Stealing from God’s house

jesus thieves crossEarlier this month in the midst of election craziness, The Detroit News took what could have been a simple crime story about a rash of church robberies and interlaced the article with theological themes, historical trends and even sociological explanations.

The theme about forgiveness is a bit presumptive, but it nevertheless provides the story with a voice that emphasizes the fact that robbing churches impacts a community a bit differently than your average heist:

Many of the devout in Metro Detroit know the Bible says Jesus Christ both condemned and forgave thieves. But some of those who attend churches targeted by burglars recently say they are busier with the condemnation part.

And before they move on fully to the forgiving, they are organizing community watches near their churches, asking for the police to become more involved, dipping even more deeply in their pockets and offering their expertise to help secure their houses of worship.

“A lot of people felt they were violated, and I heard a lot of them say that they just could not believe that someone would stoop so low to steal from a church,” said the Rev. George Williams, of St. John Neumann, a Catholic parish in Canton Township. “I mean, all we do is help people.”

Generalities such as “many,” “some,” “they” are nice ways to build a theme, but there is no way to know if that claim is precisely true since it makes no specific claims. Also the analogy regarding Jesus Christ and thieves is not supported by any references. The Gospels say that Jesus spoke of thieves in the pejorative sense from time to time, and he also forgave the thief that was next to him. But where (and maybe I am missing something) did Jesus ever specifically condemn thieves?

But back to what I generally liked about the article. Instead of simply reporting on the incidents, the reporter makes an effort to explain what is going on in the community. From personal experience, my home church has experienced a rash of expensive burglaries, and I am well aware that theft from a church hits a little bit closer to home than mall shoplifting:

The irony of burglaries in churches has been long noted, and social scientists say it is unclear whether there has actually been an increase in the activity.

“I think these incidents are simply a reflection of the condition of the surrounding areas,” said Irshad Altheimer, a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University. “If the rest of the community is failing, in some way, the problem is going to spill over to an institution like a school — in the case of school violence — or a church.”

Knowing that this trend is present in downtown Indianapolis, I would be curious to see whether other communities are experiencing similar trends. Unfortunately, I don’t have a local newspaper article yet, but I’m hoping that something will show up soon explaining this sad trend.

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With this hot cash register, I thee wed

Cash Drawer PhotoThree of the major festivals of the church year are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. In America, we celebrate Christmas with abandon, Easter with a minor uptick in chocolate sales, and Pentecost hardly at all.

If you’ve ever wondered why, Leigh Eric Scmidt’s Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays is a must read. It shows how the holidays that are celebrated most in America are those that have been most commercialized. Those holidays that lend themselves to a heady mixture of faith and merchandising become humongous celebrations while others are forgotten and celebrated by only the most devout. Merchants and advertisers have been crucial, Schmidt argues, to promoting holidays in a grand, carnivalesque manner.

I thought of this when reading a wonderful piece in the New York Times that says that California merchants are worried about the economic impact of Proposition 8, which amends the state constitution to define marriage as an institution involving one man and one woman:

Arturo Cobos, a manager at Kard Zone in the city’s traditionally gay Castro neighborhood, said he had done “big sales” of same-sex wedding cards and other trinkets since marriages began in June, but had recently stopped stocking new goods.

“We were afraid that they would pass Proposition 8,” Mr. Cobos said, “and that’s exactly what happened.”

In Palm Springs, another gay-friendly city, Mayor Steve Pougnet said he had performed 115 same-sex weddings since June, when such ceremonies began, some of which had as many as 180 guests. By contrast, this week the city has canceled eight planned ceremonies.

“That’s a huge economic impact, which is gone in these difficult economic times,” said Mr. Pougnet, who is openly gay and married his partner in September.

The article suggests that California can’t afford this economic blow considering the state’s budget deficit has swelled to $11.2 billion for the coming year. Frank Schubert, Proposition 8′s campaign manager, suggests that any impact is overstated:

“This is an issue of restoring the institution of marriage as it always existed,” said Mr. Schubert, noting that same-sex marriage had only briefly been legal. “I can’t imagine that returning to the history of 4,000 years before that is going to cause an economic upheaval.”

It’s just a great idea for an article but I wish that there had been some discussion of how businesses affect the entire wedding-industrial complex. A few years ago I reviewed Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding for the Wall Street Journal. The book does a fantastic job of looking at the excesses of the wedding industry and how they have helped turn weddings into today’s insane and ridiculous suck of money, time and energy. From my review:

In Ms. Mead’s mind, the wedding as a rite of passage no longer signals a couple’s transition to adulthood. Instead, she says, the contemporary wedding marks the move from one type of consumer to another. It is an event “shaped as much by commerce or marketing as it is by those influences couples might prefer to think of as affecting their nuptial choices, such as social propriety, religious observance, or familial expectation.”

As we look at Proposition 8 and it’s fallout, it’s good to keep in mind all of the groups who have a vested interest in one side or the other. And as we spend so much time on social propriety, religious observation and family expectation, let’s not neglect American consumerism.

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John Green is our man

LOSERS So, what’s the story about religious voters in the 2008 election? Well, it depends on who you’re talking to.

Peter Smith, religion reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal says that religious minorities decided the vote:

White Anglo Christians voted for John McCain.

Yet Americans elected Barack Obama.

That confirms what recent polling had suggested would happen — that Barack Obama won with a coalition of religious minorities — black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and other smaller religions, and people with no religion. All of those were strongly in Obama’s corner — voting for Obama at higher percentages than white Anglo Protestants and Catholics voted for McCain. The difference in the margins of victory is what nixed McCain’s advantage among the white Christians even though they’re a majority of the electorate.

Gary Stern, religion reporter for the Journal News in New York says the religious impact this election was not all that great:

I just got off a conference call with the Pew Forum’s John Green, the man on the intersection of faith and politics. He spent the night poring through the exit polls.

Let’s just say that the ’08 race will not be remembered like the ’04 race, when evangelicals were credited with lifting George Bush on their shoulders and carrying him to victory.

This time around, there were no major religious swings. But most religious groups moved somewhat to the left.

His blog post goes on to say that ethnicity played a bigger role than religion.

And the Associated Press’ Eric Gorski, after speaking with the same John Green, has a much more dramatic lede (And understandably so. Presumably, “nothing happened” isn’t a good way to get your story read.):

In building a winning coalition of religious voters, Barack Obama cut into the so-called God gap that puts frequent worshippers in the Republican column, won Catholics, made inroads with younger evangelicals, and racked up huge numbers with minorities and people with no religious affiliation.

The actual meat of the story, however, is in line with the previous excerpts in this post. All demographic groups voted more Democratic this year and traditionally Republican religious voters were no exception, although their shift was more marginal:

The early indications from exit polls don’t suggest a fundamental reshaping of religion’s role in electing presidents, but they do show Obama made progress on important fronts that hold promise for future Democratic religious coalitions that cross racial lines, analysts said.

“It really doesn’t look to me like a realignment,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Rather, he said, Obama made religion work for him in a way other Democrats haven’t.

The economy, meanwhile, dominated voters’ priorities across religious lines, blunting the impact of issues like abortion and gay marriage that historically help move religious votes.

The AP story has plenty of numbers for numbers geeks and shows where Obama made the biggest inroads. Even if it’s not a dramatic realignment, there is some very interesting meat for future stories and it looks like we’ll have much to cover with the new administration and its religious followers.

But the bottom line is that we did see some changes. The God Gap changed a little, but not dramatically, particularly with white evangelicals and very dedicated Catholics. And another thing that would be nice with these reports is a bit more perspective beyond 2004. For instance, Catholics — not surprisingly due their demographic heft — always vote overall with the winner. That wasn’t something that just happened in 2004.

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Religion disappears from narrative

obama in PACompared to the primary election, the subject of the religion and faith of Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama’s has largely been absent from the pages of Midwestern newspapers and magazines. Some of this can be justified by the fact that the Midwest is reeling in an economic slump that is seeing people threatened with the loss of their jobs and homes and the collapse of the auto industry and other manufacturing industries that make up a substantial portion of the region’s economy. People want to hear the candidates talk about their economic plans more than their spiritual backgrounds.

In addition, Republican Nominee John McCain has refused to make Obama’s former pastor a campaign issue as opposed to the way Hillary Clinton’s campaign made the issue front and center. Topics relating to religious issues have also been largely absent from the debates. As a result, reporters have not had much of a hook to write about either candidate’s religion lately.

This doesn’t mean that religion should be absent from the narrative though. See here this Sunday Chicago Tribune article on Obama’s “improbable journey from rookie to rock.” Here is a snippet:

Harsh as it was, the primary not only educated Obama, it flushed out all the tough attacks he would eventually face. The fact that he sorted them out during the fight with Clinton meant there was time left for the dust to settle before the general election.

One prominent presidential historian thinks the rate at which Obama got up to speed is evidence that he wasn’t maturing under the spotlight so much as displaying what he already had.

“The notion of growth works best if you think of Obama over his entire life span,” said Fred Greenstein, author and professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University. “It’s not that the last four years have seen a callow youth transformed into a mature leader. … By the time he got into a heated presidential campaign, in my view, he actually had little fundamental learning to do.”

There are huge religion holes that could have been covered in this story even though the article is not primarily about religion. Religion and faith have been apart of the Obama narrative in the past. Why aren’t they as much anymore? The influence of his former church on his life and his conversion to Christianity made up a reasonable portion of his personal story. But here there is nothing in the article on Obama’s church life, his faith or his decision to break ties with the church that he attended for a significant portion of his life.

Instead, the article spends much of its focus on the fact that Obama’s personality appears to be rather cool and collected. One could conclude that this is all mere stage management or that there an aspect of this that goes to the core of Obama’s character? Would it be too much to ask whether his character was influenced by his faith?

Two days earlier, the Tribune wrote about Obama’s rise in the Illinois Statehouse. The subject and focus on a specific time-frame of Obama’s life provided the reporters with an excellent opportunity to analyze and report on the influence of Obama’s faith and church life on his rise in Illinois state politics. Unfortunately there is not even a hint that religion played a role.

Instead the article focused mostly on how Obama worked relationships and issues to benefit his broader goals:

In fact, few in those early days — legislators, reporters, lobbyists — pegged Obama as a star destined to explode onto the national scene. He wasn’t a party leader and he wasn’t a behind-the-scenes player; he wasn’t a journalist’s go-to person.

Yet Obama, in retrospect, handled himself as though he expected this all along. Most lawmakers focused on the events of the day, the usual route to power in the General Assembly. Obama, in contrast, quietly nurtured relationships with power brokers and influential editors, and focused on building a record that would help him far beyond.

When Obama arrived in the Illinois Senate, he was a member of the Democratic minority, laboring under the heavy-handed rule of powerful suburban Republicans. Unable to take the lead on major issues, he worked mostly in obscurity.

The perspective of the article is unique because it was written by a Tribune reporter who covered the Illinois Statehouse during Obama’s tenure there. While the article provides insight into Obama’s relationship with the media, his fellow lawmakers and various stake-holders, there is nothing on his relationship with his family during this time or with his church or faith. Could readers conclude (or assume) that religion and faith were never prominent issues while he was in the state’s capital (away from Chicago and his home church)? Or perhaps it was and that perspective is missing from the story. Either way, readers should never have to assume when reading a news story.

The religious narrative may return to Obama’s story at some point, but before it does, determining why religion and faith has disappeared from the Obama story could produce some interesting questions and answers.

Image of Obama campaigning in Pennsylvania in October 2008 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Reporting stuff we already know

duh duhThe Detroit News and Baltimore Sun recently produced two shockingly non-news worthy articles about the role or religion in this 2008 presidential election.

First, the Sun‘s effort to explain that once again Catholics are swing voters in this election treads close to sounding like an opinion piece at times. Catholics concerned with issues such as abortion and pre-martial sex are said to adhere to “pelvic theology” while Catholics who do not make those issues as significant follow the more acceptable “social theology.” Aside from the slanted terminology, which I should note are put-forth in quotes by the president of a Catholic Democratic group, the article just doesn’t say anything new that couldn’t have been said in any given election cycle:

Just a day after he was announced as Barack Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden was back in Delaware, taking his usual seat in the pews of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in the small community of Greenville.

That he would participate in a Roman Catholic Mass so soon after being added to the Democratic ticket was of little surprise. Biden once vowed that “the next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat.”

Similar passions lie behind the efforts of the Obama campaign and Democratic strategists this year to win over Catholic voters, considered by many to be a crucial constituency that could determine the next president. Emotions have grown heated, with Biden under attack from national Catholic groups for his views on abortion, and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin energizing many socially conservative voters.

The article’s facts are frequently lack citations. For instance, when, where and to whom did Biden promise to impale someone’s throat with a rosary? The article states without any support that part of the reason Biden was chosen was because of his Catholic faith. The article uses qualifiers “could” and “can” four times each. In other words, the Catholic vote is up for grabs once again and could determine the outcome of the election. The same could have been said about the 2004 and 2000 elections. Catholics could have voted Democratically in large numbers for the president. But they didn’t.

The article frustrated me most in the following paragraph:

Social issues of concern to many religious voters had taken a back seat this year until McCain selected Palin, the governor of Alaska and a staunch abortion opponent, as his running mate. As the public learned biographical details, such as how Palin continued a pregnancy after learning the baby would be born with Down syndrome, the abortion issue has grown in prominence.

The author assumes that readers know that most Down syndrome babies are aborted. The implication is that abortion only became a big issue when the public found out that Palin did not abort her Down syndrome child. That’s certainly true but by failing to highlight the fact that 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted the eradication of Down syndrome children in this country goes unsaid. Why should readers be allowed to assume the fact that when people find out they have Down syndrome children they are aborted? Is the statistic too shocking to be repeated to many times? Readers deserve a more thorough explanation for why allowing a Down syndrome child to come to term raises the issue of abortion.

The Detroit News takes a slightly different approach in writing about how “social issues may become secondary at” the polls. Yes, the word “may” is used in the headline. Would you ever see in the paper’s sports section that the Indiana Pacers may finish ahead of the Detroit Pistons this year? I doubt it. That’s too speculative. Why should matters of public policy and voter preferences be any different?

See this paragraph for an example of speculative news writing:

Values voters, whose religious beliefs often dictate socially conservative electoral decisions, have been especially prized by candidates since the votes were counted in 2004. But a week before the election, some of the assumptions about how they will vote in 2008 have changed, values voters and observers say. While evangelical Christians are committed to their values, they are unlikely to drive McCain into the Oval Office in the same way that they propelled President Bush, based on issues like gay marriage, abortion and nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aren’t there better things to put in news stories than speculative feelings that reflect the popular consensus (or the often-wrong “conventional wisdom”)?

For some hard religion-political news from my neck of the woods, check out Spiritual Politics and its highlighting of the fact that polls show that evangelicals are supporting McCain 57-33 as opposed to the 77-22 support they threw Bush in 2004. With evangelicals accounting for 35% of my state’s electorate, that vote could be critical in determining the state’s outcome which is tied according to the most recent polls. Or maybe not. Polls are just a bit ahead of the popular consensus that reporters sometimes and unfortunately rely upon, but at least there is some hard data that can be tracked from poll to poll.

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Letting compassion do the talking

Embedded video from CNN Video

Sometimes a kind woman does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Jessica Myers of The Dallas Morning News reports:

Marilyn Mock went to last weekend’s foreclosure auction in Dallas as a dutiful parent. She left as a minor celebrity. Now, she’s a national hero.

The 50-year-old Rockwall woman acted on instinct when she bought Tracy Orr’s Pottsboro home back for her while Ms. Mock’s son was signing papers on his first house. But at a time when economic woes rule the headlines, a stranger’s big-heartedness can make national news.

. . . After the purchase, Ms. Orr disappeared. “I thought, what if she left?” Ms. Mock said. “What would I tell my husband, ‘Hello, honey, I bought a house for this lady and I don’t know where she went?’.”

But Ms. Orr, a former U.S. Postal Service employee and now a housekeeper at All Saints Camp and Conference Center, was waiting outside in tears.

Then a news camera showed up.

“They caught us,” said Ms. Mock, who was hoping to keep the deal quiet.

When the TV Muse sends catnip like this, you report the basics of the story and ask some polite questions. Mostly, though, you stay out of the way and watch Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan come alive.

Thank you, CNN. Thank you, Jessica Myers.

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Blessed are the poor

almsFor some reason, this collection of stories currently running on the Washington Post‘s religion page remind me of that old saw, I believe coined by Tom Lehrer, about how the New York Times would cover the end of the world: “World Ends: Women, Minorities Hardest Hit.”

The first is a thoroughly reported piece that says that lower and middle class folks are increasingly turning to the clergy for financial and spiritual help:

The number of people in crisis calling and showing up at the doors of the area’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples is escalating. Parishioners are bringing their pastors important questions about faith in difficult times, and some ministers are seeing their own budgets straining.

“More people are coming to the church because there is no other place for them to come,” said Leah Tenorio, director of the Hispanic ministry at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in the Alexandria part of Fairfax County. Requests for help have spiked there in the past month: The church is receiving 15 calls a week, compared with one or two a week last year.

The story is chock full of such anecdotes, some which show quite dramatic increases in requests for help, and it’s really interesting to see the different ways that houses of worship are helping out parishioners and folks in the community. One thing that confused me as a resident of Washington, D.C., is that this particular area is not exactly noteworthy for being hard hit by any economic crisis. A quick survey of the skyline would lead you to believe we’re competing with Dubai for the largest crane population per capita. Unemployment in DC proper is up over last year, but over a point lower than it was in 2004. Maryland unemployment is up, but well below the national average. The latest report from the National Association of Realtors shows that home sales in the greater Washington area skyrocketed some 40 percent over last year at this time, although prices declined a bit. Washington is, in general, remarkably resistant to economic recessions. Government is almost always — if not always — a growth industry. Not all the economic indicators are great, certainly, but we’re not Michigan or Rhode Island here. (Of course, as someone who would like to buy a home big enough and safe enough for my family within, you know, three hours of DC, I am kind of rooting for housing prices to plummet.)

I mention it just because it would help to know a little bit about why people are flooding religious groups for help. Either way, the groups included in the article all say that things are incredibly dire. Here was one interesting anecdote:

Some houses of worship are expanding programs that help people in crises and cutting back on less-crucial ones. New Life Anointed Ministries, for example, has reduced broadcasts of its worship services on local TV stations and dropped its financial support for international missions while doubling, to six, the number of marriage counselors after requests for counseling rose 300 percent.

“The moment that finances become unbearable, the marriage is the next thing to break,” Reeves said.

The story says that many congregations are offering financial workshops and classes on foreclosures. One great thing about the article — and proof it was written by actual religion reporters — was the nod toward spiritual issues:

Pastors are also grappling with the hard, spiritual issues of their congregants, comforting them about their genuine anxieties while guiding them to put money into the proper spiritual perspective. Some are addressing parishioners’ anger over what they see as the greed of Wall Street. Others are encouraging parishioners to look inward and to Scripture.

“God is not surprised by plunging economic activity,” the Rev. Rod Stafford of Fairfax Community Church told his congregation on a recent Sunday, quoting from Deuteronomy: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”

It’s such a simple thing to include actual religion in religion stories, but frequently lacking. Other great things about the story are the discussion of how area houses of worship are worried about their own finances and the inclusion of Buddhists, Muslims and other groups. Ramadan giving was down, for instance, at one area mosque. A Lutheran church in Washington held a meeting to tell members contributions are down and utility bills have soared. Other churches are pausing renovation projects.

And if you’re curious how the end of the world is hitting the opposite end of the financial spectrum, the Post also ran a story on how things are going in Greenwich, Conn, the hedge fund capital. The reporter looks at the issue by, among other things, speaking with area clergy about how their flocks are coping.

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Putting your money where your faith is

adventistinvestingLast week we looked at veteran Time religion writer David Van Biema‘s fun piece “Is It OK to Pray for Your 401(k)? A Theological Primer.” We’ve been calling for good religion coverage, when possible, of the current economic situation. Van Biema followed up that great piece with a really fun and interesting look at how different religions understand appropriate investment.

For each religion, we learn a bit about the overall philosophy and then some specifics about religion-based investment groups. Here’s how the Muslim section begins:

For centuries Muslims were either out of the Western stock market or burdened with a certain amount of guilt. The Koran states, “Whatever you give as riba so that it might bring increase through the wealth of other people will bring you no increase with Allah.” Since riba means “interest,” this was a powerful dampener on investment for the pious. In 1998, however, the influential scholar Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo released the so-called “Dow Jones Fatwa”, which allowed believers to invest in funds with a degree of what one of his sons termed “permissible impurity”.

Because the Muslim funds are not as dynamic as other portfolios, they experience less growth in bull markets but fewer problems in economic downturns. We then learn about Ave Maria Catholic Values, a fund that won’t invest in companies involved with abortion, contraception, pornography or providing benefits to unmarried couples of any kind.

Ave Maria’s mid-cap blend is not in the Morningstar top 5%, but another, tiny Catholic fund called Epiphany has a large blend that is in its category, and has posted an incredible (given market conditions) growth rate of about 40% from June to September. Epiphany, too, plays doctrinal hardball, basing its screening process on what CEO Sam Saladino says are “a lot of different Church teachings.” Epiphany eschews companies that contribute to Planned Parenthood, tries to avoid those that manufacture weapons or discourage unions. It gravitates predictably toward firms engaged in adult (rather than embryonic) stem-cell research, and, interestingly, to companies in the top-100 firms list of the magazine Working Mother. An Epiphany spokeswoman explained, “When looking for positive criteria to reflect family values, we felt their scorecard fit.” It may be a sign of the changes in the Church that few Catholics would have employed that definition of family values 50 years ago.

So nice to see the distinction between embryonic-destroying stem cell research and research performed on adult stem cells. Epiphany, interestingly, also won’t invest in corporations that pay their CEOs more than $12 million a year. Protestant funds are all over the place. Some avoid the classic “sin stocks” such as Playboy Enterprises. (I imagine that there would be sound financial reasons having nothing to do with morality for avoiding that one . . .) Others use shareholder advocacy to press for causes like fair-trade coffee and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Even though Van Biema didn’t find any investment funds aimed at Jews, he looked guidelines for religious Jews. The only man quoted, a professor of economics at Yeshiva, says that investment in weapons companies is always unacceptable. I imagine that’s not a universal view but we don’t get an alternate perspective. A small quibble and Van Biema packed a ton into this relatively brief story:

The faith side of religious funds is aimed at decreasing sin rather than increasing profit, and doing that well doesn’t guarantee a strong return on investment. Amana’s Salam, observing that there are several other Muslim groups that have not fared as well during the crisis as his own, explains “After you’ve screened for the Islamic criteria, you still end up with 50% of the market available,” and from then on “it’s a matter of good stock-investment skills.” Kathman has written, “If you decide to invest in any of these funds, it should be because you agree with the moral principals [sic] underlying the fund,” not because you think those principles will be the ones that assure a good return.

A nice wrap-up, too. I have been really pleased with some of these recent stories about religion and economics.

Art is from Adventist Review.

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