Secular civics in Spain

honda civicsA reader of ours, UndergroundPewster, wrote us a note asking for our thoughts on this International Herald Tribune article on a new secular civics course being introduced in Spain.

In this “Letter from Spain,” reporter Victoria Burnett tells us how a new course taught to students in about a third of Spain’s regions in September is drawing the ire of the Catholic Church. While the course seems rather benign from the initial description of lessons on why reckless driving is bad, Burnett relies on a Catholic to tell us what the fuss is all really about much later in the story

And it’s all about sex:

Alfonso Aguilo, a Catholic headmaster and head of the Madrid Association of Private Education Companies, said that 2,500 parents of the 40,000 students the association represents do not want their children to take the course. In an interview by telephone, he said he was worried about textbooks that put heterosexuality on an equal footing with homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want their children to think there are five types of sexuality, five types of family,” he said.

Near the end of the article we’re told that part of the controversy involves the Catholic Church seeing the new course “as a challenge to its influence in the education system,” where it holds a lot of weight. Also, a fourth of all Spanish students are in Catholic schools, which receive 50 percent of their funding from the government.

Overall the article lacked a broader context that would have been helpful to see the clash between the secularists in Spain and the traditionalists in the church. The clash here makes the culture wars in America look tame, considering that both sides are represented by entrenched centralized organizations.

There is also the question of the broader European story. Spain is very different from its neighbors in a number of ways, but what do other countries’ educational systems have in terms of civics courses and the church? A couple of compelling places to look would be Italy and France.

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Is God at the Yearly Kos?

medium jesus cares for the poor sioux falls smTwo of the biggest political stories of the year, so far, have been the rise of the Godtalkers — old and new — in the Democratic Party and the ever-larger online power base that most liberal leaders call the Netroots.

So I was curious the other day to see if these two trends would overlap in mainstream news coverage of the Yearly Kos, that media-friendly gathering of the folks whose political lives revolve around the Daily Kos weblog and the groups that spin out of it.

So far, it does not appear that the Netroots are getting Middle American religion — at least there is no sign of it in the Los Angeles Times report on the event. I am trying to scan the other mainstream coverage, but I am getting no hits with searches involving “God,” “Christian” and other obvious terms. Anyone seen anything? I did see one Washington Times reference on Google to an interfaith prayer breakfast. Here is a link to that weblog item.

But back to the Los Angeles Times story, by reporter James Rainey. It does include the following interesting reference to the goals of the Netroots movement:

Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank New Democratic Network, told a panel Friday that Democrats had a “historic opportunity” to create a lasting Democratic majority, much as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932.

“We have the opportunity to put the Republicans away for a generation,” Rosenberg said. “But it’s not just going to happen — you have to make it happen.”

Liberals heralded the first Kos convention last summer in Las Vegas as a watershed moment in online activism. Berkeley-based Markos Moulitsas lent his Daily Kos blog handle but said he left the planning to others, mostly volunteers. They boasted this year that the gathering had grown in many ways — from 1,000 to 1,500 participants, from 150 to 250 media outlets, with a tripling of sponsorships from unions and other liberal-leaning organizations to $250,000.

Now, as a guy who has a framed portrait of FDR over his desk at home, this fascinated me.

But, wait a minute, list in your minds the major building blocks of the powerful FDR-era Democratic Party coalition. Didn’t that coalition include large numbers of Bible Belt moral populists and evangelicals? And didn’t urban Catholics in the Midwest and Northeast — you know, the daily Mass Catholics who played such a large role in labor history — figure into that coalition, too?

As a pro-life Democrat, that’s the sort of thing you would expect me to ask about. Has anyone seen any mainstream — or blog nation — coverage of traditional faith at the Yearly Kos? How are the evangelical Democrats and the anti-evangelical Democrats getting along?

The Daily Kos posted some photos from the interfaith service, and here they are.

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Rest in peace, dear auteurs

Michelangelo Antonioni 01The New York Times’ Peter Steinfels has done an excellent job of assessing why many culture-loving Christians respected the films of Ingmar Bergman and of Michelangelo Antonioni, his counterpart in lost Christian faith. This segment is especially good at explaining their two very different non-faith journeys:

There is an interesting contrast here with Michelangelo Antonioni, the other major filmmaker who died Monday. Of all the other great Italian directors, probably none were so unremittingly secular as Antonioni. His world is severely postreligious, a circumstance that made reflective believers intensely interested in his work, too. For Antonioni, however, the passage from religion was simply a fact; for Bergman it was a struggle.

Steinfels mentions a book, God, Death, Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman by the Rev. Robert E. Lauder, as an example of one Christian’s exploration of Bergman’s vision:

Father Lauder’s book makes clear the intellectual grounds for his own philosophical and Christian convictions. But in no way does it try to evade the trajectory in the director’s films from a concern with God to a humanism focused exclusively on human love and on art as the only stays against death.

The book was written not for believers or nonbelievers or, for that matter, cinéastes, but simply for anyone interested in the “big questions,” as dramatized by the extraordinary talent that Father Lauder considers the unrivaled “spokesman-artist for the third quarter of the twentieth century.”

It was the unflinching seriousness of Bergman’s struggle with these questions — regardless of the answers he reached — that made him so important for the religiously inclined. This is especially so because his probing, unlike Antonioni’s, recognized the continuing power of the Christian and biblical heritage and the deep resonance of its words and images.

Steinfels closes with the hope that the dialogue between faith and film will not be dimmed. Amen to that, especially because films provide one of the best settings in which believers and skeptics can lay their differences on the table and still spend pleasant, rewarding time with one another.

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Where is the ghost in this Sudan story?

e1074I know that this is a very old topic around here, but here I go again.

The fact that people are being massacred in the Sudan is old news by this time.

The fact that religion has a lot to do with it is old news, especially when you are dealing with the South Sudan — where Christians and animists have been dying for many years, in numbers that are just as bad if not worse than the hellish conditions in Darfur.

It does help that Hollywood has jumped into the game when it comes to crying out for justice in Darfur. Hey, better late than never.

It is also old news that there is more to this conflict than religion and that the religious elements are complex and many-layered. The press should know all of that by now.

So I am mystified when I read a story in a major newspaper — the Los Angeles Times, in this case — that seems not to realize that there is much of a religious component to the Sudan fighting. I am talking about the Maggie Farley piece that ran the other day with this long double-deck headline: “Sudan rebel affects peace talks by sitting out: As other opposition leaders meet today to map strategy, Abdel Wahid will wield considerable clout — from exile in Paris.” The whole point of the story is to show that rebel leaders can be morally complex, too.

OK, I get that.

Wahid, a round-faced 39-year-old, is one of Darfur’s original rebel leaders, and even from afar, a man of secrets, contradictions and considerable power. He is a holdout who gains influence over the conversation about peace by refusing to talk; a would-be peacemaker who threatens more war; a fighter for the rights of displaced people, yet a figure who derives his power from their misery. And he is one reason it is so hard to stabilize Sudan.

Wahid began the SLM in 1992 while a law student in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to agitate for a secular democratic state and a greater share of the country’s power and wealth for the long-neglected people in the vast western region of Darfur. The group evolved into an armed movement, which along with other rebels attacked Sudanese forces in 2003. The rebellion resulted in widespread retaliation by militias known as janjaweed, widely believed to be backed by the Sudanese government. The militias terrorized the villages harboring rebels, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and driving more than 2 million people from their homes into U.N.-run camps.

Though he has been living in Paris since 2004 for what he says are security reasons, Wahid remains one of the most influential leaders of the Fur tribe, which makes up the majority of Darfur’s population and has been the main target of attacks.

So please read on. Am I missing something? Is there a religious element to this story, some way of describing the alignment between this rebel and the Islamists that run the government? Is this the only truly secular leader in this whole conflict?

In other words, what is going on here?

This is not a good question to have to ask at the end of a news report. What am I missing?

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Great reporting on a GOP kitten fight

The New York Times’ blog The Caucus reports on the juicy conflict between the presidential campaigns of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback that is steeped in religious issues and language.

This story has made the rounds in various formats, but this is the best coverage of the spat largely because reporter Sarah Wheaton took the time and effort to cut and paste large sections of the e-mails from the row.

It’s important that the story has not made the print edition, and I don’t think it needs to be there.

This is where news organizations’ blogs can shine. This isn’t front-page news by any measure. It’s two second-tier (or third) candidates squabbling over issues that don’t directly relate to a person’s qualifications for the presidency. But it is a fascinating battle between candidates who would attempt to inherit the mantle that President Bush carried in the 2000 campaign as the candidate of the Religious Right. So take a look at this:

A little e-mail battle brewing over the past few days between Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is escalating into an endless Punch-and-Judy show. And like spellbound children, we’re captivated by every volley.

It all started with an e-mail written by the Rev. Tim Rude, a Huckabee supporter, asking two Brownback supporters to consider switching sides. The longish e-mail contained some typical pitches, but there was also this:

Huckabee is an evangelical. He has not learned how to speak to evangelicals; i.e. Bush 41 & 43. He is one of us. I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s. I don’t if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback. [sic.]

As they say, them’s fightin’ words.

One additional detail that I wish the NYT had included for context is what Noam Scheiber reported in The New Republic in December 2006 on Brownback’s conversion to Catholicism:

There are less flattering explanations as well. Brownback had always had a weakness for elite societies. He applied twice to be a White House Fellow before being admitted. When he got to Congress, Rolling Stone has reported, he sought admission to a small “cell” overseen by “The Fellowship,” an organization of evangelical elites. Catholicism in general, and McCloskey’s flock in particular, may have been just another upscale fraternity to pledge.

Nor is it easy to ignore how Brownback’s conversion has given him a beachhead in each of the two most powerful communities on the religious right. Even Congdon concedes there was some skepticism in the pews of TBC when news of the conversion made the rounds. “I fielded a lot of questions from suspicious people who thought that was just a political conversion,” he says.

I am not saying this is the reason Brownback converted — the article lists a more plausible reason just before these paragraphs — but it might help explain why the Huckabee supporter would bring up Brownback’s conversion as a political ax to grind.

There is also the aspect that the staffs of both candidates are using religious undertones to demean the other side. Here is Huckabee’s campaign manager Chip Saltsman, in response to the Brownback campaign’s response to an apology for the original e-mail, courtesy of the NYT:

It’s time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others. He has attacked Governor Huckabee for something that a Huckabee supporter said in an email sent to two individuals. The person who originated the email has apologized and is not a member of the Huckabee staff. For Brownback to claim that the Governor “owes him an apology” is nonsense and indicates that if Brownback is going to fall to pieces every time a supporter of the Governor says something he doesn’t like, he clearly isn’t tough enough to be President. The Governor strongly disavowed the statement by the supporter, but that wasn’t enough for Brownback. He continued to cry about it. The irony is that unlike Senator Brownback, I have been a Catholic my entire life, as have several of the senior staff members in the Huckabee campaign. Governor Huckabee enjoys strong support from Catholics and for good cause. If Senator Brownback wants to start apologizing for inappropriate things said, perhaps he could pull the “beam out of his own eye before taking the speck out of someone else’s” by apologizing for the website ‘Baptists for Brownback’ that states that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Fred Thompson and others are ‘Hell bound.’

The battle goes on.

Perhaps it’s time to write the story that says that the two conservative evangelical candidates running in the 2008 Republican primary are close to writing themselves out of the race due to their silly snipping? Does this squabble show signs of serious cracks in the Religious Right, or is this just petty bickering that shows the immaturity of the two campaigns and the lack of adult supervision?

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Ghost in the gorilla mists?

virunga gorillaMost of the time, when I encounter a religious reference in a mainstream news story I can figure out what it is doing there. However, I hit something the other day in Newsweek that really puzzled me and it still does.

The story in question is part of the cover package about exotic species around the world that are in danger of being snuffed out, often by insane human hunting. This leads into a tragic sidebar about those famous gorillas in the Congo, written by reporter Scott Johnson.

It seems that the gorillas are caught in the middle of another round of the hellish wars between the Hutu and Tutsis, with economic interests at stake in the lush jungles of the parklands. Killing the gorillas is one way to lash out at the rangers — many of whom have been killed — who try to enforce the rules of the park. This leads to the following reference that puzzled me:

One of the rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, 43, has been intimately involved in trying to stop the charcoal trade from spreading across Virunga. A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo is fiercely protective of the gorillas in his sector of the park. Six months ago he was lecturing villagers about the threat the charcoal industry posed to Virunga when men in military uniforms showed up, stripped him of his shirt and flogged him in front of the audience. Last month he posted a blog item in which he accused the charcoal merchants of being complicit in the destruction of the gorillas’ habitat. Two days later unknown gunmen killed a female gorilla under his care.

Ngobobo says he has received death threats and warnings to stop criticizing the charcoal industry. Then came last week’s killings, which many in his unit have interpreted as political assassinations — a message from the powerful interests that operate in the area. “There are people who are feeding off this conflict,” Ngobobo warns darkly. Last week authorities arrested Ngobobo and accused him of negligence because the recent killings all happened on his watch; his supporters claim that that was part of the assassins’ plan all along. Ngobobo denies any wrongdoing.

Why the reference to the ranger’s faith? Is it a way to undercut the latter claims of negligence? Perhaps, especially due to that word “devout” in front of the word “Christian.”

I also thought it was interesting that the reporter called him a Christian, instead of using the term Catholic. No, I am not bashing Catholicism. I am merely referring to the fact that the Hutu-Tutsi wars not that long ago included many accusations that powerful Catholic leaders in this part of the world should have done more to stop the bloodshed or, at least, not made it worse.

And is there some link to religion in this new conflict? The rest of the story does not tell us. Strange, no?

I, for one, wanted to know more about that strange description of the ranger.

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Here she is, Miss Female Catholic Priest

Miss America PageantToday I was crowned Miss America. Except by “Miss America” I mean my husband said I was “one foxy-looking pregnant lady.” It’s a shame that pageant organizers do not recognize this triumph and bestow on me the crown I so rightfully deserve.

I joke, but check out the lede to a story from Portland’s KOIN News:

Oregon’s first female Catholic priest was ordained in Gresham on Sunday. It’s a history-making milestone, but one the Catholic Church does not recognize.

The Vatican says only men can be priests. But since 2002, there has been a growing international movement to defy that law and give women the same status as men, and ordain them.

Toni Tortorilla said she was called to the priesthood when she was 5 years old, and she believes the law is unjust.

The bishop who ordained her at a United Church of Christ, Patricia Fresen of Germany, was herself ordained by a male bishop in good standing in South Africa. Fresen’s Dominican order expelled her, but she became the driving force to ordain more women.

There are now 22 women priests and five deacons internationally. None of them has been ex-communicated, but neither will the Church recognize them.

By the end of the summer, the women priest program expects to ordain another nine North American women as priests, and 14 as deacons.

The debate within the Church is whether the ban on women priests is human law or divine.

I know that Oregon, where my husband is from, is known for its lack of religiosity, but this story is so bad that it’s hard to know what to say in response. Even the little things are bad. What does the phrase “at a United Church of Christ” mean? Where is any information about the name of the organization that ordains the women? What is the name of the South African bishop in good standing? Where are any quotes from any people knowledgeable about the situation? What the heck is that last line? Seriously. What does that last line mean? This rivals that bout of bad stories from last year.

Anyone fluent in broadcast television news-speak who can translate any meaning from this story? Until then, I promise to fight for world peace and literacy as part of my platform.

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Assume the official position

this week in godWhile visiting the blog of Episcopal priest Joseph Howard I came across a link to a new journalism and religion site. Funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, the site has blogs, links to a Second Life community, and other features. Here’s how it’s described:

Stories about religion are too often framed around conflict and controversy, culture wars and holy wars. We want to tell another story — the lived experience of people’s faith.

We are a team of journalists from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley exploring “God, Sex and Family.” That’s where choices about marriage, dating, the building of community, family and faith play out in private life.

And public life, too! I love the idea behind the site, as I’ve long advocated against religion stories being framed around conflict. And I think the current scope of sex discussions (homosexuality, abortion) is far too limited in most media coverage of religion.

It’s just getting started but some aspects are worth looking at. One popular area is the Moral Compass, where you can learn what the “official” positions are for nine major religions: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reform Judaism, Mormon, Muslim (mostly Sunni), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a major world religion, isn’t it? Why not Zoroastrians?

It’s also interesting to note what is missing. Where are the Pentecostals? Where are the non-Baptist evangelicals? Where are the always-forgotten liberal Baptists? Charismatics? Why is Reform Judaism more important than the Conservative branch? How about Hindus? I would love to see the argument for including United Methodists over Hindus. A partial answer is given by one Erin Fitzgerald:

The plan for the Moral Compass was to state the “official position” for nine major religions. We discussed and debated which nine those should be. We wanted Hinduism; wanted to include it very much, but it didn’t fit our parameters, that is, first, stating the official position, then indicating nuances to that position via the videos. I personally contacted several Hindu groups but they said that Hindus do not normally take positions, as a group, on these types of ethical decisions. One of the Hindu organizations I spoke to said that they are currently working with other Hindu groups to prepare those types of statements, but the “official position papers” wouldn’t be ready until well after our deadline. In short, we did what we could given these constraints.

I know these are only grad students, but this journalist has just explained why so much media coverage is lacking. Rather than looking critically at the parameters set out by the project and readjusting to reflect the reality of different religions, the group simply excludes the religion that doesn’t fit. I’m not saying I’m not sympathetic, but it’s just interesting to contemplate how this works in story assignment and development.

When sources don’t say what you want them to say, do you ignore them? Do you exclude them? Do you rethink your story’s premise? I’d say how you answer that question says a lot about the quality of the piece you end up with.

The problem with Hinduism’s lack of “official” positions is legitimate, though. But how well did the journalists do with understanding the official positions of, say, the Episcopal Church? Here’s their answer to the question of what the Episcopal Church’s official position is on whether gays and lesbians can marry and have such unions blessed by the church:

We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

But as Howard notes, that’s not an official position and fails to reflect the true “fuzziness” of the current Episcopal position that is clearly changing:

I think it is important to point out that the response as to homosexual relationships are blessed by the entire Episcopal Church, thereby making it an official position is incorrect. At the most it should be listed as “varied” or “discerning,” since the item you refer to as indicating official blessing was merely a resolution indicating that some Episcopalians are exploring this as a legitimate position and we are not sufficiently of one mind to condemn them. That is hardly a unified and official position, and I would hazard a guess that while the majority of the Episcopal Church voted not to reject such practices at General convention, a majority of Bishops have not approved such rites, nor would they encourage priests in their dioceses to use them. A little more clarity about our confusion would be appreciated.

It’s a good point and one the journalism grad students should keep in mind as they develop their Moral Compass. After all, this is the closest most journalists will come to a moral compass. I kid, I kid. It’s been a long week at work. What do you think of the site? What could be improved? Is this a sufficient improvement over The Daily Show‘s “This Week in God”?

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