Patron saint of evangelicals

wilberforceThe New York Times‘ Alan Riding reviewed the new film Amazing Grace in Sunday’s paper. I had the opportunity to see an early screening of the film a month ago and have been eager for media reviews.

The film is about William Wilberforce, a British politician, abolitionist and leader of the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. I always say that Wilberforce is the patron saint of the pro-life movement because I’ve heard so many abortion opponents lovingly invoke his lengthy and eventually successful struggle against slavery. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is the patron saint of evangelicals. If evangelicals had patron saints . . .

In addition to his political work, Wilberforce was also an enthusiastic Christian — an Anglican with Methodist leanings. Which is why this line from Riding’s review gives one pause:

Now, two centuries later, the story of how William Wilberforce and a handful of other Quaker activists persuaded a reluctant British Parliament to abolish the slave trade is retold in Michael Apted’s new movie, “Amazing Grace,” which will be released in the United States on Friday. It is a story of good versus evil in which, after endless setbacks, the world ends up a better place.

Wilberforce wasn’t a Quaker, although many of those involved in the abolition movement — both in the United States and England — were. And then there’s this:

The movie’s title is borrowed from the much-loved hymn written by John Newton, himself a former captain of a British slave trader who underwent a religious conversion and who later, as an evangelical minister, became a friend and adviser to Wilberforce.

Newton was, of course, an Anglican clergyman. I’m not saying he wasn’t evangelical, but it’s just an interesting choice. Some readers suspected that the reviewer was maliciously abstaining from mentioning Wilberforce’s evangelicalism. But I rather suspect these were ignorant mistakes.

Perhaps I find this all so interesting because the film — which I enjoyed — had a remarkable lack of religion in it, considering who Wilberforce was. There’s even a scene in which William Pitt is dying (I would consider this a spoiler if it hadn’t happened hundreds of years ago) and tells Wilberforce that he wishes he had his faith. Wilberforce responds by talking about politics. This is not the Wilberforce I’ve read about. But apparently there’s a reason for hiding the faith under a bushel:

As it happens, Bristol Bay Productions initially wanted a biopic focused on Wilberforce’s faith, “which is why I and a lot of other people didn’t want to make it,” Mr. Apted recalled. “I wanted to center the whole film on the anti-slave trade debate, and they agreed. To me it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and yet manage to operate in the world.”

That’s an interesting tidbit to include in a film review, and I’m glad Riding did.

What’s 33 years between friends?

psychoanalysisI suspect I’m not alone in being weary of Ted Haggard media coverage. But I thought I might mention another recent piece because so many readers sent it in and because it points to a few larger sins in journalism.

Cindy Schroeder, a longtime Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, penned a personal essay for her paper based on the fact that she knew Ted Haggard over three decades ago in high school. In some sense, the story is really interesting. She reveals things about Haggard that I never knew — namely that he was an award-winning high school journalist. She speaks glowingly of a series he ran on teenage sexuality and its risks. She reveals a bit about his parental and religious influences, too.

But even though she hasn’t talked to him since Gerald Ford was president, she has no qualms delving deep into his psyche. This might be a stretch, to say the least. She begins by noting the latest headlines on Haggard — the third-party account alleging Haggard is “completely heterosexual”:

I cringed at the irony of it all. Pastor Ted, the fallen evangelist who claimed to have a hotline to God and President Bush, the preacher who enjoyed bantering with his critics in the media, had once aspired to be one of them.

Thirty-three years ago, my name was linked with the future religious superstar’s in court depositions and news accounts, when we wrote about the sexual problems of our fellow teens. For much of our senior year, Ted and I were embroiled in a fight for a free high school press and our journalism adviser’s job.

Hotline to God? Calm down, sister. Ted Haggard might have claimed he had a special relationship with President Bush — but did he say anything terribly out of the evangelical mainstream as it relates to his relationship with God? On the other hand, the second paragraph is interesting and deals with something I’ve never heard about this newsmaker. She goes on to explain that everyone found Haggard easy to talk to, and that students began talking to him about problems with sexual activity, including pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. He begins working on a series:

The first story related anonymous accounts of students who’d dealt with the fallout from unprotected sexual encounters. Ted also wrote how we planned to report on available services for pregnant teens, compare local schools’ sex education programs, explain the laws applying to doctors treating pregnant teens, and report local churches’ roles in advising teens with sex-related problems.

While all of the students portrayed in our series were straight, I now wonder if this was when Ted discovered a part of his life that he would later describe as “so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.”

Because he once wrote about sex, it must have been a gateway to a life of deception and degenerate behavior? Why is this woman reporting? She should be a psychoanalyst! Or how about this part:

The aspiring journalist, who would later speak out against abortion as the leader of the National Evangelical Association, defended the series that had covered the legal aspects of abortion and told the school board: “There’s no excuse for (teenagers) to be ignorant in this day and age. … We simply told the facts as we found them.”

Ted Haggard, in his vocation as NAE head, speaks out against abortion. Ted Haggard, as a high school reporter, writes about abortion objectively. How, how is this worth noting?

She goes on to note that Haggard went to Oral Roberts University and that this was because his father bribed him with a new Monte Carlo T-top with an eight-track tape player. She says he stops being liberal-leaning in college (although I’m not sure either what that means or why she didn’t feel the need to substantiate that somehow). They lost touch early in college. Here’s how she ends the piece:

The Ted Haggard that I knew in high school would shun the hypocritical, homophobic dogma of Pastor Ted. He would become a model for the acceptance of others, regardless of their sexuality.

For her knowing Haggard so well, the statement’s a bit overdone, no? Evangelicals Concerned, which is the premier pro-gay caucus within evangelicalism, probably shares the reporter’s ultimate view. They think that if Haggard could have been open about his sexual desires, he and his church might have been spared the agony of the last few months. But they note something else about Haggard that seems lost on much of the nuance-deficient mainstream media:

Although the gay press has caricatured Haggard as rabidly antigay, he never made attacking homosexuals a hallmark of ministry, as has the Religious Right. Indeed, at great personal risk, he stood up to antigay churches that demanded he rescind his invitation to a (GLBT) Metropolitan Church choir’s participation in a massed Easter service and he commended the Supreme Court’s overturning of sodomy laws.

It’s just interesting to me that this gay evangelical group displays a more subtle and nuanced understanding of Haggard than a woman who thinks she knows him so well. What Schroeder says about Haggard may or may not be true. But to assume it based on a very tenuous and distant connection says more about her than him.

Anti-Mormon bias?

antimormonpropWe look at media coverage of Mitt Romney so much because, unlike most other candidates, the media are obsessed with his religion. My wonderful Mormon in-laws are following Romney, and the number one thing they can’t stand is the focus on Romney’s religion instead of his politics.

The Washington Post‘s media critic, Howard Kurtz, weighed in on that matter in his latest column. He says the media seem downright excited at the prospect of the first female or black president, but aren’t so giddy about a Mormon president:

The skeptical tone toward Mitt Romney’s announcement has been impossible to miss. And the major reason is his religion.

“Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?” said USA Today’s front-page headline on the day that the former Massachusetts governor announced.

Try to imagine a headline that said, “Will Jewish faith hurt bid for White House?”

Obviously, reporters are raising the issue because of polls showing that a chunk of the public wouldn’t vote for a Mormon commander-in-chief — 24 percent in a USA Today poll yesterday. But I believe the passive acceptance of this political “fact” — as opposed to, say, questioning opposition to gay marriage or civil unions — reflects a mindset that Mormonism is kind of weird and therefore okay to treat as a fringe movement.

It’s true that the polls mean Romney’s religion is a legitimate news angle for political and religion reporters, but I think there might be something to Kurtz’s criticism. Sure, Romney faces some hurdles because of his religion. But at this point in the race, most of those polls are meaningless — imagine what a similar poll would have indicated about John Kennedy’s prospects in 1959.

Romney is trailing behind frontrunners John McCain (Episcopalian) and Rudy Guiliani (devout Roman Catholic*) in straw polls. But he’s keeping very competitive with fundraising and he’s lured a number of significant Republicans to his team.

I’m sure we’ll continue to analyze the copious media coverage of Romney’s religion, but it’s worth considering Kurtz’s comment. How should the media handle Romney’s religion? How should they cover other candidates’ religious views? What do you think?

*UPDATE: I thought, given what everybody knows about Rudy Guiliani, that this was an obvious joke. Judging from the myriad earnest/shocked comments from people noting “he’s not devout,” I will concede defeat on my attempts at sarcasm.

Shia rising

aliNational Public Radio’s Morning Edition is in the midst of a five-part series on Shiism this week. It’s called “The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics” and is well worth listening to or reading online.

The first installment explains the source of the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The majority, who thought the community should pick its leader, became the Sunni. A smaller group, Shiites, wanted Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to succeed the Prophet. Their disagreements were violent from the beginning. The first installment also showed where Shiism took hold. The story is vividly told, as this transcript excerpt shows:

The war continued with Ali’s son, Hussein, leading the Shia. “Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time,” says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. “He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.”

Hussein was decapitated and his head was carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.

It is the symbolism of Hussein’s death that holds so much spiritual power for Shia.

“An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force,” Nasr says. “He becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration.”

The story explains that imams, Shiite clerics, have a spiritual significance that no Sunni clerics enjoy. Some Sunnis believe that Shiites venerate clerics too much, almost making them divine.

The second installment explains the political changes in Iran over the 20th century. It included this claim:

Iran (formerly Persia) was at its center, becoming the world’s first Islamic state, a Shiite state, in 1979, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Didn’t Muhammad establish the first Islamic state after he fled Mecca for Yathrib in the 7th century when he was the religious leader of Muslims and the political head of Medina?

The third installment traces the reaction in the Sunni world to Khomeini’s revolution, the fourth shows how the Sunni-Shia divide is exploding right now in Iraq and the final installment looks at how that conflict is playing out worldwide.

In a series so heavy on politics, NPR has done a fantastic job of including religious angles and giving them the right prominence. Be sure to check back throughout the week for other installments. Also check out the sugested reading list, Sunni timeline and key Sunni players.

Another great example of reporting on Shias can be found in The Washington Post this week. Anthony Shadid, reporting from Egypt, shows that Shia and Sunni populations get along well in certain regions.

When geoscientists attack

geoscientistOnce upon a time, I thought I wanted to become an economics professor. This delusion lasted from early high school until I took enough postgraduate classes to be convinced otherwise. I loved my field of study and I had fantastic professors. One way in which they were helpful was to counsel me to keep my private views on everything from monetary theory to the Coase Conjecture hidden.

There is nothing so political as the academy. And generally speaking there’s not a lot of room for people who express unorthodox views. They don’t call it a university for nothing! So even though Keynesian theories no longer have exclusive sway in non-academic economic fields, they completely dominated my college. My professors, some of whom were extreme socialists and some of whom had enjoyed the forbidden fruits of Posner and Hayek, told me how to play the game. Basically that meant that I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories. Once I received my Ph.D., I was to keep up the facade, more or less, until I was tenured. Only then could I reveal my personal views.

That is a long way of saying that Cornelia Dean had a fantastic idea for a story in today’s New York Times. She found a geoscientist who completed his undergraduate and graduate schooling with great marks — all while being a young earth creationist (which the Times puts in scare quotes).

For him, Dr. [Marcus] Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Ross says it’s no big deal and even uses an economics department as an analogy. But as you might expect, other professors are enraged that the academy let an, er, non-believer into their hallowed halls.

Dean really handled the story well, characterizing and quoting each side charitably. Major kudos for that. She also nails the crux of the debate:

And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

She speaks with one professor who concedes it’s a difficult issue but says that if an academic’s work is good, his work is good. End of story. Others disagree, saying the issue is how Ross will use his degree.

Ross teaches at Liberty University and Dean explores how his classes are taught. He uses conventional texts but also discusses how they intersect with Christianity, he says. Dean gives a few other examples of the intolerance for conflicting views in scientific fields, including this one:

A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.

Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard’s project violated the university’s research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.

Dean talked to many people for her story and gives the reader a good understanding of Ross’ academic history and the challenges he faced at various schools. To ascertain whether the academic field believes that Ross’ religious views should result in his being ostracized, she spoke to many professors, including David Fastovsky, who is a paleontologist, professor of geosciences and Ross’ dissertation adviser. By hearing from so many people, the reader gets a better feel for the contentious issues:

Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross “lots of times” about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. “We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to “censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it.”

Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students.”

But Dr. [Eugenie] Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado [and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution], said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.” She said such students “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”

That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination “on the basis of science.”

That last excerpt doesn’t include all of the professors she spoke with, but it gives you a taste. Rather than painting one side as anti-religious extremists or the other as evangelical yokel sympathizers, Dean gives you real humans with real ideas. Not everyone agrees, but they have the opportunity to share their views. If only academia were as welcoming to opposing views as Dean’s article!

What about the religious left?

edwards 2008Yesterday I noted media coverage of the anti-religious rhetoric of two bloggers hired by John Edwards for his presidential campaign. The extreme anti-religious rhetoric was highlighted by political conservatives who are Christian.

Because of the political dimensions of the story, the coverage has seemed a bit tired to me. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times, for instance, centered the story on politics — not religion — and tried to claim that the comments of various conservatives were equivalent to those of the bloggers in question.

That’s fine, but also a bit boring and predictable.

But if you want an interesting take on the story — and one that moves the story forward — you could do no better than to read The Politico‘s Ben Smith. He spoke with liberals who are religious and got a fresh and illuminating angle:

As the flap over alleged anti-Catholic writings by two John Edwards campaign bloggers devolves into a shouting match between conservative religious voices and liberal bloggers, some members of the “religious left” say they feel — again — shoved to the margins of the Democratic Party.

“We’re completely invisible to this debate,” said Eduardo Penalver, a Cornell University law professor who writes for the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal. He said he was dissatisfied with the Edwards campaign’s response. “As a constituency, the Christian left isn’t taken all that seriously,” Penalver said.

Democrats — and Edwards in particular — have embraced the language of faith and the imperative of competing with Republicans for the support of religious voters. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, even sits on the board of the leading organization of the religious left, Call to Renewal. But in private conversations and careful public statements today, religious Democrats said they felt sidelined by Edwards’ decision to stand by his aides.

“We have gone so far to rebuild that coalition [between Democrats and religious Christians] and something like this sets it back,” said Brian O’Dwyer, a New York lawyer and Irish-American leader who chairs the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, a Democratic Party group. O’Dwyer said Edwards should have fired the bloggers. “It’s not only wrong morally — it’s stupid politically.”

Many politically liberal and religious GetReligion readers wrote similar comments in our previous thread, so I’m glad to see that their views are being noticed by someone in the media. The Politico, by the way, is a brand new publication and website that covers politics from all angles. It has hired some pretty heavy-hitting reporters — including some friends and former colleagues of mine.

Smith’s article is conversational and engaging and even includes some of the specific comments that Catholics have found offensive. He mentions Edwards’ statement that the bloggers assured him “it was never their intention to malign anyone’s faith,” and he describes the bloggers’ statements as semi-apologetic. Here’s how he sums up the situation for politically liberal Christians:

And so religious liberals find themselves in a quandary. They have no interest in associating with the likes of William Donohue, the Catholic League president who is closely aligned with the GOP and led the charge against Edwards’ aides. Donohue said Thursday he would take out newspaper advertisements attacking Edwards as anti-Catholic. But religious liberals also think Edwards’ aides merit more than a slap on the wrist.

“I thought his explanation was not satisfying,” said Cornell’s Penalver. “It’s obvious that they did mean to give offense.”

The reason why this story is infinitely more interesting than the tired stuff from other outlets is because the previous stories are focused on a conservative-liberal political divide. But Edwards was never going to get the votes of William Donohue or some of the other conservatives who raised the issue.

Isn’t it much more interesting to contemplate how Edwards’ hiring and support of these bloggers might affect his standing among religious liberals?

Watch that potty mouth

toiletAn interesting story has been brewing out of the John Edwards campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. He hired a couple of bloggers to run outreach to the liberal blogosphere. And their credentials were so good that it kind of backfired on him.

Let’s sample the blogging delicacy of new hire Amanda Marcotte, who writes at Pandagon:

Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit? A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.

BlasphemousClassy, eh? Or how about this one?

Marcotte has a special passion against the Roman Catholic Church, and you can read more of her comments on Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran’s blog (which is definitely worth checking out). So, needless to say, Roman Catholics and other Christians questioned Edwards’ hiring abilities. Here’s how the Associated Press wrote up the brewing storm:

Two bloggers hired recently by Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards were criticized Tuesday by a Catholic group for posts they had written elsewhere on the Internet.

. . . [Catholic League President Bill] Donohue cited posts that the women made on blogs in the past several months in which they criticized the pope and the church for its opposition to homosexuality, abortion and contraception, sometimes using profanity.

The AP report then quoted a remarkably mild blog post from Marcotte. I understand that family papers can’t print more than a few successive words from Marcotte’s questionable posts due to her vocabulary, but the whole reason that Roman Catholics are commenting on her hire is because of how dramatically offensive they deem the language.

Of course, the AP report is excellent compared to the one from The New York Times‘ John M. Broder. Here’s how Broder begins:

Two bloggers hired by John Edwards to reach out to liberals in the online world have landed his presidential campaign in hot water for doing what bloggers do — expressing their opinions in provocative and often crude language.

Oh, is that what bloggers do? And Edwards is in hot water solely because he hired bloggers? Way to spin the story! Edwards should hire Broder over the bloggers! Of course, I don’t accept the contention that Marcotte is just a humble average blogger. But even among bloggers who use crude language, they’re more at home on MySpace than a presidential campaign.

There are myriad respectable liberal bloggers out there, folks who don’t have a personal vendetta against Christians. I know the mainstream media like to dismiss all bloggers as lunatics, but isn’t it inappropriate to describe Marcotte as an average blogger?

Edwards is being criticized by conservatives and religious adherents and his hire is being defended by liberals, so it will be interesting to see how that affects what he chooses to do. Presumably he hired them because of their provocative blogging, so it would seem unfortunate if they were fired for the same reason. Salon has an unconfirmed report that the bloggers in question have been fired.

I’m sure that at the very least we can agree that this is a good lesson in support of cleaning up one’s potty-mouth when hurling verbal assaults. And remembering that what happens on the Internet does not stay in Vegas.

Update: The women are keeping their jobs. We’ll look at coverage of same if it’s warranted.

A story with legs

HaggardDisgraced pastor Ted Haggard is in the news again. A few days ago his email to members of New Life Church was released to the media. Eric Gorski wrote up the story for The Denver Post:

Three months after being ousted in a drugs and gay-sex scandal, the Rev. Ted Haggard is telling friends that counseling has given him hope, and he and his wife plan to leave Colorado Springs and pursue psychology degrees.

Haggard shared the couple’s still-evolving plans for their next chapter in an e-mail response to members of his former congregation who had contacted him, said Rob Brendle, an associate pastor at New Life Church.

“Jesus is starting to put me back together,” Haggard wrote. “I have spent so much time in repentance, brokenness, hurt and sorrow for the things I’ve done and the negative impact my actions have had on others. That sadness continues as my family and I, along with so many others, go through the painful consequences of my actions.”

I wanted to write about the story, which I thought was nicely written. But a new story has overtaken that humble update. Let’s just get it out here:

“[Haggard] is completely heterosexual,” [the Rev. Tim] Ralph said. “That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn’t a constant thing.”

And as you would expect, people are going crazy over this comment. I’m the first to abhor the ridiculous double standard that permits women to experiment with other women while retaining their heterosexual status while men aren’t allowed to touch another man without being accused of being irrevocably homosexual. But Ralph’s comment? I think it’s fair to say that “completely heterosexual” might not be the best choice of words to describe a man who, you know, solicited a gay prostitute. It reminds me of a line from The Queen when the Tony Blair character says of the royal family: “Will someone please save these people from themselves?”

The Associated Press picked up the story and media outlets far and wide ran with it — all based on Ralph’s comment. I might point out that the comment gives secondhand information and that headlines keep saying “Haggard says he’s completely heterosexual,” when in fact Ralph is the one making the comment. But the comment is ripe for analysis in any case and indicates something interesting about evangelical theology and how it views sin and its treatment. It will be interesting to see if a reporter can parse that out in greater detail.

Gorski’s story led with the Ralph quote, and mentioned that Ralph and the rest of a four-man oversight board strongly urged Haggard to go into secular work instead of Christian ministry. The piece provided a nice bit of context as well:

In investigating Haggard’s assertion that his extramarital sexual contact was limited to former male escort Mike Jones, the board talked to people close to Haggard and found no evidence contradicting him, Ralph said.

“If we’re going to be proved wrong, somebody else is going to come forward, and that usually happens really quickly,” he said. “We’re into this thing over 90 days, and it hasn’t happened.”

Steering Haggard away from a return to ministry was based, in part, on Haggard’s high profile, Ralph said. He cited biblical passages about holding influential figures to a higher standard.

“Nobody is saying he can’t go back into ministry,” Ralph said. “Somewhere down the road, that could very well happen, and that would be wonderful.”

I’ve really enjoyed following Colorado media on this story and look forward to stories in the distant future, after some time and distance have passed. What responsible religious angles would you like to see the media cover?


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