Face it, the Miers nomination is …

Toast btIn a city that is already buzzing with gossip, it takes a really hot story to crank the chatter up another notch. Well, the latest Washington Post twist in the saga of Harriet Miers and God certainly did that. Here’s the bottom line in reporter Jo Becker’s fine story (which deserved much better headlines): Bush’s legal sidekick, while serving as president of the Texas Bar Association, told elite female audiences that she backed what is essentially a libertarian position on abortion.

That will be very hard to spin in Colorado Springs. Thus, Becker reports:

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate said that Miers’s speech … appears to contradict a position she took just four years earlier, when she was running for the Dallas City Council. Then, she told activists at the Texans for Life Coalition she personally believed that abortion was murder and filled out a questionnaire for an antiabortion group in which she checked a box pledging to “actively support” a constitutional amendment banning abortions except to save a woman’s life.

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman said the right to self-determination is at the heart of the case law granting a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If you take what she said at face value, you would conclude that she recognizes the right of a woman to choose an abortion as a matter of self-determination,” Michelman said. “She seems to be a woman who over time is pulled in different directions, as many of us are, as she searched for answers.”

Journalists will want to note that the website package includes links to the two key speech texts, both in PDF, here and here. I would imagine that many, many copies of these texts are being printed out in several Christian right offices today, and we can expect MSM stories tomorrow on reactions from all of the usual zip codes.

Unless, of course, somebody you know where leaks you know what about you know who.

Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

Holy Ghost in the Cash story

walk the lineFirst of all, I need to state the obvious. A long time ago I was I was a rock columnist in a mainstream newspaper, and you only have to do that job for, oh, a week or so to learn that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times is one of the giants. So that is a given.

I also realize that Hilburn’s recent feature story about Joaquin Phoenix was a story about the young actor and his craft. But this story was also about the actor’s attempts to submerge himself into the larger-then-life persona of the late Johnny Cash while filming the Oscar-hot movie Walk the Line.

Hilburn — who actually attended the legendary Cash concert in Folsom Prison — knows he is dealing with material soaked in faith, sin, grace and redemption. At least, I think he does.

But he ended up writing a story that talks about how Phoenix looked into the soul of the country-rock-folk-gospel legend, but never gets around to telling us much about what he saw in there. He says that Phoenix was having trouble shaking loose from some parts of Cash’s story and personality, now that the movie is done. OK, that’s interesting. Like what?

There is even hint that the actor’s own background may have a religion ghost or two in it. For example:

“I’m into exploring characters, exploring the human condition,” he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. “I’m into psychoanalyzing people. I think it’s something I grew up around.”

He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early ’80s.

“In the early days, we were definitely poor,” he says. “We didn’t have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don’t recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up.”

Now one rarely sees words like “missionary” and “hippie” in the same sentence, but the story of the Children of God — church, cult, movement, all of the above — includes many plot twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Joaquin Phoenix comes from interesting stock. It would have been nice to see Hilburn explore that issue.

Cash, of course, was a famous sinner as well as an evangelist, a man always aware of the blackness of his own heart. This is a key element in his life and legend.

Does Walk the Line explore this side of Cash? How did Phoenix wrestle with those lively angels and demons? It turns out that the iconoclastic Christian T-Bone Burnett helped the actor learn how to handle the musical side of this difficult role. Did they talk about the role that faith played in Cash’s life and music?

Hilburn is a great writer. Maybe he’ll get around to the Holy Ghost side of the story of Cash and Phoenix in another article. Frankly, I have no clue how he avoided it.

An evangelist visits the Naval Academy

usnavalI ran into a minister the other day over at the Naval Academy, a man I’ve known for about 10 years. He was leading a really interesting project, one directly linked to a topic that comes up often on this blog — offensive free speech.

His goal, along with about 50 of his friends, was to do some one-on-one evangelism on the campus, attempting to win friends and influence people. In some cases, he even hoped he could convince people to change their religious beliefs and join his cause.

More than anything else, he hoped to change the hearts and minds of the leaders of the institution so that the leaders could then help change the hearts and generations of midshipmen to come.

It was, pure and simple, a case of religious activists offering a public witness for their faith and their own beliefs, hoping they could win some converts.

At first, academy officials planned to have this evangelist and his followers arrested if they entered the academy grounds and attempted offensive speech with visitors, staff, faculty and the students. After all, the activists were asking for changes in military policies. They were pushing the envelope.

No, this evangelist was not linked to the dangerous work of people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell — although he worked for both of those men a decade or so ago.

This was the Rev. Mel White, once an evangelical superstar and now one of the nation’s most articulate gay-rights leaders. He had come to the academy with about 50 other gay-rights activists to try to convince campus leaders to reject the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that require gays, lesbians and bisexuals to be silent about their beliefs and sexual orientation. This was one of the Equality Ride protests organized by Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va. The main organizer of this rally was Jacob Reitan.

The Washington Post led the rather low-key media stampede that surrounded the event, producing some nice quiet photo opportunities during the misty day before a football weekend on the Annapolis campus. Here is a lengthy chunk of reporter Ray Rivera’s main report:

The protesters wore bright pastel t-shirts printed with the words, “Equality Ride,” which organizers have dubbed the roving protest. The Naval Academy was the second stop in what organizers hope will be a nationwide bus tour to visit college campuses where homosexuality is either prohibited or discouraged.The rally began with a few tense moments. The protesters, mostly students from the Washington area, held hands forming a line along the brick wall outside the academy’s main gate. After a brief news conference, they walked single file through the gate. Reitan was first and, met by two Marine guards, he gave his name and showed his driver’s license. …

(After) a few moments of discussion at the gate today, the guards let Reitan and the rest through. A horde of television cameras and reporters followed close behind. Academy officials insist they did not back down from the arrest threat but that organizers agreed to their terms.

“They came to the gate, they were asked what their intention was and they said they were there as private citizens, and that’s when the decision was made to the let them aboard,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

I ran into White later, while he was working the crowds in the academy visitor’s center and bookstore. He was glad that officials backed down and let people talk. He was very pleased with the heavy media turnout, of course.

At some point, government officials have to realize that people have a right to talk to one another and even to argue and disagree, he said. This doesn’t mean that people — on the right or the left — need to be loud or rude. If you start talking to someone about religion and they don’t want to talk, then you just say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you” and walk away, said White.

“It’s like all the people who want to censor television,” he said. “You keep trying to tell people like that, ‘Don’t censor us. Just change the channel.’ That’s what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What’s so scary about that?”

Precisely. The problem, of course, is that one person’s free speech is another’s evangelism or even worse — proselytizing. This is why it’s hard to write speech codes without affecting the left as well as the right.navy chapel int

Rather than talk about something really dangerous — like sex (the Naval Academy) or salvation (the Air Force Academy) — let’s look at another issue. Consider this a parable.

Let’s say some people in authority at a military academy, like teachers or deans, decide to use their clout to change hearts and minds about the environment. Let’s say they show movies about the environment and use standard academy media, bulletin boards and email to publicize the films. Let’s say that, on their own time, they organize meetings — with equal standing to other voluntary assemblies on campus — to discuss environmental issues. Let’s even say that they talk with students about environmental issues and urge students to talk with one another. Perhaps, when students express interest, they even urge students to change their beliefs about environmental issues.

So far so good. Right?

But let’s say that these officials go further and require students to attend these sessions. Let’s say they test students to make sure they have the right beliefs. Let’s say that they even push students to talk during off hours on campus and refuse to back away when students decline to dialogue.

That would be wrong. Right? You bet it would. That kind of behavior is bad — on the left or the right. I would even say it’s wrong in newsrooms.

But what is wrong with talking? What is wrong with free speech and debates about public issues? What’s wrong with people changing their minds on topics, after debates and dialogues in which they are free to take part or to walk away?

I’m glad that White and his associates were allowed to visit the Naval Academy. I don’t think it would have hurt for them to talk to students, if the students had the freedom to walk away. Soulforce teams are planning to visit a number of Christian college campuses later this year. I hope that honest conversations and forums can be held during those visits, without people on either side turning things into tense media events. I hope the press quotes people on both sides accurately.

Free speech is a messy thing and so is religious liberty. But it beats all the other alternatives.

Rome and the death penalty, again

execution tableSome of you will recall that we recently had a lively thread here at GetReligion on “cafeteria Catholicism” and Rome’s teachings on the death penalty.

The key point: Many journalists have asked why the Vatican keeps flirting with Eucharistic discipline for Catholic politicians who have openly rejected the church’s teachings on abortion, but has not threatened to take action against those who favor — to one degree or another — the death penalty.

The question looming behind the headlines is this: Why is Rome leaning toward the GOP, by ranking abortion above the death penalty?

Now, please understand that one of my goals as a journalist is to find liberal religious voices who make liberals sweat and conservatives who do the same for those in their own camp. I am prejudiced in favor of candor, as well.

In that spirit, let me point readers toward a column by a conservative Catholic leader, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, titled “What does the Church teach on the death penalty?”

I realize that this archbishop’s pro-Vatican stance will turn some readers off.

But Chaput has been saluted in some camps on the Catholic left because he has openly supported the stance taken by the late Pope John Paul II (as opposed to the stance that many insist the pope took on this issue). Thus, reporters have often quoted this statement from another Chaput column in the Denver Catholic Register last March.

… (The) deeper problem — the death penalty itself — remains with us. Here’s a simple fact: If the defendant in a murder trial is financially well off and white, he has a much lower chance of receiving the death penalty than if he’s poor or a person of color. In some states, the inability to hire a private attorney can amount to a death sentence. …

Experience shows that, quite apart from the serious flaws built into the death penalty in too many states, capital punishment simply doesn’t work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed though in answering violence with violence — a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.

Having read that column, those who favor and oppose the death penalty are ready to read what Chaput has to say in his current column. Neither side will cheer. Hopefully, those on both sides will read carefully. By the way, it does not appear that this Chaput column has drawn any coverage in the Colorado media. It should.13 1 Electric chair

People really need to read the whole thing, whether they agree with Chaput (and Rome) or not. Nevertheless, here is a key passage:

Catholic teaching on euthanasia, the death penalty, war, genocide and abortion are rooted in the same concern for the sanctity of the human person. But these different issues do not all have the same gravity or moral content. They are not equivalent.

War can sometimes be legitimate as a form of self-defense. The same can apply, in extraordinary circumstances, to the death penalty. But euthanasia is always an inexcusable attack on the weak. Genocide is always the premeditated murder of entire groups of people. And abortion is always a deliberate assault on a defenseless and innocent unborn child. It can never be justified. It is always — and intrinsically — gravely wrong.

What Catholic teaching on the death penalty does involve is this: a call to set aside unnecessary violence, including violence by the state, in the name of human dignity and building a culture of life.

Yes, there are no quote marks around the phrase “culture of life.”

Yes, the archbishop ends by calling for the United States to end the death penalty.

But reporters must read the Catholic documents on these various issues — especially the teachings on abortion and public life — before we head into the next round of news coverage of Catholics, Communion and the ballot box. The goal is to cover the debates — inside the church and outside — as accurately as possible.

Idol word haunts copy desk

olnmI am still catching up after the Tennessee tour, so here is another quick post saved from earlier in the week.

I need to offer a mega-hat tip to Amy Wellborn on this next one, pointing to the blog of her husband, Michael Dubruiel. It seems that someone at the Herald News copy desk in suburban Chicago messed up — big time.

If you click here, you will see the story and a repaired headline that says:

A visit from Our Lady

* Virgin Mary: Local parish is host to 33-foot statue for 2 weeks

The story is a pretty plain description of strange goings-on among the exotic local Catholic natives. Nothing really spectacular.

Our Lady of the New Millennium, a 33-foot, 8,400-pound statue of the Virgin Mary[,] began a two-week stay at St. Mary Immaculate parish. … The statue, commissioned in 1984 by Carl Demma, who has since passed away, is meant to be a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The statue was completed in 1999 and by Oct. 2003 had visited over 170 parishes.

There’s one strange phrase there: “is meant to be.” But what caught the eye of Welborn and Dubruiel was the original headline for this story, which now exists only in Catholic bloggerland. Hang on, because it was a doozy.

A visit from Our Lady

Statue of Virgin Mary: Local parish is host to 33-foot idol for 2 weeks

Dubruiel thought this failed the “objective reporting” test, for reasons that are rather obvious. But just in case readers missed it, he added:

Notice how the statue is referred to as an “idol”. If you have a second you might want to drop the suburban Chicago news an email that’ll point out that Catholics do not worship statues or idols but God alone!

Actually I am sure — as a former headline writer — that the red telephone at the copy desk rang a few times and the headline was changed rather quickly.

GetReligion readers will notice that Dubruiel assumed this was a case of media bias. In this case, I believe someone simply messed up.

That said, I can find no indication that the newspaper humbled itself and published a correction. The editors simply replaced the headline. However, that word “idol” was a real slap in the face for the traditional Catholics who would been drawn to this story. A correction would have been nice. Did I miss one somewhere?

P.S. Welborn’s blog is a great place to keep up on an interesting Holy Grail trial involving everyone’s favorite gnostic Catholic theologian — Dan “DaVinci Code” Brown. Click here for more details.

Dobson, Miers and Ted Olsen (once again)

He’s baaaaaaaccccckkkkk. Meaning Ted Olsen over at the Christianity Today blog. He collected several hundred HHGR links (OK, OK, I didn’t count them all) so you don’t have to. Now, I call that servant leadership. Greater love hath no blogger …

Also, note that the Air Force is being asked to ban religious conversions at the academy, in the name of free speech and religious liberty of course. Forget all about the United Nations and that Universal Declaration of Human Rights thing (especially Article 18). Some forms of free speech are more equal than others.

Coven and state clash, yet again

ALTAR2Maybe it’s just my church-state studies background, but this case about Wicca and public prayer strikes me as a major story and a sign of things to come. We may have heard the last of a witch named Cynthia Simpson at the U.S. Supreme Court, but the splintering of the old Judeo-Christian (and now Islamic) civil religion will continue. Here’s the lead from the Richmond Times-Dispatch story, the only MSM coverage that really mattered.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal yesterday from the Wiccan priestess who was excluded from giving the opening prayer at meetings of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Cynthia Simpson, who calls herself a witch as do others of the Wiccan faith, sued because the county limits its list of clergy invited to pray at meetings to those of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.

And I loved this final detail:

Simpson is now studying for a master’s degree in divinity at a Pennsylvania seminary and hopes to be ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Church. She said that church’s beliefs are compatible with the Wiccan faith, which is based on unity with the Earth and the idea that humanity and all things are part of the deity.

A note to newcomers on the religion beat — I heard about this case (more than once, in fact) through journalists operating on the Baptist left. If you care about religious liberties issues, it pays to read Associated Baptist Press on the left and Baptist Press on the right.