RU 4 freedom of T-shirt speech?

villagestreetwear2Earlier this week, The Washington Post had one of those slice-of-life news features that took an everyday topic from real life and framed it in a way that put it on page one.

The hot question of the day: Why are all of those girls wearing such slutty T-shirts to school? What’s that all about, other than some kind of post-feminist libertarian mall-values revenge plot?

I mean, the shirts are getting so bad that the liberal establishment is nervous. Reporter Ian Shapira had lots of details and a solid set of summary paragraphs:

They’re blatantly sexual, occasionally clever and often loaded with double meanings, forcing school administrators and other students to read provocations stripped across the chest, such as “yes, but not with u!,” “Your Boyfriend Is a Good Kisser” and “two boys for every girl.” Such T-shirts also are emblematic of the kind of sleazy-chic culture some teenagers now inhabit, in which status can be defined by images of sexual promiscuity that previous generations might have considered unhip.

The T-shirts, which school officials say are racier than ever, are posing dress-code dilemmas on Washington area campuses. School systems typically ban clothing that expresses vulgarity, obscenity or lewdness or that promotes cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or weapons. …

But sexually suggestive T-shirts often fall into a gray area that requires officials to evaluate one shirt at a time.

villagestreetwearObviously, there are other issues swirling in the background, including several that did not get into this report.

For example, is banning a racy shirt the same thing as promoting a conservative stand on sexual morality? That’s bad news, in an era in which courts tend to say that any promotion of conservative values on sex is the same thing as promoting conservative religious doctrines.

What about issues of race and class? Can school administrators strike back against the hip-hop bling culture — in either its ghetto or suburban forms — without being accused of discrimination?

And, as Shapira’s story does note, some school leaders think the clothing issue should be handled by parents. But how many modern students have highly involved parents? What if young women set out to ignore or deceive their parents?

What do these shirts mean anyway? The Post notes:

The T-shirts highlight a paradox about this generation: Even as more teenagers absorb ubiquitous sexual messages, federal data show that they report having less sex than their predecessors. Although a recent National Center for Health Statistics survey found that more than half of all teenagers engage in oral sex, teen pregnancy rates have plummeted since the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high school students who reported having sexual intercourse dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2005.

“It’s a puzzling picture,” said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the District. “When someone sees a girl or boy in provocative clothing, they make a lot of assumptions about what’s going on, which may or may not be true — which really is the point, isn’t it?”

americanlifeleague 1916 4162386Like I said, this was a solid story and — noting how it has zoomed around cyberspace — I hope the Post will continue to monitor this subject at the intersection of family life, education, pop culture, morality and who knows what all.

But I have to admit that I wished the story had included one other topic, perhaps in a sidebar. Do schools in and around the Beltway have policies that affect other kinds of T-shirts and the subjects printed on them? What about religion? What about politics? What about, well, social issues that tend to divide young people and adults?

For example, if hot T-shirts are hard to ban, is it actually easier to ban anti-hot T-shirts?

This story has made some headlines in the past in the Washington area, in part because of demonstrations led by the Rock for Life network. Not that long ago, The Washington Times covered this, including this summary:

Rock for Life’s shirts feature blunt messages for young people: “Abortion Is Mean” or “Abortion Is Homicide” on the front, and the group’s motto on the back: “You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation.” Those messages have repeatedly put pro-life youth in conflict with school officials. In November 2002, a student wearing an “Abortion Is Homicide” shirt to Abington Junior High School in Abington, Pa., was told by the principal that his shirt was “inappropriate for display at school and equated the message on the shirt with a swastika,” say Rock for Life officials.

In the Cleveland suburb of Chardon, Ohio, a student wearing the group’s “Abortion Is Homicide” shirt was also told by his principal not to wear the shirt at Chardon High School because a girl had complained it was obscene.

Free speech is messy, but it beats all the alternatives. Or should public schools, at this point, turn to uniforms?

Stay tuned. I hope the dress-code story stays hot.

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This is how it’s done

prosperity fishAs I mentioned earlier this week, I finally got a chance to read the Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel. I’m sorry to be so late in analyzing the piece, but I heartily encourage you to read it.

The article is conversational and engaging as it digs deep into theological nuances and doctrinal distinctions. Unlike most newsweekly coverage of religious issues, the focus is theology rather than social or political impact. My mouth actually dropped open a few times as I read David Van Biema and Jeff Chu boldly characterize complex theological views. For instance, after letting each side in the “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” debate defend themselves and criticize opposite views, here’s how the two authors sum up the issue:

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion — the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin) — Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have.

When was the last time you read a mainstream media report that characterizes Scripture as well as that? It’s a fantastically difficult trick to fairly and accurately discuss something as contentious as interpretations of Scripture’s view of wealth, and yet I think they did it very well.

After a colorful description of Joel Osteen’s sermons, theology and crocodile-leather shoes, Biema and Chu provide some needed analysis about how prosperity preaching has changed over time. They also spend hundreds of words looking at fine theological distinctions among Protestants. One of my favorite parts was that they quoted religious leaders and scholars I’d rarely seen in mainstream media before — and lots of them. Again, look at how the two reporters get what bothers prosperity teaching’s critics:

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and [Rick] Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s [Stephen] Prothero.

One reader did send along this critique, but I think it’s a remarkable piece. By doing such a good job of characterizing doctrinal distinctions, the authors highlight the barrenness the religious coverage in the current media landscape. Let’s hope they’re working on their next cover story already.

Disclosure: Though I’ve only met him once, I should mention that coauthor Jeff Chu and I were in the same class of Phillips Foundation journalism fellows.

Prosperity fish decal via The Door.

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Random thoughts on Veggies, Jesuits, etc.

holmes800x600Here are some random thoughts this misty Saturday morning while I’m reading the free-speech fallout on the wire services.

• I think that all over America, in zip codes blue and red, evangelical megachurches should get organized and have thousands of people pile into church buses and head over to their local NBC affiliates with signs and bullhorns and march around and around in a peaceful, nonviolent manner, chanting: “God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much!”

Won’t that scare some sense into people? Can you imagine NBC letting anyone mention God on television? The next thing you know they’ll be talking about letting Madonna hang on a mirrored cross while singing something offensive, right there on network television! Surely not. It isn’t good to offend people’s religious beliefs. The New York Times says so.

Why do I suggest this? Click here for a conservative editorial on the matter. Or click here for the views of Bob the Tomato, himself.

• And while I am on the subject of ironic forms of public protest, what would happen if leaders of the kicked-off-campus Georgetown University chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship applied to the leadership of the Jesuit school for permission to hold a public forum this week in which students and faculty would be asked to read and then peacefully discuss the text of Pope Benedict XVI’s actual speech text on faith, reason and jihad?

Perhaps the event could be held at the well-endowed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on the campus?

Just thinking out loud, you know. I am sure the campus administration would welcome such a request by the ousted Protestant groups to organize an ecumenical and even interfaith event focusing on the intellectual life of a man that Georgetown must realize is in the mainstream of Catholic intellectual life.

• Question: Does anyone here think that President Bush will say a word about the pope crisis? Just asking.

• Speaking of which, did you hear that the U.S. State Department has decided that Saudi Arabia isn’t such a bad place after all, when it comes to religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is not amused.

“The Commission is simply shocked that the Department removed longstanding and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” said Felice D. Gaer, Chair of the Commission. In July, the U.S. government confirmed a variety of Saudi policies to improve “religious practice and tolerance” — many of which were first recommended in Commission reports. However, the new State Department report shows that such policies have not yet been implemented.

This did receive some coverage, but not much.

Back to reading the wires.

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Did Benedict XVI bury the lede?

ratzingerPaulII webEvery now and then, you get to see a reporter gently suggest that a major religious leader — take Pope Benedict XVI, example — has tried to pull a fast one. That may be what’s happening in this story earlier this week by New York Times reporter Ian Fisher about the pope’s complicated address on faith and reason, which included a highly significant illustration linked to Islam.

Actually, I think that Fisher did a good job of getting at the heart of this one.

Let’s face it: Popes are not sound-bite-friendly speakers. They have been known to float a policy balloon or two in the midst of a doctrinal tidal wave (how’s that for a mixed metaphor). I have seen bishops, in a debate here in America, lapse into Italian or Latin during public remarks so that journalists cannot quote them. It’s a nice trick.

In this case, the Times even got both angles into the headline: “Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad.” Here is the rather tortured lead, which must have been a bear to write.

REGENSBURG, Germany, Sept. 12 — Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Tuesday on the delicate issue of rapport between Islam and the West: He said that violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God’s plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it.

But the following section of the story gets to the heart of the matter, including the nice factual aside by Fisher that lets the reader know that the news lead was not the main topic of the pope’s actual address:

He began his speech, which ran over half an hour, by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a “learned Persian” on Christianity and Islam — “and the truth of both.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached,” the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty. He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus “contrary to God’s nature.”

But the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of the speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith — leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict’s worries.

As Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher notes, the Times take on this is certainly a lot better than the headline on the Agence France Presse account of the speech: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Rod, by the way, also has a link to the actual text of the pope’s remarks.

Here is my question: Does Fisher realize that Benedict XVI may be opening the door into discussion of a controversial issue linked to the church’s teachings on salvation? To put it into GetReligion terms, the pope is touching on doctrinal issues linked to one of the “tmatt trio” — the question of whether salvation is found through Jesus, alone.

pope koranIt does appear, as Fisher notes, that this pope is trying to take a more conservative, traditional stance on issues linked to Islam and, perhaps, other world religions, in general. It is certainly clear that Benedict’s views on interfaith worship — as opposed to ecumenical worship with other Christians — are different than those of the late Pope John Paul II, who infuriated many conservative Catholics when he kissed a Koran, an act normally reserved for the Gospels.

What journalists have to realize is that, for traditional Christians, taking part in formal worship services involving other religions is a totally different issue than participating in forums and seminars. A service blending prayers from clashing world religions implies, at the very least, that these prayers are addressed to the same God, god or gods. Some would argue that this statement is true and some would say that it is false, but fierce debates would result no matter what.

This leads us to the loaded question of whether Allah and the God of the Christian Trinity can be called “the same” God. Those famous Koranic inscriptions inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock are there for a reason, the ones declaring that Allah “begets no son and has no partner,” that “he is God, one, eternal” and that “he does not beget, nor is he begotten.” See you later, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Forget those speeches by President Bush for a moment. Ask traditional and progressive Muslims if the Christian God is their God. Now ask conservative and liberal Christians the same question, then listen to the debates and the logic. You know, that issue would make a great Times piece.

To me, it seems that this pope is asking if Christians have the right to raise questions about Islam and then, if need be, demand the right to debate them candidly with Muslims. Benedict also seems to be more open to stating claims of Catholic authority in ecumenical talks with other Christians, a fact that may soon make a major impact on life in the Church of England.

GetReligion readers may want to dig into “The Year of Two Popes,” that interesting Paul Elie cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. One of its major themes is that Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger had major differences on the style and content of the Vatican’s interfaith and ecumenical work. Check it out. This story isn’t finished.

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America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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Too many Bible verses in those texts?

bibleHere is a story from last weekend that I have been thinking about most of the week. The story is not new, but there has been a major development.

This is complicated stuff and, it seems to me, reporter Marla Jo Fisher has most of the major voices featured in her report for The Orange County Register.

Here is the opening of the story:

How much Christianity is too much for the University of California?

That’s a question being asked these days, in a federal lawsuit that has pitted Christian schools against admissions officials at UC who decide which high school courses are eligible to be college prerequisites.

The issue revolves around decisions by the University of California to reject three Christian-themed courses at a high school in Murrieta and several textbooks by two well-known Christian textbook publishers. The move came in the wake of a 2002 decision by the UC to look more closely at school accreditation and quality issues.

“These textbooks had already been used by many, many schools,” said Robert Tyler, attorney for plaintiff Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, along with the Association of Christian Schools International and five students. “It’s a fundamental shift. They were acceptable in the years past.”

Now, here is the key question and, at this point, there does not seem to be a clear answer. But this is the angle that the newspaper must pursue to nail this story down — before it heads into higher and higher courts.

In the past, Christian schools have been judged harshly on the basis of what they do not have their students read and the viewpoints to which their students are not exposed. In other words, they fail to cover basic territory that state universities expect students to have covered before admission.

But Fisher does a fine job of pointing out that this may not be the case this time around. There is evidence, this time, that the students are being punished for the Christian concepts and readings that are being included in the classes, not for a failure to cover basic territory.

What we have here is new territory — maybe. That is what the newspaper has to find out. For example, we have yet another vague use of the “creationism” term. We do not know what the schools are teaching in science classes, whether it’s seven-day creationism, a concept of gradual change over time that denies that creation is random and unguided or some other mix of theories. We do not know if the students are reading a wide variety of materials about evolutionary theory, or not. “Creationism” is too vague a word. We need facts.

The goal, in a fine Christian school, is to actually hold debates that you may not be able to hold on a secular campus, to read more points of view — not less. Note this passage in the story:

Included in the lawsuit and among the courses proposed by Calvary Chapel school in Murrieta and rejected by UC: Christianity’s Influence in American History, Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic and Christianity and Morality in American Literature.

“Unfortunately, this course, while it has an interesting reading list, does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter,” the rejection letter for the literature class read.

Lawyers for the Christian schools argue that these proposals should not have been rejected when other schools have approved courses such as Western Civilization: The Jewish Experience, and Intro to Buddhism.

Were the reading lists for the classes too weak? Some said that was not the problem. Were the students graduating from the controversial schools academically weak and unprepared? Apparently not.

Stay tuned.

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Stephanie Simon’s fan club meets here

language of GodStephanie Simon has another great story in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times. She’s the faith and values reporter who consistently hits her pieces out of the park.

This piece is on Francis Collins, a Christian physician and scientist who has mapped the human genome. He sees no conflict with his scientific work and his faith, but he has been attacked by people who deny God’s existence and by those who oppose evolution. He believes in both.

I love reading Simon’s reports because she is usually given enough room to share interesting details. She also manages to do a much better job of putting conflicting folks’ statements in a generous light. In so doing, she lets the reader see the opposing views without stacking the deck toward a given side. From a personal standpoint, this enables me to trust her much more than other reporters. In other words, if I read a news story that gets a minor fact wrong, I tend to discount the entire piece. I assume the reporter doesn’t really grasp the issues at play. When I read a reporter’s characterization of a view I hold and they not only get it right but use phrases and concepts I would, I am much more receptive to reading the opposing views in the piece without putting my guard up.

This is how I imagine most readers of Stephanie Simon must feel. She really takes the time to understand the groups she covers. And we’re all the richer for it. Collins, the man she profiled, recently wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In it, he argues that there is no need for a chasm between science and faith. Simon’s piece fleshes out Collins’ path from nonbeliever to believer and is chock full of interesting details.

In June 2000, an international team supervised by Collins finished the rough drafts of the human genetic code, a string of 3 billion letters (each representing a chemical compound) that guides the inner workings of every human being.

To Collins, the blueprint was a chance to celebrate God’s wondrous design. But he worried that Christians would use this occasion as another excuse to turn away from modern science.

“I had a great concern that this would be portrayed as though we were taking away room for spirituality, making us out to be nothing more than a mechanical instruction book — robots, machines, victims of our DNA,” Collins said.

Invited to the White House to announce the triumph, Collins tried to signal that those concerned with the soul and the spirit should not take the new science as a threat. “It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring,” he said, standing at Clinton’s side, “to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

That moment moved Collins — who is married and has two grown daughters — to talk more publicly about his faith and write the book. “It’s been a bit like taking a public bath,” he said.

I just like how she lets people describe things in their own words but also paraphrases their thoughts thoroughly and gently.

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Muslim matriculation

koran lessonsI’m not one of those people who pretends I caught something on TV because I happened to be flipping through the channels.

I love TV. I love bad TV in particular. In fact, one of my girlfriends and I frequently skip going out to stay in and watch “bad TV.” This ranges from old sitcoms to public access shows to overly earnest movies from the 1980s.

But the other night I really did happen to watch something I wouldn’t normally. I was at the gym on the treadmill and the other four television sets had programming in which I wasn’t interested. So I watched one of those wife-swap shows. A wife and mother from one family goes and lives with the husband and kids of another wife. And vice versa.

The show totally exceeded my expectations and managed to avoid the typical Hollywood attacks. The super-cool mom who didn’t let her kids change her lifestyle too much swapped places with a homeschooling mom of a gazillion kids somewhere in the South. Or something. I was running and didn’t catch everything.

The bottom line is that the script for the show ended up making the Christian homeschooling family seem very together, intact and healthy. And the other mom ended up learning a bit from them. The Christian marriage was portrayed very tenderly, while the other couple had a bit to work on. I was kind of shocked because I knew how easy it would have been to show clips that reversed the perceived situation. Such is the power of media.

I thought of that show as I was reading a Michael Luo piece in The New York Times about Muslim schools for New York. There, the students memorize the Koran in two to three years instead of studying subjects like math and science. Once they’ve memorized the Koran, they earn the title of hafiz. They also believe they are guaranteed entrance to heaven, along with ten other people. Here’s how the piece covers the lack of regularly required studies (emphasis mine):

Because the task is so difficult, most of the children at the Muslim Center study only the Koran while they are enrolled in the class. Some parents try to tutor their children in other subjects on the side. But for the most part, it is after the children finish that they work to catch up in other subjects in preparation for going back to regular school.

By not offering instruction in other subjects, the school may be inadvertently running afoul of state law, according to city and state education officials. Private religious schools like the Muslim Center’s program are required to provide “substantially equivalent” instruction to that offered in public schools, they said. But tracking every school-age child who leaves the public school system can be difficult.

Several parents said they were not worried about their children falling behind because they are smart enough to make up the academic work. Some students from the class have, in fact, gone on to the city’s best high schools, parents and school officials said.

Nevertheless, next year, the school plans to introduce two hours of instruction in math, science, English and social studies, said Mohammad Tariq Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center.

I’m a graduate of a parochial school. And personally speaking, I’m completely laissez-faire about education. But I just couldn’t help but think that a story about Christians in Alabama denying elementary-aged children education in science and math would not be spun the same way by the Times. What about the fact that only boys are enrolled? We see a violation of state law explained in the nicest way possible. Is that normal for most papers?

alislahschoolThe story goes on to explain the recitation process. It says that because translation of the Koran from Arabic is frowned upon, the students mostly don’t know what they’re saying when they recite it. It then describes a few of the kids as being completely assimilated, more or less. One loves Grand Theft Auto. Another begged his parents to be in the school.

I just kept wondering if the reporter was looking for ways to decrease anxiety about a religious school, how it would have looked if he were looking to denigrate the school, and what the proper balance would be:

One of the younger boys in the school is Thaha Sherwani, a precocious, preternaturally responsible 10-year-old whose bedroom is festooned with Yankee paraphernalia. Thaha has been memorizing for two years and will probably need another year to finish memorizing. “But it is worth it,” he said.

. . . When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, Thaha said he was unsure. But then he had an idea: “I’ll be the first hafiz Muslim baseball player.”

Again, I’m sure Thaha is a very good and preternaturally responsible kid. But I wonder if the reporter weren’t trying a bit too hard to do a fuzzy human interest story. The piece doesn’t quote anybody who raises objections to this style of education.

Photo from Ferdinand Reus via Flickr.

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