Is a Mormon the top candidate for the religious right?

mitt romneyLet’s get the ball rolling on picking the religious right’s candidate for the 2008 presidential campaign. The Economist, a no-slouch publication when it comes to American politics, has anointed Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on the basis that both Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and George Allen, R-Va., have taken themselves out of contention. Frist is out for poor Senate leadership and Allen for, well, you know.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, and it will be interesting whether the Romney for President campaign gains momentum on the religious right. My guess is that we are going to have to wait till after Nov. 7, which seems like an eternity right now.

The big hiccup in Romney’s path is of course his Mormon faith, which was delightfully depicted by The Economist in a cartoon that I won’t reproduce on this blog because I don’t need the magazine’s art editor breathing down my neck. The Economist does not demur from highlighting the difficulties Romney will face in receiving acceptance among conservative evangelicals, but presents a compelling case for why it is possible:

Yet Mr Romney is a devoted Mormon — a former bishop, no less — at a time when religion is playing a growing role in American politics. Opinion polls suggest that anti-Mormon feeling is one of the most enduring religious prejudices in America. An LATimes/Bloomberg poll in June found that 37% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate; other polls put the figure at 17%.

Anti-Mormon feeling is particularly strong among Bible-believing Christians, a vital part of the Republican base. Many evangelicals regard Mormonism as nothing more than a cult: and a cult, moreover, that is based not only on a false theology but also on a willingness to tamper with the inerrant word of God that is the Bible.

mitt romney2Oh the joys political reporters will encounter in covering a Romney candidacy. First of all, as Doug pointed out in an e-mail to me, being a bishop in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not quite like being a bishop in, say, the Church of England. One should not expect to see any photos of a President Romney in the Oval Office dressed like the CofE’s Bishop of London. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is a former Mormon bishop and he has also run for president.

What The Economist did get right is the bigger picture — the evangelical right is flexible and far from monolithic. While some are still upset over President Reagan’s divorce and, how should I put it, unusual theological views, a huge majority were OK with it. Even George W. Bush was not the religious right’s ideal choice. Britons may fuss over Cherie Blair’s Catholicism, but Americans are less inclined to think of their political leaders as also being religious leaders. Those in the religious right care more about issues when it comes to their politicians.

The potential harshness that religious conservatives could show to a Romney candidacy should not be underestimated, though. Doctrinally, some mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians consider the group a cult. But for whom will this matter when it comes to issues like abortion and same-sex marriage? What will Pat Robertson and James Dobson say? What will mainline Protestant denominations say?

Will Romney be up-front about these issues? Will he publicly affirm all of the beliefs of Mormonism? Or will he downplay them and hope nobody notices?

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Voter guides and IRS basics

elect jesusThe crescendo leading up to this November’s election is starting to seem like that of a presidential election year. From a purely political standpoint, it’s about as fun a midterm election season as I’ve ever witnessed. Scandals are abounding. Bob Woodward has a new book out. And politicians are scrambling to snatch those 30 million or so regular churchgoers who did not vote in 2004.

This leads to stories about voter guides and everyone’s favorite government agency, the Internal Revenue Service. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times brought her impressive reporting skills to the story and reached a not-so-startling conclusion:

Their efforts at times push legal limits on church involvement in partisan campaigns. That is by design. With control of Congress at stake Nov. 7, those guiding the movement say they owe it to God and to their own moral principles to do everything they can to keep social conservatives in power.

Preachers “ought to put their toe right on the line,” said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that supports conservative Christian causes.

Simon thoroughly documents how activists are pushing those legal limits. (Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen pointed out on an earlier thread that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is encouraging his followers to vote Republican.) Simon finds the Rev. Rick Scarborough, of that big place known as Texas, saying that “We urge [pastors] to avoid legal entanglement, but there are times in a pastor’s life when he needs to take a biblical stand. … Our higher calling is to Christ.”

Previous articles made little of the actual result of an IRS church investigation. But with anything regulatory, the government must engage in a lot of education. Simon makes that point clear in her article in a way I had not seen lately. She also follows my favorite maxim — show, don’t tell — regarding those tricky voter guides:

The voter pamphlets are supposed to be neutral, but often present issues through a distinctly partisan lens. A guide distributed by a conservative group in Minnesota in 2004 laid out the candidates’ views on aborting “unborn babies.” One produced this year by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners describes immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops as the only way to bring peace to Iraq.

Contrast that with a report from Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post on the supposedly big announcement (it was an A6 story on Friday, a heavy news day if I recall correctly) that the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good would “distribute at least 1 million voter guides before the Nov. 7 elections, emphasizing church teachings on war, poverty and social justice as well as on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.” Cooperman tells us all about the issues (and provides handy links here and here to the actual voter guides), but fails to lay out the positions. Simon did this and showed how blatantly partisan these guides are from both sides of the aisle.

Now I am just as aware as anyone else that a good news story needs a good news hook, so Cooperman was certainly justified using the release of the Common Good guides, but compare it to Simon’s thorough 1,500-word survey of the highly relevant issue. Are Post editors preventing Cooperman from having the space and play he needs to do something similar? (By the way, Simon mentions Cooperman’s story in one paragraph near the end of her article.)

clintonBasic ground-laying content, giving the article depth and balance, is missing from Cooperman’s story. Check out Simon’s short summary of the matter:

The law restricting political activity of churches and charities dates to 1954, when then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson pushed it through in a pique of anger over a nonprofit’s effort to derail his reelection. Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, may not participate or intervene in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate. Intervention is broadly defined as “any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidate for public office,” according to the Internal Revenue Service.

That sounds straightforward. In practice, though, there are many ways around the restriction, as the faithful recognize.

“If the pastor is doing the right job, the people will automatically vote for the right person,” said Gale Wollenberg, who belongs to a conservative evangelical church in Topeka, Kan.

So before you “rat out a church” for being too political, read Simon’s article and remember the decades-old roots of voter guides.

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Options on hot question No. 2

dan fireThe tmatt trio issue has inspired another solid question from a loyal reader.

For those new to the discussion, the trio is a set of three — duh — hot questions that I have often used when interviewing clergy and other Christian leaders during this era in which the whole liberal vs. conservative thing has become so rooted in politics, as opposed to doctrine. Once again let me stress that I developed these questions in the mid-1980s as a journalistic tool. I have found that these are the questions that, time after time, help me get past vague labels.

A reader has already asked about question No. 3, which is logical in an era when sex makes so many headlines. But here is the whole set, once again:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Now, Jeff Hubbard has written in with a question about question No. 2. Here is the heart of his letter:

There was a post recently where you explained a little about your reasoning in asking the third question in the famed “TMatt Trio,” the one about sexuality.

I have a similar inquiry about the second question of said trio. … (It) seems this question leaves open the possibility of not getting substantive insight into the theological positions of the interviewee. For example, many people that would hold an inclusivist or universalist view about salvation (myself included) would be able to answer “yes” to this question with no qualms or reservations whatsoever. This is esp. true of Barthian universalists. (Who have a very Christocentric rationale for their universalism.)

Of course some universalists who are pomo/liberal-type folks would just flat out answer “no” to the question. However, a “yes” answer to the question leaves open the possibility for that person to fall anywhere on the theological spectrum … five point Calivinists, Wesleyans, fundies, evangelicals of all sorts, and some universalitsts all could feasibly answer “yes” to this question. So what I’m wondering is if any of these issues have ever come up in response to you asking this question, or one like it. Have you ever thought of fine-tuning this question to include more nuance?

Hubbard is right, of course. There are variations on the universalism that dominates our all-tolerant age. Questions about salvation, and whether any one faith is the true faith, often hover in the background of discussions of everything from public prayers by U.S. chaplains to faith-based initiatives in prisons and elsewhere to MPAA ratings for movies. It’s interesting that this “political” question is usually asked in connection with Christian projects, as opposed to Muslim.

This simple question might not tell you much in the context of a check-this-box opinion poll.

However, I have been asking these questions in the context of interviews, often face-to-face interviews. What you find is that the person being interviewed almost always tries to qualify the answer. This yields information about the very variations of belief that Hubbard describes. It is an especially interesting question to ask Roman Catholics in the post-Vatican II world. Often, it has been years or decades since Catholics have heard a sermon on heaven or hell or questions about how one gets to one or the other.

And what about question No. 1? In the late 1980s, I asked that question to five candidates for the open post of bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. The man who eventually won the job went around and around and never did say “yes” or “no.” It was clear that he did not want to answer. That was, of course, a very revealing answer.

Speaking of click-this-box polls about religion, our friends at Beliefnet still have the Belief-O-Matic quiz online. Is this a revised edition? It looks more nuanced than the one I wrote about long ago (in cybertime). Also note the religion-quiz page, with a wide variety of quizzes for people of different faiths. It’s the tmatt trio times 666.

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Weiss tunes in some GetReligion chat

9781592572229bJeff Weiss of The Dallas Morning News, who is one of the nation’s best-known religion-beat specialists, sent me an email this weekend with a subject line that was impossible to ignore. It read: “this one was partly inspired by some of the chat on getreligion.”

The story is called “Despite shared roots, three faiths find plenty to fight about,” and Weiss set out to do the impossible in a punchy news feature — compare and contrast the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam on several basic religious questions. Of course, as I wrote that sentence I heard the same voice in my head that I am sure Jeff heard as he started work on this one: Compare and contrast the beliefs of Judaism (which one?), Christianity (which one?) and Islam (which one?) in a newspaper story?

This was an ambitious task, to say the least. Here is the summary section of the story:

For all the post-9/11 talk about common roots and interfaith discussion, some theologians say interfaith dust-ups like the one involving Benedict are inevitable. That’s because some of the disagreements are so fundamental.

“Abrahamic” is a big-tent word that implies the three faiths are part of one family. Why can’t we all get along?

But no fights are nastier than family fights — particularly when the battle is over the inheritance. And that’s what was at stake in the most recent squabble: Which faith carries the divine legacy of Abraham, the biblical (and Quranic) patriarch to whom God promises, in Genesis, “and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves”?

Of course, it’s hard enough to offer a detailed summary of one or two clashing groups’ beliefs on a specific question raised by a specific story. How do you think Weiss did taking on so many topics all at once?

Oh, and the art with this post is not a comment on the News article. Honest. Check it out.

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Who’s calling who “gospel”?

JarsBigWe don’t cover entertainment reviews very often, unless we’re talking about a movie that is making news. But a friend of mine sent me some links that raise an interesting issue linked to the language that journalists use to describe music, and that has always been a subject that interests me.

So here is the key question: What is “gospel” music?

If you look the term up online you’ll find all kinds of definitions, but this Wiki one is pretty typical:

Gospel music may refer either to the religious music that first came out of African-American churches in the 1930s or, more loosely, to both black gospel music and to the religious music composed and sung by white southern Christian artists. While the separation between the two styles was never absolute — both drew from the Methodist hymnal and artists in one tradition sometimes sang songs belonging to the other — the sharp division between black and white America, particularly black and white churches, kept the two apart. While those divisions have lessened slightly in the past fifty years, the two traditions are still distinct.

Thus, the word “gospel” when combined with “music” is supposed to mean, oh, the Chicago Mass Choir or the Jordanaires. You could even say that Bob Dylan made a few solid records featuring gospel content, some gospel vocalists and some elements of gospel tradition — but no one in his or her right mind would head to the local Best Buy and look for his classic Saved in that tiny, dusty “gospel” section back behind the ethnic folk dance discs.

So what do you do with a band called Jars of Clay — forget U2, P.O.D., Switchfoot and a host of other bands — that mixes some Christian content into its Beatlesque pop-rock? Is that “gospel” music?

It seems that it is at USA Today. It would also seem that, in this context, the term is being used as a bit of a slur. At least, that’s what my friend Mark Joseph thinks, and he’s been walking this beat forever.

Here’s the somewhat positive review by Brian Mansfield of the new Jars album. The key is right there at the start:

Gospel: Jars of Clay, Good Monsters (* * * 1/2)

Unlike many of their Christian-rock peers, the members of Jars of Clay offer few pat answers. Sometimes, they even get the feeling they might be asking the wrong questions. On tracks such as Work and Light Gives Heat, they find their soul — and their energy — between the frustrations over their own shortcomings and the possibility of glorious mysteries, making their music as open-ended and unsettling as faith itself. — Mansfield

Some readers quickly responded with online comments. Here’s a pair that sums up the debate:

I appreciate the Jars of Clay review. I feel they are underrated — possibly due to the “gospel” tag. Men and women who pursue and question faith exist in all genres. How many others are limited because of constricting labels? I can’t help but think that this talented bunch would be enjoyed by more potential listeners if not bound by categorization.

Posted by: Dale Rinkenberger | Sep 5, 2006 7:07:46 AM

Just wanted to echo the sentiment so far regarding the Jars of Clay release. I’m a huge U2 fan and was intrigued when Bono named one of their songs as one of his favorites. A complete stranger to gospel music (other than knowing of Amy Grant) I bought a few CDs and I now own their entire collection. “Good Monsters” is an excellent recording — gospel or otherwise. The songwriting, arrangements, and production is so good I don’t notice the more overtly religious references.

Posted by: JNash | Sep 5, 2006 9:22:00 PM

Strangely enough, the band’s previous disc didn’t get labeled like this — with a USA Today review posted right next to that of another band, the Indigo Girls, that tends to wave its unique spiritual point of view right out in the open. Also, as Joseph noted in a National Review Online piece, the Jars guys have done some email jawing with the USA Today folks about this issue. There may be some bad blood here.

Interesting. Does anyone think that this issue matters? Can newspapers just let music speak for itself, or does the public need to be warned in this manner?

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Did Graham channel Meacham?

billygrahamnycYou know how, when you have typed a word thousands and thousands of times, your fingers tend to fall into that same pattern when you are trying to type a word that is very similar to it?

The same thing can happen to a reporter who is taking notes during an interview. Sometimes you hear what you are used to hearing when, in reality, the person said something else. This can cause major mistakes.

Godbeat writer Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — discovered a really interesting case of this familiarity-breeds-mistakes syndrome in a major Newsweek article that the GetReligion gang already thought it had picked at pretty good. That would be that Billy Graham cover by soon-to-be-editor Jon Meacham.

When Lockwood got around to reading this piece, he noticed something interesting in one of the haunting images near the beginning, as the elderly evangelist wakes up in the middle of the night confused:

On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. “I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me,” Graham recalls. It was frustrating — the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible — but in the end the last line comes back to him: “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.

Wait a minute, thought Lockwood.

Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me? Any self-respecting Southern Baptist knows that the final sentence, in the King James Version, begins “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me …

Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I Googled “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me” and could find no Bible translation that uses that language. However, the same wording is included in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.

Is Billy Graham, in his twilight years, reciting the Book of Common Prayer as he enjoys life in rural North Carolina?

Now this is a very interesting question, because Meacham is an Episcopalian and, to say the least, Billy Graham is not an Episcopalian (no matter what his many fundamentalist critics think).

So Lockwood dropped Meacham an email and, to his credit, Meacham wrote back to say:

“I suspect the discrepancy you detected is mine, not Mr. Graham’s; after he told me the story, I read the lines back to him on the telephone from the translation I had at hand, and he said yes, those were the lines, but I suspect he actually spoke the KJV. So I would not say that Mr. Graham misquoted the psalm, but that I misunderstood which translation he had recited.”

That’s easy to understand.

The question that many people have raised about this article, including Graham himself in that gentle way of his, is whether some of the nuanced, moderated, “mature” theological positions attributed to the evangelist in this article have more to do with Meacham’s beliefs as an Episcopalian than with those of Graham as an evangelical.

Was Meacham hearing what he wanted to hear, what he was used to hearing? All journalists struggle with this, I think, when we are interviewing people whose beliefs are radically different than our own.

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A new era of tithing?

InstaTitheMainstream media are digging into church finances again — or, better put, how churches collect finances.

As time passes, religious institutions adapt to new technology, trends and even tacky fads. Christian churches are by no means different, as one might note the television screens in the Washington National Cathedral, the growth of drop-down screens for PowerPoint presentations and even something as seemingly mundane as sound amplification systems. A change in church tradition is always good for a good local story or two, depending on the level of controversy generated by the change, but rarely will a church operations story raise many eyebrows.

Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times picked up on one of these changes Thursday’s paper — the growth of ATM-style credit card machines — and did a very thorough job exploring the various concerns and issues raised as Americans’ propensity for carrying cash dwindles and plastic becomes more pervasive. Fausset did a great job making the story personal and, through a fairly extensive level of reporting, uncovered many issues that will raise the eyebrows of many a churchgoer:

It was one of Stevens Creek’s three “Giving Kiosks”: a sleek black pedestal topped with a computer screen, numeric keypad and magnetic-strip reader. Prompted by the on-screen instructions, Marshall performed a ritual more common in quickie marts than a house of God: He pulled out a bank card, swiped it and punched in some numbers.

The machine spat out a receipt. Marshall’s $400 donation was routed to church coffers before he had found his seat for evening worship.

“I paid for gas today with a card, and got lunch with one,” said Marshall, 30. “This is really no different.”

Fausset seems to agree with Marshall that tithing is little different from purchasing gas or food. Except that it isn’t. Tithing is by no means a sacrament, but it started as far back as Abraham and is referenced repeatedly in the New Testament. There is no established biblical way of collecting a tithe, but the passing of a basket or collection plate has a long tradition.

Many issues arise in the piece, including the desire to earn airline miles through charge cards, the potential for promoting credit-card debt and the fact that if church ATMs spread, a Georgia pastor and entrepreneur named Marty Baker could become very rich (he receives a small percentage of every dollar charged on the machines). An interesting tidbit that touches on the spiritual nature of tithing during a church service notes that some people drop their credit-card receipts into the offering plate.

But credit cards are the way of the future, right? Why would the church want to resist the changes of the future? Why didn’t Fausset explain why kiosks necessary? Don’t a lot of churches allow members to tithe through automatic debits and credit-card deductions? Is it because there is something special about actually making the tithe while at church? Could the following be where churches are headed?

At the Wednesday service, 27-year-old Sally Rice chose the traditional method of giving. As a Gap Kids store manager, she’s more familiar than most with the way debit and credit cards work. But she hasn’t made the switch at church.

“I still balance my checkbook the old-school way — I write it all down,” she said.

Rice, however, said she had no qualms about the machine itself. She said she might make the switch when she runs out of checks. “I think it’s cool.”

The Bakers figure most people will give up on checks before they give up on their faith. The question is whether churches will adapt.

If they do, the Bakers say they will be ready with their next idea: donation machines that attach to the backs of pews.

Read through the story and let me know if you noticed a void of spiritual content. There are elements buried within the story, but I think the issues could have been addressed more directly.

Satirical image: FreakingNews.com.

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RU 4 freedom of T-shirt speech?

villagestreetwear2Earlier this week, The Washington Post had one of those slice-of-life news features that took an everyday topic from real life and framed it in a way that put it on page one.

The hot question of the day: Why are all of those girls wearing such slutty T-shirts to school? What’s that all about, other than some kind of post-feminist libertarian mall-values revenge plot?

I mean, the shirts are getting so bad that the liberal establishment is nervous. Reporter Ian Shapira had lots of details and a solid set of summary paragraphs:

They’re blatantly sexual, occasionally clever and often loaded with double meanings, forcing school administrators and other students to read provocations stripped across the chest, such as “yes, but not with u!,” “Your Boyfriend Is a Good Kisser” and “two boys for every girl.” Such T-shirts also are emblematic of the kind of sleazy-chic culture some teenagers now inhabit, in which status can be defined by images of sexual promiscuity that previous generations might have considered unhip.

The T-shirts, which school officials say are racier than ever, are posing dress-code dilemmas on Washington area campuses. School systems typically ban clothing that expresses vulgarity, obscenity or lewdness or that promotes cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or weapons. …

But sexually suggestive T-shirts often fall into a gray area that requires officials to evaluate one shirt at a time.

villagestreetwearObviously, there are other issues swirling in the background, including several that did not get into this report.

For example, is banning a racy shirt the same thing as promoting a conservative stand on sexual morality? That’s bad news, in an era in which courts tend to say that any promotion of conservative values on sex is the same thing as promoting conservative religious doctrines.

What about issues of race and class? Can school administrators strike back against the hip-hop bling culture — in either its ghetto or suburban forms — without being accused of discrimination?

And, as Shapira’s story does note, some school leaders think the clothing issue should be handled by parents. But how many modern students have highly involved parents? What if young women set out to ignore or deceive their parents?

What do these shirts mean anyway? The Post notes:

The T-shirts highlight a paradox about this generation: Even as more teenagers absorb ubiquitous sexual messages, federal data show that they report having less sex than their predecessors. Although a recent National Center for Health Statistics survey found that more than half of all teenagers engage in oral sex, teen pregnancy rates have plummeted since the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high school students who reported having sexual intercourse dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2005.

“It’s a puzzling picture,” said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the District. “When someone sees a girl or boy in provocative clothing, they make a lot of assumptions about what’s going on, which may or may not be true — which really is the point, isn’t it?”

americanlifeleague 1916 4162386Like I said, this was a solid story and — noting how it has zoomed around cyberspace — I hope the Post will continue to monitor this subject at the intersection of family life, education, pop culture, morality and who knows what all.

But I have to admit that I wished the story had included one other topic, perhaps in a sidebar. Do schools in and around the Beltway have policies that affect other kinds of T-shirts and the subjects printed on them? What about religion? What about politics? What about, well, social issues that tend to divide young people and adults?

For example, if hot T-shirts are hard to ban, is it actually easier to ban anti-hot T-shirts?

This story has made some headlines in the past in the Washington area, in part because of demonstrations led by the Rock for Life network. Not that long ago, The Washington Times covered this, including this summary:

Rock for Life’s shirts feature blunt messages for young people: “Abortion Is Mean” or “Abortion Is Homicide” on the front, and the group’s motto on the back: “You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation.” Those messages have repeatedly put pro-life youth in conflict with school officials. In November 2002, a student wearing an “Abortion Is Homicide” shirt to Abington Junior High School in Abington, Pa., was told by the principal that his shirt was “inappropriate for display at school and equated the message on the shirt with a swastika,” say Rock for Life officials.

In the Cleveland suburb of Chardon, Ohio, a student wearing the group’s “Abortion Is Homicide” shirt was also told by his principal not to wear the shirt at Chardon High School because a girl had complained it was obscene.

Free speech is messy, but it beats all the alternatives. Or should public schools, at this point, turn to uniforms?

Stay tuned. I hope the dress-code story stays hot.

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