‘Bah Humbug” on charities!

t1larg.ccarol.disneyDecember is crunch time for charitable giving, with many nonprofit organizations taking in a third or more of their yearly income during the last month of the year. Perhaps that’s why Sunday’s New York Times featured not one but two A1 stories on charities?

“Aid Gives Alternative to African Orphanages” by Celia W. Dugger explores the idea that small cash payments to families are “a much better way to assist…bereft children” than the traditional orphanage model favored by many churches and organizations.

“Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks” by Stephanie Strom examines the rapid growth in the number of tax-exempt charitable organizations, including many that “are skillfully exploiting the tax code’s elastic definition of what constitutes…a charity.”

If Scrooge was seeking absolution for his miserly ways, he would find plenty of ammunition in these two articles, which generally downplay the tremendous good accomplished by thousands of effective and fiscally responsible charities.

The African orphanages article uses The Home of Hope orphanage in Malawi as its example of the traditional model of relief and development. Readers aren’t told why the article focuses on this particular institution, which cares for 653 children, except for the fact that the pop singer Madonna supports the institution and adopted a boy there from this home. This hardly makes it representative.

The article consistently favors a newer and still unproven alternative model that focuses on cash grants to extended families that provide care for some (the article doesn’t say how many) of “the 55.3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who have lost at least one parent.”

The need in Africa is great, and it’s always good to question business-as-usual. But the article repeatedly takes what feel like cheap shots at the traditional model charities and orphanages:

Experts and child advocates maintain that orphanages are expensive and often harm children’s development by separating them from their families….

More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has been spent over the past five years for orphans and vulnerable children, but some major donors cannot break down how their contributions were spent. Researchers say donors need to weed out ineffective, misconceived programs, scrutinizing those that are managed by international nongovernmental organizations or governments but reliant on volunteers in villages to do the work.

“An enormous amount of money is going into these efforts with very little return,” said Linda Richter, who runs the children’s programs at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council.

Here in Malawi, hundreds of community groups have won small grants to start small labor-intensive businesses and are expected to donate all the profits to orphans. Pauline Peters, a Harvard University anthropologist, and Susan Watkins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who have independently done years of field work in Malawian villages, say orphans have received few benefits from the millions spent.

“The donors have fantasies of the way things work–that you can mobilize villagers to care for children who aren’t theirs without paying them to do it,” Professor Watkins said.

The article does not address the fact that for many individuals and churches who support work with children in Africa and elsewhere, instruction in the Christian faith is an important component of ‘holistic” (physical and spiritual) care for children, a component that is difficult to monitor if this work is handled by families instead of institutions.

The U.S. charity story took a fun approach to a serious problem by focusing on groups like the Woohoo Sistahs, a 50-member group that uses social events to fund cancer research; Save Your Ass Long-Ear Rescue, a donkey and mule refuge in Vermont; and “the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of cross-dressing ‘nuns’ who recently raised more than $25,000 for AIDS treatment and other causes with an event featuring a live S-and-M show.”

On the serious side, the article points out that:

The number of organizations that can offer their donors a tax break in the name of charity has grown more than 60 percent in the United States, to 1.1 million, in just a decade.

Experts say nonprofits are skillfully exploiting the tax code’s broad and elastic definition of what constitutes such a charity, making it difficult for the Internal Revenue Service, which must bless them, to say no. The agency approved 99 percent of the applications for public charity status last year, according to a new study by students at Stanford University–or more than one every 10 to 15 minutes….

The $300 billion donated to charities last year cost the federal government more than $50 billion in lost tax revenue.

While no one contends that even a small portion of the new charities are fraudulent, critics argue that the I.R.S. and state regulators cannot keep up with the growth of charities–and therefore cannot possibly determine whether the applicants are adhering to state and federal regulations and laws.

Indeed, the students at Stanford found that while the I.R.S.’s electronic database records more than 40,000 new charities, its much more widely circulated annual Data Book puts the figure at more than 50,000, a discrepancy of more than 20 percent….

This is important information, but the article never mentions the good done by many new (and old) tax-exempt organizations, giving an unbalanced perspective on the issue.

In 1831, French thinker and historian named Alexis de Tocqueville toured America. He later wrote this in Democracy in America:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. The Americans make associations to found seminaries, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools….Perhaps there is no country in the world where fewer idle men are to be met with than in America.

Americans still form numerous associations and organizations. And even if the government isn’t monitoring all of these groups as well as it could, it is still relatively easy for conscientious citizens who don’t want to be Scrooges to ascertain which ones are the most effective and give their support to them.

Pastors and gays in D.C.

Gay-420x0Having spent part of the 1990s covering Colorado’s controversial gay rights limitation measure Amendment 2 (which was passed by voters but declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), I know there are always more than two sides to these debates. That’s part of what makes a recent Washington Post story so intriguing.

The Post has done many stories about the District of Columbia Council’s pending vote on same-sex marriage. A Nov. 25 story, “Church’s influence on politics shifting: D.C.’s same-sex marriage debate pushes some clergy further to the sidelines,” by Tim Craig and Hamil R. Harris, contains plenty of nuance and depth.

The article addresses the complaint by Rev. Patrick J. Walker of the New Macedonia Baptist Church, and others, that Christian leaders have less clout than they once did:

The clout of the local faith community, particularly the black church, in D.C. politics has been declining for decades. But with the council heading for a vote next week on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, the near-certain passage of the legislation has come to symbolize both political and spiritual changes in the District.

Ministers who oppose same-sex marriage say they now feel belittled, ignored and isolated by a government that no longer views the clergy as a mighty political force. Activists, political leaders and some ministers who have come to tolerate, if not embrace, same-sex relationships argued that socially conservative ministers just chose to fight a battle they had lost years ago as the city changed around them.

The article explores two important nuances of this developing story. First, the religious landscape in D.C. has changed. Second, some clergy–including some who hold traditional sexual morality–have decided not to involve themselves in current political battle.

Not all church leaders see the inevitable passage of the same-sex marriage bill as a commentary on their influence in the city. Indeed, more than 200 local religious leaders have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, reflecting the large network of progressive
churches in the city.

And even among the more conservative, mostly Baptist, religious leaders, there is disagreement over how aggressively to wade into the issue.

While Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and other ministers who oppose same-sex marriage dominate the headlines, many of the city’s well-known faith leaders have purposely avoided becoming publicly entangled in the debate.

The Rev. Morris L. Shearin, pastor of Israel Baptist Church and former head of the city’s NAACP branch, said he is steering clear of the debate because “there are more substantive issues” to “focus on, like education and fair housing.”

“My perspective is framed by my understanding of Scripture,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, 50, pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church. “But that may not be relevant to someone who doesn’t form their life around the understanding of the Bible. . . . I would never, never want to say or do anything that marginalizes or dehumanizes anyone.”

This article by Craig and Harris dove into the debate, yielding a perspective that was more nuanced than earlier pieces that framed the issue as a simple pro-and-con debate and may have left the impression that some outspoken clergy were crusading homophobes.

No minarets, we’re Swiss!

SwissMinaretBanI haven’t been following Swiss politics, so the headline on top of page A6 of Monday’s New York Times, “Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques,” was surprising, as was the lengthy (800+ words) article:

In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.

The ban was supported by 57.5 of Swiss voters, and will be enacted into law within a year or so.

Is Switzerland is being overrun by minarets (which are the tall spires attached to Islamic mosques) or Muslim extremists? Not really.

Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

Government leaders said the ban was not a rejection of Muslims, their faith or their culture. It was beyond the ability of Times reporters Nick Cumming-Bruce (in Geneva) and Steven Erlanger (in Paris) to see how many people believed this, but the Muslims quoted by the reporters were understandably skeptical.

I read this article after flying through Mohsin Hamid’s bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, over Thanksgiving weekend. This brief but compelling novel gives readers a front row seat to the tensions that lie deep at the heart of Muslims’ experience in the West. I wonder how much this powerful book colored my reading of the story.

The article quoted opponents of the ban, while a supporter’s quote came from a televised debate held prior to the vote. The article also referred to “deep-rooted fears that Muslim immigration would lead to an erosion of Swiss values.”

The print version of the article described–but did not reproduce–the campaign poster pictured above, which is a masterpiece of visual propaganda as striking as the Goldwater “daisy” ad. Seven black minarets (or are those missiles?) dominate the Swiss flag. Then there’s the woman, covered from head to toe in a burqa. All we can see is her eyes, and what eyes they are: both seductive and frightful! The Swiss ban doesn’t address Muslim clothing, which has been a hot-button issue in neighboring France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last summer that full veils and face coverings were “not welcome” on French soil.

Curiously, the online version of the Times story did not feature the poster but instead linked to an online story from The Sunday Times of London that featured a version of the poster’s imagery.

People around the world will be watching to see how this controversial story develops, both within Switzerland and in the broader European context, where it may lead to conflicts with agreements on human and religious rights.

Meanwhile, kudos to these Times reporters for a thorough story on a complex issue.

In praise of beauty

GodCreates-Man-Sistine-ChapelCaught up in the holiday weekend’s spirit of thankfulness, I want to reach back to last weekend and Pope Benedict’s meeting with artists from around the world in the Sistine Chapel, which was covered by The New York Times’ Rachel Donadio:

Sitting before Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, after a choir sang music by Palestrina, Benedict urged them to embark on “a quest for beauty.” In what he called “a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal,” he told his guests to be “fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty.”

He said the aim of the event on Saturday was “to re-establish a dialogue” between the church and artists “that’s necessary and fertile for both.”

Donadio’s brief article told us who was there (composer Arvo Part) and who wasn’t (U2′s Bono), and it quoted artists who held two opposing perspectives on the gathering: those who seemed pleased (or even blessed) and those who remained suspicious of the pope’s motives (and considered the event a “facade.”

(You can see more about the event in a report by Catholic News Service.)

There are tons of articles and reports about religion that could be addressed here today, but I’m casting my lot with the one that addresses beauty. Happy Thanksgiving!

Does health-care reform have a prayer?

medicine prayerThat’s not a rhetorical question, but a literal one explored in a Washington Post story by William Wan entitled, “Christian Scientists seek reimbursement for prayers.”

The first five grafs gently ease the reader into the story, introducing pay-for-pray legislative proposals that are, frankly, news to me:

The calls come in at all hours: patients reporting broken bones, violent coughs, deep depression.

Prue Lewis listens as they explain their symptoms. Then Lewis — a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights — simply says, “I’ll go to work right away.” She hangs up, organizes her thoughts and begins treating her clients’ ailments the best way she knows how: She prays.

This is health care in the world of Christian Science, where the sick eschew conventional medicine and turn to God for healing. Christian Scientists call it “spiritual health care,” and it is a practice they are battling to insert into the health-care legislation being hammered out in Congress.

Leaders of the Church of Christ, Scientist, are pushing a proposal that would help patients pay someone like Lewis for prayer by having insurers reimburse the $20 to $40 cost.

The provision was stripped from the bill the House passed this month, and church leaders are trying to get it inserted into the Senate version. And the church has powerful allies there, including Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who represents the state where the church is based, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said the provision would “ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion.”

Wan’s story does a good job of examining the intersection of private piety and public policy by letting Christian Scientists duke it out with the tireless and ever-quotable Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Here’s what I think would have made this a better story: a sentence (or a few) summarizing scientific research into the medical efficacy of prayer. We know that various constituencies are going to line up on predictable sides of the medical pay-for-pray debate. But is there any objective answer to the question of whether this kind of prayer “works”?

One can find many media reports slicing and dicing the results of a major 2006 study of 1,802 heart surgery patients published in the American Heart Journal that concluded:

Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG (coronary artery bypass graft), but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

Wan had his hands full with religion and legislation, so it’s understandable that he didn’t want to add science to the mix. But making this a three-way debate between church, state and lab would have added an important dimension to an article that in other respects brings this issue to life so well.

Axis of Idiocy: Colorado, Texas, California

anastasIt’s a big, complex and confusing world out there. That’s why we need wise guides to help us make our way — guides like Benjamin Anastas, who clearly tells us where all the dumbass religious folks are so we can stay the heck away:

There is perhaps no greater mutual misunderstanding in contemporary American life than that between the literary class and churchgoers in Colorado Springs (or Houston, or Orange County).

In case you’re asking who Anastas is, where he gets his geo-intellectual insights, and where he published his verdict on the unbearable lightness of churchgoers in particular locales, here’s what we know about these three questions:

(1) He’s a writer;

(2) You’ve got me;

(3) In a review of Mary Gordon’s A Writer’s Encounter With the Gospels published in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. (As for what the comment about churchgoers Colorado, Texas and California has to do with Gordon’s book, you’ve got me again.)

Thank God that I live outside the city limits of Colorado Springs, so Anastas is not talking about me. Otherwise he would be including millions people in his three Axes of Idiocy. That’s a lot of dumbasses!

Thank God, too, that I didn’t go to church yesterday. I find that even if I have been reading serious literature on Saturday night or The New York Times Book Review on Sunday morning, everything good in my brain evaporates as soon as I pull into the megachurch parking lot (dumbasses seem to prefer really big churches).

PEN, an organization of poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists, has a page on its web site that says:

Benjamin Anastas was born in 1969 in Gloucester, Massachusetts….Anastas lives and writes alternately in Brooklyn and Tuscany.

The site also features the PEN Charter, which says:

MEMBERS OF PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect among nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world.

Pen members also:

…pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

Thank God that these lofty principles apply to “humanity,” not to literature hating, churchgoing dumbasses!

‘Road’ campaign markets apocalypse

the-roadWe survived the opening of the movie “2012,” which was last weekend’s top-grossing film. (See it now before the world actually ends, as is predicted on a faux- newsy movie related web site).

Meanwhile, apocalyptic themes will make another appearance at the Cineplex the day before Thanksgiving with “The Road,” a film based on Cormac McCarthy’s unrelentingly bleak novel about a father and son who struggle for survival in a barren world following a cataclysmic event that is never described (and never connected to any particular faith tradition).

Now Entertainment Weekly writer Adam B. Vary reports that the veteran Christian p.r. company A. Larry Ross Communications will try to help fill theater seats by marketing the film to believers. Vary is surprised at the partnership, as he writes in a solid, snark-free article (that is curiously unavailable on the ew.com web site):

When picturing the ideal film to market to Christian filmgoers, The Passion of the Christ is a no-brainer. Even a silly family comedy with clear biblical overtones like Evan Almighty makes sense. But the grim, R-rated postapocalyptic drama The Road?

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie will need all the help it can get:

Shot through with a bleak intensity and pessimism that offers little hope for a better tomorrow, the film is more suitable to critical appreciation than to attracting huge audiences though topliners Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron will attract initial business.

Ross has worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association since the early 1980s, so he should know a lot about forgiveness. That’s good, because Ross earlier promoted the “Left Behind” movie, which is perhaps (and this is saying something!) one of the worst Christian films in history.

But will Christians forgive Ross for promoting “The Road,” which features hunger, cannibals, criminals, killings and (spoiler alert!) the death of one of its main characters? After all, Christian versions of the End Times typically include a hint of redemption—at least for the redeemed, if not for sinners. Such hope is nowhere to be found in “The Road.”

Ross is promoting the film via Twitter and his Facebook site but not his corporate web site (which does list the company’s work promoting other films, including “Prince of Egypt,” “Jonah: a VeggieTale Movie” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

CORRECTION: Ross’s site DOES feature their work on the film (see comment).

The promotional partnership has been virtually ignored by both the mainstream and Christian press (one notable exception being is a story published by The Christian Post).

Ross, who will hold advance screenings for Christian leaders, told Entertainment Weekly that he hopes pastors will refer to the film in their sermons. If so, will pastors read a statement to their congregations saying: “This seemingly gratuitous reference was made in exchange for free tickets and other promotional considerations provided by the makers of ‘The Road?’”

Resurrecting Ted

ted_haggardWho says there are no second acts in American religion? Ted Haggard, the former mega-pastor and evangelical leader who fell from grace in a 2006 gay sex scandal, launched his new church last week with a gathering of 100+ people at his home, located a stone’s throw from his former New Life Church.

Hometown religion reporter Mark Barna was there–at least for a brief press conference Haggard held before the gathering. The resulting article, “Haggard holds home prayer service: a night of redemption,” contained classic quotes of the kind that make Haggard’s followers swoon and his skeptics cringe:

“People here tonight believe in resurrection and me.”

Resurrection is a great hook. But forgiveness was the key doctrine explored in the article and follow-up pieces. Barna went further in “People repent, change — so give Haggard a chance,” a post on his blog, “The Pulpit.”

The Bible is filled with stories of spiritual transformation, few of them more famous than the story of Paul, who went from someone who murdered Christians to arguably the greatest teacher of the faith.

While the tale of Paul is extraordinary, there is no shortage of stories about people who have changed their lifestyle, sometimes dramatically, through Christian teachings or because they’ve suffered such hardships as a serious illness or financial downfall.

Barna quoted Haggard supporters who say he has paid his dues and repented. But one question I’ve heard some local Christians ask is: “Isn’t there a higher standard for leaders? Is forgiveness enough for a fallen pastor who has broken people’s trust and damaged the image of Christ’s church?”

Barna briefly addresses these concerns in his blog:

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but should Haggard lead a church?

Well, why not? Many nondenominational evangelical pastors like Haggard have no academic training as a minister. They become a pastor by proclaiming it. They start a church or join one and work their way up.

And for every Bible passage (First Timothy 3:2) saying a minister of God must be beyond reproach, there is a story like Paul’s in which a repentant sinner is used by God for good.

I think Barna confuses two issues here: the issue of whether God can use a repentant sinner (like Paul) and the issue of what should done with a leader who essentially forsakes his call by wandering away from the truth he himself has proclaimed.

Barna also reports that Haggard, who did not complete the program of recovery dictated to him by spiritual advisors, has now selected his own team of advisors to whom he says he will be accountable. Haggard’s certainly not the first leader in the evangelical/charismatic community to pull this (as Charisma magazine editor Lee Grady frequently points out in his editorials).

Once again, Haggard supporters sing “Hosannas” and others say, “Here we go again.” Should Barna have dealt more with questions of leadership rather than forgiveness? Perhaps. But many readers are saying they want to be done with the whole issue. To them we say: Good luck.