …

Someone please tell me to stop reading articles about Michele Bachmann. Really, the Republican race is much bigger than her campaign and there are so many other candidates and issues to consider. But I cannot wrap my head around some of the strange coverage of her faith as these articles have become my recent guilty pleasure for some reason.

Please bear with me through yet another Bachmann article because while a Huffington Post article on her giving habits was well-intended, it was poorly executed. You might write this off as just another HuffPost piece and perhaps I shouldn’t expect something more, but I had hoped that some of this original reporting would not go to waste because of the way its framed (I will bold some “buts”).

Michele Bachmann loves to regale voters with examples of how her Christian faith informs her choices. It has also influenced the groups she has chosen to support over the years, and nearly all of them have shared her evangelical view of the world.

When on the stump she is by turns humble and righteous. She rarely lets more than a few minutes pass without a quote from scripture or a reference to the Divine. But for all her emphasis on Christian virtue, and the Bible’s directive to “honor the Lord with your wealth” [Proverbs 3:9], there is scant record of donations Bachmann has made to charity.

What is an “evangelical view of the world”? Are you sure all of the groups she has supported necessarily share her religious beliefs? Is there any indication that Bachmann doesn’t give as the Bible directs? You might say offering a record of her donations as public would be a prudent thing to do, but if she doesn’t offer this as an option, are we to think she is acting against her faith? Here’s some context Emily Belz of World magazine provides in her rundown of candidate giving.

Mike Huckabee was an advocate for public officials releasing their tax returns when he was governor of Arkansas, but when he released his own records, he reaped controversy. “I was naïve enough to think that if I provide everything beyond what is legally required that I would be applauded,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2001. “What I found was all I did was hand over fodder for people in the print media and political opponents who like to file ethics complaints.”

Again, reporters might think Bachmann should release her giving information, but I don’t see anything unbiblical about it. On her church attendance, the reporters confirm that Bachmann attends Eagle Brook Church, an evangelical megachurch in Minnesota.

Like other evangelical Christian ministries, Eagle Brook encourages members to donate part of their gross income — usually 10 percent — to the church, a practice known as tithing. “We believe it’s part of living a generous life,” Anderson said.

The Eagle Brook website links to a Christian financial counselor who offers biblical verses and basic advice about managing family household expenses. Anderson declined to say whether Bachmann donates to Eagle Brook, but estimated that around 60 percent of attendees are “regularly participating financially.”

I would have been more surprised if the pastor did tell the reporter if Bachmann donates to the church.

The reporters list some of the appearances Bachmann has made and we’re supposed to be shocked by what some of the organizations stand for, such as the Susan B. Anthony List, David Horowitz Freedom Center, Citizens United and others.

All these appearances may help explain Bachmann’s conspicuous absence from volunteer and donor lists in her district for such mainstream local nonprofits as the United Way, the Salvation Army or the Rotary Club.

Joanne Honsvall-Berg heads the campaign for the United Way of Washington County, the largest charitable organization in the St. Croix Valley area. “Bachmann has never donated to the United Way that I know of — and I’ve been around a long time,” she told HuffPost. “She’s never participated in our programs.”

Representatives for the Salvation Army and the Stillwater Sunrise Rotary Club gave similar responses. Spokesmen from Bachmann’s alma maters — Winona State University and Regents University — declined to comment.

There’s something strange about the expectation that Bachmann would donate money or time to United Way, etc. Has she ever been invited to speak at those places the way she had been invited at the previously mentioned places? Is it really correct to suggest that she’s a graduate of “Regents University” (which should be Regent, by the way)? She attended Oral Roberts University’s law school, which eventually transferred over to Regent. The reporters then do that “guilt by association” comparison with people like Bradlee Dean and Frank Vennes, never really indicating whether Bachmann has said she shares their beliefs.

Questions about her relationship with Frank Vennes and Bradlee Dean, as well as about her personal finances, her foster children and even her faith will continue to be asked.

Yes, they’re being asked because you are the ones asking them. This piece is part of a larger HuffPost series on GOP giving, but other outlets have already looked at Romney and Perry’s giving in the past. What’s funny is that all three articles start out the same way, maybe because Andrea Stone was involved in all of them. You start with some conventional wisdom, and then you throw in the but

Here’s the part on Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney can afford to be charitable.

The richest remaining candidate in the Republican presidential field has a net worth somewhere north of $200 million. With a fortune amassed as a venture capitalist at his firm, Bain Capital, he has been generous to many community, civic and political advocacy organizations.

But the vast majority of his philanthropic contributions have gone to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the form of the tithes required of all Mormons in good standing.

And the beginning of the piece on Rick Perry:

Benevolent charity has long been a cornerstone of conservative social policy, whether in the form of a religious group organizing large-scale relief programs or a quiet donor giving a helping hand to an individual man or woman. But how well conservative politicians might practice what they preach varies dramatically.

Again, going back to that World piece by Emily Belz, a bit of context goes a long way.

The only candidate other than Perry to publish his personal tax returns is President Barack Obama. Obama has slowly edged up his giving, from under 1 percent of his income in 2000, to 1.4 percent in 2003, then up to 6 percent in 2006, and peaking at 13.6 percent last year. During his term, President George W. Bush gave an average of 9.3 percent. The Clintons gave an average of 24 percent of their income when Bill Clinton was president, though a few of those years they published a statement of their income and giving rather than the tax returns themselves.

Again, I love that the Huffington Post is trying to do some original reporting here to see whether the candidates are following through on their said beliefs, but it’s hard to take seriously when it’s spun in a but way.

Pod people: abortion, confession, absolution

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of Rick Perry’s appeal to evangelicals, the role of religion in the U.K. riots and World Youth Day.

It’s interesting to watch how unhinged media types get when dealing with an evangelical politician, but it’s also somewhat wearying, isn’t it? No matter your views or preferences? Will they have the energy to keep up with these attacks through 2012 on all of the evangelicals in the race? Are they shooting their wad too early? I guess we’ll have many long months to look at those questions in depth.

World Youth Day coverage, on the other hand, continues to be weak. I thought Dan, a commenter to our previous post put it well:

What strikes me is the complete disinterest in the content of the event. What might Pope Benedict be planning to say to the youth? What themes will he be developing? What is his goal? Why do so many young people want to hear him, and what is the sociological profile of these young people?

As reported by the secular press, it as though 1.5 million people were descending on Madrid for no discernible reason other than to hold a pep rally for the Pope. No wonder then that the focus is on the nuisance and the cost. For those who lack any interest in, or ability to understand, what the event is about, it must indeed seem like nothing more than a money-wasting nuisance.

Reporters may not have been interested in telling a story about more than one million young people descending on Madrid (it does run counter to the narrative, I guess), but some did pick up the story about the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid granting all the priests attending the event the special power to lift excommunication and grant absolution to those who confess abortion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how well that story was told.

The Guardian‘s subhed was:

Pope dangles ‘fruits of divine grace’ to excommunicated Catholics who admit, during Madrid event, to terminations

Now, when I first heard this abortion/excommunication story, I was sure it was wrong. If a Lutheran confesses to having procured an abortion or any other sin of which we’re repentant, the pastor doesn’t need special permission to absolve us. I spoke to a few canon lawyers and they explained that this is not the way it works in Catholicism. In that church, not all priests may absolve an abortion with its automatic excommunication. Some priests do have that power but if a person goes to one that doesn’t, that priest has to go back and get permission to lift the excommunication. When the penitent comes back, he or she is absolved then.

The Guardian actually explains this briefly by quoting Father Lombardi:

“Normally, only certain priests have the power to lift such an excommunication, but the local diocese has decided to give all the priests taking confession at the event this power,” said the pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.

That part is handled fine, although I would love to know if my suspicions about why Catholics handle it this way are true. We need more information. But check out this paragraph:

At a time when church attendances in Europe are dipping Lombardi denied the deal on abortion had been dreamed up to attract waverers back to the church. “With so many young people attending there may be those who have had problems of this kind and it makes sense to reach out to them.”

The language is so bizarre — “denied,” “deal,” dreamed up” — come on! (And yes, some Catholics are crying foul at the general coverage.)

Let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage of the remainder of World Youth Day. It’s bound to improve, right?

As for the podcast, we also discussed a good example of media coverage from this week — the way in which British outlets recognized the role Islam played in one father coping with his son’s death from the riots there.

Perry may get fair coverage, said a source

Long-term GetReligion readers probably know that I am a conservative Democrat with Texas roots (so that makes me pro-life and willing to raise taxes, I guess). Tea parties? I like my tea iced, with lemon.

I offer this information again in order to make the following statement: I really have no idea what I think of Rick Perry.

However, I will say that I have never seen someone who engendered such hatred in the small and, thus, often paranoid world of true Texas leftwingers. It’s off the chart, down there, making the anti-George W. Bush revival meetings seem tame by comparison.

Politics and the religion are, of course, totally tumbled together in all of this.

How? Let’s take a look at one crucial passage in a recent Washington Post pseudo-analysis piece, part of the series by Dan Balz called “The Take.” Is this an A1 column? Part of a series of analysis essays?

It’s hard to tell. However, I have questions about the basic journalistic infrastructure of the following, which seems to have spun out of the candidate’s fiery shot at Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke:

Perry is a robust conservative in a GOP in which the tea party movement and social conservatives hold great sway. He is also a leader with the potential to appeal more to the party establishment, but perhaps only if he can convince Republicans that he is the most electable of their candidates.

Perry loyalists may regard the Bernanke episode as a mini-storm that will pass quickly, a blip that will be written off as part of the learning curve for a new candidate. Maybe they are correct, particularly if Perry quickly learns from the experience.

Other Republicans may see in Perry the kind of candidate they are looking for to challenge the president in the general election, someone who is tough, brash and unafraid to speak his mind — a Michele Bachmann with real executive governing experience.

See anything missing in this passage? Read it again, if need be.

The word you are looking for is “attribution.” Another key word in the mix is “may,” as in “Republicans without names MAY see in Perry. …”

Let’s continue. Please try to keep a watch on that “may” device and please keep looking for those clear journalistic attributions of quoted material. Good luck with that.

Another obstacle may be learning to broaden his appeal. Texas-based strategists say Perry has focused his campaigns almost completely on the Republican base and conservative independents. That may not be enough to win a national race, unless the dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama’s leadership make 2012 a race that is the Republicans’ to lose.

What is considered the conservative mainstream in Texas may be too conservative in other parts of America. What worked in Texas won’t necessarily work elsewhere. Being too Texan, never much of a problem at home, could hurt him nationally. Aspects of his record that Perry may assume have been fully litigated could become problems when the national spotlight begins to shine.

The Republicans who worry about Perry as a general-election candidate fear that he is too conservative on social issues, too grounded in the idiom of Texas, too enamored of his 10th Amendment, states’ rights message.

“Social issues” and “social conservatives” refer — think 2008 campaign coverage — to God, guns and gays. People packed into megachurch pews, in other words. Small-town, suburban and non-NPR Texans, in other words.

Now, the wealth of “may” references and all of those vague, but biting, references that lack attribution are not examples, in and of themselves, of the press not “getting” religion. I know that.

However, mainstream reporters will not be able to accurately cover this kind of story in which politics and religion are woven together without due diligence to the journalistic basics — including the clear attribution of quoted material. This is especially true when covering religious beliefs and statements of fact about religious issues.

The bottom line: If people want to take shots at Perry (or Barack Obama, for that matter) on religious/political subjects, then let them do so with their names on the record.

It also helps if major newspapers avoid that whole foggy, vague, potentially slanted “may” game — especially on A1. Play that game on the op-ed pages.

In a word, I read this story and thought to myself, “OMG, this is going to get really ugly.”

It may get ugly and Perry may help stir the whirlwind. I just hope that the religion coverage stays on the record and out of passive voice.

Lord knows that may happen or it may not.

Comments, please
, on the basic journalistic issues raised in this post. Not your opinions of Perry.