The Mormon public square

When the late Richard John Neuhaus argued for greater participation in civic life by people of faith in his classic 1984 book, his title was metaphorical. The Naked Public Square warned about the crisis of faith confronting a democracy that legislates religious faith to the periphery of cultural life.

But Kirk Johnson of The New York Times’ Denver bureau writes about a literal public square that some say may be too wrapped up with religion in his recent piece, “Project Renews Downtown, and Debate.”

The public square in question is a 20-acre, $1 billion development project called City Creek Center that is being funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is located near the church’s temple and the adjacent Temple Square.

This story operates on multiple levels — religious, financial and civic. Johnson gives each its due, quoting church officials and members as well as local business and academic experts.

Some residents say the church, by opening its checkbook in a recession, rescued the city when times got tough. The 1,800 construction jobs at City Creek alone have provided a big local economic cushion. Completion of the project–20 acres of retail shops and residential towers–is scheduled for 2012.

“City Creek has been a literal and figurative godsend,” said Bradley D. Baird, the business development manager at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a private nonprofit group that has no direct involvement with the project.

Other people say that if the new heart of downtown has a strong church flavor, Salt Lake, which has become more diverse in recent years–could veer back toward its roots, for better or worse. About half of city residents are Mormon, according to many estimates, and if many, or most, of the roughly 700 apartment units at City Creek were occupied by Mormon families, the city could have a dramatic new feel.

“Our downtown has become a ghost town in my life–nobody lives there,” said Dan Egan, 55, a lawyer and church member who works near the site but lives in the suburbs. “Having several thousand people live down here will have a big impact, and having many of them L.D.S. would be a very interesting thing to see.”

Church leaders say they are pursuing no religious agenda with the development, and say they will negotiate special contracts with restaurants that allow the sale of alcohol, which church members are taught to avoid.

Though parts of this story are unique to Salt Lake City and its Mormon establishment, issues raised by the City Creek Center development project are of interest to religious institutions and civic leaders in other cities who are seeking viable urban renewal partnerships at a time when public deficits create the need for creative responses to recurring urban problems such as crime and the loss of jobs and residents to the suburbs.

Although lots of urban churches worry about those issues, the ones that can write a $1 billion check are rare.

“It’s certainly one of the largest, if not the largest project in the United States funded by a single entity, and the fact that the entity is a church makes it doubly unusual,” said Patrick L. Anderson, the chief executive and founder of the Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan-based real-estate consulting company.

Perhaps Johnson’s piece on City Creek Center shows how religious, business and government groups can cooperate in public squares that are both literal and metaphorical.

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‘Lifies’ and the Haggard saga

Gayle Haggard, the loyal wife of fallen evangelical mega-pastor Ted Haggard, was all over the mainstream media world (Oprah, “Today,” etc.) last week promoting her new book: “Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour.”

With this book blitz, reporting on the Ted Haggard story has now officially moved from Chapter 1 in the Media Playbook (Hard news: Scandal) to Chapter 3 (Features: “Lifie”) without going through Chapter 2 (Analysis: What the heck is really going on here?). Readers would have benefited from deeper questioning.

Ted Haggard finally admitted his sins in November 2006 and was subsequently fired from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded. He resurfaced in January 2009 when HBO broadcast Alexandra Pelosi’s gripping documentary, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and he and Gayle appeared on Oprah’s show.

Late last year he started a new church down the road from his old congregation. At that point, some reporters (including local religion reported Mark Barna at The Gazette) did good analysis pieces that raised questions about Haggard’s suitability to lead.

All those questions have been forgotten in the wake of Gayle’s successful p.r. campaign (which was orchestrated by Tyndale, the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher that learned a few things about big-league promotion with the Left Behind novels). Marcia Z. Nelson of Publishers Weekly’s Religion BookLine reports that Tyndale has already gone back to press after selling out a first printing of 75,000 copies.

The Haggard story has now evolved into the type of media events Neal Gabler called “lifies,” which are celebrity-driven, media-friendly stories about failure and redemption that serve up big, gooey life lessons for viewers.

Gayle Haggard presents readers and viewers with a powerful message of marital love, personal loyalty and Christian forgiveness, and I was particularly impressed by her interview with Meredith Vieira on “Today” and the piece by Adelle banks of Religion News Service.

But as the Haggards seek to find a new life and calling for themselves, important questions remain:
- Can we believe Ted when he says, as he did on Oprah last week, that after therapy, he has not had “one compulsive thought or behavior”?
- Even if that is true, is Ted now in a position to once again assume the mantle of pastoral leadership?
- Gayle Haggard has certainly suffered enough already, and her husband’s sins do not necessarily bar her from leadership. But is the “evangelical industrial complex” helping to return the couple to a form of shared leadership by publishing and promoting Gayle’s book?

Gabler’s “Life: The Movie” argues that entertainment has conquered reality. The Haggard saga, at least as it is currently being covered, is the latest in a long list of stories about tarnished evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders that demonstrates the truth of Gabler’s argument in religious circles.

Despite their frequent and often angry protests against pop culture, many Christians reveal that they are all too willing to submit to the marketplace–not any ecclesiastical authority–as the ultimate arbiter of who qualifies as a leader.

This isn’t the last we will hear from the Haggards. Perhaps next time around enterprising reporters will ask some of the tough questions about leadership and authority that have been lost in in the “lifies.”

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Beer, babes and … abortion?

Let’s gather ’round the TV as we celebrate one of America’s biggest holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. And if the game’s a dud we can laugh at the commercials, many of which feature beer and babes.

This year, a new Super Bowl advertiser (Focus on the Family) is paying CBS to air a spot with a different kind of message about (pick one) pro-life or anti-abortion values.

As we could have predicted, some pro-choice (or pro-abortion) groups are SHOCKED that Focus would do such. And Focus is SURPRISED that they are shocked!!!

An Associated Press story available at the Sports Illustrated web site captures the shock and surprise surrounding this ad, which will feature college football star Tim Tebow and his mother:

The New York-based Women’s Media Center was coordinating the protest with backing from the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and other groups.

“An ad that uses sports to divide rather than to unite has no place in the biggest national sports event of the year — an event designed to bring Americans together,” said Jehmu Greene, president of the Women’s Media Center.

“By offering one of the most coveted advertising spots of the year to an anti-equality, anti-choice, homophobic organization, CBS is aligning itself with a political stance that will damage its reputation, alienate viewers, and discourage consumers from supporting its shows and advertisers,” the letter said.

(P.S. #1: When did women’s groups come to believe that the Super Bowl’s marathon mix of man-on-man violence and ads that objectify sisters was a hallowed ground that demanded their protection?)

Meanwhile, Focus has gone from not acknowledging the ad to discussing it to (in the AP piece) defending it:

Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, said funds for the Tebow ad were donated by a few “very generous friends” and did not come from the group’s general fund.

Schneeberger said he and his colleagues “were a little surprised” at the furor over the ad.

“There’s nothing political and controversial about it,” he said. “When the day arrives, and you sit down to watch the game on TV, those who oppose it will be quite surprised at what the ad is all about.”

“We understand that some people don’t think very highly of what we do,” Schneeberger said. “We’re not trying to sell you a soft drink–we’re not selling anything. We’re trying to celebrate families.”

(P.S. #2: I once had a close friend who routinely embarrassed me in social situations. Time after time he would do things that others found offensive. He was always surprised by people’s reactions, but then he would go on to offend again and again. I wonder what ever happened to him.)

The story is popping up in papers and other media outlets nationwide, but so far I haven’t seen any local angles or coverage in Colorado papers.

It would also be intriguing to see coverage that explored some of these related issues more deeply:

* What kinds of advocacy ads have aired or not aired on previous Super Bowls?

* What does this conflict say about the unique and elevated status the Super Bowl has in our national life?

* Following the Supreme Court‘s recent decision opening the doors to greater political advocacy by corporations, what’s the role of free speech on mega-events like the Super Bowl?

For his part, Tebow has asked viewers to respect a point of view that led to his being born:

“I know some people won’t agree with it, but I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe,” Tebow said. “I’ve always been very convicted of it (his views on abortion) because that’s the reason I’m here, because my mom was a very courageous woman. So any way that I could help, I would do it.”

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People of the (Christian) book

On December 1, 2009, CBA (which was formerly called the Christian Booksellers Association, back when Christian bookstores sold more books than gifts and other merchandise) asked the Department of Justice to investigate alleged predatory pricing by big-box stores and online retailers that threatens the very existence of the nation’s dwindling number of Christian retailing outlets.

On January 7, 2010, Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service (for which I occasionally write) published a news story on CBA’s complaint: “Christian retailers seek federal probe of competitors.”

Since then, I’ve been waiting to see who would publish this story or add an interesting local angle. Mostly, I’m still waiting.

Among the very short list of those that have, either in print or online: The Houston Chronicle (NPR.org and businessweek.com linked to the article there); christianitytoday.com; and timesunion.com (in Albany, New York).

Among those that haven’t: publications here in Colorado, where CBA is based.

Banks spelled out the issues in her RNS piece:

“Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are using predatory pricing practices in what appears to be an attempt to control the market for hardcover best-sellers,” the CBA board of directors wrote in the letter to the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

Eric Grimm, business development manager at CBA…said Christian retailers have long been concerned about competitors’ pricing strategies, and called the letter a “pre-emptive” action before the competition for Christian books grows even more challenging.

“What we want to do is establish that this is an unfair practice so that when the next big blockbuster comes out of a Christian book that they won’t do the same thing,” he said.

Christian booksellers are not alone:

The CBA letter follows a similar request for a Justice Department investigation by the American Booksellers Association, which cited deeply discounted pre-sales of new books by [Stephen] King, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and novelist John Grisham by the same three retailers.

Banks also got a quote from one of the industry’s biggest agents (with whom I have worked):

…CBA supporters like Rick Christian, president of the literary agency Alive Communications, also worry that the pricing by competitors is leading to fewer new voices entering the marketplace as publishers rely on popular authors who are more likely to generate big sales.

“In the short term, consumers will get too-good-to-be-true deals,” said Christian, who has represented titles like the “Left Behind” series and “The Message” Bible, in the letter to the Justice Department.

“However, the broad river of titles now available to readers will ultimately be reduced to a trickle, and the vast publishing industry we know will become a relative wasteland.”

But based on an article in Sunday’s New York Times, Christian retailers may need to look at the practices of Christian publishers like Zondervan, which is giving away e-books in an effort to spur sales of e-books.

In the Times article, “With Kindle, the Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell,” Motoko Rich, reveals an interesting secret about the bestseller lists of titles for Amazon.com’s Kindle reader:

“That’s right. More than half of the “best-selling” e-books on the Kindle, Amazon.com’s e-reader, are available at no charge.”

…Earlier this week, for example, the No. 1 and 2 spots on Kindle’s best-seller list were taken by “Cape Refuge” and “Southern Storm,” both novels by Terri Blackstock, a writer of Christian thrillers. The Kindle price: $0. Until the end of the month, Ms. Blackstock’s publisher, Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, is offering readers the opportunity to download the books free to the Kindle or to the Kindle apps on their iPhone or in Windows.

Will Justice investigate CBA’s claim? I’m still waiting for some reporters to follow Banks’ lead and tell us where things stand. Meanwhile, Christian retailers may be facing challenges that are bigger than predatory pricing by the big mainstream retailers. They may be facing a cultural tsunami.

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In the 3-D eyes of the beholder

A cigar is just a cigar, said Freud. Or is it?

Not when it comes to how people view movies. The bigger the movie, and the more people who see it, the more interpretations that arise. At least that’s what Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times describes in: “You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!”

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

Some conservatives seem certain that their readings of “Avatar” are dead-on:

In a column for the Christian entertainment Web site movieguide.com, David Outten wrote that “Avatar” maligned capitalism, promoted animism over monotheism and overdramatized the possibility of environmental catastrophe on earth. At another site that offers a conservative critique of the entertainment industry, bighollywood.breitbart.com, John Nolte wrote that the film was “a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War.”

But should we view “Avatar” as a big-screen cigar? If so, its primary function would be to succeed as mass entertainment. Mission accomplished!

Itzkoff’s article–which probes deeply into matters of postmodern criticism without getting bogged down in pointy-headed lingo–offers other perspectives:

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

The “Avatar” camp isn’t endorsing any particular interpretation, but is happy to let others read the ink blots. “Movies that work are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre,” Jon Landau, a producer of the film, said in a telephone interview. “The theme is what you leave with and you leave the plot at the theater.”

I mistakenly thought this Jon Landau was the same Jon Landau who served as a manager and producer for Bruce Springsteen. A diligent reader gently corrected me.

But if we think about “Avatar” the way we think about Springsteen (or Tom Petty) we can see what “Avatar’s” Jon Landau is saying. Springsteen and Petty are artists who knows the value of big, broad themes that evoke a wide range of feelings in a wide range of listeners. At their best, these artists combine a few simple chords and a few seemingly simple words to create vast idea-worlds that inspire the imagination.

So, is “Avatar,” which may be on its way to being the most financially successful film in history, anti-capitalist? Sure, if you think it is!

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Missing messages in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Scott Brown votes in election.

For those of you whose spouse didn’t force them to watch MSNBC all night last night, the big news is that somehow the unthinkable happened: Republican Scott Brown (pictured, right) won the Senate seat held, until his recent death, by Democratic Ted Kennedy. Until a couple of days ago, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley was considered a shoo-in. It’s not that Republicans haven’t won state-wide office in Massachusetts, it’s just that they haven’t had a Republican senator in many moons.

I’m sure everyone will be spinning what this election means for political parties, political movements and President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. I didn’t even know about this race until last week when someone sent in a Washington Times story, a blog post really, about how Coakley was trying to make an issue out of Brown’s support for conscience protections. Here she is in an interview with a Massachusetts radio talk show host:

Ken Pittman: In the emergency room you still have your religious freedom.

Martha Coakley: (…uh, eh…um…) The law says that people are allowed to have that. You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.

The story was huge in the Catholic, pro-life and conservative blogospheres, where her views went over like a lead balloon. But it didn’t really get much mainstream media coverage. Both Coakley and Brown support legalized abortion, for what it’s worth, although Brown has a more favorable view of restrictions on abortion. Massachusetts is the second-most Catholic state in the union with 44 percent of the population.

It’s my own view that Brown owes his victory more to voters concerned about government growth than voters concerned about social issues, but it was surprising how little religion was discussed by the national media covering this race. Or, as Chris Matthews said the other night on MSNBC (via NewsBusters):

CHRIS MATTHEWS: But this election’s interesting. I don’t even know what religion — religion seems to play no role in this election, which is so unique in Massachusetts. Brown is a Protestant. Nobody’s even mentioned it — I guess I just did. And Coakley’s I guess a Catholic, although I don’t think that she sort of squares away that way in terms of her politics. So I mean it’s just so interesting: it’s so post-tribal.

It is interesting that a Protestant would win a Senate seat in Massachusetts. He’s a member of a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. There’s no doubt that Brown’s messages about government and the economy resonated with most of yesterday’s voters. And the media did cover that, some more reluctantly than others. But I didn’t see any coverage about how the two candidates’ views on social issues played with voters, much less what those views were.

I did come across this other article, which I’m positive did not seem so spectacularly wrong when it first ran, that dealt a little bit with the issue. It was published in mid-December in the Boston Phoenix and was headlined:

Even GOP insiders don’t expect Scott Brown to beat Martha Coakley. But they care how he loses.

Reporter David Bernstein refers to Coakley’s imminent victory as a “pre-ordained drubbing” and suggests that Brown was running a “hopeless” race only to position himself better for a future run for governor. He adds that Republicans “harbor no illusions” about whether he’ll lose or not. This is not his fault. Nobody expected Brown to win a month ago. Anyway, he describes Brown thusly:

Throughout his political career, Brown has been considered a staunch conservative. His first race for the State Senate, in 2004, was defined largely by the issue of same-sex marriage, which Brown opposed. He is extremely popular among the conservative base of the state party, say insiders.

That’s worrisome to those in the wing of the state GOP — personified by gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker — who believe the party needs moderate candidates who focus on job creation and fiscal responsibility. They want to downplay social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and to distance themselves from the hard-line rhetoric of the Tea Party movement.

On the other hand, the article says that his more conservative opponents have referred to him as a Republican in name only.

Brown is the new Republican Senator from Massachusetts. But he won by uniting a coalition that we’re still learning about. It’s my sense that his win is related to the other Republican victories last year, sure, but also related to that huge outpouring of public concern seen at town halls and Tea Party protests. Brown didn’t mention the word “Republican” once in his victory speech. He did mention the word “independent” quite a bit.

This independent movement is emerging, we don’t exactly know what’s fueling it. We know that the voters supporting it are concerned about federal power as it relates to economic issues. And we know that social concerns aren’t the driving force. But does that mean that social concerns aren’t important to them at all? Probably not. And does religion play a role in shaping the outlook of these people? How? It would be great to know and hopefully the media will begin to actually cover the movement a bit better than they’ve done in the last year.

Please do let us know if you see any good religion coverage of this race and what it means in Massachusetts or the country at large.

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Another Godbeat loss

Last week we talked about the Godbeat losing both the Associated Press‘ Eric Gorski and the Boston Globe‘s Michael Paulson. Before that it was Peter Steinfels at the New York Times. And now we get word that Cathleen Falsani’s religion column at the Chicago Sun-Times, the last of which was to run January 22, has ended already.

Apparently her editor there forbade her to even mention that she’d be leaving in her last two columns, and that was a dealbreaker for her.

She’s posted her penultimate column here.

In a note to Poynter’s Romenesko earlier, she wrote:

I left the Sun-Times staff as reporter a couple of years ago to concentrate on books, etc., but I’ve continued on as the religion columnist. That ended yesterday. I was told by Don Hayner, the editor-in-chief and the man who hired me 10 years ago, that it was a budgetary and space issue. Now the paper has no religion reporter (that’s been the case for about a year) and no religion columnist.

This turn of events was not entirely unexpected. I saw the writing on the wall last week when there was no room in the physical paper for my Friday column so they ran it online only.

I had an extraordinary run at the Sun-Times and am so grateful for the opportunities — professional and personal (I doubt we’d have our son were it not for the paper: see http://vascosheart.blogspot.com) but I’m sad for the religion beat and do hope to find a new newspaper home for my column.

Indeed. These are interesting times for the religion beat. As Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen joked, “Last one on religion beat please turn out the lights!” He did find a bright side, too — all of these departures will certainly mean less predictable Religion Newswriter Association awards.

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New Moons rising

Mass South Korea Wedding

I’ve lived in Washington for a dozen years and as I was reading this fascinating piece by the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein, it occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about the Unification Church. Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his church have strong ties in the area, including ownership of the Washington Times. And mention of the Unification Church, the Rev. Moon or the Moonies isn’t unheard of ’round these parts. But when was the last time you read a decent story about what the church teaches?

The focus of Boorstein’s story is second-generation Unificationists, as the church prefers members be called. These are the “blessed children” of Moon-arranged mass weddings from decades ago, children whose parents went straight from being strangers to engaged couples after their Messiah, the Korean Moon, matched them up. Moon is now in his late 80s and some church members are wondering how the church will and should proceed. Boorstein checks in with them and tells their story, particularly in light of some recent upsets in Moon-connected businesses in the Washington area. (Various executives at the Times were let go, as were some 40 percent of the staff, and other related businesses have also been shaken.)

The article includes relevant statistical information — church officials estimate that 7,500 of the 21,000 active Unificationists in the country are blessed children. It also includes fascinating information about the doctrine. For instance, Unificationists believe these children were born free of original sin and have a special spiritual status.

Here’s a portion of the piece that shows the range of belief in practice among second generation Unificationists:

Miilhan Stephens, a 22-year-old studying food science at the University of Maryland, beamed as he talked about Moon pairing him by photograph with a young woman from Japan. Photos from the matching ceremony show him holding the hand of his fiancee, who’s wearing a white dress and veil, in a Manhattan concert hall filled with couples.

By contrast, Marisa Rand, a 21-year-old art student whose Moon-matched parents divorced long ago, said the circumstance of their marriage was such a sensitive subject that it was barely mentioned when she was growing up in Cheverly. Her family no longer practices Unificationism, and she can’t imagine marrying the way her parents did.

Then there’s Moffitt, who represents the new, somewhat more moderate face of Unificationism. He didn’t marry a stranger — he and his wife, Kaeleigh, have known each other since they were children — and their marriage wasn’t arranged by Moon.

The two sat together in the Bowie living room with other blessed children for their weekly youth group. They discussed a book by Hyung-Jin Moon — the Moon son leading the religious part of the movement –performed skits, ate potato chips and admired one another’s clothes. Except for their biracial faces — evidence of a theology that sees intermarriage as a cosmic way to end conflict — and the photo of Rev. Moon on the wall, their lives are a world away from their parents’.
A new way to find their spouses

The article goes on to explain that many blessed children and their parents are using Web sites for matching. Moon announced in 2001, we learn, that parents could match their own children and Boorstein explains the theology behind that announcement. The article balances some of these doctrinal points with anecdotes, including a look at one of the local arranged marriages that was successful, a couple with 35 years of marriage and five children.

It’s easy to ignore, dismiss or sensationalize outlier religious groups such as the Unification Church. This article brings the church and its members into focus and, for someone like me who is largely ignorant of the Unification Church, it’s welcome.

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