A little context goes a long way (Updated again)

Freshly inaugurated as Alabama’s new governor, Robert Bentley already is making national headlines — but not the kind likely to excite the Republican or his press office.

From The Birmingham News, which broke the story:

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s comments on religion stir concerns

From ABC News:

New Alabama Gov. Criticized for Christian-Only Message

Non-Christians Accuse Robert Bentley of Treating Them as Second-Class

From The Associated Press:

New Ala. gov.: Just Christians are his family

What exactly did Bentley say?

Well, he was addressing a large crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Bentley touted the need for Alabamians to love and care for each other, pledged to be the governor of all the state’s residents and described himself as “color blind.” Then came the part that sent shock waves across the media universe. From the Birmingham paper:

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said.

“But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.”

Bentley added, “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

So far, the media coverage is fairly predictable with Jewish and Muslim advocates criticizing the governor, along with the president of American Atheists, who was quoted by ABC News, among other media outlets:

“We live in a country that is hugely diverse,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, the country’s oldest atheist civil rights group. “The governor basically said: ‘If you’re not like me, you’re second class.’ This is a man puts the Bible above the Constitution and his preacher above the president. His words are disgusting and bigoted and reinforce Alabama’s reputation for being backward and bigoted.”

What’s sorely lacking from most of the coverage, however, is any kind of context or background to help readers understand Bentley’s comments from an evangelical perspective. In other words, the notion that an evangelical Christian believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven isn’t exactly breaking news. Yet most of the coverage fails completely to explore that angle.

An exception was the Los Angeles Times, which to its credit provided background on Bentley’s church and interviewed its pastor:

The new governor is a Sunday school teacher and deacon at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, which considers “passionately” evangelizing to be a “key core value,” according to its website. …

Gil McKee, senior pastor of Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, said the new governor “was in no way meaning to be offensive to anyone.”

“He was coming strictly from the fact that Scripture talks about how those that know Jesus Christ as their savior are adopted into the family of God, and as we are adopted into God’s family, we are adopted into the family of Christ,” McKee said.

See how easy that was? A little context goes a long way.

Update: Religion News Service’s just-published story also includes McKee and a rabbi who suggests the governor’s comments weren’t totally out of the mainstream in the Bible Belt.

Second update: The Associated Press reports that the governor apologized today for his remarks.

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Religious freedom and the TSA

“If it means me getting naked, I’ll get naked and get right on that plane.”

Obviously, as evidenced by that remark by one airline passenger interviewed by The Associated Press, Americans express varying levels of discomfort — or not — with security measures taken by the Transportation Security Administration.

Mollie has written at least a couple of GetReligion posts (here and here) related to the TSA and religious modesty. She even shared a bit about her personal experience at a security checkpoint:

I joked that in some cultures I would be married to my screener by now. But it wasn’t funny. It was incredibly intimate and it actually made me uncomfortable. I felt intimidated by the fact that the screeners have so much authority over your freedom to move about the country. I even thought about how I should respond as a Christian.

I must acknowledge that I probably lean more in the direction of the AP interviewee. I am a nervous flier anyway, and since 9/11, I have taken a small measure of comfort in heightened scrutiny at the airport. I want the TSA screener to shine a light on my driver’s license (or passport if I’m traveling internationally) and look me up and down a few times. I don’t want just a quick glance and a nod to move ahead from a sleepy-eyed agent.

When I flew earlier this month, I breezed right through the line and to my gate with no patdown whatsoever. I voiced my disappointment on Facebook. I was joking, of course.

Yet I realize that for many Americans, this is no laughing matter, and that was reflected in a holiday travel story by The Washington Post:

As Erum Ikramullah prepared to head to Reagan National Airport on Thursday for a flight, she mulled over two distasteful choices: the body scanner or the pat-down?

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a trip to the airport has been fraught for Muslims, who sometimes feel they are being profiled as potential terrorists because of their religion. The addition of full-body scanners, which many say violate Islam’s requirements of modesty, has increased the discomfort.

Muslims aren’t alone in their antipathy toward the new security measures. Followers of other religions, including Sikhs and some Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, also say the scanners and pat-downs make them uncomfortable or breach the tenets of their faiths.

I thought the Post did a nice job up high of explaining — from the perspective of an actual person of faith — why the measures concern some Americans:

But Muslim women have been particularly reluctant to subject themselves to the scanners, which reveal the contours of the human body in glaring detail.

In Islam, “a woman’s body and a man’s body are both pretty much private,” said Ikramullah, 29, who wears a head scarf. “I choose to cover myself and dress in loose-fitting clothing so the shape of my body is not revealed to everyone in the street.”

The other choice, an “enhanced” pat-down in which security agents touch intimate body parts, was hardly more appealing, said the College Park resident. In recent years, Ikramullah said, she has been pulled aside for a milder version of the pat-downs almost every time she flies. The reason, she believes, is her head scarf.

“It can be humiliating when you’re standing there and people are walking by, seeing you get the pat-down,” she said. “You just feel like you have a target on your head.”

Keep reading, and the piece highlights perspectives of Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. Sources from each group give specific reasons for objections and concerns. (In a separate item by Christianity Today, observers discuss whether Christians should resist airport body scans and patdowns.)

I liked the Post report and the way that it allowed individual believers and faith leaders to explain their beliefs in their own words. I do wonder how the newspaper came up with the list of faith groups to include. Were any left out?

I’m flying again next week. Depending on that experience, I reserve the right to change my opinion on this topic.

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Right-wing jihadist (and fun guy)

To fully appreciate The Dallas Morning News’ Texas-sized profile of Baylor University President Ken Starr, one must accept its basic premise.

That premise — full of religious imagery — is underscored at the top of the 3,000-word Sunday story:

Meet Ken Starr, fun guy.

No, really.

Most of the world knows him as the Whitewater prosecutor, the man whose zealous investigation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky led to the president’s 1998 impeachment. To his many critics and adversaries, Starr seemed a sort of Old Testament avenger, a grim, puritanical apostle of the Christian right whose office conducted what amounted to a political jihad against a sitting president.

But the reality of Kenneth Winston Starr, who in June became the 14th president of Baylor University, is quite different. To watch him work the crowd at the Baylor-Texas A&M football game, in fact, is nothing short of a revelation.

Here, he seems less a pious righter-of-wrongs than a sort of funny uncle. Resplendent in a white warm-up suit trimmed with green and gold and a yellow Baylor cap, and bearing a cherubic smile that never quite leaves his face, the 64-year-old Starr plunges into groups of startled tailgaters. He talks to everyone. He hugs anyone who will agree to be hugged. He tells jokes. He tosses footballs. He poses for photographs, lots of them.

So there you have it: Starr is not as bad a guy as you thought he was. And, oh yeah, he’s working miracles at Baylor.

The profile itself makes for an entertaining and, in some ways, informative read. I became quite familiar with the stretch of Interstate 35 between Dallas and Waco during my time with The Associated Press, so the subject matter caught my attention.

The talented writer of the Morning News’ piece is a veteran Texas journalist whose work has drawn praise from your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas. But in this case, the Starr profile brings to mind that old saying about the cowboy who was “all hat and no cattle.” I should stress that I’m referring to the profile itself — and the evidence it uses to back up its assertions — not to Starr.

The story drips with effusive praise for Starr’s tenure at Baylor (all seven months of it). Take this section recounting the former prosecutor’s hiring by Baylor:

And even conservative evangelicals who had no political agenda with Starr wondered: Why, at a school whose civil wars of the early and mid-2000s became front-page news, would it possibly be a good idea to hire a non-Baptist with such partisan baggage? (Starr was raised in the Church of Christ, in which his father was a preacher.)

But the Baylor regents had reasons for their seemingly odd choice, arrived at after an intensive two-year search. And it has resulted in a sort of brilliant honeymoon that many would not have predicted.

Starr’s success in winning the Baylor community over is at least partly due to his upbeat, disarming personality and his deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor.

But he is also the possessor of a legal resume that few contemporaries can match, as well as a striking record of success as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.

How long do university presidents’ honeymoons typically last? Is it really all that surprising that seven months into the job, Starr enjoys positive relations with the Baylor community? Speaking of which, where are the quotes from Faculty Senate leaders, from Texas Baptist leaders and from others who have sparred with past Baylor presidents to support the notion that Starr is different than the previous leaders who failed?

No Baptist leaders or editors who questioned hiring a non-Baptist president to lead the world’s largest Baptist university are quoted to say that their position has changed. As for Starr’s “deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor,” the story does not explore those convictions or explain how they are in tune with what Baylor believes. The story does not even report whether Starr has joined a Baptist church, as he promised to do when hired.

More from the story:

Even more remarkable is what Baylor’s board of regents has hired this cheerful, politically polarizing fifth-generation Texan to do: unite a 15,000-student Christian university that has been riven by internal wars — academic, religious and otherwise — for a decade.

Healing those wounds is just the beginning of Starr’s task: His larger mission is to fulfill one of the most breathtaking visions in American higher education. Baylor wants nothing less than to transform itself from its traditional role as a somewhat sleepy, second-rate, predominantly regional Baptist school to a world-class research university with highly ranked graduate programs.

And it wants to accomplish all that while asserting itself as a fully Christian, evangelical university with avowedly Christian professors. No Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried. Old-line schools founded on Christian principles like Harvard, Princeton and Yale historically bowed before a relentless secularism and are now places where religion is relegated to extracurricular status. Notre Dame is the only remotely comparable model. It is very definitely a world-class research institution, but not absolute in requiring its faculty to be Catholic or Christian.

Again, I’d appreciate some actual sources to back up such statements. Who — besides the reporter — sees Baylor’s traditional role as that of a “sleepy, second-rate, predominantly Baptist school?” What expert(s) — besides the reporter — verified the claim that “no Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried?” Or are readers just supposed to take the newspaper’s word for it?

As for healing Baylor’s wounds, that statement seems somewhat at odds with how Starr himself characterizes the situation he inherited. From the excerpts of Starr’s interview with the Morning News included with the story:

“The Baylor I entered was a Baylor at peace. David Garland, the interim president, brought a great and steady hand to bear for 20 months during the search process. He proved to be a great balm and healer. So I have tried not to in any way disrupt the great state of peace and tranquility that I was very privileged to inherit. There is a lot of energy on the Baylor campus, and we need all that energy poured into a positive, constructive effort. That certainly was the direction Baylor was going in when I arrived, and it has been my job not to foul it up.”

The profile ends like this:

For all of its efforts, Baylor remains both undercapitalized and unable to improve in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. And there are very real limits on how many outside grants — one of the main measures of a research university — it can expect to get.

Starr, meanwhile, is nothing but optimistic.

“It’s a great ambition,” he says. “One of the great things about the vision of 2012 is it envisions a community where we love one another and forgive one another. We have all fallen short of that as a goal, but that is wonderful to have as a stated ideal. We can just talk in those terms, and that is very liberating.”

Again, some sources — and in this case, some actual details — would be nice concerning “undercapitalized” and the U.S. News rankings. As for Starr’s final statement, the reference to “forgive one another” definitely made me curious. That sure sounds like a potential religion ghost.

Photo: In February 2010, newly named Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, right, receives congratulations from regent Chairman Dary Stone.

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A muted Christmas in Iraq

When I think back on Christmas coverage in the past few years, stories about the plight of Christians in Iraq always stand out for me. Things have been unbelievably bleak for a while and yet somehow this year they took a turn for the worse. It was only Oct. 31 that Muslim terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda seized the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad. Some 44 worshipers, two priests and seven security personnel died and 60 were wounded.

You can look back to some of our questions about or praise of previous coverage Iraqi Christians at Christmas here and here.

The New York Times offers up an account of the most recent holy day:

As they gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the congregation here first contemplated death, represented by a spare Christmas tree decked with paper stars, each bearing a photograph of a member of a nearby church killed in a siege by Islamic militants in October.

The congregants on Friday night were fewer than 100, in a sanctuary built for four or five times as many. But they were determined. This year, even more than in the past, Iraqi’s dwindling Christian minority had reasons to stay home for Christmas.

“Yes, we are threatened, but we will not stop praying,” the Rev. Meyassr al-Qaspotros told the Christmas Eve crowd at the Sacred Church of Jesus, a Chaldean Catholic church. “We do not want to leave the country because we will leave an empty space.”

He added: “Be careful not to hate the ones killing us because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them.”

The story does a nice job of attempting to quantify what’s happening to Christians, as this excerpt demonstrates. And it fills in some blanks regarding Christians who worship elsewhere — as well as Christians who are not members of the Chaldean Catholic church.

Quoting from the sermon and describing the worship of the congregation is something that seems so basic but occasionally gets overlooked or poorly done. The reporter did a good job of taking a poignant and relevant portion of the sermon. I wonder, too, if the quote isn’t also a reference to St. Stephen, proto-martyr, who uttered these words as he was stoned to death. I’m not sure about the calendar differences, but we commemorate him today in the Lutheran church.

On the numbers issue, this story says Iraqi Christians used to number 1.4 million. This Agence France Presse story, however, says it was only about 800,000 before the war. It might be nice to have some sourcing for any and all numbers. Either way, the plight of the Iraqi Christian diaspora seems to be noticed more by those in Europe than those in the United States. At least, that’s what the coverage indicates.

Here’s a story about the European Parliament welcoming a delegation of Christian leaders from Iraq and Lebanon to discuss these Iraqi Christians who have been forced to flee from Muslim terrorists in Iraq. And here’s a story about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration urging Germany to do more to help Iraq’s Christian minority.

Christians in Iraq aren’t the only ones whose Christmas was less than peaceful. Reuters is covering the story of Christmas in Nigeria:

Explosions in Nigeria’s central region killed 32 people on Christmas Eve and six people died in attacks on two churches in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation, officials said on Saturday.

On Friday night, a series of bombs were detonated during Christmas Eve celebrations in villages near the central city of Jos, killing at least 32 people while 74 were in a critical condition, the state police commissioner said.

Nigeria’s army chief said the blasts were not part of religious clashes which flare up sporadically as tensions bubble under the surface in a country where the population is split roughly equally between Muslims and Christians.

“It (Jos explosions) was caused by a series of bomb blasts. That is terrorism, it’s a very unfortunate incident,” Azubuike Ihejirika said in the southern city of Port Harcourt.

It’s a fine point but the piece discusses how there’s a governing agreement between the north and south of the country. The north is largely Muslim, the south largely Christian. The northern leader died in office so a southern leader took over. Some northerners are upset. Fighting is being instigated to exploit some of these existing tensions. On the other hand, some of these attacks really are just about killing Christians, the article points out:

“What happened (in Jos) was not religious it was political … the aim of the masterminds is to pit Christians against Muslims and start another round of violence,” the governor of Plateau state said.

In a separate incident, at least six people were killed in what appeared to be religiously motivated attacks on two churches in the northeastern city of Maiduguri.

Attackers threw petrol bombs late on Friday at a church in the city, killing five people, including a Baptist pastor. A security guard at a nearby church died in a similar assault.

There’s another helpful article here.

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DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

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As usual, RNS gets religion

After writing thousands of news stories, features and personal columns in my 20-year reporting career, I see myself as a veteran journalist and a competent one at that.

As for this part-time GetReligion gig, I’m nine months and just more than 100 posts into it and certainly qualify as a rookie.

As a rookie, I’m still finding my way, learning how to criticize — and praise — in ways that draw readers’ attention and start a dialogue. (Did I mention that we really like it when readers leave comments?) And typically, like my fellow GetReligionistas, I’m writing fast, posting quickly and forever etching my opinion into Google stone.

In a few cases, I have second-guessed myself after hitting the publish button. One such case involved my post titled “An Okie asks: Is RNS the new CAIR?” In that post, I came down pretty hard on my (former?) friends at Religion News Service, for which I occasionally wrote freelance stories before joining GetReligion. As tmatt said in a comment on that post, the story criticized “did not live up to the very high standards that are the norm for RNS, one of our most important journalism forces on this beat.”

But based on a single story, my post made broad generalizations about a news service that more often than not produces exceptional religion journalism. I regret that.

With this post, though, I come to praise RNS (mostly), not to bury it.

In a follow-up story on the ongoing debate over the anti-Sharia (or is it Shariah?) law passed by Oklahoma voters, RNS profiles the state’s Republican attorney general-elect:

Backers of a referendum that would bar Oklahoma courts from considering Islamic law admit they suffered a setback when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the measure last month.

But they are pinning their hopes on Attorney General-elect Scott Pruitt, a minor league baseball team owner and former state senator who has already made a big mark on religious laws in Oklahoma.

“This is just round one,” said Jordan Sekulow, an attorney at the American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative legal firm advising Oklahoma state Sen. Anthony Sykes, who co-authored the anti-Shariah amendment.

“Admit” is not my favorite word in the above context. It generally carries a connotation of wrongdoing. I’d prefer a different word, such as “acknowledge” or “know,” in the lede. But I’m nitpicking. This is an excellent story, especially given the space constraints of a wire report.

The tight, 700-word story takes a very specific angle — the new AG — and focuses on his potential role in the high-profile case. Not only do readers learn that Pruitt is a Southern Baptist deacon, but the piece cites the politician’s past involvement with religion-related cases:

As a state senator in 2000, he co-authored the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, which, according to his website, “makes it more difficult for a government to burden an individual’s practicing of his or her faith, even in the public square.”

But a legal twist may force Pruitt to battle his own legislation, or at least how it is interpreted. U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange cited the Religious Freedom Act in her ruling against the referendum.

The act states that “no governmental entity shall substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion,” unless there is an overriding government interest.

“Those two measures are at war with each other,” said Joseph Thai, a constitutional expert at the University of Oklahoma’s law school. “The Religious Freedom Act is a model of religious accommodation, while the state ballot measure is a model of intolerance.”

That’s excellent background. Even better, an attorney who disagrees with Thai is given space to share his viewpoint.

Pruitt himself is not quoted in the story. That’s his own fault; a spokeswoman told RNS that he wouldn’t comment on pending cases until taking office Jan. 10. Kudos to RNS for not letting Pruitt’s silence keep it from doing an important story.

As RNS and other news media pursue future stories on the Oklahoma law, I’d urge them to check out this Tulsa World piece, reporting on a survey that found a majority of the state’s residents believe Islam is a violent religion. The poll results provide some excellent data concerning Oklahomans and their views on Muslims.

Since I’m new at this blogging thing, I don’t know if I should end this post now, with the warm and fuzzy thoughts I have expressed so far, or mention a recent USA Today story on the Oklahoma law. That story featured this lede:

Muneer Awad’s opponents label him “a foreigner” trying to change Oklahoma’s laws.

If I were going to bring up that story, I’d probably ask who the unnamed opponents are. The article never says who called him “a foreigner.”

Then again, I think I’ll stick with the positive. This time.

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Return of (part of) the chaplain debates

It seems that we are going to see more mainstream coverage of those debates about religious liberty, military chaplains and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” So let’s back up and note a few basic fact, some of which were handled quite well in that CNN.com report that I praised the other day in the post called, “Chaplain questions older than DADT.”

As that title implied, I wanted to note that church-state questions about military chaplains are not new.

The military powers that be have been arguing for a long time about doctrinal and legal issues linked to public prayers, God talk, preaching, evangelism/proselytism and a variety of subjects. Tensions between the traditionalist camp and what the oldline-Universalist-progressive camp are not new. It’s much harder for an evangelical, charismatic of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest to lead a wide variety of vague rites that mesh with various other traditions than for a liberal Episcopal priest to do that same. It’s easier for a Reform rabbi to function in a state-funded religious environment than it is for a Southern Baptist, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran or an Eastern Orthodox priest (to name a few examples).

These hot-button issues almost always revolve around public expressions of doctrine, as opposed to silent, private beliefs.

When looking at DADT, however, the current state of things clearly affects the left as well as the right. As mentioned in the GetReligion comments pages, clergy in religious groups that favor DADT repeal have had their hands tied in public ministries to gays and lesbians in the military.

However, the must crucial question is not whether many doctrinal traditionalists will have to leave the military if DADT is repealed. The real question is whether many will leave rather than face punishment for public or even one-on-one expressions of their religious beliefs. Thus, it was important that the CNN.com story included this crucial slice of the Pentagon DADT report:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, “A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains’ free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement,” the report said.

Or, as Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America put it in a letter to the chaplains board:

“If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

So there is much more to this story than what happens if DADT is repealed. The question is how DADT repeal (or the continuation of the policy) will affect the ministry of military chaplains — liberal and conservative — and the rights of the soldiers that they serve — liberal and conservative.

This brings us to the new story on these issues in the Washington Post, which adds some useful information on the point of view of liberal clergy, such as:

The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.

“They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me,” said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. “It was horrible. Right from the beginning I was saying, ‘This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.’ “

Yet in the paragraphs immediately before these lines, the Post framed the debate in the following manner:

The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law was changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.

“In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual,” the report stated. “In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that ‘we are all sinners,’ and that it is a chaplain’s duty to care for all Service members.”

Once again, repeal is not the ultimate issue for the leaders of traditional religious groups. The issue is hidden in that phrase “care for all Service members.” Does “care” equal acceptance of homosexual activity? For example, I cannot imagine many traditional clergy actually saying that they would “refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual.”

Really? Did the Pentagon offer any direct quotes from chaplains expressing those views, or is that an official bureaucratic interpretation of what women and men said in these interviews? What is the legal content of those words “support,” “comfort” and “assist”?

The Post report does offer the following information from someone who is worried about protecting the rights of clergy who advocate traditional views on sexuality issues.

Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Air Force chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains’ behavior.

“There’s a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn’t be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you,” he said. “If there’s no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops.”

Once again, note the following inserted — but valid — commentary noting that Lee made these comments, “even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains’ behavior.”

That’s true, although the Pentagon would find itself involved in court cases challenging those policies. Where are the crucial decisions being made, these days, on these kinds of moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the CNN.com report was much stronger in this regard, since it noted that the current policies that guide the work of military chaplains already contain the very tensions about the public and one-on-one expressions of doctrine that are now being linked to the DADT debate. Again, here is that section of the CNN.com story:

“Existing regulations state that chaplains ‘will not be required to perform a religious role … in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.’ At the same time, regulations state that ‘Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.’ “

Once again, define the word “care.”

In other words, these doctrinal tensions are not new. The DADT debates are merely the latest chapter in a larger church-state story, once in which voices on the left and right must be reported accurately.

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Chaplain questions older than DADT

Allow me to start with some personal confessions before I take a look at the following CNN.com news feature about the debates about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the state of chaplains in the U.S. military.

First of all, for the past week or so I have not been wading in the mainstream media as much as usual — due to the rapid decline and death of my mother in Texas. It may take me a few days to get back up to speed.

Second, the author of the following report — Eric Marrapodi — is someone I have known for a year or so, because I cooperated in some of the early blogging discussions that led to the creation of the CNN Belief Blog. I did not, however, have any conversations with him about this story.

Third, this post is built on my long-term interests in the church-state debates that have raged around the wider issue of chaplains (approved by religious organizations and answering to them) working for the state and the military in the first place. This is an astonishingly complex subject and has been for a long time. Controversies about the behavior and rights of chaplains are not new.

Finally, I am well aware that there are people who insist that there is no conflict between religious liberty and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and that, as a result, they believe that the MSM does not need to cover the views of those who believe a conflict exists. However, there are two sides of the debate and, once again, the goal of the mainstream press is to accurately report the views on both sides. There are major religious institutions, including leaders in America’s two largest religious flocks, who are worried about potential — stress, potential — results of repeal. Click here for my Scripps Howard News Service column about all of that.

This brings us to Marrapodi’s CNN.com report. It focuses on the fact that the status of military chaplains was addressed in the Pentagon report on DADT and the fact that, once again, people are arguing about the results. Here’s the opening of the story:

The Pentagon’s long-awaited study on its policy against gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military found that repeal of the controversial policy would face resistance from some service members on religious grounds, but that repeal would not require anyone to change their personal views or religious beliefs.

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.”

Once again, the story says that, in the view of the authors of the pro-repeal report, soldiers will not have to change their religious beliefs. However, what about expressions of those beliefs? No limits? That’s where the debates continue behind the scenes.

The main thing that I want to note in this CNN.com report is a block of material near the end that gets right to the heart of the matter. This section is must reading for journalists and others interested in understanding why this debate is — in terms of public coverage — just getting started. No matter what happens in the lame-duck Congress, reporters can expect hearings in the new House of Representatives on the potential — again, potential — effects of DADT repeal on religious liberty, both for soldiers (liberal and conservative) and chaplains (liberal and conservative).

Read the following very carefully:

A religious group or denomination that is recognized by the military must endorse a clergy member to serve as a chaplain. The report says they reached out to “approximately 200 ecclesiastical endorsing agencies that endorse military chaplains, to gauge the likelihood of continued endorsement in the event of repeal.” If a religious group or denomination pulls its endorsement for a chaplain that individual can no longer serve in the U.S. military.

The report says they received written responses from 77 of the groups they contacted, but those 77 groups represented over 70 percent of the chaplains in the armed forces. They found that “most expressed opposition to a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, based primarily on theological objections to homosexuality. However, none stated that it would withdraw its endorsements for military chaplains if the law were repealed.”

It would be good to know (a) which religious groups were contacted and which ones were not and (b) which groups were contacted and elected not to respond.

Also, it’s crucial that few if any religious leaders have, in the past year or two, suggested that mere repeal would lead to an exodus by chaplains. That isn’t the issue. Thus, read on:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, “A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains’ free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement,” the report said.

In other words, the issue is what happens when traditional religious beliefs on sexuality are expressed in public or in one-on-one ministry.

Truth is, this is where the DADT conflict assumes the form of previous debates about the rights of soldiers to sympathetic chaplains and the rights of chaplains to be true to their ordination vows, in terms of the rites they perform and the doctrines that they publicly advocate or reject.

Thus, read on and prepare to come back to this point and read the following paragraph again:

“Existing regulations state that chaplains ‘will not be required to perform a religious role … in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.’ At the same time, regulations state that ‘Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.’ “

You can see the shape of the debates.

Chaplains are not required to do things that violate their ordination vows. However, some have insisted that their careers are negatively affected if they constantly decline, for example, to pray in public events that would (to avoid offending soldiers of other faiths) require them to drop references to the Christian Trinity or to Jesus Christ.

Chaplains are required to care for all soldiers. But what about the doctrinal content of this care?

Does this mean caring for soldiers in ways that please all of the soldiers? What if the chaplain declines to provide certain rites or reassurances that are requested by a serviceperson? What if a traditional Catholic priest hears the confession of a Catholic soldier — gay or straight — who is in a sexual relationship that violates the Church’s teachings and tells this believer that he or she must repent? Does the soldier have the right to protest, saying that the chaplain has declined to show proper care and respect? Has the chaplain violated the soldier’s rights? Will this conflict help the priest when it is time for a promotion?

Now, go back to that passage on the rights and responsibilities of chaplains. Read it again.

Stay tuned. This is not a new story and it isn’t just about sexuality. It’s about doctrine and the rights of soldiers, the rights of chaplains and what happens when the two clash.

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