Right-wing jihadist (and fun guy)

To fully appreciate The Dallas Morning News’ Texas-sized profile of Baylor University President Ken Starr, one must accept its basic premise.

That premise — full of religious imagery — is underscored at the top of the 3,000-word Sunday story:

Meet Ken Starr, fun guy.

No, really.

Most of the world knows him as the Whitewater prosecutor, the man whose zealous investigation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky led to the president’s 1998 impeachment. To his many critics and adversaries, Starr seemed a sort of Old Testament avenger, a grim, puritanical apostle of the Christian right whose office conducted what amounted to a political jihad against a sitting president.

But the reality of Kenneth Winston Starr, who in June became the 14th president of Baylor University, is quite different. To watch him work the crowd at the Baylor-Texas A&M football game, in fact, is nothing short of a revelation.

Here, he seems less a pious righter-of-wrongs than a sort of funny uncle. Resplendent in a white warm-up suit trimmed with green and gold and a yellow Baylor cap, and bearing a cherubic smile that never quite leaves his face, the 64-year-old Starr plunges into groups of startled tailgaters. He talks to everyone. He hugs anyone who will agree to be hugged. He tells jokes. He tosses footballs. He poses for photographs, lots of them.

So there you have it: Starr is not as bad a guy as you thought he was. And, oh yeah, he’s working miracles at Baylor.

The profile itself makes for an entertaining and, in some ways, informative read. I became quite familiar with the stretch of Interstate 35 between Dallas and Waco during my time with The Associated Press, so the subject matter caught my attention.

The talented writer of the Morning News’ piece is a veteran Texas journalist whose work has drawn praise from your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas. But in this case, the Starr profile brings to mind that old saying about the cowboy who was “all hat and no cattle.” I should stress that I’m referring to the profile itself — and the evidence it uses to back up its assertions — not to Starr.

The story drips with effusive praise for Starr’s tenure at Baylor (all seven months of it). Take this section recounting the former prosecutor’s hiring by Baylor:

And even conservative evangelicals who had no political agenda with Starr wondered: Why, at a school whose civil wars of the early and mid-2000s became front-page news, would it possibly be a good idea to hire a non-Baptist with such partisan baggage? (Starr was raised in the Church of Christ, in which his father was a preacher.)

But the Baylor regents had reasons for their seemingly odd choice, arrived at after an intensive two-year search. And it has resulted in a sort of brilliant honeymoon that many would not have predicted.

Starr’s success in winning the Baylor community over is at least partly due to his upbeat, disarming personality and his deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor.

But he is also the possessor of a legal resume that few contemporaries can match, as well as a striking record of success as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.

How long do university presidents’ honeymoons typically last? Is it really all that surprising that seven months into the job, Starr enjoys positive relations with the Baylor community? Speaking of which, where are the quotes from Faculty Senate leaders, from Texas Baptist leaders and from others who have sparred with past Baylor presidents to support the notion that Starr is different than the previous leaders who failed?

No Baptist leaders or editors who questioned hiring a non-Baptist president to lead the world’s largest Baptist university are quoted to say that their position has changed. As for Starr’s “deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor,” the story does not explore those convictions or explain how they are in tune with what Baylor believes. The story does not even report whether Starr has joined a Baptist church, as he promised to do when hired.

More from the story:

Even more remarkable is what Baylor’s board of regents has hired this cheerful, politically polarizing fifth-generation Texan to do: unite a 15,000-student Christian university that has been riven by internal wars — academic, religious and otherwise — for a decade.

Healing those wounds is just the beginning of Starr’s task: His larger mission is to fulfill one of the most breathtaking visions in American higher education. Baylor wants nothing less than to transform itself from its traditional role as a somewhat sleepy, second-rate, predominantly regional Baptist school to a world-class research university with highly ranked graduate programs.

And it wants to accomplish all that while asserting itself as a fully Christian, evangelical university with avowedly Christian professors. No Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried. Old-line schools founded on Christian principles like Harvard, Princeton and Yale historically bowed before a relentless secularism and are now places where religion is relegated to extracurricular status. Notre Dame is the only remotely comparable model. It is very definitely a world-class research institution, but not absolute in requiring its faculty to be Catholic or Christian.

Again, I’d appreciate some actual sources to back up such statements. Who — besides the reporter — sees Baylor’s traditional role as that of a “sleepy, second-rate, predominantly Baptist school?” What expert(s) — besides the reporter — verified the claim that “no Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried?” Or are readers just supposed to take the newspaper’s word for it?

As for healing Baylor’s wounds, that statement seems somewhat at odds with how Starr himself characterizes the situation he inherited. From the excerpts of Starr’s interview with the Morning News included with the story:

“The Baylor I entered was a Baylor at peace. David Garland, the interim president, brought a great and steady hand to bear for 20 months during the search process. He proved to be a great balm and healer. So I have tried not to in any way disrupt the great state of peace and tranquility that I was very privileged to inherit. There is a lot of energy on the Baylor campus, and we need all that energy poured into a positive, constructive effort. That certainly was the direction Baylor was going in when I arrived, and it has been my job not to foul it up.”

The profile ends like this:

For all of its efforts, Baylor remains both undercapitalized and unable to improve in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. And there are very real limits on how many outside grants — one of the main measures of a research university — it can expect to get.

Starr, meanwhile, is nothing but optimistic.

“It’s a great ambition,” he says. “One of the great things about the vision of 2012 is it envisions a community where we love one another and forgive one another. We have all fallen short of that as a goal, but that is wonderful to have as a stated ideal. We can just talk in those terms, and that is very liberating.”

Again, some sources — and in this case, some actual details — would be nice concerning “undercapitalized” and the U.S. News rankings. As for Starr’s final statement, the reference to “forgive one another” definitely made me curious. That sure sounds like a potential religion ghost.

Photo: In February 2010, newly named Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, right, receives congratulations from regent Chairman Dary Stone.

Canada: Losing its religion?

In 2009 and the first part of 2010, I did a four-part series on Churches of Christ in Canada for The Christian Chronicle, reporting from Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and a small town in Saskatchewan.

By the time I finished that series, I felt like I had met every Church of Christ member north of the 49th parallel. I am exaggerating, of course, but not by much: In the entire nation of 34 million people, our tiny little fellowship of believers counts roughly 150 congregations with 7,000 total members.

This was the headline on the first part of that series:

Canada: Struggle in a secular culture

This month, another newspaper ran a similar, even more dramatic headline:

Canada marching from religion to secularization

The source of that headline?:

A. Baptist Press.

B. The Anglican Journal

C. United Church News.

D. None of the above.

The correct answer would be D. The above headline came from the first part of a five-part series by The Globe and Mail, a leading national newspaper, on the “Future of Faith in Canada.” The dramatic opening of the series:

Before 1971, less than 1 per cent of Canadians ticked the “no religion” box on national surveys. Two generations later, nearly a quarter of the population, or 23 per cent, say they aren’t religious.

At a time of year when many Canadians traditionally turn to their faith, The Globe and Mail begins a look at the state of religion in Canada. What we’ve seen is a sea change in 40 years, a march toward secularization that mirrors what’s happened in Europe.

A look at the youngest Canadians suggests the transformation is gathering pace. In 2002, 34 per cent of 15-29 year olds said religion was highly important to them. Data from Statistics Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey show that number tumbling to 22 per cent.

Only the persistence of religious traditions among immigrants, whose religiosity has increased slightly over the past 25 years, has slowed the march away from our places of worship.

This demographic shift raises profound questions about our social values, about the fate of our cultural heritage, about institutions that once formed the bedrock our communities and about access to political power.

In general, I found the series — which includes reports on young people’s attitudes on faith, the crumbling state of churches in Quebec and elsewhere and the clergy shortage affecting all denominations in Canada — both riveting and revealing.

The stories are tightly written, less than 5,000 words total for the entire series. The information is presented authoritatively in a “This is what we know (or think we know) and why it matters” fashion.

Paragraphs such as this certainly get right to the point:

Religious scholars see perhaps the majority of today’s young Canadian adults as disappearing down a black hole of spiritual illiteracy from which institutional religion cannot retrieve them. The cause is also a product of young adults increasingly seeing organized religion as illogical and out of touch with reality.

From a different part of the series:

The crumbling state of the churches is a physical embodiment of the state of religious observance – and the phenomenon is hardly limited to Quebec. From British Columbia to Newfoundland, places of worship of all mainstream denominations are falling victim to dwindling attendance, rising land values and maintenance costs too onerous for congregations to bear.

The United Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, closes one church a week, and has shuttered more than 400 in the past decade. The Anglican Church, which said in a report this year it was hemorrhaging members, has seen eight churches close on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and placed another six on a one-year watch list.

While I enjoyed the quick reads, though, I found myself wanting more details — more context, more background, more voices to reflect and expound — as I read certain sections of the series.

For instance, this one:

On matters such as homosexuality, the role of women, sex education and religious instruction, immigrant religious groups are embracing debates that pit them against the majority public opinion. In the Anglican Church, Chinese Canadians have been at the forefront of the split over homosexual unions. Presbyterians from Korea, Ghana and Trinidad have put a conservative stamp on a church that once was liberal. At a United Church conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, Korean pastors walked out when the organizers opened the gathering with an ecumenical Buddhist prayer.

And this one:

What attracts native-born Canadians to church these days, says religion sociologist David Seljak of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., is the availability of parking, quality of preaching and children’s programs, in that order. It’s not doctrine or liturgy or biblical scripture – which strikes a melancholy note for next year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. What some consider the greatest piece of literature in the English language is in danger of being forgotten with hardly anyone being aware that it’s missing.

In the part of the series on young people, I was especially impressed with the “real people” sources quoted: a Sikh medical student who stopped wearing his turban and maintaining an uncut beard, a Roman Catholic student who quit the church, a Chinese-born student whose faith “combines Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in a holistic mind-body spirituality with prayers to forebears.”

Overall, however, the series seemed to lack many voices from actual people of faith — native Canadians and immigrants alike. I think their voices — and a better picture of their lives of faith in a secularized society — would have added an important, relevant perspective.

I’m still digesting all the information in the series. There’s a lot of meat and food for thought, and I certainly urge you to check it out.

Ghostly wolf in the church

In many ways, a Washington Post story this week titled “We let a wolf in” has the kind of remarkable layers and depth that you’d expect from a 4,300-word piece in that prominent newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

It’s a fascinating yet extremely sad portrait of a small Virginia church and the train wreck that occurs when the relationship deteriorates between the congregation’s two elders and its new minister.

Oh, there’s one twist in particular that makes this real-life drama a prime candidate to be made into a TV movie-of-the-week.

I’ll let the Post subhead explain:

He seemed like the perfect preacher — until his flock discovered his murder conviction.

Regular GetReligion readers know that I am a born-and-bred Church of Christ adherent. From the outset, I should make clear that this story concerns a Church of Christ, albeit — as it turns out — not one associated with my particular fellowship. But it took digging of my own to determine that. The story did not reveal that information, which is my major criticism of this piece: the vague way it handles key religion details. Ghosts, anyone?

The story’s opening:

HARRISONBURG, Va. — The Harrisonburg Church of Christ is an unlikely setting for a bedtime horror story, the kind of Southern Gothic tale involving murder and mendacity and money and, by many accounts, the handiwork of Satan himself.

Nestled in a small town in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, the church situated on seven acres is a homey, one-story red-brick affair with a white steeple. There’s a grassy yard perfect for hosting dinner on the grounds, a fellowship hall and a gravel parking lot. The people of the nondenominational church are few and mostly conservative and elderly.

In the fall of 2008, this modest assembly needed a new minister. Its governing elders — Robert Thomas, a retired lieutenant from the Virginia Department of Corrections, and Gary Rexrode, a retired builder — were delighted to find that a man such as William M. Drumheller III was eager to take the job at $600 a week with free housing in the parsonage.

The reference to “nondenominational church” in the second graf caught my attention. That’s exactly how most members of my fellowship — a cappella Churches of Christ — and this church’s fellowship — independent, or instrumental, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ — would describe themselves. As The Associated Press Stylebook puts it:

The churches do not regard themselves as a denomination. Rather, they stress a nondenominational effort to preach what they consider basic Bible teachings.

Certainly, these churches — a cappella or instrumental — do not have any kind of central denominational headquarters. Each congregation is independent and autonomously governed. Yet according to the most recent stats from the National Council of Churches, non-instrumental Churches of Christ rank as the 16th largest Christian group in America with 1.6 million members. The instrumental Christian Churches and Churches of Christ rank 25th with 1.1 million members. That’s 2.7 million total members of these two groups that share common roots in the “Restoration” or “Stone-Campbell” movement.

The churches in each fellowship cooperate to support endeavors such as Christian universities and summer youth camps. The church in the Post story, for example, is listed among the supporting congregations of the Tri-State Christian Service Camp (with Drumheller given as the contact).

Is that kind of context needed in a story like this, or is it sufficient for a 4,300-word report to describe this church simply as “nondenominational” and not tie it to a larger body of believers? The Tea Party has no central headquarters, but would the Post write a 4,300-word story about a politician aligned with that movement and not reference that association?

Ironically, the instrumental music issue — a key factor in the 1906 split that resulted in the separate fellowships referenced earlier — makes an appearance in the Post story:

There was the fraud conviction and the alleged extramarital affairs. Drumheller’s resume stated that he had left Bumpass’s church in Chicago over a theological dispute about playing instruments during worship services. When told that the minister — the man who’d helped him get out of prison — said it was over an adulterous affair, Drumheller responded. “That’s his story.” When later told that Jim Karas, the woman’s husband, also had said it was over the affair, Drumheller declined to comment.

Now, amid all the crime and sex, the little matter over whether a piano should be a part of worship assemblies gets lost in the Post story. The writer fails to explain whether Drumheller supported the use of instruments in worship or opposed them. An inconsequential detail? The 2.7 million church members mentioned earlier probably wouldn’t mind knowing. In fact, a few other readers might be just as interested in that detail as the fact elder Thomas was drinking coffee, eating banana-nut muffins and drumming his fingers on a wooden table the day that the reporter interviewed him.

The church in Chicago referenced in that same paragraph is kept equally vague in the story. One would assume that it’s a Church of Christ — an a cappella one, given that Drumheller cited that theological dispute in going to an instrumental church. But the story never provides any concrete information on the Chicago church, not even a name. (The story does make reference to Drumheller’s “fundamentalist Methodist” upbringing.)

Similar vague treatment is given to the theological issue that started the dispute between the Virginia church’s elders and Drumheller. The elders hired a private investigator and discovered the murder conviction only after this occurred:

Then, early this summer, after a series of angry confrontations with the elders, sparked by scriptural interpretations about what becomes of the soul after death, Drumheller noticed that Robert Thomas and Rexrode had added their names to the list of trustees without a vote by the congregation. Drumheller notified the local court, secretly called a meeting of a few trusted church members and orchestrated a coup, stripping both elders of their positions. Drumheller and the new board moved the church’s $30,000 of savings into new bank accounts. In a later interview, he referred to the elders as a “dictatorship” and accused them of having “coronated” Rexrode’s wife, Gilda, as church treasurer.

Thomas and Rexrode were so stunned that they hired a private detective to check into Drumheller’s business dealings.

The investigation unearthed a stunning revelation, which soon made headlines in the Daily News-Record, the local newspaper:

Drumheller — never mind his seemingly genteel nature — had beaten his girlfriend’s 14-month-old son to death in 1970.

The disagreement over what happens to the soul after death was heated enough to flare tempers in an extreme way. Yet the Post never provides any kind of explanation of the theological positions involved in this disagreement. Drama matters, but apparently not doctrine.

The story does mention that Drumheller received his M.Div. from a diploma mill:

The resume also listed that Drumheller had received his master’s in divinity degree from “Rochville University” in “Rockville, Maryland.” Drumheller, in an interview, said he thought it was a legitimate online institution. But Rochville — with no campus in Rockville or anywhere else — is widely regarded as a diploma mill and is not accredited by the U.S. Education Department.

Certainly, the independent Christian Churches have their own associated institutions that train ministers, such as Cincinnati Christian University. Did the fact that this new minister claimed a degree from a university not tied to that fellowship — and probably not familiar to these elders — not raise any kind of red flags?

Your turn, GR readers: By all means, read the story. Despite my criticisms, it’s a compelling, meaty piece of journalism. After you read it, tell me: Are the kind of details I’m seeking relevant? Or am I asking for too much?

Just what do you make of this cautionary tale?

Fine line between shallow, spiritual

The word through the grapevine is that tmatt is wrapping up end-of-the-semester grading this afternoon.

Here on the Christian university campus where I work, students are taking final tests and rushing home for holiday break. (Yes, I did that on purpose so I could share this link, which you may or may not enjoy. For the record, I found it highly entertaining.)

Speaking of exams …

Isn’t it about time that GetReligion readers were subjected to one?

Here’s your assignment:

1. Read this story from The Washington Post about a Franciscan priest living out his faith in what the Post describes as “one of the largest and most dangerous drug-growing areas in the world.”

Here’s the top of the story:

YECORA, MEXICO — A twisting federal highway passes through this mountain town in the western Sierra Madre, halfway between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

The Sinaloa drug cartel controls one side. The Juarez cartel rules the other. In the middle is the Rev. David Beaumont, a Franciscan priest from Hempstead, N.Y.

When Beaumont arrived here 20 years ago as a young missionary, the roads were unpaved, there was no electricity, and there was little to eat besides beans and tortillas. He’d been sent to serve dirt-poor Pima Indians, some of whom were still living in caves, but they ran and hid whenever he arrived in their villages.

“Sometimes I think it was easier back then,” said Beaumont, 50, laughing at that memory as he rumbled along a dirt road in a pickup truck and the tattered brown friar’s habit he wears over bluejeans. With his long beard and hair, and 6-foot-3 frame, he is an emissary for peace, humility and love in one of the largest and most dangerous drug-growing areas in the world.

2. Read this story from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., about a white couple moving to an inner-city area and choosing to send their son to a predominantly black school.

Here’s the top of the story:

Not long after Mandy and Robert Grisham moved to Midtown five years ago to start a church, they began hearing about The Decision they were going to face as their son Adam got closer to school age.

Stay in Midtown, get in line for private schools, and spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours in a car over the next 13 to 15 years.

Or move to the suburbs.

The Grishams didn’t want to move. They loved the diversity and urban amenities of Midtown. It reminded them of the San Francisco Bay Area, where they lived while Robert attended Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

OK, class, no skipping ahead. If you didn’t read the stories, please follow directions and do so now.

(Insert “Jeopardy!” think music here.)

Now, are we all caught up?

The Post story is gripping and well-written. The compelling scenes and anecdotes help put a face on the priest. He’s described as “a spiritual father and a surrogate one.” He’s “completely devoted to Christ,” an apprentice friar says. He organizes a march with “icons of Saint Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe.” He preaches a very specific sermon on Saint Francis.

So, yes, there’s plenty of detail there about the what of Beaumont’s ministry. On the other hand, the story seems severely lacking in the why.

The friar does not talk about his faith in Jesus. He does not share intimate details about what he believes. Surely such matters came up in such an extended conversation with the reporter? Surely he preached a sermon or two (with a translator helping the reporter listen in)?

Contrast the Post piece with the Memphis story by veteran Godbeat writer David Waters.

Waters’ story never sets foot in a church, I don’t believe.

Yet the religion angle — the spiritual angle — strikes at what I would characterize as a deep level.

Consider this section, which follows a quote in which Mandy Grishman says she became “an evangelist” for the local public school:

Two of her converts were Ginger and Josh Spickler. From the day their son Walt was born, the Spicklers assumed they would send him to private schools.

“I certainly never intended to send my kids to Peabody,” Ginger Spickler said.

“It’s quite a leap to send your kid to the neighborhood school that isn’t actually educating any (or at least many) of the neighborhood kids, has so-so test scores, and where he’ll be in the extreme minority. And if we hadn’t felt so confident in Peabody’s leadership, I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation.”

“Ultimately, it did come down to making a leap of faith. After making what we felt was the best decision for our family, we had to trust that God loves our child even more than we do and would take care of him if we’d screwed up. Honestly, we probably went into it feeling that we would be making some sacrifices by sending him there, but at least so far, I would say it has been one of the best parenting decisions we’ve made. I can’t imagine feeling as positive about any school as I do about Peabody.”

So, class, here’s the scenario for your essay exam: One story is about an overtly religious topic. The other is about — at least on the surface — a not-so-religious endeavor. But which piece does the better job of conveying issues of faith and spirituality?

As usual, RNS gets religion

After writing thousands of news stories, features and personal columns in my 20-year reporting career, I see myself as a veteran journalist and a competent one at that.

As for this part-time GetReligion gig, I’m nine months and just more than 100 posts into it and certainly qualify as a rookie.

As a rookie, I’m still finding my way, learning how to criticize — and praise — in ways that draw readers’ attention and start a dialogue. (Did I mention that we really like it when readers leave comments?) And typically, like my fellow GetReligionistas, I’m writing fast, posting quickly and forever etching my opinion into Google stone.

In a few cases, I have second-guessed myself after hitting the publish button. One such case involved my post titled “An Okie asks: Is RNS the new CAIR?” In that post, I came down pretty hard on my (former?) friends at Religion News Service, for which I occasionally wrote freelance stories before joining GetReligion. As tmatt said in a comment on that post, the story criticized “did not live up to the very high standards that are the norm for RNS, one of our most important journalism forces on this beat.”

But based on a single story, my post made broad generalizations about a news service that more often than not produces exceptional religion journalism. I regret that.

With this post, though, I come to praise RNS (mostly), not to bury it.

In a follow-up story on the ongoing debate over the anti-Sharia (or is it Shariah?) law passed by Oklahoma voters, RNS profiles the state’s Republican attorney general-elect:

Backers of a referendum that would bar Oklahoma courts from considering Islamic law admit they suffered a setback when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the measure last month.

But they are pinning their hopes on Attorney General-elect Scott Pruitt, a minor league baseball team owner and former state senator who has already made a big mark on religious laws in Oklahoma.

“This is just round one,” said Jordan Sekulow, an attorney at the American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative legal firm advising Oklahoma state Sen. Anthony Sykes, who co-authored the anti-Shariah amendment.

“Admit” is not my favorite word in the above context. It generally carries a connotation of wrongdoing. I’d prefer a different word, such as “acknowledge” or “know,” in the lede. But I’m nitpicking. This is an excellent story, especially given the space constraints of a wire report.

The tight, 700-word story takes a very specific angle — the new AG — and focuses on his potential role in the high-profile case. Not only do readers learn that Pruitt is a Southern Baptist deacon, but the piece cites the politician’s past involvement with religion-related cases:

As a state senator in 2000, he co-authored the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, which, according to his website, “makes it more difficult for a government to burden an individual’s practicing of his or her faith, even in the public square.”

But a legal twist may force Pruitt to battle his own legislation, or at least how it is interpreted. U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange cited the Religious Freedom Act in her ruling against the referendum.

The act states that “no governmental entity shall substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion,” unless there is an overriding government interest.

“Those two measures are at war with each other,” said Joseph Thai, a constitutional expert at the University of Oklahoma’s law school. “The Religious Freedom Act is a model of religious accommodation, while the state ballot measure is a model of intolerance.”

That’s excellent background. Even better, an attorney who disagrees with Thai is given space to share his viewpoint.

Pruitt himself is not quoted in the story. That’s his own fault; a spokeswoman told RNS that he wouldn’t comment on pending cases until taking office Jan. 10. Kudos to RNS for not letting Pruitt’s silence keep it from doing an important story.

As RNS and other news media pursue future stories on the Oklahoma law, I’d urge them to check out this Tulsa World piece, reporting on a survey that found a majority of the state’s residents believe Islam is a violent religion. The poll results provide some excellent data concerning Oklahomans and their views on Muslims.

Since I’m new at this blogging thing, I don’t know if I should end this post now, with the warm and fuzzy thoughts I have expressed so far, or mention a recent USA Today story on the Oklahoma law. That story featured this lede:

Muneer Awad’s opponents label him “a foreigner” trying to change Oklahoma’s laws.

If I were going to bring up that story, I’d probably ask who the unnamed opponents are. The article never says who called him “a foreigner.”

Then again, I think I’ll stick with the positive. This time.

Noah built an ark … in Kentucky (Updated)

The headline on a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, of all things, tells the story best:

They paved Kentucky and put up a Noah’s ark

That’s right, folks. A for-profit company is reaching deep into the biblical archives — all the way back to Genesis, in fact — to build a theme park featuring a “full-size replica” of the ark, as The New York Times reported.

How big is a full-size replica? Um, for reasons that will be explained later, the Times apparently did not have room to include such details. But Genesis 6:14-16 contains these instructions by God to Noah:

14Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

16A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

That’s from the King James Version of the Bible. I’m typically a New International Version guy, but the NIV refers to “cypress wood.” My Sunday school classmates and I learned at an early age that Noah used “gopher wood,” as the KJV accurately reports.

You can imagine the kind of questions that reporters asked at the news conference announcing this project:

Will you use authentic gopher wood or a different kind of wood in this project?

– What is pitch, and how will it affect the construction process?

– How many feet are in a cubit?

– Will your ark only have one door and one window for all the animals and tourists? And if so, will this create fire-code concerns?

– Given that it took Noah an estimated 100 years to complete the ark, why are you confident you can finish the project in just 36 months?

I jest, I jest, although maybe a Godbeat pro did ask a few of those questions.

But based on the media coverage I have seen, I suspect that most of the questions related to separation of church and state — or, if you prefer, separation of church and synagogue. Alas, this is America, where there is always a political angle to ruin a perfectly good religion story.

Again, I jest, I jest.

In this case, plans for the state to provide generous tourism tax incentives to the ark entrepreneurs have dominated the news coverage, much to the chagrin of folks — or maybe I’m the only one — intrigued by the idea of the ark itself.

The New York Times piece did include a few juicy details such as this:

In the interest of verisimilitude, the ark is to be built with wooden pegs and timber framing by Amish builders, Mr. Zovath said. Animals including giraffes — but only small, young giraffes — will be kept in pens on board.

“We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room,” said Mr. Zovath, a retired Army lieutenant colonel heading the ark project. “We want to show how Noah would have taken care of them, taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader provided this information on the dimensions:

The centerpiece of the proposed park is a 500-foot-by-75-foot wooden ark built to replicate the biblical Noah’s Ark.

And the Herald-Leader also included this:

The ark will be made of various types of wood and capable of floating.

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Ark Encounter, which will feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark containing live animals such as juvenile giraffes, is projected to cost $150 million and create 900 jobs, Beshear announced at a Capitol press conference.

I really liked the lede on The Associated Press’ ark story:

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Modern-day investors want to do in three years what took Noah and his sons more than 100 years to do: Build an ark to the dimensions specified in the Bible.

Mike Zovath, co-founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry that opened the Creation Museum in Kentucky three years ago, said Wednesday he believes the full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark will draw some 1.6 million visitors a year to the Bible belt city of Williamstown.

The mission of the project, Zovath said, is to lend credence to the biblical account of a catastrophic flood and to dispel doubts that Noah could have fit two of every kind of animal onto a 500-foot-long ark.

There, in the first sentence, the AP writer answered a key question: whether the ark would conform to biblical dimensions. That’s a crucial question, in my opinion. And in the third graf, the AP gives the exact length: 500 feet.

Don’t misunderstand me: The church-state debate is an key element of this story. So is the clash of “mainstream scientific thought” against “the biblical account of the Earth’s creation in six days.”

But future news accounts could benefit — in an ark-sized way — from a few more details about the massive wooden boat at the center of this flood of controversy.

‘Power of resilience and hope’

If you’re looking for reflections on God and religion in mainstream news coverage of Elizabeth Edwards’ death, the hunt may take a while.

Mentions here and there of faith, grace and religion punctuate major obituaries reviewed by your GetReligionistas. But in general, the reports stop short of meaty details on what Edwards believed and even if she had a particular religious affiliation.

Religion ghosts, anyone?

In Edwards’ home state, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., included this detail concerning how the 1996 death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident influenced Elizabeth and husband John:

Wade’s death changed the arc of the Edwardses’ lives. They found religion, changed careers from law to politics and added to their family.

“We asked ourselves, what gives us joy?” she recalled. “Well that was easy. Children gave us joy. Should we have more children? That would be wonderful, but I was 46. Could we?”

Found religion. Does it get any better — er, vaguer — than that?

Well, OK, maybe it does. Edwards titled her best-selling 2006 memoir “Saving Graces.” The Los Angeles Times quoted from that memoir:

“In many ways John and I were different,” she wrote in “Saving Graces.” “I had traveled the world; he had never left the South….But we had each moved from place to place, following our fathers’ jobs. We had each lived in company housing — military bases for me, mill villages for John. Neither of us had a chance to be rooted in a place, so we were rooted in family and faith, the things we took with us.”

Rooted in family and faith. But what kind of faith?

Sorry, that’s it.

For a different twist, The Washington Post’s obit contained this section:

The publication of an anonymously sourced book, “Game Change,” this year shocked many, because it punctured “the lie of Saint Elizabeth,” as writers John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote, repeating allegations that she berated campaign staffers and raged profanely at volunteers.

“With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive,” they wrote. “At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a ‘hick’ in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks.”

Jennifer Palmieri, a former Edwards campaign official, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed defense of her friend: “Elizabeth would be the first to tell you that she is opinionated, unyielding, blunt and unwilling to suffer fools. Saint Elizabeth she is not. And no one laughs louder than she at that notion. But she is also one of the wisest, warmest and funniest girlfriends a woman could hope to have, truly a call-her-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-she-will-drop-everything-to-help sort.”

Saint. That’s a religious term, right? But still, there’s no substantive discussion of Edwards’ religion.

Perhaps that’s because Edwards’ religion wasn’t so easy to pin down — or to describe, although she apparently served at one time on the board of the Call to Renewal, a leading organization of the religious left.

Writing in “Saving Graces” about her son’s death, Edwards referenced the trials of Job from the Bible (page 140). She shared her dialogue with other grieving mothers:

We are not Job, I wrote, though the wind took away our child. These deaths cannot be tests of our faith. The level of malevolence or ambivalence from a god that this conclusion requires is unthinkable. We may each, like Job, face questions of faith, including facing questions of our own pride. The lucky of us come to a complete and comforting faith. It is hard not to wish for us all the peace that comes with that acceptance.

But her final statement, posted on her Facebook page the day before her death, did not mention God. Instead, as one blogger pointed out, it noted “three saving graces” and “a faith in the power of resilience and hope”:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.

But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

Writing for Christianity Today, GetReligion’s own Sarah Pulliam Bailey cited a 2007 American Prospect piece in which Edwards discussed her theology:

Asked by Beth Corbin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to explain how her faith beliefs inform her politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave an extraordinarily radical answer: She doesn’t believe in salvation, at least not in the standard Christian understanding of it, and she said as much:

“I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer.” After the words “or her,” Mrs. Edwards gave a little laugh, indicating she knew she had waded into water perhaps a bit deeper than the audience had anticipated. Then she continued:

“I appreciate other people’s prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don’t that believe we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that’s what’s right. We should do those things because that’s what’s right.”

Extremely interesting and relevant. Just don’t look for that kind of insight in this morning’s paper.

So many Muslims, so few quoted

Here’s the headline on a Page A01 story from Sunday’s Washington Post:

Mosque infiltration feeds Muslims’ distrust of FBI

Here’s the top of the meaty, 2,200-word report:

IRVINE, CALIF. РBefore the sun rose, the informant donned a white Islamic robe. A tiny camera was sewn into a button, and a microphone was buried in a device attached to his keys.

“This is Farouk al-Aziz, code name Oracle,” he said into the keys as he sat in his parked car in this quiet community south of Los Angeles. “It’s November 13th, 4:30 a.m. And we’re hot.”

The undercover FBI informant – a convicted forger named Craig Monteilh – then drove off for 5 a.m. prayers at the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he says he spied on dozens of worshipers in a quest for potential terrorists.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the FBI has used informants successfully as one of many tactics to prevent another strike in the United States. Agency officials say they are careful not to violate civil liberties and do not target Muslims.

But the FBI’s approach has come under fire from some Muslims, criticism that surfaced again late last month after agents arrested an Oregon man they said tried to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. FBI technicians had supplied the device.

In the Irvine case, Monteilh’s mission as an informant backfired. Muslims were so alarmed by his talk of violent jihad that they obtained a restraining order against him.

So far, so good. The lede provides compelling, precise details (the reference to “some Muslims” notwithstanding). The dramatic opening scene sets the stage for the main thesis: that FBI tactics have hurt relations with Muslims and hampered the nation’s fight against terrorism.

After reporting more specific details on the Monteilh case, the Post raises the stakes:

Some Muslims in Southern California and nationally say the cascading revelations have seriously damaged their relationship with the FBI, a partnership that both sides agree is critical to preventing attacks and homegrown terrorism.

Citing Monteilh’s actions and what they call a pattern of FBI surveillance, many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau.

“The community feels betrayed,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella group of more than 75 mosques.

“They got a guy, a bona fide criminal, and obviously trained him and sent him to infiltrate mosques,” Syed said. “And when things went sour, they ditched him and he got mad. It’s like a soap opera, for God’s sake.”

So far, so good.


Now, all the Post needs to do is back up the facts that it just reported.


As best I can tell, the story quotes Syed and one other Muslim — a student from the Los Angeles mosque — who say Muslims’ relationship with the FBI has been hurt. I guess two qualifies as some Muslims. However, the paper refers — without attribution — to damaged relationships in Southern California and nationally. Where are the national sources?

Meanwhile, many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau.

Who are these many leading national Muslim organizations? I read the story three times, and I found mention of exactly zero national Muslim organizations. If many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact, shouldn’t the story identify them?

And since we’re in the business of nitpicking here at GetReligion, what exactly does virtually suspended contact mean? Does that mean you only call the FBI three times a year instead of 20? Seriously, what does it mean?

So far, so good.

Nah, take that back. So far, too good.

The Post overreached and failed to deliver the promised goods.