Covering the thickets of the law

Just a quick update on an ongoing topic. There is an interesting essay in The Wall Street Journal about Catholicism, John Roberts, Sen. Richard Durbin and St. Thomas More — sort of in that order. Clearly this topic is going to keep coming up, as demonstrated by Jeremy with this post yesterday and Doug with another earlier in the week (great art) about the start of this new angle on the Supreme Court wars.

The WSJ article is by Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and once the dean of the Catholic University law school. The piece is low-key and sane, and this is how it ends:

Catholics do not have to recuse themselves, though, from judging the legality of, say, abortion or the death penalty: These are matters of constitutional, not moral, authority. When More was asked why he didn’t arrest a man directly for being “bad,” he replied (as retold by Sir Robert Bolt) that, though he set man’s law “far below” God’s, he was most certainly “not God,” and he wanted to draw “attention to [that] fact.” “The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which [others] find such plain sailing,” More said, “I can’t navigate. . . . But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God.”

There is no match for Judge Roberts, either, in the “thickets of the law,” and the Senate Democrats should evaluate him on his high merit and avoid picking a fight with American Catholics.

I know this is an obvious point, but this whole Roberts/Catholic angle is really not a clash between Republicans and Democrats, at this stage. It’s a flash point between Catholics. James Davison Hunter, please call your answering service.

Death in the European church family?

You had to know this was coming. During the days before the conclave in which Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many commentators predicted this would be the papacy that furthered the transition to the “global Christianity” reflected by many of the appointments made by Pope John Paul II.

Well, that’s true. But there are two ways to look at that.

One way is that this would be a papacy that symbolizes the rise of the Third World. The other is a papacy that symbolizes the fading of the First World.

What would this second reality look like? As has often been noted (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind), Cardinal Ratzinger is a traitor to his class. He emerged from the heart of chilly European liberalism and has turned into a champion of the old ways and traditions of pre-modern Europe. He is a modern intellectual who does not worship modernity or postmodernity.

So this Associated Press report by Nicole Winfield is not really a surprise. But the language is blunt. If this keeps up, it is clear that many journalists are going to need to catch up on their Philip Jenkins (click here for that classic Atlantic Monthly article called “The Next Christianity”).

The bottom line: The rise of the “Next Christendom” does imply that some other Christendom has to fall.

Thus, the bold headline: “Pope Laments ‘Dying’ Churches in West.” This has been the story for some time in the Anglican drama. At some point, the heat will increase in the Church of Rome.

Here is some of what Big Ben had to say, during an informal talk to some Italian priests in the northern Valle d’Aosta region:

Benedict . . . said the “joy” at the growing numbers of churchmen in the developing world is accompanied by “a certain bitterness” because some would-be priests were only looking for a better life. . . .

Benedict also touched on another his favorite themes: the state of the church in Europe. He said in contrast to the developing world, where there is a “springtime of faith,” the West was “a world that is tired of its own culture, a world that has arrived at a time in which there’s no more evidence of the need for God, much less Christ, and in which it seems that man alone can make himself.

“This is certainly a suffering linked, I’d say, to our time, in which generally one sees that the great churches appear to be dying,” he said, mentioning Australia, Europe and the United States.

At the moment, it is hard to think of an oldline and liturgical church that is not really being affected by this global tension, other than some that are so elite or tired that they literally have no ties to a vital faith community in the rest of the world. This is one news story that will not fade any time soon. It seems this pope will talk about it openly, even if it does represent a death in his immediate cultural family.

Colson and prisons: Why not hard news?

Hey, our home DSL is finally working. Time to do some catching up.

Here is a little essay about Charles Colson that The New York Times ran the other day. Part of me wonders if this is part of the newspaper of record’s attempt to deal with more countercultural and “radical” segments of American life — such as traditional religious believers. But here is the larger question: Why is this on the op-ed page? The topic discussed by Adam Cohen is worthy of news coverage. At least, I think so.

I mean, read this section of the essay and tell me this is not a news hook:

Prison reform has been a liberal cause since the Quakers founded the first penitentiary, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, in 1790. Political conservatives have traditionally been more focused on punishing criminals than on reforming them, and religious conservatives have generally felt the same way. “The evangelical church has some great strengths,” Mr. Colson said in an interview, but historically, “concern for the poor and the marginal was not one of them.”

There are signs that, at least on the issue of prisons, that could be changing. In the last few years, evangelical Protestants and their allies in Congress have become more interested in prison reform, and Mr. Colson deserves much of the credit.

Why not turn this into a news feature and interview all kinds of people with all kinds of viewpoints? This sounds like serious news to me.

Where does the L.A. editor worship?

I am not a big Huffington Post reader, but I do pay attention to the blogging of a friend of mine named Mark Joseph, one of those journalism students who went to the dark side and works in Hollywood. MJ just shot off an interesting critique of some of the early U.S. Supreme Court coverage — especially the stories focusing on the religious beliefs of nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane.

What is unique is that MJ starts far from the court. He begins with the recent leadership transition at the top of the most powerful media institution on the Left Coast — the Los Angeles Times. What does that have to do with the court wars? Here is a major chunk of MJ’s provocative little post:

Reading stories in the L.A. Times on the paper’s new editor Dean Baquet and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, I noticed something about the coverage: The paper is telling me a lot more about Roberts than Baquet.

Apparently it’s newsworthy that Roberts’ wife was president of the anti-abortion group Feminists For Life. But the reporter profiling the new editor gives me no such insights into Baquet’s wife’s activities. To what groups does she belong to? The ACLU? The Sierra Club? A pro-life group? You can tell a lot about a man by the groups his wife belongs to.

The Times tells me that Roberts is a conservative, but I read nothing about Baquet’s ideological orientation. I read that Roberts is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, but I read nothing of the groups to which Baquet has belonged to.

Reporters dig up memos at the Reagan Library written by Roberts in the early ’80′s to help me understand his thought processes and political views, but I read nothing of comparable memos written by Mr. Baquet.

MJ admits that a Supreme Court justice has a much greater national impact than one newspaper editor. But it is true that, as a rule, newspapers do not do a very good job of sharing even small amounts of information about the views of the institutions and the people who run them. Does your newspaper union support abortion rights with chunks of your dues? Mine did.

The Times story about its new editor does give us some interesting personal information, but nothing about his beliefs. Some forms of diversity are more equal than others, it seems.

. . . Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.

Baquet attended Columbia University in New York City but never graduated, having been swept up in the excitement of the news business after an internship at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item. He made his journalistic name in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune as part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting with stories about corruption in the Chicago City Council.

The Washington Post likewise sticks to the journalistic details. This is not surprising. Journalists are supposed to be able to do their jobs and be fair to people on both sides of hot issues — such as the legality of abortion on demand. Do we need to dig into their religious beliefs?

Howard Kurtz at the Post did offer this interesting note about John Carroll, the departing editor in Los Angeles. Back in 2003,

Carroll . . . made news that year with a leaked memo that criticized the “apparent bias” of one of his reporters on an abortion story, writing that he wanted to challenge “the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.” Like most big-city editors, he has struggled with declining circulation, which dipped 6.5 percent earlier this year, to 908,000.

Well, that’s interesting. It sounds like it might have been good to ask the new L.A. editor a few questions about moral and cultural issues.

So, should there be a religious test for journalists? Should there be a religious test for justices?

You probably know where I am going to come down on this — the more information the better. Let’s look for ideological diversity and ask lots of questions, on both sides of these cultural divides.

The gods of style struggle with abortion

I decided to look in the Reporter’s Holy Book, by which of course I mean the AP Stylebook, to see what those gods of style have to say. The entry for abortion reads: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

I guess only one side gets to choose their name. Not fair. Not balanced. . . .

Posted by Stephen A. at 9:05 pm on July 25, 2005


Thanks for jumping back to the question at the heart of the original post. These language issues show up in the press all the time, often with bizarre results.

Right now, the media has two options under the AP bible. Like I said, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights are imperfect terms, but they are certainly better than the even worse spin that was in place in the 1980s — anti-abortion and pro-choice. Click here to see David Shaw’s classic Los Angeles Times series about that era.

Now, you can take a magazine approach and use pro-life and pro-choice, indicating that these are the terms the groups apply to themselves. This is a fair approach, but still does not unpack the terms in any way. It still leaves us with only two camps.

My point, concerning Jane Roberts, is that at some point — on left and right — the press has to move past the easy labels and discuss what people actually believe. Yes, she is anti-abortion. But that is not all she is. If this topic is going to hit the Hill linked to her husband and the U.S. Supreme Court, the hearings ought to dig beneath the stereotypes, and the MSM will have to cover that. This will require a more nuanced approach to language.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not Pope Benedict XVI.

For the matter, the Rev. Jim Wallis is not the Rev. Carter Heyward.

Joe Lieberman is not Barney Frank. And who knows WHAT Hillary Clinton is these days, although I think we know where her heart is.

Registered Democrats who are opposed to abortion on demand are not the same as old-guard Republicans, when it comes to issues related to health care, education, jobs and other issues related to, well, the agenda of a group such as Feminists for Life. The press is going to need to do some stretching.

One gets the impression that, for most MSM journalists, this is the only issue that matters. As that great Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd once quipped, the cultural right is trying to repeal Woodstock. Abortion rights is the ultimate safeguard of the sexual revolution.

Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wrote my master’s thesis on the struggle in mainstream newsrooms to improve coverage of religion. A short version of that turned into a 1983 cover essay for Quill.

On the 10th anniversary of that cover piece, I did a Quill update on the same topic — with an emphasis on what I believe are the four biases that most influence work on the Godbeat. That shorter essay opened with an anecdote about — GetReligion readers will not be surprised — the language that journalists use to describe competing camps in a major story. Here it is:

Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests. I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of “pro-choice.”

The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”

The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.

I’ve been thinking about that issue ever since, especially when covering the work of people who are politically progressive, yet also opposed to abortion on demand. The basic question: Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”? Do we need some term — other than “anti-abortion” — to describe people whose views are more complex than those of, let’s say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

You have probably guessed where I am going with this — the U.S. Supreme Court. Easily the most interesting story during the Week One coverage of John G. Roberts Jr. focused on a fascinating biographical detail about his wife, Jane. The Los Angeles Times had the scoop and reporter Richard A. Serrano set the tone.

The key: Jane Roberts held “antiabortion” views. And she appears to be a devout Catholic.

A Roman Catholic like her husband, Jane Roberts has been deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. She provides her name, money and professional advice to a small Washington organization — Feminists for Life of America — that offers counseling and educational programs. The group has filed legal briefs before the high court challenging the constitutionality of abortion.

A spouse’s views normally are not considered relevant in weighing someone’s job suitability. But abortion is likely to figure prominently in the Senate debate over John Roberts’ nomination. And with his position on the issue unclear, abortion rights supporters expressed concern Wednesday that his wife’s views might suggest he also embraced efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

The obvious question: What does it mean when a highly educated Catholic lawyer is part of a group called Feminists for Life?

What does this group stand for, other than its opposition to abortion on demand? The title implies that this group is not, let’s say, a kissing cousin of Focus on the Family.

The only hint in this groundbreaking story:

Feminists for Life has sponsored a national advertising campaign aimed at ending abortion in America. One of its mission statements proclaims: “Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Now think back to what my editor said in Denver. The people who call themselves pro-life are not really pro-life. They are the kinds of people who think human rights begin at conception and end at birth. They are pro-unborn child, but anti-woman.

So here is my question for my fellow MSM journalists. What happens if Jane Roberts (and even her husband) holds views that are not easily jammed into a perfect left-right split? What if she was and is some kind of pro-life moderate? Someone who was trying to heed all of the Catholic Church’s teachings? What if she was what some call “consistently pro-life”?

Reporters Lynette Clemetson and Robin Toner of The New York Times chased the original Los Angeles Times story and at least suggested that Jane Roberts might not be a right-wing robot.

Here is a section of that report, which once again included that interesting concept that American society has “failed to meet the needs of women”:

Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.

Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”

Read that again — “but not enough.” That might be an interesting concept for further coverage and, might I add, some questions from courageous Democrats. If they ask those questions, people on both sides of the issue will be nervous. That will be good. There is a ghost in there. Trust me.

Any real news about a Third Party?

Regular readers of GetReligion will know that we don’t spend much time blogging about religious media, unless it is a site offering very solid information that is of interest to mainstream Godbeat reporters. The work of Ted Olsen and the CT blog crew leaps to mind. There are valuable sites on all sides of the Anglican Wars, too. And so forth and so on.

But every now and then you can catch a passing reference to an uncovered news item in niche media targeting various religious camps — especially when you are dealing with, let’s say, the Alpha Celebrities who head powerful parachurch groups. It also pays to read between the lines of the denominational press organizations on both sides of the Culture Wars, such as — sort of — Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press.

The politico turned activist/apologist Chuck Colson is just such a person — an evangelical Alpha Male of the highest order. The radio commentaries written by Colson and his team of researchers often deal with political events, which is not surprising. But the current commentary with the title “The Long Run: News Cycles and Nominees” includes a very interesting glimpse into a scene that is predictable, yet interesting nevertheless.

The short script is about the guessing games leading up to the nomination of John G. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. People on both sides of the church aisle were tense. On the right, people were nervous about Judge Edith Clement being another Justice David Souter. Enough said. Then we find this passing reference:

This concern, while understandable, made three unsupported assumptions: first, that Clement really was a Souter-in-waiting; second, that she was actually the nominee; and third, if activists made enough noise, they could pressure the president.

When speculation shifted to another candidate, many activists breathed a sigh of relief, but during the hours Clement spent as the front-runner, saw more than one meeting regarding a possible third political party — and panicky phone calls to the White House, and alarmist traffic on the Internet, as if we could control events.

Colson goes on to offer some patient words, urging other evangelicals to be patient. I expect he wrote this script himself.

So — WHOA — what was that about multiple meetings to discuss a Third Party? Does anyone have a list of the folks in those meetings? Talk about burying the lead. What was discussed? Who represented the White House, urging calm? Dr. James Dobson makes this threat every few years. So who else was inside the closed doors?

A quick Google of “Third Party” and “Christians” yields no news. Anyone out there seen anything? I am still in dial-up land and I cannot do my usual blitz work.

What’s shaking?

Catching up on that little court story

Mercy! What a 48 hours or so to disappear into the zoo of I-95 while listening to the latest Harry Potter novel. It seems that I have missed a minor development up here in the greater Washington area.

My work on the blog will be spotty in the days ahead. Verizon will not have the just-moved Mattingly family’s DSL up and running for a week or so. At least that is what the computerized Ms. Darth Vader said in the company’s hellish automated service system. My fair wife was switched around and cut off three times. Also, I don’t start work on the Hill at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities until August 1. My Scripps Howard News Service column this a.m. — the second of two columns (here’s the first) on the mini-media storm involving The New York Times, the popes and evolution — should have opened with this credit line: “Today’s column is brought to you with the assistance of Panera Bread.” Try the Cobblestone.

Anyway, it seems that Newsweek may have nailed the heart of the Supreme Court story this past week. Check here for a refresher. The big idea was that the country-club side of the GOP was worried that “an obsessive focus on abortion and gay marriage will jeopardize what they regard as a once-in-a-generation chance to unshackle commerce from the grip of federal regulators.”

So, crucial to the success of the John Roberts nomination is the media spin that the libertarian side of the yin-yang GOP is happy and that the Religious Right is not too happy. But who is actually happy? How would we know? Who will find out if this guy ever sits in a pew?

Of course, in the age of the blogosphere, the quickest way to catch up on this drama within the drama is to turn to media-hot blogs on both sides. For starters, you turn — naturally — to Andrew Sullivan. Here is a link near the start of his blitz into fretting and praise, as he relaxes for a few months and then rides more tense emails and then repeats the cycle. The bottom line is that if Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and other cultural conservatives believe they have reason to worry, then there is reason for the Lifestyle Left to hope. More than ever, Sullivan is a must read for the next few weeks (and you know the elite reporters are reading him).

Meanwhile, the blog crew at Christianity Today already has a link-happy report online about religion-turf reactions. Enquiring minds want to know, of course, what the human warning siren on the Religious Right thought of the nomination. Here is a piece of Collin Hansen’s report:

The question of judicial philosophy is central because Roberts did not deliver an opinion on the D.C. court about abortion, religious symbolism, gay rights, or many other contentious social issues. For these reasons, Roberts may avoid the combative confirmation process that so many groups have been predicting and promising since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement July 1. However, this same fact renders him somewhat mysterious, even for supporters.

“To my knowledge Judge Roberts has never talked about abortion and he certainly has no rulings about it, so we don’t know what his private views are,” said James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. “But we do know that he is what Justice Scalia called an ‘originalist,’ who will interpret the Constitution as written, not dream up his decisions based on some preconceived ideology.”

Ah! But is the good doctor bluffing? Who consulted who? Who winked and who nodded?

I hope the good people here at Panera Bread in Glen Burnie will let me come back in the days ahead and find out.

P.S. Can you believe The New York Times didn’t use “beam me up” in this obituary headline? Others could not resist. Ah, that British culture.