A scout is… Christian?

This week, the Charlotte Observer reported Christ Covenant Church, an evangelical Presbyterian megachurch in North Carolina, rejected two parents who had signed up as Cub Scout leaders. The father was even a former Eagle scout. The story ended up grabbing national headlines. Why?:

The Rev. Gabe Sylvia, Christ Covenant’s staff liaison to the Scouting program, confirmed the Stokes’ account. He called them to apologize but defends the church’s decision.

“Based on a once-over, informal scan, it looked like the Stokes would be good additions to our leadership,” he said. “But when it became clear that they were Mormons, they could not become leaders in our pack. Mormonism is not consistent with historical Christianity.”

The “Are Mormons Christians?” question always opens a can of doctrinal worms. Mormons seem to take particular umbrage at the declaration they are not Christian. Things were no different this time around. The Observer let local Mormons make their case here at length:

What upset the Stokes family most was the church questioning their Christianity.

“It was so offensive,” said Jodi Stokes, who was raised Catholic, then became a Mormon. “I have a picture of Jesus in my living room.”

And, she added, look at the formal name of their church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jeremy Stokes, a Bank of America financial consultant whose family has been in the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church for generations, wrote this when asked on Christ Covenant’s Scouting application to describe his relationship with Christ: “One of the most important things in my life is my faith and trust in Christ and in His Atonement. Without Christ’s help and guidance, I know I wouldn’t be the loving father or devoted husband or humble man I am today. His example is the one help I need and rely on every day and I am truly grateful for that.”

Bishop Steven Rowlan of the LDS ward, or parish, which the Stokes attend in Weddington, acknowledged that Mormon theology diverges from some beliefs shared by most Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. But he insisted members of the LDS church are as Christian as the members of Christ Covenant.

“Yes, there are distinct differences,” he said. “But not with respect to being a Christian. We definitely and truly are Christians in every sense of the word.”

It’s always interesting to me how, as Rod Dreher pointed out a few years ago, that Mormons get upset about not being called Christian when they themselves believe that every other Christian church is in apostasy. And by way of contrast, the argument against calling Mormons Christians was made by the Observer with an alarming lack of specificity. The issue of extra-Biblical scriptures was raised and it was also noted, “For Sylvia, that at least means that Scout leaders must believe in the Apostles’ Creed – a profession of faith dating back to the early centuries of Christianity.”

The article makes no mention of any specific Christian doctrines mentioned in Christian creeds that the Mormon church rejects. That’s unfortunate, because this would add a great deal of clarity to the debate here. The AP write-up of the story was slightly better, at least adding one specific doctrinal point to the discussion:

The Mormon church treats as holy scripture writings that aren’t recognized by other churches, such as the Book of Mormon, which it believes were divinely revealed to Joseph Smith in the 1820s. Mormons disavow belief in the doctrine of the Trinity: that God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one — instead believing the three to be individuals united in a single purpose.

So yes it’s worth nothing there are obvious and important doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians, even if they do share many of the same values. This could have been better explained in the story, but so could the importance of doctrinal distinctions and how they play a role in church outreach efforts.

That a church imposes certain religious standards for who can and cannot lead their youth groups isn’t exactly newsworthy, much less national news. The article itself raises the issue — with an inconclusive answer — that Mormon ward-based Scout troops aren’t likely to have a non-Mormon leader either. And it’s not like church groups aren’t within their rights to care about shared belief among youth leaders.

Unfortunately, these stories seem to overplay the “outrage” over the parents being excluded.

The carnival is God

Despite remarkable popularity and obsessive fans not seen since the head Deadhead died, Insane Clown Posse manages to attract little attention from music critics or cultural commentators. (For the uninitiated, look upon their wikipedia, ye mighty, and despair.) But despite the amazingly off-putting profanity and sexual imagery of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s horrorcore lyrics, clearly these two rappers have a powerful ability to connect with what I think it’s fair to characterize as an alienated and disaffected fan base. I think the ICP phenomenon is probably a lot more complex than and interesting than it appears, even though cultural elites seem to disdainfully regard it as something unfortunately endemic among the lower classes like the musical version of methamphetamine. (Then again, there’s probably a lot of overlap on the ICP fans and meth users venn diagram.)

So when the Guardian reported (profane language warning) last weekend that the Insane Clown Posse was outing themselves as “evangelical Christians” I wasn’t entirely surprised. Last year, after seeing a viral video for ICP’s bizarre concert festival, “The Gathering of the Juggalos,” (also NSFW) out of morbid anthropolgical curiosity I spent some time learning about the group. I was struck by how many religious themes the band’s “Dark Carnival” mythos seemed to embrace. Indeed, The Guardian notes that the capstone to a cycle of six concept albums was a song called “Thy Unveiling” that actually caused some controversy among ICP fans when it was released in 2002. The song goes a little something like this:

[Expletive] it, we got to tell.

All secrets will now be told

No more hidden messages

…Truth is we follow GOD!!!

We’ve always been behind him

The carnival is GOD

And may all juggalos find him

We’re not sorry if we tricked you.

How on earth do you square this with so many other offensive and unChristian things that ICP sing about? In June, ICP explained it to a New Jersey newspaper this way:

Violent J has no problem explaining why Insane Clown Posse couched a spiritual message within such violent, profane and sexual language.

“That’s the stuff that people are talking about on the streets. So in other words, to get attention, you have to speak their language,’ he said. “You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and speak of your experiences. Then, at the end you can tell them God has helped me out like this, and it might transfer over, instead of just come straight out and just speak straight out of religion.”

That’s interesting, but not a whole lot to dig into and it really doesn’t begin to address the scope of contradiction here. But whereas the quote above is just an aside in a larger article about ICP, the Guardian devoted an entire article to specifically discussing the group’s religion. Beyond the fact they declare themselves Christians, we learn absolutely nothing about the specifics of their faith and beliefs. They’re described as “evangelical” — but why? We’re not sure. Where do they go to church? Why did they decide on this, uh, particular vehicle for spreading the good news? And interestingly, back in the late 90s, when ICP was signed to Hollywood Records — a Disney subsidiary — the label recalled an ICP’s album the day it was released and dropped the band because it appears Disney was concerned about being protested by the Southern Baptist Convention. It sure would be interesting to ask the band about that in light of recent revelations.

There are many specific questions that the revelation of their faith prompts, yet we get nothing aside from some broad platitudes about God’s creation while discussing the band’s infamous “Miracles” video. (Again, profanity.) Since the Guardian outed ICP as Christians a weeks ago almost all of the follow-up pieces have been snarky pile-on pieces from the music press.

I’d always thought that cultural commentators were ignoring ICP at their peril, but now it appears that there’s an interesting religion story that’s being missed here as well.

The naked tea partiers

For reasons known only to New York Times editors, Kate Zernike is continually given free rein to write about the Tea Party. There have been a litany of complaints about her coverage, perhaps most notably when earlier this year she accused Human Events editor Jason Mattera of speaking in a “Chris Rock voice” and using “racial stereotypes” to mock Obama. Mattera was born and raised in Brooklyn, and Zernike didn’t realize that was just how he talks. Not content with the amount of racial phrenology she’d employed to date, she wrote a piece about race and the Tea Party pegged to the Glenn Beck rally that contained this immortal sentence:

In the Tea Party’s talk of states’ rights, critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace.

“Critics say” is the ultimate news reporter’s cop out; it’s just a shibboleth meaning “here’s what I think.” And then to employ it as a way of smearing a healthy portion of the American electorate as racist… oy. Well, she was back in the Times again this weekend purporting to decode how the Tea Party “has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon.” I’ll just dispense with the most cringe-inducing aspect of the story now. Here’s Zernike discussing economist F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom:

Ron Johnson, who entered politics through a Tea Party meeting and is now the Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, asserted that the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill circumvented “the rule of law,” Hayek’s term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of “personal ends and desires.”

I’ll throw this one over to my old colleague Jonah Goldberg:

If I had said a day ago that your typical New York Times reporter doesn’t have the vaguest sense of what the rule of law means, I would have heard from all sorts of earnest liberal readers — and probably some conservative ones too — about how I was setting up a straw man. But now we know it’s true. It’s not just that she doesn’t know what it is, it’s that even after (presumably) looking it up, she still couldn’t describe it and none of her editors raised an eyebrow when she buttered it.

Ok, you get the picture. The reason why I’m even discussing this piece here is because Zernike discusses three texts in particular — Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Bastiat’s The Law and W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap. Contrary, to Zernike’s assertion, the first two of these books can’t even remotely be described as “once-obscure.” Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was a best seller when it was published in the forties and his works have never been out of print, despite being all but ignored by the academy. His talks drew huge crowds and he’s perhaps the best known economist of the 20th century after Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. (Fun fact: Hayek was also Ludwig Wittgenstein’s second cousin.) He won the Nobel Prize, for crying out loud! As for French political economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s slender volume The Law, it’s a classic economic text and conservatives and libertarians have been touting it for decades, and certainly well before Tea Parties sprang up in the last 18 months.

Which brings us to W. Cleon Skousen, the only one of the the three whose work generally might be seen as obscure. Skousen’s The Naked Communist did sell millions in its day, but it does seem weird that an almost forgotten Mormon writer (who owes his current influence almost single-handedly to Glenn Beck’s promotion of his work) would be elevated to the same status as Hayek and Bastiat. Here’s how Zernike describes it:

The relative newcomer is “The 5000 Year Leap,” self-published in 1981 by an anti-communist crusader shunned by his fellow Mormons for his more controversial positions, including a hearty defense of the John Birch Society. It asserts that the Founding Fathers had not intended separation of church and state, and would have considered taxes to provide for the welfare of others “a sin.”

And:

The book was published in 1981 by W. Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief who had a best seller in “The Naked Communist” in the 1960s, and died in 2006 at the age of 92. “The 5000 Year Leap” hit the top of the Amazon rankings in 2009 after Mr. Beck put it on his list for the 9/12 groups, his brand of Tea Party.

Hmm. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, it would be nice if we got some more context here. The way Zernike writes this, she makes it sound like Skousen was some sort of Mormon outcast. That’s not exactly the case. In 1959, Mormon prophet David O. McKay had encouraged the entire church body to read The Naked Communist, during one of the church’s General Conferences.

Yes, it is true that W. Cleon Skousen was a Bircher and defended the church’s institutional racism. Skousen also had a conspiracy-minded group in the 1970s known as the Freeman Institute, and the church felt compelled to issue an official proclamation banning the group from using church facilities so as to avoid the implication they were endorsing the group’s wackier ideas.

But all of this hardly means that Skousen was shunned by Mormons in a broad sense. Quite the contrary, Skousen was a professor of theology at BYU, and his works on Mormon theology are still fairly standard texts on the subject. (Bound sets of Skousen’s The First 2000 Years: From Adam to Abraham, The Third Thousand Years: From Abraham to David, The Fourth Thousand Years: From David to Christ were quite common to see in Mormon households when I was growing up.)

As for me, I wrote about him in detail a few years ago and went on record as saying that politically Skousen is a radical and a firebrand who embodies a conservatism that is best left “chained to a radiator in the attic.” However, to be fair to Skousen — he was actually quite intelligent — his writings on political matters are sometimes extreme, but often they were within the mainstream of conservative thought, even if many conservatives are uneasy with Skousen’s overall reputation.

The 5,000 Year Leap is among the more intellectually sober things Skousen wrote, which is why I suspect Zernike’s heavily contextualized two-word excerpt seems like a forced attempt to make the book seem more radical than it is. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find much more politically radical sentiments in works by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and the dozens of other lefties currently clogging up college syllabi while worthy conservative writers such as Hayek are often ignored.

What I ultimately find interesting here is that Zernike sought to frame Skousen as a radical by saying he was shunned by the Mormon church when the truth is much more complicated. Perhaps that’s a sign of the church’s increasing acceptance as part of the mainstream religious community.

Have I got a monastery to sell you

I have read a lot of Michael Lewis over the years — at least five of his books that I can remember, not to mention countless articles. His real gift as journalist is a knack for pure, unadulterated readability. The fact he’s able to write about esoteric subjects such as baseball statistics and credit default swaps and make them both understandable and wildly popular is no mean feat. Believe me, I’m envious.

I guess that’s why I’m so let down by his most recent Vanity Fair piece on Greece’s financial meltdown. Ever since his first book, Liar’s Poker, about bond traders on Wall Street coincided nicely with the Savings and Loan scandal twenty years ago, Lewis has been the go-to guy for autopsy reports on fiscal calamities. His latest book The Big Short explains how credit default swaps and an overheated real estate market got America into its current fiscal mess. Vanity Fair has previously sent him to Iceland to report on that country’s meltdown. Predictably, now we have Lewis parachuting into Greece to cover the country’s debt crisis.

But the interesting thing about Greece’s recent financial trouble, is it’s really just a symptom of the country’s profound cultural problems and political unrest. Lewis gets this, and much of the scene-setting in this piece is very good. He talks to various people in and out of the Greek government who basically admit that much of the country is totally corrupt:

Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average — and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.

This is contrasted with the theme that one of the few aspects of Greek society that is more or less dependable is the banking system:

Oddly enough, the financiers in Greece remain more or less beyond reproach. They never ceased to be anything but sleepy old commercial bankers. Virtually alone among Europe’s bankers, they did not buy U.S. subprime-backed bonds, or leverage themselves to the hilt, or pay themselves huge sums of money. The biggest problem the banks had was that they had lent roughly 30 billion euros to the Greek government — where it was stolen or squandered. In Greece the banks didn’t sink the country. The country sank the banks.

Now all that said, it seems weirdly ironic that the focal point of Lewis’ piece is a Greek Orthodox monastery that has raised a lot of ire among Greeks because “in a perfectly corrupt society, it had somehow been identified as the soul of corruption.” The tale that unfolds is indeed interesting — monks at the Vatopaidi monastery had somehow convinced the Greek government to recognize land deeds given to the church centuries prior, and from there the monks parlayed this into a billion-dollar real estate empire. By all accounts, there’s no concrete evidence the monks did anything illegal and they appear to be living in austerity. There is, however, a lot of suspicion that the monks’ dealmaking and ensuing profits were the result of having some sort of undue influence inside various offices in the Greek government. To that end, Lewis includes this anecdote:

Not long after Doukas began his new job, two monks showed up unannounced in his Finance Ministry office. One was Father Ephraim, of whom Doukas had heard; the other, unknown to Doukas but clearly the sharp end of the operation, a fellow named Father Arsenios. They owned this lake, they said, and they wanted the Ministry of Finance to pay them cash for it. “Someone had given them full title to the lake,” says Doukas. “What they wanted now was to monetize it. They came to me and said, ‘Can you buy us out?’” Before the meeting, Doukas sensed, they had done a great deal of homework. “Before they come to you they know a lot about you — your wife, your parents, the extent of your religious beliefs,” he said. “The first thing they asked me was if I wanted them to take my confession.” Doukas decided that it would be unwise to tell the monks his secrets. Instead he told them he would not give them money for their lake — which he still didn’t see how exactly they had come to own. “They seemed to think I had all this money to spend,” says Doukas. “I said, ‘Listen, contrary to popular opinion, there is no money in the Finance Ministry.’ And they said, ‘O.K., if you cannot buy us out, why can’t you give us some of your pieces of land?’”

Eventually the finance minister acquiesces to a deal due to pressure from above:

[I]t seemed to Doukas, had some kind of hold on the prime minister’s chief of staff. That fellow, Giannis Angelou, had come to know the monks a few years before, just after he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The monks prayed for him; he didn’t die, but instead made a miraculous recovery. He had, however, given them his confession.

By now Doukas thought of these monks less as simple con men than the savviest businessmen he had ever dealt with.

Again, there’s really no evidence that the monks have done anything wrong here, but twice we have the suggestion that the monks are getting people to confess their secrets and then using that against them. That’s quite a charge, but after it’s brought up it’s left unexplored and simply dropped. Why?

In fact, I generally get the feeling that for his incredible knack for rendering financial and statistical information understandable, Lewis is rather uninterested in the religious dimension to this story — which seems like one heck of an oversight. This Greek Orthodox monastery is identified as the “soul of corruption” for an entire country that’s foundering and we get almost no historical or religious perspective on the church’s relation to the state or the Greek people.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Greek Orthodox church was making major news for major fraud and sex scandals. This goes unmentioned. If the Greek people have vilified this monastery, I’d think looking at how other scandals related to the church affected the country would be a no-brainer.

Part of me wonders if this isn’t all a bit crafty on Lewis’ part. Raising the suggestion of the this monastery’s peculiar influence and possible corruption without putting it in the context of the Greek Orthodox church’s other scandals tends to lend an added air of mystery to this particular scandal and monastery.

I can’t fault this article for being breezy and informative, as per Lewis’ usual standards. But total lack of religion in a story about a monastery enmeshed in a government scandal in country where the church has had profound impact shaping the politics for millenia seems egregious. I don’t know whether to blame Lewis or Vanity Fair’s editors, but here’s to hoping Lewis does some backfill if he incorporates this article into his (probably) inevitable book on the global financial meltdown.

I recognize that this is a complicated topic on many different levels. Perhaps our resident Orthodox expert TMatt has additional thoughts on what this story got right or wrong.

Good reporting vs. bad faith arguments

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 26:  Supporters of Proposition 8 hold  signs outside of the California Supreme Court May 26, 2009 in San Francisco, California. The California State Supreme Court voted 6-1 to uphold proposition 8 which makes it illegal for same-sex couples to marry in the state of California. More than 18,000 same-sex couples that wed before prop 8 was voted in will still be legally married. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Few would disagree that the debate over same-sex marriage is more charged than usual. Charges of bad faith and bigotry abound. Honest reporting can help cooler heads prevail. Many of the arguments in this debate have been badly mangled, and that’s why I was so pleased to see this Religion News Service piece by Daniel Burke on “Why Prop 8 ruling scares religious conservatives.”

Burke does an excellent job explaining the reaction of proponents of traditional marriage to Walker’s decision and the legal objections being put forth. Here’s how Burke explains the objections to Walker’s attempts to de-legitimize religion as a valid basis for making law:

“Judge Walker claimed to read the minds of California’s voters, arguing that the majority voted for Proposition 8 based on religious opposition to homosexuality, which he then rejected as an illegitimate state interest,” R. Albert Mohler, president of a leading Southern Baptist seminary in Kentucky, wrote in an online column. “In essence, this establishes secularism as the only acceptable basis for moral judgment on the part of voters.”

Prop 8 backers appealed Walker’s decision. Jim Campbell, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian law firm involved in the litigation, said the religious-freedom argument will play an important role as the case moves up the federal judicial ladder — including, potentially, the U.S. Supreme Court.

“At bottom,” Campbell said, “our strategy here is, and has always been, that in this country we should respect the rights of the people when they do what they have always done: vote based on their religious and moral convictions.”

Abolitionists, anti-abortion activists, and civil-rights activists all have been motivated by personal faith, Campbell argued. “To be blunt, we felt [Walker's decision] was an all-out attack on religion.”

It’s a broad argument that encompasses a lot, and we get both extensive quotes from some of the players and even some historical context. Refreshing! Of course, there’s also some more neutral and/or critical perspective on these objections. That’s very helpful for putting the legal validity of anti-gay marriage arguments in perspective:

Howard Friedman, an emeritus law professor at Ohio’s University of Toledo, said the judge is not attacking religion per se; he is just not giving religious expression any special consideration.

“He’s basically saying that a private moral view isn’t a rational basis for legislation,” said Friedman, who writes the popular “Religion Clause” blog. “Case law goes both ways on that. There are certainly some cases that say a merely moral view isn’t enough to support legislation; on the other hand, there are some cases that talk about laws being a moral view on society.”

I did, however, strenuously object to one part of the article. The juxtaposition of these two paragraphs was not handled well:

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 04: Buttons opposing Proposition 8 are displayed during a rally to celebrate the ruling to overturn Proposition 8 August 4, 2010 in San Francisco, California. U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker announced his ruling to overturn Proposition 8 finding it unconstitutional. The voter approved measure denies same-sex couples the right to marry in the State of California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Walker devotes several pages in his ruling to identifying religion as a prime source of anti-gay animus, listing examples from the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention, and noting that 84 percent of weekly churchgoers voted in favor of Prop 8, according to a CNN exit poll.

As if to prove Walker’s point, Los Angeles Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony released a statement that said, “Those of us who supported Prop 8 and worked for its passage did so for one reason: We truly believe that marriage was instituted by God for the specific purpose of carrying out God’s plan for the world and human society. Period.”

Emphasis mine. I don’t think anything Cardinal Mahony is saying here can fairly be construed as “prov[ing] Walker’s point” that religion is a “prime source of anti-gay animus.” Further, I think the debate is a bit more nuanced. What constitutes “anti-gay animus”? Believing that marriage should remain a heterosexual institution doesn’t necessarily mean you harbor any ill will toward gay people, though I’m sure the pro-gay marriage forces would love to argue that any opposition to same-sex marriage is the tip of the bigotry spear.

But the piece was otherwise well-handled, so I’m going to give Burke the benefit of the doubt. It’s very possible the phrasing and juxtaposition here was unintentionally haphazard. I really hope we see more pieces that make good faith efforts to present all arguments in this debate in the best possible light. I think it does clarify the discussion a bit, and generally help make the debate more honest.

There’s a pony in here somewhere

When I saw that the New York Times magazine had an 8,000(!) word piece on the “The New Abortion Providers,” my heart sank a bit. This is an otherwise interesting publication that doesn’t just seem obsessed with churning out pro-abortion propaganda, it has a history of wildly botching stories on the topic and refusing to correct them.

But for the most part, the magazine’s problem is that they hire left-wing journalists who wear their biases on their sleeve and then give them free rein to tackle a subject that requires a good deal of nuance and balance.

This is where Emily Bazelon — Slate senior editor, Truman Capote law-and-media fellow at Yale Law School, Betty Friedan’s cousin and unabashed abortion activist — comes in. Bazelon is no stranger to criticism here at GetReligion. Why not give her several thousand words on abortion in NYT mag? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, if you can stomach diving through the pile of bias in Bazelon’s work, she knows the abortion topic well enough and does enough reportage you can usually find a pony of interesting info in there somewhere. (Though it’s often unintentionally illuminating — Bazelon is the journalist who basically got Ruth Bader Ginsburg to admit abortion was legalized in part out of “concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”)

Some of the info in Bazelon’s latest truly was stunning and revealing. She discusses at length the background around Warren Buffet’s $3 billion donation to advance abortion access — including the fact that Buffet’s money is directly funding a program to train abortion doctors.

The overall premise was intriguing, and it’s certainly a topic that deserves some scrutiny, even if it deserves a more balanced perspective than brought by Bazelon. In a nutshell, the article discusses how pro-abortion forces are working to integrate abortion more into the mainstream of the medical profession — more abortion training for OB-GYN’s and general practitioners in medical school, as well as the emergence of a “new vanguard [that] don’t define themselves as ‘abortion doctors.’ They often try to make the procedure part of their broader medical practice trying to integrate abortion procedures into more more clinics and hospitals.” Currently, most abortions are performed at Planned Parenthood clinics and other stand alone facilities that are easy for pro-life forces to target with protests.

If that sounds intriguing, gird yourself. For Bazelon, discussing this state of affairs means tailing a bunch abortion providers and discussing in a remarkably one-sided fashion the challenges they face for embracing their controversial vocation. Abortion opponents and religious perspectives are brought up in a way that that’s almost comical. Take this description of an abortion provider:

Many of the two dozen young doctors I talked to for this article were similarly conflicted. They wanted to talk about their work. They see it as part of making abortion mainstream. But the murder of Dr. George Tiller last year scared them. One 33-year-old family-medicine doctor I met in Rochester drives 90 miles each week to perform abortions at a clinic in Syracuse. She is pregnant with her third child, and she asked me not to use her name after her father insisted that she’d be putting herself and her kids at risk. Still, at her Episcopal church, where she feels safe, she is open about what she does. “When people are surprised, I say, ‘Yes, a Christian can also be an abortion provider,’” she told me.

A major section of the article just ends right there without any further discussion of the conflicts between being a Christian and an abortion provider. The idea a “a Christian can also be an abortion provider” is put out there like a defiant statement of fact, not a rather dicey proposition. Of course, one can also be murderer and a Christian — but that doesn’t make it compatible with Christian teaching. What Bazelon’s doing here reminds me of an old Soviet proverb: “If you see a Bulgarian on the street, beat him up. He will know why.” Apparently Christians who don’t embrace abortion are obviously inferior beings, and no need bothering to explain to them why.

Okay, think I’m being hyperbolic? Let’s move on — and be warned this next bit is a tad graphic:

As Godfrey came to know the nurses and front-desk staff at her primary-care clinic, she learned that some of them flatly opposed abortion. They’ve come around, she says, out of mutual professionalism. She doesn’t object when nurses don’t want to assist her, and she tries to meet them halfway by doing abortions only up to nine weeks of pregnancy. The early threshold means that no one on staff has to contend with recognizable fetal parts. “It was a way of being respectful, because I know that not everyone agrees with me and what I do,” she says. After I watched Godfrey coach one of the residents she trains through a surgical abortion for a 22-year-old college student who was six weeks pregnant, we went to the clinic’s utility room. The resident floated the pregnancy tissue in a glass dish of water, for a routine check. Amid the uterine tissue was a gestational sac about the size of a dime surrounded by millimeters-long white villi, the fronds that later help form the placenta.

How exactly does one meet “halfway” on abortion? I’m curious to know. But despite being actually in the doctor’s office in question, Bazelon doesn’t talk to any of the people in the office made uneasy by performing abortion procedures. Why not? Here’s another ball quite obviously dropped for fear it might upset the narrative:

These gradated choices are a delicate subject within the field. The abortion providers I talked to are intensely grateful to the doctors who are willing to handle difficult late-second-trimester cases. But they also see the moral complexities up close. Two years ago, a young professor at the University of Michigan named Lisa Harris wrote an academic article about performing an 18-week abortion while she was 18 weeks pregnant. Harris described grasping the fetus’s leg with her forceps, feeling a kick in her own uterus and starting to cry. “It was an overwhelming feeling — a brutally visceral response — heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics,” she wrote. “It was one of the more raw moments in my life.”

[snip]

When Harris’s article was the subject of a workshop at one of the Family Planning Fellowship’s annual meetings, Sunni remembers the difficult emotions that came to the surface, and also the concern about how the article had been depicted in the anti-abortion press, its most graphic passages quoted as evidence of hypocrisy and folly. “We want to bring this discussion more to the forefront,” Sunni says. “But it’s a bit dangerous. Because people can misconstrue what we mean.”

Again, heavy moral issues that are given the inch-deep treatment, for the sake that it might be “misconstrued.” Hmmm. But fear not gentle reader, late in the piece after being introduced to probably a dozen pro-abortion medical doctors, we finally speak with a somewhat conflicted pro-life nurse who works for a doctor who performs abortions:

When I talked to Ann — Ray offered her his office chair while he saw a patient — she said that when Ray took over the practice, she and the office manager, another woman in her 60s, weren’t sure if they would stay. “We didn’t want a young doctor with attitude,” Ann said. “We’re too old for that. But we gave him a chance. And he has exceeded our expectations wildly. I thank God every day, because he’s so good with the patients. I’m just blessed. Other than the little termination thing — ” she made a small box with her fingers and then moved her hands to her left, as if to set the box aside.

Ann reassures herself that Ray is never casual about abortion. “He makes the women think about it longer, to make sure they know this is something you have to live with forever.” She also told me something Ray hadn’t mentioned. “If a patient calls and she’s not sure, I ask, ‘Have you looked into other things?’ I say, ‘Come in and let’s talk.’ I tell her that if adoption might be a difficult situation, there is other help out there. I may refer her to a crisis pregnancy center” — an anti-abortion organization that counsels pregnant women to keep their babies. In 2006, Congressional investigators found that most federally financed crisis pregnancy centers they contacted gave out wrong information like tying abortion to breast cancer or infertility or mental illness. Yet as part of the compromise between doctor and nurse, that is where Ann says she refers some women who call Ray’s office.

Oh please. We’re repeatedly told in this article that abortions are completely safe — though for some inexplicable reason it’s casually mentioned performing this supposedly safe surgical procedure adds about $10-$15,000 a year to a doctor’s malpractice insurance. But the real cause for concern is that women at crisis pregnancy centers will might be given misleading information about the procedure! That’s to say nothing of the fact the debate around crisis pregnancy centers and health risks of abortion is a politically correct minefield.

I’ll leave you with one final headscratcher:

Ray, who is in his 30s, is an OB-GYN in upstate New York who learned to do abortions during his residency. As a teenager, Ray (who asked that I use only his middle name) saw his brother’s fear when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Race also mattered in Ray’s decision to become a provider; he is African-American. “We utilize the service a lot, but publicly we don’t really support it,” he said of the local black community.

…and that’s all were given about this race-and-abortion bombshell. In New York city, more black children are aborted than born every year, and the author has a black abortion doctor saying that factors linked to race played a major role in his decision to perform abortion. Yet, this is another loose thread that merits only a passing mention. Gah!

Anyway, it’s a very, very frustrating piece — but it will enhance your understanding of the issue if you have the fortitude to endure it.

Orthodox ‘fundamentalism’ and obscenity

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R), Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (C) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I meet in Moscow's Kremlin May 25, 2010. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)

Apparently, a major religious obscenity trial in Moscow has been going on. I only know this thanks to a New York Times story, the Times being one of the few papers left these days that has the resources to do its own foreign coverage:

The trial of two prominent Russian intellectuals over a 2007 contemporary art exhibition at the Sakharov Museum here that included works on religious themes ended … with a guilty verdict and fines but no jail time for the defendants.

In the culmination of the trial, which began two years ago, Yuri Samodurov, 58, a former director of the Sakharov Museum, was fined 200,000 rubles (about $6,500) and Andrei Yerofeyev, 54, the show’s guest curator, was fined 150,000 rubles (about $4,800) on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred in an exhibition called “Forbidden Art — 2006,” which displayed works that had been banned by Russian museums. Among the offending works were a Pop Art juxtaposition of an image of Jesus appearing with McDonald’s golden arches as if in an advertisement with the words, “This is my body”; an icon of the Virgin Mary with what looks like caviar where the figures should be; and a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head. A work titled “Chechen Marilyn,” of a veiled woman with her long dress billowing up, was deemed offensive to Muslims.

The article suggests that the Russian Orthodox supporters of the obscenity charges are a pretty radical lot:

Those divergent views were well represented in the courtroom. Human rights activists and artists showed up to support the curators. Opposing them were fundamentalist Russian Orthodox activists dressed in black T-shirts decorated with the Orthodox cross, skulls and crossbones and the words “Orthodoxy or Death.”

There’s the dreaded “F” word again. Dare we ask the logical question: What is the difference between an orthodox Orthodox Christian and a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian?

Looks like the Times is catching the same disease as the Washington Post in deciding to use the word “fundamentalist” as a catch all for religious conservatives, rather than staying true to its real meaning as defined by the Associated Press stylebook.

But what jumped out about an otherwise good, nuts-and-bolts report was the lack of context about the church’s involvement in the suit. There’s some bold allegations about the church’s influence:

The prosecutor had asked for three years’ imprisonment for the defendants, a move that caused critics to warn that Russia was reliving the cultural oppression of Soviet times or, as Viktor Yerofeyev, a writer and older brother of Andrei Yerofeyev, warned, that it was becoming a Russian Orthodox version of the Islamic republic in Iran.

And:

Andrei Yerofeyev and some of his supporters said they believed that the Kremlin had intervened to prevent a prison sentence that could tarnish Russia’s image abroad.

Officials of the Russian Orthodox Church had said in recent days that although they were offended by the exhibition and believed it was criminal, the defendants should not be imprisoned.

So we have the accusation that the church’s influence is trending toward Iran-like levels of theocracy and conjecture that the government intervened in the case to counter the church’s influence. This is pretty strong stuff, especially without knowing what the Russian laws actually say on this subject.

Also, it should be noted that the story lacks even one actual quote from a Russian Orthodox official or an outside religious expert that might counterbalance the perspective being offered by the defendants or address their accusations. Perhaps the church really has gone overboard here, but I’d feel a lot better accepting this perspective if there was even just one impartial or outside religious expert that could contextualize the church’s contemporary influence in Russia.

I really hope we see a follow-up that explains the church’s role in Russian society a bit better. That would go a long way toward illuminating what is going on here. Despite the clear suggestion the church has an out-sized or even pernicious influence, there’s a lot of smoke here but little fire.

A political ‘truce’ on abortion?

WASHINGTON-MARCH 19: Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), speaks on Capitol Hill March 19, 2003 in Washington, D.C. Daniels testified before the Transportation, Treasury, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

He hasn’t exactly reached Sarah Palin levels of media saturation, nor is he about to host his own syndicated talk show like Mike Huckabee — but Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is generating quite a bit of excitement within the ranks of the Republican party. Based on his stellar gubernatorial track record, more than a few people want to see him run for President. (I should confess that, having written a cover story for National Review on the governor last year, I’ve played a minor role in spurring the chatter around Daniels.)

Anyway, unless you’re a political junkie, you might not have noticed that last month Daniels did something quite surprising for a Republican presidential contender. In another profile by Andrew Freguson of The Weekly Standard, Daniels said this:

Beyond the debt and the deficit, in Daniels’s telling, all other issues fade to comparative insignificance. He’s an agnostic on the science of global warming but says his views don’t matter. “I don’t know if the CO2 zealots are right,” he said. “But I don’t care, because we can’t afford to do what they want to do. Unless you want to go broke, in which case the world isn’t going to be any greener. Poor nations are never green.”

And then, he says, the next president, whoever he is, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the economic issues are resolved. Daniels is pro-life himself, and he gets high marks from conservative religious groups in his state. He serves as an elder at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, in inner-city Indianapolis, which he’s attended for 50 years. In 1998, with a few other couples from Tabernacle and a nearby Baptist congregation, he and his wife founded a “Christ-centered” school, The Oaks Academy, in a downtown neighborhood the local cops called “Dodge City.” It’s flourishing now with 315 mostly poor kids who pursue a classical education: Latin from third grade on, logic in middle school, rhetoric in eighth grade, an emphasis throughout on the treasures of Western Civilization. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in,” he told me. His social-conservative credentials are solid.

So a leading Republican and possible presidential candidate is saying we may have to de-emphasize social issues… whoa. Shortly after Ferguson’s piece appeared, I was at a meeting where Daniels was again asked about this truce, and he even declined to commit to reinstating the “Mexico City policy” — an executive order federal banning funding for NGOs that fund abortion efforts repealed by Obama. While the former Office of Management and Budget director is primarily known as an economic policy wonk, again, Daniels isn’t just nominally a social conservative. A few days after his comments on the Mexico City policy, someone at a big family values organization expressed a bit of bewilderment about what was going on, telling me that Daniels was “categorically” one of the most pro-life governors in the country.

So what exactly is going on? After I wrote a column plumbing the depths of what he meant by a “truce”, Daniels called me up to affirm he’s serious as a heart attack about the proposal. (Though a few days later, he did tell his former OMB colleague Michael Gerson that “I would reinstate the Mexico City policy.”)

Okay, so what does this have to do with GetReligion you ask? Well, I was looking up some info on Daniels and came across this interview with an Indiana TV station. It’s from this past December, before all the truce talk. Daniels spoke openly about his faith, and it seems relevant in light of his talk of a truce:

Mark Mellinger: You’ve talked about your own personal faith very little. What is the Gospel? What is its primary significance to Mitch Daniels?

Governor Daniels: It’s true. I don’t talk about these things too openly for two reasons.

One is [that] although faith is very central to me, I also take very seriously the responsibility to treat my public duties in a way that keeps separate church and state and respects alternative views.

Secondly, I’ve sometimes referred to it as a Matthew 6 Christian. If you read that chapter, it’s the one that talks about praying in private, not giving your alms in public, not being ostentatious about your faith. And I’ve always liked that notion and thought that was a pretty important instruction.

Mellinger: But theology has to shape your life, right? I mean, the external actions that we see you take, [they're] driven by what’s inside. Isn’t it all a result of your theology?

Daniels: I hope it is; hope it is, except we all fall short of that.

To me, the core of the Christian faith is humility, which starts with recognizing that you’re as fallen as anyone else. And we’re all constantly trying to get better, but… so I’m sure I come up short on way too many occasions.

There’s more juicy stuff at the link, in particular Daniels condemns “aggressive atheism,” of which he said “leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists.” So in the span of six months Daniels has provoked the condemnation of both atheists and social conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, who used his opposition to Daniels’ “truce” proposal as the hook for a fundraising letter.

While the presidential talk around Daniels hasn’t died down, he’s certainly become a more controversial figure since his proposed “truce.” But almost all of the coverage of Daniels’ “truce” comments – myself included – has centered on the political horserace angles.

In my experience, Daniels is very thoughtful and careful guy. I bet if some enterprising religion reporter were to call up Daniels and ask him how his personal faith informs his decision to call for a truce on social issues, the result would be mighty interesting. (Somewhat unrelated but worth noting — another interesting wrinkle with regard to Daniels’ faith is that he’s the grandson of Syrian immigrants and was once honored as National Public Servant of the Year by the Arab-American Institute.)

As the race for 2012 heats up, and if Daniels does indeed prove to be a contender, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be ahead of the curve in helping voters get a bead on his religious perspective. So, if any religion reporters are reading this — how about it?


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