Twilight of the Mormons

The smartest piece I’ve read so far about the Twilight phenomenon, was Caitlin Flanagan’s essay for The Atlantic. To date, I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, but my Mormon upbringing has made me somewhat attuned to a subject that otherwise is primarily of interest to adolescent females. Anyway, here’s Flanagan’s take on the books’ religion and morals:

That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy “compound” where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality — and toward the role of marriage and childbearing — expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted — to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother — and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically.

I think the reason why most reviewers don’t know what to do with the books and films’ supposed Mormonism is because the moral examples put forth, while certainly more conservative than much of what we see in secular culture, are broad and shared by a good many other religions. Mormons aren’t exactly alone in their desire to see young women value marriage and children, abstain from premarital sex, and to see abortion as immoral.

In that context, this Religion News Service piece “Mormon imagery runs deep in ‘Twilight‘” had me scratching my head a lot. The set-up of the piece is basically a strawman:

“People make up all these Mormon references just so they can publish ‘Twilight’ articles in respectable publications like The New York Times,” actor Robert Pattinson (Edward, the film’s central vampire character), told Entertainment Weekly. “Even Stephenie said it doesn’t mean any of that.”

It’s possible that Meyer never set out to weave LDS imagery into the ‘Twilight’ background. Yet intentional or otherwise, it’s hard to ignore:

What follows are six bullet points discussing the alleged religious themes in Twilight. Some of the things do sound like they might in fact reflect a Mormon worldview:

–The story’s teenage heroine, Bella, avoids coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco — not unlike the Mormons’ “Word of Wisdom” health code. Bella also advises her father to “cut back on steak, much like the LDS teaching to eat meat and poultry “sparingly.”

Again, I haven’t read the books — but if that’s the case it could well be the author’s Mormonism that influenced the characterization. However, many of the things highlighted are mighty thin gruel:

–Mormons believe angels are resurrected beings of flesh and bone. The most familiar is Moroni, who stands high atop LDS temples, trumpet in hand. The Book of Mormon, the faith’s trademark Scripture, says Moroni was a fifth-century prophet who visited church founder Joseph Smith. Smith described Moroni as radiating light and “glorious beyond description.”

Bella describes her vampire boyfriend, Edward, as an angel whom she cannot imagine “any more glorious.” Edward’s skin sparkles in the sunlight, and he visits Bella’s bedroom at night. But Mormon angels don’t have wings; in the “Twilight”  film, Edward sits in the science lab, the outstretched wings of a stuffed white owl just over his shoulders.

Huh? That’s an awful lot of import to project on use of the word “glorious.” And there’s this:

–A unique LDS teaching is that marriages are “sealed” for eternity; spouses are referred to as eternal companions. Bella describes her relationship with Edward as “forever.”

If proclaiming that love is “forever” is somehow indicative of LDS teaching, then every song lyricist and hack poet alive must be Mormon.

There was one thing in the piece I did find kind of fascinating, and contra some of the previous points, evinces a sophisticated understanding of Mormon theology:

–Bella and Edward’s marriage, and her quick pregnancy, underscore the Mormon emphasis on the family. But Bella’s half human/vampire fetus nearly destroys her, so her distraught husband suggests an abortion and artificial insemination. Mormons permit abortions if the mother’s life is in danger, and artificial insemination is an option for married couples.

Whoa. I feel like the author has stumbled on to something, with her discussion of the Mormon doctrine of “free agency.” (For more on this doctrine, see this article from a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the archives of the church’s Ensign magazine here.) And interestingly enough, the Mormon take on sin and the exercise of free will is anchored in the church’s belief in the “premortal existence,” i.e. the church’s belief we all inhabit the same spirit world before we are born, and this belief in turn profoundly shapes the church’s position on abortion. But that’s a lot to unpack, and it gets such short shrift and it is ultimately so vague I’m not sure what to even say about it.

In any event, while I applaud the author of the piece for trying to cover a lot of ground, she teaches film at UCLA and religion is not necessarily her bailiwick. This is really more of a religion story than a film piece. There’s not a single quote from anyone in the piece who is an expert in Mormon doctrine. Three phone calls to the right people could have resulted in a more interesting piece. Finally, here’s how the piece ends:

Bram Stoker probably never imagined that vampires would represent a religious doctrine. But more than a century later, Twilight shows that these nocturnal creatures can accommodate just about anything.

Are you kidding me? There’s no creature in popular culture more freighted with religion than the vampire — they drink blood, recoil from crucifixes, and are a walking commentary on resurrection and redemption. If you went back and time asked Bram Stoker about Vampires representing religious doctrine, I’m pretty confident he would have seen this one coming.

The ‘Indian’ religion?

There’s been a lot of political coverage lately of Nikki Haley and the South Carolina gubernatorial primary. That race has been rife with religious ghosts ever since a state senator called Haley, a former Sikh who converted to Christianity, a “raghead.” Ever since then, supporters of her primary opponent Gresham Barrett have been trying to raise the issue of her religion in a rather slimy fashion.

But Haley’s high-profile race is just one part of a larger story. Until I saw this AP story, I had no idea that there was a “Record number of Indian-Americans seeking office.” No doubt this story could use some analysis, as it’s sure to be a crucible of religion and politics.

Unfortunately, it pains me to say that the AP story on this story is, well, less than good. The story does contain some good information, but it is plagued by some key oversights and unjustifiably vague statements. These three paragraphs are a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about:

Christianity is a more critical issue for white Republicans than other groups — could a Hindu who worships multiple gods, or a turbaned Sikh who doesn’t cut his hair, survive a statewide Republican primary in the Bible Belt?

Vidya Pradhan, editor of India Currents magazine, thinks not.

Haley and Jindal “were really ambitious about their politics, and they could not do it being Hindu or their old religion,” Pradhan said. “I do think it was a political move. They felt that not being a Christian would hurt them.”

Um, “Christianity is a more critical issue for white Republicans than other groups” — says who? How do, for instance, black Democrats feel on candidate religiosity? I have no idea but it shouldn’t be that hard to substantiate or quantify what the reporter is casting about in generalizations.

Then we get to Pradhan’s statement. It is provocative at best, unfair and inflammatory at worst. The article gives little to no context here to rebut Pradhan’s suggestion that Haley and Jindal’s conversions were political calculations. Haley is currently rebutting nasty campaign rumors she’s not really a Christian, and I’m not sure the AP should be entering the fray here without being more careful. Haley and Jindal both declined to be interviewed, but it still seems egregious to throw that in there without more counterbalancing information or perspective.

Especially since the only way Pradhan could accuse Jindal of being insincere about is faith is if he’s completely ignorant of his biography. Jindal is a convert to Catholicism, and if anything, has been criticized by the left for being too devout. There was a minor controversy when Jindal ran for governor over an article he wrote in 1994 about his powerful reaction to witnessing an exorcism.

The Louisiana Democratic party actually ran attack ads trying  to portray him as some kind of religious nut as a result. And yet, the article says nothing about Jindal’s religious background beyond “He converted to Catholicism as a teenager.”

Frankly, the whole article just seems haphazard and sloppy around the edges. Take this bit about an Indian running for Congress in Kansas:

Goyle worships at an Indian temple.

What? Does he worship at a temple in India? The word “Indian” confers place, not religion. And there are Sikh, Christian, Jain, Muslim and Buddhist adherents in India, just to name a few major sects and religions on the subcontinent.

I have no standing to be a grammar Nazi, as my better half will be glad to tell you,  but I wonder if the problem was that this story simply didn’t get looked at closely by an editor:

Now her [Haley's] choice of names, marriage to a white man and Methodist conversion is raising similar questions.

Finally, I will note that the credit on the bottom of the story is this:

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.

While this story undoubtedly has strong racial elements, I can’t help but wonder if this story wouldn’t have been better served if had been written with a religion reporter.

A study in contrasts

A month ago, Christi Parsons and James Oliphant wrote a story for The Los Angeles Times headlined:

Kagan’s abortion stance has both sides guessing

Except that nowhere in the story did we learn that either side was guessing. The only support for the headline was the information that Naral Pro-Choice America had not yet endorsed her. It was all about how Kagan had supported a “compromise position” on abortion. Except that at the time that position was floated, it was strongly opposed by pro-lifers. LifeNews said the National Right to Life Committee called it a “phony ban” with the sole purpose being to provide political cover for lawmakers. Both sides weren’t guessing, in other words.

I thought of that story when the Obama administration, like other White Houses that came before, made recent use of the “Friday night news dump” — where damaging news is released in the hopes that reporters on their way out the door for the weekend won’t be able to devote their full attention to the matter.

In addition to some massive corrections to promises made in the health care fight, the White House released a big document dump related to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s time in the Clinton administration. Now either because I’m a grizzled journalist or a total cynic (but I repeat myself) the timing immediately made me wonder what was damaging in the Kagan documents.

So I pulled up the New York Times story on the documents. The headline seemed pretty positive:

Kagan Expressed Broad View of Religious Freedom

Nothing controversial or particularly damaging about that. In fact, that headline’s probably a big positive for a liberal Supreme Court justice. However, by the second paragraph we see that things are a bit more complicated:

Ms. Kagan pushed back against President Bill Clinton when she thought his position on a controversial form of late-term abortion was unconstitutionally restrictive but backed other options that fellow administration lawyers considered unconstitutional.

“Unconstitutionally restrictive”? That’s a bit vague, no? Fortunately, we get better details later in the story:

Ms. Kagan’s involvement in the debate over the procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion may be grist for the hearings. As an alternative to Republican-sponsored legislation in 1996, Mr. Clinton’s staff outlined four options, and he focused on one that would ban the procedure even before the fetus was viable except to avert death or serious health consequences for the woman.

“You’re right — this is a problem,” Ms. Kagan wrote in a note to her boss, Jack Quinn, the White House counsel. “He seems as if he wants Option 1.”

Mr. Quinn wrote back: “E — HE DOES. JQ.”

Ms. Kagan and other administration lawyers concluded that would violate the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion before viability.

“The problem with this approach is twofold,” she wrote. “First, it is unconstitutional.” And “second, the groups will go crazy.”

She also wrote that any bill had to have a health exception to be constitutional, even though the Supreme Court a decade later would uphold a “partial-birth” abortion ban without one. On the other hand, she concluded that two options to restrict the procedure that the Justice Department considered unconstitutional would pass muster.

I think “grist for hearings” is tad unserious given the political and legal tensions surrounding abortion. The Times makes it sound like Kagan’s involvement here is a petty political matter rather than a window into the legal framework of someone who could potentially sit on the Supreme Court for the rest of her life. However, the Times didn’t skimp on the details with regard to her involvement in the Clinton White House’s abortion debates. So kudos for that.

Still, any Supreme Court nominee with a paper trail defending late-term abortion is going to be controversial. So why doesn’t the Grey Lady treat this like it’s bigger news? Even the Times’ own story spends a lot more time discussing her abortion views than her role in fleshing out legal arguments for religious freedom, which gets two graphs in the bottom half of the story. It’s odd, because the brief description of how Kagan sided with a landlord being sued for refusing to rent an apartment to an unwed couple on religious grounds — makes me wish I was given a lot more information about her legal reasoning here. It seems worth digging into, and any information explaining how a potential Supreme Court justice would handle religious freedom cases deserves some column inches, not just a splashy headline.

But as it stands, I’m not sure how the Times justifies that headline. Bloomberg was much more blunt and had an entirely different view of what was newsworthy here:

Kagan Played Lead Role in Abortion Rights Fight Under Clinton

The AP’s headline didn’t ignore the abortion news, and the story led with abortion before moving on to the other revelations from the Kagan documents:

Kagan memos on abortion limits, religious rights

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, as a Clinton White House counsel, drafted legal language designed to narrow a proposed ban on a procedure that critics call “partial-birth” abortion.

While the Times story contains good info, it is windy and circuitous, the headline doesn’t reflect what’s newsworthy, and tonally it almost feels defensive. The AP story is to the point, tightly written and recognizes the news value of the abortion comments while fairly contextualizing the other revelations about her Clinton years.

As a study in contrasts, AP wins the day.

The Times answers its own question

Tragic news in Pakistan a few days ago. According to the The New York Times, 70 people were killed in religious violence in an attack by the Taliban:

Gunmen and suicide bombers stormed two mosques belonging to a minority sect during Friday Prayer in Lahore, seizing hostages and killing at least 70 worshipers and wounding 78, the city coordinating officer said.

More than three hours after the attacks began, the police took control of the mosques, where they found bodies strewn across the main floors and verandas, the coordinating officer, Sajjad Dhutta, said.

Yeah, I know — what sect are we talking about? Five paragraphs in we get this explanation:

The attacks, which took place within minutes of each other at the mosques located a few miles apart, were clearly aimed at the Ahmadi community, which considers itself Muslim but is severely discriminated against under Pakistani law. Pakistan does not recognize the Ahmadi sect as part of Islam.

Given that explaining all the tribal relationships and religious affiliations in this part of the world would require a flow chart and the better part of an afternoon to understand, they should probably explain who the Ahmadi are and what they believe. Yet, the story did no such thing.

However, as I sat down to lay into the Times for the shameful lack of context here, I went back to the story. Lo and behold, the story had been freshened up considerably since it was originally filed. The later version of the story helpfully explains the Ahmadi:

The target was the Ahmadis, a group of about two million Muslims in Pakistan who are considered heretical by many mainstream Muslims because the Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their movement in 1889, was the messiah foretold by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Note that the online version of the story even includes a link to “The Official Website of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community” where they provide an overview of their beliefs. The later version of the story also provided a lot more context to the legal and religious persecution of the sect. So if the Times dropped the ball in the initial report, they more than made up for it with the updated version of the story. Well done.

However, the Times link to the Ahmadi website does bring up an interesting doctrinal issue that’s relevant to the story at hand. Here’s how the Ahmadi describe one of the tenets of their faith:

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the leading Islamic organization to categorically reject terrorism in any form. Over a century ago, Ahmad(as) emphatically declared that an aggressive “jihad by the sword” has no place in Islam. In its place, he taught his followers to wage a bloodless, intellectual “jihad of the pen” to defend Islam. To this end, Ahmad(as) penned over 80 books and tens of thousands of letters, delivered hundreds of lectures, and engaged in scores of public debates. His rigorous and rational defenses of Islam unsettled conventional Muslim thinking. As part of its effort to revive Islam, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continues to spread Ahmad’s(as) teachings of moderation and restraint in the face of bitter opposition from parts of the Muslim world.

I would like to see a follow-up about this. If the Ahmadis are explicitly non-violent and living in the midst of the Taliban, that’s an interesting story, no?

And while I’m at it, let’s take a look at the The Washington Post’s coverage. They had a briefer story, but on the whole it was not bad. Until I got to this:

An estimated 2 million to 5 million Ahmadis live in Pakistan. They believe their founder was a savior sent by God, an idea considered blasphemous under Pakistani law and anti-Muslim to many fundamentalist Islamists. That makes the Ahmadis a valid target in the eyes of radicals.

Emphasis mine. This is the fourth time this year we’ve noted the Post referring to Muslim “fundamentalists” (see items one, two and three). As has been noted many times before, “fundamentalist” has a specific meaning in religious contexts. The AP Stylebook explicitly condemns this kind of vague usage of the word, saying “In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Why the Post insists on doing this, I do not know.

Whack-a-mole: female ‘priests’ edition

Last week, I wrote about a perennial GetReligion sport — “fundamentalist” whack-a-mole. The word is often used to describe any old traditional or conservative sect, but we’re forever pointing out “fundamentalist” has a very specific meaning in the context of Christian theology.

This week, I’m back with a another edition of GetReligion whack-a-mole. Longtime readers are no doubt familiar with the media’s fascination with what the media calls “female Catholic priests” or “Catholic women priests.” If Rome ever were to start ordaining women, obviously that would be big news. However, it’s a well-known fact they don’t.

But that doesn’t stop the media from seizing on ordination reports from Catholic groups unaffiliated with Rome. Here’s the headline from The Telegraph:

Italy to ordain first woman priest

Italy is to have its first woman priest, in a move likely to upset the Roman Catholic Church and inflame the long-running debate over female clerics.

Well, golly. That sounds oddly confusing — but dramatic!

Let’s go to the article and find out what’s going on:

Maria Vittoria Longhitano, 35, will be ordained in an Anglican church in Rome, a stone’s throw from the Vatican, this month.

“My ordination represents a great chance for all women of faith. It means hope, it means giving a push to an important debate between Catholics on the issue of denying women the possibility of fulfilling their vocations and being ordained as ministers,” she said.

She is not an Anglican, but a member of a small Catholic order called the Old Catholics, who broke away from the main body of the Church in the 19th century.

They do not believe in papal infallibility or the Immaculate Conception and are not recognised by the Vatican.

Mrs Longhitano, a married teacher from Milan, said she hoped to stimulate a debate and break down the “prejudice” within the Catholic Church when she is ordained at All Saints Anglican Church, near Rome’s famous Spanish Steps, on May 22.

Gotta love that line about being “a stone’s throw from the Vatican” — clearly if you’re near the Holy See you obviously have its imprimatur.

So in sum, this woman is being ordained a priest by a “Catholic” sect that split from the Vatican well over 100 years ago, and doesn’t believe in any number of other key Roman Catholic doctrines?

Note that the article doesn’t have a single quote from an authority at the Vatican substantiating the claim the “move likely to upset the Roman Catholic Church.” Regardless, I’m sure this development among the Old Catholics is the Pope’s number one priority and he will address it head on, just as soon as he gets done obsessing over what the Archbishop of Canterbury had for breakfast.

As has been discussed many times here at GR, Roman Catholic and catholic mean different things. “Catholic” just means universal — lots of Christian churches that are not Roman Catholic describe themselves as catholic, including any number of churches that have been ordaining women for quite sometime. That doesn’t mean they have any connection whatsoever to Roman Catholic church, or make the fact they ordain women in any way newsworthy.

But none of this stopped the Times of London (which ran a report with a different byline, but had a lede suspiciously similar to the  or Telegraph’s story) and the Sydney Morning Herald from also weighing in with bad write-ups touted by sensationalist headlines. These stories prey on the confusion over the words “catholic” and “priest” which obviously mean very different things given the context. And this context is never really explained adequately, because doing so would undercut the supposed newsworthiness of the story.

The fact that this “female catholic priest” story pops up so regularly is dismaying.

Fundamentalist whack-a-mole

Long-time readers of GetReligion know that since the beginning of this blog we’ve been playing whack-a-mole with reporters who misuse the term “fundamentalist.”

We’re not asking for much. We’re just asking for reporters to follow the sensible AP stylebook guidelines — “fundamentalist” is a word that has a specific definition in a religious context. So why does the Washington Post in particular have such a problem with this? Tmatt took them to task in February for their reference to “Muslim fundamentalists”:

Once again we face the question: What precisely is a “fundamentalist” Muslim? Are the beliefs of a “fundamentalist” Muslim the same in Spain as in, let’s say, Saudi Arabia? How about Egypt? How about on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.?

While we are at it, what beliefs and traditions separate a “conservative” Muslim from a “fundamentalist” Muslim? And here is the most crucial question: Do Muslims use these terms? Have they actually adopted a term — fundamentalist — taken from debates in American Protestantism to describe their own beliefs?

I have my doubts.

Good questions! Then in March, Tmatt noticed the Post was playing fast and loose with the F-word again, also in reference to Muslims. Then yesterday, the Post published this report from their foreign service, about a new law in Belgium banning full face veils for Muslim women and a similar law being considered in France:

These are uneasy times for the estimated 15 million Muslims of Western Europe, not only for fundamentalists such as Selma, but also for the vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.

So what’s the deal here? Is “fundamentalist” now officially the Post’s preferred way of describing Muslims whose beliefs and practices are a source of conflict in Christian and secular contexts? I realize it’s more difficult to explain to the reader what the Muslims in question actually believe, but unfortunately accuracy and understanding suffer when you fall back on inadequate and inaccurate appellatives.

And unfortunately, that’s not all that’s wrong with the Post’s report on what’s going on in Belgium. We do get some good information on anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, but things are awfully one-sided:

Public sentiment has gone further, though. In recent discussions about the ban and during a government-sponsored “national identity” debate, several French Internet sites closed down reader comment sections because of an outpouring of hate mail. A Muslim butcher shop and a mosque were sprayed with automatic-weapon fire in southern France last month, after Sarkozy decided to pursue a full ban, and vandals last week desecrated a graveyard for Muslim soldiers who died fighting in the French army.

The writer then goes on to quote one Muslim woman who calls the law “racism and a form of Islamophobia.” The closest thing to balance is a quote from a Muslim who says that he doesn’t think full-face veils are necessitated in his reading of the Koran — but even then the new law’s alleged anti-Muslim underpinning still concerns him. There’s not one secular or Christian European quoted in the story, nor anyone on record as being in favor of the law and explaining their reasoning for supporting it.

I also think that the way the article is framed is problematic, noting that the new law concerns the “vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.”

Well, to understand Belgium’s new law and France’s support for a similar measure, I think it would be important to note that aside from the “vast majority” of Muslims who don’t want to confront secular and Christian traditions of Europe — there’s a very active minority who is confronting those traditions head on. For instance, you might note that anti-Semitic incidents “skyrocketed” in Belgium last year and “the perpetrators mostly belong to Muslim groups,” or that France seems to be having perpetual problems with Muslim riots. Do these issues have anything to do with the development of this new law? If not, what is the context for why this new law was written?

Further, the article raises the question: Of all the things about Muslims in Western Europe that creates friction, what is it about female head coverings that seems to be the thing that gets focused on by Muslim critics? Sure, there’s some obvious answers in terms of how women’s rights are preserved and the general difficulty of having to interact with someone when you can’t see their face. But I think probing this question a bit would be interesting.

And as a chaser to this discussion of Muslim head coverings being a flashpoint in Europe, I will refer you to the YouTube video to your left.

As tmatt highlighted last week, Swedish artist Lars Vilks — one of the cartoonists whose drawings of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper set off an international firestorm — was attacked by Muslims while giving a lecture at a Swedish university last week (and his house was hit by suspected arson this weekend). Many people saw the video of the attack on the internet.

What you probably didn’t see is this video of people involved in the attack being arrested outside the building. You’ll notice that the Swedish police let a civilian intercede in the middle of the arrest. It’s a Muslim woman putting a hijab on the exposed head of one of the women being arrested.

Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights.

As someone who spent four years in Eugene, Oregon, a.k.a. Berkeley North, I had a fair amount of exposure to Rastafarianism. I think most people’s only contact with the religion — if they’ve had any at all — comes from college kids and/or big weed-smokers who invoke Bob Marley, the religion’s most famous ambassador. The upper-middle-class white kids at school were constantly sparking up the one-hitter between classes were derisively known as “Trustifarians,” as in trust fund Rastafarians.

Obviously, I knew that there were some people that regarded Rastafarianism as a serious religious discipline. But given my limited exposure to the religion (which is loosely organized to begin with), it’s hard to envision what it meant to be a committed Rastafarian this side of Jamaica. So along comes this terrific AP story that discusses one prisoner’s devotion to Rastafarianism:

For more than 10 years he has lived in segregation at the Greensville Correctional Center, spending at least 23 hours every day in a cell the size of a gas station bathroom. In a temporary home for the worst of the worst — inmates too violent or disruptive to live among the rest of society’s outcasts — he has been a permanent fixture.

He is there, he says, not for his crimes but for a crime he will not commit — a crime against God.

The only thing imposing about Gibson is his long black dreadlocks, resting on the front of his shoulders so they won’t drag the ground as he shuffles along in his orange jumpsuit.

It is his hair — winding locks he considers a measure of his Rastafarian faith — that makes him a threat, according to Virginia Department of Corrections Operating Procedure No. 864.1.

The writer Dena Potter does a really thorough job explaining the little-understood and much-maligned religion:

Gibson had always loved the “peaceful vibes of Rastafari livity,” but like many he knew the movement by the hair, the music and the ganja. In prison, he met others who taught him the spiritual aspects. He took on the name Ras-Talawa Tafari, a strong leader who inspires awe.

Rastafari draws from the Bible, mixing in African and Caribbean cultural influences. It is considered by many more of a way of life or movement than a religion. They preach unity with god, nature and each other, but are loosely organized and followers are free to worship with other congregations.

Rastafarians regard Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was known as Ras Tafari before he rose to power in 1930, as the second coming of Christ. They believe Jah inhabits them so there it no real need for a church. They smoke marijuana as a sacrament and adhere to a vegetarian diet.

While some view growing their hair as optional, most Rastafarians see it as demanded by the Nazarite Vow in the Bible (Numbers 6:5), “There shall no razor come upon his head.”

Interestingly enough, Gibson is one a number of devoted Rastafarians who are stuck in this awful predicament. Potter does a good job of running through the debate between religious freedom and the Department of Corrections insistence on cutting long hair as a matter of safety. All sides of the debate are well represented:

They made a choice to go to segregation instead of cutting their hair, spokesman Larry Traylor says. Should they decide to comply with the grooming policy, they could return to general population.

“Rules must be in place in order to have a secure, safe environment for everyone,” Traylor said. “An inmate that will not follow the rules jeopardizes normal prison operations and is potentially a danger to other inmates and staff.”

Virginia is among only about a dozen states, mostly in the South, that limit the length of inmates’ hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.

There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that constitutional protections, like the right to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates. Congress has said institutions can restrict religious liberties only for compelling reasons, like security, but the policies must be the least restrictive means to accomplish that.

I really have to give it up for the writer of this story. They took what might seem on first glance to be an obscure curiosity and managed to draw out a truly illuminating portrait of a little understood religion and an in depth discussion on the state of religious rights in prisons. Then wrapped both issues around a genuinely compelling personal portrait and delivered it to the reader in one neat little package. Well done.

A New York Times red herring

When the New York Times ran a story about the Vatican response to a particularly horrendous case of child sexual abuse by a priest, many observers felt that the Times should have explained a bit more about Jeff Anderson, a primary source for the piece. So, for instance, here is Bill McGurn taking the story’s author — Laurie Goodstein — to task in a Wall Street Journal column from earlier this month. She’d described Anderson as a lawyer:

What [Goodstein] did not tell readers is that Mr. Anderson isn’t just any old lawyer. When it comes to suing the church, he is America’s leading plaintiffs attorney. Back in 2002, he told the Associated Press that he’d won more than $60 million in settlements from the church, and he once boasted to a Twin Cities weekly that he’s “suing the s–t out of them everywhere.” Nor did the Times report another salient fact about Mr. Anderson: He’s now trying to sue the Vatican in U.S. federal court.

None of this makes Mr. Anderson wrong or unworthy of quoting. It does make him a much bigger player than the story disclosed. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone with a greater financial interest in promoting the public narrative of a church that takes zero action against abuser priests, with Pope Benedict XVI personally culpable.

Goodstein, for her part, said she didn’t have the space to include those details and the New York Times reader editor said that all criticism of the Goodstein piece was unfounded.

This recent CNN story by Dan Gilgoff, profiling Anderson provides more context:

The last month has seen a blizzard of new sex abuse accusations against the Catholic Church from across the United States. Almost all of them — and the intense media attention they’ve garnered — can be traced to one man: a Minnesota lawyer named Jeff Anderson.

Last week, an alleged victim of priest abuse in Wisconsin announced a lawsuit against the Vatican itself. Anderson is representing the alleged victim.

A couple of days earlier, a Mexican man who alleged abuse by a priest years ago filed suit against Mexico’s top Catholic cleric in a U.S. court. The plaintiff is another Anderson client.

And throughout April, new documents have come to light suggesting that the current pope may have played down warnings about abusive priests in the United States. Those documents came from Anderson’s St. Paul, Minnesota, office.

For decades, Anderson has won settlements from Catholic archdioceses across the country for abuse victims and, more than any other attorney in the country, has driven American media coverage of the church abuse scandal.

Knowing one attorney is the driving force behind an outsize percentage of the abuse cases fleshes out the story and provides some nice context. Since much of the coverage has focused on the hierarchical nature of the Vatican and how that affects its response to the charges, it’s important to also be aware that the church’s accusers might be part of a more coordinated campaign than meets the eye.

The other interesting thing about the Gilgoff article is that, like any good reporter, he follows the money:

Anderson’s firm — Jeff Anderson & Associates, which employs four other lawyers — has filed hundreds of sex abuse suits against the church. Though he won’t disclose how much he has won in settlements, Anderson is thought to be responsible for a good chunk of the roughly $2.5 billion that, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Catholic Church has paid to sex abuse victims to date.

He was among the lawyers representing abuse victims in the $600 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007, the church’s largest payout ever.

I knew the Catholic church had paid out a lot of settlement money, but $2.5 billion? Suing the Catholic church is a lucrative business. Gilgoff writes very fairly — he isn’t suggesting that Anderson’s financial incentives have any bearing on the merit of any of cases he’s bringing against the church. But the piece does show that understanding possible incentives of everybody involved is crucial.

Gilgoff’s article this week sent me scrambling to see what else had been written about Anderson in light of the recent scandals. As it happens, just a few days after Laurie Goodstein’s controversial article the Associated Press’ Patrick Condon also did a profile of Anderson.

Condon doesn’t go into the money issues as much as the Gilgoff did, but he does offer up much more in the way of personal details, providing a good deal of insight insight into Anderson:

“It’s not about the money,” Anderson told The Associated Press.

The self-described “former atheist” who rediscovered faith in God through his recovery from alcoholism professes a deep empathy with abuse victims — he calls them “survivors.”

More than a decade after his legal battles with church officials began, Anderson’s adult daughter revealed that as an 8-year-old she was molested by a therapist she was seeing as Anderson and his first wife were going through a divorce. The therapist, Anderson said, was a former Catholic priest.

Anderson, 62, said the pain of that revelation “brought another dimension to the experience.” But he said he concluded years earlier that the responsibility for shuffling around problem priests and covering up their indiscretions would extend to the Vatican.

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“I came to the stark realization that the problems were really endemic to the clerical culture, and all the problems we are having in the U.S. led back to Rome,” Anderson said. “And I realized nothing was going to fundamentally change until they did.”

For whatever reason, Condon’s piece didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved when it was released into the firestorm that followed Goodstein’s bombshell.

However, the NYT steadfastly ignored the Jeffrey Anderson issue until two weeks ago when the Washington Post had a nice substantive Jeffrey Anderson profile that, among other things, noted Anderson has been a party to 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic church. I guess this was one of the straws that broke the New York Times’ back, prompting Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to finally weigh in this past Monday with his blustery defense of Goodstein’s decision not to identify Anderson more thoroughly:

Regardless, the issue of whether Anderson has sued the church four times or 1,500 seems to me to be a red herring.

I think Hoyt’s red herring here is a red herring in and of itself. Adding some essential context about Anderson would have improved the coverage and upped the fairness quotient. And if Anderson’s possible motivations are totally immaterial, why did the Times finally get around to running their own profile of Anderson this week, just a few days after Hoyt’s dismissal?

I think it’s clear that giving more attention to Anderson from the get go would have shaped the New York Times’ coverage of the scandal for the better and helped them side step a lot of the criticism they received. It’s a shame that the paper’s ombudsman won’t cede this obvious point.