Praise the Lord and pass the severed heads

If a headline by sounds too good to be true — “Drug Dealing for Jesus: Mexico’s Evangelical Narcos” — it’s because the article fails to deliver any serious evidence to back its claim. We’re told that members of La Familia Michoacana “purport to be devout Evangelical Christians” (that D-word should set off incredulity meters across the land) and that “They are also made to study a special Bible authored by the gang’s spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno, alias El Mas Loco, or ‘The Maddest One.’”

Otherwise, reporter Ioan Grillo delivers quotes no more clearly pious than what one would hear on any given Sunday from Joel Osteen:

Federal agents seized one copy of La Familia’s Bible in a raid last year. Quoted in local newspapers, the scripture paints an ideology that mixes Evangelical-style self help with insurgent peasant slogans reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution. “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work,” Moreno writes using terms that could be found in many Christian sermons preached from Mississippi to Brazil.

The more interesting detail I’ve found comes from longtime reporter Joseph Michael Reynolds, at his blog July Dogs, who writes that El Mas Loco appears to be a fan of writer John Eldredge:

There are four separate references to Eldredge in [a] Mexican intelligence memo on La Familia. The cartel has conducted a three-year recruitment and PR campaign across Michoacan featuring thousands of billboards and banderas carrying their evangelical message and warnings. La Familia is known for tagging its executions and other mayhem as “la divina justica” — divine justice.

The report says La Familia leader, Nazario Gonzalez Moreno aka El Loco o More Chayo (“The Craziest”) has made Eldredge’s books required reading for La Familia and has paid rural teachers and National Development Education members to circulate the Colorado-based evangelical’s writings throughout the Michoacan countryside.

El Mas Loco has earned his nickname. I wrote a profile of Eldredge for Christianity Today in 2004, and I feel safe in saying that it would take a truly insane reading of his books to conclude that he has a soft spot for drug-dealing or cutting off the heads of one’s enemies.

That said, I’m swearing off two things: Ever using the word devout as a lazy way to describe someone’s faith, and ever thinking about joining a community of believers calling themselves The Family. Whether in Mexico City, California or Washington, it has become a bad-mojo magnet.

Cronkite: “Journalism prevailed”

Our friends at Episcopal Café may be about the only media people to place Walter Cronkite’s faith so high in a story, but there it is, right in the headline: “Walter Cronkite, newsanchor & Episcopalian, dies at 92.”

In a 2,700-word report for The New York Times, Douglas Martin mentioned Cronkite’s faith only in the context of his funeral: “The family said it was planning a private service at St. Bartholemew’s Church in New York.”

Mark Moring of Christianity Today quoted from a statement released by evangelist Billy Graham, who called Cronkite “one of the closest friends I had in journalism.” Graham added: “He was an icon. I doubt if anybody will replace him in the hearts and minds of Americans. I respected his views on so many subjects.”

The most rewarding material about Cronkite’s faith comes from an interview he granted to The Christian Century in December 1994, while he was in Chicagoland to visit Willow Creek Community Church. The resulting program, The Cronkite Reports: Christianity Reborn: Prayer and Politics, appeared on the Discovery Channel. (The imbalanced list of talking heads gives some idea of the program’s flavor.)

The Century‘s short, direct questions led to thoughtful responses from Cronkite:

Did you have a connection to the church when you were growing up?

I come from a Lutheran family that turned Presbyterian in my boyhood. That was primarily because of the convenience of the Presbyterian church in our neighborhood in Kansas City. When I was ten we moved to Houston and my father swung all the way from the Lutheranism in which he’d grown up to Unitarianism. He helped found the Unitarian church in Houston in 1927 or 1928. I attended that for a couple years until I got into a Boy Scout troop that met in an Episcopal church. The church had a wonderful minister who was also the scoutmaster. And I suppose you can say he proselytized me. At any rate, I was much involved with the church, and became Episcopalian — and an acolyte. Later, when I worked for a paper in Houston, I was church editor for a while. The Episcopal House of Bishops met in Houston one year, and I became intrigued by the leaders of the church — fascinated by their discussions and their erudition. For a short while I though about entering the ministry. But that was a short while. Journalism prevailed.

What prompted you to devote a television show to religion?

I know from experience that church attendance in England, France and the rest of Western Europe is way down. In the U.S. we have something of a boom. Why? What makes religiosity in this country different from that in the rest of the developed world? That’s a matter of curiosity to me as a newsman.

What is it churches offer? Do people attend because of the services that churches offer, or are people actually in search of God? Do evangelical ministries attract people through skillful use of the media? These were the sorts of questions I found interesting.

Stephen Carter gained a lot of attention with his book The Culture of Disbelief, in which he argues that though Americans are very religious, the media and public life in general tend to trivialize religion. They don’t take them seriously. Do you think that’s true?

I wouldn’t say media trivialize religion; I’d say instead that they don’t pay attention to religion at all. Religion has frightened away reporters and editors from time immemorial. They’re afraid they’ll get involved in a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And they don’t think religion is a broad-based interest among readers and viewers.

Cronkite reported on so many crucial 20th-century moments — including the Nuremberg trials, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the first lunar landing — that what reporting he did on religion will not feature prominently in his obituaries or, likely, in his legacy. He was no friend of the Religious Right, and was indeed a vocal critic of it, as an honorary chairman of The Interfaith Alliance.

I wish his curiosity about conservatives’ faith had run deeper, or that he made the same contributions to religion reporting as ABC’s Peter Jennings. Still, I’m thankful for Cronkite’s reluctance to become a pundit while in the anchor chair, and for his commitment to an active retirement. May he not be shocked to find some departed members of the Religion Right in heaven, and may he enjoy interviewing them there.

Allahu akbar, y’all


At GetReligion we must often acknowledge how difficult it is for reporters to tell complex stories in shrinking news spaces — which makes it so important to praise reporters who do an exceptional job.

In just under 1,200 words, Michael A. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal tells the disarming story of how “U.S. Army Capt. James Hill, a baby-faced 27-year-old from Lawton, Okla., drew the job of mentoring Lt. Col. Abdul Haq, a 51-year-old army mullah who has never shaved.”

Phillips also photographed a beautiful 14-image slideshow that depicts the heroes of his story, and the people with whom they interact.

The skeleton of the story is simple: Because Islam is so ingrained in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army’s efforts include working with anti-Taliban Muslims such as Lt. Col. Haq.

Phillips does not go deep into either man’s beliefs, but he shows that Hill is at least a nominal Baptist:

Growing up in Oklahoma, Capt. Hill was an irregular churchgoer. He prays before meals and asks God for strength when he has a quiet moment at day’s end.

… He says he believes in a literal interpretation of the New Testament, but he’s undecided about evolution. “That kind of tears me between the science and the facts, and my religious upbringing,” he says.

An aside: It’s an odd measure of a person’s faith to write of someone believing “in a literal interpretation of the New Testament.” Even casual readers of the Bible should recognize the different types of writing (daily narrative, parable, apocalyptic revelation) represented within the New Testament. While it possible to take a parable literally, far less is at stake in that storytelling than in the descriptions of Easter morning.

Nevertheless, Phillips has told a great Global Village story here, and he’s done so with humorous details:

Along the way, Capt. Hill picked up some Dari, the language spoken by most Afghan soldiers. But for a while, his Oklahoma drawl turned “How are you?” into “Are you a camel?”

Even in a war zone, religion stories come alive when talented reporters find them and ask open-ended questions.

Photo: A mullah prays at a tomb in Tabriz, Iran. Used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Dan Brown, call your agent

I know that neither the Vatican nor the White House made it easy to cover President Obama’s meeting with Pope Benedict XVI last week, but the situation seemed especially desperate when a reporter must begin interpreting body language for coded messages. Here’s Jeff Israely of Time:

Body language says a lot about a world leader’s audience with the Pope. During his 2007 visit to Pope Benedict XVI’s private library, President George W. Bush sat down across the desk from the Pontiff as if he had just landed on his own porch in Crawford, Texas: leaning back in the velvet chair, legs crossed, apparently eager to show his command of the situation.

When President Barack Obama sat down in that same spot on Friday, July 10, for his first papal meeting, his posture was altogether different. Leaning forward from the front edge of the chair, his shoulders slightly hunched, his crossed hands resting softly on the edge of the Pope’s desk, the leader of the free world looked more like a schoolboy who’d arrived to humbly plead his case to the principal.

It couldn’t have been that Bush felt more at ease with the Pope because of their affinity on issues, could it? No, cocky Bush versus humble Obama makes more sense.

Israely compounds the damage with these scare quotes:

And during the oddly scheduled Friday afternoon meeting, crammed between the end of the Group of 8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, and Obama’s departure for Ghana, the Pope had no intention of papering over differences on what the Vatican calls “life” issues, such as abortion and euthanasia.

Yes, the Vatican does tend to be obstinate about “life” issues, especially when they happen to involve human lives. Veteran observers tell me the Vatican also has shown occasional stubbornness about what it calls “theology,” and what it calls “ethics,” and what it calls “the Mass.” It’s a highly complicated and eccentric jargon, which has so very little to do with real life.

Israely’s brief report was a masterpiece of journalism compared to Newsweek‘s publishing an attack on the Pope even before the meeting occurred.

The short piece, by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, offers no insight that one has not heard multiple times from Catholic politicians who openly reject their church’s teaching on pelvic issues, to use ex-Catholic Matthew Fox’s memorable label.

It is amusing, however, to watch Townsend attempt to make Karol Wojtyla (otherwise known as Pope John Paul II) into the man most to blame for the church’s continued teaching against artificial contraception:

But authority — not truth, not love — prevailed: Pope Paul VI, listening to the advice of Wojtyla, disagreed with the majority of these advisers, who had voted 69 to 10 for change, fretting that to change this position would weaken his authority.

Who knew? Perhaps the Vatican ought to add a new credit point as it considers future saints: Ticking off American Catholic politicians who presume to hector a sitting Pope.

Look us up on Twitter

GetReligion reader Barbara Kolbe recently gave us the nudge we required to create a Twitter feed. Despite my earlier mockery of encouraging Christians to tweet during worship services, I (and my colleagues) recognize Twitter’s inescapable importance in today’s media landscape.

For now our feed does little more than alert you to new posts on GetReligion, but we’ll try to respond to whatever good buzz our tweets might create.

Become the most eco-friendly worm food you can be

Terry mentioned a report last week about Michael Jackson possibly choosing “plastination” as a grim sort of immortality. Now USA Today‘s Lifeline Live blog reports that speculation has continued about Jackson’s burial plans.

Both posts reminded me of this brief item at Utne Reader’s Spirituality blog, which mentions a greener version of cremation that promoters call promession.

The Utne item links, in turn, to The Walrus magazine. Both items dwell on the green virtue of promession as opposed to cremation. Neither really explores the spiritual questions involved, especially of how to treat a dead body with respect.

As the YouTube video atop this post explains, promessa involves freezing a corpse; using vibration to break it into small pieces; freeze-drying the pieces; removing any metal bits; and burying the post-human nuggets in a biodegradable container.

The folks at Promessa, which promotes the burial method, have thought about various religions’ teachings on the afterlife, and they conclude that such issues are less clear (and ultimately less important) than what happens to a dead body:

Many of the ideas and ponderings that dwell within the inner self are, however, thoughts about there being some kind of continuation of life, even after we have taken our last breath. And there is no such thing as right or wrong in these matters. It is important that every individual is allowed to have his or her faith, since no one really has access to the answers. On the other hand, we know what happens to a body that is no longer alive. Here we have answers. But despite this we don’t want to accept the given rules, instead we have devised unbiological routines concerning our last resting place.

Oh yes, there is an additional religion element to all this: The Church of Sweden holds a 5 percent stake in Promessa. Say what you will about the Church of Sweden, but it cannot be accused of cutting corners in pursuit of green purity.

For what it’s worth: I’m most drawn to Natural Burial, which finds the via media between embalming and cremation and leaves the steps of recycling to nature.

Vanity Fair diagnoses Sarah Palin

Whatever Vanity Fair pays its national editor, Todd S. Purdum, he earns every dollar with expertly crafted hit pieces. His lengthy takedown of Bill Clinton last year was satisfying for readers long troubled by Clinton’s various indiscretions, political and otherwise.

Now Purdhum has turned his withering gaze on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom Purdum depicts as coming entirely too close to the vice presidency, simply by becoming Sen. John McCain’s running mate. Her ambition and ruthlessness would give Lady Macbeth good competition, if Purdum’s account is to be believed.

Mark Hemingway, spouse of my colleague Mollie, has begun investigating who leaked so many campaign insider’s details to Purdum, and possibly why. Some of Purdum’s shots simply are cheap, regardless of their ultimate sources.

He dismisses Palin’s future publisher, Zondervan, as “the Bible-publishing house,” which apparently tells us all we need to know about the company that also publishes Philip Yancey, Rick Warren, Shane Claiborne, and dozens of academic texts.

He mentions that Palin’s hometown newspaper “recently published an article that asked, ‘Will the Antichrist be a Homosexual?‘” but doesn’t make clear that it was an opinion column by an independent Baptist pastor rather than front-page news.

He drags up the case of Wasilla’s librarian who was fired, without mentioning such trifling details as these from “She was also re-hired the next day and never claimed that Palin threatened to oust her for refusing to ban books.”

He notes that Palin confessed, at a pro-life dinner, to brief thoughts about abortion when she learned that her youngest son, Trig, had Down syndrome. Then he adds this bombast: “It is almost impossible not to be touched by the rawness of her confession, even if it is precisely this choice that Palin believes no other woman should ever have, not even in the case of rape or incest.”

Most voters recognize the difference between a politician’s pro-life ideals and what actually is possible in a culture well to the left of Western Europe on abortion laws. Ah, but Palin believes laws should forbid abortion unless a woman’s life is at stake, which makes her a bad person.

This, however, is the most grotesque paragraph:

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” — and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”

I never knew the DSM IV was such popular reading among the pop psychologists of Alaska — especially in an Alaska that Purdum repeatedly portrays as a cultural backwater. As for that letter to friends and relatives, if Purdum cannot distinguish between sentiment and self-aggrandizement, he needs to broaden his reading habits — if only to include the occasional Christmas family letter or’s Glurge gallery.

Obama chooses worship over spectacle (maybe)

National_Cathedral_Sanctuary.jpgWhen Amy Sullivan of Time wrote one of the finest articles about President Obama’s church options, she quoted a creative idea from Flo McAfee, former religious liaison for the Clinton White House. McAfee recommended worshiping in the chapel at the Army’s Fort Meyer, where security already is covered.

Now Sullivan, drawing on reporting by her colleague Elizabeth Dias, breaks the news that Obama will, like his predecessor George W. Bush, worship in Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, where Navy chaplains preside. The story offers some great details, not least that Obama can experience more decorum at an informal chapel than he did during an Easter visit to St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square: “Even at St. John’s, which is so accustomed to presidential visitors that it is known as the ‘Church of the Presidents,’ worshippers couldn’t help themselves from snapping photos of Obama on their camera phones as they walked down the aisle past him to take communion.”

My fellow Episcopalians are snapping cell-phone photos? On their way to Communion, no less? This needs to be a story in itself, under the tag “Signs of the Apocalypse.”

The Obamas will not worship alone at Camp David. “Each week, regardless of whether the President is on-site, Evergreen Chapel holds nondenominational Christian services open to the nearly 400 military personnel and staff at Camp David, as well as their families,” Time reports.

Another great detail: Obama’s new pastor is Lieut. Carey Cash, a Southern Baptist who has served as a chaplain in the Iraq War:

The 38-year-old Memphis native is a graduate of the Citadel and the great-nephew of Johnny Cash. He served a tour as chaplain with a Marine battalion in Iraq and baptized nearly 60 Marines during that time. Cash earned his theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth — and, yes, that means Obama’s new pastor is a Southern Baptist.

Cash and his wife also have five children, some of whom may find themselves acting opposite Sasha and Malia in the Christmas pageant. But if the experience of past Camp David chaplains is any guide, Cash won’t necessarily have the opportunity to form a pastoral relationship with Obama. “We used to tell people our job was to run like a five-star resort,” said Patrick McLaughlin, who was chaplain at Camp David from 2002 to 2005, in an interview with Religion News Service. “One of the things you value when you go on vacation is peace and quiet.” His contact with Bush outside worship services, McLaughlin said, was “very little.”

Sullivan does a solid job of explaining the security challenges and intrusions on a church’s weekly atmosphere involved in any presidential visit, especially since the 9/11 terrorist strikes. Obama’s choice is bound to be as disappointing for pundits as it is for any camera-weilding worshipers at St. John’s. I’m not sure there are many better options, unless Obama’s weekly worship choice becomes as chaotic and disruptive as his dropping in on Five Guys Burgers and Fries with Brian Williams.

Update: David Brody of CBN News quotes Jen Psaki, deputy White House press secretary, as disputing Time‘s report.

Photo: The choir at Washington National Cathedral, which — despite the lobbying efforts of Sally Quinn, may not claim Obama as a new member.