Latest in evangelistic video games

stbbc8So, be honest. Which of the following two news stories scares you the most?

Option (a), or option (b)?

Which story makes you the most depressed about the future of public discourse in our culture? The future of organized and non-organized religion?

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. Which is the bigger news story?

But wait. Is it possible that these two stories are actually the same news story, only looking at fads in different zip codes?

Have a nice day. I need a nap.

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Missing in the Clinton story

clintonchurchThe Washington Post‘s front-page article on the political dynamics of a Sen. Hillary Clinton presidential run is Exhibit A in a political reporter’s attempt to answer the questions that leading candidates historically refuse to answer. As expected, those questions center on “What does [Clinton] stand for? And where would [Clinton] try to take the country if elected?”

Despite candidate Clinton’s coyness, longtime WaPo political reporter Dan Balz draws out a decent amount of analysis on the New York Senator from an interview he scored Friday:

To the contrary, she made clear in a telephone interview on Friday that her governing philosophy may never be easily reduced to a slogan. “I don’t think like that,” she said. “I approach each issue and problem from a perspective of combining my beliefs and ideals with a search for practical solutions. It doesn’t perhaps fit in a preexisting box, but many of the problems we face as a nation don’t either.”

Her detractors find much — and much different — to criticize. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins dismisses Clinton as the embodiment of “triangulation, calculation and equivocation.” Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos Web site often attacks the Democratic establishment, ridicules her as a leader who is “afraid to offend.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing a view shared by many Republicans, calls her a liberal “ideologue” who is far more doctrinaire than her husband.

A selective reading of Clinton’s record can produce evidence to prove she is a centrist, a liberal and much in between. But there are clear patterns. On defense, she has consistently supported the use of force abroad, having advocated military intervention in the Balkans during her husband’s administration. She differs with Bush administration officials on many aspects of how they have conducted foreign policy, but not on combating terrorism or the imperative of winning in Iraq.

Domestically, she has a more complex profile, a product of life experiences that have shaped and refined her approach to issues. She is an activist who believes in the power of government to solve problems, but those pro-government instincts have been tempered by the health-care debacle of 1993-94 and the nation’s budgetary squeeze. On family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.

Not that there isn’t more than enough to write about when it comes to Clinton, but I found it interesting that Balz all but ignores a previous WaPo splash on the alleged rise of the religious left. Not that I’m complaining at all, but I am curious what the leaders of the religious left think of Clinton and whether Clinton’s people think the group is significant enough to make them worth a political courtship.

Here Balz hints at Clinton’s beliefs on religious issues:

She believes government is an essential partner in a three-sided relationship that also includes the free market, and a “civil society” of churches and nonprofit groups. “I am a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible,” she said. “But I know one of the reasons our country has been one of the most successful organizations in the world is because we got the balance right.”

This and a mention of her January 2005 talk regarding abortion being a “sad, even tragic choice” for women is it when it comes to religion in this story. And that’s too bad, because there’s plenty to write about when it comes to religion and Clinton.

A couple of notes for reporters venturing into this tenuous area: As tmatt has said repeatedly, what of Clinton’s Methodist roots and her very public churchgoing when she was First Lady?

Outside Clinton’s personal life, I think it would be difficult to draw in the religious left angle in an article such as this. The voters who make up the religious left have yet to define themselves or carry a significant candidate to victory.

That said, would Clinton be the religious left’s candidate of choice? Or would that honor go to the more moderate Mark Warner? And what of former Vice President Al Gore? If the religious left story is going to have legs, it’s going to need a candidate for the 2008 election.

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Looking beyond big conferences and grand pronouncements

PhillipsCoverReporters searching for the rise of the “religious left” don’t have to look hard to find people to talk about the surge or growth in the movement. Never mind that no one has really defined exactly what this movement stands for politically, let alone theologically.

Conferences, Bible verse-dropping and citing the history of progressive religious movements (civil-rights, social gospel) are all nice and good for a quick-hit story. But as the Democrats look to rally a religious movement on their own to compete with the religious right, reporters should note the last three paragraphs of this excellent Economist article titled “American Theocracy.” Reporters covering the intersection and politics should remember these poignant insights as they explore the movement:

But is this truly a sea-change in American religious politics? Or is it a brief “hallelujah moment” — born of Bush fatigue and political opportunism — that will bring no lasting change? The betting is on the latter. The religious left suffers from two long-term problems. The first is that it is building its house on sand. The groups that make up the heart of the religious left — mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics and reform Jews — are all experiencing long-term decline. Most of the growth in American religion is occurring among conservative churches. And the constituent parts of the religious left are also at odds over important issues. Middle-of-the-road Catholics are happy to march hand-in-hand with mainline Protestants over immigration and inequality. But they often disagree over abortion and gay rights.

The secular left usually wins

Serious doubts also persist about how much the Democratic Party is willing to change to embrace religion. Some influential Democrats want real change. Others think that all they need to do is drop a few platitudes to religious voters and the God-gap will disappear. Mr Dean’s performance on Pat Robertson’s television programme was as telling as it was laughable. He not only chose to talk to a man who plays a much bigger role in the liberal imagination than among evangelicals; he also let slip that Democrats “have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community.”

The biggest problem for the religious left is that it is badly outgunned by the secular left. The Democratic Party’s elites — from interest-groups to funders to activists — are determinedly secular. So are many of its most loyal voters. John Kerry won 62% of the vote of people who never go to church; and that group is the fastest-growing single “religious” group in the country. These secular voters don’t just feel indifferent to religion. They are positively hostile to it, regarding it as a embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values such as the right to choose. These crusading secularists are in a particularly militant mood at the moment, as the sales of Kevin Phillips’s Bush-bashing book, “American Theocracy”, testify. The last thing they want is a religious left to counterbalance the religious right.

So two thoughts that should be seriously considered in the debate over the alleged rise of the “religious left”:

  • Groups that compose the “religious left” are on the decline.
  • Secularists in the Democrat Party don’t like religion.

It’s up to reporters to discover whether or not there is merit to these arguments — or, better yet, to disprove these arguments. The answers are out there, but it will take some serious digging and going beyond official spokesmen and announcements.

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Doubter, seeker, journalist and Christian

981206wehmeyherWhile I was in Key West (I am still catching up after that fine conference and being stuck in a train much of yesterday), I read a note from a reader pointing me toward an interesting FaithInTheWorkplace.com interview with former ABC News correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer that focuses on journalism, faith and journalists who cover news about faith. Click here to go straight to the interview.

I should mention that I consider Wehmeyer a friend and I talked with her and with thelate Peter Jennings about some of the issues that she discusses in the interview. She now works with World Vision in its media projects. I still hope that, someday, a cable news outlet that wants to explore the religion-news demographic will bring her back to major media.

The interview speaks for itself. However, I will point out that Wehmeyer uses the word “objective” in describing her work, which in my experience leads to endless debates about philosophy, the fall of man and other topics that make eyes glaze over in newsrooms. Here at GetReligion we prefer a word like “balance,” which isn’t perfect either. But you can tell that what Wehmeyer — backed by Jennings in this experiment — was trying to do was get intelligent, informed voices into her reports about hot-button issues.

This was controversial, especially in the wake of a 1998 USA Weekend cover story (source of the photo) with the headline “My faith makes me a better reporter: ABC’s Peggy Wehmeyer seeks something higher than ratings for network news.” But this new interview makes it clear what she was trying to do. Here’s a sample:

Your job description was to get to the bottom of stories involving different faiths and to tell them fairly. Did an assignment ever cause you to struggle with your own beliefs?

Of course. And at times my own faith got wobbly. As a good journalist, you try to see the world through the eyes of the people you’re interviewing. You want to understand what they believe and tell it as closely to what they believe as possible. To do that well, you must empathize and understand both sides of a contentious issue. Yes, it challenged my faith. It made me question many things I had just assumed. It also broadened me greatly, caused me to think deeply, and to reassess what core beliefs in my faith I really could hold and count on.

I’ve always been a truth seeker; what I wanted was the truth regardless of the cost. What I found to be true — that I wished weren’t true — is that we have to live life much more in the gray than in the black-and-white.

So you still have doubt?

I’m a huge doubter and a skeptic. It’s part of what makes me a good journalist and a lousy Christian. My friends say it makes me a good Christian. Let’s say it makes me a sometimes overly intense and troubled Christian. …

So how did you take your Christianity into your work world?

Right in the beginning, I had to decide: would I stay in the closet, or would I be as unashamed of who I am and what I believe as my colleagues were about who they are and what they believe? Because of the kind of person I am, for me to hide the core of who I was would be almost lending credence to the argument that I was ashamed of being a Christian or that there was something inferior about it.

There were times when I wished my personal life were invisible and not an issue. I sometimes had to jump through three extra hoops as a religion reporter, because my colleagues thought that a Christian covering religion was an inherent conflict of interest. I would argue: is an atheist, a Jew, or an agnostic inherently less biased than a Christian? Why would a Christian be less able to be objective than anyone else? All of us have personal worldviews and biases. Why would mine disqualify me and others not disqualify them?

Wehmeyer was open about her faith in the workplace and stressed that, because she took her faith so seriously, she wanted to go the extra mile to take seriously the beliefs and viewpoints of those she covered. Most of all, she wanted the people she covered to believe that she had accurately reported their beliefs, as part of reports that also included the viewpoints of other, often clashing, voices in the same story.

That does create tension and it’s hard work. But Jennings once told me that Wehmeyer’s reports used to draw the highest positive-response ratings of any produced in his newsroom. That probably isn’t bad for ratings.

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Asking the obvious Clinton question

238px Clintons2004conventionNow it’s official. That mysterious New York Times story about the state of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s marriage is officially the buzz topic of the week here inside the Beltway. We know that because the official voice of the old D.C. journalistic establishment — that would be David S. Broder — has written a column about it.

So let’s slide backward in search of the ghost in this mess. We start with Broder describing the New York senator’s Tuesday morning appearance at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach. But the buzz in the room was not about her speech — or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit — but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning’s New York Times.

So what did this all-important Times piece say? Almost nothing. And that’s the news. It is very, very hard to write a boring story about the Clintons. Click here if you want to explore it for yourself. Even the headline is a yawner: “Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives.” Here is the thesis statement:

When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage — and how the most dissected relationship in American life might affect Mrs. Clinton’s possible bid for the presidency in 2008.

Democrats say it is inevitable that in a campaign that could return the former president to the White House, some voters would be concerned or distracted by Mr. Clinton’s political role and the episode that led the House to vote for his impeachment in 1998.

You think so? Would these moral concerns be more intense in some zip codes than in others? Would concerns be more common in pews and pulpits than in faculty lounges and newsrooms?

I really don’t have to ask any snarky questions about the article because Jack Shafer of Slate.com has already asked most of them in an essay entitled “The Bill and Hillary Code.” Shafer really doesn’t nail Times reporter Patrick Healy for anything, in part because the piece has the feel of a story that was worked over by legions of editors and lawyers and the lawyers working for the editors. It is impossible to ask the question that the so-called “values voters” out there want to see asked.

Healy could directly ask, “Is Bill cheating?” Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

hillbillyThe morality questions will not go away, for sure. However, I found myself wanting an answer to a simple question that would have been very easy to ask and pretty easy to answer. Bill and Hillary probably — maybe — would have wanted to answer it.

Note that Healy and his army of anonymous, but gentle, sources give us chapter and verse on where the Clintons live and work and how they spend their time (no GPS data, however).

Now, it may have been hard to find out if they share a bedroom at either of their homes and how often said New Democrats are in those bedrooms at the same time. That’s what the buzz is all about, but I think that’s a bit much to ask, don’t you?

But would it have been hard to find out if and when and where these moderate/centrists go to church?

Faith is hot right now. Even Howard Dean says so. Before you know it, journalists will need to know that information about the Clintons in order to prepare for campaign 2008 photo opportunities.

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Scary ghosts in Key West talks

2004 02 28 WeddingSunset OceanKeyResort KeyWestFL 5143 CUT 640For the past few days, I have been down in Key West, Fla., for one of those amazing “Faith Angle” gatherings, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, for journalists and scholars.

As always, the topics were timely and the discussion — almost all of which was on the record — was lively. The speakers this time were Michael Cook of Princeton University, on “Understanding Muhammad and Islam”; longtime Democratic insider William Galston of the Brookings Institution on “Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party”; and James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and Alan Wolfe of Boston College debating the question “Is There a Culture War?” (a preview of their forthcoming book).

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to offering URLs on all those people and those topics. But if you want transcripts of their talks and the discussions, watch this site. Or you can read one journalist’s take on the proceedings, because Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of the Dallas Morning News live-blogged the whole thing for his new Crunchy Con blog over at Beliefnet.

I do not have the time or the energy to cover all that Capt. Crunchy’s flying fingers produced during the sessions. But I will say this: There were two powerful ghosts in the room.

One was the ongoing issue of whether American evangelical Protestants have become so disheartened by trends in the second Bush White House that they have already started a quiet retreat from the nasty business of politics and back into the garden of compassionate deeds and evangelistic words. Is the Rev. Rick “Purpose Driven” Warren of Saddleback Church a sign of this trend? There were many references by reporters and forum leaders to his session with reporters a year ago in Key West.

So, should we look for a louder evangelical left and a quieter evangelical right? Here are two short Dreher notes on that discussion:

Why should Evangelicals lay down power?

The question is put to Wolfe: Why would you think that conservative Protestants, having spent 40 years building a powerful political machine, would abandon it? Because, says Wolfe, its leaders are having an epiphany about what their role as Christians in this culture are supposed to be, and to do. Leaders like Rick Warren are genuinely more interested in fighting poverty and relieving suffering, not fighting in the political realm. There is an authentic re-thinking of Christian mission, of Christian public purpose, among the younger generation of Evangelical leaders.

The coming Evangelical Left

Hunter says that because Evangelicalism is more and more defined by emotional experience, a nascent Evangelical political progressivism is easy to foresee. You can see this especially among the emerging Evangelical elites. Says Hunter, “Most of the Evangelicals I know at the University of Virginia, I only know one who voted for Bush in the last election.”

The second ghost was like unto the first.

Galston’s presentation was excellent and it, of course, raised a fundational question about the current direction of the Democratic Party. Will the party’s elite leaders be willing to do more than talk about religion? Will they be able to actually compromise on hot-button cultural issues — such as abortion and gay rights — in order to reach the massive, mushy, “incoherent” (Wolfe’s word) middle of the American marketplace of emotions (as opposed to ideas)? That’s a hard question, as noted by Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post piece entitled “The New Temptation of Democrats“:

The risk is that, in the process of maneuvering, Democrats’ reframing and rebranding could edge into retreating on core principles. It was unsettling to hear (Howard) Dean — in the process of cozying up to evangelicals — mangle the party platform, saying, incorrectly, that it states that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” In fact, while deliberately silent on marriage, the platform supports “full inclusion of gay and lesbian families . . . and equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections.” …

(By) all means, let Democrats woo evangelicals and cast the message in a way that speaks to religious voters. But in doing so, keep in mind: What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?

Ct 241690Abortion is always a hot topic for Democrats, but it wasn’t the issue lurking in the background in Key West. Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard was there and, at one point, I wished he could have handed out copies of Maggie Gallagher’s recent cover story, “Banned in Boston — The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.”

The basic question: Will the leaders of the Democratic Party do what the Clinton White House was willing to do, which is defend the basic freedom of association rights of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others? During private conversations, Galston said it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to support an attack on the First Amendment rights of millions of traditional religious believers. That simply is not going to happen, he said.

But numerous sources — left and right — quoted in the Gallagher article are not so sure. Consider these remarks from a strategic leader in a Jewish organization that is, needless to say, not part of the Religious Right.

As general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern knows religious liberty law from the inside out. … (He) sees the coming conflicts as pervasive. The problem is not that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages or prevented from preaching their beliefs. Look past those big red herrings: “No one seriously believes that clergy will be forced, or even asked, to perform marriages that are anathema to them. Same-sex marriage would, however, work a sea change in American law. …

Consider education. Same-sex marriage will affect religious educational institutions, he argues, in at least four ways: admissions, employment, housing, and regulation of clubs. One of Stern’s big worries right now is a case in California where a private Christian high school expelled two girls who (the school says) announced they were in a lesbian relationship. Stern is not optimistic. And if the high school loses, he tells me, “then religious schools are out of business.” Or at least the government will force religious schools to tolerate both conduct and proclamations by students they believe to be sinful.

That got my attention, seeing as how I teach at the national headquarters of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Want more?

Will speech against gay marriage be allowed to continue unfettered? “Under the American regime of freedom of speech, the answer ought to be easy,” according to Stern. But it is not entirely certain, he writes, “because sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace principles will likely migrate to suppress any expression of anti-same-sex-marriage views.” Stern suggests how that might work.

In the corporate world, the expression of opposition to gay marriage will be suppressed not by gay ideologues but by corporate lawyers, who will draw the lines least likely to entangle the company in litigation. Stern likens this to “a paroxysm of prophylaxis — banning ‘Jesus saves’ because someone might take offense.”

It was great to be in Key West and surrounded by some amazing journalists and scholars. But the topics were not what I would call “relaxing,” at least not for folks who worry a lot about about religious-liberty issues.

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Noticing faith

Protest6The snark is gone, for now.

Kudos to Newsweek for its thoughtful new weekly feature, Beliefwatch, written by Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman. This week’s column, on the topic of immigration and what the Bible teaches about it, is particularly noteworthy.

With all the posturing recently from politicians attempting to get God on their side in the immigration debate, it’s refreshing to see a magazine take an honest and straightforward look at what the Bible actually teaches:

Opposition to the Iraq war energized the “religious left.” Now immigration is extending the life of the coalition. The most vocal have been Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Rabbis David Saperstein and Arthur Waskow, Christian ministers Bob Edgar and Jim Wallis and — to stretch the definition a bit — Methodist lay leader Hillary Clinton, who said that some anti-immigrant measures would “criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.” There are divides, of course: almost half of Roman Catholics say “immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care,” according to a Pew Religion Forum survey last month. But the study also showed that those who attend church more often are warmer to immigrants. As with any issue, dueling Bible verses are never far behind.

The column links to a Beliefnet piece that lays out the various passages in the Old Testament, New Testament, Qur’an and Hadith that deal with immigration.

I might have missed previous Beliefwatch articles, but as far as I can tell, last week’s was the first. The topic was not as straightforward — books on Jesus that tell a story other than what is traditionally taught — but adequately handled. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this feature, because it will be interesting to see what type of material Waldman finds.

Photo: day of protest #6 by Kris Kros.

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Newsweek turns maudlin

Newsweek5 29 06The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.

The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.

Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:

The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”

The story would have been more informative, and may have even offered a clash of ideas, had Newsweek interviewed Da Vinci critics such as Darrell Bock, Greg Jones, Sandra Miesel, or Amy Welborn.

At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.

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