Seeing the ghost in Lenin’s shrine

Confession No. 1: There are times when I am reading a story in a major newspaper and, after two or three paragraphs, I am seized with this premonition that the story is going to be “haunted,” that there is a religious “ghost” linked to this topic and that journalists are not going to see it.

Confession No. 2: This is especially true when I am reading a news source that, in the past, has proven to be particularly tone deaf when it comes to hearing the religious notes in big stories (to paraphrase, once again, Bill Moyers). There are journalists out there that just don’t get it. Take, for example, the Style section of The Washington Post, journalistic territory in which the role of faith in public life is often ignored or, worse, mocked. In other words, it is easy to prejudge things when you are dealing with frequent offenders.

Confession No. 3: Sometimes I am wrong.

To tell you the truth, I am almost always very happy to be proven wrong — especially when the story in about a subject that is of special interest to me. It’s nice to be reading a story thinking, “They’re not gonna get it,” “They’re not going to see the obvious” and then, well, you hit a passage that addresses the very issue that you expected to be ignored.

Take, for example, that feature story the other day on the Style section of Post that ran under this grabber headline: “Stiff challenge: How Kim Jong Il and other leaders join the ranks of the preserved.” Here’s the top of the story:

Last week, North Korean officials announced that the body of recently deceased leader Kim Jong Il would be permanently enshrined at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the capital of Pyongyang. This act will give new meaning to the term “eternal leader.”

There is, however, historical precedent for this — an exclusive club of former dictators and world leaders whose bodies go on even as their lives don’t. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh has been on display for more than 30 years, as has Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader of China, whose embalmers reportedly learned their preservation techniques from the Vietnamese, who had learned them from the Russians.

Yes, the Russians — which means the spiffy, shining body of the secular Soviet saint named Vladi­mir Lenin­, who has been lying in state since his death in 1924. This is the hero on display who set the standard in the modern era, the model for other Communist leaders to come. It’s hard to ignore Lenin.

“I’ve seen Lenin,” says Mary Roach, author of the modern death encyclopedia “Stiff.” “You have about 30 seconds to pretend to be paying your respects, when really you’re thinking, ‘How did they do that?’ You cannot embalm someone and have them look so good. There had to be some kind of Lenin Pledge Wax going on there.”

Some kind of something — though for decades nobody knew what it was. In 1999, the caretakers of the body published a book. “Lenin’s Embalmers” revealed the regimen, which included applications of mild bleach, a steady temperature of 61 degrees and prolonged soaks in glycerol and potassium acetate.

Now, as I read the Lenin passages I kept thinking to myself: Do they know WHY it was so important, in the context of Russian culture and tradition, for Lenin’s body to appear to be incorrupt? Are readers going to find out what this powerful visual symbolism is all about?

No way, I thought. No way they are going to bring up the subject of religious relics and the mysterious phenomenon in which the bodies of some saints do not become corrupted.

I am happy to report that I was wrong. Toward the end readers are told:

… Egyptians were practicing mummification rituals millennia ago, and in the Christian church, there’s a long history of the display of bodies and body parts and a fascination with “uncorrupted” saints, whose bodies appear to exist in good condition without scientific assistance. Saint Polycarp is the first on record; after he was burned and stabbed to death by the Romans, his followers collected the remains, which, one remarked, were not at all charred but rather “like a loaf in the oven.” …

For centuries, proximity to relics such as these made common people feel closer to the divine.

It is these early religious traditions that may have prepared the way for the preservation of 20th-century political figures. Communism “may have chased out the church itself in Russia,” says Peter Manseau, a Washington College religion professor and author of “Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead.” “But the practices remained. In some ways, the practices were more important than the beliefs.”

Trust me, I am well aware that there is much more that can be said on this subject. I am also aware that some believers in the ancient churches — East and West — may think that these passages are not very, shall we say, reverent. It’s hard not to note the wording on that reference to the saints, the part about these bodies appearing to “exist in good condition without scientific assistance.” Those of us who have visited the Pechersk Lavra, the famous monastery caves in Kiev, would certainly choose a stronger wording to describe that.

But that is not the point. In this case, either the journalists working on this story spotted the ghost or one of their sources helped them to do so. While some readers might think that the story is flawed a bit, that’s not the issue. The religious element was included. Crucial information — especially the Lenin material — was included.

So bravo. Four stars out of five. I happily conclude my confessions for this day.

Womenpriests in the balance

I would love to stop covering Roman Catholic Womenpriest stories but in order to do that, they have to stop being written in such hacktastic manner. Take this one from the Fort Myers News-Press, headlined “Fort Myers woman defies church to become priest.”

The captions accompanying the story are my favorite. I’m not sure which one is the best. Perhaps:

Judy Beaumont, 74, will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest Saturday.

Or perhaps:

Judy Beaumont risks the loss of her soul by being ordained, says Diocese of Venice Bishop Frank Dewane. Beaumont says she is following her conscience.

Except for the parts about how Beaumont will not be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and the bishop never said what he’s accused of, these are excellent captions.

A commenter to the article writes “Journalists need to develop some critical judgement. She and the others can’t become ‘Catholic priests’ simply by calling themselves that. If I decided I wanted to become a supreme court justice and phoned up my local news station and announced that I was being sworn in as a judge at a local church hall at the weekend what would journalists do? They would laugh and throw the story in the bin – where this one should go.” Except that reporters could not love these stories more. And they’re somehow led into writing these stories up in the least evenhanded manner possible. Take the lede (please!):

Judy Beaumont plans to take a historic step Saturday, one that will jeopardize her immortal soul.

Beaumont, 74, of Fort Myers, is defying centuries-old doctrine in becoming the first woman in Southwest Florida to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. The church decrees this role is reserved for men. Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, which oversees the Catholic faithful in 10 counties, including all of Southwest Florida, has warned her not to cross that patriarchal line.

Historic in what sense? Is the reporter signaling to us that she thinks this is “important” or “likely to be famous”? And “patriarchal”? The bishop told her not to cross a patriarchal line? Because in his letter, mentioned below, it sounds like a “doctrinal” one. Perhaps that would be a better and more neutral word to use.

The story does quote from the letter before telling us that Beaumont “will follow her conscience and take the consequences.” And, further, that she thinks excommunication is a “man-made rule.” So let’s see, female going for ordination at a Lutheran-Episcopal hybrid congregation who doesn’t recognize any church’s authority to excommunicate. Hmm. It’s almost like the reporter could figure out from her own reporting that the language “will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest” is in error.

Or maybe I’m expecting too much. Check out this choice line:

The movement has generated controversy and debate between traditional and progressive Catholics who favor the concept of “inclusion,” embracing women priests, married priests, gays and others not accepted by the church.

Ooft. The sentence construction on that one is rough, eh? And why the scare quotes around “inclusion”? Also, to which doctrine is the reporter referring when she writes that the gays are not accepted? That last line, by the way, is the final line to the story. There’s also a video accompanying the article featuring the subject of the story talking. You know, for balance.

Off-balance woman photo via Shutterstock.

A tale of two storylines

It’s always interesting when two reporters cover the exact same event and come away with strikingly different perspectives.

As a reader, the obvious question is: Which of the two scribes has a better handle on this particular story?

To read a Reuters report on dissident church members contemplating a break away from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the big issue is gay clergy:

Presbyterians opposed to gay clergy split from the church on Thursday, announcing in Orlando a new denomination called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

More than 2,000 Presbyterians from 500 churches witnessed the launch of the new group, which was formed in reaction to a decision in July by the 2.3 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) to permit gay clergy, said John Crosby, president of the order.

“The problem is people are going to hell,” John Ortberg, a leader of the splinter group and minister at the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, said in a sermon to begin Thursday’s events.

The new Presbyterian denomination coincides with recent comments by Pope Benedict, head of the 1.3 billion member Roman Catholic Church, describing gay marriage as one of several threats to traditional marriage that undermine “the future of humanity itself.”

Crosby said he wants to prevent ECO from being branded as a one-issue movement, though some Presbyterians see the opposition to gay clergy as the driving reason behind the breakaway.

(As an aside: Does the effort to connect this movement with the pope’s recent comments seem strange to anyone besides me? I’m all for journalistic context, but that reference seems like a connection between an apple and an orange.)

Contrast Reuters’ treatment of the subject with that by religion writer Jeff Kunerth of the Orlando Sentinel:

Organizers of a new Presbyterian denomination unveiled their vision Thursday for a less bureaucratic, more organic church capable of invigorating congregations that have experienced stagnation or decline.

Under the umbrella The Fellowship of Presbyterians, the new denomination is called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians — ECO for short.

“The church is a living organism and an organism lives within an ecosystem,” Pastor John Ortberg told the convention of 2,150 Presbyterians meeting in Orlando through Friday. “There ought to be an ecosystem that builds flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Ortberg characterized the Presbyterian Church (USA) as mired in bureaucracy, membership decline, internal strife and a lack of both bold leadership and invigorating theology.

The Sentinel story makes no mention at all of gay clergy.

So which report got the story right? Or perhaps most right? That’s an intriguing question. (Here’s some background in a Christianity Today story from last summer.)

Strangely enough, the most helpful report I came across was not a news story per se but a blog post by Houston Chronicle religion writer Kate Shellnutt. The reason: Shellnutt provided links to supporting documents and background information that allowed me to investigate the story myself. Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal did the same.

Welcome to the world of news, 2012 style.

Photo via Shutterstock

Name that evangelical endorsement

The political cycle has inevitably generated endorsement after endorsement, and trigger-happy reporters appear ready to jump on nearly every backing from anyone who self-identifies as an evangelical. With 60 percent of South Carolina voters describing themselves as evangelicals, reporters are hoping to provide a clue as to how those votes might fall on Saturday.

Here’s how Cathleen Falsani puts it over at Sojourners‘ blog.

As someone who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian, often I begin to feel like the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, particularly in the midst of a heated presidential election cycle.

It’s Evangelical Week here on Discovery! Travel with us as our explorers track the elusive evangelical in its native habitats. Watch as evangelicals worship, work and play, all captured on film with the latest high definition technology. And follow our intrepid documentary team members as they bravely venture into the most dangerous of exotic evangelical locations — the voting booth!

To get a sense of some of the stranger coverage, let’s zero in on one report in particular posted at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times websites.

A trio of South Carolina evangelicals threw their support behind Rick Santorum on Wednesday with a provocative statement that praises the former Pennsylvania senator for putting his name to “extremely politically-incorrect statements about homosexuality, heterosexuality and marital fidelity,” while rebuking front-runner Mitt Romney for “homophilia” and suggesting that his Mormon faith is “heretical.”

That’s quite the endorsement, but where is it coming from? Without the media, is there any indication that their endorsement might impact any number of people?

“Rick Santorum clearly sees homosexuality for what the Bible, Rome, Bob Jones University and even Salt Lake City have always regarded it, as a very serious form of sexual sin like adultery or incest,” the Rev. Huey Mills, a Lancaster pastor and principal of a Christian school, said in a statement. …

Joining Mills were Lt. Col. Ray Moore, a retired U.S. Army Reserve chaplain who lives in Columbia, and Molotov Mitchell, an evangelical Christian video artist who has produced YouTube videos highlighting Newt Gingrich’s history of infidelity.

Apparently all you need to get your endorsement reported is to produce YouTube videos. Is there any indication that these evangelicals represent any organizations or something more than any other evangelical in South Carolina? By the way, where did the statement come from? Did the reporter ask any questions or is this a re-written press release?

In all of the fuss over endorsements for different candidates, CNN’s Dan Gilgoff pulled off a particularly interesting profile of a woman in South Carolina who backs Mitt Romney. Read how he begins:

You’ve probably never heard of her, but Cindy Costa’s tablemates at a Sunday prayer breakfast here hint at her influence.

Inside a hotel ballroom bulging with 400 socially conservative activists, Costa is seated with the headliners: White House hopeful Rick Perry and political operative Ralph Reed.

From there, he builds a case for why she’s influential, who she represents, what motivates her work, how she chooses who she backs. For instance, he quotes her own views quite a bit in the piece to explain where she’s coming from, which allows the reader to decide whether or not to agree with her.

For Costa, any concerns about Romney’s Mormonism were put to rest at a 2008 forum she attended in upstate South Carolina, an evangelical stronghold, at which the candidate spent half a day taking questions from pastors.

“They asked who he thought Jesus Christ was, and his answer was that Jesus Christ was his Lord and savior,” Costa says. “And I said, ‘OK, here we are. That’s what I believe.’”

Many evangelicals part company with Costa on that point. Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christian, surveys show that about half of white evangelicals don’t think they are.

There’s much, much more, but it gives you a sense of the contrast between the two types of coverage. It helps to remember that all evangelicals are not alike.

Group of raising hands image via Shutterstock.

Dangerous wives of priests? Not going there folks …

So what we have here is precisely the kind of editorial, op-ed, slanted, European-style, advocacy New York Times piece that makes many GetReligion readers spew their coffee and exclaim, “What in the %#@$%^ *&^$ is going on here? This is terrible! I can’t wait to see what the GetReligion gang has to say about this!”

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t a news piece at all. It’s an opinion piece.

Thus, it’s precisely the kind of piece that your GetReligionistas avoid writing about unless it directly addresses religion in the news or is about journalistic attitudes about religion and or religious people (in other words a piece of interest to professionals on the so-called Godbeat).

There is no shock or scandal when op-ed writers and guest columnists spout their opinions. It’s important when they make mistakes, however.

But there are other journalistic issues involved in the publication of these kinds of pieces. For example, what if the newspaper dedicates a polemical, slanted, advocacy piece to a truly newsworthy subject that deserves serious, accurate, balanced coverage? What if — because it’s in the Times — many readers nationwide assume that this advocacy piece is a complete statement on this particular issue?

What we have here is one such story and, well, here I am writing about why we are not going to write about it. Which means that I still feel driven to write about this essay by Sara Ritchey, who is an assistant professor of medieval European history at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette (an interesting academic source for a piece in the nation’s most famous newspaper).

The headline on this highly editorial essay: “For Priests’ Wives, a Word of Caution.” The subject is the long-awaited Vatican Personal Ordinariate that allows Anglican parishes and their married male priests to enter the Catholic Church. The purpose of the Times essay is to warn priest’s wives that they are entering dangerous territory. Here’s a sample:

While the early Christian church praised priestly chastity, it did not promulgate decisive legislation mandating priestly celibacy until the reform movement of the 11th century. At that point, the foremost purpose of priestly celibacy was to clearly distinguish and separate the priests from the laity, to elevate the status of the clergy. In this scheme, the mere presence of the priest’s wife confounded that goal, and thus she incurred the suspicion, and quite often the loathing, of parishioners and church reformers. You can’t help wondering what feelings she will inspire today.

By the time of the First Lateran Council, the priest’s wife had become a symbol of wantonness and defilement. The reason was that during this period the nature of the host consecrated at Mass received greater theological scrutiny. Medieval theologians were in the process of determining that bread and wine, at the moment of consecration in the hands of an ordained priest at the altar, truly became the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The priest who handled the body and blood of Christ should therefore be uncontaminated lest he defile the sacred corpus.

The priest’s wife was an obvious danger.

OK, let’s stop right there — since I am determined not to write about this op-ed piece.

However, an academic who is a regular GetReligion reader wrote your GetReligionistas to note:

Here I thought this would be by a real priest’s wife (Orthodox, Protestant, Eastern Catholic) talking about how this was a difficult calling and no panacea.

In other words, he expected a Times op-ed written by someone who has been living — for years or even decades — in this allegedly dangerous liturgical territory. Also, there was this little problem in the text:

Here’s a good one: “Medieval theologians were in the process of determining that bread and wine, at the moment of consecration in the hands of an ordained priest at the altar, truly became the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Uh, maybe the precise Scholastic language of transubstantiation was evolving, but I’m pretty sure that small-o orthodox Christians were sold that the Eucharist is Christ’s body and blood. Look up “anaphora” — the ancient Liturgies were pretty emphatic.

Etc., etc. So what’s my point? My main one is that important, powerful news organizations Times should produce serious, accurate, balanced news stories on serious topics such as this before they serve up incomplete opinion columns that allegedly cover the same ground.

Why not write news about serious issues and events in the news?

Unless, of course, the ultimate goal is not to produce news, but to produce something else. After all, this is a topic best described as a matter of culture, morality and religion. Does that place this subject (paging Bill Keller, paging Bill Keller) outside the boundaries of Times journalism these days?

Just asking.

PHOTO: An Eastern-Rite Catholic priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy.

Ghosts of Gingrich past

I like to say I hate politics, but there was something exciting about Drudge’s report on internal squabbling at ABC News. He broke the news that they were debating when to air Marianne Gingrich’s latest interview on the implosion of her marriage to Newt Gingrich, now leading in South Carolina polls. I’m not proud of it, but I have always enjoyed Marianne’s eagerness in airing the dirty laundry there. She was wronged, and she wants you to know about it, you know? This Esquire interview, as much as any other, should prep you for what to expect in tonight’s broadcast.

So what are the big journalism questions as they relate to religion? It’s turning out that all those early-in-the-cycle profiles about Gingrich’s moral failings and his conversion to Catholicism were pretty helpful. We have reviewed many of them in the last year.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Marianne’s interview will destroy Gingrich’s campaign, particularly if primary voters are unfamiliar with all the other interviews she’s given over the years (none of which were ever broadcast, only in print). But if it doesn’t, will there be confusion as to why? I keep seeing journalists I follow on Twitter say “social conservatives don’t approve of [insert thing that Newt Gingrich did in his previous marriages].” And they’re undoubtedly right about that. But will they miss a critical component about forgiveness?

When I was listening to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech earlier today, where he announced he was dropping out and endorsing Gingrich, I thought the religion angle to his speech was one of the most interesting. I wondered how the media would handle that. Turns out they handled it surprisingly well: they quoted him. Here, for example, is the New York Times piece:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Gov. Rick Perry of Texas dropped out of the Republican presidential race here on Thursday and announced his endorsement of Newt Gingrich, a man he called a “conservative visionary.”

“I’ve never believed that the cause of conservatism is embodied by one individual,” Mr. Perry said at a news conference here. “Our party and our conservative philosophy transcends any one individual.”

“I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path forward for me,” Mr. Perry said. “I am suspending my campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich.”

“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is,” Mr. Perry said, in an apparent allusion to his three marriages. “The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek god. And I believe in the power of redemption for it is a central tenant of my Christian faith.”

A GetReligion reader wonders if he really said “tenant” or if he instead said “tenet.” Christian Science Monitor messed this up, too. I’m sure it was a simple mistake that led the New York Times to lowercase “God.” I hope it was a simple mistake. It’s certainly interesting how much more we’re seeing this error.

Anyway, this Houston Chronicle blog post also seemed to get that sin is not a permanent disqualification when Christian voters consider a candidate, although certainly a concern. Not a bad balance.

The Associated Press report on the interview notes:

The explosive interview was airing just two days before the presidential primary in South Carolina, a state with a strong Christian conservative bent, and as Gingrich tries to present himself as the strongest alternative to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. …

Gingrich has worked in recent years to present himself as changed man, offering himself in this campaign as a 68-year-old grandfather who has settled down with wife No. 3 and embraced God through Catholicism.

Last year, he said it would be up to voters to decide whether to hold his past against him.

“I think people have to look at me, ask tough questions, then render judgment,” he said then.

Setting aside personal political views for or against Gingrich or other candidates, what do you think of the journalism involved here?

Image of haunting woman via Shutterstock.

Does the Holocaust belong to Jews?

The canonization of the SS” is the front page headline for the 11 January issue of  the Tageszeitung, the left-liberal Berlin daily.

Illustrated by a photo of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler inspecting members of the Estonian division of the Waffen-SS, the TAZ story reports that a bill before the Estonian parliament seeks to grant Estonian members of the SS the status of “freedom fighters.”

While similar bills failed in 2006 and 2010, “majority support appears to be guaranteed” during this legislative session, the TAZ reports. A second article appears on page 4 and reports the Russian embassy in Tallinn has described the bill as “blasphemous,” while the German Green Party has criticized a “retrospective justification of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen in the Soviet Union.”

Die Welt has the story also. On 12 Jan in “Estland denkt über Ehrung der Waffen-SS nach” it reported on the details — and provided a very good history of the Estonian division of the SS.  Worldcrunch offers a summary in English of the article here.

As an aside, Worldcrunch paraphrases stories, it does not translate them in a strict sense. This can lead to differences of meaning and shading. For example the Die Welt title in Worldcrunch is “Push To Honor Estonian SS Nazi Unit Sparks Outrage.” The Die Welt title in German I would translate as “Estonia is thinking about honoring the Waffen-SS after [70 years].” No “outrage” in the German title, nor does “push to honor” have the same meaning as “thinking of honoring” while the German title has “after” tagged on at the end, to which I would add “70 years” or “further tries in parliament.” Do bookmark Worldcrunch as it is a great source for overseas reporting.

Die Welt offers this additional history (my translation):

The Holocaust began in the Baltic states at the same time as Estonia was occupied by German troops. Jews had to flee the country, but as Estonia is the northernmost and easternmost of the three small states, they had the best chance to escape. Approximately three-quarters of the small Jewish population either left with the retreating Red Army or fled to Finland.

The remaining thousand who were classified as Jews according to Nazi racial criteria were killed — mainly by Einsatzkommando 1a under the command of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in late March 2010 was the last living top SS leader. At the Wannsee Conference [held on 20 Jan 1942] Estonia was declared judenfrei [free of Jews] by the Nazis after the murder of 963 people. …

In addition to the approximately one thousand Estonian Jews, at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Christian Estonians were killed during the German occupation. Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of wars as well as Jews from other states were also killed during the occupation in internment caps built on Estonian soil during the war.

Die Welt examines the Estonian SS involvement in the Holocaust and in anti-partisan campaigns, but notes:

Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Waffen-SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the SS and was published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher. Its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.

However, the campaign to honor SS men as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, comes from their role in trying to hold back the tide of the Red Army in the first six months of 1944. The daft legislation is expected to come before parliament in Tallinn in March.

Both newspapers do a good job in bringing this story to light. While Die Welt gives a great overview to this corner of history, the TAZ is more forthright in its condemnation. It warns against “beatifying the SS,” and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi “structure of blood and death.”

There are enough religion and ethical ghosts in this story to keep me occupied for weeks. However, I want to raise a few surface items as well as a deeper issue that is being played out in Europe — who owns the Holocaust?

“Provide both sides of the story” is a mantra each journalist learns early in his career. One of the most frequent criticisms offered by GetReligion is the lack of balance in a story — of providing only one set of facts. However, is this criticism valid when dealing with Nazis? Neither paper offers space to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers or right-wing nationalists to defend the pro-SS legislation. Die Welt offers the history, as does the TAZ to a lesser extent, that would explain motivation, but Mr. A. Hitler is not given a platform. And I believe the papers were correct in this decision.

The TAZ use of the language of religion is significant. Religion is almost always absent from the left-wing TAZ‘s pages, but its use here is more than that of an arch or facile description. To my mind it symbolizes the moral and psychological uneasiness Germans (and Estonians) feel with this issue. The SS is being beautified, being canonized as modern saints by Estonian nationalists in their crusade against the Russians and the Communist past. While the vocabulary is used, there remains strong tie here between nationalism and religion that is left unaddressed in the stories.

To my ears, the story also raises the vexed question of who owns the Holocaust? Die Welt reports that almost ten times as many Christian Estonians as Jewish Estonians were murdered by the Nazis. Yet all of the Jews were killed. Is there an equivalence of suffering here? Because more Christians died than Jews — and because the Soviets killed more Estonians than the Germans, does that give moral ownership of this issue to Estonian nationalists?  Where can the line be drawn between wholesale murder of innocents and the unique evil that was the Nazi’s Final Solution?

This episode reminds me of the “War of the Crosses” that began at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1979. Following Pope John Paul II’s mass at the Nazi death camp, which he described as being the “Golgotha of the modern world,” local Catholics erected a small cross by Bunker 2 to honor Edith Stein — a converted Jew who had become a Carmelite nun before her death in the gas chambers.

In 1984 the controversy escalated when Carmelite nuns opened a convent in a brick building that had been used by the Nazis to store Zyklon-B gas crystals. The 26-foot cross used in John Paul II’s 1979 service was then moved by the nuns to a spot just outside the Auschwitz I wall where more than one hundred Polish partisans had been shot. Jewish leaders complained of the impropriety of Christianizing the site of the extermination of European Jewry, but the nuns refused to go.

Jewish complaints prompted a response by Polish nationalists who erected a further three hundred crosses.  The Polish parliament then ordered the extra crosses to be removed but allowed the papal cross to remain. John Paul II resolved the issue in 1993 by ordering the nuns to leave Auschwitz.

Can one be human and be impartial when writing a story about the SS? Is it wrong for Christians to dispossess Jews of the Holocaust? Who owns history and how should faith groups handle public expressions of faith in a pluralistic society? (Does the World Trade Center mosque controversy spring to mind to anyone?) How should reporters handle this issue when writing about the Holocaust and the SS? Is it even possible?

What say you GetReligion readers on this point?

From vulture capitalist to vulture tither?

ABC News’ investigative desk is out with a scandalous report tying together presidential politics and religious tithing. Apparently when wealthy people tithe at the same rate as less wealthy people, it can add up to more gross dollars. Who knew?

Underscoring the prominent, if little discussed role that Mitt Romney played as a Mormon leader, the private equity giant once run by the GOP presidential frontrunner carved his church a slice of several of its most lucrative business deals, securities records show, providing it with millions of dollars worth of stock in some of Bain Capital’s most well-known holdings.

Romney has always been a major donor to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which requires that members “tithe,” or give 10 percent of their income to the church. His family charity, called the Tyler Foundation, has given more than $4 million to the church in the past five years, including $1.8 million in 2008 and $600,000 in 2009. But because Romney, whose fortune has been estimated at $250 million, has never released his personal tax returns, the full extent of his giving has never been public.

Newly uncovered stock contributions made during Romney’s Bain days suggest there is another dimension to Romney’s support for the church — one that could involve millions more than has been previously disclosed.

Dunh-dunh-dunh!!! But seriously, what’s the problem? I mean, when my husband and I give money to our congregation, we just write checks from our bank account. But sure, if we were involved in investment transactions, we almost certainly would transfer things immediately to our congregation — if for no other reason than the tax implications. Am I missing why this is a big deal? Donors frequently donate stocks directly to non-profits. Whether you’re the American Civil Liberties Union or the Zoroastrian Alliance or something in between, this is not really breaking news.

The article goes on to reveal that an unnamed Bain partner donated $1.9 million worth of Burger King stock to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And Romney’s staff responded by saying that some of the Bain stock transactions the ABC News investigate desk asked about were, in fact, donated at Romney’s direction.

“Mitt Romney has publicly stated that he regularly tithes to his church,” said Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, when asked about the Bain contributions. “Some of those church contributions have come through the Tyler Foundation. Others have been donations of stock through Bain. Any shares donated by Mitt Romney are personal shares owned by him.”

Saul also noted that not all the shares that appear on Bain securities filings can be attributed to Romney, “as there are other Mormon members of the firm who may also have been making donations to the church of personal shares owned by them.”

Questions about Romney’s faith have remained largely subdued during the 2012 campaign. Many believe he helped tame the issue during his previous campaign with a December 2007 speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, during which he declared that his church would not dictate his actions in the White House, if he was to become President.

“Questions have remained subdued”?

“Many believe”?

Why all the indirect language?

The article tries to get into explaining the religion angle behind all this but just skims the surface:

The Mormon church is distinct from many other American denominations in what it asks from adherents in money, time and commitment — and not just because it asks young Mormon males to spend two years proselytizing for the faith as missionaries, said Jan Shipps, a religion professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and one of the preeminent non-Mormon authorities on the church.

Romney has spoken about the 30 months he spent in France as a missionary, but his role within the church as an adult is largely unexplored. Shipps said Romney has held several significant posts within church leadership, including bishop and “stake” president, a leadership post that covers a sizeable geographic area and requires a significant commitment of time.

Beyond that, Romney appears to have lived up to rigid financial requirements within the church that asks parishioners to contribute 10 percent of their annual earnings.

So how is it distinct other than asking Mormon males to spend two years as missionaries? Don’t expect the article to tell you, unless they think adult laypeople serving as leaders is “distinct.” Hey, tell that to the people in my congregation who serve as elders or on congregational or national boards.

Seriously, I have no idea what the article is trying to say.

Also, the last sentence seems a bit overwrought. Are they rigid requirements or just requests? I actually wouldn’t mind a much more thorough discussion of that in the article, considering how it is interpreted in different ways by some LDS members. The dramatic language is par for the course here. I was going to comment on a line about “high-wheeling deals” but I don’t actually know what it means. Sounds nefarious, though.

The last time I was reporting on a newspaper covering a presidential candidate’s tithe, it was when a Texas newspaper went after Gov. Rick Perry for not giving 10 percent of his income to charity. Literally. The second line of the piece was “But when it comes time to giving, the governor doesn’t come close to the biblical guidance of tithing.” Dunh-dunh-dunh!!!

In the excerpt above, we’re told that Romney’s “role within the church as an adult is largely unexplored.” That’s just not true. There have been many, many, many articles about Romney’s role within the church as an adult. We’ve looked at some of them, but not all.

For instance, Vanity Fair has a huge story about Mitt Romney — and it’s quite good, actually, despite the bizarrely negative headline, “The Dark Side of Romney” — that focuses mostly on his role within the LDS church as an adult. It’s in the February issue and was released last week. At the top of the story, we’re told that the Romney’s Mormonism is their foundation and explains everything from their charity, their marriage, their parenting and their social lives to their very weekly schedules. They cherished their family but also viewed it as a Mormon duty to spend time together. The Romneys enjoyed citing a well-known Mormon credo popularized by the late president of the LDS, David O. McKay: No other success can compensate for failure in the home.

Here’s just a section of the substance of the religion discussion in Vanity Fair‘s profile of Romney, completely disproving ABC News’ contention that his adult Mormon life has been unexplored:

Mormon congregations, typically groups of 400 to 500 people, are known as wards, and their boundaries are determined by geography. Wards, along with smaller congregations known as branches, are organized into stakes. Thus a stake, akin to a Catholic diocese, is a collection of wards and branches in a city or region. Unlike Protestants or Catholics, Mormons do not choose the congregations to which they belong. It depends entirely on where they live. In another departure from many other faiths, Mormons do not have paid full-time clergy. Members in good standing take turns serving in leadership roles. They are expected to perform their ecclesiastical duties on top of career and family responsibilities. Those called to serve as stake presidents and bishops, or leaders of local wards, are fully empowered as agents of the church, and they carry great authority over their domains. Mitt Romney first took on a major church role around 1977, when he was called to be a counselor to Gordon Williams, then the president of the Boston stake. Romney was essentially an adviser and deputy to Williams, helping oversee area congregations. His appointment was somewhat unusual in that counselors at that level have typically been bishops of their local wards first. But Romney, who was only about 30 years old, was deemed to possess leadership qualities beyond his years. Romney’s responsibilities only grew from there; he would go on to serve as bishop and then as stake president, overseeing about a dozen congregations with close to 4,000 members altogether. Those positions in the church amounted to his biggest leadership test yet, exposing him to personal and institutional crises, human tragedies, immigrant cultures, social forces, and organizational challenges that he had never before encountered.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is far more than a form of Sunday worship. It is a code of ethics that frowns on homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births, and abortion and forbids pre-marital sex. It offers a robust, effective social safety net, capable of incredible feats of charity, support, and service, particularly when its own members are in trouble. And it works hard to create community, a built-in network of friends who often share values and a worldview. For many Mormons, the all-encompassing nature of their faith, as an extension of their spiritual lives, is what makes belonging to the church so wonderful, so warm, even as its insularity can set members apart from society.

But a dichotomy exists within the Mormon Church, which holds that one is either in or out; there is little or no tolerance for those, like so-called cafeteria Catholics, who pick and choose what doctrines to follow. And in Mormonism, if one is in, a lot is expected, including tithing 10 percent of one’s income, participating regularly in church activities, meeting high moral expectations, and accepting Mormon doctrine—including many concepts, such as the belief that Jesus will rule from Missouri in his Second Coming, that run counter to those of other Christian faiths. That rigidity can be difficult to abide for those who love the faith but chafe at its strictures or question its teachings and cultural habits. For one, Mormonism is male-dominated—women can serve only in certain leadership roles and never as bishops or stake presidents. The church also makes a number of firm value judgments, typically prohibiting single or divorced men from leading wards and stakes, for example, and not looking kindly upon single parenthood.

The portrait of Romney that emerges from those he led and served with in the church is of a leader who was pulled between Mormonism’s conservative core views and practices and the demands from some quarters within the Boston stake for a more elastic, more open-minded application of church doctrine. Romney was forced to strike a balance between those local expectations and the dictates out of Salt Lake City. Some believe that he artfully reconciled the two, praising him as an innovative and generous leader who was willing to make accommodations, such as giving women expanded responsibility, and who was always there for church members in times of need. To others, he was the product of a hidebound, patriarchal Mormon culture, inflexible and insensitive in delicate situations and dismissive of those who didn’t share his perspective.

His role within the church as an adult is largely unexplored?

Please. The article goes on to provide examples from his fans and detractors in an even-handed way. It’s neither a puff piece nor a hit piece. After reading the lengthy Vanity Fair article, the idea that Romney’s tithing to his church would be noteworthy is silly. Vanity Fair shows how it’s done. The article, which also explores his successes at Bain Capital and which is an excerpt from a book on the candidate, is much more thorough and specific.