That was the decade that was

Noughties.jpgHats off to Robert Pigott, religious affairs correspondent of the BBC, who takes on the ambitious question of how God has fared during the first decade of the 21st century. The series title of “What Have the Noughties Done for God?” may be too precious by half, but I cannot dismiss it as being forgettable.

Pigott’s introductory piece is 14 minutes, which in TV land qualifies as in-depth reporting. Pigott selects various events to illustrate trends — Muslim extremism here, the irreverence of Jerry Springer: The Opera there; newly muscular atheism here, calm Anglican responses there. There are inevitable generalizations about tensions between religious institutions and a surrounding secular culture, and of how some believers adapt their faith to withstand challenges from nonbelievers.

For maximum effect, watch Pigott’s big-picture report and then supplement it with individual interview segments featuring the series’ talking heads: Sister Wendy Beckett, Reform Rabbi Lionel Blue, Anglican priest and journalist Richard Coles, scientist and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, Anglican vicar Rose Hudson-Wilkin, journalist and social critic Simon Jenkins, Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, actor David Soul and Anglican priest and conservative activist Rod Thomas.

It’s especially amusing to see David Soul, former costar of Starsky & Hutch, complaining about people who picketed Jerry Springer: The Opera without first attending a performance. (Soul played the talk-show host.) There’s something vaguely ridiculous about a beefcake actor showing righteous indignation because some people do not wish to see a performance in which Jesus appears wearing only a diaper.

Pigott’s series is a respectable attempt to make sense of broad ideas during a decade of frequent turmoil. I’m not sure if it qualifies as the first draft of history about the Noughties, but it’s a good preview of the first draft.

Apocalyptic fun

Josh Levin, senior editor of Slate, wrote an epic series this week on the theme “The End of America.” The series begins here, and rolls on in eight segments and about 23,000 words. That’s not counting Slate’s embedded notes and thousands more words in The Fray. Slate also offered discussions on Facebook and Twitter, so the most obsessive readers easily could have devoted an entire week to debating Levin’s reporting.

Levin discussed the many doomsday scenarios in which the United States would be greatly diminished or cease to exist entirely. The savviest Web feature was “Choose Your Own Apocalypse,” which allowed readers to pick their top five threats to U.S. survival.

I highlighted the factors that are connected in any way to religion, including:

• Social critiques attractive to some believers: decadence; Obama as God; neo-humans; cloning; red vs. blue; the Rapture.

• Arguments or strawmen presented against believers or their concerns: the influence of intelligent design; passivity induced by Christianity; gay marriage leading to a separatist, “heterosexual-only state”; voluntary human extinction; tribalism; theocracy.

• A few leftovers: Dec. 21, 2012, doomsday scenarios; militant Islam; Israel-Arab war.

I’m pleased to see that the random array of readers who voted in Slate’s feature chose only one of these factors — the Israel-Arab War — among the top five threats. It appears these readers are not worried about the civilization-threatening potential of intelligent design, Christianity, red vs. blue tensions or theocracy.

Levin writes on an especially engaging theme when he explores the idea that Mormons would preserve American ideals even in a world without the United States.

Read the entire piece, because it’s so sprightly and well-argued, but this paragraph is a good sample:

Seen as honest and incorruptible, Mormons are recruited in great numbers by the FBI. Dubbed by Harold Bloom “perhaps the most work-addicted culture in religious history,” they have proved spectacularly successful in both secular and Church business. (1999′s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise pegged the church’s assets at $25 billion to $30 billion.) They venerate the traditional family unit, rarely divorce, and live as much as a decade longer than the average American. They are just like us, only they’re always on their best behavior.

Levin writes far more about sports than about religion. That is sportswriting’s gain and the Godbeat’s loss.

North Korean backstory

First, simple gratitude: Thank you, Vice President Gore, for founding Current and employing such inspiring journalists as Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Thank you, President Clinton, for securing their safe return.

Ever since Ling and Lee were first detained in North Korea, I kept thinking there was a largely untold religion angle to their story. I did not presume this was for any sinister reasons, but because journalists were more focused on other details, such as whether the two young women would ever be free again.

Well, there is a religion angle. In the weeks ahead, remember the name of the Rev. Chun Ki Won. He appeared in the occasional news story as the man who helped arrange the journalists’ investigation into human trafficking, and advised them on the risks they were taking.

For a good introduction to the work of this South Korean missionary, watch the embedded video from the PBS series Wide Angle. In July that series devoted an episode, “Crossing Heaven’s Border,” to the plight of North Koreans trying to escape their country.

Until Laura Ling and Euna Lee are ready to tell their stories, this PBS report is a good primer in the horrors that attracted their journalistic interest.

What would Markos do?


Andy Doyle, who became bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas in June, recently granted a substantial interview to Evan Smith of Texas Monthly (free registration required). The conversation rolled along fairly well until Smith raised the delicate question of the Episcopal Church’s decades-long discussion of human sexuality:

Let’s talk about the sexual orientation of clergy and same-sex marriage, which have been quite controversial in the church and the subject of a few stories in the press over the past few years.

When it comes to us, it seems like the media does what the media does. It has to sell its product. I think if we had more free media it might be different, but we don’t.

I would say, Bishop, that when you have congregations splitting off in protest, that’s worthy of reporting, and it has nothing to do with free versus paid media. So, to finish, I’d like to ask you: Do you have a position on these issues?

The Diocese of Texas is very conservative, and it has a very traditional understanding of marriage. I do not see my work as trying to change that. Even though there is a great diversity of points of view on this topic, the people of the diocese will not see changes in how we look at same-sex blessings or unions, nor on the topic of ordination of bishops. …

The thread is so common among bishops of the Episcopal Church that it’s almost a meme: Reporters focus too much on the church’s disputes about sexuality. Some bishops (not Doyle, in this case) even accuse reporters of willful distortion.

Doyle is the first bishop I’ve seen, however, to look toward unpaid media as possibly resolving conflicts between news-minded reporters and PR-minded church leaders.

I’m thankful for Smith’s gracious but firm response, and I would take it further. Quite apart from whether people are leaving, a church ought to expect journalistic interest when it takes steps — incremental or large — toward redefining marriage.

That said, Doyle shows signs of being a great bishop to interview for many years to come. He’s especially good, and speaking from the heart, as he continues answering Smith’s question:

… Now — and this is the important part for me — I grew up in a diverse culture and have friends who are gay and lesbian. The reality of our diocese is that we have gays and lesbians who go to our churches. They find their spiritual journeys entwined with our own in this place. So when I make the statement that things will not change, there is a great deal of pain. I am unwilling to pretend that pain is not there. Where there is love, there is always a great deal of pain, and I love the people of the Diocese of Texas. That love is not a love that is bound by issues of sexuality.

Do you feel compelled by the conservatism of the diocese to preside differently than you’d like to if it were not the diocese’s stated position?

Your question misses the very deepest understanding of the vocation that I have as bishop. I am the individual called forth by the community to guard and protect the faith and to hand the faith on as I have received it.

So your personal point of view doesn’t really matter.


This is a solid and perceptive Q&A, and it’s refreshing to see a bishop thinking theologically in Texas Monthly.

Corazon Aquino and the ultimate resource

Summing up a life as eventful as Corazon Aquino’s is a talented obituary writer’s dream. In these early hours after the death of the former president of the Philippines, I think Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle has done the finest job.

Bronstein, who reported from the Philippines during Aquino’s peaceful overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos, understands the most important points: That she was a Nobel Prize nominee, not that she was a Time Person of the Year; that her vision was informed by her Catholic faith, but that she could only change so many things in her six years as president.

Unlike other reporters, Bronstein identifies the moment that transformed Aquino from a widow into a formidable challenges of Marcos:

… She only shook those doubts when a godson, Jeremias de Jesus, and a campaign worker were murdered in the family province of Tarlac.

“When they killed Jerry,” she told me soon after, “that had such an impact on me I went on the offensive.”

She began giving speeches, calling Marcos “a coward, a liar and a thief.”

“Normally I don’t like attacking people,” she said. “It’s not my nature.”

But she relished it and so did the growing crowds.

In the Los Angeles Times, reporters Bob Drogin and John M. Glionna deliver this Catholic-bashing shot:

Her administration had little success in alleviating the grinding poverty that affects more than half the population or in stamping out the nation’s endemic cronyism, graft and corruption. A staunch Roman Catholic, she gutted birth control programs in one of Asia’s most crowded and poorest countries.

Imagine that: A Catholic politician in a nation that’s about 80 percent Catholic allowed Catholic faith to shape her policy on birth control. Did I miss the memo that declares Malthusianism as such an important standard for evaluating politicians?

George Tiller and a vague They


David Barstow of The New York Times has written a 5,600-word report on the decades-long tensions between the late Dr. George Tiller and the protesters who worked to shut down his abortion clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, in Wichita, Kansas. A lone gunman murdered Tiller on Pentecost Sunday while Tiller served as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita.

Barstow’s report implies that anti-Tiller violence was simply one of many tactics used by a broadly defined anti-abortion movement. Barstow’s many details are sometimes obscured by unclear writing, or language that appears to depict Tiller in heroic terms while describing his opponents more critically. Here are some revisions that I believe would have strengthened a deeply researched but unbalanced report. I have added comments after the blockquotes.

Shrewd and resourceful, Dr. Tiller made himself the nation’s pre-eminent abortion practitioner, advertising widely and drawing women to Wichita from all over across the nation with his willingness to perform late-term abortions, hundreds each year. As anti-abortion activists discovered, he gave as good as he got, wearing their contempt opposition as a badge of honor. A “warrior,” they called him with grudging respect.

Let’s save the glowing adjectives unless they’re distributed more evenly. Do you mean to suggest that anti-abortion leaders were driven by contempt? How could anyone know this?

And so for more than 30 years the anti-abortion movement threw everything into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would deal a devastating blow to the “abortion industry” that has abortion clinics that have terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

This change avoids loaded jargon and scare quotes.

They blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted; boycotted his suppliers; tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him “Tiller the baby killer”; hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church.

Did the same people do all of these things? Did the same people engage in both nonviolent protest and more intrusive actions with hidden cameras? How many people comprise this every-possible-weapon collective? Did as many people show up at his church as at his clinic?

Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. Some anonymous individuals, whose ties to anti-abortion groups cannot be determined, sent death threats. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding Dr. Tiller in both arms.

Were any death threats traced, even peripherally, to leaders of anti-abortion groups? Did anti-abortion leaders, in Kansas or across the nation, respond to this bombing or this shooting? What did they say?

Confident and dryly mischievous, he Dr. Tiller told friends he had come to see himself as a general in an epic cultural war to keep abortion legal, to the point of giving employees plaques designating them “Freedom Fighters.”

Is there something clearly mischievous about Tiller’s self-perception or his distribution of these plaques? You’ve already established his confidence.

The son of a prominent Wichita physician, married 45 years, the father of 4 and grandfather of 10, a former Navy flight surgeon, a longtime Republican, Dr. Tiller, 67, insisted that he would not be driven from out of business in his hometown, where he belonged to its oldest country club, was a devoted member of one of its largest churches, was active in Alcoholics Anonymous, was deeply involved in his alma mater, the University of Kansas, and adored his local Dairy Queen.

Can you show that any anti-abortion leader wanted to drive him away from Wichita? Was that the point of these protests? Would protesters have declared victory and gone home if he had moved Women’s Health Care Services to Topeka or Kansas City?

Friends said Dr. Tiller knew he would become a target. Pickets first showed up in 1975, two years after he performed his first abortion. Years later, an anti-abortion group put him on a “wanted” poster of prominent abortion providers and offered $5,000 for information leading to his arrest. When an abortion provider in Florida was assassinated murdered in 1994, Dr. Tiller spent the next few years under the protection of federal marshals.

Do you mean to suggest that the murder of David Gunn, cold-blooded and lawless as it was, equates to the killing of President Kennedy, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.?

Protesters approached patients’ cars, offering them baby blankets and urging them to visit an anti-abortion pregnancy clinic they had set up next door. Sometimes they followed patients to their hotels and slipped pamphlets under their doors. A few years ago anti-abortion campaigners spent weeks in a hotel room with a view of the Tiller clinic entrance. Using a powerful telephoto lens, they took photographs of patients, which were posted on a Web site with their faces blurred.

Much of this activity was methodically tracked by [Mark S. Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life], who said he presides over a network of 600 volunteers, some of whom drove hundreds of miles for a protest “shift.” Protesters counted cars entering the clinic gate, and they tracked “saves” — patients who changed their minds. According to Mr. Gietzen’s data, over the last five years they had 395 “saves” for an “overall save rate” of 3.77 percent.

They also kept detailed “incident reports” of unusual activity. It was a bonanza if an ambulance was summoned; photographs were quickly posted If an ambulance was summoned, Gietzen’s group quickly posted photographs as evidence of another “botched” problematic abortion.

Is bonanza perhaps too flippant a word in this context? Also, you’re clearly distancing yourself from Gietzen’s jargon throughout this passage, and that’s fine, but do you mean to suggest that no abortion has complications?

Jacki G., 29, went to Dr. Tiller for an abortion in 1996 after she was raped. She can still remember her trepidation when she and her mother pulled up to the clinic a few weeks into her pregnancy.

In [her?] middle school in Wichita, she said, children chanted “Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer.”

This is so vague that it’s confusing. Is she suggesting that middle-school students throughout Wichita chanted this? Did she say how large a group did this chanting? Was it widespread, perhaps even occurring during pep rallies? Might this seemingly perfect detail be worth verifying?

She recalled the gory Truth Trucks driving around town and the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protests, when hundreds were arrested for blockading Dr. Tiller’s clinic.

You’ve already described the Truth Trucks, with scare quotes on first reference, in ample detail to establish their goriness. This places too fine a point on it.

[Tiller's staff] worked under intense pressure, caring for women in distress while constantly confronting protesters eager to pounce on their every mistake watching for mistakes or negligence. Abortion protesters sent pregnant women into the clinic “under cover,” undercover, hoping to catch the staff violating Kansas abortion regulations.

Scare quotes are gratuitous here. Presumably the pregnant women entering the clinic undercover had minds and wills of their own. Journalists have conducted undercover investigations of abortion clinics for years. Is such activity beyond the pale for anti-abortion activists?

As Wichita’s three other abortion clinics closed under the pressure of protesters, Dr. Tiller cultivated a sense of mission. Throughout the clinic he hung hundreds of framed thank-you letters from patients. He posted a list of “Tillerisms” — his favorite axioms, including, “The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Attribute this axiom to Edmund Burke. The word Tillerisms implies that Tiller coined it.

Since 1998, interviews and state statistics show, his clinic performed about 4,800 late-term abortions, at least 22 weeks into gestation, around the earliest point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. At 22 weeks, the average fetus is 11 inches long, weighs a pound and is starting to respond to noise.

About 2,000 of these abortions involved fetuses that could not have survived outside the womb, either because they had catastrophic genetic defects or they were simply too small.

But the other 2,800 abortions involved viable fetuses. Some had serious but survivable abnormalities, like Down syndrome. Many were perfectly healthy.

Good work on providing context for these 4,800 late-term abortions. Would it be helpful to provide statistics on how many abortions the clinic performed because of Down syndrome? The abortion rate in Down’s cases is staggeringly high, according to this study.

According to [Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins], the files he saw contained diagnoses like adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression that to his eyes were not “substantial and irreversible.” He also claimed concluded that some women offered “trivial” trivial reasons for wanting an abortion, like a desire to play sports. “I can only tell you,” he said in his taped interview, “that from these records, anybody could have gotten an abortion if they wanted one.”

Quoting a full sentence from his report would do away with the scare quotes and place the remark in a fuller context. Otherwise, there is no reason to telegraph disagreement with McHugh.

Yet Dr. McHugh’s description of the files left out crucial bits of context. He failed to mention, for example, that one patient was a 10-year-old girl, 28 weeks pregnant, who had been raped by an adult relative. Asked about this omission by The New York Times, Dr. McHugh said that while the girl’s case was “terrible,” it did not change his assessment: “She did not have something irreversible that abortion could correct.” (Dr. Tiller’s lawyers, who have called Dr. McHugh’s description of the patient files “deeply misleading,” declined to discuss their contents.)

If McHugh does not mention this child, what makes her case a crucial detail? Does her tragic case explain all 4,800 late-term abortions? Does McHugh suggest that this child sought an abortion for trivial reasons? Does he write that Tiller routinely performed abortions on minors who were not raped? What other crucial bits of context, if any, did McHugh omit? What would be a thorough and accurate depiction of Tiller’s abortion clinic?

Checking in with Judas

TakingOfChrist.jpgThe New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella writes elegantly. Her recent article on Michael Jackson as a dancer was one of the finest non-mawkish reflections that followed Jackson’s sudden death early this month.

Acocella brings a similar focus to “Betrayal: Should we hate Judas Iscariot?” — which, despite its loaded subtitle, is a wry summary of efforts to rehabilitate Judas into Jesus’ friend, a catalyst to Jesus’ Gnostic salvation or, most predictably transgressive, Jesus’ gay lover.

She is toughest on Susan Gubar, Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Indiana University and author of Judas: A Biography. Acocella quotes this passage from Gubar’s work:

At other times and in diverse contexts, though, Judas represents a range of quite various and variously stigmatized populations — criminals, heretics, foreigners, Africans, dissidents, the disabled, the suicidal, the insane, the incurably ill, the agnostic. Members of these groups, too, have been faulted for posing or passing as (alien) insiders. Potentially convertible, all such outcasts might be thought to be using camouflaging techniques to infiltrate, hide out, assimilate, and thereby turn a treacherous trick.

Then she pounces:

Really? The incurably ill are turning tricks? Good for them!

This is shocking nonsense — argument by incantation — but its import is clear: Judas represents all the oppressed, and Gubar is there to defend them.

Fun as that is, I’m concerned about how Acocella treats Bart D. Ehrman and his book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Acocella depicts Ehrman, who has described himself as a happy agnostic and no believer that there is any afterlife, as somehow tormented by the thought that few people go to heaven:

“The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed” (2006), by Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, came out too early to have to deal with the National Geographic team’s second thoughts, but Ehrman, in his writings on the gospel, obviously did worry about the statement that just about nobody would be saved. He claims it’s not true that Jesus said that; then he says it’s true; then he says it’s not true — all on a single page. But never mind, he concludes: “Some of us have a spark of the divine within, and when we die, we will burst forth from the prisons of our bodies and return to our heavenly home … to live glorious and exalted lives forever.” I like that quiet “some.” Maybe not most of us, maybe not you or me, but some of us.

Visit and search Ehrman’s book for the phrase “spark of the divine.” Then the context becomes clear: Ehrman is explaining what one school of Gnostics believed and not what he hopes is true.

Acocella’s closing paragraph sets up a strawman of a fundamentalism in which “every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally,” but she finds her way toward a sensible conclusion that “The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.”

Acocella’s treatment of both Ehrman and fundamentalists leaves me wondering whether there may be more to Susan Gubar’s work than this essay would lead readers to believe.

In the beauty of holiness


Architecture is one of the more neglected corners of religion coverage, but occasionally a conflict about historic preservation revives the theme. National Public Radio’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reported in 2008 about the battle between Third Church of Christ, Scientist, and city officials over the church’s desire to replace its Brutalist-style facility. (That battle rages on, and this website tracks the latest developments, from the perspective of church members.)

Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune has written a brief but wonderful report on preservationists within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the lovely buildings they have saved — and tried without success to save. Be sure to watch the seven-minute multimedia presentation that accompanies her article.

These preservationists must negotiate with church leaders based in Salt Lake City, and the report makes clear that the church tries to be responsive, even while guarding its higher priorities:

Landmark LDS temples, tabernacles and meetinghouses could be maintained if they have “significant history, art or architecture,” says Steve Olson, a member of the church’s historic-site committee. “But the church is not in the preservation business. We don’t just preserve things because they’re pretty. Our buildings need to continue to facilitate the work of the church, which is saving souls.”

… In February 1971, LDS leaders decided to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle, a magnificent edifice rising like a cathedral from the Summit County farmland. Every day for a week, The New York Times reported the progress of a group of residents working furiously to win a restraining order against the church. When a judge overturned the order, Mormon officials didn’t hesitate. Two days later, a testament to the devotion of early Saints was reduced to rubble.

A generation of LDS preservationists was born that day. And the church learned that many people — in and outside the church — care about preserving physical evidence of LDS faith and faithfulness.

As Stack reports, the 1970s were just as brutal on historic LDS structures as on so many other landmarks. For anyone who has visited a nondescript LDS ward built in that decade, or in many of the years since then, Stack’s article documents the beauty that once was.

Photo: The former Coalville Tabernacle.