Meanwhile, back at the ranch

SunniShiaI tried to find a religious news angle for the Super Bowl halftime show so I could discuss how awesome Prince is, but I had to give up.

In completely opposite news, Neil MacFarquhar had a wonderfully intriguing article in the Sunday New York Times on how the Sunni-Shiite split is affecting communities in the United States. I’ve complained before that we don’t read enough about the doctrinal or other differences between the two groups.

McFarquhar gives myriad examples of the tension, from vandalism against Shiite mosques in Dearborn to Shiite students being barred from leading prayers at the Sunni-dominated Muslim Student Associations. He puts the problems in context:

Though the war in Iraq is one crucial cause, some students and experts on sectarianism also attribute the fissure to the significant growth in the Muslim American population over the past few decades.

Before, most major cities had only one mosque and everyone was forced to get along. Now, some Muslim communities are so large that the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites maintain their own mosques, schools and social clubs. Many Muslim students first meet someone from the other branch of their faith at college. The Shiites constitute some 15 percent of the world’s more than 1.3 billion Muslims, and are believed to be proportionally represented among America’s estimated six million Muslims.

Sometimes doctrinal differences are difficult to describe. Or it’s easier to show the obvious areas where two groups clash rather than delving into the nitty gritty. One thing I liked about the MacFarquhar article was the way he explained differences over Ashura, the day when Shiites commemorate the seventh-century death of Mohammad’s grandson Hussein:

The Shiites and the Sunnis part company over who has the right to rule and interpret scripture. Shiites hold that only descendants of Mohammad can be infallible and hence should rule. Sunnis allow a broader group, as long as there is consensus among religious scholars.

Many Shiites mark Ashura with mourning processions that include self-flagellation or rhythmic chest beating, echoing the suffering of the seventh-century Hussein. As several thousand Shiites marched up Park Avenue in Manhattan on Jan. 28 to mark Ashura, the march’s organizers handed out a flier describing his killing as “the first major terrorist act.” Sunnis often decry Ashura marches as a barbaric, infidel practice.

MacFarquhar hits from all angles. He shows how the Ashura problem is fought by both sides and the concerns Shiites have that speaking out against the problem will undermine unity among Muslims. Attempts to resolve conflicts have been mixed.

One of the differences that pose problems involve prayer. The University of Michigan at Dearborn’s Muslim association wrote rules that have the effect of banning Shiites from leading prayers, he said:

Apart from a greater veneration among Shiites for the Prophet’s descendants, there are slight variations in practice. Shiites, for example, pray with their hands at their sides, while Sunnis cross them over their chests.

“Most Sunni Muslims can’t pray behind a Shiite because if you are praying differently from the way the leader is, then it doesn’t work, it’s not valid,” said Ramy Shabana, the president of the association on the Dearborn campus.

I had never heard about this difference, or some of the others mentioned in the article. It provides some much needed information that helps shed light on Muslims here in America and abroad.

The only thing that concerned me in the article was that it seemed that all of the antagonism came from Sunnis and that Shiites were always the victims. I’m not aware of what the truth is, and the article did include a few Sunni sources, but it may be cause for concern.

Of course, the Shiite perspective taught me many things, such as that they believe the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America are biased toward Sunnis. Both organizations denied the charge.

The article is tightly written and jam-packed with information and perspective. Any reporting that explains the Sunni-Shiite divide is welcome. The interesting twists and illuminating anecdotes make this one all the better.

Hypocrisy exposed!

gavinbridesSo imagine that a prominent advocate of traditional marriage was exposed for having sex with someone he was not married to. Let’s say he had an affair with the wife of one of his employees. Let’s say he was married at the time but was divorcing his wife.

Can you imagine what the media coverage of such a story might look like?

It’s just an interesting thing to consider in light of the Gavin Newsom scandal. Here’s the story the San Francisco Chronicle broke:

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s re-election campaign manager resigned Wednesday after confronting the mayor about an affair Newsom had with his wife while she worked in the mayor’s office, City Hall sources said.

Alex Tourk, 39, who served as Newsom’s deputy chief of staff before becoming his campaign manager in September, confronted the mayor after his wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, told him of the affair as part of a rehabilitation program she had been undergoing for substance abuse, said the sources, who had direct knowledge of Wednesday’s meeting.

Like all salacious political scandals, the story ran on Drudge and in numerous papers. But reader Diane Fitzsimmons noticed something interesting about the coverage. The vast majority of stories didn’t mention that Newsom wreaked havoc across the country by instituting same sex marriage in his city. Reuters had the notable exception.

Newsom’s importance to the gay marriage movement cannot be understated. He was the The Advocate‘s person of the year in 2004. Salon ran a story asking if Newsom cost the Democrats the 2004 election. Fitzsimmons writes:

Mr. Newsom was making a statement of belief on the way he thinks marriage should be handled when he opened the door for same-sex marriage in his city. He was telling the world the way marriage should be.

I view his advocacy the same as I would that of James Dobson or Ted Haggard, who are known for their statements regarding marriage and the way they believe it should be.

If a religious figure such as Mr. Dobson or Mr. Haggard were caught in such an action as Mr. Newsom, I believe the newspapers would bring up their statements/advocacy regarding marriage.

Fitzsimmons wonders if the media didn’t mention Newsom’s advocacy of same-sex marriage because he’s not a religious leader. I’m not surprised, but I think it’s an interesting question. For my part, I just think it’s newsworthy to note why Newsom is different from your average mayor.

Father, forgive them

sevendeadlysinsThe relationship between the public and the press is important. The public relies on the media to give vital information about governments, medical breakthroughs, environmental threats and public safety. The media rely on the public to consume the news and keep the industry going. The relationship isn’t perfect, as evidenced by regular polls showing the cynicism that Americans feel toward the mainstream media.

Let’s just say the relationship is not improved by stunts such as the one pulled by Riccardo Bocca, an investigative reporter for the Italian newspaper L’Espresso. Bocca visited confessionals at 24 Catholic churches in Rome, Turin, Naples, Milan and Palermo. He lied to each priest he encountered and claimed to make confession for various sins.

He said he wanted to show the disparity between what the church teaches and what priests do. Here’s a FOXNews write-up:

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, denounced Riccardo Bocca’s Jan. 29 story in L’Espresso magazine, in which the reporter visited 24 confessionals — posing as an HIV-positive man who wanted to use condoms with his partner, a doctor with a cocaine habit and a divorcee finding love anew — to see how much the priests’ advice varied from Roman Catholic teachings.

“Shame! There is no other word to express our distress toward an operation that was disgusting, worthless, disrespectful and particularly offensive,” the Vatican’s paper said in an editorial headlined “Fake confessions in search of a shameful scoop.”

If you know Italian, you can read the full article here, though I feel dirty even linking to it.

Absolution in the Christian Church was instituted by Jesus Christ. Through it, a penitent receives forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. In the Catholic Church, one of the elements of the sacrament of penance is that the penitent presents himself to a priest and accuses himself of sins. In Catholic teaching, it is necessary that penitents be truly sorrowful for their sins.

For Catholics, it’s not just about “telling of one’s sins.” Without sincere sorrow and a resolve to make amends, confession avails nothing, the absolution has no effect and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.

So Bocca will have a lot to talk about with a priest should he ever desire to make an honest confession.

What’s frustrating is how irresponsibly Bocca and his paper used their power. They hoped to incite and inflame rather than edify and inform. The premise for the article was interesting and valid. The means by which the reporter researched the story were unethical and unnecessary.

Update: A reader has notified us where the image accompanying this post is from. Check out Jessica Hagy’s Indexed blog for more fun drawings.

Stranger in a strange land

mikejonesBack in November when the Ted Haggard scandal broke, Terry said he hoped reporters would keep on the story. A service on Sunday provided a good reason to check back in on New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs. That’s because Mike Jones, the former prostitute whose allegations about having sex and taking drugs with Haggard broke wide on the eve of the 2006 elections, went there on Sunday.

Although Jones didn’t notify the media in advance, he did tell church leadership he might be there. Eric Gorski of The Denver Post had the story:

As soon as the visitor from Denver walked through the church doors Sunday morning, heads turned. Word spread quickly: He was here.

Just about every person who offered him a handshake said the same thing: Welcome, thank you and God bless.

Gorski gets a lot of information into the story. Jones went to the church for research on a book he’s writing but he was accompanied to the church by members of The Civilians, a New York theater troupe. The Civilians’ presence is not explained. Anyway, Jones wasn’t impressed by the church:

If the Gospel message is enough, he said, why the loud music and MTV-quality production?

“There seems to be something missing, some realism, in my opinion, because it’s so vast, like some kind of self-contained city,” said Jones, who said he was raised Methodist but is estranged from organized religion.

The article isn’t one-sided, though, and gives associate pastor Rob Brendle the chance to explain why he thinks the church was so receptive to Jones — who had been invited to attend more than a few times:

Brendle characterized Jones’ presence as a reminder of both grief and God’s faithfulness.

“I told Mike, ‘I don’t want to impose my religious beliefs on you, but I believe God used you to correct us, and I appreciate that,”‘ Brendle said. “The church’s response to him was overwhelmingly warm. One of the wonderful and enduring truths of Christianity is to love people the world sets up to be your enemies.”

For the take of KUSA, the broadcast outlet that broke the original story, go here. This story will go on.

The Safety Dance

no dancing signSo if it’s Monday, that must mean I write about something from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. And so I will. Mark Oppenheimer used the hook of a nondenominational university in Arkansas permitting dance for the first time as a way to explore some Christians’ view of dancing. The piece is ridiculously smooth and well-written and looks at the issue from a number of angles.

Mark Oppenheimer edits In Character, a thrice-yearly journal that looks at a single ethical concern each issue. He has written for The Believer (not a religious publication but a pretty awesome one), The New Yorker, Harper’s, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Century. He’s not ideological per se but he clearly has a healthy respect for religion and ethics. And The New York Times Sunday Magazine found him although he’s never written for Mother Jones.

He has a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale and his two books are Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. Here’s how he begins:

On the first night of December, an unseasonably cold one in the Ozarks, the boys and girls of John Brown University primped in their zoot suits, suspenders, waistcoats, spats, faux-hawks, pompadours, knee-length pleated skirts, nylons, snoods and inch-high black heels and marched through snow drifts to their gymnasium in the Walton Lifetime Health Complex, one of northwest Arkansas’s monuments to the Wal-Mart family’s generosity. Inside, the gymnasium was decorated with rows of Christmas lights strung overhead across the width of the basketball court, from one railing of the mezzanine jogging track to the other. The occasion, which would last from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., was a dance, the first of its kind at this small, nondenominational Christian college.

He contends, with the help of various evangelical scholars, that schools that formerly banned dancing are more accepting of the practice as foreign enrollment increases. He explains how some fundamentalists and other Christians came to ban drinking, smoking and dancing. But he also shows how dancing is lauded by some of the same type of Christians:

For conservative Christians, dancing is also a way to teach the virtues. Students are schooled in chivalry, taught always to walk a lady to and from the floor, applaud the band and ask the girl standing by herself for a dance. A swing, ballroom or square dance usually takes place in a well-lighted space. The swing dancers of yore may have been escaping supervision, but now dancing is a family affair: Nathan [Cozart] and Craig [Congdon] both dance with their siblings. (Craig danced with his mom.) Unlike Christian rock, the music for these dances is palatable to older generations too. Formal dances require instruction in the proper steps, which creates a role for parents or teachers. And of course, the sexuality of dance can be a positive thing, if it provides a sexual release without the sex.

It’s obvious that Oppenheimer took the time to get to know his subjects. He understands their diversity, their unique viewpoints and their biblical approach. In fact, the reader ends up pulling for various dancers in the school’s dance contest because they’re made so human. This is a minor quibble, but since I do street dance, I have to complain. Oppenheimer writes:

Still it’s hard to imagine that hip-hop dancing would ever be acceptable at J.B.U. — if too sexual, it wouldn’t be Christian, and if too Christian, it would be laughable.

This could only be written by someone who doesn’t understand hip-hop dance. There is nothing that makes hip-hop a more sexual category of dance than any other. But this is GetReligion, not GetDance, so I’ll stop.

Anyway, let me know what you thought of the article. It certainly didn’t paint these people in a glowing light, although it was sympathetic. I’d be curious how some of you Shaw Moore (John Lithgow in Footloose) types feel about the portrayal.

Photo via iambrain.dk on Flickr.

Separation of church and crown

queenmirrenAs the reigning (three-time) champion of my newsroom’s Oscar pool, I’ve been preparing for the coming battle by watching as many Oscar-contending films as possible. The Queen was definitely one of the best movies of the year. Helen Mirren is amazing. Unfortunately Peter Morgan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay was tampered with a bit by some censors. The Associated Press’ Giovanna Dell’Orto reports:

So much for God and country, at least during some in-flight showings of the Oscar-nominated movie “The Queen.” That’s because all mentions of God are bleeped out of a version of the film given to some commercial airlines.

Even in these politically correct times, censoring references to God in the film wasn’t a statement of some kind. Rather, it was the mistake of an overzealous and inexperienced employee for a California company that edits movies selected for onboard entertainment.

. . . So the new censor mistakenly bleeped out each time a character said “God,” instead of just when used as part of a profanity, said Jeff Klein, president of Jaguar Distribution, the company that distributed the movie to airlines this month.

“A reference to God is not taboo in any culture that I know of,” Klein said. “We excise foul language, excessive violence and nudity.”

It’s not the hardest-hitting story, but I appreciate how well the reporter captured the religious angles. It’s also really funny. Read the whole thing.

In much more serious news, the British government has passed a law that requires all adoption agencies to provide their services to gay couples, whether or not they have a religious objection to doing so. The law goes into effect across Britain in April.

Leaders of the Church of England are helping the Roman Catholic Church in its bid to exempt its adoption agencies from having to choose between following their religious beliefs and complying with the law.

You can go here or here for explanations of the story.

You may also want to check out this Reuters piece by Paul Majendie, which questions whether the conflict means the Church of England should lose its special status as the state religion:

[Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan] Williams, spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, argued: “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning.”

So who then does he owe allegiance to?

Williams said: “What’s at stake ultimately is whether the church is answerable finally to the state as the only court of appeal or whether the church can rightly appeal to other sources for its moral compass.”

Long gone are the days when Britain had an empire and its missionaries helped colonise vast areas of the world.

But Anglican vicars still swear allegiance to the Crown. They are paid by the state for working in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces.

I feel like someone should tease out some Sir Thomas More parallels.

Isn’t it ironic?

ELCAECUSASo a gay pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America faces a disciplinary hearing. Not because he’s gay, but because he’s not celibate. The denomination has permitted homosexual clergy since 1991, and debates have raged within the church body since then over whether to bless homosexual unions or permit gay clergy to have sexual relationships. I’m surprised the story hasn’t gotten more coverage, considering how obsessed the media are over the Episcopal Church’s significant issues with homosexuality and how to interpret Scripture.

The thing is that the two stories are closer than they may even seem. And of course both denomination’s stories are about much more than sex, though you wouldn’t know that from the coverage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in full altar and pulpit fellowship with the Episcopal Church. Since they signed Called to Common Mission in 2001, members of either denomination can receive sacraments at the other. There is no more intimate relationship between two church bodies — one they’re still getting used to. In light of what’s happening with the Episcopal Church, you think that their cozy relationship might be mentioned.

This case, which provides a prime hook for looking at larger issues facing mainline churches, unfortunately is not getting enough coverage and definitely not enough significant coverage. I would like to nominate this piece from a local television station for worst story because it combines a remarkable lack of information with an Alanis Morissette-level misappropriation of the word ironic:

On Friday, an openly-gay Lutheran pastor in Atlanta was the focus of a four-day church trial.

Pastor Brad, as Pastor Bradley Schmeling is called, is an extremely popular figure at St. John’s Lutheran Church, where the congregation showed their support on Thursday evening.

Ironically, it was upon the trials of the faithful that the Lutheran Church itself was built. But the church’s trial of Pastor Schmeling, which begins on Friday, will test the very foundation of the denomination.

Lord, have mercy. Ironically? Trials of the faithful?

Let’s look at the other problem with this — and almost all other — stories about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The word Lutheran is used without once explaining that the problems facing this denomination are not shared by all Lutherans. Indeed, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America struggles over whether practicing homosexuals should be ordained, it is not the only Lutheran church out there.

There’s the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (of which my congregation is a member), the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America, the Church of the Lutheran Confession, and many others.

Whenever the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does something newsworthy, many outlets refer to a decision by “the Lutheran Church” without realizing that the vast majority of Lutheran denominations in America share very little in common with ELCA other than a portion of its name.

I recognize it’s confusing and frustrating, but the fact is that there have been significant differences here for decades, at least. And no matter how much the ELCA may revise its beliefs, it’s probably going to keep the name Lutheran. Reporters need to get used to it.

Alan Cooperman had a story in Saturday’s Washington Post about the case. He wrote an eloquent story about how the pastor’s congregation feels about the trial. Many people were quoted about their feelings — all are supportive of their pastor against their church body’s stated practice. It’s a really nice story about the congregation, beginning with a foot-washing service the pastor held:

It is the latest in a series of similar trials in several mainline Protestant denominations, where growing numbers of congregations are installing gay men and lesbians as pastors despite rules against non-celibate homosexuals in the pulpit.

The prosecutions — which follow procedures similar to those of civil courts, including testimony by witnesses for both sides — have become one of the most emotional fronts in the battle over sexuality and scripture within American Christianity.

Schmeling’s flock at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, a 135-year-old congregation on the edge of Atlanta’s historic Druid Hills neighborhood, is strongly backing him. After the foot-washing service Thursday evening, members signed up for a continuous vigil in their sanctuary. Some wrote prayers on multicolored strips of cloth that are to be woven into a tapestry.

But no one is presented to make the case for the church’s position and no one is presented to make the case against practicing homosexual clergy period. Perhaps future stories can put the Schmeling case in context of what’s facing mainline denominations.

A must-get gig at Mother Jones

regretIn preparation for the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a lengthy feature on how post-abortion syndrome doesn’t exist. I’m sure you are as shocked as I am that the paper would come down quickly and easily on this side of the debate.

Emily Bazelon of Slate penned the piece. She has written for Mother Jones, too! Just like Jack Hitt, who wrote a previous (problematic) abortion story for the magazine. One of Bazelon’s stories for that magazine was — wait for it — against a feminist pro-life group. Seriously, if anyone wants to write for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, bolster your leftist credentials. Mother Jones seems to be the surest fire stop on your path.

Also, Emily Bazelon is Betty Friedan‘s cousin. I love it. A sample of the evenhanded perspective of the author:

Abortion-recovery counselors like [Rhonda] Arias could focus on why women don’t have the material or social support they need to continue pregnancies they might not want to end. They could call for improving the circumstances of women’s lives in order to reduce the number of abortions. Instead they are working to change laws to restrict and ban abortion.

See, pro-lifers don’t really care about women.

Anyway, the piece is long but not terribly illuminating. What pro-lifers are going to read such lines and feel their perspective is being given the benefit of the doubt? What pro-choicers will read the same without feeling a sense of self-satisfaction? What has been gained by that little swipe that is, in my experience, completely inaccurate in any case?

Bazelon tracks precisely one woman — Rhonda Arias — who says abortion was bad for her — and only very lightly, in the context of how the same woman now is an evangelical minister who counsels and ministers to other post-abortive women in prison. She gives lots of details about the woman — her past abortions, her preaching style, her emotional religiosity, her messed up childhood, etc. — and yet because the perspective of the author is so clear, it makes it hard to trust that her descriptions are in good faith. Rather, I kept wondering why this was the woman Bazelon chose as her lead/only anecdote. Bazelon also mentions the religious affiliations, mostly Roman Catholic, of many of those working to counsel women after their abortions.

What annoys me more than anything in abortion coverage is how the stories are always so political. This story is entirely political — about the politics of the abortion movement and (without realizing it, it seems) about the politics of the science surrounding whether post-abortion syndrome exists. And the reporter takes precisely the angle you would expect from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. I’ll note that it’s not the same angle I’d expect from the daily Times.

Like most people (statistically speaking) I have many friends who have had abortions. And while the vast majority of these friends remain pro-choice, they would be the first to tell you that the procedure’s effects are profound and long-reaching. Not so long ago, I was privy to a conversation with four pro-choice women who had their first or only abortions over a decade ago. They all spoke of effects that remained with them: Abortion-related nightmares, frequent thoughts of how old their child would be, etc. None of these women are pro-life. But because of the politics surrounding abortion, their situation — shared by millions of American women — receives no balanced coverage. Such after-effects are picked up on as proof of abortion’s evils by pro-lifers and ignored for the same reason by pro-choicers.

Bazelon does mention this in her piece, for which she should be commended:

While it seems that some anti-abortion advocates exaggerate the mental-health risks of abortion, some abortion advocates play down the emotional aftereffects. Materials distributed at abortion clinics and on abortion-rights Web sites stress that most women feel relief after an abortion, and that the minority who don’t tend to have pre-existing problems. Both claims are supported by research. But the idea that “abortion is a distraction from underlying dynamics,” as Nancy Russo put it to me, can discourage the airing of sadness and grief. “The last thing pro-choice people, myself included, want to do is to give people who want to make abortions harder to get or illegal one iota of help,” says Ava Torre-Bueno, a social worker who was the head of counseling for 10 years at Planned Parenthood in San Diego. “But then what you hear in the movement is ‘Let’s not make noise about this’ and ‘Most women are fine, I’m sure you will be too.’ And that is unfair.”

In general, Bazelon’s treatment of how pro-choicers deal — or don’t deal — with post-abortion problems is infinitely better than her emotionally distant and lengthier treatment of the same on the pro-life side. She’s able to look at some of the pitfalls of ignoring emotional problems resulting from abortion with a gentleness and sympathy that is illuminating. While that’s a wonderful benefit for readers in learning one side of the story, the problems are only emphasized for readers wanting to learn more about the other side. I think it may be yet another argument for ensuring that Mother Jones isn’t on the resume of all your abortion reporters.

Ultimately, though, the problem is with this story’s emphasis on politics. A story like this has to include actual women. How many tens of millions of women have undergone abortions in the last 34 years since abortion was legalized? How many of them could share the true effects — subtle or profound — of their abortions years after the fact?

This is why I still think so fondly of Stephanie Simon’s twin stories about women who undergo abortions and women who complete crisis pregnancies. Very little politics at all — just stories about the decisions women face and the choices they make.

How much more interesting would this story have been if Bazelon — a talented and smart writer for sure — had talked to women who had abortions and told their stories?


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