Canonizing Father Jack

DanforthPulpitWashington Post reporter Peter Slevin found a Republican he likes. He profiles former Senator John Danforth and his campaign to reduce the influence of the religious right.

It’s on the Style pages, the section of the paper in which a story will not run unless it’s snide. And that explains the beginning of the piece:

Jack Danforth wishes the Republican right would step down from its pulpit. Instead, he sees a constant flow of religion into national politics. And not just any religion, either, but the us-versus-them, my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God, velvet-fist variety of Christian evangelism.

As a mainline Episcopal priest, retired U.S. senator and diplomat, Danforth worships a humbler God and considers the right’s certainty a sin. Legislating against gay marriage, for instance? “It’s just cussedness.” As he sees it, many Republican leaders have lost their bearings and, if they don’t change, will lose their grip on power. Not to mention make the United States a meaner place.

In any case, if you want to read about how Danforth supports embryonic stem-cell research, thought the Terri Schiavo case was about appeasing the Christian Right and thinks homosexual marriage is fine, you should check out the article. If you want to know more about the specific religious views that motivate Danforth’s political agenda, look elsewhere. Speaking of gay marriage, this paragraph made me laugh:

In Missouri, where Danforth won five statewide elections, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage passed overwhelmingly last year. Yet he believes most people would say no if asked, “Do you believe we should just be nasty and humiliate people and degrade them because of sexual orientation?”

Well, yes, I imagine most people who oppose gay marriage would say no if asked that question. The article does repeatedly concede that Danforth’s time in office — when conservatives did not exert such influence within the Republican Party — was also the time when Republicans didn’t have nearly as much political clout. Unfortunately the article fails to make a convincing argument as to why Republicans should listen to Danforth’s views on religious influence.

The idea that the religiously motivated political views of one group should be replaced with the religiously motivated political views of another group could have been explored more substantively.

Either way, reporters should probably be more careful than Slevin was at letting such strong personal feelings show through. Even on the Style pages.

Photo credit: Donovan Marks, Washington National Cathedral.

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Logic versus faith?

faith and reasonI realize I’ve been covering a great deal of abortion-related stories recently and some, including myself, might be somewhat beleaguered by the topic. But today is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the media are running many stories about abortion with a religion angle. The feature I want to bring to light was written by an unabashedly pro-choice man in today’s New York Times Magazine. Author Eyal Press is the son of an abortion doctor in Buffalo who was a colleague and friend of murdered abortion doctor Bernard Slepian.

He takes the reader through a light history of the pro-life movement, providing extra detail about the 1990s, when things became somewhat more politicized, especially in Buffalo.

There are many things I disagree with in the piece, both from professional and personal standpoints, but the essay is really well written and worth reading for its thoughtful commentary. Structurally, it does a fantastic job of weaving personal anecdotes with legal history and reasoning and cultural criticism.

He doesn’t do that great of a job understanding the multifaceted convictions of religious pro-lifers, but he actually tries. I fear that my examples are the worst the piece has to offer, but they are the ones dealing with the angle we love here: religion. Press says that the convictions of the pro-life activists who protested in front of clinics in New York were rooted

not in the cold logic of abstract reasoning but in something altogether more powerful and, in America, pervasive: spiritual faith.

Because, of course, convictions can’t be rooted in a combination of the two.

However, he takes the time to sit down with one pro-life veteran of the 1990s battles and finds her to be quiet and genuine. She shows pictures of children who were born after she counseled women against having abortions:

In her quiet, understated way, Mickey Van de Ven is living proof of the dedication and perseverance that religion can inspire. No one who speaks to her can come away doubting that her opposition to abortion is rooted in a desire not to curtail the rights of women but to save what she views as innocent life. The movement she joined was not the first in recent decades to be propelled by faith. Meeting her reminded me in some ways of the civil rights demonstrators I had read about . . . who often came into the movement straight out of churches and who made no secret of the fact that God inspired them.

Unfortunately he then goes on to compare many in the pro-life movement to Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, considering this piece is about the murder of an abortion doctor by an anti-abortion sniper, I like to note that he took the time to report that not all pro-lifers are of the violent variety.

Press infers, but never substantiates, that there is a link between the religious motivation of the pro-life movement and the six murders of abortion clinic personnel that occurred in the 1990s. It would have been nice if he would have either provided that link or said he looked for it and found nothing concrete. But it’s still a really well written essay that I commend. Especially when he considers the costs and benefits — from a pro-choice perspective — of overturning Roe.

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When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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Whoopsie!

I’m sure this refers to an editorial article and a not a news article, but this correction in the Los Angeles Times is funny.

For the record
Religion and government: A Dec. 18 article defending the separation of church and state stated that the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that Ellen DeGeneres played a role in the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina because she was the host of the Emmy Awards before both events. He made no such claim.

lettermanPerhaps the Los Angeles Times copyediting desk was confused. Falwell did blame David Letterman for his disastrous stint hosting the Oscars in 1998:

“I like Letterman as an interviewer, but what made him think that an extended montage of various celebrities saying ‘Would you like to buy a monkey?’ would be funny?” he asked. “No one saw, let alone remembers, Cabin Boy. A vengeful God could not restrain himself from unleashing devastation on a wicked people who tolerated such poor judgment from their second-highest-rated nighttime talk-show host.”

When asked why it took seven years for God to expres his displeasure, Falwell explained that “Seven years is but a minute in God years.”

In all seriousness, though, I like how this Times correction illuminates how we tend to see the worst in those we disagree with and find it easy to believe really extreme things about them. It’s good for reporters, editors and readers to step back and look at the real nature of disagreements and discuss them civilly. Also, high-profile figures tend to say wacky enough things on their own. The Los Angeles Times need not invent them.

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On the telephone as reporting tool

santa telephoneA few weeks ago a mini-scandal broke out surrounding Ridgeway Elementary School in Wisconsin. It seemed that some official with the school play had secularized the words to the beautiful “Silent Night” (or as we Lutherans call it: “Stille Nacht“) to “Cold in the Night.” Various groups got enraged and sent out press releases and television networks ate it up and ran breathless segments about the war on Christmas.

So Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker did something revolutionary. He picked up his telephone and called the author of the play in which “Cold in the Night” is featured. It turns out that playwright Dwight Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian (President Reagan’s church in California) for decades. The play comes with a “Christian” page which may be inserted and includes Christian Christmas songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the one hand, Tucker pokes fun at Fox News’ John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly and generally gives the impression that the war on Christmas is more perception than reality, but on the other hand he does a good job of explaining why those who feel attacked do so. Tucker does this by speaking with James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He contrasts what Christmas in 1950 might have seemed like to a conservative Christian with the present. Here’s how Neely characterizes it:

And now you wake up and it’s 2005. You go to hear the kid’s Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like “Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds.” The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a “holiday tree” most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say “Merry Christmas.” Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and “the holidays.” What is to be made of all this?

Tucker provides what so few reporters — especially those on the magic electronic box — have done with this cable-driven war on Christmas: he provides historical context, interviewing authors of various books on the American history of Christmas. He mentions the Puritan distaste for Christmas and keeps on going:

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn’t take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn’t made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.

tree2

Thank you! My one complaint, other than the inexplicable editorial “we” the author uses, is the absolutely offensive ending to the piece. Tucker makes fun of Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver for arguing that Christmas trees should not be renamed:

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he’s right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

No offense, but my beloved hometown paper the Washington Post is just about the last place I look for speculation on what the “Deity” thinks about, well, anything. I mean, they could at least try refraining from mocking religious adherents for a few months before tacking on this ending. But it’s still worthwhile to read.

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Brokeback stone table story hangs around

091205 brokebackIf, while visiting the usual online newspapers and blogs, you clicked this gay-based Golden Globes story in Variety (“It’s red meat for the culture warriors.”) and then happened, by chance, to click on this sobering summary of movie and DVD trends in 2005 (“Plummeting 2005 box office sparks Hollywood crisis”), would one be justified with a click here and even over here to touch base with the American mainstream?

If Variety is going to start using what it thinks is “culture wars” language, at what point does someone write the end of the year round-up (that’s cowboy lingo) that explores the moral, cultural and, yes, religious angles of the whole brokeback stone table showdown? Of course, King Kong may drive this out of the headlines. But I think not, especially if blue zip-code writers such as Ken Tucker of New York Magazine are going to write reviews that wave red flags in front of easily provoked leaders out in flyover country. Check this out the twist in his “Brokeback Mountain” hymn:

When, a half-hour into the film, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, both drunk, cold, and lonely on a remote Wyoming campsite, fold around each other and commence an act of sex that manages to be both rough and tender, romantically intimate and lustily intense, Brokeback Mountain achieves its own early climax: You either buy into this tale of men in love or you join the ranks of those who’ve been snickering during the movie’s prerelease trailers, and who can be divided into the insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots.

Well, on to the Oscar races. Let’s see how many of the insecure idiots out in middle America tune in this year and how that affects both the ratings and the advertising revenue.

Wait a minute: I thought Hollywood was all about making money and that, if someone wanted to send a message, they were supposed to call Western Union?

topnav aslanMeanwhile, the newspaper of record on all things Tinsel has raised the stakes as high as they can possibly go. Forget about a showdown between the gay cowboys and the Lion King of Kings. For some folks in Hollywood, says the Los Angeles Times, it is past time for the ultimate symbolic showdown (cue the theme from “Braveheart”):

“Brokeback Mountain’s” future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood’s. In some ways, “Brokeback” could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.

The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.

Really? Hollywood insiders are still shook up about “The Passion”? You think so?

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Can journalists cover “normal” religion?

1932792066 01 LZZZZZZZOur friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”

This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)

While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.

Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?

In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.

Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.

And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.

One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.

Read it all (as the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon likes to say).

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Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

My Scripps Howard News Service column is out and it’s about the story behind an odd little news story involving a new gay-rights activist named Jerry Falwell. Does anyone have any theories as to why this story did not get more MSM attention (other than the fact that Falwell is as far from the limelight these days as Pat Robertson should be)? Just curious.

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