‘They made us cry’

Young Terri SchavioUSA Today‘s “Lives of indelible impact” is one of the stranger lists I’ve seen for some time. The concept is not new, as Beliefnet has published its “Most Inspiring Person of the Year” feature for several years now. Within context, the list makes sense: To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the newspaper is publishing 25 lists of 25 items each.

“Lives of indelible impact” is list No. 10, which makes me want to see what else the paper’s editors will enumerate. The first nine lists were of trends, quotes, books, lucrative stocks, NFL draft moments, Internet breakthroughs, public meltdowns (Jimmy Swaggart’s was tops), TV moments and inventions.

What’s strange about this list is that it finds inspiration in several victims of circumstance. “They blazed trails. They showed courage,” the introduction reads. So far, so good. Then this: “They made us cry.”

Consider the paper’s entry on Terry Schiavo:

In 1990 at 26, she mysteriously collapsed and suffered brain damage. Eventually, her husband wanted her feeding tube removed to let her die. Her parents argued she was conscious and gave TV media film of her seeming to smile. They battled in court and Congress. Her husband prevailed; she died after the tube was removed in 2005. Her case prompted greater use of living wills.

Yes, living wills! Never mind that many pro-lifers saw Schiavo’s death as an outrageous state-sanctioned murder, while many others saw the legal wrangling preceding her death as an outrageous intrusion of the state into a family matter. The ABC After-School Special moment in it all was the importance of drafting a living will. What attorney’s breast would not be inflamed with professional pride?

Consider as well these victims of random suffering, who either died quickly or were too young to do anything about their situation.

The astronauts on the Challenger:

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986 as millions of horrified TV viewers watched. All seven crewmembers died, including Christa McAuliffe, an eager junior high school teacher who was scheduled to teach two lessons from space.

Megan Kanka and Jessica Lunsford:

Their deaths frightened us into action. The girls, ages 7 and 9, respectively, were raped and murdered, Megan in 1994 and Jessica in 2005, each by a convicted sex offender. To protect other children, states and Congress passed laws that require sex offenders to register their addresses.

Jessica McClure:

Her ordeal captivated a nation. She was 18 months old when she fell into a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987. Rescuers worked 58 hours to free her from an 8-inch-wide pipe. McClure, 21, married last year and had a baby girl. “She’s just a normal person with a famous name,” says her high school principal, Scott Knippa.

“Baby M”:

She is the baby who first illuminated the thorny issues of surrogate parenting. Melissa Stern, her real name, is the biological child of William Stern and Mary Beth Whitehead, the surrogate hired to carry her. Once she was born, a tearful Whitehead refused to give her up. A court awarded Stern custody. Melissa is a junior at George Washington University in Washington.

Elian Gonzalez:

He was 5 when the small boat carrying him and 13 others escaping Cuba sank in 1999, killing his mother. He survived on an inner tube and was taken in by relatives in Miami. His father in Cuba wanted him back, and Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his return. When the relatives balked, armed federal agents stormed their house and found Elian hiding in the closet. He lives with his father.

Again, so long as the corpses or the abused children embodied a cause, they led lives of “indelible impact.”

USA Today makes several choices that only a grinch would reject, including the heroes of 9/11, Nelson Mandela, Lance Armstrong, Ryan White, the “Man at Tiananmen Square” (the one who faced down a tank, not the many who died there) and Arthur Ashe.

When praising an occasional believer, the paper airbrushes away features that made the believer compelling. The piece praises Pope John Paul II for asking forgiveness for the church’s past sins but ignores his full-throated orthodoxy (think of his celebrating Mass in Poland and in Nicaragua). It praises Mother Teresa for her decades of tending to the sick and dying but does not mention her frequent pro-life remarks. It mentions Muhammad Ali but omits the reason for his adopted name: his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

In the pages of USA Today, it does not matter if these people lived heroically or were murdered or were abducted at gunpoint: They all look like Hummel figurines.

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This just in: Burke not Episcopalian

BurkeWashington Post reporter Peter Slevin vented on St. Louis Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke in this diatribe news article published today.

It’s a very curious read. Anyone wanting to know more about Burke or his theological approach to his office will be disappointed. Anyone wanting to know more about how some religious leaders balance concerns about public opinion and fidelity to doctrine will be disappointed. Anyone wanting a substantive debate about whether the church has the right to be, well, churchy in the public square will be disappointed. Anybody wanting a balanced look at how Roman Catholics in St. Louis feel about Burke will be disappointed. Fact is, I can’t think of a single group of people who would have any positive thoughts about this piece, other than folks who oppose church teaching on social issues.

Here’s how it begins:

When it comes to expressing his views of church values, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke has a habit of making headlines, not always to the satisfaction of his flock.

I’m not sure what to say in response to this. The idea that the reporter would take this approach to Burke’s behavior is just so . . . mainstream media, isn’t it? Oh, so the archbishop makes decisions that are not always to the satisfaction of his flock? Shocking! Name one church leader in the history of the world who has ever made decisions to the satisfaction of 100 percent of the flock. And what the heck kind of measure is that anyway? I think it might be just more honest to say that when it comes to expressing his views of church values, Burke hasn’t satisfied The Washington Post.

Anyway, the reporter goes on to discuss some of Burke’s more headline-inducing decisions, such as declaring he would deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry because he supports abortion. Or resigning his chairmanship of a hospital board because the hospital invited Sheryl Crow to headline a fundraiser. Crow had campaigned for embryonic-destroying stem cell research in Missouri and is a notorious supporter of abortion. Burke said turning a blind eye from her political activism would be scandalous. Slevin also mentions a case that I’m not sure Burke had anything specific to do with — the disinvitation of Sen. Claire McCaskill delivering a commencement address at a Roman Catholic high school on account of her support of embryonic-destroying stem cell research and abortion. He sums up:

At a time when significant segments of the Catholic population are breaking with the church on such issues as embryonic stem cell research and abortion, Burke is adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI — and he expects the same of all Catholics in his archdiocese.

Oooookay, Peter. As a Lutheran, I feel confident saying that Rome doesn’t exactly have a history of acting like a democracy. Or the faculty of UC-Berkeley for that matter. I understand that Burke is noteworthy for the manner in which he adheres to church teachings . . . but the language of this piece is just so one-sided and out of touch. It reads like Washington Post vs. Catholic orthodoxy rather than insight into Catholic struggles about the proper role for archbishop.

As one reader who sent along the story commented, “This article in the Post by Peter Slevin isn’t journalism; it’s trash-talk.” The reader said Slevin’s purpose seemed to be mocking Burke for how he doesn’t align his views with the rest of the world and how he’s supposedly driving everyone away from the Church.

The article’s headfake toward balance occurs with the quoting of Burke defender James Hitchcock, a professor at Saint Louis University who writes for the diocesan press. But the rest of the article — and particularly the explosive language used by Slevin — betrays the reporter’s bias. I’ve commented on his bias before — but at least then he was writing for the Style pages.

He says that Burke has “roiled the church” in St. Louis, but doesn’t shed any light on what that statement means or substantiate it with objective reporting. He mentions that Burke is like Benedict XVI, who spoke against Mexican lawmakers who voted to legalize abortion. This is a great line from the article:

In response, 18 Catholic members of Congress declared that “religious sanction in the political arena” violates American freedoms.

I’m confident that the head of the church in Rome feels chastened by the charge that he is not American. Even more so, who are these Congresscritters? A religious leader commenting on the political views of people within his religious community is not violating any American’s freedom. See, for instance: every Supreme Court decision ever made on the Establishment Clause. I make this point to note that Slevin isn’t really shedding light on any of the deeper issues here or illuminating the actual controversy.

Slevin quotes a pro-choice former Catholic who thinks Burke is awful and tells people how to live their lives. Excellent choice for a quote, Peter. A former Roman Catholic who thinks that church heads should not tell people how to live? Surely she does not represent the views of people who actually oppose Burke. Surely there’s something more substantive to this debate. Interesting note: Slevin uses the phrase pro-choice to describe the former Catholic. I’m curious: When was the last time the Post used the term pro-life to describe pro-lifers in a news story?

And then he mentions Rep. David Obey, an abortion-rights supporter. Obey took umbrage at Burke’s admonition that voting to have taxpayers pay for the abortions of female military members and voting to have taxpayers pay for the destruction of human embryos conflicted with church teaching. So I guess Slevin’s news hook is that Burke is not acting like an Episcopalian?

Slevin portrays Burke’s opposition to Crow as something that hurts little sick children and refers to a notable church property dispute and “Burke’s wrath” against the parish’s leadership.

There is no question that Burke is controversial. I can imagine all the wonderful stories exploring how St. Louisans are responding to his approach. Instead we get hit-piece journalism that serves no one. It’s a shame to waste the ink and trees.

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Trust me — I’m a reporter

PraireDawnReporter 01One of the things I wish more reporters had the opportunity to do is be interviewed by other reporters. I’ve had my share of experiences being on the other end of the pad and pen. In some cases, the reporter is thorough and takes the time to really understand what you are saying. I’ve also been misquoted, which is an absolutely horrifying experience. In one case, I was misquoted to say the opposite of what I was actually saying. I called the reporter to complain and she yelled at me. I mean, really!

There is also the far more frequent occurrence of a reporter who calls looking for a preconceived idea or quote and when they don’t get it, they try to put words in my mouth or simply get off the phone. The stories end up as they began — with the reporter’s idea of the permissible perspectives firmly in place. If more reporters were on the receiving end of being misquoted or dismissed for not saying the right thing, I think the quality of their reporting would improve.

Amy Welborn, a Roman Catholic blogger of Open Book fame, posted thoughts on Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article on Pope Benedict XVI’s new book. One of her commenters, Notre Dame University professor Lawrence Cunningham, was interviewed for the piece:

Readers may be interested in this bit of background to the risible article by Ms Miller. The person who is acknowledged as helping with the article called me a few weeks before this article appeared doing “research.” She wanted the names of famous books on Jesus and a description of their contents beginning with Reimarus. When I told her gently that the history of the “higher” criticism was a tad complicated she soldiered on asking about Schweitzer (the only name she seems to know) and then, jumping ahead nearly a century, something about the Jesus Seminar. When I told her about some sources she might consult she said that she was on “deadline.” Not to put too fine a point on it: she did not have a clue. Lesson to be learned: read these articles in the popular press with a shovel full of salt. As for the Miller piece itself: patronizing and snarky about sums it up. Oh, how I miss the days when Ken Woodward (Notre Dame — Class of 57) wrote on religion.

Very interesting. I don’t believe reporters need to be experts in their field. In fact, sometimes I think it helps if you can tell sources that you need to be educated about a given topic. But this level of ignorance is another thing entirely.

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Justice Kennedy: A mysterious gap

authAll week long (while the Jerry Falwell coverage rolled on, with good reason) I have been puzzled about a strange story that I read in The Washington Post. Allow me to flash back.

Now, I am the last person who would argue that the legal arguments about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing a ban on the abortion procedure that must not be named (click here, I dare you) can be boiled down to, well, a cartoon. You know the one I’m talking about, the one by Tony Auth showing five male justices wearing miters suggesting that they voted like Roman Catholic bishops.

Now, with that controversy in mind, please read the recent A1 piece by Robert Barnes on the most powerful man in American life — Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

The top does a good job of setting the stage:

It is easy to define Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s role on the Supreme Court this term, and difficult to exaggerate his importance. To borrow President Bush’s self-description, he’s “The Decider.”

He is the only justice to be in the majority in each of the term’s unusually high number of 5 to 4 decisions. At this midpoint of the court’s rulings, he has been on the losing side in only two of the 40 opinions issued. Because the court so far has shown itself to be strikingly — and evenly — divided on ideological issues, Kennedy holds enormous power in pivoting between the left and right, legal experts say. He stands alone in the middle — and that enhances his importance.

Since this is Culture Wars-era America, this has to have a social-issues hook, including, as mentioned before, the ultimate Sexual Revolution issue. So who is this guy?

Kennedy, a 70-year-old Californian named to the court by Ronald Reagan in 1988, is a moderate conservative, and court watchers expect his conservatism to be more evident in pending cases concerning school desegregation and campaign finance. But his role in the middle does not endear him to the left or to conservative activists who are disappointed he has not been a dependable partner in changing the court.

Conservatives still are irked at Kennedy’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey — written with O’Connor and Souter — to uphold the basic abortion right found in Roe while allowing states to restrict the procedure. Kennedy in the past had been a critic of Roe, and his words from the bench that day — “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existing, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of life” — are mocked by the right as the “sweet mystery of life” speech.

Well now. Read the whole story again. Is something missing, some factor that might make people on both sides of this issue just a little bit more agitated by Kennedy’s mysterious tightrope act on this ultimate issue? As I said up top, I don’t think this factor should dominate the story. But silence? Interesting. Maybe the cartoon controversy had an effect.

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She blinded me with history

baptismofJesusNewsweek‘s Lisa Miller wrote an article for the May 21 issue that looks at the new book on Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI. Newsweek apparently had an exclusive excerpt of the book and Miller did an article about the book’s meaning, a portion of which dealt with Jesus’ baptism:

[T]he pope explicates Jesus’ baptism by John–a story that appears in all four Gospel accounts and that modern historians believe is at least partially grounded in fact.

This is just choice, if I may borrow one of my favorite words from elementary school. So “modern historians” believe that the baptism of Jesus is “at least partially grounded in fact”? Well that is certainly noteworthy to include in a story like this! What parts are we to believe, oh holy and infallible “modern historians”? Does that sentence even mean anything? Since when could historians even come to consensus on something like this? And on what basis? Who are these historians and why aren’t we told more about them? Are these Jesus Seminar types? Are these the ones who figured out Lincoln was gay? But beyond that, it is just so weird that Miller thinks some odd partial-verification of a story by “modern historians” is really key to understanding or shedding light on Benedict’s book. As if two millennia of systematic theology are really affected by what someone in that bastion of consistency and integrity — the academy — has to say about it. Sigh.

(Benedict is notably silent, though, on the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher and on the probability that Jesus also believed that the world was about to end in flames. In a discussion elsewhere in “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict goes to lengths to show that when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he didn’t mean the apocalypse. What he meant, the pope writes, is that “God is acting now–this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord.” This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict’s Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate.)

Again, what? Jesus probably wasn’t referring to his own life, death and resurrection when he referred to the Kingdom of God being at hand? And Jesus probably believed the world was “about” to “end in flames”? What does that even mean? And how does she figure that Jesus believed this at all, much less say he did so with any degree of probability? And who in the heck are these “many” scholars who say that Benedict’s view — the orthodox Christian view, I might add — is historically inaccurate? And where can I find an editor who lets me use the word “many” to describe anything in any story? Much less anything of import?

Moving on:

What of the next part of the story? The part where Jesus rises from the water, the heavens part, the Spirit descends on his shoulders (in the shape of a dove) and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Does Benedict believe, as the fundamentalists do, that this literally happened?

Oh. No. She. Didn’t. Fundamentalists? Um, what? And yes, I hope you do see that I’m rather unable to respond to the complete lack of understanding here. When you’re talking about the Pope, is it better to compare his completely orthodox thoughts on the baptism of Christ “literally” happening to those of fundamentalists (that word! Gah!) or, say, every single one of his predecessors in the Pope seat? The presence of fundamentalists — a rather modern theological group — in this story makes no sense to me. As readers of this blog know, fundamentalist was a term used in the 1910s and 1920s to describe a specific type of religious believer in Britain and the United States who emphasized so-called “fundamentals” of the faith. The AP Stylebook says that reporters should not use the word unless they are using it to describe a group or individual that also uses the term to describe itself. But could someone explain why that group is included in a story about Benedict’s book?

Also, this snide and condescending mainstream media incredulity at the notion that Christians might actually believe that the baptism of Jesus took place as described in all four Gospels is just beyond words. I think more than a few barrels of ink have been shed over this very important moment. Unless Newsweek has only graduated to the journalistic equivalent of Chris Hitchens still expressing shock that billions of very backwards people believe in the transcendent. I mean, is that really news? That Christians believe Jesus to be divine? That Christians believe in the Triune God? For real? I mean, talk about your fundamentals!

Now what’s most disconcerting about this whole mess is that Lisa Miller is Newsweek‘s religion editor. I know that Newsweek is fond of that whole opinion-journalism-masquerading-as-regular-reportage shtick, but this piece reads like it was written by someone with disdain for orthodox Christianity and, much worse, not enough knowledge of the basic topics at hand. It reminds me of that horrible Newsweek International piece on Benedict a few weeks ago. Is that what the magazine is going for? Why?

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More than a politico

Jerry FalwellThe general consensus in the day-after coverage of the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell has been that he ignited the political movement that is today known as the religious right. Here’s Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times:

A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.

He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.

The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.

Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.

Falwell’s greatest effect on America was undoubtedly the political movement he baptized as the “founder of the religious right,” as USA Today reporters Susan Page and Cathy Lynn Grossman put it. But in a page A6 story from The Washington Post‘s Hanna Rosin, the theme is that Falwell’s movement had moved beyond him like Russia did with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reaction to Falwell’s death has produced an avalanche of statements from President Bush to Al Sharpton to Larry Flynt. Who was the last person, other than former presidents, whose death received this level of attention? And what could be the level of polarization in the statements?

The Post/Newsweek On Faith has posted comments from its panel of distinguished religious figures, including Rick Warren (“A Real Compassionate Conservative“), Diana Eck (“A Good Person with Bad Theology“), Anthony Stevens-Arroyo (“The Wolsey Moment“) and Jonathan Sarna (“Friend to Israel; Enemy to Anti-Semites“).

One angle that has been neglected was Falwell’s genuine attempts to bring conservative Christianity into modern times.

Here’s Jesse Walker at Reason:

Falwell fulminated til the end against homosexuality, feminism, and the other alleged evils of modernity. But it’s hard to escape the impression that his cohort not only lost the culture war, but perhaps did more than anyone else to usher Hollywood’s America into Christian homes. In the early days, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network refused to air reruns of Bewitched on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. Today the outlet is owned by ABC, which calls it the ABC Family Channel and happily broadcasts not just The 700 Club but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, not to mention the frequently ribald humor of Whose Line Is It Anyway? As intensely intolerant as Falwell could be, it’s harder than ever to imagine America reembracing his views about gender relations or the sinfulness of homosexuality. The one cultural war he may have won, perhaps without even meaning to wage it, was the battle against Protestant hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his illiberal platform and rhetoric, Falwell’s long-term legacy might be one of tolerance.

That could depend, of course, on whether the centralized, politicized fundamentalist community he helped create survives the next media revolution. Television tends to smooth over our differences; the Internet allows diversity to bloom. The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now, pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube. He might even call his little films The Old Time Gospel Minute. Don’t let the title fool you.

It’s easy for the press to get caught up in the left-right divide that tends to dictate the direction of public statements issued to remember Falwell’s passing. But taking a longer perspective on Falwell shows that for all his dramatic pronouncements and controversies, he changed the American religious landscape, and subsequently America, in rather significant fashion. The political spats that made Falwell famous will pass away, but the rise of the religious right and his influence on the use of technology (think television) in religion will be his lasting legacy.

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Checking in with the pope’s editor

index phpWe are nearing the end of the media blitz accompanying Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Latin America (Amy Welborn has, of course, lots of handy links).

To my surprise, I still think the most important news came at the very beginning. The heart of the matter can be found in a paragraph that, at first, I thought The New York Times got completely wrong and that I now — brace yourselves — think the newspaper of record got precisely right.

Let’s flash all the way back to that very first report by Ian Fisher and Larry Rohter focusing on the pope’s blunt words about politics, abortion and the sacraments. Here’s the key, right near the top:

On the plane from Rome, Benedict appeared to go further than the Vatican had before on the contentious issue of Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights. He seemed to suggest that Mexico City legislators who recently voted to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy had excommunicated themselves.

“Yes, the excommunication isn’t something arbitrary — it’s part of the code” of church law, the pope said in Italian, in response to a question during the first full-fledged news conference of his two-year pontificate. “The killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going into communion in the body of Christ.”

What leapt out at me was the use of “appeared” and “seemed” in the summary paragraph ahead of Benedict’s actual words. As a rule, journalists try to avoid interpretive words of this kind because they interject an element of editorializing or, at the very least, strong subjectivity. The reporter might as well say “appeared to me” or “seemed to me” and be done with it.

But then I read on and, as I did so, I thought about the reality of this journalistic challenge.

First of all, brilliant academic people are skilled at creating good sound bites, and this is certainly true of Benedict XVI, as it was for John Paul II before him. Second, if there is anything in the world that the typical Vatican diplomat detests it is a direct, logical statement that adds a note of clarity to a tense situation.

Sure enough, the pope’s headline-grabbing statement was followed — a few lines later — by this:

The pope’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, quickly issued a clarification that played down his words, but then issued a statement approved by the pope that seemed to confirm a new gravity on politicians who allow abortion.

“Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist,” the statement said, and politicians who vote that way should “exclude themselves from communion.” …

Father Lombardi’s initial clarifying statement said the pope had intended to refer to current Vatican policy, as expressed in a document on the Eucharist that Benedict issued in December. In that document, Benedict said that certain values, including protecting human life from conception to natural death, were “not negotiable” and that Catholic politicians had a “grave responsibility” to promote such laws.

So, you see, the Times was just playing the odds, which is an appropriate thing to do when Vatican diplomats are involved in press relations. So, you see, there really wasn’t a major news story here that would affect politicians in the United States and around the world. It just seemed that there was a major story, based on the words of this papal statement.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times quickly followed up with an amazing little piece noting that, by the time the pope’s remarks were transcribed and distributed, some of his words had actually disappeared — including a very crucial pronoun. Tracy Wilkinson should receive an award for the crisp, ironic, lede of the papal tour:

The pope, it turns out, has an editor.

Fallout from comments Benedict XVI made … about abortion and excommunication has been so intense that the Vatican has simply changed the record.

It all began when the pope, in a news conference aboard his flight to Brazil, appeared to endorse the excommunication of Roman Catholic politicians who vote to legalize abortion.

… (W)hen the transcript of the news conference appeared … on the Vatican’s official website, the pope’s comments had been altered.

For those who understand Italian, the transcript is here. Has anyone seen an English translation? That would have been nice, of course. Here is the crucial change, as described in the Los Angeles Times story:

In the 25-minute news conference, Benedict was asked if he agreed with excommunication for Mexican lawmakers who last month legalized abortion in Mexico City. “Yes, this excommunication is not something arbitrary,” he answered, before going on to explain that such punishment is part of church law.

The transcript on the Vatican website removes the “Yes, this” and begins, “Excommunication is …” — making his remarks seem more generic and unconnected to the case in Mexico.

So, the clarity vanished, with that little word — “this.”

Nothing much to write about, it seems. Peace, peace.

Photo from the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo’s papal tour press site.

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Resist the J.F.K. itch

JFKinHoustonWhat is most helpful about Nancy Gibbs’ article on Mitt Romney in the latest issue of Time is her detailed explanation of why Romney faces doubts — not just from some evangelicals, but also from the cultural left:

Many Evangelicals have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of Scripture and doctrine. Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood. Though Mormons revere Christ as Saviour and certainly call themselves Christians, the church is rooted in a rebuke to traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith presented himself as a prophet whom God had instructed to restore his true church, since “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”

… Twelve years later, Smith explained to a Chicago newspaper that “ignorant translators, careless transcribers or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” in the Bible, which he revised according to God’s revelations.

… [Slate's Jacob] Weisberg observes that modern political discourse seems to permit the exploration of candidates’ every secret except their most basic philosophical beliefs: “The crucial distinction is between someone’s background and heritage, which they don’t choose, and their views, which they do choose and which are central to the question of whether someone has the capacity to serve in the highest office in the country.” He would raise the same concerns, he notes, about a Jew or a Methodist who believed the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Weisberg’s characterization of Mormonism as “Scientology plus 125 years” did not stop Romney from naming L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth a favorite novel. “Someone who believes, seriously believes, in a modern hoax is someone we should think hard about,” Weisberg argues, “whether they have the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job.”

… The fact that Romney personally emphasizes family, service and sobriety and opposes abortion and gay marriage has led some evangelical leaders to adopt a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to details of his faith. Romney has held quiet meetings around the country, and they have come away, by and large, impressed. “Southern Baptists understand they are voting for a Commander in Chief, not a Theologian in Chief,” says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm. “But he’s gotta close the deal. Only Romney can make voters comfortable with his Mormonism. Others cannot do it for him.”

I have two quibbles with Gibbs’ essay. It’s worth noting that the remark about Utah being a “stronghold of Satan” came from one Southern Baptist, a pastor who is based in Salt Lake City. Here is the fuller context of what he said in 1997 as Southern Baptists prepared for holding their annual convention, which met in Salt Lake City for the first time the next year:

Summit speakers pointed out that the Salt Lake City area includes hundreds of thousands of unchurched non-Mormons.

They also said it is imperative that Southern Baptists act in a spirit of love toward Mormons and not come across to the public — in Salt Lake City and the rest of the United States — as angry or hurtful toward Mormon people.

“I’m concerned that we not have a bunch of Dennis Rodmans coming in,” said Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He was referring to the controversial Chicago Bulls’ basketball star who slurred Mormons publicly during championship games of the National Basketball Association this spring.

… “Mormon country is God’s country. God is the same in Salt Lake City as he is in Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville and elsewhere. Even though that state (Utah) is a stronghold of Satan, remember that God is doing great things there, and we are expecting great things (of this convention).”

The other quibble is a matter for Time‘s copy desk: The meeting shown in a photograph is taking place inside the Tabernacle, not the Sale Lake City Temple.

Like other reporters before her, Gibbs asks whether Romney should attempt to defuse opposition to his candidacy with a 21st-century version of John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. It’s a legitimate question, but I think J.F.K. in Houston is the wrong model. Because of lingering anti-Vatican fears among certain Protestants of the time, Kennedy ended up promising never to fulfill their worst expectations by taking political orders from the Pope. Taken as a whole, Kennedy’s speech represents “the separation of faith and self,” to use Stephen Carter’s phrase.

That Kennedy felt forced to make such promises in 1960 did not speak well of his critics’ understanding of the presidency, of the Vatican or of how a savvy politician strikes a balance between the demands of faith and the demands of guarding the Constitution.

Politically aware believers would not expect a president to find direct answers to questions of governance in the Scriptures and doctrines of a church. Likewise, spiritually aware political advisers would not expect a candidate to keep religious belief in deep freeze, as if a candidate’s beliefs about God, sin and salvation should in no way affect a candidate’s thinking about social issues.

Should anyone expect that Romney’s stance on abortion would not be shaped by his understanding of when human life begins? (Granted, Romney’s pro-life views seem to have emerged only in recent years, which Time‘s Karen Tumulty describes as “not the only place where he seems to have retrofitted his views to the tastes of the voters he is trying to win.”)

Does anyone seriously expect, by contrast, that the LDS rite of proxy baptisms would affect any policy in a Mitt Romney administration?

What Romney may need more than another J.F.K speech is a Sister Souljah moment. Just as Bill Clinton once challenged the rap singer’s combative remarks on race relations, perhaps Romney will take some unpredictable stands.

Here are three possibilities:

• Romney pledges federal prosecution of any polygamous sect that celebrates marriage between adult grooms and child brides. The point would not be to prove that Romney rejects polygamy — the LDS repudiated polygamy in 1890 — but to convict child abusers.

• Romney criticizes the Mormon-owned Marriott International Inc. for making pornography available in its hotels.

• Romney calls for respecting the rights of groups in Salt Lake City and Nauvoo, Illinois, to distribute literature critical (even tactlessly critical) of the LDS.

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