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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Rubio’s church life? It’s complicated

Three weeks ago, we enjoyed an interesting “Got news?” discussion concerning Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio’s religious affiliation.

That post delved into questions concerning a Roman Catholic politician who attends — and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to — a megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Regular GetReligion reader and Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana earned “Quip of the Month” honors (or should have) with this response to that post:

This is the perfect American religion story. Here’s a candidate who says he’s Catholic but goes to a Baptist church which doesn’t have Baptist in its name.

After the GetReligion post, religion reporter David Gibson wrote a compelling piece for Politics Daily. Still, it surprised me that none of the major dead-tree news organizations picked up the story, especially given Rubio’s high-profile status as a freshman senator-elect already mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Over the weekend, though, New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer stepped into the fray with a “Beliefs” column headlined “Marco Rubio: Catholic or Protestant?” In terms of the key question itself, Oppenheimer’s column fails to deliver a definitive answer, instead relying — out of necessity — on the now-standard response from Rubio’s spokesman:

Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator-elect from Florida, is in many ways similar to other Cuban-American politicians from his home state: conservative, Republican and a “practicing and devout Roman Catholic,” in the words of his spokesman, one who “regularly attends Catholic Mass” and “was baptized, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church.”

But while Mr. Rubio, 39, presented himself on his Florida Statehouse Web site and in interviews as a Roman Catholic, bloggers and journalists have noted since his election that he regularly worships at an evangelical megachurch whose theology is plainly at odds with Catholic teaching.

While the Times offers no new insight on how Rubio himself views his dual Catholic/Protestant allegiances, the piece does an excellent job of explaining why the distinction is important — and why it isn’t.

Why is it important? Oppenheimer highlights precise reasons and lists specific unanswered questions:

Christ Fellowship, which has five campuses and draws about 6,000 worshipers on a typical weekend, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and its beliefs include several that are alien to Catholicism.

Southern Baptists practice adult rather than infant baptism, for example. They do not recognize the authority of the pope. And the Christ Fellowship statement of beliefs says the bread and wine of communion are merely “symbolic,” thus do not become Christ’s body and blood, as Catholics believe.

As for Mr. Rubio’s involvement with Catholicism, his spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the senator-elect gives money to the Archdiocese of Miami; whether he agrees with Catholic teachings that suggest Protestants are in error; and whether he belongs to a Catholic parish, as most observant Catholics would.

Why isn’t it important? Again, Oppenheimer offers relevant analysis (and for copyright reasons, I’ll refrain from copying and pasting all of it, but do be sure to read the whole thing):

Fernand Amandi, whose Florida firm, Bendixen & Amandi, specializes in Hispanic opinion polling, says that among the population, few seem to care that Mr. Rubio is partaking of two religious identities.

“I don’t think there is any such consciousness of it at all,” Mr. Amandi said. “If he came out as an atheist, there would probably be a huge backlash,” but within Christianity “the Hispanic community is respectful enough of diversity that I don’t think this matters.”

A 2008 study by Trinity College, in Hartford, found that from 1990 to 2008 the proportion of American Hispanics identifying as Catholic fell substantially, to 60 percent from 66 percent. The study also found that the longer a Hispanic has lived in the United States, the less likely he or she is to be Catholic. And the non-Catholics are more likely to identify as Republicans.

Oppenheimer packs a bunch of facts and context into a relatively short space (an 850-word column). Short of the Times snagging an interview with Rubio himself on his faith and religious beliefs, this is a nice step forward in the (until now, scant) mainstream media narrative.

My only qualm with the Times piece: In the final paragraph, Oppenheimer wraps up the issue in an easy little package and ties a bow on it:

It may never be clear whether Mr. Rubio is more Catholic or Protestant. The question itself reduces a complex experience, human religiosity, to simple terms. What may be clear from this story — call it The Case of the First Catholic Protestant Senator — is that in America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

It’s a column, so Oppenheimer is entitled to his point of view. But this statement struck me: In America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

A fair statement? Or wishful thinking? What say ye, GetReligion readers?

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Secular story, sacred vows?

My wife, Tamie, and I lived together for 15 years and brought three precious babies into the world before we finally went to the county courthouse and got our marriage license in 2005.

Since our local newspaper publishes the names and addresses of those granted licenses, we were a bit concerned about the scandal our late nuptials might create at church.

To anyone who asked, we shared our funny — and true — story.

That is, we exchanged our wedding vows in my wife’s hometown church in 1990. A preacher pronounced us husband and wife. It’s just that I graduated from college the day before our wedding, and we ran out of time to get blood tests and complete the official government paperwork before we said “I do.” Then we left on our honeymoon. And, well, we just never needed a marriage license until 2005, when it became important for a reason that escapes me now.

Despite our lack of a license, my wife and I — both raised in Churches of Christ — saw our marriage as a sacred commitment, as did our families. Not for a second did we consider living together out of wedlock. To say that religion played a key role in our view of marriage would be a huge understatement.

Which leads me to the news making headlines today:

WASHINGTON — Is marriage becoming obsolete?

As families gather for Thanksgiving this year, nearly one in three American children is living with a parent who is divorced, separated or never-married. More people are accepting the view that wedding bells aren’t needed to have a family.

A study by the Pew Research Center, in association with Time magazine, highlights rapidly changing notions of the American family. And the Census Bureau, too, is planning to incorporate broader definitions of family when measuring poverty, a shift caused partly by recent jumps in unmarried couples living together.

This is an important story with a strong religion angle. Except that neither The Associated Press report linked above nor a more in-depth Time magazine piece contains any religion component except for one fly-by use of the term “spiritual” by Time. This, friends, is what we at GetReligion refer to as a religion ghost.

Certainly, religion isn’t the only element of the marriage issue. As the Pew Research Center report itself makes clear, several major factors influence this trend: Education level. Income. Race. Generation. Political affiliation. But the role of religion in such matters should not be ignored, as we have said before. And before.

The Pew report notes:

Adults who attend religious services weekly or more often are much more resistant to the newer arrangements than are those who attend religious services less often or never. For example, among those who attend religious services at least once a week, 72% believe a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily. This compares with 62% of those who attend religious services monthly or a few times a year and 44% of those who seldom or never attend.

While a strong majority of the public favors a modern marriage where the husband and wife both have jobs and both take care of the household and children, many regular church attendees still favor a more traditional marriage. Among those who attend religious services once a week or more often, 42% say a marriage where the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the home and children is the more satisfying way of life. This compares with 25% of those who attend religious services occasionally and 20% who seldom or never attend.

It follows that those who attend religious services most often are among the most resistant to the growing variety of family arrangements. Nearly half (45%) of those who attend religious services weekly say the new family arrangements are a bad thing. Only one-in-five (19%) of those who attend religious services less frequently share that opinion.

Of course, much of the religious world has done a much better job talking marriage than actually facilitating healthy marriages. Just last summer, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution concerning the “scandal of divorce” in its ranks. When I served as religion editor of The Oklahoman, I did a series focused on the Bible Belt state’s effort to improve its No. 2-in-the-nation divorce ranking. Trust me, there are some juicy marriage/religion stories out there for reporters who go searching for them.

Dear Godbeat journalists, do you commit to explore the religion issues and ramifications of this significant Pew study?

Just two words, please.

“I do.”

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When stereotypes attack

A few years ago, Newsweek‘s Lisa Miller attempted to argue that the Bible didn’t really have much to say on marriage, except that it should include same-sex partnerships. In the first paragraph of the theologically illiterate and snark-infested piece, she asked “Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple–who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love–turn to the Bible as a how-to script?”

That the question would be posed so smugly — not to mention rhetorically — says everything you need to know about how well Miller covered her subject. Of course, my husband and I are one of these contemporary married couples Miller has never heard of. We don’t even think marriage is about gender equality, if you believe it. Passages such as this one from Ephesians 5 guide us every day:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Now, it’s true that when we started talking marriage, my husband did suggest that gender equality would be our guiding principle. I argued for the Biblical model. We went through pre-marital counseling and continue to study the issue, but we now agree and aim to follow the traditional Christian model of marriage. Of course, the massive responsibility placed on the male and the respect required from the female are difficult. We constantly ask each other and God to forgive us for our failures and we strive to improve.

I bring all this up because there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Biblical model of marriage. The New York Times featured a lengthy article on the topic by Molly Worthen. It’s about this model of marriage — and not housewives — but it’s titled “Housewives of God.” And it’s actually a really interesting read. Whatever else might be said, Worthen is an elegant writer. But the error in the headline carries through the article. It’s as if there’s a fundamental stereotype about Christian marriages that can’t be shaken, no matter what. Here’s the lede:

Priscilla Shirer’s marriage appears to be just the sort of enlightened partnership that would make feminists cheer. On an average morning in their house in suburban Dallas, Shirer and her husband, Jerry, are up around 6:30, fixing breakfast for their three small boys. While Priscilla, 35, settles in to work at home and care for their 2-year-old, Jerry, 42, shuttles the older two children to school and heads to his office. He spends much of the day negotiating her speaking invitations and her book contracts. In the afternoon it’s often Jerry who collects the boys from school. Back home, Priscilla and Jerry divide chores and child care equally. “He will most often jump in and do the dinner dishes,” Priscilla says. “We don’t have, ‘these are wife tasks and these are husband tasks.’ … Kids are not a wife-mommy thing.”

Yet Shirer avoids using words like “feminist” or “career woman” to describe herself. She is an evangelical Bible teacher who makes her living by guiding thousands of women through the study of Scripture in her books, videos and weekend conferences — in which she stresses that in a biblical home and church, the man is the head and the woman must submit. She steers women away from the “feminist activists” who tell women to “do your own thing, make your own decisions and never let a man slow you down,” as she puts it. “Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes,” she wrote in her book “A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.” “He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that we will begin to usurp it. . . . Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit of submission in their hearts.”

We all know that when husbands head households, they force you to do 100 percent of the dishes and handle all ferrying of children, right? Perhaps we should ask ourselves why we’re so hung up on that stereotype and what it says about us. Is it reality based? I don’t know. I mean, I’m Lutheran and in my tradition we have Martin Luther not just supporting the Biblical model of marriage but also writing that fathers should not complain when they have to rock a baby, change his diaper, or care for the baby’s mother, but instead should view each act as a holy blessing. That was 500 years ago. This isn’t exactly news.

Believing that the husband has the authority and responsibility to make sure everyone in the house is taken care of doesn’t mean an automatic and exclusive assignment of diaper changing — or any other household task — to the wife. The point is that the husband and wife are supposed to model Christ and the church. The husband is supposed to sacrifice his life for the wife and she is to respond to that love and sacrifice as the church does to Christ — with love and respect. Nappy changing isn’t mentioned.

And yet . . . let’s look at another passage:

Priscilla now accepts about 20 out of some 300 speaking invitations each year, and she publishes a stream of Bible studies, workbooks and corresponding DVDs intended for women to read and watch with their girlfriends from church. Jerry does his share of housework and child care so that Priscilla can study and write. He travels with his wife everywhere. Whenever possible, they take their sons along on her speaking trips, but they often deposit the boys with Jerry’s mother.

Despite this routine, Priscilla insists that she submits to Jerry — especially in the family’s bigger decisions.

I am now hitting my head slowly against my desk. “Despite” this routine? “Despite” this routine? What in the world does this routine have to do with whether or not Priscilla submits to Jerry? This sounds like a version of my marriage. I accept speaking invitations, publish various things, share housework and child care with my husband, travel with my family, even — gasp! — hire child care regularly. Somehow my husband still manages to head our household.

I would say there’s much more to the piece but I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ll just note that it has an excessively narrow view of what types of Christians embrace this model (hint: more than just evangelicals) and carries at least a hint of disdain for the whole arrangement throughout the piece. Of course, that’s usually the price you have to pay to get a feature published there about conservative or traditional Christian views.

I just hope that next time someone writes about this model of marriage, they check their stereotypes at the door. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the shock and awe that women aren’t locked up barefoot and pregnant in Christian marriages where the husband is the head of the household.

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