What motivated the Pentagon shooter?

Back in June, a local man was arrested in a string of shootings at military targets. He was born in Ethiopia and was named Yonathan Melaku. There were also reports that he’d had al Qaeda materials and had shouted “Allah Akbar” (it was actually “Allahu Akbar”).

Naturally, I had questions.

There were details that indicated Melaku was disturbed. His name struck me as decidedly Christian, not Muslim (which commenters confirmed). But the other details sounded like signals that the acts might have a basis in Islamic terrorism.

So I wondered why the media weren’t more curious. There are tons of D.C. media outlets and yet nobody seemed to answer what struck me as basic questions.

Yesterday, Melaku pled guilty. The local and national news covered it. Here’s the local NBC outlet:

An ex-Marine from Virginia, accused of firing shots at the Pentagon, the Marine Corps museum in Quantico and other military-related targets, pleaded guilty in court Thursday.

But other than a mention that Melaku’s family requested a psychological evaluation be done on him, we didn’t get any answers.

Here’s what ABC added:

Yonathan Melaku, then 22, was arrested on June 17, 2011 after he was seen in Arlington National Cemetery at night with a backpack. The backpack allegedly contained a package labeled ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer than can be used in explosives, spent firearm ammunition and a notebook referencing the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

After his arrest, FBI agents searched his Virginia home and found a list of bombmaking components as well as a video of Melaku shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he fired his gun at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in October 2010. The shots did $90,000 worth of damage to the museum windows.

That’s almost exactly what we heard at the time of the shooting. The ABC report doesn’t mention anything about mental illness.

Finally, let’s look at the Washington Post. Tons of interesting information:

Federal prosecutors revealed Thursday that Melaku, a 23-year-old former Marine Corps Reservist, was on a mission to desecrate the graves of veterans who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said he was poised to spray paint Arabic statements on the markers and leave the explosive materials nearby, part of a solitary campaign of “fear and terror” that included the earlier shootings. …

Though Melaku acknowledged shooting at the buildings — attacks that did not injure anyone but caused an estimated $111,000 in damage, mostly to windows at the Marine Corps museum — it still remains unclear why he did it. In a video entered into evidence and released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, Melaku says that he wants to target the museum and “turn it off permanently.”

FBI officials and prosecutors said Melaku was on a personal terror mission, but they could not say what started Melaku down that path. They said it does not appear his service in the Marine reserves provides any clear sign of trouble, but they said he researched jihadism on the Internet, had references to terrorism in a notebook and on his computer, and yelled “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly during a video of a shooting. …

Authorities later found instructions for making improvised explosive devices in Melaku’s home in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, and they found a notebook with references to Osama bin Laden and “The Path to Jihad.”

It’s somewhat odd to see the line “it still remains unclear why he did it” combined with information about “references” to bin Laden and the like. But I’m curious why — with charges filed and guilty pleas announced — we still don’t know more about these “references.” Counter-terrorism officials probably have notebooks in their house with “references” to such things. That doesn’t really tell us what we need to know. Haven’t the intervening seven months given us an opportunity to find out more?

And one other thing. I noticed this comment posted in the reader section below the story:

This is Josh White, the reporter who wrote this story. Thank you all for reading and commenting. As the issue of religion has been raised here numerous times, I wanted to provide some additional information I was able to find this afternoon:

Melaku’s defense attorney told me today that Melaku’s family is of the Coptic Christian faith and that they were stunned to learn of the crimes and any connection between their son and Islam or jihad, as there were no overt signs to them that he had any involvement with it whatsoever. It is unclear to everyone I have interviewed — prosecutors, police, Melaku’s attorney — why exactly he was shooting at the buildings or wanted to deface the gravestones or what led him to that point. It is possible that only he knows that. We will continue to post and publish new information as we get it.

It really is “unclear” what was going on. I think that the information contained in this comment is important and actually should be included in stories about Melaku. It is understandable that even after reporting the heck out of a story, you may not be able to find out key information. But I think it’s good to tell readers exactly why you are writing that motivations aren’t clear.

I had already been wondering — based on his very Christian name — whether this was a standard case of Islamic terrorism. But I noticed many people thought that the Washington Post was trying to hide his Islamic terrorism. There are good reasons that readers are skeptical about how religious terrorism is covered. In this case, the reporter had very good reason for writing about the lack of clarity with regard to motivation.

Smyert Shpionam — Death to Spies

This will set the mood.

“Balkan, Balkan,” they said in France of a pimp slapping a whore or three kids beating up a fourth — anything barbarous or brutal.

– Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows (2000)

Eleven of 15 bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church currently in office were spies for the former communist regime’s Committee for State Security — the Darzhavna sigurnost or the DS — according to an inquiry carried out by the government’s Committee on Disclosure of Documents.

If you had not heard this news, I would not be surprised. While this has dominated the news in Bulgaria and in the former Soviet bloc, only the Agence France Press (AFP) among the Western wire services picked up the story. And as far as I have been able to tell via the magic of Google, only two Australian news organizations subsequently published the story — nothing so far in the U.S. or U.K.

Well what of it? Am I writing this post to capture the Bulgarian Orthodox demographic audience for GetReligion?

While the setting is Bulgaria and the characters are Orthodox clergy and secret policemen, the issues are of collaboration with evil and the battle for truth. Change the characters and the same story could be told of Vichy France, the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche and the Confessing Church in Germany, or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the House Church movement in China.

While the canard that Pius XII was a pro-Nazi stooge continues to excite journalists — a real story of church leaders collaborating with evil is being ignored. In French there is an expression très balkan: meaning hopelessly confused with the connotation of labyrinthine or byzantine machinations. It would be easy to dismiss this story as being a très balkan intrigue more worthy of an Eric Ambler novel than hard news. However this story raises profound questions of morality and journalistic integrity.

Follow me through the Balkan labyrinth and see if we emerge in the same place.

As you might expect the Bulgarian press has been all over this story.  The English-language Sofia Echo has half a dozen stories: the initial report, what the bishops did for the secret police, popular reaction, calls for the bishops to resign, actions to be taken by the church’s synod — as well as the surprising revelation that the 97 year old Patriarch of the church, Maxim, was not a spy.

Before the report was released the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper Dneven Trud called for the bishops to seek forgiveness.

The clergy have had 20 years to prepare the faithful for this moment, to do penance and explain how they served the police as well as God: ‘To save the Church and protect you from persecution we had dealings with the secret police”, or something along those lines. But only Joseph, Metropolitan of the New York Bulgarian Orthodox Church, has shown contrition for his connections to the secret police. All the others claimed to be clean and free of blame. In view of the anticipated revelations the Church must prepare itself for a retaliation from society.

After the report was  released the daily Standart — which is Russian owned and follows a pro-Russian line — called for repentance from the bishops but forgiveness from the people.

The bishops did everything possible to prevent the files in question from coming to light. … But as the Bible says: “Nothing is concealed that won’t be revealed and nothing is hidden that won’t come to light.”  … What the bishops will do now depends on them and is a matter of conscience since the law does not foresee lustration. But now is not the time for excuses but for repentance. For God loves the sinner who repents more than the just. In this respect the disclosure of the secret service files could prove to be salutary for the Church.

The Echo noted that those debating the church’s relation to the Communist regime could not stand in isolation from the current political scene.

… the secular political element has become most obvious with the grouping of a number of left-wing intellectuals who have publicly hit out against what they described as a politically-motivated attack on the church and on ancient Bulgarian traditions (the group accuses some media of connivance in this attack). These intellectuals, in turn, have come under fire among centre-right commentators in the media as well as from other academics and theologians as including several who were State Security collaborators and avowed supporters of the communist atheist system.

A week after the story broke in Sofia, The Australian on 23 January 2012 published the AFP story under the headline “Bulgarian bishops were communist spies.” The following day the Australian newspaper chain News Limited published a story on its website entitled “Communist past catches up with bishops”.

The AFP stories run in Australia give the basic details of the case, but no background or context. They also offer the voices of commentators critical of the church — when as the Echo reported a lively debate is being waged between defenders and critics of the church. It is hard to fault a wire service story for brevity — the AFP has no control over the title or the length of the story its subscribers use — but a casual reader would take away very little from these reports.

And in America we hear? Nothing.

The tone and feel of the story also would do little to challenge Western prejudices that this is a très balkan affair taking place in the back of the beyond. Yet the Bulgarians are attempting to address their past in a way no other former Soviet state has done.

Russia has yet to examine the Stalinist era. The Moscow Patriarchate — the official name for the Russian Orthodox Church — was set up on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1943 as a front organization for the NKVD and all of its senior positions were vetted by the Ideological Department of the Communist Party, according to reports published in the U.K. following the defection of KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin  in 1991.

In two books written with intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, The KGB in Europe and the West and The KGB in the World, Mitokhin claimed that Russian Orthodox priests were used as agents of influence on behalf of the KGB in organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the World Peace Council.  Patriarch Alexius II was also named as a KGB agent with the codename DROZDOV, whose services earned him a citation from the regime.

The Bulgarian stories — writing it is true with the luxury of space in the paper to report and the immediacy of the issues — have also spoken to the issues of repentence. How should society judge those who collaborated with evil or who were agents of evil?

Is this an Orthodox thing? A Bulgarian thing? Or a human response?

Imagine if the New York Times devoted articles on the Roman Catholic pedophile scandal to how or why abusers should be forgiven?

Over the holidays I happened to read a new book about Gertrude Stein (yes we GetReligion writers lead exciting lives).  Written by Barbara Will the book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) examined the novelist’s war years.

As one reviewer put it — the question facing biographers was:

How had Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—foreigners, lesbians, and Jews—somehow managed to survive World War II in a rural enclave in southeastern France?

The answer Will and other researchers found was that the celebrated feminist author was a collaborator, who translated Marshall Petain’s speeches into English and penned a number of articles supporting his regime — even after it was apparent what collaboration with the Nazis meant.

What is the journalist’s task in all of this? Is it too much to expect a discourse of the ethical and moral ghosts that lay behind a story on collaboration with evil — or is it enough to just report the events. Or, is the behavior being disclosed not evil? Reams of newsprint have been devoted to the pedophile scandals — and rightly so — but little to no work has been done on the fellow travelers and useful idiots that provided moral sanction to an evil regime.

I would have hoped that one of the major newspapers or serious magazine would have picked up this story. Perhaps the Balkans are too far away and the Cold War a fading memory — but I believe that the truth and journalism have not been faithfully served so far.

Bishops photo courtesy of office of the Bulgarian president.

But I read it in The New York Times!

I know, I know. It’s an opinion piece.

Nevertheless, I am very, very afraid that, at some point in the future, I am going to see people quoting the following and then adding the crucial kicker — “according to an article in The New York Times.”

Here we go.

If you are holding a cup of coffee, please set it aside, far from your keyboard. The headline on this essay by David S. Reynolds is blunt: “Why Evangelicals Don’t Like Mormons.”

Uh. Actually, I have known some evangelicals who rather like Mormons, consider them close friends and even colleagues, while remaining aware that — in terms of doctrine — their faiths cannot be reconciled. Believe it or not, the National Association of Evangelicals board met in Salt Lake City last spring. That’s in Utah. Years of formal and informal dialogue continued. Bread was broken. These things happen.

But moving on. Back to the lede in this Gray Lady essay:

According to a CNN exit poll of South Carolina Republican primary voters, Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married Catholic, won twice as much support from evangelical Protestants as Mitt Romney, a Protestant. And among voters for whom religion meant “a great deal,” 46 percent voted for Mr. Gingrich and only 10 percent for Mr. Romney.

That sound you just heard was the explosion of thousands of minds in church-history departments from sea to shining sea.

Let’s back up for a moment.

In my reporting days in Colorado, covering most of the 1980s, I spent many hours meeting with press representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talking about the kinds of language issues that keep coming up here at GetReligion. One of the crucial topics was whether a believer needed to be “Trinitarian” in order to be called “Christian.” There is, for example, the matter of Oneness Pentecostals, whose rejection of the Trinity does not seem to cause them to lose their “Christian” label in public media.

In all of my meetings, I never heard a Mormon leader simply state that they considered themselves another branch of, well, Protestantism. I never heard that word claimed. In light of the harsh realities of daily journalism, when a few words have to go a long way, they often suggested that “Mormon Christians” could be accurately contrasted with “Trinitarian Christians.” And so forth and so on.

Please note that I am not trying to settle this hot-button issue in public and journalistic language, primarily because I am not sure that it can be settled that easily.

My point is that it is ridiculous — even in an editorial column — to simply state that Mitt Romney is a Protestant. I think that this publication’s elite readers are supposed to assume that Romney is a Protestant because he is not a Catholic. Then again, many mainstream journalists seem convinced that Catholic Rick Santorum is a evangelical Protestant.

This use of the term “Protestant” is central to this Times piece. It is also, as usual, assumed that doctrinal conflicts linked to Mormon beliefs are caused by some uniquely evangelical bias — as opposed to the Vatican’s stand on this issue, or the concerns of all but a few liberal Protestants.

Evangelicals, you see, are the problem.

This is the second evangelical-heavy state Mr. Romney has lost. With a third, Florida, next on the list, it’s important to consider the often antagonistic skepticism that many evangelicals have of Mr. Romney’s brand of Protestantism: Mormonism.

For many evangelicals, that faith — a “false religion,” as the Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress called it — raises serious doubts about Mr. Romney’s suitability for office. But such concerns ultimately say more about the insecurities of the establishment denominations than about Mormonism itself.

Many evangelicals assert that Mormonism denies the divinity of Christ and is therefore not a branch of Christianity. But the Mormon belief is that Jesus was the first-born child of God and a woman, and that humans can aspire to share his spiritual essence in the afterlife.

So, so much to say. So many crucial doctrinal points ignored. The essay goes on to note the fact that marketplace of American religion has produced more than its share of alternative religions, in addition to Mormonism. Any short list would include the Christian Scientists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The assumption of the Times copy desk, once again, is that all of them can fit neatly under this “Protestant” umbrella.

Says who? Well, says this writer in The New York Times.

Once again, this is not a news piece. I know that. I know that we are not supposed to hold editorial columns to the same journalistic standards as pieces in the news pages. Wait, does that include matters of fact and definitions?

Do readers understand these kinds of editorial differences? What happens when the “Mitt Romney, a Protestant” reference — which at the very least deserves debate, no matter where it appears — is quoted elsewhere? And what about the other sins of commission and omission included in this piece?

Yes, this is not news. But in this day and age, the wall between editorial comment and news seems to be falling. What happens when editorial writers make fact statements of this kind? Who is responsible for accuracy in this case?

Romney’s tithing: A closer look

Most of the reporting on the release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns has focused on the taxes paid by the Republican presidential frontrunner — and rightly so.

Still, a number of leading news organizations – including The Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Los Angeles Times — have touched on Romney’s tithing. Feel free to check out the preceding links and weigh in with any critiques or questions on the coverage.

I want to focus, however, on a local newspaper report that I came across. It’s a front-page story from the Sacramento Bee:

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.

LDS church members must tithe to participate in temple rituals. Nearly 80 percent of Mormons tithe, a poll released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows.

While tithing among Mormons is high, it is at an all-time low – less than 3 percent – among many faith groups, according to an October report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research organization. The theology behind tithing is also being questioned, with many saying the mandate to contribute 10 percent is not biblical.

I’m a big fan of this kind of approach: An enterprising journalist takes a major national news item and uses it as a peg to explore the larger picture — in this case, tithing trends among America’s faith groups.

My overall reaction after reading the entire story was positive. In a relatively tight space (850 words), the writer included a variety of sources and statistics and even cited Scripture. The piece seemed to be written in an evenhanded manner, which GetReligion readers know is not always the case.

Still, after I printed out the story, I found a handful of questions or concerns to raise. If I had been the editor, my markup on the reporter’s draft would have included these notes:

1. Nice job on a timely subject. The lede is catchy. I’m confident we can sell this for 1-A.

2. 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?

3. Concerning this graf:

“The New Testament says a Christian is saved under grace and it does not teach tithing,” said Russell Kelly who argues against it on his website, www.shouldthechurchteachtithing. com. “A lot of people would rather stay home than go to church and hear about it. All it does is make them feel as if they’re cursed for not giving 10 percent.”

Who is Kelly? Is he a preacher? A lay member? What’s his denominational background? Where’s he located? What kind of following does he have? His quotes are terrific, but I think we need a better explanation of why we have appointed him as an expert on this subject.

4. Concerning this graf:

Evangelist Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” for example, reportedly keeps 10 percent of his earnings and gives away 90 percent.

Is there a reason you call Warren an “evangelist” and not a “megachurch pastor” or something specific like that? There’s a professor named Terry Mattingly with a renowned religion news critique website. He might blow a gasket if we call Warren an “evangelist.”

Also, what do you mean by “reportedly”? Who reported it? What’s the source? We’ll leave the “reportedly” crutch to our TV news friends.

5. Concerning this graf:

Tithing and collecting money is a sensitive issue in many churches. Many churches no longer pass collection plates during worship services. Instead they have boxes or baskets sitting at the back of the church. At the end of the service, they ask believers to give what they can.

Is there a source on this? How do you know this? If there are “many” churches doing this, can you call one in the area and get a quote about it? A specific example might work better than a broad claim with no statistical evidence.

6. A broad question: All the sources besides the Mormons seem on the surface to be evangelical Christians? My understanding is that giving is even less at Catholic Churches. Can you check your stats and call a local parish and add a Catholic perspective?

7. Another broad question: You mention that 58 percent of evangelical pastors do not believe the Christian Bible (Christian Bible?) requires tithing. Is there a reason we don’t reflect any of the 42 percent who apparently do believe it’s required?

Again, nice job. As always, don’t be overwhelmed by my red marks. Most of my questions are pretty easy to address. I know space is tight, and you’re already at 850 words. How about you see what you can find out and check back with me ASAP?

What’s missing from CBS’ March for Life slides?

The online producers at CBS posted a photo slideshow the other day that appeared under the following rather literal headline:

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

So, just thinking out loud, what percentage of the pictures in this gallery would you expect to be of, well, the thousands and thousands of activists who traveled to Washington, D.C., in order to take part in the annual March For Life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade?

If you guessed anything other than zero, you would be wrong.

There are literally no pictures of any pro-lifers in this feature.

Instead, the entire slideshow consists of images such as the one embedded below. Really, go click through it, if you don’t believe me. (UPDATE: Around 7:00 PM on January 26, photos of pro-lifers were added to the gallery.)

Now, it is true that each year at the March For Life, you can count on seeing a handful of pro-abortion-rights protesters. Usually around a half dozen to two dozen.

The March for Life, on the other hand, features many more. How many more? Well, I imagine that the estimate put out by organizers of half a million is an overstatement, but you get the idea. Perhaps you can take a gander at this picture of this year’s (frigid, rain-soaked) march here that CBS was unable to get. One Mass — alone — at the National Shrine had an official attendance of 17,851. So basically about the same number on both sides, right?

No joke. Pro-lifers might recall the 2010 incident when CNN surmised that there might be more pro-choice activists at the annual March for Life than opponents of abortion. I’m not exaggerating. CNN’s Rick Sanchez stated that “there are both sides being represented” and then asked his producer, “Which side is represented the most Angie, do we know?” He didn’t get an answer and, thus, he went on to promise that CNN would “keep an eye” on the situation and report on the matter “fairly and squarely.”

When I noted in a recent post that the New York Times, which is normally accused of over-reporting on other protests, had failed to cover the march (again) and that the Washington Post was using weird language to describe Catholic doctrine on life issues, a commenter wrote:

It’s the third week of January so it must be time for the annual GR bashing of the MSM “coverage” of the annual “March for Life”.

Yep! You got it. It must be about that time. It’s really amazing, isn’t it, that we don’t fall all ourselves with praise for a media culture that ignores this large event.

Now, thankfully you can get the news from other sources, thanks to the wonders of social media. But should you have to? Of course not.

So what gives? Why do the media fail at this so consistently, year after year after year? What is it? Pro-life writer Elizabeth Scalia has some thoughts:

Unfortunately, the “big picture” is hard to come by, particularly if you’re looking for “big pictures” of this well-attended march. We have reached a remarkable era of photojournalism, as demonstrated by the once-noble Washington Post — one where a half million people can march, the headlines can call it “thousands” and the pictures show you none of it.

Someone asked me on Twitter, “why don’t they just report the truth” and I thought, “because they have given themselves wholly over to a lie, and they fear the truth. Having built up the lie for so long that it’s become their foundation, they know they cannot withstand an assault by the truth.”

So they have become truth-phobics, our mainstream media. They can’t tell you the truth about anything, anymore — they can only do whatever it takes to sustain the narratives they’ve constructed. …

You want the truth? You think you deserve it? The press can’t handle the truth; they can’t bring it to you. The New York Times just ignores inconvenient truth, entirely.

That’s why 250 people camping out in a park gets thousands of stories, while half-a-million marching on Washington does not get reported at all, or if it does, the pictures are cropped; the attendees are caricatured, mis-named and under-represented while their opponents are over-represented.

Scalia is writing from a particular point of view, obviously. But what do you think? Why do we see such problems year after year? What’s going on? What can be done to help reporters do a better job? In the case of CBS, for instance, maybe a pro-life marcher could have simply tapped the photographer on the shoulder and told him to look behind himself at the large crowds marching by the Supreme Court for hours on Monday afternoon? Something like that? What else?

Image of actual activists in annual March For Life via Telecare. And h/t to Vestal Morons.

Airline: No prayer card for you

A story from the Northwest today reminded me of the show Mad Men, where you might imagine executives from the show’s advertising agency coming up with the perfect perk for airline passengers in the 1960s. You could almost see Don Draper talking about why offering prayer cards for passengers offers a sense of nostalgia, tapping into a deeper bond with a product.

Anyway, here’s the 2012 story from the Associated Press:

Alaska Airlines is ending decades of giving passengers prayer cards with their meals, saying Wednesday the decision was made out of respect for all passengers.

Airline spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the airline heard from customers who preferred not to mix religion with transportation. The decision reflects respect for the diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of Alaska Airlines’ customers and employees, the company said in announcing the change.

My immediate reaction was “What? A company would still do this?” Reuters notes how many of the Facebook commentators appear to be upset, though you might expect the people who are upset over change would take the time to comment. I’m somewhat curious if leaders in the airline had religious ties 30 years ago, but it looks like it was simply a marketing technique. The Seattle Times offers this little history detail:

Many people assumed the idea came from former CEO Bruce Kennedy, who did missionary work after leaving Alaska Airlines, but it was actually a marketing executive who brought the idea over from Continental Airlines.

The piece leads with a somewhat humorous story of how an annoyed businessman would recite the prayers out loud–until after 9/11, that is. I also thought these added details were helpful.

Only first-class passengers have received the cards since 2006, when Alaska stopped providing meals on trays to customers in coach.

Even now, the cards appear only on flights longer than four hours, when they can be presented on a meal tray as they always have been, said spokeswoman Bobbie Egan.

The decision was made by top Alaska officials last fall and is not related to a frequent-flier partnership announced last week with the Dubai-based airline Emirates, she said.

Interesting timing, nonetheless. Businesses that feature religious text include Forever 21 and In-N-Out Burgers that print John 3:16 on their bags and cups (you thought Tim Tebow started it?). Still, I’m guessing fewer business offer such explicit religious messages anymore.

Jay Leno Infuriates Sikhs. Why?

If I watch late-night television, I watch Craig Ferguson. Not Jay Leno. Apparently Jay Leno angered some people in the Sikh community the other night. Here’s how Politico explains it:

Late-night comedian Jay Leno has landed in hot water with the Sikh community for showing a picture of the sacred Darbar Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, on his show last week and jokingly referring to it as Mitt Romney’s summer home.

During the segment, “The Tonight Show” host shared with the audience a “behind-the-scenes look at all the presidential candidates’ homes,” calling the pictures “quite revealing” of the 2012 hopefuls.

After unveiling pictures of Newt Gingrich’s estate in Virginia and Ron Paul’s ranch house in Texas, the comedian purported to show a photograph of Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee but flashed an image of the famous golden shrine located in Punjab, India, instead.

Thousands from the Sihk community have already signed an online petition called, “NBC — The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Stop defaming Sikhs and using derogatory remarks against the Sikh shrines.”

OK, so what’s missing from this report? Well, speaking as someone who is neither Sikh nor familiar with what constitutes derogatory remarks against Darbar Sahib, I’m completely lost. What, exactly, angered these thousands of Sikhs? It seems like such a basic fact to include, no?

The Politico article goes on to quote the petition creator as saying that Leno has previously made racist comments but the article simply cites the claims, rather than putting them in context or verifying them in any way. For instance, many media outlets are repeating this claim that in 2007, Jay Leno called Sikhs “diaper heads.” I did a very simple Google search from January 1, 2007, to January 1, 2008, and didn’t find the basis for the claim. It’s a scurrilous charge, but is it true?

Anyway, I’m sure it’s not that difficult to explain why Leno’s joke was offensive to some Sikhs. Even if it is, it’s vitally important information for readers. Particularly since it’s become an international incident, according to this Reuters report:

American host Jay Leno has sparked anger among Sikhs with a joke about their holiest shrine and the Indian government is making its displeasure known.

In his ‘Tonight Show’ last week, the comedian poked fun at the wealth of U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, suggesting that Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was his vacation home.

A complaint against Leno will be officially filed by India’s ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao, after 2,000 people signed an online petition.

“The Right to Speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution excludes defamation and spreading hate, incitement and false advertising,” the petition urged.

Reuters rather humorously quoted a State Department official explaining how both satire and the First Amendment work.

But the Reuters article also fails to explain the religious objection raised by some Sikhs.

Image of Sikh at prayer in pond of Golden Temple via Shutterstock.

Who’s calling who an Anglican “sect”?

If you’ve been reading GetReligion for very long, you probably know that “cult” is the kind of word that is almost impossible to use in public media without causing riots. Are we talking about a dangerous sociological cult? A doctrinal cult? If so, which religious group’s doctrines are providing the frame of reference in this case?

Another word that causes trouble from time to time is “sect.” This is not a fightin’ word, per se. But it is horribly vague.

Consider the shades of meaning in the three definitions offered in one online dictionary:

sect (skt) n.

1. A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.

2. A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.

3. A faction united by common interests or beliefs.

That third one is so vague that it’s useless and the second one isn’t much better.

The important thing to note, once again, is that the main definition contains an important theme — that the “sect” has left a larger body because it has made innovations or “refinements” in doctrine, belief and practice. That’s why the “sect” has chosen to leave the larger denomination or movement or, on occasion, has been forced to leave.

What kind of “refinement”? How central were the doctrines in question to the historic, mainstream form of this particular faith?

In the context of Christian history, making changes in a doctrine as central as the Holy Trinity gets you the “cult” label. Arguments about which gifts of the Holy Spirit are or are not active in the modern world may earn a breakaway body the “sect” label, in some cases.

Truth is, “sect” is a vague, yet a word with moderately nasty doctrinal implications. It’s best for journalists to avoid this term.

Which brings us to a recent story out of Cleveland, in which editors at the Plain Dealer put the following language into print. Here is the top of the story:

BAY VILLAGE, Ohio – A nationwide rift among Episcopalians has fractured St. Barnabas church, where the bulk of the congregation has broken away from the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio and is worshipping in an auditorium at Bay High School.

In recent years, a number of Episcopal congregations across the country have been at odds with church hierarchy over Christian teachings. Essentially, breakaway groups see the church drifting from orthodox Christianity to a more liberal creed, including allowing openly gay, partnered clerics to serve as bishops.

“When they talk about Jesus, it’s not the same Jesus I talk about,” said the Rev. Gene Sherman, pastor of the 250-member breakaway congregation from St. Barnabas. “They say Jesus is a way to salvation. I say Jesus is the way to salvation.”

As you can see, the conservatives think that the liberal Episcopal establishment has made major innovations when it comes to doctrines linked to salvation and sexual morality. The conservative priest, however, used pretty neutral language.

Later in the story, however, the newspaper itself gets theological — whether it meant to or not.

The breakaway groups joined the Anglican Church of North America, a dissident sect not officially affiliated with what is called the Anglican Communion, a worldwide denomination headed by the Church of England. The Episcopalians, however, are a part of the Anglican Communion, though its spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams of England, sometimes raises an eyebrow over the actions of his American flock.

Several comments must be made. First of all, I am sure that the leadership of The Episcopal Church would be rather miffed to learn that they are, in any legal way, the “American flock” of Rowan Williams. That implies some kind of formal control, which is certainly lacking in Anglicanism. Second, it’s true that the Anglican Church of North America is not “officially affiliated with what is called the Anglican Communion.” (By the way, that is the “what is called” language all about?) However, the American conservatives are in Communion — with a large “C” — with many of the largest branches of the global Anglican Communion. The biggest complication is, of course, the status of Communion with the Church of England, itself.

Third, what are we to make of the “dissident sect” reference? Under the vague definitions of the term, this language is accurate. However, this story is clearly about a set of doctrinal conflicts. Thus, one needs to ask: What were the doctrines of the global Anglican Communion that this conservative body twisted or redefined in order to earn the “sect” label?

I am sure that many on the doctrinal right would say that the Anglican Church of North America is a splinter from The Episcopal Church, but that The Episcopal Church is a “sect” in comparison to the faith and practice found in the larger, growing bodies within the Anglican Communion. The doctrinal left would disagree.

So how to handle this situation in print? Don’t use this label when talking about the right or the left. It causes way more trouble than it’s worth. “Sect” has become a word that contains very little useful content.

IMAGE: Back by popular demand.