Harold Bloom, Mormons and spleen-venting

Harold Bloom, America’s Greatest Living Literary Scholar™, wrote an essay for the New York Times over the weekend titled “Will This Election Be the Mormon Breakthrough?” The title doesn’t seem terribly ominous, Bloom has famously written a book on American religion, and he’s known for having a fascination with Mormons. What could go wrong?

Well, in this case, just about everything. This kind of essay isn’t typical GetReligion fodder, but I think it merits discussion in that I can scarcely believe the Times published it. I am going to venture that they did so only because Bloom is seen as an influential figure, and because I fear that Bloom is so influential, other journalists and commentators will take their cues about Mormonism and politics from this piece.

As it is, it’s not so much an essay as a series of unsupported and derisive generalizations strung together by a filament of purple prose. To wit, we’re only in the second paragraph before we hit this brick wall at 60 miles an hour:

Mr. Romney, earnest and staid, who is deep within the labyrinthine Mormon hierarchy, is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.

Bloom’s hardly the first person to make the Mormonism-is-like-Islam comparison. But that’s a pretty loaded comparison to toss out there without fleshing it out some. And to say, “most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States” are as radical departures from historical Christianity as Islam without in any way explaining it? You could try and make sense of this, or you could just accept, like the editors at the Times apparently have, that you are reading Harold Freaking Bloom and as such, you are lucky he deigns to deposit his Solomonic nacre at your porcine trough. Moving on:

The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.

The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage.

Is the Mormon church run by “plutocratic oligarchs” consumed with “corporate greed”? This is profoundly unfair, and he’s not going to provide any facts or arguments suggesting that it is. But hey, this Occupy Wall Street thing is hot right now, so why not riff on that for a bit? Sounds relevant. And I think we all know the recent proletarian unpleasantness really cries out for more commentary from ivy-league professors:

Joseph Smith continues to be regarded by many Mormons as a final authority on issues of belief, though so much of his legacy, including plural marriage, had to be compromised in the grand bargain by which the moguls of Salt Lake City became plutocrats defining the Republican party. The hierarchy’s vast economic power is founded upon the tithing of the faithful, who yield 10 percent of their income to the church. I am moved by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations but remain skeptical that you can achieve a lessening of money’s influence upon our politics, since money is politics. That dark insight has animated the Mormon hierarchy all through the later 20th and early 21st century. The patriotism of Mormons for some time now has been legendary: they help stock the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military. Though the powers of the presidency are at this moment somewhat diminished by the Republican House and the atavistic Supreme Court, they remain latent. A Mormon presidency is not quite the same as an ostensibly Catholic or Protestant one, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists on a religious sanction for its moralistic platitudes.

So aside from Mormonism’s supposedly corrupting wealth, at least they’re patriotic right? Wrong! Mormon cosmology suggests this is actually a sinister, corrupting patriotism or something:

The 19th-century Mormon theologian Orson Pratt, who was close both to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, stated a principle the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never repudiated: “Any people attempting to govern themselves by laws of their own making, and by officers of their own appointment, are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God.”

Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. No Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator. Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Now one of the Mormon church’s 13 articles or faith is: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Further, if Bloom begins the essay by asserting Mormonism and American Christian religions are the result of radical evolution, why does he insist that the church still reflects the political attitudes of single statement by one Mormon leader from over a century ago offered wholly without context? Even if Orson Pratt’s statement did definitively speak for the church at the time, he died in 1881. The church renounced polygamy and Utah became a state in 1896. To suggest that Mormons are somehow suspicious of the democratic process or that the church’s relationship with American politics is stuck in the 19th century is pretty slipshod and obvious sophistry.

As for the time Bloom spends on Mormon cosmology (and there’s a lot more in the essay than I am excerpting), I’m just kind of gobsmacked. Bloom is basically insinuating that Mormons teach taking care of each other and are biding time until they all get their own planet, so in a political context they might exhibit little desire to look out for their fellow, non-Mormon citizens. This is insulting. As for the actual details of Mormon cosmology, planets and all of that –  it is tricky stuff. One would hope that it would be treated with more care, but Bloom seems to be wielding it cavalierly to paint Mormons as The Other.

But take heart, Latter-Day Saints! In the final paragraph, he does offer you a backhanded compliment at the expense of unfair swipe at another religion:

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.

Ah yes, we need to end on a high note, so hit ‘em with the bit about slouching toward the inevitable American theocracy. The faculty lounge in the Yale comparative literature department is in complete agreement that one more election under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women and Americans and we’ll be trying on the yoke of a Tea Party Charlemagne.

I think I’m still only scratching the surface here, but as a matter of journalistic practice I would hope that even essays and opinion pieces be far less redolent of obvious biases and dubious interpretations of the facts. Because Bloom wrote a book about American religion almost two decades ago, I do not think that makes him qualified for all time to weigh in on these matters. But I worry that the biases might, in fact, be the point. One New Republic writer has already praised the piece as “bluntest warning against electing a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I have seen this season.” (If that’s the case, I look forward to the New Republic‘s inevitable hand wringing about how Harry Reid is marching us to theocracy any day now.)

Bloom is entitled to vent his spleen. But giving him a prestigious journalistic platform to tar-and-feather an entire religion when he can’t tell where his political opinions end and someone else’s faith begins does a disservice to the political dialogue.

Mitt Romney’s faithful life

Being that he’s arguably the country’s best known Mormon and much has been made of the political impact of his religion, there has been comparatively little reporting on how Mitt Romney has actually lived his faith. To some extent this is because it’s easier for reporters to reduce Romney’s faith to just another variable in the political calculus. But it’s also true that reporting on someone’s religious life is a deeply personal matter, and it requires great effort and understanding to do it right.

With that in mind, I was particularly impressed with this sprawling and fascinating CNN profile of Mitt Romney’s religious life. It’s comprehensive (5,000 words!) and confronts a daunting task head on, tracking down scads of old friends and coreligionists to paint a picture of Mitt Romney’s devotion to his religion from childhood on. This is all the more impressive when you consider the reporter got zero cooperation from the subject:

Repeated attempts to speak with the candidate, his wife, his children, his siblings – and, really, just anyone – about Romney’s faith journey were denied by campaign headquarters. Even the reins it has on those outside the inner circle appear tight. A local LDS Church leader in Michigan, contacted in hopes of finding childhood friends, forwarded CNN’s inquiry to campaign headquarters – prompting yet another slap down.

“What makes no sense to me is how you continue to push forward in writing about Gov. Romney’s faith journey when we’ve made it clear in every way possible that this is not a story we want to participate in,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in an email.

Undeterred, reporter Jessica Ravitz obviously went to extraordinary lengths to track down people from Romney’s past. She’s able to really flesh out some periods of the former Massachusetts governor’s life that were really illuminating. Here’s how the piece begins:

A cop arrived at the roadside wreckage of a June 1968 head-on collision in southern France, took one quick look at the Citroën’s unresponsive driver and, according to one of the driver’s friends, scrawled into the young man’s American passport, “Il est mort” – “He is dead.”

The man at the Citroën’s wheel was Mitt Romney, who may have appeared dead but was very much alive – as is his bid today for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Romney’s car was hit head on by another car driven by Catholic priest that had drifted into his lane, killing one of Romney’s passengers. That’s a heck of a compelling intro to describing adversities Romney had to overcome in his two-and-a-half years as a Mormon missionary in France. Ravitz brings all kinds of vivid and unusual details to the table — Romney and his fellow missionaries used to regularly see Bridgette Bardot walking her poodles near their mission home — but her focus on how Romney’s faith has been shaped by his missionary experience is really interesting. Ravitz notes that even as a young missionary, Romney preferred unusual tactics to engage people, as opposed to the standard Mormon missionary tactic of knocking on doors. Not surprisingly, she reports that Romney was a successful missionary and one can see where the experience would impact his approach to his later life as a businessman:

Romney lifted up deflated missionaries with silly made-up songs. He taught them to visualize all they could accomplish and challenged them to raise their expectations, McBride said.

Romney increased the conversion goal for the year by 40%, believing they could and would recharge. In the end they surpassed Romney’s goal of baptizing 200 new members into the church.

A number of the stories she recounts are also illuminating about how Mormon teachings are applied in church operations. Ravitz tracks down an old Romney friend who describes how Romney roped him into taking over the leadership of a branch of Mormon Cambodian boat people:

“Andy, you know where this comes from,” Romney answered, referring to the Mormon belief that God can reveal truths to individuals. “It’s not me. You go talk to Him and tell me when you’re ready.”

For the next three years Anderson said he oversaw the poorest people in the Boston stake. The overwhelming task “nearly killed me,” he said. But along the way he not only fell in love with the community, he learned to believe in himself and see that he could be a leader.

“I count Mitt as a friend, and it has been a real pleasure to work under him,” he said. “If he was a real pain to work for, I’d know it. I’ve worked for people in the church I couldn’t stand.”

The piece isn’t exactly perfect, however. There’s a sizable section devoted to “Women’s view of Romney,” that lingers on the supposed problems of the patriarchal leadership of the Mormon church, though the Mormon church is hardly unique in this respect. Though female defenders of Romney are quoted, much of that section is devoted to a woman named Judy Dushku making a number of charges that Romney was unfair to women while he was a church leader in Boston. (Interesting bit of trivia that goes unmentioned — unless there’s another Judy Dushku who’s Mormon and from Boston, I believe she’s the mother of Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Eliza Dushku.) I have no problem with being critical of Mitt here if it’s warranted. However, given the nature of the specific allegations Dushku makes — Romney, in Dushku’s view, wrongly encouraged a woman to go forward with a pregnancy that risked her health, and unfairly asked a woman to forgive a philandering husband — they are kind of incendiary charges to throw out there without more perspectives on what happened.

There is also this quibble:

In the 1980s and early 1990s, he served as a ward bishop – or part-time pastor – and stake president for the Boston area.

While Mormon bishops don’t give up their day jobs, describing what they do as “part-time” dramatically undersells the effort involved. For most bishops, heading up a congregation is basically like having two full-time jobs.

I would also note the section upfront where Ravitz goes through what Mormons believe is basically accurate. However, while she notes a poll showing that only 51 percent of Americans consider Mormonism a Christian religion, she doesn’t in any way flesh out why. Not that this is a subject that needs to be dwelt on, but given how comprehensive the article is — it’s odd that this is ignored, especially since she mentions doctrinal criticisms have been raised in the political arena by Mike Huckabee and Gov. Rick Perry supporter Pastor Robert Jeffress.

Still, there is a lot more to chew on here. I could offer a lot more praise and a few more quibbles, but I suppose I need not say any more than the article is a must read. Ravitz has really done readers a tremendous service here. Even those like myself that thought they knew a lot about Romney are likely to learn scores of new details and stories.

Is Jon Huntsman a Jack Mormon?

I wondered back in March whether or not the fact that we had two Mormons running for President would create an “LDSapalooza” in the news coverage. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, in part because Jon Huntsman is polling just above Pat Paulsen. Even though Romney is the nominal frontrunner in the GOP primary his faith was quite heavily covered in 2008, and this time around the media seems far more interested in covering — or ginning up — the controversies surrounding Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I bet Romney’s pretty happy about that.

So I’m kind of surprised it’s taken this long to see an article, “GOP rivals have different takes on Mormon faith,” where the raison d’etre is explicitly comparing Romney and Huntsman’s approach to their Mormonism. (If there are any other articles that do this I missed, let me know in the comments.) It’s in Romney’s local paper the Boston Globe, but the focus is mostly on Huntsman.

Despite Huntsman’s failure to spark interest among actual voters, if the GOP primary were decided by East Coast magazine and newspaper editors the former Utah governor would win in a walk. Huntsman has been quite favorably covered by a number of news organs that are usually either hostile or GOP politicians, see for example this this Esquire profile. And Huntsman recently got a large and glowing feature in Vogue(!) of all places, replete with Annie Liebowitz photos. It was even written by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, a journalist who wears his liberal credentials on his sleeve.

So then, what accounts for all of this media gushing over Huntsman, even though he’s been irrelevant to the actual election? It could be that the media is attracted to the fact that on a number of issues Huntsman has rather heterodox, even liberal, views for a Republican. And part of that same appeal is that, while other Republicans are eager to emphasize how fervently religious they are, Huntsman seems lukewarm about many of the cultural and doctrinaire aspects of Mormonism.

This is what the Globe piece focuses on:

But in public remarks they have drawn strikingly different religious self-portraits. Romney is highly active and orthodox – he was a top local lay leader in Massachusetts for years, and he has embraced his church unequivocally: “I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it,’’ he said in a major speech in 2007.

Huntsman has called his adherence to Mormon practices “tough to define.’’ He has described himself as more spiritual than religious and as someone who gets “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.’’

As someone who was raised Mormon, I have to say that a self-professed Mormon saying they get satisfaction from other religions and philosophies is striking coming from a church body whose adherents routinely profess the belief they belong to “the one true church.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg — Huntsman’s sons didn’t go on missions (which isn’t a requirement of the church, but strongly encouraged), his wife plays up her Episcopalian background and they’re raising their foreign-born adopted daughters in their “native faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism.”

Now the Mormon church is very hierarchical and specific about many of its beliefs. While there is room for personal interpretation, there are limits to this as well. I’ve personally talked to several Mormons who are, at a minimum, less-than-enamored with how Huntsman is publicly representing his commitment to his faith.

But oddly, the Globe article by Lisa Wangsness, seems heavily weighted toward those that are very bullish on Huntsman’s heterodoxy:

“Normally it’s either all in or all out – that’s both how Mormons view themselves, and that’s how people view Mormons,’’ said John Dehlin, a Mormon from Logan, Utah, whose “Mormon Stories’’ podcast (mormonstories.org) has drawn a growing audience of nontraditional and ambivalent Mormons. “Liberals and progressive [Mormons] were elated at Huntsman’s characterizing himself that way, at least the ones I know, because it helps contribute to opening up the discourse about unorthodox Mormonism.’’

I also found it a bit strange the way Wangsness treats Huntsman’s at-times ambivalent relationship with the church as some sort of new or emerging movement within Mormonism:

Some of the questions gripping Dehlin’s audience are unremarkable in older faiths but still provocative in Mormon circles. In a strict church that asks much of its members, is it possible to be selectively observant, yet still a part of the community? Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon’’ – as some engaged in the debate have described a person who embraces some church teachings, but rejects others? Do some Mormons, like secular Jews, share cultural and genealogical bonds that remain intact even when religious beliefs fray?

For those of you that don’t live out West, let me explain the problem with this. Wangsness is writing an entire article about “Jack Mormons” without using the word Jack Mormon. It’s a pretty common term in the church, and Wikipedia tells me it dates all the way back to 1846. Basically, Jack Mormons are people that have cultural or family ties to the church, or maybe are even lapsed or half-hearted members who attend sporadically who maintain some positive feelings toward the church. So when Wangsness asks “Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon”? The answer is yes, and this has been a part of the church’s culture for a great while. And there are lots of people that could talk about this in a historical and cultural context. I will say that perhaps this oversight is not entirely her fault, as Wangsness quotes Joanna Brooks to this end:

Huntsman “may be living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet – the equivalent of reform Mormonism,’’ said Joanna Brooks, a literature professor at San Diego State University and a Mormon who blogs on religion and culture at religiondispatches.org. That is, she said, “someone who is culturally Mormon, who identifies with the tradition, who has been shaped by Mormon thought in his upbringing, but doesn’t necessarily maintain orthodoxy on doctrinal beliefs.’’

As a source, Brooks gets brought into a lot of stories on Mormonism in a cultural context. I doubt I share her politics or many of her views on religion, but I’ve always found Brooks particularly insightful on Mormonism in a cultural context. So I would like to know more specifically about how she thinks Huntsman is “living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet.” It’s true Huntsman is more high profile than most and perhaps a little more eclectic in his dabbling of other faiths, but broadly speaking Huntsman is hardly a new phenomenon.

So why does someone like Brooks specifically avoid the term Jack Mormon? It’s not a pejorative term, but in some select contexts Jack Mormon is not exactly a compliment. It’s often shorthand for “Mormon who drinks alcohol.” Jack Mormon may refer to fully lapsed or inactive members more often than not, though the definition is highly fungible. Given that Brooks seems to have a similar Mormon identity as Huntsman, I wonder if there’s not some overt attempt at rebranding going on. For what it’s worth, here’s how Weisberg handled the same issue in the Vogue profile:

People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren’t question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. He describes his family on his father’s side as “saloon keepers and rabble rousers,” and his mother’s side as “ministers and proselytizers.” The Huntsman side ran a hotel in Fillmore, Utah’s first capital, where they arrived with the wagon trains in the 1850s. They were mostly what Utahans call “Jack Mormons”—people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don’t follow all of its strictures. “We blend a couple of different cultures in this family,” he says.

Well, Weisberg did get the Jack Mormon thing. But I also think the comparisons to Reform Judaism are curious — barring a really, really radical change in the culture of the laity and Mormonism’s governing structure, a similar movement would a) probably not emerge and b) if it did, it would be unlikely to remain in the LDS church. But it is an attractive concept to a lot of liberal Mormon intellectuals (yes, they do exist).

So long as the media are very excited about the Huntsman candidacy, it might be helpful to get a few more orthodox Mormon voices and perspectives commenting on Huntsman’s religious approach.

Why isn’t ‘Muslim’ fit to print?

The New York Times filed this report on the arrest of two men in Seattle:

Federal law enforcement officials have arrested two men who they say planned to attack a military processing center here using machine guns and grenades.

The men — Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, also known as Joseph A. Davis, 33, of Seattle, and Walli Mujahidh, also known as Frederick Domingue Jr., 32, of Los Angeles — were arrested late Wednesday and charged with conspiracy to murder federal officers and employees, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and several firearms-related charges.

The article is accompanied by a mugshot of Abdul-Latif/Davis who has a rather distinctive and heavy beard. Oddly, what follows is about as close as the Times report gets to describing the motivations of the two men:

The 38-page criminal complaint filed against the two suggested that they had not made final plans to carry out the alleged plot. They were frustrated, it said, by American war policies and discussed how to make an attack last as long as possible in order to get the most media attention for their actions.

The Times report even goes on to include a lengthy reference to the incident last November where Somali-American teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested for allegedly trying to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Oregon. Both of these incidents have heavy Muslim terrorism overtones, yet the New York Times makes no references to religion at all in the story. Why?

By contrast, the Seattle Times mentioned which mosque the suspect belonged to and added:

A radical Muslim, Abdul-Latif said he admired Osama bin Laden and was upset about alleged atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to a federal complaint.

“In his view, murdering American soldiers was justifiable,” the complaint stated. “He wanted to die as a martyr in the attack.”

The Seattle Times also notes that Abdul-Latif had twice tried to kill himself, had a history of “hearing voices” and was currently under economic duress. Certainly, all of that should be taken into account when considering his motivation. It seems these factors could be as much or more to blame for motivating his alleged crime as his religion. And we do learn more about those religious views. We get specific quotes about his thoughts on killing non-Muslims and details about his conversion nine years ago. We learn about his search for a second wife, even. It makes the other reports that shied away from mentioning his religion altogether, let alone his admiration for Bin Laden, mystifying.

The New York Times actually has to make an effort not to include such a glaringly relevant detail, and their approach ends up making the story almost confusing. Frustrated by “American war policies”? So were these men anti-war activists or something? What possible reason could The New York Times have for omitting this information?

Some reports were so lacking in key details that it upset editors. Check out this editor’s note appended to an Associated Press report:

Editor’s Note: Nowhere in the original copy of this story does it mention these two suspects are Muslim. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it is only fair to you — the reader — to know these suspects are followers of radical Islam. (Chace Murphy)

This is an interesting example of how local and national media tell stories so differently.

J-politics and Islamist terrorism reporting

It’s been a while since I’ve contributed regularly around here, and I’ve changed jobs in the last few months so it’s probably best I give a quick update. I’m the online editor at The Weekly Standard where I write online and on dead tree pulp about everything from unions to mercenaries to graveyards. So that’s where I’m coming from, these days.

In any event, I want to talk about a story that’s over a year old and how the story and reaction to it tell us something about the way the media frames issues surrounding Islamism.

Let me explain. Last January, Harper’s ran an expose “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,” by Scott Horton. Judging from the scare quotes, you can probably gather that the story was insinuating that something much more sinister was going on. The article marshals a great many details to insinuate that three Muslim Gitmo detainees were murdered at a secret CIA facility near the famous Cuban terrorism detainee camp.

Given the serious nature of the accusations, many of you are undoubtedly wondering why you haven’t heard much about this story before. In fact, Jack Shafer, Slate’s inestimable media critic, noted at the time “the major press has largely snubbed the Harper’s scoop.”

Well, Shafer closely examined the story and concluded that there were many, many good reasons why Harper’s expose hadn’t garnered any media attention. Shafer’s takedown of the piece is thorough and convincing, so read the whole thing. But suffice to say, it’s got more holes than golf course made of Swiss cheese:

Although Horton has no proof that the building nestled into the Guantánamo hills houses a CIA operation, he proceeds on the basis of a rumor and a cute nickname to write as if the place is a CIA installation called Camp No. The nine additional references the piece makes to Camp No (not counting its placement on a map) are designed to lull gullible readers into thinking that 1) Camp No exists and 2) that one of its uses is to torture prisoners. Camp No has already become “real” enough to deserve a Wikipedia entry.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the CIA or some other agency did run a secret site at Guantánamo known colloquially to some as Camp No, and that three prisoners were killed there on June 9, 2006, as Horton surmises. But if you were going to torture prisoners to the point of death in interrogations, would you really draw three prisoners from the same cell block, inside the same hour, for that punishment? It would make more sense to torture one to death, cover up that murder, and after a decent interval proceed with the gained information to torture the second prisoner to death. Or, if your aim was to execute them and cover up the murders, why bring the bodies back to a medical clinic where scores of people would examine them and an investigation would be started. Killing three prisoners on one night and then attempting to cover it up is a mission that not even the combined powers of Jack Bauer, James Bond, and Jack Ryan could pull off.

Note that Joe Carter at First Things also took the piece to the woodshed. The fact that the story was a lot of thinly sourced and dubious conjecture likely explains why no one really picked up on the story.

Well, until now. Incredibly, the “Guantanamo ‘Suicides’” piece just won a National Magazine Award for “Best Reporting.” A number of critics are baffled by the honor. I’ll just come out and say what I think — it’s one thing that Harper‘s has tilted left of left in recent years, but it says quite a lot that the worst examples of the magazine’s excessive politicization is chosen for such a high honor (“Guantanamo Suicides” edged out another egregiously politicized piece for the award — Jane Mayer’s now-infamous profile of the Koch Brothers.) Conversely, there are lots of talented journalists that will never win a National Magazine Award, no matter how incredibly deserving they are, simply because they work at publications with a right-of-center editorial slant.

There are many good damning and critical stories to be written about injustices to Muslims as a result of the war on terror.  There’s no need to resort to bad journalism. It’s reaching a point where the pervasive politicization of stories about Muslims is probably doing more harm than good. Last weekend, the Washington Post ran pieces on “four lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden” and two were by Muslims. One was by former Guantanamo detainee Mozzam Begg:

In January 2002, I was taken into custody in Islamabad in front of my wife and children by CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents. I was soon handed over to the U.S. military in Kandahar, where, after being punched, kicked, spat upon, stripped naked and shackled by U.S. troops, I was taken to my first interrogation.

While I was shivering from cold and fear, a man in an FBI baseball cap asked me, “When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?”

I replied that I’d never seen him — except on television.

Sounds harrowing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty darn clear that Begg is an Al Qaeda supporter and a jihadist, despite the fact that Post lets him go ahead and write a credulous whitewash job. The other Post piece was about a Muslim-American mistakenly put on the no-fly list. Personally, I think TSA is just about the worst example of ineffective bureaucracy in human history and I’m sure Muslim-Americans are suffering is a result. But it’s not like the media hasn’t covered this story before.

What I want to know is why is the media willfully ignoring an obvious narrative? When the media thinks about “lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden” why do they think, “Hey, let’s get the guy who makes video games about shooting American soldiers and posts Anwar al Awlaki’s propaganda on his website to write something!”

Feel free to dispute this in the comments, but my sense is that when covering Islamic terror the media’s bias makes them gravitate toward stories that also indict the U.S. and Western governments to some degree. For instance, how hard would it have been for the Post to find an Afghan, Iraqi, Moroccan, Pakistani, Somali, Briton, or Spaniard, who was maimed in an Al-Qaeda attack? Or who lost family to al-Qaeda? There are probably a lot of tragic and illuminating stories to be told here. If done right, they might even be worthy of an award.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

More Mormons pursuing the presidency

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, his Mormon faith and the extent of its cultural and political acceptance generated quite a lot of ink. So now that former Utah Gov. and Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman is also considering throwing his hat in the ring, the possibility of two credible Mormon presidential candidates could create a veritable LDSapalooza.

Of all publications, the vaunted Economist is out of the gate with a story that looks at how Mormonism may shape the next presidential race. It’s got a breezy, anthropological tone that is normally deplorable when examining religious issues. However, since the Economist is often geared toward a British and international audience that may not be as familiar with Mormons, I’m inclined to grade it on a curve.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. Here’s how the piece addresses Mormon antipathy in the political realm:

This distrust keeps peeking through. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist and another Republican candidate, insinuated just before the Iowa caucus in January 2008 that Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (Mr Huckabee promptly went on to defeat Mr Romney in that caucus). Last year, when an evangelical Republican in Nevada, Sharron Angle, challenged Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat who is the majority leader of the Senate, her pastor called Mormonism “kooky” and alleged that “Harry Reid’s allegiance is to Salt Lake City,” that Mormons “do illegal things” and that “there’s weirdness going on there”.

Protestants once murmured similar things about the Catholic John Kennedy, with Rome taking the place of Salt Lake City, but have since got over their distrust of papistry. They seem to find Mormonism harder to accept. How plausible is it that a semi-literate man in upstate New York should find golden plates written in “reformed Egyptian” and translate them, while burying his face in his hat, to reveal the tale of a family who left Israel in 600BC and ended up in North America? Then again, to be fair, how plausible are the miracles and resurrection of Jesus?

It’s understandable Huckabee would be mentioned. However, while Harry Reid may be the highest-profile Mormon officeholder in America, that’s a curious example. Angle’s pastor may have said those things about Reid’s religion, but Sharron Angle’s religious views were a far bigger issue in that campaign than Reid’s Mormonism. (Particularly because of the baseless and repeated claim that Angle, a Southern Baptist, was somehow sympathetic to the Christian Reconstructionist movement.)

Then there’s the rhetorical suggestion about the revelations of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Jesus being equally plausible. I’m not going to touch that (and PLEASE remember the comments section below is not a place to discuss this distinction either), but I don’t think tossing off a line like that is a terribly respectful way to smooth over the differences between Mormons and Christians in America.

The article’s characterization of how Mormon beliefs influence the politics of the church’s members also struck me as not quite right:

Through their faith, Mormons tend to inherit many quintessentially conservative values, above all an attachment to the family. Mormons believe that families remain linked together eternally after death, and that one can even include ancestors into this union by retroactively baptising the dead. This explains why the church maintains probably the world’s most sophisticated genealogical database.

But other aspects of Mormonism have liberal, even socialist, elements. Joseph Smith had an egalitarian vision. The church demands, for example, that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a “tithe” to the church, although argument remains about whether this should be applied to income net of government taxes.

The mixture has created overwhelmingly conservative politics in heavily Mormon states such as Utah and Idaho, but with a pragmatic twist, says Kirk Jowers, a Mormon and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. It may not be a coincidence that Mr Romney in Massachusetts and Mr Huntsman in Utah made the two biggest state-level efforts to reform health care (Mr Romney’s reform even resembling Barack Obama’s to a striking degree).

The debate on immigration is another example. The author of a harsh state law against illegal immigrants in Arizona, passed last year, is a Mormon. But as Utah began debating its own version, with anti-immigrant rhetoric taking on racist tinges, the state’s overwhelmingly Mormon policy elite formed a “Utah compact”, an agreement to keep the debate civil and empathetic toward all. The church gave this compact a nod of approval, citing the sanctity of families, including those of illegal immigrants, who might be split up by deportations. It is also aware that more than half of Mormons are outside the United States, many in Latin America.

I fail to see how requiring a tithe speaks to the fact that Mormonism has liberal or socialist elements. The church does have its own internal welfare system, but this goes unmentioned, and I wouldn’t exactly describe the church’s approach to it as egalitarian or socialist. Further, other elements of the church — such as the Mormon requirement that families keep a year’s supply of food storage on hand — speak to a conservative vision of self-reliance. Of course, we could examine the politics of former presidential candidate Joseph Smith, and things might get past the modern and binary right/left distinctions we’re working with here. Further, how the church approaches the political beliefs of its members in the public square is a very complex and nuanced thing. But this article kind of bulldozes past all that.

Then there’s another weird example. As someone who was raised Mormon, I agree with the general assessment that there is a streak of political pragmatism in the church. But I’m not sure that health care is a good example of this. Huntsman was a centrist Republican governor in a very conservative state — consequently, his health care reform policy was very free-market friendly. Romney was perceived at the time as a liberal Republican in a heavily Democratic state, and so his health-care plan does resemble Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My general sense here is that these specific policies were shaped by the political realities with which these governors who happen to Mormon were dealing with. (And that’s saying nothing of the fact that “It may not be a coincidence…” is a kind of a weasel-phrase here.) Dragging their faith into it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. But for what it’s worth, I do think the immigration example is a very good one on this point.

On the whole, I’m a bit conflicted about the story because as a journalist this article trades in far more unsubstantiated generalizations than I’m comfortable with. But as someone who’s more familiar with Mormonism than the average bear, I feel like the generalizations are mostly on target. This is the rare story that misses the trees for the forest.

In any event, I feel like the author had noble intentions and there’s a lot of useful information here and they should be commended for that. For now, I’m eager to see how they move the chains on the Romney-Huntsman story. I suspect this is just the beginning.

Getting cute with Father Cutie

Remember Father Alberto Cutie, a.k.a. “Father Oprah”? He was the, ahem, “hunky” and popular Miami priest and media personality who was caught in some rather compromising tabloid photos gallivanting on a beach with one of his parishioners. It was a big scandal at the time — it even made the New York Times. Well, guess what — he’s back!

Cutie is now married to that parishioner, the two have a child and he’s now an Episcopal priest. And for our purposes, he’s got a book out about his ordeal that’s generating a fair amount of media coverage.

His regional fame notwithstanding, a major reason why Cutie’s story blew up was that issues of celibacy in the Roman Catholic church have been under a good deal of scrutiny as a result of the ongoing pedophilia scandals. While there were a few things to be desired about the coverage of Cutie’s initial indiscretion, tmatt noted at the time that the rule of celibacy was treated as a serious issue with two opposing sides by some important news outlets.

Sadly, I don’t know if that can be said about this latest round of coverage. Book publicity is typically not the most in-depth journalism, but in dealing with such a sensitive religious debate you’d hope for even a cursory effort to provide some balance. No such luck with this ABC News report, “Father Albert Cutie Lashes Out at Catholic Church“:

Although he still holds some resentment toward the Catholic Church, Cutie is now an Episcopal priest, which allows him to keep his marriage. Cutie told “GMA” that celibacy was not for him, and is not for most clergy members.

“Celibacy works for some priests some of the time, but it does not work for most priests most of the time.”

Many faiths, including Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, allow their religious leaders to marry, but Roman Catholic priests are required to stay single and celibate.

As a religious matter, I don’t support the Catholic Church’s teaching on celibacy and am not at all inclined to defend it. But as a journalist, the ABC News report is regrettable puffery, with little beyond Cutie lobbing unanswered charges of hypocrisy at Rome over celibacy. I realize this appears to be a quick and dirty write-up of his Good Morning America appearance, but still. It’s mighty generous of Cutie not to hold any resentment toward Catholicism for breaking his own vows he made to the church. And as tmatt noted of the Cutie coverage last time around, it’s not technically correct to say that Catholic priests are required to remain single and celibate. There are a few married priests are ordained by Rome. There are married priests in Eastern Rite Catholicism, as well as a few former Anglican and Lutherans ordained as priests even though they were married.

To be fair to Cutie, he appears to be a bit more self-critical than ABC News would suggest. Time does a much better job of probing Cutie’s motivations:

In an interview with TIME, Cutie admits that “I not only disappointed others but also myself” by leading a double life as famous pastor and furtive paramour. Yet most Catholics, who continue dealing with crises like clerical sexual abuse of minors, shrugged at his indiscretion; and Cutie just as rightly notes that “there are much bigger problems in the church” than his otherwise healthy relationship with a consenting adult. Cutie’s tell-all saves its harshest censure not for the gossip rags (which he all but thanks for outing him) but for the Catholic hierarchy’s retro hypocrisies — especially celibacy, which he posits, based on a flood of letters he’s since received from priests, is a promise broken by many if not most clerics (some promiscuously) as they combat the loneliness it can breed. The church is “disconnected from the very people it was meant to serve,” he writes, and it acted more distressed by his peccadillo than by “the truly criminal, outrageous and blatantly immoral behavior” of pedophile priests.

Cutie critics will argue that he’s attacking the church to deflect attention from, if not to rationalize, his own dishonest actions — and that he stayed in the priesthood as long as he did because he was as much in love with his talk-show renown as he was with his covert girlfriend, Ruhama Canellis, now his wife. But Cutie, who insists “celebrity is not essential to who I am,” writes in Dilemma that he instead felt boxed in by his notoriety. Because Latino Catholics admired “Padre Alberto” in the 2000s as much as U.S. Catholics admired Bishop Fulton Sheen in the 1950s, “I knew that if I left the church for this woman, I would shake the faith and trust of many, many people. I couldn’t make myself do that yet.”

Time at least acknowledges that Cutie could be seen as engaged in excessive of rationalization. I just wish they could make this point in a much less dismissive fashion than “Cutie’s critics will argue…” While Time‘s report is thankfully much more nuanced than a shameless book plug, I still get the feeling that a fair presentation of the issues was an early casualty.

To the credit of the AP, in their brief story they didn’t just act as a Cutie stenographer or conjure up what they think the Catholic response to Cutie’s accusations would be:

The 41-year-old says church leaders secretly accept homosexual and heterosexual relationships among priests but disapproved of his because it became public.

“There are so many homosexuals, both active and celibate, at all levels of clergy and Church hierarchy that the church would never be able to function if they were really to exclude all of them from ministry,” Cutie writes.

The Archdiocese of Miami and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined comment Monday.

Cutie calls former Archbishop John Favalora “an aloof CEO” with a “cold and rigid approach” who was “disconnected” from the parish. He said the two rarely spoke during the scandal.

A phone listing for Favalora could not be found.

Well, I’m glad they tried. But even if all the immediate players were not available for comment, surely there are some important Catholic voices out there that would have something interesting to say about Cutie’s charges of hypocrisy. They deserve to be heard. As always, let us know in the comments if you see any other stories about Cutie that are worth noting — especially any good coverage.

Got news? Freedom, China and Lausanne

With the election finally over, I’m slowly emerging from the bunker at my newspaper in Washington, D.C. I work for an editorial page, and while I don’t strictly cover politics, obviously it has dominated the news for the last few months. I’ve been wanting to discuss something here for a while, but I’m just now getting around to it.

The week before the election, I got a brief respite from cataloging the minute-to-minute happenings of the 472 congressional elections. My editor, knowing I was interested in issues related to religious freedom, suggested I do a story on the 3rd Lausanne Congress that was just held in Capetown, South Africa. So I wrote it up.

The Congress was first organized by Billy Graham in 1974 and named after the town in Switzerland where it was held. The event brought together 2,700 Christians from more than 150 countries. The most recent Lausanne Congress was bigger than ever, according to the press release:

This Congress, perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church, drew 4,000 selected participants from 198 nations. Organizers extended its reach into over 650 GlobaLink sites in 91 countries and drew 100,000 unique visits to its web site from 185 countries during the week of the Congress.

The big news out of this year’s congress was that China barred leaders of China’s rapidly growing “house churches” from attending the conference. To their credit, both The New York Times and NPR both did stories on the Chinese authorities keeping House Church leaders from leaving the country. Both stories did good job of getting the contours of the religious freedom debate in China right, explaining the difference between “house churches” and the state-sponsored Christian churches. Even though I had the luxury of writing a column on the topic, I wrote it up (reasonably) straight. Here’s how I handled it in my piece:

China has only three state-sanctioned Christian groups — the China Christian Council, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

There is a palpable difference between the house church Christians and the state Christian churches, said Michael Cromartie, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“We went to China and met with those [state church] types. They were what you would expect a government religious leader to be, which is a totally government-controlled religious leader,” Cromartie said.

“The idea of sending house church people who the government does not trust to be encouraged in the faith and refortified by going to a meeting of 4,000 evangelicals from around the world is probably appalling to the Chinese government,” he said.

But interestingly enough, the Times and NPR articles were dated October 15 and October 14, respectively. That’s before the conference even began. As far as I can tell, my column was just about the only mainstream report on how the congress responded to the absence of the Chinese religious leaders:

Some 4,000 evangelical Christians from around the world had planned to highlight China’s burgeoning church on Oct. 18, the first full day of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Capetown, South Africa.

The 200 Chinese evangelicals selected to attend the Congress were the second largest national delegation at the conference, and, in anticipation of the event, they supplied the Congress’s leadership with a special song for the occasion, “The Lord’s Love for China.”

When the special day arrived, however, the 4,000 voices of Lausanne sang the “The Lord’s Love for China” next to 200 hundred empty seats.

Members of the Chinese delegation never left the airport after their government seized their passports and sent them home.

I also spoke to Lausanne leaders to get their perspective on the absence of the Chinese delegation and reported that Lausanne’s internet uplink was hacked while the conference was going on. Organizers noted that there were other contributing factors to their internet problems, but a cyberattack certainly fits the M.O. of the Chinese government.

Now I can’t brag that I’m some amazing shoe leather reporter for writing about all of this, because, man, did the religious press cover the heck out of what happened in Capetown (a small sampling of the coverage). I thought Christianity Today’s online coverage in particular was good. I suppose that’s why our own Sarah Pulliam, who works for that publication, was cognizant enough to mention the event in her post on China from yesterday.

But given the size of the event and the controversy, I’m really shocked that more secular and mainstream news outlets didn’t cover this event much more extensively.

In particular, what happened here has a great deal of relevance to the flare ups from earlier this year over the Obama administration’s alleged negligence regarding religious freedom issues. And the house church vs. state-sponsored church conflict in China speaks directly to the criticism the Obama administration has received for toning down their religious freedom rhetoric from “freedom of religion” to calling for “freedom of worship.” (For what it’s worth, Frank Lockwood offers up a defense of the administration on this point here.)

Regardless, the events at Lausanne speak to the bigger issue of religious freedom that I think is important to all Americans, not just the 4,000 evangelicals who hopped a plane to South Africa. I was able to put the congress in the broader context in my column, but regrettably not able to explore this theme at length.

Quite frankly, I was hoping for some back-up from my professional peers.

Speaking of which, you’ll note in my article I also called the State Department to ask for a comment on the incident. To the extent that journalists serve as watchdogs, it would have been nice if enough journalists had called Foggy Bottom’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor so that they felt compelled to explain what they thought of the Chinese government’s crackdown on house church leaders and how it relates to their efforts to promote religious freedom. Instead, it was probably pretty easy for the State Department to blow off my lone phone call on the matter, which is what exactly what they did.

If there was any good mainstream coverage that I missed, let me know. But all in all, I’m really disappointed the Lausanne Congress was so under covered.