On my mind: Darfur, South Sudan and Rosenthal

AbeRosenthalIt was 10 years ago — next week, in fact — that I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service that began like this:

It’s possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year’s going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle — about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan’s Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan — more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

That was not the last column that I wrote about the horrific conflicts in South Sudan and the massacre of Christians, animists, moderate Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The Sudan story developed in the years after that and, ultimately, helped inspire the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

It has been interesting to watch the mainstream media tiptoe into coverage of hot-button religious liberty issues, especially the rights of embattled religious minorities. I thought about that the other day at the time of the Darfur march here in Washington, D.C. I have been thinking about the South Sudan while watching — with joy — the news that there might be a meaningful Darfur peace agreement in the near future. Still, I have questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheer when I pass Darfur marchers here inside the Beltway. I totally support that cause. But part of me has wondered why the Darfur massacres have become such a popular cause on the American left and among our media elites in general. Why, for example, is Hollywood marching for Darfur, when it all but ignored the South Sudan?

Perhaps Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post was on to something important when, back in 2004, he wrote a report about the importance of evangelical Christians beginning to focus on Darfur:

Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the “genocide” taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Aug. 1 letter marks a shift in focus for the evangelical movement, which previously was interested primarily in halting violence against Christians in southern Sudan. The victims in Darfur, a western province, are mostly Muslim.

Get it? Allen D. Hertzke was even more blunt in a 2003 essay for the Wall Street Journal. The problem with the South Sudan, he said, was that the people who were passionate about this genocide were the wrong kinds of people to draw major (positive) media attention. The victims were the wrong faith and the lobbyists were the wrong faith, too. That’s why it was hard to put these massacres in the South Sudan on the front page.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a … New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a “pet cause of many American religious conservatives.” Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a “pet cause” of American Jews or apartheid a “pet cause” of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes “tainted” by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute.

JebelAwlia lowresYou probably know where I am going with this, if you have scanned the headlines of a major newspaper today.

All of this reminds me of the work of the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who, rung by rung, climbed the ladder in the world’s most powerful newsroom until he reached the top. He covered the world and, as editor, helped shake America to its foundations when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He changed the Times and, as a journalist, he helped shape his times.

At the end of his career, he began writing an op-ed column called “On My Mind.” In it, he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — especially free speech and freedom of conscience. Here is how the Times obituary described this part of Rosenthal’s work:

His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: “Please Read This Column.”As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes — his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America’s war on drugs.

That’s part of the story. Rosenthal was, in short, an old-fashioned liberal. That may be why, in the end, people started calling him a conservative. That may be why, in the end, many people believe that he was forced out of his beloved Times newsroom because he would not stop writing columns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. He would not stop writing about the South Sudan. Rosenthal could not understand why so many mainstream journalists were not interested in this story.

I talked to Rosenthal several times about this, in part because a human-rights activist sent him a copy of that 1996 column that I wrote about slavery and the South Sudan. Rosenthal said that he showed it to several people in the newsroom and asked them why this issue — the persecution of religious minorities — wasn’t a major news story. No one had a good answer. Thus, he pledged that he would write about South Sudan.

Rosenthal decided that, one way or another, political prejudices must have had something to do with this blind spot. Here is what he told me in a 1997 interview, a year in which he wrote nearly two dozen columns about Sudan and the persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

To paraphrase, Rosenthal had been forced by the facts to grasp this fact — many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t get religion.

What he could not understand, he told me, was that many journalists didn’t seem to want to open their eyes and realize that this was hurting them as journalists. Because of this blindness, many newsrooms were missing stories that did not need to be missed. They were losing readers that they did not need to lose. It just didn’t make sense to him.

Now Rosenthal is gone. But his voice is heard, whenever people gather to protest the genocide in Darfur. I hope that his death causes some journalists to dig out some of his columns and catch up with the big story that Rosenthal, as an angry old journalist who cared about human rights, was writing about long before it was acceptable to write about it.

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Why military chaplains matter

SoldiersPrayingLast Sunday’s 8,000-plus-word takeout in The Washington Post Magazine on military chaplains is a tremendous example of why long-form journalism is so helpful in dealing with complex religious issues. The magazine’s editors gave Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, the space needed to tell the story of why chaplains are a necessary part of the U.S. military operations and some of the immense challenges they face:

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who’s not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He’s Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional [P]rotestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into [Smith's] office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers’ workspaces.

chaplainsThe military chaplaincy has become ever more controversial these days, and a growing chorus is calling for the practice to be re-examined. The issue also gets more complicated in Muslim countries and for Jewish chaplains. This type of journalism has an impact in government politics and policies. Not only do policymakers read such articles, but they also hear about them from their wives, children, friends and fellow church members. This article excels not only in its descriptive color, but also in its deep understanding of the issue:

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military’s single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: “It’s in their theological doctrine — very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don’t find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.” Chaplains don’t lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn’t always obeyed.

A washingtonpost.com online chat with Henderson is just as interesting — if not for the answers, then for the questions asked, especially the first one. Clearly Henderson knows her subject and understands the importance of religion. Her article will help people better understand the challenges involved in being a chaplain in the U.S. military.

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EW takes a (nice) look at Walden

narnia wardrobe 1112147726I will never forget reading the very first issue of Entertainment Weekly. It was back in 1990, wasn’t it? I looked through it and I thought to myself, “This is amazing. The Time empire has managed to assemble a team of writers and editors who have achieved a state of world-weariness and cynicism in its very first issue! What an achievement!”

Here is why I bring that up. While reading through the recent double issue on Hollywood, I hit a piece entitled “The Family Business” that made we wonder if someone from a red zip code — Colorado Springs, maybe — had hijacked the terminally hip pages of EW. It was a stunningly nice and sincere piece by reporter Jeff Jensen about that little movie company that could — Walden Media — and its recent adventures in the oh-so-unhip world of family movies.

Unless I am reading something wrong, it appears that someone has decided it is OK to make movies for a niche audience that likes nice plots, inspirational messages, a bit of mystery, some faith and educational values, to boot. A niche is a niche and money is money. The problem, of course, is that there is a “conservative Christian” lurking out there in the background who is sitting on the company’s wallet.

But first things first. Jensen’s piece starts with a flashback to 1997 and a memorable event in the life of a man who likes to make movies.

Cary Granat began to see the light the day his daughter saw her first R-rated movie. Like many conversion stories, the epiphany would take a while to sink in. As the president of Dimension Films, Granat oversaw the creation of slick genre flicks like Spy Kids, Scary Movie, and the Scream franchise. Yet there were voices in his life nagging him about all that edgy, youth-centric pop he was making. His conscience was telling him that the movie industry’s images and music were molding a generation of cynics and narcissists. His wife was warning him there was ”no deeper meaning” in the films he was making. And his grandfather — Granat’s mentor, a rabbi and philanthropist — was urging him: ”Make the major change. You’re stuck.”

So Granat’s daughter freaked out watching some knife-waving dailies from Scream 2. You see, his daughter was only 2 years old.

In that moment, he considered the prospect of his little girl growing up steeped in the kind of culture he was producing. And he realized that something — or someone — needed to make that major change.

The rest is a long story and much of the plot centers on a controversial series of stories called The Chronicles of Narnia. You can read the rest of the EW story for yourself.

The key for me, of course, is that all of this is linked to a major story in the world of entertainment and, let me stress, it is not a story about people trying to make “Christian movies.” It’s about talented and diverse coalitions of people in Hollywood struggling to learn how to make funny and exciting movies that address issues of faith, family and, yes, that terrifying word “values.” It has as more to do with making good movies than with making “safe” movies.

So the Walden story is an important story because this company is going to try to make movies that don’t fit into the current Hollywood template. Walden is expanding the marketplace and that is good — even if the company does have (cue: warning sirens) a “mission statement.” I wrote about that issue a few years ago.

… (Film) insiders flinch when a studio’s mission statement proclaims: “Walden Media believes that quality entertainment is inherently educational. We believe that by providing children, parents and educators with a wide range of great entertainment … we can recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue.”

Say what? When a studio starts combining words such as “parents” and “virtue,” Hollywood folks assume all its movies will start with a roar from Dr. James Dobson, instead of a lion.

Well, some of these new movies will feature a roaring lion, and that’s good news for the movie marketplace.

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Birth control, Da Movie and MercyMe

gech 0001 0001 0 img0080Every now and then, I see people or groups produce material that makes me think to myself: “Behold, that’s a GetReligion item.” Truth be told, I don’t quite know what to do when this happens. I mean, it’s hard to write a case study about a case study. That’s a bit too Zen for me.

So let me pass along a few recent examples. I’ll try to get rid of as much guilt as I can, all at once.

• First of all, our friend Ted Olsen over at Christianity Today‘s blog has written up the gigantic New York Times Magazine report on the growing debates — among Protestants — about the moral status of contraceptives. You know Olsen is a bit ticked off when he writes that reporter Russell Shorto’s 8,000-word story is “horribly underreported” and “contains glaring errors.” Thus, he argues that:

Shorto is right that religious conservative Protestants have been increasingly critical about the 1965 contraception case Griswold v. Connecticut, and that recent technologies (especially the emergency contraceptive pill) have forced them to reconsider facile support of earlier technologies (like the non-emergency pill). And he’s right in his implication that Catholic-Protestant alliances in the abortion wars (and the reasoning in Pope John Paul II’s writings) have also had a dramatic effect.

But for those who have actually been watching this happen, it’s like reading a U.S. history text that talks about the American Revolution without also talking about colonialism, Reconstruction without the Civil War, and World War II without World War I. Or like trying to read a subway map that only names four stops. His connect-the-dots puzzle only has the numbers 3, 8, 24, and 31, and the only crayon in his box is labeled “anti-sex.”

• Now here’s another puzzle. Radio host and author Dick Staub recently wrote an interesting critique of a New York Times report on the high sales of the Christian band called MercyMe. The story was called “Christian Rock Is Edging Toward the Mainstream” and it was written by critic Kelefa Sanneh. The key statement — the story lurking inside the review — comes at the very end:

In an overwhelmingly Christian country, it may seem strange that Christian rock even exists as a niche genre; if rock better reflected American demographics, then secular rock would be the niche. But at a time when major labels are struggling to create the multimillion-selling stars they depend on, niche status might not seem so bad. MercyMe already has a devoted fan base, a ready-made touring circuit and lots of loyal album buyers. The devil may still have the best tunes (for now), but can he match that business model?

I also thought it was interesting that Staub invited another journalist — Lou Carlozo of the Chicago Tribune — in as a “guest blogger” to take a stab at the issue. Carlozo was B-L-U-N-T:

Until Christian music stresses art over agenda, it can never be anything but second rate. As a music editor at the Chicago Tribune, I have a responsibility to turn my readers on to the best art out there. And as a Christian, I have an obligation to tell the truth at all costs, as I see it. If it’s bad, awkward, mawkish art that Nashville keeps shipping to me like so many day-glo W.W.J.D. bracelets, what choice do I have? I would rather be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness than win the approval of any cabal that is convinced — for all the wrong reasons — that the majority of “Christian” music serves a noble purpose.

Michelangelo makes us cry by depicting the finger-touch of creation in a majestic image. Johnny Cash could break your heart by revealing the serrated edges of his brokenness. Bono makes you wrestle and challenges all assumptions that God is of the right or left wing. None of this is a “business model” to be emulated. These are ways of approaching art and life we are talking about, meant to be done with all the fear and trembling of someone trying to point the way to a higher truth while walking a narrow path.

Oh man, why didn’t I write that?

thedavincicode• Meanwhile, the folks over at the Religion Newswriters Association have published a collection of ReligionLink resources for journalists who are — dang it — preparing for the release of Da Movie.

So, does this movie really matter to anyone out there in mainstream reader-land? The religion-beat consulting squad notes:

The film brings renewed scrutiny of the book’s unorthodox view of Christian history and another round of debate about Hollywood’s handling of faith. With more than 40 million books in print, this thriller novel asserts that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child and that the Roman Catholic Church’s Opus Dei organization will murder people in order to keep this secret. The book drew critical praise, millions of readers in 44 languages, more than two dozen books about issues raised by the novel, and inevitable adaptations: a movie and a video game. The film from Sony Pictures is directed by Ron Howard and includes an international cast headed by Tom Hanks.

OK, that’s all logical. But what’s with this laugh-out-loud suggestion at the site?

Questions for reporters

• Are people who read the book going to see the movie?

Well, duh. You think?

P.S. Check this out: An Opus Dei movie site, complete with The Da Vinci Code Catechism by Father John Wauck. Here’s a sample:

6. Should we really pray over the bones of Mary Magdalen?

Yes. Saint Mary Magdalen is honored by the countless churches and women named after her and by a special Mass on her feast day (July 22). In fact, for more than a millennium, Christians have made pilgrimages to pray in the Basilica of St. Maximin in southern France, where a tradition says that Saint Mary Magdalen was buried.

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More “moderate” than thou (Rumble III)

home leftcol imageRemember that soul-searching June 23, 2005, memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff? This was the one called “Assuring Our Credibility” (PDF) that talked about the newspaper needing to do a better job of covering religion and being fair to people whose beliefs seem strange to people who work in the world’s most powerful newsroom.

I like that memo — a lot. I also think that Keller was rather brave to write it. Here is one of my favorite passages, talking about the work of a committee that is trying to help the newspaper work on its faults and build bridges to its critics. Keller writes:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

GetReligion readers already know how this blog feels about the abuse of the term “fundamentalist,” as defined in The Associated Press Stylebook. So let’s not linger there.

But what about that “moderate” problem? It does seem that, in many religious and cultural disputes, there are “conservatives,” “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” who are forever wrestling with intelligent, sensible people called “moderates.” There are no “liberals” in sight.

Which brings us back to the Episcopal Diocese of California and its election this weekend in San Francisco of Mark H. Andrus, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Alabama, as the new leader of one of the most liberal regions in the U.S. Episcopal Church. There was a somewhat surprising result, which ABC News captured in a rather blunt headline atop a Reuters report: “Heterosexual elected Episcopal Bishop of Calif.”

At the New York Times, reporter Neela Banerjee continued to cover this story, noting that the diocese did elect a straight white male, but one who had bravely stood up for gay rights in the heart of the Bible Belt. So this landslide in Grace Cathedral (photo) was a cautious win for the Episcopal left. Here is a summary:

Bishop Andrus, 49, was not one of the gay candidates. … Nonetheless, in an acceptance statement via a phone call piped into Grace Cathedral, where the voting was taking place, Bishop Andrus said he would continue to support the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.

“We must all understand, and here I address the Diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people,” Bishop Andrus said, referring to continuing in the Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million members worldwide. “My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute.”

So this election did nothing to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion, but it did not make matters immediately worse. You can find a similar template in the solid stories featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

mitre2But before we go, let’s reflect on a passing remark near the end of that Banerjee report, which included fleeting references to other Episcopal elections taking place across America this weekend.

Take the race for a key mitre down in the Bible Belt, for example:

In the Diocese of Tennessee … voting for a new bishop ended in a stalemate on Saturday after more than 30 ballots. Lay delegates backed a conservative minister who they hoped would take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church, and clergy members backed a more moderate choice, said the Rev. William Sachs, director of research for the Episcopal Foundation, the church’s analysis arm.

There are several loaded wordings in that paragraph. It is possible that this “conservative” candidate believes that it’s more important in the long run to keep the Nashville diocese in the global Anglican Communion (majority conservative, on moral theology) than in the U.S. body currently called the Episcopal Church (majority liberal, on moral theology). However, one can be sure that the use of the “moderate” label here — outside of a direct quote — is loaded. The analysis is, after all, coming from the head of the analysis office for the New York City-based Episcopal hierarchy.

And that would certainly sound right to the New York Times. So here is the question for Keller the editor. Does the New York City Episcopal establishment get to determine who is in the “moderate” camp?

P.S. No sign, as of yet, of the Times publishing a correction on Banerjee’s earlier story, which reported that the Anglican Communion (77 million members) is the world’s second largest church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Christian communion (250 million members).

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Get ready for the Da Vinci wave

apr282006 874 875 lgSo, how many of you are already fed up with the mainstream coverage of The Da Vinci Code?

I think the nice puff piece interview with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks in Entertainment Weekly was the official start of the tsunami. Not that you will learn much from it other than that — believe it or not — there are uptight Christians out there who are upset about what is clearly, clearly just an ordinary work of fiction.

Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.

In recent months, a very interesting debate/discussion/argument has broken out in which people are asking how traditional Christians should respond to the movie (since 40 million books failed to get the attention of some church leaders). Some people think the right approach is to ignore it. Some want to “debate it,” using the movie as a hook for evangelism. I have not, praise be, heard anyone talking about some kind of attention-grabbing wave of protests. There have been interesting variables on these positions. Click here for a USA Today story on the various sites dedicated to all of this.

Now I am a “debate the culture” kind of guy and have been for years. I think this novel is impossible to ignore. The question, to me, is whether the definitive statement of Dan Brown’s evangelistic screed — for his own postmodern, semi-Gnostic version of Christianity — is the novel or the movie.

Thus, I wrote an article for the controversial Da Vinci Dialogue site (part of the actual publicity campaign for the movie) entitled “Who is Dan Brown?” In it, I argued:

… (It’s) crucial to note that Brown is not opposed to faith or to Christianity. He is only opposed to forms of Christianity that hold fast to the faith’s 2000 years of doctrine on issues such as salvation, Christology, moral theology, the Trinity, the Resurrection and a few other picky details. …

Truth is, Brown is a liberal, feminist Christian whose views would be right at home in thousands of mainline, progressive churches and the seminaries that prepare men and women to stand at their altars. He also sees himself as someone who is searching for that crossroads where modern science, the sexual revolution and all the world religions meet and work out their differences in the embrace of an all-embracing goddess, god or pantheon of gods to be negotiated at some point in the future. But the key to the Gospel According to Dan Brown is not who is right, but who is wrong.

The bottom line: Anyone who truly wants to know what Brown is all about should skip the movie and read The Da Vinci Code instead, along with Angels & Demons, which preceded it.

tn davincicode poster2There are many articles to read on these subjects (let us know the best you have found), but I want to point to one in particular — Catholic-nun-turned-screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi’s piece in Christianity Today entitled “Let’s ‘Othercott’ Da Vinci.” For her, the bottom line is that The Da Vinci Code is so warped and anti-Christian — yes, anti-Catholic most of all — that it is wrong to urge people to go see it, even if the ultimate goal is some kind of piggyback evangelism.

Thus, Barbara is a bit ticked off:

DVC as great opportunity for evangelism? Hmmm. The climate of evangelism is not consistent with a posture of defiance and cynicism. Is slander an opportunity? Is angry superiority an opportunity? DVC represents all the “opportunity” that the Roman persecutions offered the early Church. Rah. And here’s another thing that troubles me about the “opportunity for dialogue” stance. The debate is all on hell’s terms. … DVC represents a debate in which the questions start with Satan’s presumptions.

So what does Nicolosi want people to do?

Here’s the twist. She wants people to buy a movie ticket the day that DVC comes out, only for a different movie.

On DVC’s opening weekend — May 19-21 — you should go to the movies. Just go to another movie. That’s your way of casting your vote, the only vote Hollywood recognizes: The power of cold hard cash laid down on a box office window on opening weekend. Use your vote. Don’t throw it away. … The major studio movie scheduled for release against DVC is the DreamWorks animated feature Over the Hedge. The trailers look fun, and you can take your kids. And your friends. And their friends. In fact, let’s all go see it.

Here’s my point in bringing this up.

Legions of reporters are about to spill oceans of ink during the next few weeks about The Da Vinci Code. I think it’s important for journalists to realize that there are people out there in Middle America and even the blue zip codes who have viewpoints other than one that can be called “fundamentalists who hate open-minded people in Hollywood.” It’s time for reporters to be creative and find some alternative “experts” and quote machines.

It’s journalism. Just do it.

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Why does Time see religion as irrelevant?

time 100 coverMany of you know World as a publication that strives to compete with other newsweeklies, but with an avowed evangelical Christian slant.

As a longtime reader of the publication, I appreciate it most for covering items that did not show up in The Washington Post and The New York Times the previous week, as both Time and Newsweek are known for doing so lamely.

So it’s not surprising that World founder Joel Belz over at the WorldViews blog pointed out that Time, in its list of “100 men and women” who are transforming the world through their “power, talent, or moral example,” sadly failed to include more than three people who could be considered religious figures.

While I cannot say here how disgusting I find the magazine’s hero-worshiping style and selection — Will Smith is on the list? Power? No. Talent? Definitely not. Moral example? Let’s hope not. — I do respect such efforts to catalogue the influential and powerful. It’s relatively interesting, good for conversations (and blog posts) and probably good for the magazine’s bottom line. But as Belz notes, the lack of religious leaders in the list is truly disturbing, especially since being a “moral example” is one of the qualifications:

Indeed, TIME lists 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers,” 22 “leaders and revolutionaries,” 21 “heroes and pioneers,” and 23 “builders and titans.” (The fact that this actually adds up to 109 people may be because TIME saw no mathematicians among the world’s most influential people). The three who might fall into the “religious” category are Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq, Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. Is organized religion really that miniscule in its worldwide influence these days — or is that just the secularist perspective of the editors at TIME?

I would like to think that the lack of religious leaders on the list is not due to “the secularist perspective” of the editors. Smart secularists should be able to recognize the importance of religion in the world. The magazine clearly understood it in putting together its list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in February 2005. I would also, obviously, disagree with the position that organized religion is “miniscule in its worldwide influence,” but an argument could be made that it is difficult to nail down 15 to 20 truly significant international leaders.

Who then should be on the list? Based on the inclusion of Tyra Banks, Stephen Colbert and Steve Nash (who was owned by NBA MVP rival Kobe Bryant on Sunday), one would think just about anybody can get on that list. So why did the editors omit the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Osama bin Laden and Tom Cruise (in jest, for his Scientology crusade)? Who would you add to the list?

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Evangelicals prefer Clinton over a Mormon?

romney in massThe “Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination because he believes in weird things” chorus is singing again. The major theme this time around, as explained in this this excellent blogpost by Ross Douthat, is whether it is constitutional for voters to apply a religious test to candidates for public office.

Romney’s presidential run has picked up some serious steam, thanks to his universal health-care initiative in Massachusetts. National Journal considers Romney one of the big three contenders for the GOP nomination behind Sens. John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia.

Putting his super-secret sources to work, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote Thursday that “Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him.”

There is nothing new to this argument, as The Washington Monthly‘s Amy Sullivan points out. It was Sullivan who wrote in September 2005 that Romney’s Mormon beliefs will be a problem in a 2008 presidential run. Nevertheless, Novak has the super-secret sources and his article will be a watermark in Romney’s presidential run:

Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party’s best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that’s just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.

Evangelicals, whoever these strange folks are, prefer a President Clinton II to a President Romney? You have to be kidding me.

The biggest problem I had with Novak’s article is the assumption that evangelical voters — those who are orthodox in their politics — actually have that level of influence in the Republican Party. The influence of these voters is minimal and must be separated from the millions of churchgoers who readily voted for Ronald Reagan despite his wife’s use of a personal astrologer to help determine his schedule.

romney buttonAn angle that needs to be covered in these pieces of political speculation is that Mormon politicians have historically been very friendly to evangelicals’ ministries and issues. A Washington, D.C., pastor I spoke to last night said that the politician who is most helpful to his ministry is Mormon.

A note to political writers: Romney’s religious beliefs matter. They matter because Romney himself knows they matter. Will conservative evangelical voters and their leaders really not vote for Romney in a general election because he is Mormon? Sounds like a good story for local papers to do during the GOP primary.

Adam Reilly over at Slate wrote a nice piece of political commentary a day before Novak’s piece ran that provides the Romney campaign with some nice suggestions for overcoming what has now become the “Mormon problem.”

In recent months, for example, he’s done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader,” he replied. “But they don’t care what brand of faith that is … I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.” Romney’s contention that the “brand of faith” doesn’t matter is debatable — but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney’s hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney’s ’08 prospects, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter asserted that “[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith” — a line that could have been penned by the governor himself. …

RomneyStandardWhat’s more, there’s a desperate quality to Romney’s eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who’s sure to tout this trip — and his cooperation with O’Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts — while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. “This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith,” Romney gushed at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a [M]ass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.” Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the Boston Globe that A) Romney and O’Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O’Malley told the Globe he hadn’t invited Romney and didn’t really know him all that well. (An O’Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation “similar to that extended to the general public.”)

In between Romney’s lectures that HBO’s Big Love does not represent Mormonism, political reporters are going to have to dig into the true beliefs of this faith. As we have written at GetReligion, those beliefs are hardly monolithic.

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