The Times, the White House & “Catholic colleges”

As faithful readers of this weblog will know, your GetReligionistas are convinced that it is stunningly simplistic for journalists to talk about the “Catholic vote,” as if there was one mass of Catholics who agree on how they should apply centuries of Catholic doctrine to their actions in voting booths.

About a decade ago, an elderly priest here in Washington, D.C., told me that he is convinced that — at the very least — there are four competing camps of “Catholic voters” here in postmodern America. As a reminder, here is the typology as I have shared it in the past:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important “undecided voters” depending on what’s happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* “Sweat the details” Catholics who go to confession. They are active in the full sacramental life of their parishes and almost always back the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice.

As noted, the final camp — the depressing world of confession statistics are the key — represents a very small piece of the American Catholic pie.

Now, on to the current headlines. You see, it helps to keep that “Catholic voters” typology in mind while reading mainstream media coverage of the escalating conflict between the Obama administration and the world of religious education and non-profit ministries. Since clashes with the Catholic hierarchy have received the most ink, it helps to remember that not all “Catholic colleges” are “Catholic colleges” in the same sense of the word. The same statement is true of “Catholic hospitals.”

Thus, one would expect various kinds of Catholic institutions to have different policies when it comes to defending church doctrines on controversial issues — such as birth control.

This brings us to the following headline in The New York Times: “Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges.”

The only appropriate response? Well, DUH. Of course this fight is drawing battles between the White House and Catholic institutions, as well as spotlighting preexisting fractures in the world of Catholic higher education. Simply stated: These schools are not preaching or practicing the same faith. Why shouldn’t they clash when it comes time to react to a government action affecting religious liberty?

Here’s the summary language in this story:

Many Catholic colleges decline to prescribe or cover birth control, citing religious reasons. Now they are under pressure to change. This month the Obama administration, citing the medical case for birth control, made a politically charged decision that the new health care law requires insurance plans at Catholic institutions to cover birth control without co-payments for employees, and that may be extended to students. But Catholic organizations are resisting the rule, saying it would force them to violate their beliefs and finance behavior that betrays Catholic teachings.

“We can’t just lie down and die and let religious freedom go,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now hold your breath. Here’s the payoff punch:

In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

Once again, science on one side vs. blind religion on the other. That’s the magic formula, it seems. Right Bill Keller?

Also, note that this entire matter is simply political, not theological. There are no real doctrinal issues to debate. The folks who see a religious-liberty crisis in all of this — often liberal Catholics, as well as conservative — are only doing so because of a political agenda. You know, like the right-wingers at the liberal National Catholic Reporter (and the editorial board of The Washington Post, while we are at it).

But enough about the predictable political framing in this story. Back to the Catholic colleges in the headline.

Some Catholic colleges are likely to ask for a yearlong delay in implementing the rule on birth control coverage, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. In the longer run, he predicted in a statement that either Congress or the Supreme Court would invalidate the rule. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, and the interdenominational Colorado Christian University have already sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that the birth control requirement violates the right to freedom of religion.

Birth control is considered a “preventive service” under the new health care law, but Mr. Galligan-Stierle said such services should be limited to preventing disease, not pregnancy.

“We do not happen to think pregnancy is disease,” he said. “We think it’s a gift of love of two people and our creator.”

The most important word comes right at the beginning of that passage — “some.”

In other words, there are Catholic schools that defend Catholic teachings and strive to recruit students, faculty and staff who join in that effort — or at the very least seek to recruit those who will not oppose these teachings. Then again, many Catholic schools openly reject the teachings of their church.

Thus, we read:

At Catholic universities, some students support the right of the schools to uphold religious doctrine. But others, particularly professional and graduate students, have found the restrictions on birth control coverage onerous. …

One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.

“If I want children, I’ll need a fertility specialist because I have only one working ovary,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said that problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons. Asked if Georgetown would begin covering birth control under the new rule, she said, “We will be reviewing and evaluating the new regulations, ever mindful of our Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission.”

I kept waiting to see if this story would recognize the wide diversity that is found Catholic education. I was expecting, frankly, to hear from qualified, experienced Catholic educators who want to defend their faith on this matter — which would mean resisting government actions to force them to financially support actions they believe are sinful. Instead, we get this accurate, yet rather bombastic quote:

Senior Catholic officials said that students at Catholic universities should know what to expect, and that those who disagree with the policies can choose to go elsewhere. “No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served,” Mr. Galligan-Stierle said.

That’s a valid quote and it’s valid for the Times to use it.

My question is simple: Is this one of those urban, sophisticated Times stories in which the editors (if they agree with their newly retired editor) believe that they do not need to cover both sides of an issue? Is it enough now that they quote the valid, powerful anecdotes and arguments on one side and then reduce the other side’s convictions to rumblings about politics and a punchy soundbite?

Just asking.

The key to future coverage is to find out if the government will find ways to honor the convictions of Catholic schools that want to defend Catholic doctrines and will openly and legally state that in all contacts and legal covenants with students, faculty and staff. In other words, can the government find ways to treat these religious private schools — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc. — like the religious institutions that they are.

And the rest of the Catholic schools? The leaders of those schools are free to kneel to the state on this matter. They have ever right to do that, if the Vatican decides to let them do it — while remaining “Catholic colleges.” Then again, there is this.

Pod people: More on Romney’s tithing

Last week, I critiqued a Sacramento Bee story tied to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon tithing.

The top of the Bee’s report:

Mitt Romney’s tax returns reveal that the Republican presidential candidate does something fewer Americans do these days: He tithes.

Romney’s 2009 and 2010 tax returns, released Tuesday, show that he and his wife, Ann, gave 10 percent of their income, about $4.1 million, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple reported income of about $43 million for the two years.

While generally positive about the California newspaper’s approach, I played editor and proposed a few questions that my markup of the reporter’s draft would have included.

My first question concerned the specific amount that Romney gave:

Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent discrepancy?

In the comments section, Frank Lockwood of Bible Belt Blogger fame chimed in with some helpful clarification.

Meanwhile, as I had time to read other news coverage of Romney’s tithing more closely, I discovered that Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll had offered helpful explanation:

A campaign official said the governor bases his tithes on estimated income, since he donates to the church at the end of the calendar year before his taxes are finalized. He plans to pay above the 10 percent in 2011, to make up for the underestimate the year before, the campaign official said.

For many Mormons, the percentage of tithing varies from year to year.

“In one given calendar year, I might actually `pre-pay’ some tithing and then the next year, I’ll kind of work that into my calculation,” said Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS church. “I think that most Latter-day Saints can recognize it looks like he’s giving roughly a 10th, whether it’s one calendar year or over an extended period of time.”

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about the media coverage of Romney’s tithing.

We also spent a few minutes discussing my recent post on a Denver Post story on cowboy churches.

By all means, check out the podcast.

Wash away your affiliation

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a story about a 71-year-old atheist’s rather curious legal battle against the Catholic Church in France. Rene LeBouvier has taken the church to court over its refusal to let him “nullify” his baptism:

LeBouvier grew up in that world and says his mother once hoped he’d become a priest. But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn’t believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.

“They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church,” he says.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls “criminal.” Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

Apparently a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor and the dioceses appealed. The case is pending.

OK, the story just utterly confuses me. LeBouvier has already left the church. And he doesn’t deny he was baptized. Is he asking the court to force the church to rewrite history? Again, he was baptized into the Christian faith. He has since renounced the faith. The church records both that he was baptized into the faith and that he chose to leave the church.

I’m not sure if the article simply needs to explain the oddities of French law more or if the story just fell down on the explanation of how Christian sacraments work.

The article apparently equates asking the church to strike the name from baptismal records with something called “de-baptism,” without quite explaining why it’s called that. The article quotes the dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America, Rev. Robert Kaslyn, as saying that Catholic teaching doesn’t provide for de-baptism. Certainly this is not a Christian teaching. The article doesn’t exactly dig down on why Christianity has no provision for de-baptism, although the dean explains a bit of Catholic teaching on baptism’s permanent mark on the baptized:

“One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”

French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

“If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France,” he says.

Again, I need more explanation about why this article equates leaving an organization with something we’re calling de-baptism, particularly since this case already includes the individual renouncing his membership. I’m sure it makes sense in the mind of the reporter or the litigant, but somehow something is getting lost in translation here.

Are we talking about forcing the Catholic Church to knowingly state something they know not to be true? To rewrite history? To create a new sacrament of de-baptism? To declare a particular sacrament of baptism invalid in the eyes of the church? If it is the last case, on what grounds is the atheist arguing the sacrament was invalid in the eyes of the church? If he were petitioning for an annulment of marriage, that would be what he’d be arguing, right? That the sacramental marriage was somehow invalid in the eyes of church? Is that what he’s arguing here? If that’s the sort of annulment he seeks, the argument for that annulment is missing.

Now, it’s certainly true that churches are occasionally legally forced to do something that violates their conscience and teachings. Obviously we have a major instance of this even in the United States with the recent news that the Obama administration is giving religious institutions one year before they’ll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that profoundly violate their teachings. But what’s most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds. This article completely failed to discuss what the Catholic Church would do if France forced it institute a new rite/rewrite history/declare a sacrament invalid this would do. How would the church respond? Isn’t that what’s most interesting? Why no mention of the theological implications at hand? My own church body’s American history began in response to a German attempt to force us to violate our doctrine. It’s certainly interesting when governments attempt to tell religious institutions how to practice their religion, but even more so how they respond to such demands.

I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment. Perhaps a bit more explanation of whether the baptism records have sway outside of the church would have helped.

BuzzFeed on Mormon, well, you know …

It’s a subject that causes editors to sweat, knowing that their newsroom switchboards will almost certainly to explode if they dare to cover it. We are talking, of course, about (cue: drumroll) Mormon underwear.

For many people this subject symbolizes all of the doctrinal topics linked to Mormonism (think Temple vows and the specifics of Temple rituals) that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not supposed to discuss with those outside their church.

Yet critics of the church — especially ex-Mormons — want to talk about these things. They make all kinds of statements on the record about what these secret symbols and rites are supposed to mean.

At that point, reporters and editors are caught in dangerous territory, in terms of basic journalistic ethics.

How do editors (a) verify the accuracy of alleged details (Do ritual Temple dramas and/or media materials teach that traditional Christian churches are in league with Satan?) when (b) responsible, even candid Mormon leaders have taken vows that do not allow them to answer?

How does one write an accurate, fair-minded, balanced journalistic report about, well, Mormon underwear?

BuzzFeed recently tiptoed into this landmine with a respectful, constructive piece on the subject that caught the eye of some GetReligion readers.

The problem, of course, is one that continues to plague your GetReligionistas. This is not a news piece. Once again, how do journalists critique the accuracy and fairness of pieces that are completely one-sided, that represent serious attempts to deal with serious subjects — but they do so in the form of editorial essays, not news reports?

On one level, the current boom in Mormon underwear interest is linked — logically enough — to Mitt Romney’s latest White House bid. Thus, readers are told:

It’s true that Mormons are taught not to flaunt “garments” (as they’re called) for public view, which can feed the impression that Romney’s hiding some dark, cultish secret beneath his well-starched shirts and neatly-creased slacks. But the principle behind Mormon garments would be familiar to any Baptist who’s worn a “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet, or any Jew who’s worn a yarmulke or tzitzit (woven threads Orthodox Jews wear on shawls under their shirts). As the website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it, garments are worn as “an outward expression of an inward commitment.”

Because garments are considered so sacred, Mormons tend to recoil when they hear non-Mormons make casual reference to their underwear — especially in a political context. But if there ever was a time when discussion of the subject could be contained to Mormon circles, now is not it. Anyone who’s attended a performance of The Book of Mormon Musical has already seen actors wearing replicas of the underwear on stage. And as the presidential race wears on, there’s no doubt it will come again and again.

The key to this piece is that the author — McKay Coppins — is a Mormon and, thus, is able to write this kind of statement: “This reporter is something of an expert on the subject.”

The information in the article is, one can only assume, accurate and presented in a fair manner. A key section discusses the claims made by critics that Mormons believe that these garments are “magic.” Not really. Do Catholics (and the Orthodox) believe that their baptism crosses are magic?

As a journalist, here’s the part that interests me:

Garments today come in two pieces — a white undershirt, and white boxer brief-style shorts — and they contain small symbols meant to remind Mormons of the covenants they’ve made in the temple. … They also come in a variety of materials — cotton, polyester, silk, etc. — to accommodate different climates (a fact for which Mormon missionaries in subsaharan Africa are grateful). Generally, wearing them takes some adjustment at first, but most Mormons report quickly growing accustomed to them. (Out of respect to Latter-day Saints, we are not posting photos of the garments here.)

Here is my question, for those who cover the Mormons on a regular basis. When I worked in Denver in the 1980s, the whole subject of these garments was pretty much covered under the vows of secrecy related to temple rituals. Yet, this article openly discusses this issue and even contains the reference that the garments “contain small symbols meant to remind Mormons of the covenants they’ve made in the temple.”

Where is the line, today, that reporters cannot cross? Where is the point at which a Mormon — such as Coppins — must fall silent for perfectly valid reasons due to the vows he has taken as part of his faith? So you can mention the symbols. Can the symbols now be discussed? He mentions the temple covenants. Is it still out of bounds to discuss the contents of the rites and covenants themselves? Is the secrecy line moving?

My question is sincere, in response to this interesting and I would assume — from the point of view of Mormons who are journalists — constructive piece. Are there journalists out there from Salt Lake City or elsewhere who can help me understand precisely what is happening, these days, with respectful, accurate, journalism on these topics?

Missing March for Life photos discovered

On Thursday, we looked at the rather shocking slideshow at the Washington CBS affiliate. It was headlined:

Activists Hold Annual March For Life On Roe v. Wade Anniversary

But it somehow hadn’t shown a single picture of an activist at the March for Life! Instead, it showed multiple pictures of the same handful of pro-choice protesters who protested the massive March for Life.

First, we have an update. Around 7 p.m. on Thursday, three days after the March for Life, the folks at CBS found some pictures of pro-lifers to include, rather after the fact. So now about half of the slides are of the hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers who descended on the mall and about half are of the roughly dozen or so pro-choicers who protested that same march. And for this, which is still a ridiculous use of a slideshow, we are thankful for the improvement.

We didn’t even discuss much of the Washington Post coverage here at GetReligion. I’d pointed out the reporters rather odd crutch on the phrase “antiabortion ideology,” which she repeated throughout her piece, but we didn’t talk about slides. We did have some readers complain and apparently the Washington Post ombudsman got an earful as well. He devoted his column to the matter:

Abortion is an issue that evokes passion on both sides, and journalists have to be deft in covering it lest their in-boxes overflow with angry e-mails.

So it was this week with the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973 and the accompanying March for Life that has taken place here every January since.

The demonstration was a big event, as it always is. As the Associated Press pointed out in one of its stories that ran on The Post’s Web site on Jan. 23, it is “consistently one of the largest protests of the year in Washington.”

He then discusses how absolutely no one knows the size of the crowd as no one does official estimates. The only event with an actual headcount is one of the masses that precedes the march. It had some 17,000 people, he writes, but that’s the only official count that was even mentioned in the story. So how well did the articles and accompanying slideshows explain the size of the crowd? Not so well:

Still, you can find images of the large crowd taken by amateurs on Flickr or Facebook, and I imagine the AP took some, too. Probably Post photographers did as well.

But these shots didn’t find their way into the main Web photo gallery on the march. And I think this is where The Post fell down in its coverage of the march this year. And that’s mostly what antiabortion readers wrote to me about.

The online photo gallery contains 10 photos: seven tight shots of antiabortion demonstrators, two of protesters from the small abortion-rights counter-demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court and one that showed both sides confronting each other there. In fact, eight of the 10 shots were taken at the high court.

Emotional shots make better photos, yes, but I would have chosen more from the broad expanse of the rally, and at least one photo showing a lot of cheerful, festive people, which is what I see at most demonstrations that I have covered over the years, regardless of the issue at hand.

As anyone who has been at a March for Life can tell you, it is if anything criticized for not being somber enough. It is a festive celebration of life at least as much as it is a somber remembrance of legalized abortion. That photos didn’t capture that is not good.

But what I found interesting about the ombudsman column, which is totally responsible and fair, are this quotes from the editors. The local editor basically apologizes for making it sound like the crowd was only 17,000 or so people. The photo editor? Well:

Said Post Director of Photography Michel du Cille, “We can never please this crowd. We try for fairness to show both sides.”

Are you freaking kidding me? Now, you can peruse the several years of March for Life mentions here on this blog and find that we go overboard trying to praise anything even remotely fine about March for Life coverage over the years. And that goes quadruple for the Post over the years. Considering how low the bar was (some coverage at various papers during the 1980s and 1990s still gets mentioned by media observers), we’ve been downright generous. But I can’t think of an incident where the Post photography department even tried to please “this crowd.” And let’s say they did try to “please” the crowd by accurately portraying the march, that doesn’t justify failing to accurately portray it in subsequent years. If he wanted to defend the coverage this year, he should try to do that. Blaming the victim is just not appropriate. And this appeal to “both sides” is not relevant in this case, obviously. It suggests that some commenters to the previous post were right when they blamed not the photographers but their editors.

The rest of the article looks over other aspects of the coverage and Pexton has some favorable and unfavorable comments.

On the other hand, maybe Post Director of Photography Michel du Cille was merely comparing himself to the West Coast, where things are — somehow — even worse. The California Catholic Daily says the efforts required by San Francisco’s major media outlets to avoid covering the Walk for Life West Coast bordered on obsession:

Any event that would bring 50,000+ persons to a demonstration, any event that would cause the closure of San Francisco’s busiest street for more than a mile, any event that would cause the San Francisco Muni to reroute rail line F, and bus lines 2, 5, 6, 8, 8X, 9, 10, 12, 14, 14L, 19, 21, 27, 30, 31, 38, 38L, 45, and 71, could fairly be classified as “news.”

But when a newspaper’s agenda prevents it from covering news, one is almost forced to sympathize. It’s like watching a recovering alcoholic stalking down the liquor aisle at Safeway — jaw clenched, looking neither to the right nor left, hoping to reach the safe haven of frozen strawberries or Occupy Wall Street. …

The only article the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s major daily, did on the Walk For Life West Coast was prior to the event — and that C.W. Nevius’ column advising San Franciscans to ignore it! His editors, at least, appear to have taken his advice. The paper did send photographer Michael Macor to cover the event. He took some nice shots. They reproduced one in their newspaper. No article accompanied the photo. The Chronicle did reproduce nine photos on its website, still with no story, only a caption that read: “Thousands protest abortion Saturday at the eighth Walk for Life West Coast on S.F.’s Market Street. The crowd stretched from City Hall to Powell Street. Abortion rights supporters rallied at Justin Herman Plaza.”

Come on people. And it’s not that the Chronicle doesn’t cover ongoing protests. According to the California Catholic Daily, over the past 90 days, the Chronicle has published 415 articles on Occupy Wall Street. That’s a new ongoing protest and certainly we’d expect to see more coverage of it, but given the size of the crowds and the disparity in coverage, that’s just embarrassing.

So there’s certainly room for improvement. I’d advise the Post‘s photo director and all other journalists covering public protests to think far less about “pleasing” people — whether it’s the folks they hang out with in their newsrooms or the masses who are out in the streets protesting — and far more about just reporting the news as quickly and accurately as possible.

Seinfeld nation

The front page of Wednesday’s Independent is devoted to a story that chronicles the collapse of public and private morality in Britain.

The story entitled “Britain facing boom in dishonesty …”  reports that according to a study by the University of Essex, the British are:

becoming less honest and their trust in government and business leaders has fallen to a new low amid fears that the nation is heading for an “integrity crisis”.

Lying, having an affair, driving while drunk, having underage sex and buying stolen goods are all more acceptable than they were a decade ago. But people are less tolerant of benefits fraud.

The Independent summarizes the results of a study carried out by the University of Essex’s Centre for the Study of Integrity and suggests the “integrity problem” will get worse as the young are more tolerant of dishonesty than the old.

The article cites statistics illustrating the decline in trust in government and in falling moral standards and concludes with a warning from the study’s author that this collapse in civic and private virtue will have political consequences. The study’s author stated:

integrity levels mattered because there was a link between them and a sense of civic duty. If integrity continues to decline, he thinks it will be difficult to mobilise volunteers to support David Cameron’s Big Society project.”If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial,” Professor Whiteley said. “It really does have a profound effect.”

The Independent put some effort into this story — front page coverage, man in the street interviews, trumpeting the story as an exclusive and advance look. Overall, they do a pretty good job — well written, thoughtful interviews and comments, strong insight into the consequences of the findings.

But … no mention of religion or faith in this story. It may well have been the Essex study did not include religion as one of the strands of civic virtue, but even so that would have been worth a mention. The reader is confronted with the assumption that religion is irrelevant to morality.

I would contrast this story with the prime minister’s recent speech on virtue.  Remember when Tony Blair’s press secretary famously said “We don’t do God”, even though Mr Blair was known to be a believer. Nine years later the current prime minister, David Cameron — whose public utterances about his personal faith have been less rigorous than Mr. Blair — did not find himself similarly constrained.

At celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible, Mr Cameron affirmed the centrality of the Christian faith in forming a tolerant civic society. Tolerance was not a product of secularism, he argued.

Moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore. … Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles.”

These social observations flow naturally from a speech marking the KJV, the prime minister said, because:

The Bible is a book that has not just shaped our country, but shaped the world. And with three Bibles sold or given away every second… a book that is not just important in understanding our past, but which will continue to have a profound impact in shaping our collective future.”

The Bible permeates “every aspect” British culture, language, literature, music, art, politics, rights, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy and welfare provisions, Mr. Cameron said, adding that:

We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.

While he was not addressing the crisis of public and private morality in Britain, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 21 January 2012, Charles Murphy described a similar disease afflicting America. In his article “The New American Divide”

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

For Murray, religion is a component of the common civic culture and its decline a mark of the collapse of civic virtue.

Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that [working class] Fishtown has become much more secular than [bourgeois] Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

The bottom line … the Independent article presents a classic example of a religion ghost in a secular news story. The topic under review — public and private morality — is inherently connected with religion, yet no word about religion appears in the story.

Should the Independent have noted the absence of religion in the public morality report? Is religious belief intrinsic to morality? Can the two be separated? Given Prime Minister David Cameron’s widely publicized December speech about Christian Britain — how could the Independent not touch upon religion in its report on collapsing public and private morals.

Or, have we reach the point where Britain become a Seinfeld nation? Where it is no longer news that the majority can now affirm with George Costanza. “Jerry … It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

A few words (of faith) about Joe Paterno

One of the most poignant and complex stories in America the last few days has been the prolonged outpouring of grief at Penn State University for the legendary and, in some people’s minds fallen, football coach Joseph Paterno. The final memorial service drew 12,000 people and, naturally, it included remarks that touched on the Catholic faith of the deceased.

What I can’t figure out is how much religious material made it into this event, which was part funeral and part campus rally.

There is no question, however, which quote from the service was given the most ink in the national press, appearing in headlines and in pull-quote graphics on many websites that ran the Associated Press version of the main story from The Morning Call newspaper in the Lehigh Valley.

The quote is found right up top, where it belongs:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Jay Paterno quoted Sophocles and Tennessee Williams, recounted his father’s last moments and led more than 12,000 people in prayer. He also lingered strongly on one point, which Nike Chairman Phil Knight had thundered about an hour earlier.

“Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience,” he said.

I am sure that some people in other parts of the nation read that quotation and thought: How could Joe Paterno have died with a clear conscience, since it was clear that he and many other leaders on that campus could have and should have done more to shut down the alleged sexual encounters between former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky and the young boys he often brought onto the campus?

Well, when dealing with a Catholic believer, it is one thing to say that he died with no regrets. No one said that. What they said is that the elderly Paterno died with a “clear conscience.”

In other words, one can assume that he said a final confession and received last rites. The contents of that confession, any regrets or mistakes that were discussed, are between the dying man, his priest and God. It’s hard to put that in a news story. I know that. However, could journalists have done a bit more to set the context of that statement? Frankly, I do not know.

The Washington Post story about the memorial service at least included a reference to the priest who took part in this rite of passage for the family and the community. I almost didn’t notice it my first time through the report:

On Thursday at Penn State’s basketball arena, Sue Paterno drew a standing ovation just with the simple act of walking to her front-row seat in front of the stage. Five Paterno children and 17 grandchildren soon followed.

“Lord,” prayed Father Matthew Laffey of the school’s Catholic Campus Ministry, “thank you for this man, and the blessing to have lived when this giant walked the earth.”

This made me wonder: Was this Paterno’s priest?

This leads to more questions. How often did the coach attend Mass on campus? Previous stories have stressed that he lived a walking-distance from the campus and kept a very consistent and disciplined schedule. I have always wondered if Paterno was a daily Mass Catholic. I do wish that someone had asked about that. It’s a fact that would have intrigued the coach’s critics, just as much as his supporters.

Let me make one final point, in the form of a question for GetReligion readers.

Most stories about the service included some version of this anecdote:

At the hospital Sunday morning, just before Joe Paterno died at age 85 after a short bout with lung cancer, Jay Paterno told his father that he had fulfilled his mandate to make an impact larger than his own footsteps.

“In my last words to my father,” Jay Paterno said, “I kissed him and whispered into his ear so only he could hear: ‘Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. You’ve won. You can go home now.’”

That’s an incredible quote. However, the Associated Press report ended with another anecdote that, in its own way, I found just as powerful — especially for anyone who appreciated the coach’s love of literature and fine language. In the full report, the story ends this way:

The family celebrated Paterno’s 85th birthday in December, when he received a book of letters from former players, and “stressed how blessed he had been in his life.”

Jay Paterno also noted that his father ended every game by leading the team in The Lord’s Prayer in the locker room. After leading the audience in prayer, Jay Paterno remembered once asking his father why he did that.

“He said, ‘It’s the words, Jay. The words.”‘

Here’s my simple, journalistic question to our readers. If you read this AP story in your local newspaper, did it include this final passage? My observation is that many copy desks seem to have cut it off.

Space in newspapers is scarce, these days. But that’s a wonderful end to a story about this particular man.

Atheist student a NYT hero

Court cases often provide story ideas for profiles of individuals and motivations behind church/state battles, but profiling one side can risk making everyone else look like the monster out to get the hero. For instance, it’s hard not to feel bad for Jessica Ahlquist, an outspoken atheist who successfully sued to get a prayer removed from her high school auditorium after reading the New York Times profile. After all, a state representative called her “an evil little thing,” according to the story.

Here’s how Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta promotes the piece.

The New York Times‘ Abby Goodnough has a summary of Jessica Ahlquist‘s lawsuit in Friday’s paper and Jessica comes out of it looking exactly like the hero she is. (Her opponents, not so much.)

Atheists don’t always get positive coverage in the media, so it’s an encouraging sign, especially after everything Jessica’s been going through:

The thing is, shouldn’t coverage be fair to both sides, at least in theory? It shouldn’t be a win for the atheist community if it’s a poorly written story, right? In making Ahlquist into a hero, the story pits her against the not-so-thoughtful opposition:

Brittany Lanni, who graduated from Cranston West in 2009, said that no one had ever been forced to recite the prayer and called Jessica “an idiot.”

“If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

There an image of the prayer, but why doesn’t the story quote the full text of the prayer, since it’s the subject of debate?

“Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer begins, “grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.” It goes on for a few more lines before concluding with “Amen.”

“It goes on for a few more lines…” (Blah blah blah) What a weird way to skip over the whole point of the story.

Speaking of photos, the images of Ahlquist all look defiant, strong, hero-like, when the photo of the principal makes him look concerned, doubtful, or something, though it’s unclear if he has taken a personal stance on the issue.

Remember the time when I said that apparently all it takes to get the Times‘ attention is building a Facebook fan page? Here we go again:

She also started a Facebook page calling for the prayer’s removal (it now has almost 4,000 members) and began researching Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom.

Why not add a little bit more background on Williams, a theologian who started the first Baptist church in America? And an additional section of the article made me pause.

New England is not the sort of place where battles over the division of church and state tend to crop up. It is the least religious region of the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But Rhode Island is an exception: it is the nation’s most Catholic state, and dust-ups over religion are not infrequent. Just last month, several hundred people protested at the Statehouse after Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, lighted what he called a “holiday tree.”

Sure, New England is no Bible Belt, but I might assume that would make church/state cases even more likely. Using data from Pew about the religiosity of the region doesn’t necessarily help measure church/state battles are higher or lower than other parts of the country. At the very least, Massachusetts and Connecticut have recently dealt with a number of cases.

Superhero image via Shutterstock.


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