Jewspotting in China

The Wall Street Journal tackles problems with religious freedom in China on both is news and editorial pages this week. In the opinion piece, the editors argue that China may have succeeded in using breakdowns to deter resistance in the past, but shows how recent actions by Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics show the crackdowns are now creating more resistance.

By depriving religious and ethnic minorities the space to preserve their culture and practice their faith, Beijing is alienating the next generation who have rising expectations for personal freedom. A clash between the Party’s culture of control and the Chinese people’s growing consciousness about their rights looms.

Perhaps they should have added Jews.

In “Chinese Jews Face Existential Questions,” we learn that a tiny community is viewed with suspicion by both Communist Party leaders and Orthodox Jews. Now, I tend to agree with media critic Jack Shafer when he mocks the New York Times for its “Jewspotting.” That’s where the paper “expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.” Sometimes that’s a place like Montana. Other times it’s a place like Peru. It frequently chronicles the dwindling number of Jews in Iraq. Or Bahrain.

But other papers do it, too. And while this Wall Street Journal story has a bit of the “Jewspotting” feel to it, it’s also a very interesting story about what makes someone a Jew. It’s fluffy in style but has some nice content. Here’s a sample:

For much of the past millennium, Jews in Kaifeng— descendants of merchants who arrived here from Persia, probably around the 11th century—have been struggling with an existential question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

The handful of Kaifengers who go to Israel are sometimes floored to discover they need to go through a rabbi-certified conversion to be accepted as Jews, while the ones staying home squabble over which of them are really Jewish.

The question has surprising consequences in this dusty walled city in central China. According to the Chinese government, there are no Kaifeng Jews because there are no Chinese Jews. Judaism isn’t one of China’s five official religions and Jews aren’t designated as one of the country’s 55 official minorities. Orthodox Jews have a similar view, though for different reasons. Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do, while orthodox Jews define Judaism as passing through the mother.

“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

The article discusses how the Kaifeng community learns about Jewish traditions from the tourists who stop by. She has yet to fast a full day for Yom Kippur and she says that Orthodox Judaism has an unfair standard, “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.” Interesting quotes.

We learn about the Jewish merchants who arrived a thousand years ago and how they blended in ethnically and became somewhat forgotten. A Jesuit missionary spread the news in the early 17th century. By the early 1900s, we’re told, none of the population could read Hebrew and they were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” when they wore yarmulkes. This quote gives a good look at what it was like to be a Kaifeng Jew:

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

There’s much more history about Jews escaping from the Holocaust and the Communist takeover in 1949. There’s even a Jew for Jesus subplot to the piece.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about the lack of religious freedom:

Today, Kaifeng Jews tread with caution given China’s ban on unauthorized religious activity. The Jewish descendants say they rarely meet in groups of 10—the number required by Jewish law for a religious service—for fear the government might consider that a political gathering. They make DVDs of themselves wearing traditional Chinese garb while they light Sabbath candles, to portray the act as a folk custom.

A concern with the piece is how it begins and the photo accompanying it. It’s a great photo of Zhang Xinwang, who calls himself “Moishe.” I was curious about this story and did some looking around. Turns out that the story of the “Kaifeng Jews” was extensively reported in the West in the 1700s and that they’ve been Jewspotted intermittently since then. Reading around (such as this story in Covenant), I wonder if Xinwang is more a government-appointed Jew than a member of the community. He’s not revealed in the Journal piece as a member of the Communist Party. Has the Party gotten involved in the leadership decisions for this community? It would be more noteworthy, knowing what we know of China, if they hadn’t.

Evangelical? Born again? Fundie? Whatever …

Once more, into the religion-beat word wars (with an emphasis on the often foggy meaning of the word “evangelical”)!

People who paid close attention to The New Yorker piece on Michele Bachmann now have another reason to parse that text again with a critical eye.

Writing for Religion News Service (posted at Huffington Post), the veteran Godbeat specialist (and progressive evangelical) Cathleen Falsani has taken a critical, fact-driven look at some of the terms tossed around in that magnum opus. While she liked the piece quite a bit, some of its loose labels troubled her.

A veteran on the beat, and a Wheaton College graduate (just like Billy Graham), Falsani was compelled to dig a bit deeper — especially about the magazine’s use of the terms “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist.”

Thus, we read:

It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous. In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for “staunchly conservative,” “small-minded,” and “mean-spirited.” It’s a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “the good news” or “the gospel.” During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, “evangelical” meant, simply, “Protestant.”

That’s a good start. But when dealing with issues of history, it’s always good to have an authoritative voice to back you up.

So, continuing:

Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:

– Theologically, it is an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the need for conversion, the command to spread the gospel, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the primacy of Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

– Stylistically, “evangelical” also describes a kind of religious practice as much as a set of doctrines. This is where you really see the diversity of evangelicalism: Mennonites, African-American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Catholic charismatics and Dutch Reformed all fall under the “evangelical-as-a-style” umbrella.

– Politically, “evangelical” describes a coalition of Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham) who used the term in an attempt to distance themselves from the “Christian fundamentalist” movements of the 1920s and ’30s. Fundamentalism’s hallmarks were (and to a certain extent remain) anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity and a belief that the church should not engage with culture. Mainstream evangelicals, by contrast, sought to actively be a part of culture in order to transform it.

Alas, at that point Falsani goes on to adopt the post-Associated Press Stylebook stance on the meaning of “fundamentalist,” as opposed to using the historic model that she has already applied to “evangelical.”

Still, there is much wisdom to be absorbed in those paragraphs from the Wheaton team.

I would urge reporters to take the same fact-based, as opposed to opinion-based, approach to defining religion terms in general. Look for the history of the terms and see who originated them and who claims them. That is always a wise and prudent place to start.

Those (in newsrooms) who have ears, let them hear.

IMAGE: The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

A good guy, with a ghost

A recent ESPN.com headline caught my attention:

Torii Hunter one of the good guys

Now, as I may have mentioned a time or two, I’m a devoted fan of the Texas Rangers. As such, I don’t exactly root for Hunter, an All-Star outfielder for the rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (I did like the movie.)

But I enjoy stories that go beyond the numbers in baseball, so I found the top of the ESPN feature on Hunter quite promising:

If Torii Hunter is not the friendliest, best-liked and most quotable player in the major leagues, he’s certainly in the starting lineup and likely batting no lower than cleanup.

“I think that’s about as safe a statement as you can make,” Angels outfielder Vernon Wells replied when asked if Hunter is the game’s friendliest player. “He’s one of those people who is legitimately kind to everyone, no matter who it is. No matter if it’s a random person working at the stadium or the best player in the game, he’s the same person. He always has time to talk to people and get to know them on a different level. It’s impressive to watch.

“He could run for mayor in Orange County and do anything he wanted to. The same in Minnesota — everywhere he goes. He’s loved everywhere. You give him enough time to get out and greet people and get them to know his personality, he could run for any position anywhere.”

At 1,400-plus words, it’s a fairly well-developed piece that offers behind-the-scenes insight into what makes Hunter the way he is.

For instance, there’s this:

Hunter says he came by this personality from two sources: his grandmother, Edna Cobbs, and his mother, Shirley (who still teaches grade school in Pine Bluff, Ark.). “My grandmother was the type of woman who always smiled and said treat people like you want to be treated and life is so much easier. My mom is the same way.”

Now, “treat people like you want to be treated” almost sounds like the Golden Rule, as advocated by Jesus Christ (see Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31).

As I read the ESPN piece, I kept wondering if faith might play a role in how Hunter approaches his baseball career. But like a 250-pound slugger missing a fastball thrown right down the middle, this piece whiffs on that key question, leaving a big, giant ghost.

I did not have to try hard to solve the mystery. I Googled “Torii Hunter” and “faith” and found a recent Beliefnet interview with Hunter on “how his faith helps him set a good example.”

For example, what circumstances led to his relationship with Christ?

I was raised in the church by my grandmother who made sure we went to Sunday School, read the Bible and went to church every Sunday. Every night we read Bible stories before we went to bed. My mother also made sure we stayed involved in the church and the things of God. My relationship with Christ came about through that and the influences of my mother and grandmother helped my faith to grow.

And what Hunter wants others to learn from his example:

I want them to know that I try to walk like Christ in my life. If I strike out, I don’t curse, or throw my bat or hit things back in the dugout, I try to quietly just put my helmet back. I may be very upset but I try to control myself. Whether I’m down or whether things are great, I try to stay the same person all the time. I want my teammates to see that I’m following Christ. But, I’m also human, so there are times I slip and make mistakes but I know Christ forgives me.

Hmmmmm, it certainly appears — talking to you, ESPN — that Hunter is “one of the good guys” for a reason.

Nothing but costs and protests at World Youth Day

The Roman Catholic Church is having its World Youth Day in Madrid, an event geared toward young people and held in celebration of the Catholic faith. These events are held locally every year and internationally every two to three years. They attract hundreds of thousands of youth from all over the globe and they’ve been credited with helping young people get more involved in the church. This marks the world’s largest gathering of young people. This year is no exception. As many as 1.5 million people are expected for Saturday’s vigil and Sunday’s Papal Mass outside the city.

So this is a major event and it’s interesting to see how reporters are covering it. I am pretty sure that there was a contest to see how many journalists could get the word “lavish” into the lede. Here’s Agence France-Presse:

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for a giant open-air mass in the heart of Madrid on Tuesday, launching a lavish six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.

Party for Benedict? I don’t think that’s how the church would describe it. And what makes the event lavish, exactly? It’s unclear. What happened to show, don’t tell?

Here’s the angle the New York Times chose for their story on the event, with the headline “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag“:

MADRID — The Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez’s church is a prefabricated building in an area of this city hard hit by Spain’s economic crisis. In front of the altar are a few scraggly potted plants. Behind it, some plastic chairs.

To the Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez, the trip’s cost is “scandalous.”

How, he asks, can the Roman Catholic Church be getting ready for a lavish $72 million celebration in this city — some of it paid for with tax dollars — when Spain is in the midst of an austerity drive, the unemployment rate for young people is 40 percent and his parishioners are losing their homes to foreclosure every day?

“It is scandalous, the price,” he said. “It is shameful. It discredits the church.”

Father Rodríguez, 67, is among the 120 clergymen working among the poor here who have signed a lengthy petition deploring the pope’s visit this week on many grounds — from its cost to what they see as an inappropriate melding of church and state.

Subtle! The AFP story says most of the costs are covered by the pilgrims themselves. Here we’re told that “some” will be paid for through taxpayer dollars. Later we learn that government officials and church officials say that businesses came up with $23 million to pay for various events, pilgrims will pay $44 million themselves and donations will cover the rest. Pilgrims are allowed to sleep in public buildings such as schools and businesses will get tax breaks for their contributions. Critics say they’re worried about hidden costs such as the stress on health care systems and subsidized use of public transportation.

I don’t know if these costs are just the typical cost you might expect for such a large gathering of people or if they reflect frugality or spendthriftiness. Many more details are needed. Just by way of comparison, the Democratic National Committee spent $53 million on the 2008 Denver convention. That’s just what the committee spent, so I’m unsure about other costs such as the ones mentioned above. The largest event had fewer than 100,000 people at Invesco field. So I’m not sure what the $72 million figure is supposed to tell us, exactly.

And what about some context on these 120 clergymen? I know that there are about 20,000 priests alone in Spain. I’m unsure how many total clergy there are. Either way, we’re talking about a fraction of a percent of clergy. It’s got to be nice for them to receive such prominent coverage! Clearly this is the most important angle the media are focusing on. We are told that the priests, will join “dozens of left-leaning groups demanding a secular state and young people who occupied many of Spain’s main squares for months to protest the government’s handling of the economy” in a major protest march on Wednesday.

From the perspective of the New York Times, this World Youth Day is nothing more than a financial racket for the Catholic Church:

Spain is less solidly Catholic than it once was. A government survey released in July found that 71.7 percent of Spaniards declared themselves Catholics, compared with 82.1 percent in 2001. Of those, 13 percent attend Mass on Sundays, compared with 19 percent 10 years ago.

But the church is eager to keep a spiritual hold on this country, where people can still check a box diverting up to seven-tenths of a percent of their taxes to the church.

Now, maybe “the church is eager” to see Catholics return to the church in Spain for no more reason than that they might get a fraction of a percent from people’s taxes. But if you’re going to level such an incendiary charge, after making the protests from left-leaning anti-clerical groups, unemployed youth and a small fraction of Catholic clergy the angle you use to cover World Youth Day, I have a couple of suggestions. The first would be to substantiate the charge with much more than innuendo and the second would be to allow the church to respond. Otherwise, it just comes off like a crusade against the church. And that’s the last thing the Times needs when it comes to covering Catholics.

As for other reporters, if you’re looking for a new angle that doesn’t include the words “lavish” or “protests,” here’s one that might be worth checking out.

Religion in the riots

The death and destruction caused by rioters in the U.K. has been difficult to watch. I’ve followed the stories and wondered about how well the religion angles have been covered. One tragic story sticks out for how well a victim’s family religion was highlighted. That story is about the death of Haroon Jahan, one of three Muslim men to die after being hit by a car during riots in Birmingham. Reuters reported how his father Tariq Jahan rushed to aid the men, only to find out that one of the victims was his own son:

“So I started CPR on my own son. My face was covered in blood, my hands were covered in blood.”

Police launched a murder inquiry after all three Muslim men died. A 32-year-old man has since been arrested.

The men were part of a group of British Asians attempting to protect their area from looters after attending Ramadan prayers at a mosque, a friend of the men told BBC radio.

They acted after seeing gangs break into a petrol station and social club, and neighbors being beaten up, Jahan said.

I wondered whether that would be the end of the religion coverage. But in the days that passed, we saw more. The next day there was an op-ed hailing Tariq Jahan as a “voice of reason” in the chaos. This Telegraph story explains how Jahan helped quell a race riot from breaking out in the aftermath of his son’s death. A few days later the Guardian reported on rumours that hundreds of Muslim and Sikh youths were plotting revenge against black rioters in Birmingham.

Winson Green, an area north-west of the city centre, has been home to a substantial Pakistani community since the 1960s. The area is racially mixed with an established minority of Jamaicans and recent immigrants from Somalia and eastern Europe.

At the half-built Dudley Road mosque, a few yards from where the young men died, more than 600 members of the local community, including Somalis and African-Caribbeans, gathered to say prayers.

Some worshippers had come from nearby Handsworth, scene of riots in the 1980s. An official from a local Somali mosque was invited to say a few words about the three young men.

The room fell quiet as Jahan, 46, the Slough-born son of immigrants from Indian Kashmir and Pakistan, and his eldest son Tahrir entered the main prayer hall. They were ushered to the front. Speaking in Urdu, the imam called for peace among the local community and called for worshippers to react to the alleged murders with dignity.

Afterwards, Jahan said he and his family – including his wife Tahira and his 23-year-old daughter Sophia – were still trying to accept his son’s death. “The grief does not leave. I keep telling myself that he died protecting the community. But I don’t have the words to say how I feel,” he said.

And the BBC interviewed Tariq Jahan and included quotes about how his religion is helping him cope with the tragedy:

Although he is grieving, Mr Jahan manages to present a brave front and only falters once during the interview.

He describes his last moments with Haroon after finding him lying on the road, saying: “I lay next to him and put my arm under him and whispered in his ear, ‘son, even if the angel of death comes down to ask for you now, I’ll stand before him’.”

Mr Jahan’s faith is helping him. He is a Muslim and says that he believes in divine fate and destiny. He says he also gains strength from his two other children, son Tahir and daughter Sophie, both in their early 20s.

It’s not that we get a tremendous amount of detail here, but it’s nice to see the way British media is not hiding or ignoring the role that religion plays in the lives of the Jahans.

Chill, please, on the submission obsession

I can’t believe we’re still talking about Rep. Michele Bachmann and wifely submission, but let’s review a little bit before we can hopefully move on from the topic.

To quickly recap, Bachmann was asked during the debate in Iowa:

In 2006, when you were running for Congress, you described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea, and then you explained: ‘But the Lord said, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husband.’ As president, would you be submissive to your husband?

Last week, I wrote that I felt the question during the debate in Iowa for Bachmann was not completely irrelevant, since she brought it up in the past. However, if the question had been framed differently (“Some evangelicals believe that wives should be submissive to their husbands. Will you be submissive to your husband?”), it would have pretty strange. If you aren’t familiar with the biblical passages on submission, it can sound a little odd, but “submission” can manifests itself very differently for various couples.

Please do not misunderstand me: I am not in defend-anyone-mode, including York or Bachmann. We are purely interested in how the media covers religion and politics and what kinds of questions are being raised as a result of that coverage.

Some reporters are still eager to learn more about this area of submission in Bachmann’s personal life, so it seems appropriate to revisit this area. Stephen A. highlighted further GR discussion in a comment about MSNBC’s Meet the Press interview between David Gregory and Bachmann:

Did anyone catch the Meet the Press interview with Rep. Bachmann Sunday?

Host David Gregory tried to get her to say (and strongly implied that) she “heard voices” (ala schizophrenia) because she had earlier admitted she had “listened” to God’s will when choosing a career and running for public office.

Talk about NOT getting religion!

I don’t share her beliefs and am not likely to support her politically but as a reporter, I would NEVER be so ignorant of religion that I’d ask such a thing in that way.

Yes, this interview is fairly stressful for people who are eager to see journalists covering religion in politics in a fair and balanced manner. Let’s start with the beginning of the portion on faith and beliefs.

MR. GREGORY: From the economy, I want to move on to another topic that’s deeply meaningful and important to you, and that’s your faith in God. This is something that not only motivates you as a person, inspires you as you try to live a virtuous life, but it’s also been very important to your political identity as well. And I want to ask you about, not only the role God plays in, in your life but to what extent he’s a motivator for decisions that you make.

Let’s discuss this line of questioning. It comes across that though having something outside of yourself possibly motivating and influencing your beliefs and actions would be absolutely nuts. Perhaps we should recall some of our current president’s words earlier this year at the National Prayer Breakfast.

“When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and our people,” Obama said. “And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord and I ask him to forgive me my sins and to look after my family and to make me an instrument of the Lord.”

Obama also plugged Charity: Water and its founder, Scott Harrison, saying, “That’s the kind of faith that moves mountains.”

Of course, Obama’s faith and Bachmann’s faith may play out very differently in terms of policy, but we probably should not be terribly shocked that a person leading our nation seeks a higher power.

Gregory does go into the submission angle, playing the 2006 clip without offering any context.

MR. GREGORY: Is that your view for women in America? Is that your vision for them?

Why would Gregory think that because Bachmann chooses to be submissive to her husband that it would be her vision for all women in America? What we need to recognize is that Bachmann was speaking at the Living Word Church in Brooklyn Park, Minn., back in 2006. You need this piece of info to understand that she was speaking to a particular audience that might already refer to a certain set of shared beliefs before you jump into the question about whether that might influence her if she became president. Bachmann gave the same answer she gave in the debate, which is that she and her husband respect each other.

MR. GREGORY: But you said that Gald — God called me to run for Congress. God has said certain things about, you know, going to law school, about pursuing other decisions in your life. There’s a difference between God as a sense of comfort and safe harbor and inspiration, and God telling you to take a particular action.

There’s a warm and fuzzy faith that we many of us can get behind but suddenly if a candidate feels called to pursuing a particular career path, that’s going too far?

The rest of the interview focuses on the same kinds of question on her views about gay couples and qualified candidates for the judicial system or her administration, if she won the election. The questioning goes around and around in circles and doesn’t seem to advance anything new, since Bachmann continues her line, “I’m not judging. I’m running for the presidency of the United States.” Maybe if Gregory found more original questions that other reporters haven’t already picked over, he might have uncovered more interesting answers.

MR. GREGORY: One last one on this. Can a gay couple with — who adopt children in your mind be considered a family?

REP. BACHMANN: When it comes to marriage and family, my opinion is that marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think that’s, that’s been my view, and I think that’s important.

MR. GREGORY: So a gay couple with kids would not be considered a family to you?

Perhaps voters as less interested in her personal views about whether a gay couple is considered “a family,” but how that manifests itself into policy. As president, for instance, would she attempt to do anything on the federal level on adoption and gay couples?

Back to the beginning of the subject, asking about wifely submission was OK (a little silly, but okay) for about two minutes and has provoked some interesting discussion and introspection about marriage, but we need to move on — quickly, before we forget that there are many, many other issues to discuss.

So, what kinds of questions are you looking for from the candidates as it relates to religion and politics?

Tebow: He might be the second coming of …

There was this quarterback, you see, and in his own way he was very controversial.

For starters, he was a leader more than a tactician, a field general more than a pin-point passer. On top of that, he tended to make many of his biggest plays with his legs, running all over the place and creating havoc until he could finally get rid of the ball. And his throwing motion? It was often a sort of a wild wind-up mess (he liked to pull the ball down too low when preparing to fire it deep) that the purists hated. It was rarely pretty.

On top of all of that, he was devoutly religious and rather conservative, in terms of politics. In particular, he was vocal on his beliefs that sex was something that happened inside a traditional marriage — period.

The talent scouts were absolutely sure that he would never make it in the National Football League, even though he had won the Heisman Trophy once and competed for it in other years.

Besides, the faithful Catholic named Roger Staubach had to serve as a Navy officer before he could suit up for the Dallas Cowboys. It took him time to get his act together, but he turned into a pretty good pro quarterback.

What? You thought I was talking about someone else?

I thought about Staubach, who was one of my heroes back in my days as a Texas youth, when I read the following Tebow column by Deron Snyder of the Washington Times. Your GetReligionistas rarely discuss columns, because our focus is on hard news in the mainstream press. However, we make exceptions from time to time when opinion writers, columnists, scholars, bloggers and others focus directly on topics related to religion in the news and its impact on coverage.

That is precisely what Snyder did in his discussion of why Tebow remains such a controversial figure in print and television coverage of professional football.

Here’ a slice of the column focusing on Tebow himself:

… Tebow had to be himself, which means letting everyone know exactly where he stands, consequences be damned. Essentially he drew a line that separated him from everyone else — not in a better-than-thou sort of way, but a marked distinction nonetheless — and we’ve been picking sides ever since. Along the way, we’ve had difficulty in keeping our opinions unencumbered. Thoughts on Tebow the Christian get mixed with Tebow the Quarterback. Tebow the Hyped is entangled with Tebow the Great Guy.

There’s no other explanation for the fascination with a second-year QB who started three games (winning one) for his 3-13 team. Otherwise, such a player would never have the league’s third-best selling jersey in 2010, right ahead of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He’d never have nearly 246,000 followers on Twitter, or 6,000 per each of his 41 career completions. And he’d never have countless media providing endless coverage to drive supporters and detractors into their respective camps.

But there is more to this than the quarterback himself. There are other traditional religious beliefs in professional sports and most of them manage to avoid controversy — precisely to the degree that they are willing to avoid statements that link their faith to moral, cultural and, in this age, political questions.

Snyder, for example, mentions that Kurt Warner was a strong believer and never created a major controversy. I guess he forgot that famous Warner advertisement linked to abortion.

Eventually, the columnist concedes:

Put it all together and you’ve got the anomaly that is Tim Tebow. He’s an outstanding young man, yet he’s widely mocked and despised. He’s a marginally talented pro prospect, yet he’s hailed as Denver’s savior and franchise QB.

The accelerant in this debate is religion, which along with race and politics forms our trinity of third-rail topics. Tebow isn’t a litmus test for faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ, but that won’t stop the saints and the aints from issuing grades.

If Tebow beats out Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn, and/or develops into a winning quarterback, it just proves that scouts and personnel executives and our own eyeballs can be wrong. If Tebow is relegated to a career on the sideline, holding clipboards and wearing caps, it just proves that being the nicest, most-devout guy with impeccable integrity isn’t enough alone.

Here is my journalistic suggestion: Cover Tebow as a quarterback with flaws who is working to correct them, working quite hard in fact. Cover Tebow the believer by actually quoting what the man says and then let readers respond to him, instead of others pontificating about him.

It worked for Staubach, on and off the field. It might work again.

Oh, let me stress that the goal here is to comment on the coverage of Tebow and the content of Snyder’s column — not to air out your views on Tebow, his faith or his throwing motion (or even the Bronco’s faith-based decision to draft him in the first round, ahead of Jacksonville).

How much has the MCC changed?

Time for a bit of personal history, as I react to a disappointing little news article that ran recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.

I arrived at the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) in Denver in the early 1980s and, naturally, one of the biggest stories that I immediately began covering was the AIDS crisis and the complex and not always predictable responses in local religious bodies. Many groups on the left (many, but not all) stayed away from hands-on care, for example, while one or two (I stress, one or two) very theologically conservative groups jumped into the gap with funds and volunteer help to do early hospice work.

There were, therefore, surprises on both the left and the right sides of the sanctuary aisles and I learned to look for them.

Early on, I began covering the local branch of the Metropolitan Community Church, a small but lively national body that focuses most of its ministry (but not all) on ministering to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. In my early talks with the clergy, many stressed that the denomination’s clergy came from a wide variety of backgrounds and, early on, I found that to be true.

For example, one local MCC minister’s background was solidly oldline Protestant and, on basic doctrinal issues, he was quite liberal. Then another arrived whose background was Southern Baptist. He backed his church’s liberalized doctrines on sexuality, of course, but on most other issues he was quite conservative, even evangelical. As an MCC insider once told me, and I paraphrase: There’s a reason many of our members didn’t just become Episcopalians. They think that the Episcopal Church is too liberal.

Again, it pays to remember that the founder of the MCC — the Rev. Troy Perry — was a Pentecostal pastor before he left the closet. For more information on his testimony, click here.

Now, I get the impression that in recent decades the general theological drift of the MCC has been to the mainline left. However, the denomination’s statement of faith continues to proclaim:

Our faith is based upon the principles outlined in the historic creeds: Apostles and Nicene.

Yes, note the vague word “principles.” However, the statement continues:

We believe:

In one triune God, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, of one substance and of three persons: God — our Parent-Creator; Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God, God in flesh, human; and the Holy Spirit — God as our Sustainer.

That the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, showing forth God to every person through the law and the prophets, and finally, completely and ultimately on earth in the being of Jesus Christ.

That Jesus … the Christ … historically recorded as living some 2,000 years before this writing, is God incarnate, of human birth, fully God and fully human, and that by being one with God, Jesus has demonstrated once and forever that all people are likewise Children of God, being spiritually made in God’s image.

That the Holy Spirit is God making known God’s love and interest to all people. The Holy Spirit is God, available to and working through all who are willing to place their welfare in God’s keeping.

Every person is justified by grace to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

There are mainline Protestant touches in there, such as “Parent-Creator” in the Trinitarian language. However, as a whole, one would have to say that this is a safely center-left Christian statement.

This is why one key passage in the Chronicle article jumped out at one or two GetReligion readers and then me. This article is basically a shallow public-relations piece for a fundraising effort at the local MCC congregation — the selling of gold memorial bricks. Nevertheless, there are a few quotes from the faithful about what sets their congregation apart, even in the context of San Francisco.

Thus, readers are told the following about some of the church’s unique programs:

Collectively, the messages reflect the church’s unique mix of religions, genders and sexualities. In the words of one woman: “A spiritual home for this atheist ho.”

Buddhists, pagans, Jews, Christians and nonbelievers regularly crowd under the church’s roof.

Several bricks invoke the period, starting in the 1980s, when AIDS swept through the neighborhood. Religious figures then accused gays and lesbians of invoking God’s wrath. The Metropolitan Community Church responded with a slogan that will soon be memorialized underfoot: “We are the body of Christ, and we have AIDS.”

Now, if I was a reporter and I was writing about this interesting denomination, I certainly would have spent a minute or two (after one or two mouse clicks) reading its easy-to-find doctrinal statement and, maybe, even the longer essay on its history.

Suffice it to say, atheists, Buddhists, pagans, Jews and many other non-Christians would have trouble with that doctrinal statement that I quoted earlier. Right? In other words, I think that either (a) the reporter missed the true breadth of the diversity in that MCC flock or (b) that the MCC has changed quite a bit in its essential beliefs and, thus, the reporter missed a deeper and more interesting story.

Let me repeat something that I have said since early in GetReligion’s history — the press needs to devote more time and energy to covering the RELIGIOUS and DOCTRINAL stories on the religious left, as opposed to assuming that everything on that side of the sanctuary aisle is just politics with a touch of fancy theological language. There are solid religion stories on the left, too.

Just saying that. Again.


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