On math and charity

panic_graphThe Washington Post carries some water today for Jim Wallis, an evangelical social activist. The story, by domestic economic policy reporter Jonathan Weisman and religion reporter Alan Cooperman, is about Christian approaches on Republican spending policies.

As a recovering economist — and reporter who covers federal programs — I have to make a point in defense of statistical analysis. It’s no secret that reporters enjoy budget analysis about as much as we like sources who burn us. But math is our friend. It keeps us from beginning stories this way:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

If last year your boss gave you a 6% raise and this year you only receive a 5% raise, is that an income cut? In Washington, D.C., it is — but reporters should know better. An increase in spending, no matter how contentious, really should not be called a cut. Anyway, without making any comment on whether this budget change is worthy of protest, the story is that the House of Representatives voted to slow the increase in the rate of spending. But we’re Get Religion and not Get Math, so let’s proceed:

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking — but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

housing project 2Don’t you love news stories that read like opinion pieces? Here are the details of the protest:

To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin [budget] measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations — the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ — issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings “good news to the poor.”

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: “Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan.”

By the end of the story, after many evangelical Christians have been cast as religious hypocrites who don’t care about the poor, the Post reporters allow them to defend their policy positions. In the Post’s defense — and as I have come to expect from at least one of the two bylined reporters for this story — care is taken to make sure that perspective is understood and presented correctly:

And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives “know that the government is not really capable of love.”

“You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need,” she said.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government’s role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

“There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact,” he said. “But it does not say government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.”

Without contrasting the outcomes of church and state charity for the last couple of thousand years, isn’t it weird that reporters never write news stories that put those folks who support governmental charity on the defensive? Should reporters investigate the motivations of those people who advocate for housing projects that breed crime, subsidized income programs with incentives for bearing more and more children out of wedlock and welfare programs that drive fathers away from homes? Or have reporters settled the debate that the preferred way to show concern for the poor is through massive federal programs, regardless of their results?

Talk about mingling church and state

repentThere has been some amazing coverage surrounding this morning’s execution of convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The gang leader, who killed four people in two separate robberies in 1979, unsuccessfully tried to receive clemency from various courts and Gov. Schwarzennegger.

With many Christian churches and other religious groups taking different positions on whether the state has the right to enact the death penalty, all capital punishment stories invite religious angles. But I can’t recall such an open embrace of religious terminology as what we saw in headlines and copy today. The first few stories I read pounded the themes of redemption, mercy, and atonement. I wasn’t sure if I was in church or reading the news.

Many of these “redemption” stories gave second or third billing to redemption’s sidekick: repentance. The stories that did mention atonement, such as this one from the San Francisco Chronicle, used an unlikely source:

“Clemency cases are always difficult, and this one is no exception,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a six-page statement rejecting Williams’ bid to have his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole. “After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury’s verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case.”

Williams said he was a changed man and of value to society because of his anti-gang writings from behind bars. Schwarzenegger noted, however, that Williams had never apologized for the murders. Williams maintained he did not commit them.

“Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption,” Schwarzenegger said. “In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.”

The Governator articulating an understanding of the relationship between repentance and forgiveness is not what I expect when opening my California papers. What a day.

Reporters also managed to include the religious motivations of many of the death-penalty opponents. For instance, Washington Post writer Evelyn Nieves quoted these Williams supporters:

“The first thing you learn from the Bible is about forgiveness,” actor Jamie Foxx told CNN in criticizing Schwarzenegger’s decision. Foxx portrayed Williams in “Redemption,” a made-for-television movie.

and, later:

“Schwarzenegger could have called for a moratorium today,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions until January 2009 to review the fairness of how the state imposes the death penalty. The bill was introduced in August and is scheduled to be heard in committee next month.

“It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption,” Leno said. “Unfortunately, the governor has missed an opportunity to do just that.”

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea. The lack of quotes arguing against such mingling of church and state was striking. When some Christians advocate for a ban on abortion or resolutions against same-sex marriage, the media is quick to identify opponents who claim church-state violations. Do they not see the state taking over the work of forgiveness of sins, dispension of grace, etc., as a mingling of church and state? Surely there are folks who could speak to this. Where were they in the stories?

Muslim hero

good muslimI’ve caught most of Showtime’s Sleeper Cell. The 10-hour miniseries follows an Al Qaeda terrorist group in Los Angeles and the FBI agent who infiltrates it.

Permit me to get my complaints out of the way. The show suffers from too much exposition. In a desperate bid to cater to the whims of the politically correct, the terror cell has fewer Arabs than non-Arab Muslims. This includes a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Californian; a French ex-skinhead; a Bosnian and a Black American Muslim. And to take advantage of being on cable, the nudity and premarital sex is more fitting of the Sopranos than a show about Muslims.

But I have been sucked in for two reasons: Michael Ealy and Michael Ealy. I kid. But the actor who plays the Muslim hero who infiltrates the terror cell is incredibly easy on the eyes.

On a less shallow note, the show has highlighted something that I wish reporters and editors would pay attention to. Apart from the artistic merits or lack thereof, it provides a valuable news service by showing the difference between the violent Islam of the terrorists and the Islam of the FBI agent.

At a time when every politician repeats the mantra that Islam is a religion of peace, even the most culturally unaware American knows that the September 11 hijackers were Muslim, the July 7 London bombers were Muslim, the Madrid bombers were Muslim, the kids who rioted in Paris earlier this fall were Muslim, Osama bin Laden is Muslim, etc.

People aren’t stupid. Or, if they are, they still understand that there is something that all these folks have in common. What Sleeper Cell does is show various interpretations of Islam. And with the current climate, learning more about Islam is good.

Which brings me to the media analysis. Detroit Free Press writer David Crumm wrote about Sleeper Cell last week before it debuted. His story describing the show and community reaction to it is genuinely interesting:

In the first hour alone, the troubling images include a Muslim father killing his teenaged daughter for sleeping with a boyfriend and Muslims burying a friend, who they believe has betrayed them, to his neck and stoning him to death as he screams for mercy.

The Free Press hosted a screening this week for Alawan, two other adults and a religiously diverse group of seven seniors from Salem High School in Canton.

Afterward, all three adults called the series disturbing and said they hope no one sees it. But all of the students said they’ll recommend it to friends, mainly because of a key detail that appeared to mean much more to them than to the adults.

The teenagers noticed that “Sleeper Cell” is the first major TV series with a Muslim hero. Darwyn al-Sayeed (played by actor Michael Ealy) joins the terrorist cell, but viewers find out that he is an FBI agent trying to stop the terrorists.

Crumm’s story doesn’t just take national story and make it local, it doesn’t just find a new and creative way of reviewing television, it is also illuminating. It would be interesting for other reporters to look at how youth and adults react to seeing Muslim heros in various media.

Movers and Quakers

jesusbombNearly four out of five folks in this country self-identify as Christian. And (to understate widly) there are very few political issues that 80 percent of the country agree on. The war in Iraq certainly is not one of them. Many of the soldiers fighting the war are Christian. Many of the people opposing the war are Christian. Christian lawmakers voted for the war. Some Christian lawmakers voted against the war. One Christian voted for the war before he voted against it.

I bring this up to point out one of the weaknesses in coverage this past week of the four Christian anti-war activists who were kidnapped at gunpoint by Muslim militants in Iraq. It’s a horribly sad, if not altogether surprising, story. The Muslim Swords of Righteousness Brigade threatened to kill the men if their demand that the United States release all prisoners in Iraqi and U.S.-run detention centers was not met by Saturday, Dec. 10th. They accused the four of being coalition spies.

Concern for the group grew over the weekend as the deadline for their execution Saturday passed. The four men — Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Virginia; Norman Kember, 74, of London, England; James Loney, 41, of Toronto, Canada; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a former Montreal resident living in Auckland, New Zealand — were affiliated with Christian Peacemaker Teams a pacifist group of Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. The group sends teams of workers to intervene in war zones and other dangerous areas. Their motto is “committed to reducing violence by getting in the way.”

The Christian Peacemakers require its corps members to be “deeply grounded in Christian faith.” So you have a group of peace activists who may have already lost their lives because of their interpretation of the Bible. Leaving apart the possible merit or naivete in their political understanding, why aren’t reporters teaching us more about their Quaker-infused theology? Even after reading through dozens of accounts of the hostage situation, including a BBC profile of Christian Peacemaker Teams that was anything but, the religious motivation angle was only mentioned in passing. The best I could find was this story in the Buffalo News that used quotes from Kathleen Kern, an acquaintance of the hostages:

Kern described Christian Peacemakers Team as committed to peace and human rights. In Iraq, the group initially sent members ahead of the U.S. invasion to protest the war. Later, it focused on detainees, collecting stories about their disappearances and treatment.

The activists don’t engage in proselytizing overseas, she said.

But, she added, “We are not ashamed to say we are doing this, that we are doing human rights work, because Jesus is on the side of the marginalized.”

Christians have been struggling with how to live simultaneously in secular and spiritual realms for millennia. The media tend to see this conflict on the right very easily when they cover conservative Christian battles in the public square. But it seems harder for them to look critically at the equivalent struggles among liberal Christians. In defense of the media, their poor coverage of religious attitudes toward war might be a reflection of the complete lack of debate on the issue in most American denominations.

In any case, are there different standards for justice in the church and in the world? Have Christians discussed this issue before? Does this play into separation of church and state? If there are different standards for how to handle conflict in the church and in the world, what does that say about current hot-button political issues? I hate it when I have nothing but questions after reading two dozen articles from different perspectives about the same situation.

If these four hostages are going to die at the hands of their captors, one of the few things we might expect from reporters covering the saga is an exploration of the hostages’ motivations.

No room at the White House

grinchReporters and editors have been deluging viewers and readers with Christmas culture war stories. And who can blame them? Stories abound throughout the country of public school principals secularizing lyrics to Christmas carols, retail outlets forbidding employees from wishing Christmas shoppers a Merry Christmas, and members of Congress having to fight over what to call Christmas trees. And then on the other side you have folks who see nothing wrong with cancelling church on Christmas Sunday vilifying those on the other side.

Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman capitalizes on the Christmas Wars meme with his indepth story on presidential greeting cards:

What’s missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.

This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy “holiday season.”

Cooperman quotes, as he says, the “generals” on the pro-Christmas side reacting to the banal greeting card.

“This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn’t act like one,” said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

What’s interesting about Cooperman’s angle on the imbroglio the Bush White House finds itself in — this year at least — is that the story has not been pushed by the groups cited in the article but, rather, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Here’s how their Nov. 30 press release begins:

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Religious Right cohorts have been complaining for weeks now about government agencies and store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” but it looks like Falwell forgot to tell President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and the Republican National Committee about the preferred religiously correct greeting.

The White House’s 2005 holiday card is just out, and it doesn’t mention the word “Christmas” once.

A Boston Globe reporter mentioned the watered down White House greeting in a Dec. 4 piece, giving proper credit to Americans United. I’m not sure why Cooperman doesn’t but either way, he does a great job of providing historical context for Presidential greeting cards:

Like many modern touches, the generic New Year’s card was introduced to the White House by John and Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1962, they had Hallmark print 2,000 cards, of which 1,800 cards said “The President and Mrs. Kennedy Wish You a Blessed Christmas” and 200 said “With Best Wishes for a Happy New Year.”

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson continued that tradition for a couple of years, but it required keeping track of Christian and non-Christian recipients. Beginning in 1966, they wished everyone a “Joyous Christmas,” and no president has attempted the two-card trick since.

Cooperman writes that the White House and retailers use the same explanation for why they don’t mention Christmas (a desire not to offend non-Christians). And that is undoubtedly true. In this article, the context Cooperman provides is historical perspective on Presidential greeting cards. Perhaps he or another reporter should now dig deeper into why the White House, whose massive card distribution is funded and managed by the Republican National Committee as part of its fundraising strategy, shares its motivations with retailers, who are driven by profit.

On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor — the chair of the religious studies department, no less — announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory.

Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here’s how Lawrence Journal-World’s Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv — a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic — Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, described his upcoming course “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines’ piece is good but I wonder why she didn’t tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki’s comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren’t appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki’s account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki’s most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn’t imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

“This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don’t beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof,” he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki’s report was legitimate.

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

“The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are… I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander’s approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It’s also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I’m glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

Moving beyond the North Pole

Most of my friends recall the moment they figured out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. They would joke about the psychological harm the revelation had on their fragile 8-year-old psyches. I never experienced this because for some odd reason my wonderful parents never taught me about him. This matters not at all to me but apparently harmed my mother who now has made up for lost time with a bit of a Santa obsession. Her conception of the jolly old man is based on the Clement Moore version, of course.

My Santa revelation experience occurred later in life when I found out he was real — and important. The Dutch called him Sinterklass, which we Americans morphed into Santa Claus. But the man behind the legend is St. Nicholas, fourth century Bishop of Myra. Born into great wealth, he served God by giving away his inherited fortune and became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy.

The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married. Yet for a man about whom so little is verified, his legend crossed all over the world. Much of Europe (he is Greece’s patron saint) celebrates his feast day today; German children put out their shoes last night and woke to find them filled with candy and toys this morning. (The Orthodox do this too.)

Celebrations also occur today throughout the United States. St. Nicholas is one of the few saints to be recognized and popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. It’s not uncommon to find Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches named in his honor.

Rather than mapping their seasonal coverage directly onto the retail calendar, complete with the glowing profiles of the Sacred Santa ensconced in his Bishop’s seat at the local sanctuary mall, reporters might do well to look at how locals are marking St. Nicholas’ day. Some reporters already managed this in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

David Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had a great local angle on the story with his profile of a woman who promotes the celebration of St. Nicholas.

Since the Web site was launched in 2002, Carol Myers’ nonprofit promotion of St. Nicholas has become her year-round job. Every day, she adds to the vast collection of educational materials, history and festive holiday ideas at www.stnicholascenter.org, because she is convinced there’s a growing interest in the religious traditions of Christmas. She argues that there’s far more to this season than the elves, red-nosed reindeer and talking snowmen that often overshadow the faith.

Myers’ biggest effort is promoting St. Nicholas’ feast day on Tuesday, when millions of Christians celebrate the 4th-Century saint, who was born in what is now Turkey and was famous for helping the poor.

“I’m not anti-Santa,” Myers said this week. “But, I do want people to know that this figure is based on a real person with a deep faith in God and compassion for people in need. At this time of year, I want people to focus more on compassion and less on consumption.”

On a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a feature called the Interfaith Calendar. It posts dates of import to the world’s religions. Here’s how it read for today (emphasis mine):

Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox (New Calendar), Byzantine Rite Catholic
Feast of St. Nicholas, legendary fourth-century archbishop of Myra. He is known in the East as the “Wonderworker” and as patron of the Byzantine Rite faithful. He is also the patron of children, scholars and merchants and one of the ancestors of Santa Claus. Traditionally, this was the first of the Christmas season’s gift-giving days.

Argh! How many times must we remind reporters that corporations and the Christian church use different calendars? The Christmas season for the former begins in, what, September? For the Christians, it begins on, well, Christmas. We’re still in Advent, people.

But yoga is so hip!

A casual glance at the headlines would indicate that reporters love to cover stories about changes to public school curriculum. Especially changes to public school curriculum that allegedly are motivated by political or religious viewpoints. The debate over inclusion of intelligent design theories in textbooks has been hot for months. Reporters are still going crazy over the big, bad intelligent designers and their Pennsylvania and Kansas curriculum battles.

So how is it possible that reporters have, for the most part, managed to completely miss the dramatic success that Hindu nationalists had this week in revising California textbooks over the objections of renowned scholars? If the Hindu nationalists themselves hadn’t sent me a note (I subscribe to one of their listservs), I wouldn’t have known about it:

California Hindus were celebrating today their victory in yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission. The Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation worked for months to have changes made to sections of California textbooks that deal with India and Hinduism. Then there was a hasty intervention by a group of scholars of Indology which threatened to reverse many of the changes. Fortunately, the Curriculum Commission sympathized with the Hindus and allowed only a few changes to what Hindus had requested.

The estimated population of Hindus in America is small but growing rapidly: over 1 million adherents. Like most groups, Hindus have some pretty serious and conflicting divisions. The Hindus who won this victory are Hindu nationalists. The controversial movement got going around 100 years ago in response to British rule, the political victories Muslims were having in certain regions and the success Christians were having in conversions and subsequent subverting of the Hindu caste system. It has gained stature and adherents in India in recent decades.

Hindu nationalists have a few beliefs outside the mainstream of academic thought, including one view that science can prove human civilization has been around for 1,900 million years. They believe Hinduism originated in India and that Aryan culture traveled to Iran from India rather than vice-versa. They also believe Sanskrit is the mother language of every language in the world, including that of Native Americans. These unorthodox views are disputed by most historians and linguists who believe that the Vedic religion and Indo-Aryan Languages came from Central Asia along with the Aryans around 3500 years ago.

Curriculum battles in California are heated not only because the state is the nation’s largest textbok purchaser, but other states tend to follow California’s lead in textbook approval. Religion has been a required course of study in California since 1987 where students learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity in sixth grade, and Islam in seventh grade.

While nationalists are not a Hindu majority even in India, they are a powerful political group. For months they heavily lobbied California’s Board of Education to make changes in the textbooks, such as asserting that Aryans were not a race, but a term for persons of noble intellect.

The lobbying prompted Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel to write a letter to the California Board of Education which said, in part:

The agenda of the groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history, who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in the history textbooks in India. The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.

But, if the Hindu Press International report is to be believed, the nationalists won. It seems like this would have been an excellent story for reporters to follow before now, whether from the education, religion, or intelligent design angles. It’s also a great reminder that one of the best things a busy religion reporter can do to stay on top of the beat is to subscribe to religious media.