Science explains everything

ben crosses the lineI remember hearing a joke about a Sunday school teacher who was telling her young students about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. This teacher was more learned than the average Sunday school teacher so she explained that the Moses hadn’t miraculously parted the water to enable the crossing. Rather, the sea was actually very shallow — only a couple of inches or feet deep, in fact. So while God did rescue his people, he didn’t use supernatural means.

“That’s amazing!” said Billy, one of her young charges.

The teacher explained that God was amazing but that this crossing hadn’t been such an amazing feat. In fact, Red Sea was a mistranslation. It was a sea of reeds. A Reed Sea. And so the Israelites only had to cross a very shallow sea.

“Wow! That’s super-amazing!” said Billy.

Exasperated, the teacher asked him what was so amazing about the Israelites traversing the Reed Sea.

“That the entire Egyptian army drowned in a few inches of water!”

I thought of that joke when I read the news today that a scientist thinks the biblical account of Jesus walking on the water has a scientific explanation. Here’s how the New York Times put it:

It was a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples were out in a boat, battling a contrary wind, when they saw Jesus approaching, as if a spirit. “And he went up to them into the ship; and the wind ceased,” it is written in Mark 6:51. “And they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.”

Doron Nof also wondered, in a measured, scientific way. A professor of oceanography at Florida State University, he conducted an inquiry and found what might be a natural explanation: ice.

Writing in The Journal of Paleolimnology, Dr. Nof and his colleagues point out that unusual freezing processes probably occurred in the region in the last 12,000 years, icing over parts of freshwater Galilee. This has not happened in recent history, but there were much colder stretches 1,500 to 2,500 years ago. . . .

From a distance, the scientists suggested, a person on the ice might appear to be walking on water, particularly if it had just rained and left a smoothed-out watery coating on the ice.

Not to sound like Billy, but that is amazing that a boat could be battling rough seas at the same time Jesus was walking on ice nearby. Not to mention that this event occurred immediately after Jesus fed thousands with the few loaves and fishes. And remember what the Bible says about that group? That Jesus told them to recline on the “green grass”? Sounds like winter.

Following on the heels of the prayer study, it’s interesting to see so much media coverage of scientific attempts to explain either supernatural occurrences or issues of spirituality. It’s also interesting to contrast with the media treatment of religious explanations of scientific phenomena.

When any group questions or raises concerns with the current scientific explanation for a given issue, it rarely if ever gets to just tell its side of the story without rebuttal. And that’s only fair and right. But when some scientist comes up with an outlandish explanation debunking Christ’s power, it would be nice if reporters would seek a response from other scientists or followers of Jesus who could explain the significance of the story.

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Maybe God only answers the prayers of Methodists

PrayingA $2.4 million study on the effect of intercessory prayer came out last week and received a bunch of coverage. Researchers studying 1,800 heart-bypass patients at three hospitals found that intercessory prayer by strangers has no effect on the health of the person being prayed for. They also found that people fared worse — in the short-term at least — if they knew they were being prayed for.

But the study was a bit more complex than that. Over 3,000 patients were asked to take part in the study and over 1,800 agreed. Patients were randomly divided into three groups:

• people who were prayed for but were told they may or may not be prayed for

• people who were not prayed for but told they may or may not be prayed for

• patients who were prayed for and told they would be prayed for.

Some of the ways this study was done well (and it should have been for $2.4 million!) were that patients were randomly assigned, doctors were not told what group the patients were assigned to, the sample size was large and data collected about the participants showed there weren’t big differences across the three groups.

But there were problems, too. Patients may or may not have been prayed for by people who cared about them and knew them. The study didn’t capture that information — instead it farmed out first names and the first letter of last names to strangers in three different congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant). God had only 14 days to work healing. Or, rather, congregants only prayed for the patients for 14 days. My congregation prays for people as long as they are in need of prayer. In some cases, we have been praying for people for years. It never occurred to us that this meant intercessory prayer was failing!

Stories were sort of all over the map, but most reporters did a good job of characterizing the study. Here’s Michael Conlon of Reuters:

A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.

And here is Rob Stein in the Washington Post:

Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.

It’s just interesting to see two reporters in action. The first lead emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the prayers. While the second lead shows the study looked at prayer by strangers, it makes it seem like the study proves all prayer is ineffective — which is much more broad than the study itself purports.

Anyway, I know the unemployed, sick and dying at my church will still be prayed for. Speaking of lead paragraphs, this satirical one made me laugh:

A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.

Heh.

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Tmatt, in Texas, with iffy WiFi (and a GOP jab)

Bluebonnets 01In a few hours, I am headed out the door on a long trip into my home state of Texas (I am a prodigal Texan) to visit several campuses in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (see a new trend story here) on behalf of the journalism program that I lead here in Washington, D.C.

The big event during the trip is the CCCU’s global forum on Christian higher education, which may or may not draw press attention.The forum will include a visit by the Soulforce Equality Ride bus, which will almost certainly draw press attention. I hope to have another chat with the Rev. Mel White.

I will spend several days on the long and flat highways of the state so I, for one, am hoping that I have my timing right for some bluebonnets (see photo). The divine Ms. M and young master Daniel (and perhaps even the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc) will, I hope, keep things buzzing during the next week or so because my Internet access may be iffy, other than during the Dallas forum.

But before I go I wanted to draw a connection between three very different stories in three very different publications that all point, in a way, to the very same theme that comes up quite frequently at this site.

So click here for the omnipresent Democratic strategist Amy Sullivan, writing in Washington Monthy about the factors that may, sooner rather than later, cause many evangelical Protestants to bolt the Republican Party.

Then click here to skip over to the Weekly Standard website to read Allan Carlson’s sobering “Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?”

JesusLand2 01Wait! Before you settle in and read those two articles, read this quotation and ask yourself this question: Who wrote the following, Carlson or Sullivan?

… (All) is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming “nontraditional” and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America’s “family wage” system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance.

Can you guess? I point this out simply to note the ongoing political irony of our age. The middle class, for the most part, continues to vote (some would say against its economic interests) for the Republican Party — primarily because of moral and social issues. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the rich, especially along the coasts, has been voting (against its economic interests) for the Democratic Party — primarily because of moral and social issues.

No matter what some people say, these issues are not going away. To see why, click here and read Janet Hook’s “Right Is Might for GOP’s Aspirants” in the Los Angeles Times.

My question remains the same: Will editors in top-flight newsrooms allow their religion-beat specialists to help cover this story?

They should.

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Atheists in America

atheist homeSome people say this country is one White House Bible study away from a Christian theocracy, but President-elect Dwight Eisenhower may have summed up the religious sentiment of the nation best when he said, in 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

A new University of Minnesota study, which has received precisely no coverage yet, found that people rank atheists below gays, lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims in “sharing their vision of American society.” A press release from the University of Minnesota expounds:

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje of the San Antonio Express-News looks at a few local atheists and finds out they don’t like the negative coverage they often receive:

Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion in public life concur.

“Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America,” says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It’s still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that’s not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they’re not supposed to voice those views, so they don’t. But it’s still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists.”

Stoeltje’s piece, which came out a few days before the University of Minnesota study was released, describes the difference between atheism and agnosticism and talks about the difficulties of being irreligious in a religious society:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And that which I excerpted is precisely how much she substantiated her statement. What about the religious rhetoric of Presidents Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and Carter — to name, well, the last four presidents? Does it make sense that religious rhetoric is more prevalent in the public square than it was when, say, St. Abraham Lincoln was president? Almost every president has used civil religion to advance his political goals, and the current president is no exception. Apart from her claim’s questionable veracity, Stoeltje should have substantiated it.

And regarding her parenthetical about Christianity . . . What, exactly, is specifically Christian about the civil religious rhetoric of today? Civil holiday celebrations, funerals and memorials are all interfaith. President Bush goes out of his way to praise Islam in his speeches. And the name of Jesus just got banned from the Indiana legislature. I’m sure we can find any number of politicians who still use Jesus or specifically Christian tenets to advance their political goals, but they are not doing it any more than was done years ago.

Stoeltje missed an opportunity to highlight how civil religion — which tries so hard to be inclusive and bind the electorate together for the goals of patriotism and nationalism — still manages to alienate those who don’t like the God-talk. We all believe in the same God, worshiped by different names, civil religion tells us. But what if you belong to a religion that has no god or if you are not religious at all? Or what if you don’t agree that all people worship the same God under different names? Where do we fit in civil religion?

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Looking for demons in rural Alabama

ForestI graduated from Birmingham-Southern last year. I am completely offended by any suggestion that these students burned churches because of BSC’s “liberal” label. They were just pyros — or at least I’m told from friends on campus. Don’t make this an issue of sectarian violence — please.

Posted by Matt Lacey at 6:03 pm on March 11, 2006

Yes, I knew Cloyd. … I don’t see it being a type of Baptist hatred either. Remember BSC is only affiliated with the Methodist Church because of its beginnings. Yes, the Alabama Conference Center is there, but the Methodist organization has no say in the everyday actions of the school. I’m not even sure I would say the majority of the students are Methodists. If it WAS anything having to do with Baptists and Cloyd had anything to do with it, maybe it was some type of internal conflict he has from his past, being a former Baptist churchgoer, because I know he’s changed a lot since coming to BSC. He’s not the same Cloyd that I hear his high schools classmates and former churchmembers say that he is. Remember, this is all speculation just having known him more recently than most people that have been interviewed by the media. I just know he’s not the same scholarly, exemplary, God-fearing person that he may have used to be before I knew him. …

Posted by Jonathan White at 3:36 pm on March 12, 2006

I hope that GetReligion readers have been following the comments on my recent post about the students who were arrested as suspects in the wave of fires at Baptist churches in rural Alabama. There has been a lot of interesting commentary, including some posts that deserve a response. Meanwhile, the mainstream news coverage of the issue has slowed for the moment and I want to underline a few quotes from those stories, quotes that certainly created sparks in Birmingham.

First of all, I never said these fires were some kind of “mainline Protestant hate crime” in which blue-chip United Methodist commandos set out to attack fundamentalist fortresses in the region. What I said was that Birmingham-Southern College was a respected campus — very service oriented, but not doctrinaire — for the elite, progressive side of Alabama culture and that this was one reason these events were so shocking for local people. And, as is often the case, there is a kind of town-and-gown tension in the area involving the students at the elite, wealthy schools. The Los Angeles Times was right to pick up on that theme, according to my Birmingham friends, and there is a religious element to it because of the United Methodist ties (even if those have faded with time).

Second, early press reports about the fires mentioned that the arsonists drove past other churches. I mentioned, back in an early post on the topic, that I was interested in knowing more of the concrete facts about what churches were burned (wood vs. brick, for example) and which churches were not. Like I said before, journalists need to cover the crimes themselves — with every concrete fact possible.

Finally, let me also confess that, yes, I did not grow up in rural Alabama. However, I have spent thousands of hours on rural roads in the Tennessee mountains, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and East Texas. Yes, there are more Baptist churches out there at rural crossroads than there are churches of other brands. But there are more than a few independent Bible churches, Pentecostal churches and, yes, a very high number of small United Methodist churches (some dating back to circuit-riding days). I remain a skeptic that the arsonists managed to hit 10 Baptist churches in a row at random.

Now, on to the hot quotations about the suspects — Russ DeBusk, Ben Moseley and Matthew Lee Cloyd — that are lingering around this story like ghosts. It does appear that these guys were edgy, alternative students who believed that they were cut out for edgy, alternative lives in Hollywood or some venue linked to it. It does seem that they loved wild rides and alcohol. They were from families on the successful, prestigious side of the tracks. It seems that they wanted to act edgy and alternative, which in the Bible Belt can be seen as religious rebellion.

Thus, Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times did report:

Ian Cunningham, DeBusk’s suitemate, said Cloyd could be bothersome. “He mocked everybody; he had no tact. It seemed like he didn’t have a lot of self[-]esteem.” Something else disturbed Cunningham: DeBusk had come back from summer break talking about Satanism, and he had gotten Moseley interested as well. To DeBusk, Satanism was not a violent religion, but a peaceful means of self-actualization, Cunningham said. DeBusk had always kidded his churchgoing friends about their faith in Christianity, but Cunningham said it was a gentle sarcasm, not a bitter one.

He recalled DeBusk and Moseley having some strange weekends. “They’d show up at 7 in the morning covered in pine needles,” he recalls. “They’d just have strange little hippie rituals in the woods.”

1664430w4A similar theme showed up briefly in the Birmingham News coverage, with this note about Cloyd:

An academic standout, his true love was deer hunting. But hunting was intertwined with booze, and a rebellious anger crept into Cloyd’s personality. After he got a speeding ticket — 85 mph in a 70 zone — his Web site musings grew cryptically violent. In a posting to Moseley last summer as the two planned a road trip, he wrote, “Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus.”

And in USA Today, DeBusk’s roommate — one Jeremy Burgess — offered this rather strange occult reference:

“He wasn’t raised as a Christian, and he had never found any kind of religion to settle down with,” Burgess said. “He thought he’d found something that worked for him. It’s not worshipping the devil. It’s nothing ritualistic. It’s about the pursuit of knowledge. He explained to me that there can be Satanic Christians. It gave him the peacefulness and serenity of Buddhism. It was a real peaceful thing.”

Burgess said DeBusk invited him on a “demon-hunting” trip last summer.

“Nothing happened,” Burgess said. “Some friends of ours and the two of us were in the middle of the woods, playing guitar. They had some beer. There were no rituals, no weird seance. There was nothing that would lead me to believe he would burn down a church,” Burgess said. “Russ was always very respectful of my religion. We discussed it openly, the way many people discuss politics.”

So where does all of this leave us?

This is very strange stuff, but it sounds — to me — like some students who are trying to rebel and act wild. It’s hard to know what they actually believed and if those beliefs had anything to do with the hellish things that they did. Of course, traditional Christians would argue that these young men certainly were, at the very least, playing with spiritual fire and this opened the door to stupidity or worse.

Based on this sketchy information, it is also hard to say that they were committed to paganism in any meaningful way. To get feedback, I sent all these press reports to Jason Pitzl-Waters, the pagan scribe at the Wild Hunt blog. Here is part of his reply.

I would argue that there are different types of “Satanism.” “Satanic Christianity” would be those isolated groups and individuals who really perceive themselves to be Satanically driven and do stupid things like torture animals and burn churches in the service of their “dark lord” etc etc. They are making it up as they go, and are often mentally instable. This should be differentiated from the different forms of religious Satanism which range from philosophic hedonism and a libertarian ethic to the formalized worship of “outsider” and “rebel” entities like Lucifer, Prometheus, and Set. While some of the latter groups may talk a good game about being the enemy of Christianity they are usually quite harmless and content to operate within their own subcultures. …

As for why they picked only Baptist churches? Who knows? Maybe “Satan” told them to burn Baptist churches. Maybe one of them has an abusive history with someone in the Baptist church. Maybe they really are just a bunch of drunk stupid teens who subconsciously formed a pattern they didn’t even realize until after the fact. It is all tragic, no matter the motivation.

Amen. However, I would add one more thing. I do not think we know what role religion or any hatred of religion played in these events. Thus, I think it is too early for investigators — legal or journalistic — to make concrete statements that religion was not involved. I think they need to ask more questions and do some more digging.

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Yo Katie, now zing the Amish!

2006 03 03 NBCT 01Here is a short update on that Today showdown between Katie Couric and Thomas Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza founder who is now building Ave Maria University down in southwest Florida.

The tech team at the conservative Media Research Center have put up a commentary by L. Brent Bozell III that includes a video link to the crucial section of the actual interview, which included Paul Marinelli, the developer for the town that will be called Ave Maria, Fla. Watch the showdown for yourself and see what you think. Here is a key piece of Bozell’s commentary:

As NBC dutifully plastered the words “Catholic Town USA” on screen, Couric began pestering Monaghan about his hope that pharmacists would not sell contraceptives there. She asked about it four times. After four denials, she started dropping the bombs.

“Some people,” she claimed, think Catholic values might be “deemed wholesome, but in other ways, I think people will see this community as eschewing diversity and promoting intolerance.” Marinelli refused to take the bait, and instead calmly explained that this town was open to all people of all faiths with a “traditional family value perspective.” Couric was unconvinced and shot back, “Does that mean you would welcome Jewish residents?”

Here are two other great Couric moments, as she auditions for the Dan Rather Memorial Chair of Broadcasting:

“… (You) can understand how people would hear some of these things and be, like, wow, this is really infringing on civil liberties and freedom of speech and right to privacy and all sorts of basic tenets this country was founded on. Right?”

And then her final zinger, delivered with a laugh:

“Well, we’ll probably be following this story, because I know the ACLU is too.”

jacob reitan equality rideBy the way, if GetReligion readers want to see a mainstream reporter working hard to be fair to people on both sides of a loaded, emotional story, check out reporter Michelle Boorstein’s feature story in the Washington Post about the Soulforce Equality Ride campaign and its impact on the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

I won’t have much to say on this particular story right now, since the CCCU is where I work. If I offer commentary on Equality Ride coverage later, I’ll make sure that GetReligion readers (or even my Scripps Howard News Service readers) know about that link. I’ve been covering the Rev. Mel White and his Soulforce projects for ages.

I hope reporters along the Equality Ride route read Boorstein’s story, and I think the Soulforce people would say the same.

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Wild times down in Alabama

facebookThe powers that be are saying it early and often down in Alabama: The three students held in connection with that wave of fires at rural Baptist churches were just a bunch of wild guys who were having some fun and things got out of control.

There certainly seems to be evidence that points in that direction.

However, reporter Richard Fausset at the Los Angeles Times picked up an interesting subplot in this drama and put it high up in his story.

The arrests of the men … were a balm for some members of the nine burned churches. But there also was bitterness and bewilderment as churchgoers learned of their alleged motives — and that two suspects were students at Birmingham-Southern College.

The private liberal arts school, where tuition is $21,000 a year, is associated with the United Methodist Church.

Anyone who grew up in the Deep South can read between those lines. What we had here, it seems, were some well-off white kids from the progressive Christian campus in town or, at the very least, the campus that would be to the cultural left of the local Baptists, be they white or black.

Now, please understand that — down South — there are a lot of United Methodists who are still pretty conservative on a lot of issues. And Birmingham-Southern College has a good reputation with people who study values and education. Click here to see its entry on the Colleges That Change Lives site.

burning cross 01I don’t think Fausset is hinting that some people think this was some kind of mainline Protestant hate crime against the local fundamentalists. But there are cultural tensions at play. For example, consider this:

All three suspects were in federal custody Wednesday. Two of them — Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell DeBusk Jr., 19 — are Birmingham-Southern students who have been suspended and banned from campus awaiting further action from authorities, school President David Pollick said. The third, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, is a former Birmingham-Southern student who transferred in the fall to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The suspects were all apparently active in campus life. According to Birmingham-Southern’s website, Moseley recently starred in two plays, a farce titled “Young Zombies in Love” and a “white-knuckle psychological thriller” called “Extremities.” DeBusk worked on a production of “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

Once again, we have a lively stereotype in play here. I think it is safe to say that, on most conservative campuses, the theater programs are not known as havens for the most conservative students on campus. I have — as a professor and, eons ago, as a student — seen more than a few campus scandals involving the free-spirited folks who tend to thrive in theater and film-studies programs (and journalism programs, too). What can I say: Creative people are often not fond of rules.

So were these simple good old Southern boys out having a wild night with a six pack or two? Could be. But I am still fascinated with the simple, pesky fact that these guys kept driving past lots of other sanctuaries to nail churches — black and white — with the word “Baptist” on the signs out front.

However, the authorities are clearly going out of their way to tell people not to worry about that. Fausset reports:

The arrests … ended weeks of nervous speculation in this conservative churchgoing state. Because all of the burned churches were Baptist, some had wondered whether the fires were specific attacks against that faith. Others wondered whether they were expressions of a more general anti-religious sentiment. In some areas, church members had begun keeping night watches over their houses of worship.

On Wednesday, however, Gov. Bob Riley assured Alabamans that the attacks were an “isolated instance.”

announceAnd the basic Associated Press report adds:

Court papers said Moseley told agents that he, Cloyd and DeBusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s sport-utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand.”

Tommy Spina, an attorney for Cloyd, said, “This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.”

Maybe these wild boys simply wanted to burn down the churches that, in their view of the world, represented the puritan forces that would want them to settle down, sober up, live straight and become accountants or preachers, as opposed to actors in edgy plays and movies. Reporter Rick Lyman of the New York Times, acting on the totally logical assumption that these college students had their own pages at Facebook, was able to report the following passage (which raises more questions than it answers):

In the area on Mr. Moseley’s page where visitors can post messages, alongside more than 12 expressing shock at the arrests and promising to pray for the accused, was one that Mr. Cloyd posted on Jan. 9. It read:

“To my dearest friend Moseley:

“The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless, the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil! … May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!”

Well, that certainly sounds like some wild guys who like to party, hit the highway and, perhaps, burn down some churches along the way. I’d still be interested in knowing more about why they burned down some of the churches they roared past and not others. Maybe they just wanted to sock it to the prudes, fundamentalists and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart rather than the trendier stories at the malls on the good side of town.

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Ave Maria and the MSM square off

 3How busy have things been around here lately? Earlier this week I was quoted in a mainstream newspaper about GetReligion’s response to recent news coverage (as opposed to old coverage) of Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida. If you don’t recall this blog’s response to that, there’s a good reason — I haven’t had the time to blog on that yet. I think the Oscars thing jumped in there.

Several GetReligion readers emailed me to let me know they didn’t think much of NBC’s recent Today coverage of the alternative, highly traditionalist Roman Catholic campus being built near Naples, Fla., by the activist philanthropist Tom “Domino’s Pizza” Monaghan. The college is controversial enough, but what really set off the fireworks this time was the growing awareness that the university would sit in the middle of a planned community called Ave Maria, Fla., and that Monoghan and other insiders were going to request that businesses setting up shop inside the city limits consider, well, not embracing pornography, birth control and abortion.

I didn’t see the NBC report, but I did read the recent Newsweek/MSNBC story by Susannah Meadows, the one with that somewhat snarky headline “Halfway to Heaven — A Catholic millionaire’s dream town draws fire.” Here is a pretty typical sample of the text:

For Tom Monaghan, the devout Catholic who founded Domino’s Pizza and is now bankrolling most of the initial $400 million cost of the project, Ave Maria is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to spreading his own strict interpretation of Catholicism. Though he says nonbelievers are welcome, Monaghan clearly wants the community to embody his conservative values. He controls all the commercial real estate in town (along with his developing partner, Barron Collier Cos.) and is asking pharmacies not to carry contraceptives. If forced to choose between two otherwise comparable drugstores, Barron Collier would favor the one that honored that request, says its president and CEO, Paul Marinelli. Discussing his life as a millionaire Catholic who puts his money where his faith is, Monaghan says: “I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don’t want to be on the sidelines.”

The ACLU of Florida is worried about how he’s playing the game.

The key phrase in that, of course, is “his own strict interpretation of Catholicism.” You see that kind of language all the time, which seems to underscore the fact that many journalists think the Roman Catholic Church is an evolving democracy in which liberal Catholics who oppose the teachings of the church have the same doctrinal status as, well, the pope. In this story, is the key the fact that Monoghan’s beliefs are controversial or those of Pope Benedict XVI?

oldtimechurch inside2Clearly all kinds of legal hellfire will break out if Monoghan and others try to outlaw — using government power — certain sins in the community. The question here is whether they can use their economic clout to make it easier for some businesses and harder for others. It’s one thing to control the moral climate of the campus. But will the town be the ultimate gated community?

That’s a valid story (and a dang good story, too), but that does not mean journalists have to assume that Monoghan is the “pizza pope” who is trying to establish some kind of Roman cult within air-strike range of South Beach.

Sure enough, the powers that be at Ave Maria have tried to tone down their language a bit. The university also has set up a website with links to some of the recent coverage, both good and bad. It would be good if more religious institutions took a similar approach.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan D. LaGuardia of the News-Press in Fort Myers called me up and asked what GetReligion thought of all of this. I made it clear I hadn’t seen the television coverage, but that some of our readers had. She wrote a short story on the mini-media storm that included the following:

Media critics said the three-day flurry of reporting was typical of the wider debate over Christian values in the nation.

Terry Mattingly, head of getreligion.org, a Washington D.C.-based Web site that dissects secular coverage of religion, said he got a few e-mails about Friday’s coverage. One said Katie Couric of the “Today Show” “displayed incredible skepticism for anything that the people from Ave Maria said and no skepticism for anything anyone else said.”

That’s typical of major media reporting on religion, Mattingly said.

However, Aly Colon, who teaches journalism ethics and diversity at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said Christian groups attempting to influence government and society put themselves in the limelight for tough reporting.

“There has been an increasingly assertive approach on the part of Christian organizations to bring their values into these secular environments,” Colon said. “The more visible that becomes, the more attention it will draw.”

In a way, that makes it sound like I disagree with Colon and I do not. Clearly, the Ave Maria folks deserve some tough questions. But the people who oppose them deserve a few raised eyebrows, too, Katie. That’s what journalism is all about. Right?

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