Tony Blair, a man for some seasons

beheaded Judging by The Sunday Times of London, a reader might conclude that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a smart man’s Thomas More or Thomas Beckett. Blair, who is expected to convert to Catholicism, said in an interview that his Christianity “played a hugely important role” during his decade-long tenure, but he feared saying so lest he be known as a “nutter.” As Dipesh Gadher reported,

In his most frank television interview about his religious beliefs, Blair confesses he would have found it difficult to do the job of prime minister had he not been able to draw on his faith.

The admission confirms why Alastair Campbell, then Blair’s director of communications, was so wary of the prime minister mentioning religion. “We don’t do God,” he once said.

In a documentary to be broadcast on BBC1 next Sunday, Campbell now says of his former boss: “Well, he does do God — in quite a big way.”

In a tone of breathless wonderment, Gadher reports what he clearly views as a series of shocking revelations about the depth of Blair’s faith. Wherever Blair was in the world on a Sunday, he insisted on going to church. When Blair sought to use the expression “God bless you” on the eve of war against Iraq, his aides, keen to quell Blair’s religious fervor, urged him to leave out the offending phrase. Before retiring for the evening, Blair read the Bible.

The implication of Gadher’s story is that in the case of Tony Blair, politics and religion, far from being decoupled, were intertwined. Presumably, if Blair was an agnostic or atheist, there would have been no story to report.

I do not know what the British press considers an acceptable form of piety in its public officials. Nonetheless, Gadher’s story struck me as no more substantive than your local anchorman’s wig or dry-blown hair.

To take the most important example, the story does not mention a single instance in which the former Prime Minister’s faith affected public policy. Did Blair’s faith shape his policies toward the poor or immigrants? Was Blair ever ready to stick his neck out for his Christian faith?

Certainly, and I know faithful GR readers have read this before from me, Blair did little to promote the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. During his tenure, Britain legalized human cloning and civil partnerships for homosexual couples; and continued to allow the killing of unborn infants up to their 24th week. Did Blair have a conflict between his personal and public beliefs? If so, what were they?

In short, Gadher fails to paint Blair’s faith against a wider canvas. Maybe the Prime Minister’s Christianity was “hugely important” to him — in some, but not all, seasons.

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To tithe or not to tithe

GivingThanks2Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline had a lengthy feature on tithing that a few readers sent in. Headlined “The Backlash Against Tithing,” here’s how it began:

Can you put a price on faith? That is the question churchgoers are asking as the tradition of tithing — giving 10% of your income to the church — is increasingly challenged. Opponents of tithing say it is a misreading of the Bible, a practice created by man, not God. They say they should be free to donate whatever amount they choose, and they are arguing with pastors, writing letters and quitting congregations in protest. In response, some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fund raising for decades.

I have to admit that this lede confused me. I think it might have been a good idea to define tithing more precisely for the purposes of the story. Judging from most — but not all — of the remaining anecdotes and reportage, the backlash is against the view that giving ten percent of one’s income is a biblical requirement. But that’s not how Sateline defines it, exactly.

In the rest of the story, Sataline says that churches are stepping up their efforts to encourage tithing, although there’s little statistical support to show any trend. She also describes everything from the encouragement of tithing to the requirement that new members pledge to give ten percent of their incomes, even if they’re deeply in debt or supporting large families on extremely limited incomes. Here’s another paragraph I found confusing:

Many Christians who don’t read the Bible literally say that by tithing they are not misreading the text, but rather interpreting it differently. Tithing has its roots in the Biblical tale of Abraham presenting a tenth of the war spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Salem. In the Old Testament, Jews brought 10% of their harvest to a storehouse as a welfare plan for the needy or in case of famine. That percentage, say pro-tithers, can be a useful guideline for Christians today. “It’s the best financial discipline I know,” says Terry Parsons, stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church.

I have no idea what that first sentence means. And grouping people who require tithing with people who simply think it’s a useful guideline continues to confuse me. I also think it might have been a good idea to explain the views of those who don’t follow tithing. My church, for instance, teaches that we are free to give any percentage of our income depending on the circumstances. The article didn’t quite delineate which churches teach tithing and which don’t. Anyway, the best part of the story is the series of anecdotes Sataline provides, such as this one:

For Judy Willingham, of San Antonio, 12 years of tithing came to an end earlier this year. She says she gave a tenth of her pay to Cornerstone Church because the pastor, the Rev. John C. Hagee teaches, “‘If you obey God and you tithe, God will return it to you 30, 60, 100 fold.’”

Ms. Willingham, who earns $26,000 annually as an administrative assistant, says she started to research the practice, reading criticism online and studying the Bible, and concluded that she’d been “guilted into tithing.” She quit the church and hasn’t found another one.

Steve Sorensen, director of pastoral ministries at Cornerstone, says the church requires its paid and volunteer leaders to tithe, and teaches new members to do so, although it doesn’t make them show proof of income. “When you tithe, God makes promises to us, that he … is not going to let anything bad or destructive come about,” says Mr. Sorensen. For those who don’t tithe, he says the Lord “is not obligated to do those things for you.”

ShouldChurchTeachTithing2The stories really are fascinating. One parishioner who questioned his church’s tithing commandment was told he was wrong and to submit to his pastor and elders. He stopped going to his church. Kevin Rohr, a youth pastor at a Quaker offshoot, was told by his pastor that he was expected to tithe on his $32,400 salary. With four kids and a wife to support, he told the pastor that Christians are not required to tithe. He ended up leaving his job:

Mr. Rohr, 35, is now supporting his family by driving trucks. He says he still believes what he wrote to Mr. Engel: “All decisions to give and how much to give are between the believer and their God, not meant to be used as stumbling blocks or judgments against others.”

One interesting thing about these anecdotes is that Russell Earl Kelly, author of Should the Church Teach Tithing?, says he provided the names of Rohr and five others who were interviewed and quoted in the article:

I am somewhat upset that my name and book was not mentioned. I spent literally hundreds of hours pouring over old e-mails from the past six years to furnish names and information to the Wall Street Journal for this article. The names of all of the key persons interviewed in the article were provided by myself . . .

He raises an interesting point. A good reporter will spend countless hours researching a story. I don’t think many folks outside the media have any idea how much information has to be left out of a given story. But particularly since Sataline devoted a bit of her article to anti-tithing scholarship, it seems she could have at least plugged Kelly’s work on the matter. What do you think?

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What’s the big deal about Latin?

MassOver the summer, Pope Benedict XVI allowed priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass without receiving permission from their local bishop. Reporters naturally have written follow-up stories about the revival of the ancient service. So far two storylines seem to have emerged: Why the interest in the Tridentine Mass? and Are Catholics (especially young Catholics) actually flocking to the service?

The two questions are the right ones to ask. But I don’t think they are the best ones, sociologically, religiously or politically.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post agree as to why Catholics attend the Tridentine Mass. The service is viewed as more mysterious and solemn than the one celebrated in the vernacular. As Jacqueline Salmon of the Post quotes one Catholic,

“It’s the opposite of the cacophony that comes with the [modern] Mass,” said Ken Wolfe, 34, a federal government worker who goes to up to four Latin Masses a week in the Washington area. “There’s no guitars and handshaking and breaks in the Mass where people talk to each other. It’s a very serious liturgy.”

Both papers are right to focus on the mystical nature of the Tridentine Mass. For what it’s worth, every Catholic I have known who prefers the Latin service to the vernacular does so for this reason.

The two papers disagree about whether the Latin Mass has gained popularity. According to Neela Bannerjee of the Times, the service has not:

But the groundswell that many backers had predicted has not surfaced and seems unlikely, Catholic liturgists and church officials say. The traditional Latin, or Tridentine, Mass has emerged in just one or two parishes in most of the 25 largest dioceses in the country, according to a phone survey of the dioceses.

In some dioceses, there is so far almost no interest, diocesan officials said.

By contrast, Salmon of the Post reached the opposite conclusion:

“I knew there would be some interest, but I didn’t know how quickly it would spread and how really deep the interest was,” said the Rev. Scott Haynes, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who started a Web site in August offering instructions in celebrating the Mass.

So far, the Web site,, has received 1 million hits, Haynes said, adding that he receives several hundred e-mails a day from fans of the service. “I was surprised by how many people have latched on to this,” he said.

ColleenCover 01Fair enough; the reporters viewed the data differently. The Times focused on dioceses in which the Latin service is being celebrated, while the Post examined local dioceses and Internet data.

What does the interest, whether real or marginal, in the Tridentine service mean? On this question the Times and Post agree: those interested in the Latin Mass seek to revive the Catholic world that prevailed before Vatican II (1962-65). As Banerjee quotes one parishioner,

“The Mass was like this for 1,500 years, and it was changed by committee in the 1960s,” Joseph Dagostino, 35, said after a Wednesday night service at St. Andrew’s. Joseph Strada, 62, said, “When you can change the liturgy, you can change anything.” Mr. Dagostino interjected, “Like the church’s teachings on abortion or the sanctity of life.”

It’s tempting to view the revival of the Latin Mass in terms of the culture wars, as Mr. Dagostino does. Maybe, but the reporters failed to make their case. For one thing, other than Mr. Strada’s quote, all the people linking the two are professors. For another thing, it’s not as if the Pope banned the vernacular service and replaced it with the Tridentine. The Pope acted in the spirit of pluralism, allowing individual priests to celebrate the Mass.

A more revealing question by my lights is this one: Why do those seek to revive the Latin Mass consider it such a vital cause? Shouldn’t these people worry more about the fact that few Catholics today are going to confession? After all, confessing your sins to a priest and reconciling with God is one of the Seven Sacraments; hearing, seeing, and praying at a really great Mass is not.

Perhaps as Colleen Carroll Campbell has reported, those who seek to revive the Latin Mass do partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently and see no need to encourage their coreligionists to do the same. But maybe these “new faithful” simply wish, Gatsby-like, to return to the past.

Either way, posing the question would better illumine their true motives.

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Bumper sticker theology at Thanksgiving

BumperStickerCarSome of you out there on the religion beat may remember the name Christian Smith. He is the sociologist who taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who, among some scribes, is best known for writing an infamous Books & Culture essay, “Religiously Ignorant Journalists.”

It opens like this:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about “Episcopals,” about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention’s approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect “Episcopals.” What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no “Episcopals”? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn’t even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university’s PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

So, remember him? Well, he has moved on to a new post at the University of Notre Dame, serving as director of the Center for the Study of Religion & Society. It sounds like he may have his fingers into even more interesting data and news in the future.

I ran into Smith a few weeks ago at his alma mater, Gordon College, where my daughter is a student. He gave an interesting and somewhat offbeat chapel talk that I recorded and filed away to serve as a hook for a Thanksgiving weekend column.

It’s linked to a major news story that is taking place right now in almost every church in the USA. What’s that? Does the phrase “pledge card” meaning anything to you?

So here is how that column for Scripps Howard New Service begins. I hope it offers some food for thought this weekend, as many of us head deeper into Nativity Lent (or Advent in the West):

It was the kind of cryptic theological statement that is often found stuck on automobile bumpers.

This sticker said: “Don’t let my car fool you. My treasure is in heaven.” This echoed the Bible passage in which Jesus urged believers to, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

This sticker’s creator probably intended it to be displayed on the battered bumper of a maintenance-challenged car, noted sociologist Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Thus, the sticker suggests that the driver knows his car is a wreck, but that he has “other commitments and priorities” that matter more.

But Smith was puzzled when he saw this sticker on a $42,000 SUV parked at a bank.

“Let’s be clear. I have no problem with abundance. I have no problem with capitalism,” he said. … “The person driving this car may give away 40 percent of their income. I have no idea. I’m not trying to nail people who drive SUVs or whatever.

“But it seems to me that the meaning of this bumper sticker has changed from what I thought was the original meaning to, ‘Well, Jesus didn’t quite get it right, because I have a lot here and I also have it in heaven, too. So I have all the bases covered.’”

After years of digging in the data, Smith has reached some sobering conclusions about believers and their checkbooks. It’s true that Americans give away lots of money, in comparison with people in other modern societies. It’s also true that religious Americans are much more generous than non-religious Americans. But here’s the bottom line: The top 10 percent of America’s givers are very generous, while 80 percent or more rarely, if ever, make charitable donations of any kind.

A story? Well, as the old saying goes, “Follow the money.”

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Keeping up with the Garcias

463395691 544ba72a9eHere’s a quick memo to the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference and the Assemblies of God and the Democratic Party and lots of other people.

It’s time to connect the dots in The New York Times, again. We have a story with a big religion ghost in it and the Times knows it (and so does the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).

Here’s the lede from reporter Sam Roberts:

Step aside Moore and Taylor. Welcome Garcia and Rodriguez.

Smith remains the most common surname in the United States, according to a new analysis released yesterday by the Census Bureau. But for the first time, two Hispanic surnames — Garcia and Rodriguez — are among the top 10 most common in the nation, and Martinez nearly edged out Wilson for 10th place.

The number of Hispanics living in the United States grew by 58 percent in the 1990s to nearly 13 percent of the total population, and cracking the list of top 10 names suggests just how pervasively the Latino migration has permeated everyday American culture.

Garcia moved to No. 8 in 2000, up from No. 18, and Rodriguez jumped to No. 9 from 22nd place. The number of Hispanic surnames among the top 25 doubled, to 6.

So read that, then flash back to an earlier Times story — with stops along the way at the Pew Forum studies on the growth numbers for Hispanics and then for Pentecostal Christians.

Those Hispanic names signal other changes, of course. It would be wrong for this simple Times story to mention all of them. But some commentary would have been nice.

Let’s see, politics or religion, religion or politics. Can anyone tell the difference anymore? Which will it be?

I vote for religion. So back up a few months and the Times tells us:

The religious identity of Hispanics will affect politics, the report says. The Hispanic electorate is largely Democratic (63 percent), despite being conservative on social issues like abortion and homosexuality. But Hispanic evangelical Protestants — whose numbers are growing — are twice as likely as Hispanic Catholics to be Republicans. This is a far greater gap than exists between white evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

About one-third of Catholics in the United States are now Hispanic.

… The study also found that conversion is a common experience for many Hispanics. Nearly one in five changed either from one religion to another, or to no religion at all.

The biggest loser from all the conversions is the Catholic Church, while evangelical Protestant churches are the beneficiaries. Thirteen percent of all Hispanics in the United States were once Catholic and left the church. Of Hispanic evangelical Protestants, half are converts — mostly former Catholics. Hispanics born in the United States are more likely to convert than are foreign-born immigrants.

So we are back to the only story that really matters in American politics right now, a story that is much bigger than the whole evangelical crackup thing. And that is the splintering Catholic vote. The Catholic bishops know what is going on and there does not seem to be anything they can do about it at — at the pew level. That’s a story.

Personal note: GetReligion will remain open during Thanksgiving and the days ahead, but we are all moving around a bit (I am sure) and I am headed back into a zone where WiFi is not that common. So hang in there with us. It may take time to respond to messages and comments.

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Getting Rudy’s Catholicism right (well, mostly)


At the risk of not offending GR readers and generating few comments from said group, I offer a qualified endorsement of two stories about Rudy Giuliani’s Catholicism. A recent cover story in The New Republic linked Giuliani’s political outlook to his education in Catholic social teaching. Meanwhile, the latest Newsweek reports that Giuliani’s pro-choice stand will continue to draw outspoken opposition from traditional Catholics. While neither story offers sufficient perspective, each grasps an important truth about Giuliani: his Catholic upbringing continues to define him.

John Judis of The New Republic wrote the more intriguing of the two stories. Part of his thesis is that Giulianis’ lifelong efforts to combat crime and disorder with his Catholic education:

There are two aspects of Catholic philosophy that show up clearly in Giuliani’s political outlook. The first, which he would have found at almost any religious school, is a tendency to view politics and history as a moral contest between good and evil. That is sharply in contrast to a secular post-Enlightenment view of individuals–from presidents to petty thieves–as products of historical forces greater than themselves. The difference between Giuliani’s view and the secular one would show up in his attitude toward crime and criminals.

Second, Giuliani was exposed to a specifically Catholic (as opposed to Protestant-individualist) view of the relationship between authority and liberty–one that dates from Aquinas’s Christian Aristotelianism, was spelled out in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical on the Nature of Human Liberty, and still enjoys currency today, even in the wake of Vatican II. Catholic thinkers do not see liberty as an end in itself, but as a means-a “natural endowment”–by which to achieve the common good. For that to happen, individuals have to be encouraged to use their liberty well; and that is where authority comes into play. Authority, embodied by law and the state, encourages–at times, forces–free individuals to contribute to the common good. Or, to put it in Aristotelian terms:Authority–by creating a just order–encourages liberty over license.

Judis’ point is well taken. It’s no accident that while mayor of New York that Giuliani cut crime and disorder. His Catholic schooling paved the way for his interest in the topic. Just think of his mayoral predecessors: Abe Beame, Ed Koch, and David Dinkins. None of them were educated at a Catholic high school and college as Giuliani was.

If Judis were an expert in Catholicism, he might have teased out how Giuliani was educated not just in Catholic philosophy but that of the Christian Brothers; Giuliani attended Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn and Manhattan College, both of which are Lasallian schools. (“St. John Baptiste De La Salle, pray for us! In our hearts forever!”). The Christian Brothers’ charism is aimed more at educating the working and middle classes, as opposed to the professional classes that the Jesuits aim to teach. But that’s asking a bit much of any writer.

My main criticism of Judis’ story, which is one I have of every story about Giuliani, is its failure to explore why Giuliani switched in 1989 from pro-life to pro-choice. While Judis notes that Giuliani changed his views in order to win the endorsement of the Liberal Party, this begs some serious questions. Did Giuliani believe he was making a pact with the devil? Or did he consider abortion a fringe issue?

While some readers will no doubt wonder why these questions should be asked in the first place, Newsweek ran an interesting story about the consequences of Giuliani’s pro-choice position:

Rudy’s Catholic problem is this: he is pro-choice, and 63 percent of white Catholics who go to mass weekly are not. This is a small activist group, yet they are determined, it seems, to see the former mayor fail. Before the Iowa straw poll in August, Fidelis — a Chicago-based conservative Catholic group — ran anti-Giuliani ads in Iowa pointing to the candidate’s longstanding pro-choice record.

… Now the U.S. Catholic bishops are raising their voices against Giuliani as well. Last week a number of activist bishops told Newsweek they would deny Giuliani communion for his views on abortion—if, after counseling, he continued to hold them. Their rhetoric emphasized human rights and first principles: almost every bishop interviewed by Newsweek called abortion an “intrinsic evil.”

Newsweek reporters Lisa Miller and Jessica Ramirez not only get religion, but they also broke ground in doing so. No other journalists have noted that Giuliani’s support for abortion rights has already drawn and will draw vigorous opposition from traditional Catholic leaders and activists.

The main weakness of their story is one of context. Like seemingly every story about religion and politics nowadays, it cites Pew for the statistic that Catholics have been moving right since 1992. Try 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first Republican to carry the Catholic vote since Calvin Coolidge. While some GR readers may protest that I am nitpicking here, I am not at all.

In any event, these two stories are to be praised, not condemned.

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Troubles on the Godbeat

Typewriter 02So a reader sent along an interesting story headlined “Burnout on the God beat — second top religion writer calls it quits.” Written by Reuters’ Tom Heneghan, the piece explains that Stephen Bates, who recently left his post at The Guardian, published an account of his time on the beat in an article for New Humanist magazine:

Bates announced his move back in September in another interesting article, this time for the website Religious Intelligence. Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he said: “Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.” Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who “pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those — always committed by other, lesser people — that are not.”

Before we look at the substance of this story, it is important to note it appears in a relatively new blog that any reader of GetReligion will want to bookmark immediately. Reuters’ religion blog began in mid-October and features stories from their religion reporters around the world. Here is Heneghan, the religion editor, explaining the purpose of the blog:

This blog will let us reach beyond the news stories we now write about faith. With our global network of correspondents, we want to bring a new dimension to our religion reporting. Sometimes we’ll add more information to a story, especially by bringing you closer to the source with links to background material. Sometimes we’ll tell the reporter’s “story behind the story.” Sometimes we’ll point out someone else’s story if it helps readers understand the issues.

So a hearty welcome to the blogosphere, Reuters religion reporters, and we look forward to reading the posts at FaithWorld. Okay, now on to the issue raised in Heneghan’s post — is religion reporting hazardous to one’s faith? My heart goes out to anyone engaged in a spiritual crisis. I experienced a bit of that myself, though it had nothing to do with my profession, and it is a horrible thing to go through. So Bates has my sympathy — although I’m confused how he can claim both Catholicism and no faith.

I must admit I’m surprised, though, at some of the naivete of reporters covering religion. Is assuming benignity in humanity a good starting point for covering anything? I always joke that cynicism is one of the best traits I bring as a reporter. It seems that many reporters (and not just religion reporters) are biased toward viewing religion solely as a set of principles that people choose to adhere to. That’s why stories about morality and hypocrisy are so prevalent. While “moral code” may describe an aspect of all religions, there is so much more to religion, so much more that is transcendental about religion. And why would reporters be surprised that, if religion is important, it involves some pretty serious fighting? It seems like a basic requirement for starting on the religion beat would be an understanding that people take religion very seriously and doctrinal differences can be fierce.

Still, Bates’ piece is much better than this embarrassing piece by The Cincinnati Post‘s Kevin Eigelbach. In a column about the top 10 things he’s learned as a religion reporter, he writes about how he hates religious adherents because, well, they hate. Here are some of his top 10 lessons learned: Religion is not rational, people don’t like to have their religion challenged, the media are nearly always viewed as the enemy, sexual sins bother people more than anything else, and:

Christians often don’t act Christlike.

LosingReligionWait a minute. Christians often don’t act Christlike? Stop the presses! Newsflash! Christians often don’t act Christlike! This is one of the top 10 things this religion reporter learned from being on the beat? I am shocked, shocked that Christians failed to live up to this standard of literal perfection.

Anyway, he sums up by saying that his list reflects poorly on religion:

And truly, my experience writing religion stories has been a process of disillusionment. So, I finished with some good things I’ve learned. One is that it’s easier to hate in the abstract.

You don’t say. Anyway, even though I wish Eigelbach had learned better or more useful or interesting lessons on the religion beat, I don’t mean to say that I’m not sympathetic with the hardships of covering religion. It is tremendously difficult to do well, which is why we try to write posts here about good work as well as bad. And people can be just horrible to reporters. When Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune wrote up a very fair and straightforward story last week about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is making another significant change to the introduction to the Book of Mormon, a reader called her a sk---. But the fact is that even weather reporters (especially weather reporters?) get nasty mail and hateful comments. Should reporters question meteorology because of it? People can and will be nasty. This is a lesson most people learn by junior high.

Speaking of junior high, Sally Quinn wrote a rather unimpressive piece for the first anniversary of her On Faith project. (On Faith is The Washington Post/Newsweek big blog devoted to religion.) Anyway, her essay is curious. John Podhoretz described it as being like Augustine’s Confessions, if Augustine’s Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears. Ouch! Quinn’s essay is about how little she knew about religion a year ago, how she’s not really certain why she launched a religion site and how (after a three-week trip around the world to study the world’s religions), she learned the basic tenets of all religions were the same. Back to Podhoretz:

Remember: This is the woman who is the co-editor of a religion website co-managed by one of the nation’s two most important newspapers and one of the nation’s two most important magazines. Neither organization, it’s safe to say, would allow a person as gleefully ignorant and simultaneously archly portentous as Quinn to co-host a site about, oh, sports with the level of knowledge and interest she possessed before taking on “On Faith.” And who, after a year’s thin study, feels herself competent to speak with surpassingly confident banality about the differences and commonalities of the world’s major religions.

Indeed. I’m sure Quinn is a delightful person and her writing is lively and engaging. But why, contra almost every other beat, is religion considered something for amateurs and the uneducated? When religion reporters and editors are well educated, curious and competent, the payoff is tremendous. I would encourage editors to take note of that.

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The spirit of the law

moses and the lawI read with particular interest a Houston Chronicle article on Tuesday about the growing number of “Christian-based” law schools sprouting across the country. The story hooks onto a new law school opening in Louisiana called the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law. The school is supposed to open in 2009 and is named after a lawyer active in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Mary Flood highlights a few interesting points and takes off on a brief survey of religiously affiliated law schools around the country. The story manages to summarize a few highlights, generally miss more substantive issues and note that many of the law schools classes begin with a prayer. Oh, and classes like torts and contracts will have discussions involving religious issues, as if that is some novel development:

“The law school will deliver through the lens of a biblical world view needed today in our nation and our system of justice,” said Joe Aguillard, president of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where he hopes the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law will open in 2009.

Aguillard wants his school to graduate lawyers whose understanding of the law is rooted in “the absolute truth of the Bible” and the foundations the Bible provided for American law.

He notes that means abortion should not be legal. The press release announcing the plans for the private school, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, included a picture of a fetus in the womb reaching a hand out to grasp the finger of a surgeon during an operation.

I am not sure about the relevance of abortion in establishing a law school, but apparently it was important enough to note high in the story. Is it all that surprising that a law school named after Pressler would be against abortion?

The article correctly notes, or implies, that basing an entire legal curriculum on religious issues is not exactly the norm. However, I am not sure that is what these schools or doing, or that what they are doing in highlighting and emphasizing the religious roots of our legal system is that far out of the norm.

I attend a secular state-funded law school, and all of my classes have at one point or another discussed serious religious issues. In three of the four areas of law I am studying — torts, contracts, property — we have discussed how the foundations are in principles found in the Bible. The Good Samaritan rule is a good place to start. (My textbook contained the entire passage from the Book of Luke.)

Another shortcoming is that while the story highlights Ave Maria School of Law, there is little mention of the dozens of other Catholic law schools that will have at least some level of piety in the class room and the curriculum.

Regarding Ave Maria, this paragraph — quoting Charles Roboski, associate dean for external affairs — is priceless:

“Students feel comfortable sharing issues of faith here,” Roboski said. He called it a pro-family campus, meaning students with families may feel especially welcome, and pro-life, meaning anti-abortion.

Thanks for the clarification about those terms. No doubt Roboski is anti-abortion, but is that clarifier all that necessary?

The story rightly points out that there are plenty of law schools affiliated with religious institutions, but they should not be confused with institutions such as Ave Maria:

Despite the new trend merging religion and law, other law schools at universities with religious affiliations have strictly secular curriculum and don’t stop for prayer. In Texas they include the law schools at Baylor University, St. Mary’s and Southern Methodist University.

John Attanasio, dean of SMU’s Dedman School of Law, said his school’s mission “is to train lawyers. The practice of law is largely secular, so that’s what we’re about.”

The article attempts to divide American law schools and the teaching of law into two neat little boxes. There are those secular schools that teach the law the proper way, which start classes with “probing questions about the separation of church and state,” and there are the others, this growing force, that want to “intertwine … the tenets of one or more branches of Christianity into the legal curriculum.”

I would argue that the statement is not precisely accurate since American law is by its nature already intertwined with Christian tenets. How that history is highlighted is another matter, but it is an important distinction. The issue of mixing today’s religion and the law is no doubt controversial, but the issue is not as clear-cut as this story implies.

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