Oklahoma news: A Christmas ‘miracle’ via the local atheists

News stories blending the miraculous with Christmas aren’t difficult to find: families reunited, poor children receiving presents, the homeless fed. A common denominator, though, is usually a denomination, most likely a Christian one. After all, it’s the Christians who connected charity to the whole thing to begin with, right?

Well, things apparently are different in Chickasha, Oklahoma. While I fear to step onto the home turf of Sooner GetReligion duo Bobby and Tamie Ross, tread I must.

The Chickasha Express-News reported a”Christmas miracle” story, but this time, it was area atheists who saved the day, as opposed to reprising what others often view as their “Grinch” role:

CHICKASHA – A group of local atheists saved Christmas for a Chickasha woman after she and her baby were allegedly put through the ringer [sic] at a church’s toy give away.

Tiffany Wait said she, her husband and their 7-month-old baby went to Bible Baptist Church’s Toy Shop Christmas morning to get gifts for their child, but were met with animosity because Wait did not want to give her baby to the volunteers.

“I am poor and would not be able to celebrate Christmas this year without their charity,” she said. “I went last year and it was a life saver. This year however, I was treated shockingly bad.”

Wait said her baby doesn’t like strangers and she’d prefer to be with him. She said the volunteer said it has to be done this way, or the family wouldn’t be able to participate.

“I stood there, fighting back tears and asked, ‘You would turn a baby away on Christmas,’” said Wait.

Two initial questions: (1) Was it a look-alike of some sort (“ringer”) Wait had to somehow be “put through” or was it the metaphorical “wringer” (or clothes press or what the British call a “mangle“) to which the reporter was referring? Also, what’s up with the alleged demand for Wait to “give her baby to the volunteers” at the toy distribution? The church folks could only hand presents directly to the child? Say what?

Anyway, this being the Year of Our Lord 2013, Wait — whose Twitter account describes her as an  Avon representative and one of whose Facebook photos show her with her husband and two children — did what anyone would do, these digital days.

She sought solace online:

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NYT: The Obamas and Christmas (no church)

Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes. It’s a federal holiday as well as a religious observance, so it’s understandable that any president of the United States, regardless of faith, would take the day off. At the same time, most every POTUS has been a Christian of one stripe or another (questions exist about Jefferson and Lincoln, but that’s for another time).

President Barack Obama professes Christian faith as well, something noted here just the other day.

But personal faith and public (or semi-public) practice are often two different things. Ronald Reagan’s non-attendance at church (not to mention his wife’s reported dabblings in astrology) drew barbs from some political opponents and pundits. George W. Bush often hosted worship services at Camp David but was not a frequent churchgoer when in Washington. (That said, Bush averaged 15 visits to churches each year, versus 3.6 per annum for Obama.)

The New York Times caught this, and jumps in on what the president did — and didn’t — do during his current, Christmastide sojourn in Hawaii:

HONOLULU — President Obama celebrated a low-key Christmas in Hawaii this year. He sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base to wish the troops “Mele Kalikimaka” — the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.”

But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.

“He has not gone to church, hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.

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LATimes: ‘Congregationalist’ Obama quotes Pope Francis

This is what passes for news in Washington these days: an immensely famous politician is having a speech prepared and instructs their speechwriters to quote another immensely famous person, because immensely famous person No. 2 says some things immensely famous person No. 1 likes.

Except, it turns out, when immensely famous person No. 1 actually disagrees with immensely famous person No. 2.

What it is the kids say? Oh, yes: “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

Sorry to be so arch so soon after Christmas, but that’s how I felt after even a casual reading of The Los Angeles Times‘ nearly breathless report on President Obama quoting some of Pope Francis’ recent comments about income inequality.

If, in the recent near-deluge of reporting on the HealthCare.gov rollout you’re longing for a straight shot of fawning press coverage of the president circa 2009, I believe I found your “fix” — at least at the start of this report. (The admiration fizzles towards the end.) Read this:

WASHINGTON – When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.

The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.

Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.

White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.

“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.”

Yes, there’s a lot on this pope’s mind, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. Let’s go back to something that seems to have glided by editors at The Los Angeles Times: “Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.”

I’ve never worked in The White House and can’t really judge how a president should or shouldn’t act, but is it really unheard of for a POTUS to at least schedule a phone conversation with a pontiff once said pontiff is elected? Vatican City is a “state” with which the United States has diplomatic relations, and Pope Francis is the chief executive of that state. Yet Obama has never spoken with him? Not even after both men became Time‘s “Person of the Year”?

Then again, perhaps there are some elements of Francis’ message that might make such a conversation a bit awkward, such as a politician treating the pope’s worldview as a buffet: sample this, but don’t touch the other. To its credit, the Times captures this, albeit with the seemingly requisite snark towards Obama’s GOP predecessors, (leaving one to imagine that Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton were perhaps soulmates):

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NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as “low-hanging fruit” in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don’t dare call them “holiday parties.”

One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal‘s online opinion section, specifically his daily “Best of the Web Today” feature, coined the phrase, “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” to describe writing that’s obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times‘ crime reporter who incredulously once noted, “Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates.”

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  “During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate.” You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let’s begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit — “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light” — but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, “Is this really news?” If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

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AP skirts key element of ‘tips for Jesus’ story

As anyone who’s done it can testify — or, to be candid, so I’ve heard — waitering is a tough job. People are rude, hours are long, and wages are often sub-sub-minimum wage, all in the hope of getting some tips. Thus it ever has been, apparently, and thus it ever shall be.

Or, shall it? Someone, the Associated Press informs us, is running around leaving massive, and verified, “Tips for Jesus” on restaurant charge slips:

NEW YORK — The $111.05 New York restaurant receipt includes a $1,000 tip and the words “god bless!” scrawled across it.

The handle @tipsforjesus is stamped next to an illegible signature.

In recent weeks, similar tabs have popped up in restaurants from coast to coast and even in Mexico, with tips of as much as $10,000 — all charged to American Express.

So who’s the anonymous tipster leaving a trail of generosity across the continent?

Tips for Jesus — an Instagram account filled with photos documenting the tips — has more than 50,000 followers. The account displays photos of smiling servers holding receipts with outlandish gratuities on bills also tallied in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Ann Arbor, Mich. On Twitter, Tips for Jesus has nearly 3,000 followers but no tweets.

The Instagram feed comes with the tagline, “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”

Well, that’s made the day for several servers, and good for them. But, there’s something missing here, isn’t there? Let’s look a bit further:

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Scouts pledge ‘duty to God;’ reporter draws a blank

The highly contentious issue of the Boy Scouts of America and gay scouts became a religion story because so many Scout troops and Cub Scout packs are sponsored by churches, synagogues and other houses of worship (click here for previous GetReligion links). Indeed, members of the Religion Newswriters Association voted it the ninth-most important religion story of 2013.

So it is just as understandable that within the realm of religion there would be those who are none too happy with the BSA decision, and who have or soon will “opt out” of the Scouting movement. But to where shall these congregations go? Yes, various denominations — Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventist Church — have highly similar programs, but where does that leave other groups?

The Dallas Morning News team has an answer, but in providing it the editors glide past a major element. If “Trail Life,” a new alternative group “modeled on” the BSA, wants to emphasize moral values different from the BSA’s position, then what are the specifics of those values? Why are they doing what they are doing?

Sadly, you won’t find out much here. Read on:

Trail Life USA, a new alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, is starting to take off in Texas and across the nation.

The question is whether Trail Life will become a viable alternative to the venerable Boy Scouts, a 103-year-old organization with $1 billion in assets and 2.6 million members.

Trail Life was born last summer after BSA’s leaders voted to allow openly gay boys to participate in Scouting, a reversal of a long-standing policy. Many conservative Christians objected, saying the historic vote represented a rejection of biblical teachings on sexuality. Some within Scouting voted with their feet, leaving to create Trail Life USA.

In many ways, Trail Life is modeled on the Boy Scouts. The two groups part ways, though, on the question of admitting openly gay members. Trail Life bans gay members — the same ban that the BSA lifted last year.

“Trail Life is very much what families want,” said Rob Green, a former BSA executive who is CEO of the new group.

“They just don’t know it yet.”

As it turns out, Trail Life’s leaders are happy to explain their religious viewpoints, though not in exacting detail:

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UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11

Here’s a shocker: America is becoming more secular, atheism is on the rise and — get this! — for now there are more observant Muslims than Jews in Florida. Of course, it depends on whether you define a Jew as one who practices the Jewish faith or simply identifies culturally.

That’s the somewhat-breathless reporting of The Telegraph‘s blogs editor Damian Thompson — a journalist once labeled by The Church Times “as a ‘blood-crazed ferret,’” according to his online biography.

Over to you, Damian:

Did you know there are — possibly — now more religious Muslims than religious Jews in Florida? I know, it seems incredible. Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors, there are getting on for 200 synagogues in South Florida – and, of course, it was the hunting ground of the despicable Bernie Madoff.

It also seems incredible because the journalistic evidence is thin. I realize that this is a blog post and, thus, a form of commentary? But facts on the ground matter, even in blogging.

Thompson cites figures from the BestPlaces.net website, which is geared more towards the real estate industry, as evidence, albeit scanty, that Muslims outnumber Jews in the Sunshine State:

There are still more Jews than Muslims in Florida, loosely defined; these figures measure Judaism as a religion. That said, even to compare the two 20 years ago would have seemed ridiculous. Florida has a small but vibrant, growing Muslim community, half of it from India, followed by Pakistanis – only 150,000 registered voters to date. As you’d expect, 80 per cent voted for Obama in the last two elections; but in other elections they’re swing voters, and in Florida you ignore those at your peril. As for the Jewish community, the retirement communities are reflecting the national picture.

He then goes on to quote a Newsmax article about the October 2013 Pew Research study showing a decline in Jewish population. Thompson then spells it all out for you:

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AP discerns what Vatican knew in Maciel scandal

While it’s certainly the function of a reporter to puzzle out the essence of a story based on the available evidence, there are occasions when journalists choose to act as if they have nearly paranormal abilities to discern things not immediate visible to the naked eye. This is called analysis or even editorializing.

Consider the Associated Press report– actually this appears to be a news analysis — concerning the challenges facing Pope Francis concerning the Legionnaires of Christ, a Catholic order beset by numerous problems, most of which centered around the group’s late founder:

VATICAN CITY – First, one of the Legion of Christ’s top officials abruptly quit the troubled religious order in frustration over the slow pace of change. Then priests in the cult-like movement empowered proteges and associates of the order’s disgraced founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, to vote for their next leader.

The past month has seen some setbacks in the Legion’s efforts to rehabilitate itself as it moves toward electing a new leadership next month, the culmination of a three-year Vatican experiment aimed at overhauling a damaged order. Yet even as the Legion prepares to present a new face, high-ranking members continue to speak nostalgically and even reverently of Maciel — a sexual predator who molested his seminarians, fathered three children and was, in the words of Vatican-appointed investigators, “devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.”

It’s the next paragraph that gave me, well, agita:

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, took over the Legion in 2010 and appointed a Vatican cardinal to govern it after investigators determined that the congregation itself needed to be “purified” of Maciel’s influence. In reality, the Vatican knew well of Maciel’s crimes for decades but turned a blind eye, impressed instead by his ability to bring millions of dollars and thousands of seminarians into the church.

The entire Vatican? Really?

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