Hello ‘National Affairs’

Crossroads_logo_redDavid Brooks’ Sept. 8 New York Times column hailed the arrival of National Affairs, a new quarterly magazine that seeks to occupy the same area of the public square vacated by The Public Interest (which closed in 2005): “the bloody crossroads where social science and public policy meet matters of morality, culture and virtue.”

Available online, the debut fall issue features “Getting Ahead in America,” an article that uses 6,000 words and a few charts and graphs to contrast economic equality (the stated goal of some government programs) and economic mobility (a condition author Ron Haskins says is encouraged by “strong families, more education, and full-time work”).

The article begins with a challenge to readers and a pot shot at journalists:

America’s familiar debate over income inequality conceals and confuses at least as much as it reveals. To hear most journalists and activists tell the story, our country is the scene of a rampant and long-running economic travesty, as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and the distance between them belies the promise of America even in times of prosperity.

Question: Is it too much to ask that authors of such generalizations take some responsibility for explaining or documenting their claims?

OK. I feel better now.

Haskins assembles an army of facts to show that American public policy may be tackling the wrong problem, and that inequality may not be as bad as all those journalists and activists suggest:

This does not mean that inequality has not been growing, or is unimportant. But it does suggest that our approach to the plight of the poor ought not to be rooted in the familiar story of inequality — as that story is not entirely accurate, and is not the most important facet of poverty and opportunity in America.

Then he drops a potential shocker:

Compared to other countries, for instance, mobility in America is surprisingly low. …The American belief that opportunity is greatest in the United States is out of line with the facts.

The article concludes that most government programs designed to aid the poor “produce modest, if any, lasting impacts on participants.”

What, then, should policy makers do?

The best way to increase opportunity is to encourage strong families, more education, and full-time work. …Society — from parents and teachers to celebrities and political figures — should send a clear and consistent message of personal responsibility to children. They should herald the “success sequence”: finish schooling, get a job, get married, have babies.

NatlAffairsLogoHaskins concludes with numerous practical suggestions for encouraging economic mobility.

All of which reminds me of the regular either-or debates that raged at the international charity where I formerly worked. Should we focus on relief or development? Should we clothe and feed those who are victims of famines and floods today, or should we concentrate on educating members of the next generation so they will become leaders of tomorrow?

Ultimately, our organization decided it would have greater impact if it focused its energies on one of these strategies. At the same time we were thankful that other organizations were tackling the problems we couldn’t.

Should the U.S. government do more to encourage economic mobility? Sure. But should it do so by diverting funds from programs serving those Jesus called “the least of these”? That’s a question that will challenge lawmakers (along with all those pesky journalists and activists).

‘All the Religion That’s Fit to Print’

new-york-times-buildingDue to its power and prestige, The New York Times invites criticism; some of it from people of faith who feel the paper fails to give religion its due. But these critics should take note of the Labor Day edition of the Times, which provided plentiful and nuanced coverage of many major religion stories, leading me to suggest that the paper consider temporarily changing its page-one motto to: “All the Religion That’s Fit to Print.”

Page A5 of Monday’s National Edition featured three important religion stories:

1) “Sudanese Court to Define Indecent Dress for Women” by Jeffrey Gettleman, the Times’ East Africa bureau chief, described the showdown between journalist Lubna Hussein and the enforcers of Article 152 of Sudan’s penal code, which prescribes fines and punishment by up to 40 lashes for anyone who wears “indecent clothing.”

“I am Muslim; I understand Muslim law,” Mrs. Hussein said in an interview. “But I ask: what passage in the Koran says women can’t wear pants? This is not nice.”

By the way, she was fined, but not lashed. She has refused to pay the fine and says she is willing to go to jail for her cause.

2) “Private Motive for Egypt’s Public Embrace of a Jewish Past” by Michael Slackman explores the politics behind Egypt’s recent rush-rush renovation of a long-neglected synagogue named after Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon:

So why the sudden public display of affection for Egypt’s Jewish past?
Politics. Not street politics, but global politics.
Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosny, wants to be the next director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

3) “Pope Condemns Holocaust at WWII Anniversary Mass” by Rachel Donadio adds to the long-running debate about whether or not Benedict is sufficiently sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust:

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday recalled the “tragedy of the Holocaust” and the deaths of “tens of millions” in the conflict.

Speaking at an outdoor Mass on Sunday in Viterbo, north of Rome, Benedict said: “We cannot forget the major events that took place during one of the most terrible conflicts in history, that left tens of millions dead and provoked so much suffering for our beloved Polish people,” he said. “It was conflict that saw the tragedy of the Holocaust and the extermination of so many other innocents.”

But that’s not all.

4) On page A10 the Denver bureau’s Dan Frosch catches up with Catholic priest Carl Kabat, who long after the death of fellow priest and peace activist Philip Berrigan, continues to stage protests at U.S. missile sites (and spend years of his life in jail).

5) On A13 Jason Grant profiles Rev. Vernon Williams, the “P.O.D.” (or “pastor on deck”) in Harlem’s toughest streets.

6) On the cover of the Arts section, critic Janet Maslin reviews Robert Olen Butler’s new novel, “Hell.” Central character Hatcher McCord is a famous network anchorman who now spends his time interviewing hell’s residents, including Satan himself, who provides this killer sound bite: “I’ve got father issues.”

7) And inside the same section, Edward Rothstein’s “Connections” column visits Death Valley and contemplates the connections between deserts and religious devotion:

Of course three of the world’s religions grew out of regions haunted by the desert. Those who make their homes in or near one must plan and anticipate. They know the harsh judgment imposed by natural forces; they swear close allegiance and fierce enmity. They find comfort in tightly knit communities and strengthen life’s tenuous hold with faith. But in Death Valley the future hardly matters: no religion could develop here. The decree has already been handed down. There is no redemption. Hell and damnation are recurring themes in place names here.

There are some critics who don’t want to let the facts about this God-packed Labor Day issue get in the way of a case they have been making against the “godless” Times for years. But for those who seek to alternate praise and condemnation based on the evidence at hand (I recently criticized the paper for failing to identify Tim Tebow’s faith in a feature on his charitable work), Monday’s Times was cause for high praise.

Falwell-fearing vampires and a football philanthropist


I read The New York Times religiously every morning, in the ink-on-paper version (!), and am thankful that in our increasingly post-print age this institution survives and continues to give me a daily window on the world with plenty of style and personality. Two recent articles stand out for their authors’ willingness to seek out some of the deeper layers of story beneath the surface news.

Television critic Ginia Bellafante’s “Necks Overflowing With Rivers of Metaphor” was a fun piece about HBO’s “True Blood” that sought to answer the question I have asked many times: What’s with the vampire thing? She interviewed show creator Alan Ball, who:

works aggressively to prove what a fired-up liberal he is. As if we’ve consistently skipped those parts of the newspaper that have recounted the scandals of Jim Bakker or Ted Haggard, Mr. Ball insists on telling us that right-wing religious extremism is frequently linked with an untenable moral and sexual hypocrisy.

A Congressional candidate who makes vampire bashing (read: gay bashing) part of his platform is buying V, vampire blood with a Viagra effect on civilians, from a drag queen on the black market. Mr. Ball, as he did in “American Beauty,” which he wrote, and “Six Feet Under,” which he created and where eros and thanatos did battle every week, shoots his metaphors as if activating an armed squadron. Standing in for a hundred Jerry Falwells and the Curse of American Sexual Paranoia, one detractor on the show declaimed, “Vampires have taken our jobs and our women, and their very blood turns our children into addicts, drug dealers and homosexuals!”

The current season has set up a showdown between a psycho Christian cult called the Fellowship of the Sun, which runs a kind of conversion camp called the Light of Day Institute, and the vampires (and vampire sympathizers) the cult aims to destroy.

Kudos to Bellafante for letting readers know about both the show’s religious subtexts and Ball’s motives without embracing them or assuming we will do the same. But shouldn’t there be some kind of statute of limitations on identifying Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007, as the epicenter of anti-gay (or anti-vampire) activism?

Meanwhile, over in the sports section, Pete Thamel writes about Florida football star Tim Tebow, who:

has a chance during his senior year at Florida to establish himself as one of the most accomplished and recognizable athletes in collegiate sports history. But when Tebow talks about the long-term future, his ultimate hope is that football will provide a way for him to run a charitable empire.

With the same passion he has when he speaks about his teammates, his coaches and winning a third national title, Tebow talks of wide-eyed dreams of opening orphanages, a prison ministry, youth ranches and granting wishes to underprivileged children.

“It’s just what my heart is, helping,” Tebow said. “That’s what I feel passionate about, is trying making a difference for people who can’t make a difference for themselves.”

The article, which describes Thamel’s visit to an orphanage in the Philippines that Tebow supports, provides valuable insight into the charitable work of a Heisman-winning quarterback. But the article left one question unanswered.

Even though the piece uses religious words (Tebow “preaches,” his parents are “missionaries,” his father is an “evangelist”) it never identifies Tebow’s religion. Is he a Muslim? A Theosophist?

This was a good article about a devout sports celebrity who wants to use his platform to change the world. It would have been even better if it had helped readers do a better job of connecting the dots between Tebow’s faith and his philanthropic work.


SteveRabeyPicCropAs Doug LeBlanc bids farewell, I say hello. Doug and I have been friends, fellow pilgrims and professional peers for many years. Now we’re more like two bloggers passing in the night.

I’m pleased to be joining the GetReligion team and look forward to sharing my perspectives on religion in the mainstream media. Here are the core values that will shape my coverage.

1. I see writing and reporting about religion and spirituality as sacred work, a holy calling. Not all religion writers use this language, but those who do the best work are devoted and passionate about what they do. I share their commitment.

2. Mainstream journalism about religion is important. Readers have told me they joined a church or supported (or stopped supporting) a charity because of something I wrote. The millions of Americans who regularly read religion writing do so in order to gain a better perspective on the big world of faith outside their own prayer closet, congregation or organization. They deserve the best.

3. It is self-evident, I think, that the Godbeat is the best and biggest beat of them all. Religion ghosts are everywhere. I’m thrilled when a talented and informed writer can help readers discern the connections between theology and anything else in our shared culture. I’m saddened when those connections are ignored or confused.

4. Covering religion is difficult. Deadlines can be killers. And how many different varieties of Baptist are there? Or what does the “typical” Muslim believe? I will try to approach my work for GetReligion with the same balance of judgment and grace I use when grading student papers.

However, any writer or publication should only be allowed to mistakenly substitute “evangelist” for “evangelical” so many times before they receive a religion-writing version of a Razzie Award. I only hope I don’t compound the problem by rushing to judgment myself.

5. I will strive for a balance of praise and criticism. I can remember the time a gravel-voiced caller left a message on my newsroom phone. “Hey. This is Satan. I just want to tell you I think you’re doing a great job!” The message certainly got my interest but it didn’t inspire an improvement in my work.

Then there was the time a reader said I should be named my paper’s “anti-religion editor” because of my failure to canonize her favorite religious leader in a Sunday story she saw. (She did not mention a glowing story about the same leader published on Saturday.)

Some media critics seem to approach their work like Anton Ego, the prickly food critic in “Ratatouille,” approaches a meal. Their work reflects a hermeneutic of anger and doubt. I’m going to try to approach things with a hermeneutic of love — for those who cover religion and, ultimately, the people who depend on this coverage to instruct and guide them.

Here I blog. I can do no other!