Franklin Graham ‘experts,’ singular

The following post is not really about Franklin Graham and his upcoming festival targeting Latinos in the greater Los Angeles area.

I mean, in a way it is. That’s kind of the subject. But it’s not really the journalistic subject that interests me in this here Los Angeles Times report, which almost certainly was butchered by an editor somewhere (at least, I hope that is what happened).

So what’s up? Let’s start by checking the sprawling double-decker headline:

Franklin Graham hopes to launch Latino religious revival

After speaking across Central and South America, he kicks off a Festival de Esperanza in the Los Angeles area Saturday. Experts say the Latino audience may not embrace his across-the-board conservatism.

Crucial journalism word in there? That would be “experts” — plural.

To cut to the chase, anyone who knows any Billy Graham history knows that the evangelist’s tent-revival meetings 60-something years in Los Angeles were pivotal events in his career, almost as important as his first trip to England and the great New York City crusades. This story does a pretty good job of setting that scene.

However, things get more interesting when Graham the younger’s blunt style and some of his political comments are woven into the story. Thus, here’s the key chunk of the report:

Graham, who doesn’t speak Spanish, said he has preached with a translator’s help in all but one of the Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America, the exception being Guatemala, and would offer a similar experience to those attending this weekend’s festivals.

“We’re treating this festival the same as if I was in Argentina, or if I was in Lima or Guayaquil,” he said. If it is successful, he added, he hopes to hold Latino revivals in other places, such as Houston, San Antonio, Fresno and Miami.

“Graham is really acknowledging that the face of evangelicalism is changing,” said Helene Slessarev-Jamir, a professor of urban ministries and ethics at the Claremont School of Theology.

She wondered, though, if a Latino audience would accept some of his conservative political positions. “Latino evangelicals are conservative on many social issues,” she said, but not on other matters, especially immigration. “Franklin Graham tends to be conservative all the way around,” she added.

The story moves on to a very blunt summary of a few of Graham’s beliefs and actions, all tweaked to fit the narrative that he more closely resembles the late Jerry Falwell than is own respected father.

While her comments are rather mundane, what truly fascinates me is that Slessarev-Jamir is, apparently, a scholar with multiple-personality syndrome. This singular woman is, it seems, the plural “critics” referenced in the headline. Were there others experts who were cut out of this story somewhere between keyboard and printing press?

That’s one issue. The other issue is that the only voice evaluating Franklin Graham, in this story, is this singular scholar from a campus that would make anyone’s A list of America’s most liberal or progressive theological centers. Remember the stories about this school going multifaith and risking it’s United Methodist ties and support?

How to put this? Allowing a professor from Claremont to be the only expert quoted in a hard-news story covering Franklin Graham is something like writing a story about Elton John and citing, as your only expert, a cultural critic from Focus on the Family or Regent University.

I mean, quoting Slessarev-Jamir is a great start on a balanced debate about this controversial man. It would also be easy to find evangelical intellectuals who would offer informed criticism of some of his views. It would be even easier to find Latino evangelicals and Pentecostals — in greater LA — who would praise him, but then critique some of his past actions and statements. This is not hard work.

But one pluriform “experts” from Claremont and that’s it? That’s the best the Los Angeles Times can do on a non-deadline story?

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Gay rights, religious liberty and silence

On Friday night, the New York legislature voted to give same-sex couples the right to marry. This will certainly produce interesting journalism in the days to come, but let’s look at some of the stories that had religion angles.

First off, if you’re interested in learning what the law itself says about religion, head over to the Washington Post where “On Faith” editor Liz Tenety wrote up the amendment which defined the bill’s religious protections. I’m thankful for this because I had a surprisingly difficult time finding it until she posted it. Legislative language changes regularly and I understand the difficulty of reporting on it but it would have helped if more reporters were looking into this angle. I kept hearing about religious protections and assumed they were significantly broader than what ended up in the bill.

USA Today religion blogger Cathy Lynn Grossman lightly touched on the issue of whether vendors should be able choose not to participate in weddings or anything else related to same-sex marriage that go against their religious views. (There are no protections in New York for vendors who are not clergy or religious institutions.)

The New York Times had a brief but interesting piece on the role that these religious exemptions played in getting passage of the legislation:

The Republicans who insisted on the provision did not only want religious organizations and affiliated groups to be protected from lawsuits if they refused to provide their buildings or services for same-sex marriage ceremonies, they also wanted them to be spared any penalties by state government. That would mean, for example, a church that declined to accommodate same-sex weddings could not be penalized later with the loss of state aid for the social service programs it administers.

The Times described this protection as “expansive” but when you think of the main religious liberty vs. gay rights battles of recent years, I think it only really addresses what happened to the Methodists in New Jersey who limited wedding rentals of their religious space to those about to enter into traditional marriage. The Methodists lost their tax status. I guess it also relates to what happened at Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish school in New York that was forced to include same-sex couples in its married dormitory. Even before New York recognized same-sex marriage, the New York Supreme Court ruled that Yeshiva had violated New York City’s ban on sexual orientation discrimination.

But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg — and probably the easiest conflicts to resolve — when it comes to discussions of religious liberty and gay rights. Will same-sex marriage laws impact the rights of religious organizations to place children for adoption as they see fit? What about Lutheran parochial schools that have faced civil rights lawsuits over their honor code? Will Muslim doctors have the right to refuse to do in vitro fertilization treatment on a woman in a lesbian marriage? Will an evangelical referring a patient to someone without religious qualms over same-sex marriage lose her job or license? What about the civil servants who have religious objections to same-sex marriage? Apart from wedding vendors, there are all sorts of other lines of work where individual religious liberty and religiously-motivated objections to same-sex marriage where the questions persist. What about adoption services, for instance? How might public school curriculum change? Will that pose a challenge for any public school teachers who are Muslim, Jewish or Christian?

So I’m glad that we’re seeing just a teensie bit of coverage on the religious exemptions, but many questions remain. And the lack of coverage about these issues is really bizarre at this point. Some people were upset at Grossman for mocking business people with religious objections to same-sex marriage, but at least she mentioned that it’s a point of conflict! Of course, discussion of weddings doesn’t even begin to touch on the larger tension between gay rights and religious liberty.

Perhaps at some point in the midst of the jubilant coverage, we’ll see a curious reporter ask and find answers to some of these questions.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Baptists’ hot time in Phoenix

Unlike Rob Bell, Southern Baptists believe in hell.

In related news (kidding), the denomination this week staged its annual meeting in a frying pan.

A year ago in this space, we lamented (and again here) the lack of mainstream media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2010 meeting in Orlando, Fla.:

Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines.

Whether battling over “hotbeds of liberalism” or declaring that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists’ arrests, the convention’s annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters — a “who’s who” list of Religion Newswriters Association members.

How far has the news value of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — with 16 million members — fallen?

Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it’s drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that.

Fast-forward 12 months. Instead of the home city of Walt Disney World, Baptists convened in the, um, desert. In the summertime. Sounds like a hot recipe for a popular convention, huh?

Not so much.

Let’s check in with (apparently) the only secular reporter to make his way to Phoenix: religion writer Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a story mostly behind a paywall (I have my ways, people), Lockwood noted:

Overall, there were 4,791 messengers in Phoenix, officials said, the lowest number, by far, since the 1944 annual meeting in Atlanta, when the nation was in the midst of World War II.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and experienced decades of growth before plateauing around the turn of the century.

To summarize: Not only did the press stay home this time, but so did the Baptists. (Thank you, I’m here all week.)

Alas, even from afar, there has actually been some pretty interesting mainstream coverage of the two-day Phoenix meeting. In advance of the convention, The Tennessean’s Bob Smietana reported on the denomination’s declining baptism rate (which is becoming an annual story for the Southern Baptists).

Lockwood’s first-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Southern Baptists, who split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on Tuesday elected a black pastor to serve as first vice president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, soundly defeated Richard Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, to claim the second-highest office in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Luter, 54, is the highest ranking black to ever win office in the predominantly white denomination, which allowed its churches to exclude blacks from membership at least into the late-1970s.

The race angle drew the attention of Religion News Service, The New York Times and The Associated Press, all of which produced fairly substantial reports — albeit not from the convention floor. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans profiled Luter and analyzed why he’s likely to be elected the denomination’s first black president in his hometown next summer.

That potential election sets the stage for what could be a “big headline” kind of convention with reporters from the major media on the scene in New Orleans in 2012. Most of the reporting I’ve seen on this year’s convention has highlighted the Baptists’ lack of minority membership and leadership. I’m hopeful that next year’s reports will do a better job of putting those figures in context of the wider religious world. In terms of diversity, how do the Southern Baptists compare with other denominations?

Lockwood’s second-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Meeting in one of the nation’s most heavily Hispanic states, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday called for the creation of “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures” for illegal aliens living in the United States.

Convention delegates, known as messengers, debated whether to strip that language from a resolution titled “On Immigration and the Gospel,” which had been crafted by the Committee on Resolutions.

But attempts to delete the wording failed by a vote of 766-723.

The overall resolution then passed by a show of hands.

Two-fifths of Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are here illegally, Baptist leaders estimated.

Again, the Arkansas newspaper captured the angle of the day that national media followed from afar, including RNS, Politico and the AP.

How did the Democrat-Gazette benefit by actually having a reporter at the meeting? The advantages were subtle but important. For example, Lockwood’s report was the only one I read that quoted actual delegates — er, messengers — opposed to the immigration language approved:

Richard Huff, a Southern Baptist messenger from Tucson, Ariz., moved to strike any call for a pathway to legal residency.

If illegal aliens are allowed to stay, “we will be rewarding people who have broken the law,” warned John Killian, a messenger and pastor from Maytown, Ala. Accepting millions of illegal aliens is “a policy that’s completely unsustainable for our economy.”

Others warned that the measure was misguided.

“This is amnesty any way you phrase it,” said Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif.

As seems to happen every year, gay-rights advocates raised concerns about Southern Baptists’ treatment of homosexuals. Unless I missed it, the Times was the only mainstream publication to tout that angle, tacking it on to the end of its report:

Gay and lesbian advocates on Wednesday called on the Southern Baptists to apologize for antihomosexual policies and for what they called destructive efforts to “cure” people of homosexuality.

Mr. Mohler said that in contrast to racial issues, the church view that homosexual behavior is a sin is dictated by the Bible. “We cannot compromise without disobeying the Scriptures,” he said, adding that it is also an article of faith that the Holy Spirit can transform people.

Those two grafs seemed to come out of nowhere in a story about the convention’s minority appeal. There’s no explanation of the alleged “antihomosexual policies” or the “destructive efforts.” (The Associated Baptist Press provided a fuller report on the gay-rights angle.)

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Noticing those interim ministers

Back in my days as a full-time reporter on the religion beat, I had my share of arguments with editors in which I attempted to convince them that (a) worship attendance is much higher among their readers (and former readers) than among newsroom personnel and (b) that religious people care deeply about seemingly ordinary issues linked to life in their congregations.

But how do you convince a tone-deaf editor that it’s a big deal when a denomination switches from one hymnal/prayerbook to another, that many people sit in pews weeping when this kind of thing happens? That some Catholics truly want to receive Communion while kneeling? That people over the age of 60 may be offended the first time their pastor illustrates a sermon with a video clip from an R-rated movie?

My point is that major religion stories often sit in clear sight waiting for Godbeat veterans to get the go sign to write about them.

I thought if this the other day when sent the URL to a story by Bob Smietana of the Nashville Tennessean about a very important issue — who fills the pulpit after a beloved pastor or a controversial pastor hits the exit door? What happens if some people loved the pastor and others loathed him?

Who helps the church work through these very complex scenarios? The answer, to one degree or another, is the “interim pastor.” However, it should be noted that different denominations and traditions approach this type of ministry in very different ways. Some go fast, filling the vacancy. Some take it slow.

So Smietana has a story here that is part religion and part, well, business. But the key is that he simply let’s the reality of the situation play out. The story opens with thoughts from the Rev. Molly Dale Smith, an Episcopal priest speaking at a Nashville conference on this topic.

In the past, interim ministers were often retired preachers who filled in when a church lost its pastor. Now they’ve become more of a specialized ministry, with interim ministers serving as a combination preacher, crisis manager and strategic consultant. They come into a church, deal with any conflict or unfinished business from the old minister, and then get the church on solid footing.

“They have a specific task: helping a church prepare for the future,” Smith said. …

Smith said that some congregations don’t feel they need an interim pastor unless they are in the middle of a crisis. She believes even healthy congregations can benefit from an interim pastor.

“People have understood interim ministry as medicine for the sick, and it’s not,” she said. “It’s a practice that helps a church move into the future in a positive way.”

Some departures feel like deaths and others like divorces.

Church leaders may feel pressured to hire a new leader who is just like the perfect pastor who left or retired — or is totally different than a failed leader who was forced out. The reality is that most interim pastors try to serve everyone by being human demilitarized zones in which flocks can face their own realities.

And then there is crisis management in the Internet age:

Some interim ministers do find themselves face-to-face with a congregation in crisis. That can include financial or sexual misconduct by a former minister, the death of a minister or conflict among congregation members.

Dealing with those conflicts has become more difficult as email and cellphones have made it easier for conflict in a church to spread rapidly, said Susan Nienaber, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in congregational development. Nienaber is speaking at the Nashville conference.

“You can blow up a congregation much faster now,” she said. “Before you had to get on the phone and talk to people,” she said. “Now all you have to do is send out an email.”

Retired preachers from earlier generations are supposed to handle that?

If the story has a major fault it’s a simple one: Smietana needed more room to get into some of the other complex issues linked to this subject (such as bishops or other denominational leaders sending in interims who are supposed to steer a “problem” church in a so-called safer direction).

In one region in which I worked, almost all of the interim mainline pastors were women — because supposedly progressive local denominational leaders lacked the courage to appoint them as full-time pastors. Thus, local churches often exploded with controversy — pro and con — about the interim pastor whose main job was to help bring healing.

Like I said, this is a complex subject hiding in plain sight. This story opened an important door.

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Dear Mohler: Welcome to Weinergate

I’ve heard that a comedian can make a whole career in Hollywood out of wiener jokes. I wonder if the same could be said for the media and Weiner jokes.

This post from Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today, however, is not so much about what U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner did, but about what the congressman’s actions inspired the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to do. It began with this tweet from Mohler:

Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective “treatment” for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.

To which Grossman responded with a post at her Faith & Reason blog titled “Baptist to Jewish Weiner: Christ is the only ‘treatment.’” Mohler read that post, and thought that Grossman had misunderstood him. He said he was not proselytizing on Twitter to a politician whom he doesn’t know and responded with what Grossman called a “thoughtful column.” He wrote

As far as I know, Rep. Weiner is not among my “followers” on Twitter. I did not assume that he was reading my posting. My message was mostly directed at my fellow Christians as a reminder of this very concern — that the American impulse is to seek treatment when our real need is for redemption.

(Who even knows who follows them on Twitter? Grossman made that point earlier as Weinergate began to unravel.)

Mohler’s response garnered to some media attention, from CNN to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But Grossman still was not buying his explanation. This morning she responded with the latest volley in this online back and forth.

So, Mohler wasn’t targeting Jews, he was using a Jewish person in crisis as a sermon springboard to preach to his known flock to return to traditional faith. Right?

But he didn’t begin “Dear Christians…” He addressed his pitch to someone he knows is Jewish and then professes to be shocked when people notice.

All this background leads me to the point of this post. (Talk about burying the lede.) It’s a combination of GetReligion and GetSocialMedia.

Grossman understands why Mohler would be religiously motivated to reach out to Weiner with the Good News at such a bad time. As she says, “Evangelism is Mohler’s job description,” though often times Christians leaders do offer unconditional support, at least in the short term.

But I think that Grossman missed a pretty common nuance of speech in the Digital Age. In fact, I can appreciate her either not noticing this or just disagreeing that Mohler was employing it because I find the gimmick of “Dear ____” so annoying.

At least once a day I see a Facebook update from a friend that, more or less, begins “Dear super rude tool talking on your cell phone in the checkout at the grocery store, no one wants to hear about your super-duper important life.” Except for maybe in the instance of my most passive-aggressive friend, the aggrieved does not know the rude individual and certainly does not expect them to get the message.

Mohler’s tweet seems to be in that vein. It should come as no surprise that Mohler saw Weiner’s fall as a teachable moment. It’s also hard to imagine the same interpretation if Mohler had written on his blog something like “Weiner needs Jesus.” The difference here is just the gimmicky address of “Dear Congressman Weiner” and that Mohler used the 140-character confines of Twitter.

To me, it seems that Mohler was addressing his Christian followers on Twitter, but that he didn’t open with “Dear Christians” because he was trying to use that social media gimmick of “Dear ____” as a point of reference for his comment.

To be sure, I’m not saying that Grossman doesn’t get social media. (I also should disclaim that I graduated college just before UCLA got The Facebook.) She spends more time on Twitter and blogs more frequently than most any other mainstream religion reporter. I just think she misinterpreted Mohler on this one.

IMAGE: #weining on Zazzle

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More quiet religious-liberty news

In case you have not heard, the U.S. State Department has a new ambassador at-large for international religious liberty. She is the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and, during her decades of ministry as a Baptist pastor and chaplain, she has had a solid history of activism on a number of interesting public issues.

To say the press coverage of this development has been minimal is a bit of an understatement. The post has been open for quite some time, leading to behind-the-scenes debates about whether the Obama White House was anxious to fill it.

The CNN report is the one most people will see — unless the Associated Press has done something and I missed it — and it is essentially a short story based on a press release. Note the lack of any interview material from Cook herself and the emphasis on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Read this paragraph carefully:

The office seeks to shine a light on everything from authoritarian regimes that impede freedom of worship for their citizens to violent extremists who work to exploit sectarian tensions.

“The Obama administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely,” Clinton said before administering the oath to Cook at a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department.

Human-rights activists, reading that, would note that there is much more to religious liberty than the “freedom of worship” and that, around the world, “sectarian tensions” would more accurately be described as the persecution of religious minorities by oppressive majorities. This wording is something like saying that the Civil Rights Movement in the American South was the result of “racial tensions” and that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a “sectarian leader.”

Clinton’s stronger reference to believers being able to “practice their beliefs freely and safely” echoes the kind of language that was used consistently in the Clinton administration, as will as in the White House under President George W. Bush. Cook, in fact, has close ties to the Clinton administration.

However, if you want to hear more from Cook, you will need to read the longer and more detailed report from CBN — the Christian Broadcast Network that is part of the media world of the Rev. Pat Robertson. This is another clue to the wider reality, which is that global religious liberty issues are now — alas — considered “conservative news.”

In this longer report, we read what appears to be actual coverage of the news event in question:

“We have a passionate, visionary and experienced defender of religious freedom. And we have a big stack of issues just waiting for her,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Clinton met Cook, a Baptist preacher from the Bronx, when she served as a domestic advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

Cook has been described as “the Harriet Tubman for women in ministry.” She helped break down barriers as the first female chaplain for the New York Police Department and the first black woman to be elected senior pastor of the American Baptist Churches of the USA. …

However, her role as ambassador may prove to be her biggest challenge “because around the world, religious freedom is under threat both by quiet intolerance and violent attack,” Clinton said.

This longer report also includes some detailed comments from Cook, either from an interview or remarks in the ceremony. In other words, it seems likely that Cook was available for those who wanted to talk with her:

“Dr. Sue J.,” as her parishioners know her, remains undaunted, saying she’s prepared to step onto a volatile world stage as Christians and people of other faiths face growing persecution.

“For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain,” she said. …

“Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society,” Cook said. “In this season of the Arab Spring, we must encourage the highly religious countries of the Middle East and North Africa to guarantee full equality under the law for all religious actors.”

“Full equality under the law” is the key phrase.

One more comment on this story, due to reader interest via email. For those who are curious, many Baptist congregations have been ordaining women for decades, especially in northern churches and in African-American congregations.

However, among Protestants, some of the earliest women to be ordained were in highly conservative Pentecostal flocks. Among Southern Baptists, the ordination of women occurs most often among the so-called “moderate” congregations whose approach to faith and worship more close resembles the American Baptists, the denomination in which Cook was ordained.

How much freedom will Cook be given to do her work, especially in the tense conflicts along the “Ring of Fire” from Nigeria to Indonesia? That is a story that the mainstream press should watch carefully. But don’t hold your breath.

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When the government dictates prayer

I’m not much for displays of civil religion but there’s one recent governmental intervention that really chaps my hide. That’s where the government requires citizens to submit prayers for governmental approval before they’re uttered.

I rarely hear a prayer I agree with and I’ve yet to be too bothered by it. I expect that individuals praying publicly are praying according to their own conscience, not mine, and I respond accordingly. If I’m able to pray along, great. If I’m not, no sweat off my brow. Fact is, the prayers that absolutely horrify me the most are the ones that attempt to be “inclusive” by bringing in not just a single religion I don’t adhere to but as many of them as possible.

But this governmental trend received pushback last week and the Houston Chronicle was there to report on it. I thought the story was pretty good and since it relates to Memorial Day, today is a fitting day to look at it. Headlined, “VA agrees not to interfere with holiday prayers: Agency backs down after losing court fight over pastor’s mention of Jesus in Memorial Day invocation at Houston cemetery,” reporter Terri Langford writes:

The nation’s agency for military veterans has agreed to stay out of religious refereeing for now, backing down from its attempt to tell a minister how to craft a prayer for a Memorial Day invocation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs told federal District Judge Lynn Hughes that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will not demand that Memorial Day prayers at Houston National Cemetery Monday be as non-denominational as possible.

I was going to criticize the use of the term “non-denominational” but I think it’s actually correct. We so often see it used by evangelical Christians as a marketing term for a particular type of Christian but it really does probably mean “not tied any religion.” I always think it’s funny, though, that these government approved prayers would be perfectly at home in some churches — so is it really accurate to call them nondenominational? I’m not sure.

The change of heart came one day after the judge granted the Rev. Scott Rainey a temporary restraining order against the agency after officials told the pastor to edit his prayer to make it as general and non-denominational as possible. Rainey’s prayer, submitted for review at the agency’s request included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and thanked Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, in closing.

No, that’s not right. Here’s how it ended: “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.” That’s not “thanking” Jesus but praying in his name. Still, the story got good quotes, such as this one:

“I’ve never said a prayer in my life that didn’t end with Jesus Christ,” Rainey said after Friday’s hearing. “It was unrealistic expectation for me not to include the name of Jesus Christ.”

That’s why Rainey, who has prayed at this ceremony before, filed suit. The judge said officials at the agency were going too far and telling citizens precisely how to honor veterans:

“The government cannot gag citizens when it says it is in the interest of national security, and it cannot do it in some bureaucrat’s notion of cultural homogeneity,” Hughes wrote.

See, stories about lawsuits can be interesting. Anyway, nicely done for an update on a story that will probably include many more updates. I hope everyone is having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. Do let us know if you saw any particularly good or bad coverage of the day’s events.

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The church of O is pantheistic

In Christianity Today, LaTonya Taylor offered the definitive look at “The Church of O” 10 years ago. There are many reasons why I’m not the type of woman to get into Oprah Winfrey, but her religious views always intrigued me.

Earlier this week, Tmatt looked at some of the coverage of Oprah’s goodbye show. He wrote “She led the way in creating what I have long called ‘OprahAmerica,‘ it’s a culture defined by emotion, feelings and stories, not by acts of creeds, doctrines and sacraments that have eternal consequences.” But how many articles got at that issue?

In the New York Times this weekend, Mark Oppenheimer looked at “The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering.” And as you might expect of a religion column, it’s all about the unique religion advanced by Oprah, “at once Christian and pantheistic.” The first part of the article talks about some of the Christian strains in her theology, with interesting quotes from Eva Illouz, a sociologist:

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.

“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.”

And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.

Very interesting. We then get an intriguing discussion of Charles Grandison Finney and the “anxious bench.”

But I also enjoyed the part of the article that looked at the non-Christian aspects of Oprah’s theology:

Yet the Church of Winfrey is at most partly Christian. Her show featured a wide, if drearily similar, cast of New Age gurus. As Karlyn Crowley writes in her contribution to “Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture,” an essay collection published last year, Ms. Winfrey excelled at offering “spiritual alternatives to the mainstream religions” in which many of her followers grew up. Ms. Winfrey presided over something like a “New Age feminist congregation,” Dr. Crowley writes. …

In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

Oppenheimer’s reported column ends with this type of criticism of Winfrey’s religious exuberance and failure to ask tough questions of “psychics and healers and intuitives.” Whether you agree or disagree with Oppenheimer, this is a thoughtful and well argued analysis of Oprah’s theology and its limitations. It’s nice to read something of this nature in the weekend paper.

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