Louis Zamperini: A life transformed by … Billy Graham?

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Louis Zamperini had an amazing, amazing life.

Actually, he had two of them since — pardon my French — he was a born-again Christian.

You can get the amazing details of his first life in all of obituaries that are running in major news publications. However, if you want to know much about how this amazing man made sense of all of the pain and suffering in his life, how he was healed (in several senses of that word) and then moved on, well, good luck with that.

Here is the top of the almost fine obit in the pages of secular holy writ, The New York Times:

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.

The details of his ordeal must be read to be believed. Yes, please read them. Yes, he shook the hand of Adolph Hitler.

It is perfectly understandable that this kind of trauma and, at one point, daily torture left scars. The news coverage of Zamperini’s death has handled that angle, sort of. Here is the Times, again:

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Attention editors: Is there a ‘Little Sisters’ case in your area?

While the post-Hobby Lobby meltdown continues on the cultural and journalistic left — this New Yorker piece is beyond parody — it’s important to remember that, from a church-state separation point of view, the most serious issues linked to the Health & Human Services mandate have not been settled.

Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters and editors to look at this as a story that is unfolding on three levels.

(1) First, there are churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that are directly linked to “freedom of worship” and, thus, in the eyes of the White House, should be granted a full exemption by the state. The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never been anxious to define what is and what is not “worship,” since that is a doctrinal matter.

(2) Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities. More on this shortly.

(3) For-profit, closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby which are owned by believers who do not want to be required to violate their own beliefs.

There are no conflicts, at this point, about group one. A major case linked to group three has just been addressed by the high court. But did the so-called Hobby Lobby decision also settle the cases in that second category? That’s the question that many newsrooms managers need to be asking because, as I argued the other day, in journalism “all news is local.”

So, journalists in Chicago, I am looking at you. This Associated Press report can serve as a wake-up call:

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government’s position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented nonprofit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday’s court filing was the administration’s first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The problem, of course, is that the Wheaton College community covenant document includes a clear statement that this voluntary association will:

… uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4). …

Must the college cooperate in offering its students and unmarried employees — in violation of its own doctrines — all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

As I noted the other day, there is more to this conflict than the mere signing of a piece of paper that says these services will, allegedly be funded by the health-care providers themselves, with the government’s guidance (as opposed to these providers simply raising health-care rates for the affected ministries). The groups in this second, doctrinally defined ministry category are, in effect, asking that the government allow their voluntary associations to defend their own teachings when dealing with members of their own communities. Wheaton, for example, doesn’t want the government to help students and employees violate the vows they have, of their own free will, taken when they signed on with the college. (Wheaton College is, of course, part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach and the CCCU has backed the school’s stance.)

The Associated Press editors take all of that complexity and condense it — in a set of unattributed factual statements — to the precise language used in White House talking points:

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Yo WPost: Tim Howard saves, but he says with God’s help

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I have decided to yield to the inevitable.

This morning’s digital Religion News Service newsletter (click here to subscribe) is dead right: People still grieving Team USA’s loss need to surf through the CNN Belief blog’s redeeming dose of Twitter love for goalie Tim Howard and his modern-era World Cup record of 16 saves in one match.

My personal favorite from this digital tsunami:

In terms of news about Howard, the story of the day is the feature at The Washington Post, which begins by noting that goalkeepers tend to be radical individuals, but even by those standards “the tale of American goalkeeper Tim Howard is richer than most.”

The hook for this story is obvious — Howard has Tourette’s syndrome.

Thus, this is a tale of personal struggle, discipline and, well, some other mysterious factor that goes unmentioned.

“Between now and four years ago, I’ve played a couple hundred games for my club and country,” Howard said after the game. “Just more experienced. I don’t really get too high or too low. I think when you have a big tournament, that’s the important thing, managing emotion.”

It has always been that way for Howard. He always has had to think about managing emotion. The bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the more his tics and symptoms flare. “I’ve never counted [how many tics I have in a game],” he said in a 2013 interview with Spiegel Online. “It happens all the time, without any warning, and it increases the nearer an important game draws,” he said. “It always occurs more when I am particularly nervous.”

When the ball is far away, he says he indulges his twitches. “I don’t suppress it,” he told the German publication. But when an opposing striker approaches and readies an attack — which happened over and again on Tuesday — his muscles miraculously calm. “I have no idea how I do it,” he said. “Not even my doctors can explain it to me. It’s probably because at that moment my concentration on the game is stronger than the Tourette’s syndrome.”

Miraculously?

Hold that thought, because this Post report has an interesting hole in it.

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And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

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Hobby Lobby in narrow win; Little Sisters of the Poor on deck

So why are the Little Sisters of the Poor at the top of this post as the tsunami of Hobby Lobby coverage continues? Hang on.

So far, the mainstream press coverage of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision (.pdf here) has been rather good. In particular, there has been a shockingly low rate of scare quotes around terms such as “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” almost certainly because this case — in the eyes of the 5-4 majority — pivoted on issues linked to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a major 1993 win for the old church-state liberalism of the past (RIP).

However, note the very interesting scare quotes in the following reaction statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ committee for Religious Liberty.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.

“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”

The key word is, of course, “accommodation.” In other words, the court did not deal with the Little Sisters of the Poor and appears to have left a door open for the White House to ask Hobby Lobby and other family-owned corporations to settle for the same “accommodation” it has offered to doctrinally defined religious non-profits, ministries and schools. The basic idea is that religious believers will not have to pay for services that they believe are damnable and heretical because the government will ask their insurance providers to provide these services for free (without quietly raising the rates to cover the cost).

I think major news organizations did fine with Hobby Lobby details, in part, because it was seen primarily as an extension of the whole “corporations are people too” political battles of recent years. Thus, the family-owned corporations have religious liberty rights, while massive impersonal corporations (none of which have sought exemptions) have not.

What about the doctrinally defined non-profits, the second level of this church-state fight that many journalists tend to miss?

Remember that New York Times report in 2013 noting that the White House has “excluded many religious organizations from the law’s requirements”? As I wrote at the time:

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About that NYTimes hint at the future of married priests

A long, long time ago, a Catholic leader gave me a tip as a young reporter. He told me to keep my eye on the Eastern-Rite Catholic churches and their potential for growth in Northern America.

Why? First of all, because the ancient beauty of their liturgies in a post-Vatican II world would be pleasing to many small-o orthodox Catholics. Second, the Eastern Rites would offer a setting in which married priests could serve, while framed in traditions acceptable to small-o orthodox Catholics.

How would bishops handle that?

I thought of those questions when reading an important, but rather overlooked, New York Times piece addressing a crucial piece of this puzzle. I apologize (to several readers in particular) that this article has been in the tmatt Folder Of Guilt for quite some time.

The headline: “Group of Catholic and Orthodox Officials Endorses Marriage for Some Priests.” And here’s the lede:

In a step that is sure to fuel the debate over mandatory celibacy, a high-level group of Catholic and Orthodox officials is calling on the Vatican to allow Eastern Catholic priests serving in North America to marry.

Eastern Catholic priests are already allowed to marry overseas, but not in North America, with limited exceptions. This year, a married man was ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest in St. Louis with the permission of Pope Francis.

In terms of this story, why is this important? The key is that it came from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation and that includes major Catholic bishops. It is an important nod to the Eastern Orthodox churches (including my own).

“This action would affirm the ancient and legitimate Eastern Christian tradition and would assure the Orthodox that, in the event of the restoration of full communion between the two churches, the traditions of the Orthodox Church would not be questioned,” the group said in a statement on Friday.

So what does this short report either miss or downplay?

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ESPN offers faith-free version of Isaiah Austin’s testimony

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If you care about what is happening in modern, multi-platform journalism then you have to pay close attention to trends at ESPN — even if you don’t care much about sports. If you care about the media habits of mainstream American males, especially young males, then you really have to dig into ESPN.

This brings me to the emotional highlight of last night’s NBA draft.

If you know anything about life in evangelical churches — white, black, Latino, whatever — then you know what it means to say that someone “has a testimony.” That means that something intensely spiritual has happened in their life and they just have to talk about it.

If you watch a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and someone shouts “testify!” at the preacher, they are not talking about legal testimony. They are saying, “Preach it!”

Well, former Baylor University center Isaiah Austin has a “testimony” right now. He has been through a life-and-death wringer and he wants to talk about it. Thus, the top of the following ESPN report:

NEW YORK – Between the 15th and 16th picks in Thursday night’s draft came a very special selection by the NBA.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced at that point that the NBA would let Isaiah Austin fulfill the dream of every young player, making him a ceremonial pick.

Just over a week ago, the sophomore center from Baylor was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart. It ended his playing career. The illness was discovered during a physical for the draft. …

The crowd at Barclays Center rose to its feet as Austin, sitting in the waiting area with most of the first-round picks, hugged family members and put on a generic NBA cap. He went up to the stage and posed with Silver, just as all the drafts picks do when they are called.

Wait, there’s one more amazing detail:

During the season, the 7-foot-1 Austin revealed he had a prosthetic right eye after multiple operations couldn’t repair a detached retina.

Austin, expected to be a high pick when healthy, said he felt he has “a great story to share.” He said Baylor coach Scott Drew has already offered him a coaching position with the Bears.

So he has a “great story to tell.” That’s another way, in Christian speak, to say that he has a testimony. So what’s the bottom line at ESPN?

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Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls.

For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

* Christian colleges, like their secular counterpart, now face increasing challenges in enrollment — especially with the post-Millennial generation “cliff” looming ahead.

* Mormon numbers continue to rise. Same song, with new verses.

* Liberal Protestant churches continue a multi-decade demographic implosion, leaving a majority of congregations smaller, older and often (even with endowments from previous generations) swimming in red ink. The radical decline in the old mainline leaves a giant gap in American culture that provides an opening for evangelicals to grab the cultural spotlight.

* Jewish congregations, schools and social institutions face declining numbers, especially when it comes to finding families with children — the link to the future.

* Greek Orthodox churches in North America face a shortage of priests who are, well, Greek and Greek-speaking. Many parishes (some tense about this) now have convert or Slavic priests.

* Conservative denominations — think Missouri-Synod Lutherans, for example — face falling enrollments in some of their elementary, middle and high schools, especially older schools far from suburbs.

* Home-schooling families continue to wield an increasing amount of power in evangelical circles.

I could go on and on with this. However, there is one other story linked to this issue that recently drew major coverage — sort of — in The New York Times and was the subject of my “Crossroads” podcast chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in).

Can anyone guess the topic?

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