Faith ghosts in the global recession

469px-la_fe_ls_carmona_mrabasf_e-108_01The world’s economic troubles have many journalists writing articles about how the global society is changing as a consequence of the recession. For example, the Atlantic had this cover story on how communities like New York City will benefit from the financial crash (not exactly original or surprising considering the author). The Economist writes about how we may see a return “of economic nationalism.”

On the other hand, as Tmatt noted here, some are predicting the collapse of the Christian evangelical community.

The two hypothetical narratives for the future are not connected in any of the articles, but they should be. Regardless of the merits of the predictions that communities like NYC will benefit and evangelicalism will diminish, the two issues are connected in ways that reporters should explore.

For one reason or another, Anthony Faiola did not touch for a minute on religion in this Washington Post report on the drying up of the global economy. The article does a great job exploring the affect the economy has had on individuals all over the world, but not once is religion mentioned:

Globalization took years to reach Mae Sot, a remote town surrounded by jade-colored hills and tropic streams on Thailand’s border with secretive Burma. It did not stay long. …

When the global economy went code red, Thailand’s exports collapsed. In December, the factory where Lamin worked began losing contracts. In mid-February, her employer joined dozens of others shutting down in the region and adding to a swelling refugee crisis. All 800 Burmese workers at Lamin’s job site were fired.

Tucking away her $350 life savings, she tried to join many of her jobless co-workers crossing back into Burma. On the way, she was shaken down by Thai police who are conducting crackdowns in the area as public opinion shifts against foreign workers in hard times. Now penniless, she is living in a halfway house in a dusty corner of town, sleeping on a concrete floor and hoping to persuade her old employer to fund her return home.

“I don’t want to go back to Burma. It is a horror, there is only poverty, no jobs,” she said, eyes downcast as she spoke through a translator. “They only wanted us in Thailand when they needed us. Now, they just want us gone.”

I don’t recommend this story if you’re not prepared to be seriously depressed. The picture is not pretty, and the consequences of the global economic meltdown appears to be getting uglier by the day.

But how does religion affect the economic crisis, and how will the economic crisis affect religion? Will Christianity continue to grow in the countries that used to be considered developing? Will Western countries continue to send missionaries? How will Islamic countries respond to the drying up of their oil revenues?

News stories deal with these subjects are difficult to report on because it does require some level of informed speculation and prediction. But as we have seen with both stories dealing with the economic crisis and with the future of Christianity, it is not impossible to report on predictions for the future. In addition, things are happening today with massive amounts of migration as demonstrated in the Post story that has to involve religion:

Thousands of foreign workers, including London School of Economics graduates with six-digit salaries and desperately poor Bangladeshi factory workers, are streaming home as the economy here suffers the worst of the recessions in Southeast Asia. Singapore is an epicenter of what analysts call a new flow of reverse migration away from hard-hit, globalized economies, including Dubai and Britain, that were once beacons for foreign labor. Economists from Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreigners — or one in every 15 workers here — by the end of 2010. …

As exports crash worldwide, factories from China to Eastern Europe are shuttering. The World Bank estimates the crisis will trap at least 53 million more people in poverty in the developing world this year. Last week alone, $1 billion fled emerging markets — the largest weekly loss since October, according to Merrill Lynch. Some of the hardest hit are migrants and foreign contract workers. Malaysia is expelling 100,000 Indonesians as part of a new policy to put Malaysian workers first as the recession sparks job losses. In Britain, strikes broke out nationwide to protest the hiring of foreigners at one the country’s largest refineries even as thousands of Eastern European immigrants headed home anyway because they could not find work.

Migrations and immigrations have always impacted religion both in the destination country as well as the home country. People tend to rely and return to their faiths during times of hardship. Will churches in countries with large populations of returning migrants see a boost in church, mosque and synagogue attendance? Which religious institutions will see the most increase and if so, will they end up stronger as a result?

The faith ghosts in this story should not be ignored. Please let us know if anyone has seen the subject addressed. I would not be surprised to see publications like The Economist or The Atlantic deal with it, but to date, I have yet to see anything.

Image of Allegory of faith, by L.S. Carmona (1752-53), used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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“Holy” high rollers: no yoking matter

I don’t know about you, but when I read about the collapse of a pyramid scheme that takes down wealthy, well-educated investors and nonprofits, I shake my head and wonder how such smart people made such (in hindsight) dumb choices.

The answer, in part, seems to lie in affiliation, or the cultural, ethnic and religious ties that seem to form a powerful lure for even the brightest and most successful individuals and institutions. Think Bernie Maddoff and Yeshiva University. In the 1990′s John Bennett, Jr. and his Foundation for New Era Philanthrophy spread a net that swept in many conservative Christian institutions and individuals, causing much heartburn and soul-searching. In a potential sign that the Jewish community is still grappling with the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, I found this wry reference.

Reporters sometimes seem uneasy weaving religion organically through a business story, even when its clear that it was a factor. So congratulations to Michael Forsythe and Allison Fitzgerald of Bloomberg for doing such a good job in examining the insular culture nurtured by Allen Stanford, alleged perpretrator, along with two of his executives, of an 8 billion dollar “Ponzi scheme.”

(And they even explain, for forgetful readers, what a “Ponzi scheme” is: “an investment scam in which new money is used to pay off earlier investors.”)

Forsythe and Fitzgerald’s vibrant story starts with this apt anecdote, illustrating the idea that in Stanford’s world, faith and finance were as tight as PB & J:

When Jason Green wanted his team of financial advisers to sell more of Stanford International Bank’s certificates of deposit, he knew where to turn: Proverbs 13:11.

“Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows,” Green wrote, citing the biblical passage in a 2005 e-mail to his U.S.-based “Superstars” team. He was pushing them to sell $62.5 million of CDs in three months for the chance to earn a trip to Zurich to meet the company’s founder, R. Allen Stanford.

Interviews with 21 current and former employees over three years show that religious faith, personal ties and the iron grip of Stanford himself created a culture that helped promote the bank’s CDs, the center of what the Securities and Exchange Commission calls an $8 billion “massive Ponzi scheme.”

A quote from financial advisor Hank Mills later in the story plays off the anecdote that follows in a way that Mills undoubtedly didn’t intend:

“We all seemed to be of common yolk,” said Hank Mills, 49, a Stanford financial adviser, in an interview. The sales people “seemed to be involved in their community, in churches.”

In a 2004 training video, Mills recounts how he received a phone call from a dying man who then agreed to have Stanford manage his money.

“We pray together,” Mills says in the video. “He shares his financial picture, and he decides I’m the person that he wants to involve with his family to take care of them when he leaves.”

Obviously, the quote doesn’t mean that Mills (who is not apparently among those being sued by the SEC) is guilty of anything except perhaps shrewdly grasping a marketing opportunity. But it does give you a wonderful window into the culture, which was apparently one in which prayer was routine. The two writers also take a look at the family ties that connected Stanford employees-and possibly, as a few quotes imply, made it tougher for those who suspected fraud to penetrate the alleged high-level financial monkeyshines–and easier to label whistleblowers as troublemakers.

It seems as though religious, specifically Christian affiliation was just one thread in the many ties that bound Stanford employees. Although this is a business story, and Fitzgerald and Forsythe don’t have a lot of time to get into the nuts and bolts of denominations and particular beliefs, they still do an excellent job of showing how both the apparent reality and the trappings of faith permeated the Stanford International corporate culture-even to the end.

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Giving up carbon for Lent

lowcarbondietconsumerguideOne of the things I wish we saw more were casual inclusions of religion in stories about general life. It seems that there’s a lot of compartmentalizing of religion — as if stories are completely secular or they’re pigeonholed as religion news.

So I like the ideas behind theses two stories. The first comes from a U.S. News & World Report blog called Fresh Greens. It covers the “green movement and looks for ways to be an ecofriendly consumer without breaking the bank.” Producer Maura Judkis looks at whether Lent will decrease Catholics’ carbon footprint. She calculates that 354 million pounds of meat will go uneaten during Lent — using the number of registered Catholics and per capita meat consumption.

To put that abstract figure into perspective, that’s the equivalent of to 1.5 million round trip flights from New York to Los Angeles not being taken.

Obviously, I realize that this is not a precise science – more like a game of “What if.” There are plenty of Christians other than Catholics who give up meat for Lent, and there are plenty of Catholics who don’t participate. There’s also the factor of the carbon emissions from fish that many eat on Lenten Fridays instead, which I left out because there are so many kinds of fish that we eat, and each has a different carbon footprint. Either way, Catholics that participate in Lent are automatically lowering their carbon footprint, which is a good thing, since some church officials have urged Christians to give up carbon for the 40-day period.

I also just thought the blog post was funny in that way that makes you think that sometimes journalists can only understand a Christian spiritual discipline if in coincides with another political aim that journalists admire. I guess it’s a good thing that Lent is politically correct! Still, it’s a funny hook for a Lenten story and a good thing to enter into the “religion of environmentalism” files.

The next story was published on CNNMoney.com and is headlined “Hired! Going to church to get a job.” Why else would one go to church? It’s actually a cute story with good advice about how unemployed individuals should work their networks to help them get a job. But it has that same tone deaf quality — not quite understanding the sacred aspects of church life.

The story really just follows the steps taken by one unemployed individual, which included attending a church’s free career workshop. Experts say it was a good idea:

Our panel of career coaches agree that Butler was wise to tap into local organizations that could help him brush up on his job search skills and expose him to other job seekers sharing their experiences.

“Church groups are a good way to use existing community connections to expand your network of people,” according to Career and Business Consultant Kathy Robinson. But the danger is that “you could be getting 20-year-old resume advice,” she warned. “As long as the members are keeping themselves current on job search techniques it’s actually a fabulous resource.”

I confess I don’t quite get this quote. Why would churchgoers be 20 years behind in resume technology?

Still, this is a prime example of how I wish religious life were better incorporated into everyday stories and I’m glad to see it.

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Chain letters and unnamed sources

n11531People who oppose abortion are divided on how best to fight the political threats they face in the current environment and one area in particular that pro-lifers have been divided on is how to fight the Freedom of Choice Act. The bill, which was first introduced in 1989, is described by supporters as an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade at all levels of government. Opponents note that it could be used to fund abortion and invalidate parental notification laws, informed consent laws, and bans on partial birth abortion.

Which brings us to this curious article in Time magazine, written by national editor Amy Sullivan, “The Catholic Crusade Against a Mythical Abortion Bill“:

The U.S. Catholic Church’s crusade against the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) has all the hallmarks of a well-oiled lobbying campaign. A national postcard campaign is flooding the White House and congressional offices with messages opposing FOCA, and Catholic bishops have made defeating the abortion rights legislation a top priority. In the most recent effort to stop the bill, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia sent a letter to every member of Congress imploring them to “please oppose FOCA.”

There is only one hitch. Congress isn’t about to pass the Freedom of Choice Act — because no such bill has been introduced in the current Congress.

Okay, beyond the hystrionics, (“Crusade?” Really?) there are some basic problems with the reporting. The Catholic Conference of Bishops does have a postcard campaign running right now. And it does relate to FOCA. But it’s beyond absurd, for anyone who knows about the legislative process and how quickly a bill can become a law (particularly with this Congress!) to suggest that groups are only allowed to lobby once a bill is in committee. But what’s more, the postcard campaign specifically notes:

Passing the “Freedom of Choice Act” would achieve these pro-abortion goals in one extreme piece of federal legislation, though this same “FOCA agenda” could be pursued in a series of smaller steps.

Italics mine. The postcards themselves ask members of Congress to “oppose FOCA or any similar measure, and retain laws against federal funding and promotion of abortion.”

So even if one agrees with Sullivan that FOCA is not a realistic threat, the Catholic campaign is about fighting any abortion-rights legislation. Is Amy Sullivan promising us that not one piece of abortion-supporting legislation will even be introduced during this Congress? That seems odd, doesn’t it?

Let’s check out this paragraph:

At a time when the United States is gripped by economic uncertainty and faces serious challenges in hot spots around the globe, some American Catholics are finding it both curious and troubling that their church has launched a major campaign against a piece of legislation that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t have much chance of becoming law even if it did. To many critics, it feels like the legislative equivalent of the dog that didn’t bark.

Oh for the love of all that’s holy. One of the main reasons why FOCA doesn’t have much of a chance of passing as a complete package (although components are another story) is because groups like the Catholic Conference of Bishops are fighting it tooth and nail on the front end. And this moral equivalency schtick of comparing the economy with the sanctity of human life is fine for a cocktail party discussion, if many drinks have been consumed and the banter is not at its most erudite, but not for a reporter who has an obligation to get all sides of the story. And that “dog that didn’t bark” line? As one reader noted, the dog that didn’t bark is a clue in a Sherlock Holmes story that leads to the identification of a murderer — not evidence that there was nothing happening. (The dog didn’t bark because he knew the murderer.)

The article then goes on to underplay what FOCA would do to current laws restricting abortions before underplaying how far-reaching Roe v. Wade itself is. Then we get this drive-by:

A chain e-mail of unknown origin soon began making its way into Catholic inboxes, warning of an imminent threat to the anti-abortion cause. “For those of you who do not know,” it read, “the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is set to be signed if Congress passes it on January 21-22 of 2009. The FOCA is the next sick chapter in the book of abortion.” The e-mail urged Catholics to say a novena — a devotion of dedicated prayer for nine successive days — beginning on Jan. 11 and ending the day prior to Inauguration Day.

When Jan. 22 came and went without a Freedom of Choice Act becoming law, the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities announced a nationwide postcard campaign to blanket congressional offices and the White House with appeals to stop FOCA. Anti-FOCA groups on Facebook soon had more than 150,000 members and added thousands more each day. Priests started preaching against the legislation, and churches began circulating petitions to oppose its passage.

Oh Amy. So an email that has nothing at all whatsoever to do with the campaign of the Catholic Bishops is sent around to unknown and unquantified email boxes. Thanks for sharing. But then note the second paragraph . . . which clearly makes it seem like the two are related. They’re not. And beyond that, sigh, Sullivan is factually wrong again. In fact, the postcard campaign was announced long before Jan. 22, not after. It was launched the weekend after the inauguration and continued through mid-February but it was voted on in November and announced then. It’s not like you can launch a national campaign without some level of effort, after all.

Here are other problems:

In the midst of all this activity, the fact that there was no Freedom of Choice Act before the 111th Congress went largely unnoticed and unmentioned.

A Freedom of Choice Act was introduced in the 108th and 110th Congresses (from 2003 to ’05 and ’07 to ’09, respectively) by Representative Jerold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Um, considering that some of the lobbying efforts against FOCA began before the 111th Congress itself began, the first paragraph is nonsensical. That Congress has only been in session for a few weeks now. And even the second paragraph is flawed since earlier versions of the bill were also introduced in 1989 and 1993.

So why in the world are these crazy, awful, deranged, lying pro-lifers worried about such a mythical piece of fantasy legislation as FOCA? Well, buried deep in the piece, Sullivan mentions this:

In some respects, President Obama has only himself to blame for the current controversy. As a presidential candidate, the then Senator himself pointed a spotlight on the legislation he co-sponsored when he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007 that “the first thing I’d do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”

chainbreaker
Oh, so the sitting President of the United States promised not only to sign FOCA (which he co-sponsored in the Senate in the last Congress) but to make it his first act as President? So pro-lifers believed the words that their president said? How dare they! And how dare they assume that even if FOCA doesn’t get passed that other abortion-rights legislation might be a significant threat? They are clearly deranged and awful people who should be taken off the street and mocked in the pages of Time magazine.

The piece goes on to say that President Obama hasn’t done much to support abortion, only citing the Mexico City policy. Of course, he’s also filling the executive branch with fellow travelers and laying the groundwork for various other changes. And I don’t think Planned Parenthood enjoyed cocktail hour at the previous White House. But, per the beginning of the story, pro-lifers are only allowed to notice such things after there is little to nothing to be done about them.

Sullivan’s piece devolves into pure partisan analysis before quoting an official from Catholics United, a liberal organization. He questions the motivations of the bishops, saying they only care about this issue because it raises money for them. No one is allowed to respond to the character assassination.

And the piece ends with what I like to call “the Sullivan special.” Here it is:

Some of the USCCB’s own policy staffers are reportedly frustrated by the attention given to FOCA. And a few Catholic officials have even taken the rare step of speaking out to correct misinformation about the issue.

The Sullivan special is where you claim some special knowledge that is not shared in detail with readers. It may be conservatives secretly giving her, a liberal reporter, information off the record that miraculously supports her point. Or maybe it’s just a personal interpretation of data. It’s kind of hard to know how seriously to take these anonymous sources since they appear so frequently in Sullivan’s pieces and always in favor of the point she’s so obviously trying to make.

There’s also the problem that the false information she mentions comes from a bleeping chain mail. I mean, since when do we make organizations that have nothing to do with chain email answer for them? It’s just ridiculous and horrible to do that to an organization like the Catholic Bishops who are speaking quite loudly on the record for all to see. And one more thing, one of the pieces of supposedly false information is actually not false. Or, at least, there’s no way to know whether an estimate of how many more abortions will be performed if FOCA were passed is right or not. But if taxpayers fund abortion and other restrictions are removed, it’s not false to estimate that abortions will increase. Sullivan may disagree with the estimate but that’s different than calling it a “false claim” as she does. It makes her article no better than a chain letter.

There is much more that could be said but one final note. In a piece of this length, how does the “reporter” “reporting” on the story for a “news magazine” not manage to speak with a single, solitary person in favor of the campaign? Is Sullivan’s advocacy so fragile that she can’t actually discuss the topic with someone who doesn’t share her views? Does she need help locating the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops? She should just follow this hard-to-find link for better sources on future stories.

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Are children a form of wealth?

The only time I experienced culture shock was a few years ago upon return from a convention of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. One night at the bar, some of the people there got in a friendly discussion about our families. And, specifically, the size of our families. The men and women with 10 or more were quickly identified and feted. Then, I came back to DC and went to see the movie Anchorman. It’s a great movie but at the end, the mentally retarded character played by Steve Carrell is identified as a fundamentalist Christian who ends up having 12 kids. The audience roared with delight.

That was my experience with culture shock. In my religious community, having many children is considered an extraordinary gift from God. In my cultural circles, it gets you mocked as an idiot of epic proportions. It may sound silly, but I had never felt that disconnect between my two worlds so strongly as I did that night.

So it was a treat to come across Kate Zernike’s piece in the New York Times about how large families are scorned and mocked by various elements in the culture. The story profiles a variety of different large families and packs an unbelievable amount of thoughtful detail into each description. It tackles big issues but keeps everything very readable.

As most of the media is obsessing about the California octuplets, this reporter uses that as a hook to explore the much more significant phenomenon of family size in general:

Back when the average woman had more than three children, big families were the Kennedys of Hickory Hill and Hyannis Port, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the Cosbys or “Eight is Enough” — lovable tumbles of offspring as all-American in their scrapes as in their smiles.

But as families have shrunk, and parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor. The families know the stereotypes: they’re polygamists, religious zealots, reality-show hopefuls or Quebecois in it for the per-child government bonus. And isn’t there something a little obsessive about Angelina Jolie’s quest for her own World Cup soccer team?

If you read the article, these paragraphs are clearly not meant to be taken as face value. They’re presenting a common view of large families as opposed to arguing for that view. The story goes on to mention how the British government’s environmental adviser declared it “irresponsible” to have more than two children and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s goal of including contraception in the stimulus package. The story doesn’t overplay the significance of these things but steadily paints a picture of how large families are marginalized and attacked as immoral or costly.

Check out this interesting substantiating detail:

If large families are the stuff of spectacle, it is partly because they have become rarer.

In 1976, census data show, 59 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 percent had five or more and 6 percent had seven or more.

By 2006, four decades after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to use birth control (and the last year available from census studies), 28 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 4 percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.

So many of the families who share their stories tell of unbelievably inappropriate comments or questions about sex or birth control from bosses, random strangers and friends. The article explores the idea that women who have many children can’t also be educated or professional or have ambition. The women in the article talk about having a foot in both the domestic and professional words. One mother, a college professor, notes that much of the criticism comes from educated people who shouldn’t traffic in such gross stereotypes. On the other hand, sometimes people assume you have to be super wealthy to afford a large family.

So the article introduces us to Barbara Curtis, a mother of 12 in Northern Virginia. She’s a Montessori teacher and her husband is a commercial accounts manager — neither super-rich nor poverty stricken.

Mrs. Curtis illustrates one of the many ways that families grow so large: she had two children from her first marriage, then, with her second husband, seven in 10 years. One of those children had Down syndrome, so they adopted another Down syndrome child, believing two would grow up happier together. Since then, they have twice accepted requests to adopt another child with Down syndrome.

“Children are a kind of wealth,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on.”

It’s fascinating how quickly the praise for the mother of octuplets rather quickly turned to scorn. A friend noticed that the scorn was based mostly on money. It’s not that people think marriage is a necessary prerequisite for family. And people certainly believe in-vitro fertilization is fine, even if you’re a single mum. But it is morally wrong for a single woman to have in-vitro fertilization if she already has six children — particularly if she doesn’t kill some of the embryos who are growing in her womb. The main — perhaps only — ethical problem seemed to be that the woman couldn’t support these children. It’s just interesting to note how much society views children as economic liabilities as opposed to people.

The story has some hidden ghosts. A comment about how women with less education have more children on average than women with significantly more education could speak to different priorities in life as opposed to some proof that hicks are breeders. But other ghosts are brought out a bit:

Many large families are religious, and some follow the QuiverFull movement, which takes encouragement for big families in Psalm 127: children are the gift of the Lord, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,” and “happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”

The article also addresses the efforts by some environmentalists to fight the existence of siblings. Every couple would get one child and then they’re done if some had their way. Large families contend that they have economies of scale and an economic incentive to reduce consumption and reuse resources. The article also notes that women’s fertility in the United States is barely at replacement rate. We don’t hear from any members of large families who have negative comments about them but it’s a long article that covers a lot of ground. It’s a great idea for a story and handled very well.

YouTube: Click it. Listen to the clashing worldviews.

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John Calvin, party pooper?

Jean_Calvin.jpg

It’s a big year for anniversary events, isn’t it? Not only is Charles Darwin getting his moment in the spotlight in Rome, but the Dutch are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Protestant patron saint John (born Jean) Calvin.

Let me put that another way.

Judging by what we learn in a revealing Reuters piece on how the Dutch are conning Calvin’s lessons to say that they are celebrating might be overdoing it.

Judging by what I learned at in church history class at seminary, Calvin doesn’t seem to have been known as a big party guy himself.

According to the clever lede, the Dutch are analyzing the lessons of the 16-century Reformer in a way that might make the old boy proud:

Snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed. For the Dutch, the credit crunch has revived a moralistic stance from back when the first share was issued in Amsterdam.

Erupting on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestant theologian John Calvin, the financial crisis has spawned a splurge of puritanical debate and self-analysis.

You’re not kidding. Snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses? Even forgetting the Old Masters, we’re in foreign territory here. It’s hard to imagine a prominent American politician being quoted making such a statement while leading a government, but the Dutch system of democracy allows for divergent voices in a coalition:

Even Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has turned to Calvin to explain the financial mess.

“If the credit crisis makes anything clear, it shows we need to strengthen the moral anchors of our economy,” Balkenende wrote in an article discussing what Calvin could teach us today.

“At its core this is also a moral crisis, caused by greed, money-mindedness and egoistic trading.”

Part of the reason I really liked this article is that it covers religion with a fresh eyes, showing how in a secular democracy, one of the heads of state has mined the lessons of a dead theologian and bluntly applied the lessons to his own country. I wonder if making that scathing kind of ethical analysis may be more normative for politicians in smaller nations with more homogenous populations and political points of view. Readers might find themselves asking questions they don’t usually ask-and that’s a good thing!

Happily, the Dutch apparently have not surrendered completely to sobriety:

A special edition magazine titled “Calvin Glossy” presents the French theologian as the “Barack Obama of the 16th Century,” and compares his connection with the ordinary man and his emphasis on responsibility with that of the new U.S. President.

One religious daily, Trouw, is offering an online test to assess people’s Calvinist credentials. Those agreeing with the statement “I should work harder” and disagreeing with “I like to dine in luxury” will boost their score.

It would have been very helpful if the writer had cut to the chase earlier to explain the political context in which Calvin’s birthday is being celebrated:

Governing in coalition with a small but vocal religious party, The Christian Union, as well as center-left Labor, Christian Democrat Balkenende has for some years been addressing perceptions that moral values need reasserting in the Netherlands.

Stricter policies have emerged on marijuana-selling coffee shops and prostitution, and the Christian Union has also pushed for restrictions on Sunday shopping.

So what’s going on here? Are we seeing a wave of moral and religious reform sweep through Holland–or, at the writer implies, is this the fruit of age-old tensions in the Dutch national character? And what is a “forward” trade in herring?

Let’s not even talk about the marijuana and the prostitution-there’s something fishy about that herring idea.

By the way, I believe that we are also celebrating the 500th birthday this year of the French prophet Nostradamus–I can hardly wait.

Picture of Jean Calvin from Wikimedia Commons

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“Abortion reduction” gets some ink

t-shirt-pro-life-without-exception-720170Remember when President Bill Clinton said he wanted abortion to be safe, legal and rare? Remember how he was pro-lifers’ favorite president? Oh wait, that’s right, the “safe, legal and rare” formulation isn’t a pro-life mantra but a pro-choice mantra. And Bill Clinton fit perfectly in the pro-choice camp.

But somehow when President Barack Obama says something along the same lines, we are to believe that he is no longer one of the most articulate advocates of abortion ever to ascend to the White House but, rather, a lightbearing pro-lifer? Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan has a headline up right now that says:

Barack Obama, Pro-Life President?

This is because he created a council — a faith-based “advisory council” — that will look at, among other things, “reducing the need for abortions.”

Yes, with his campaign promise to Planned Parenthood that his first priority as president would be the passage of a bill removing any state-based restrictions on abortion, with his move in the first week to fund international groups that perform abortions and with his 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, I’m pretty sure that headline sums it up. Fighting any restriction on abortion is the new “pro-life”! Princeton professor Robert P. George calls the notion “delusional” and I’m pretty sure pro-lifers in general would be willing to trade President Obama’s actual record and actions for that advisory council.

Remember those less complicated times when “pro-life” meant you opposed abortion and “pro-choice” meant you supported abortion rights? Well, President Obama is shooting for a new political paradigm where opposition to any restriction on abortion + support for increased government spending along the lines of what liberals normally support = a new category of abortion reduction. I certainly understand why President Obama would want to push that storyline but it would be nice to have the media exercise a bit of caution before running with it.

Mark Stricherz wrote about the issue during the campaign, noting that government funding of abortion increases rather than decreases the abortion rate. He alleged that while government can promote policies that reduce abortion, they are very expensive. I’m not sure that after we get done borrowing and spending trillions of dollars on these “stimilus” and “bailout” bills that there would be any reasonable amount of money left to experiment with the “abortion reduction” theory.

Other pro-lifers have noted that Obama opposes the Hyde Amendment, legislation that has to be renewed each year to protect taxpayers from paying for abortions. The Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, says the most tragic result of this amendment is that women who would otherwise get abortions end up having their children. They say that some 18 to 35 percent of women who would abort their children don’t do it when taxpayer funding for abortion is unavailable. Others give a conservative estimate of 1 million children who were not aborted because of this amendment.

And University of Alabama professor Michael New has published studies showing that legal restrictions on abortion, such as public funding restrictions and informed consent laws, are responsible for declines in the abortion rate.

In other words, while Obama and his supporters say that you can oppose any restriction on abortion and support bigger government programs and that this combination means you support “abortion reduction,” there’s a lot of debate over whether that’s a reasonable claim to make.

It sort of seems like some in the mainstream media have just lost all of their cynicism and desire to hold elected officials accountable — traits they had in abundant supply even weeks ago. Take this puffy piece from Politico, about how awesome Obama and his religious outreach is:

Faith leaders say they are already seeing results. Most notably, Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for overseas abortion services, but he did it quietly and privately, heeding advice from the religious community not to follow the example of his two predecessors by tackling the issue on the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Instead, he waited until the next day to sign the memorandum.

Waiting a few hours to fund groups that perform abortions is a “result” to crow about? Of course, contra this story, Obama lifted the ban on funding of groups that perform abortions rather than on the direct funding of the abortions themselves.

Let’s head over to Rob Stein’s piece in the Washington Post, headlined Obama Tries to Appease Both Sides of Abortion Debate. It’s a solid story all about how Obama is trying to change the debate over abortion from its legality to his claim that certain government spending programs can reduce “the need for” abortions. The article is built around the Obama paradigm-shifting efforts but it’s not a puff piece:

Obama’s approach has already been tested: Three days after his inauguration, he lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health programs that provide abortions and abortion counseling, and last week he persuaded House Democrats to drop from the stimulus package a plan to allow Medicaid to expand contraceptive services.

Both moves produced mixed results: The international funding decision thrilled family-planning proponents but infuriated abortion opponents, even though some praised Obama for doing it quietly and for postponing the announcement one day to avoid the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. The decision to back off the Medicaid family-planning expansion was welcomed by some conservatives but surprised and disappointed women’s health advocates.

Again, this trumpeting of the hours-long wait — can this be for real? And I’m not entirely sure that Obama’s pressure on the condom package IN A SUPPOSED STIMULUS BILL should really even fall into this debate. The outrage over Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s $200 million for contraception was more about whether such a provision belonged in a “stimulus” bill rather than whether contraceptive services were good or bad or appropriate for government funding in general.

Still, the story lays out the fault lines pretty well:

Obama’s approach will be tested again by a series of upcoming decisions on sensitive issues, including how he deals with the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which is controversial because the cells are obtained by destroying human embryos. Obama is also under pressure to reverse a Bush administration regulation protecting the rights of health-care workers who object to providing abortion, the morning-after emergency contraceptive pill and other types of medical care, to take steps to increase access to contraception and abortion, and to cut funding for abstinence-only sex education.

It’s really nice — refreshing even — to see this reporter clearly explain why embryonic stem cell research is disliked by pro-lifers. Remember how reporters use to lump embryo-destroying research with all other stem cell research? It’s also helpful to see what the two sides will be battling over. He mentions a likely upcoming Supreme Court justice nomination, too.

And there’s more on how Obama waited a few hours before sending funds to groups that provide abortions:

When he took office, he was expected to immediately reverse the international family-planning policy, but instead of doing so on the Roe v. Wade anniversary, Obama used the day to issue his first statement as president on abortion — a statement that included similar conciliatory language.

Said Joel C. Hunter, pastor of the evangelical Northland Church near Orlando: “I’m pro-life. I hate abortion. But this administration is trying to be very sensitive. They are trying to approach things in the least inflammatory, least contentious way so we can work together and have a more nuanced approach.”

But the story also includes the perspective of pro-lifers who fail to see how this is in any way noteworthy:

“The common ground Obama seeks for the pro-life movement is the burial ground,” said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Even some of those taking a wait-and-see approach dismissed Obama’s low-key reversal of the international family-planning restriction as meaningless.

“For me, it’s the difference between killing you in broad daylight and me taking you out and killing you behind the barn,” said Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “The result is the same. And I’m one of the evangelicals willing to give him a chance.”

The story gets quite a bit of perspective from religious opponents of abortion including Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on how Obama could attempt to moderate his support for research on embryos without compromising his principles.

It’s actually a really helpful introduction to the two sides, although it does give a bit of short shrift to pro-choice activists who loathe the whole “abortion reduction” moralizing.

My big beef with these stories, though, is that they just sort of assume that increased government spending and programs — on, say, increasing contraceptive availability, expanding health care benefits or subsidizing day care — are undeniable methods of reducing the need for abortion. There is a correlation between poverty and abortion (and wealth and contraceptive use) but a) correlation is not causation and b) there are many economists who disagree that many federal welfare programs achieve their stated goals in any case. We’ve been warring on poverty for a long time now without altogether that much success and it’s not a universally accepted belief that government spending is the best way to tackle economic problems. Anyway, how many of these “abortion reduction” proposals are different from the legislative agenda of the left for the past several decades? Is this just dressing up old proposals with a new selling line? Does that matter?

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New Monasticism without pity

GiottoFrancisStigmata.jpgDarrah Johnson has written a masterpiece of a story for The Washington Post Magazine about young Catholics living in an intentional community known as Simple House (or, more fully, A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus).

Johnson concentrates most of her 7,900-word story on Laura Cartagena. Small details adds up to an honest narrative about the challenges of living simply. In one moment Cartagena firmly resists a housemate’s suggestion of using shower caddies in a bathroom. In another moment she rushes to the comfort the survivors of a young man who was murdered. (Simple House volunteers had visited and prayed with him only a few hours earlier, Johnson reports.)

In one moment Cartagena grows impatient because she’s being delayed in meeting her boyfriend. Later, she leaves for a convent in Italy for further contemplation about whether she should become a nun.

These details sound flat in summary, but Johnson weaves them together in a way that makes the ministry of Simple House come alive. As Cartagena struggles with whether she should become a nun, readers may cheer her along in either direction. Johnson tells the story that well.

There are many finely wrought paragraphs in the story, but I’ll highlight only two. The first involves Lucy (a “72-year-old homeless schizophrenic who came with the house when it was donated”) and the other involves Cartagena forming Simple House with one of her friends, Clark Massey:

Lucy is now the only person in the rowhouse with her own bedroom, a sparsely decorated, tidy space where she makes her bed every morning. The other three bedrooms are shared by the missionaries. It’s not entirely clear what Lucy thinks about the sudden influx of young women, though she sometimes seems overwhelmed and annoyed. Somehow, she has come to believe that Simple House is a funeral home, and that people come here to die. Laura has tried explaining that Simple House helps people live, not die, but Lucy persists in her morbid impressions. “I don’t know why you just moved in here,” she has informed some of the new arrivals. “You’re not going to last very long.” Lucy lights a cigarette at the stove.

… She was a student at Catholic [University], and they both volunteered with the same organization, working with disadvantaged children in Northeast Washington but never really getting close to them. Laura and Clark decided they could do better. During long walks around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when Laura’s much shorter legs worked double time to keep up with Clark’s long stride, they brainstormed ways to create a more intimate and loving ministry. They wanted to live like Jesus, among the poor, befriending the poor. They wanted their lives to be the antidote to something Mother Teresa once said: “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is very unfashionable to talk with them.”

Be sure to visit the photo gallery that accompanies the story. If you enjoy reading transcripts of online chats, this conversation involving Johnson, Cartagena and Massey is worthwhile. Cartagena says she liked Johnson’s story but she would not have written it as Johnson did.

Massey and Caragena say that members of Simple House take no vows of celibacy. “All volunteers are committed to chastity and voluntary poverty while they are at A Simple House, but it is not a life long vow,” Massey writes. Duly noted.

For the ministry’s self-portrait, Cartagena refers readers to a newsletter archive. The newsletters are okay, as self-promotional material goes, but they’re deadly dull compared to Johnson’s story.

Painting of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, attributed to Giotto, is used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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