MIA: Those Chaplain Corps wars

From time to time, GetReligion, The Revealer and other sites that dissect religion coverage are criticized for being too negative and not pointing out the good as well as the bad.

This past week was a very busy one, so I never got around to blogging what I thought was one of the best stories of the week. So let me do that now, as I get ready to turn off the computer and head out the door to Baltimore-Washington. I am referring to Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times feature, “Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps.”

The dateline on the story is Colorado Springs, but this is not — believe me, it is not — another tired follow story on religious liberty issues at the Air Force Academy. GetReligion has been watching that story carefully, of course, since we’re big on the whole issue of offensive free speech. However, there is a larger issue lurking in the background of that emotional story.

Goodstein has the story. It’s the story of a legal war that has been raging among military chaplains as the rising tide of American evangelicalism crashes into the fortress of the oldline Protestant and Catholic establishment in the armed forces. This has been covered, blow by blow, in some of the denominational news services and in mainstream Christian publications.

While the Air Force story hinges on claims that evangelicals are smothering, well, virtually everyone, the legal battle centers on claims by evangelicals that they face discrimination from the oldline world — clergy in collars, in other words.

This is a story packed with land mines, for an oldline newspaper like the Times. It’s clear that one factor in all of this is the negative attitude that the old-line churches have toward the modern military, in the age of Iraq and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The progressive churches are also in a statistical freefall in the pews. The Catholics are growing, but the priesthood is shrinking. All of that affects the chaplains issue.

There are doctrinal issues, too. Evangelicals believe in evangelism and hell. They take both seriously. The modern oldline and Catholic worlds are, in effect, universalist when it comes to salvation. It is easier for clergy on the left to exist and speak their minds in a pluralistic, interfaith military than it is for traditional Christians. Yet the government is not supposed to practice “viewpoint discrimination” on religious speech issues. This is a tough row to hoe on both sides.

Goodstein’s article features articulate, compelling voices from both sides of this debate. There are many sections I could quote. Here are two key passages:

Part of the struggle, chaplains and officials say, is the result of growing diversity. But part is from evangelicals following their church’s teachings to make converts while serving in a military job where they are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers, fliers and sailors of every faith. Evangelical chaplains say they walk a fine line.

Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, said in an interview, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.” The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel.

And, of course, there is the Vietnam factor:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of “American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993,” said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

“Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it,” Ms. Loveland said. “That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals.”

I could go on and on. There are sections of this feature to disturb and provoke readers on both sides. This is what journalism does. I hope this important free-speech story is out in the main pages and will stay there. Goodstein got the story.

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Who gets to define “occupying forces”?

The Associated Press has producted a solid update on an emerging MSM theme in the wake of the London bombings — the debate inside mainstream Islam over when violence is acceptable and when it is not. A serious uptick in coverage of this issue is crucial, especially for moderate Muslims and others interested in religious liberty.

I’ll keep this short, since correspondent Thomas Wagner’s report about the gathering at London’s largest mosque is wire-service direct and you can read it for yourself. The heart of the whole matter is Israel, of course, but the wording also applies to Iraq. The key: suicide bombings can be used against “occupying forces.” Would this also include Saudi Arabian heretics in Mecca, if the first name of the person making this deadly theological decision is Osama?

“There should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime,” said Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London.

“The media in the West are mixing the difference between these two, and the result is that some of our Muslim youth are becoming more frustrated and they think that both are the same, even though Muslim law forbids killing any innocent lives,” Musawi said.

Once again, please let us know of other stories addressing these issues. I hope, for starters, AP lets Wagner and others stay on the topic.

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Is a flock of 200 big or small?

The staggeringly in-depth conservative Anglican website TitusOneNine has an interesting take by a reader named Karen B. dissecting a New York Times report about the escalating Episcopal Church warfare in Connecticut.

To read the original Stacey Stowe news story, click here. To dig into Karen B.’s critique, click here.

As always, this wrestling match is linked to the Bible and sex outside of marriage. However, Karen is interested in how newspapers can actually bias a story with a highly nuanced, or uninformed, use of statistics.

Here is the Stowe paragraph that sent Karen to the web for some interesting research and statistics.

The Vassar College Episcopal chaplain, the Rev. Susan McCone, is now the priest in charge of St. John’s, a church with fewer than 200 members. A retired priest from western Massachusetts has been leading Sunday services. . . .

Seems innocent enough. But wait: What is the percentage of Episcopal parishes that average fewer than 80 to 100 in worship?

Read it all.

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WWROD: Four kinds of Anglican Bibles

Godbeat veteran Richard Ostling of the Associated Press — he of this blog’s WWROD tribute — is best known for his hard-news, brass-tacks approach. You want clear, fair writing about complex stories? This is your man.

But Ostling does do analysis pieces, too. Here is an example in which he sets out to do the impossible, as in explaining — in about 666 words — the four basic approaches to the Bible being used in the worldwide Anglican wars over sexuality.

And what, you ask, are those approaches? Ostling lists them this way — dismissal, perplexity, renovation and
traditionalism. The big two turn out to be “renovation” and “traditionalism.” Here is the summary of two papers at the latest Anglican academic showdown (but you really need to see the essay to see the Bishop Spong section, etc.):

The two papers typified debates within many mainline Protestant groups.

The Episcopal Church’s report compared full inclusiveness for gays with the New Testament church’s opening to Gentiles. It cited Acts 10, where Peter receives a vision allowing nonkosher foods and then commends baptism for Gentile converts; and Acts 15, where a council sets policy toward Gentiles.

The traditionalist paper said that in Acts 15 the church eliminated Jewish strictures on diet and circumcision for Gentiles, “but there was to be continuity in the moral sphere,” since the council upheld Jewish sexual morals by warning Gentiles against “unchastity.”

The Episcopal report said ancient Jewish prohibitions in Leviticus were part of a “holiness code” written to sustain Israel’s distinctiveness and national survival. It said the code “makes no distinction between ritual and moral regulations,” implying the gay ban is as outmoded as, say, rules against blending textiles.

The traditionalists responded that while early Christianity eliminated ritual rules, Jewish teachings against “immoral behavior” remained in force. For instance, the Leviticus passage condemns incest. And New Testament verses endorse Jewish sexual standards.

And so forth. Next up, Romans 1:26-27.

I did have one question, however. Anglicanism maintains that it is a blending, a compromise, of both the ancient church (read Catholic and Orthodox) and the Protestant Reformation. When Ostling says that “traditionalists” looked to “early Christianity” for input on how to read these controversial Bible passages, does that mean they actual quoted the early Church Fathers? I assume someone there played the trump card of 2,000 years of unbroken Christian tradition on marriage and sex?

This is a minor, minor complaint, and it probably has more to do with the competing Anglican teams than with Ostling. As always, Ostling has jammed mucho info into this piece.

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CT: Is Gonzales pro-life? Says who?

ag gonzales mediumOur goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to focus on MSM coverage of religion news. But we also want to point journalists toward helpful online materials at sites such as Poynter, Beliefnet, ReligionLink and elsewhere.

In that vein, let me point toward a very interesting essay that just hit the Christianity Today weblog, written by the omnipresent Ted Olsen. Clearly, evangelicals are at the heart of the behind-the-scenes wars over the Supreme Court and, thus, it matters what they think of the leading candidates. Thus, Olsen’s headline: “Is Gonzales Pro-Life? Does it Matter?” In addition to source-material links, there’s a ton of reporting in this essay. Here is a key section:

Religious conservatives have to be very careful, too. Opposing Gonzales merely because his views on abortion are unknown could seem capricious or hypocritical, especially if you’ve been critical of “judicial activists” making decisions on personal bias. (The judicial campaign of Family Research Council, which opposes a Gonzales nomination, is so far centered on making sure a Supreme Court nominee doesn’t have to declare his or her views on abortion.)

But National Review‘s Edward Whelan suggests another reason Gonzales would be bad for conservatives — he would have to recuse himself from several cases, probably including the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (A Gonzales recusal in that case would almost certainly ensure an invalidation of the ban, Whelan notes.) He may even have to recuse himself “from virtually all the cases of greatest importance to the administration.” That would include the Patriot Act, too, something Bush probably cares more about than the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (And something on which Christians are quite divided, by the way.)

This gives pro-lifers an opening without compromising their commitments. They don’t have to fight Bush on Gonzales on the abortion front; they can claim to protect Bush from Gonzales, or at least from the legal implications of appointing any attorney general to the bench. Such a shift from ideology to strategy would shift the nomination debate significantly.

P.S. By the way, amid the usual 1,000 or so links in this edition of the CT weblog, music fans will want to check out the little blurb about Liam Gallagher of Oasis being ticked off at Bono because the U2 singer won’t quit trying to covert him to traditional Christianity. Some versions of this story floating around contain another reference to Bono being a Roman Catholic.

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The Times and the Whitehall dossier

The Times has a sobering story about the number of potential Al-Qaeda sympathisers that might be found among British Muslims or other Muslims who now live permanently in Great Britain. This ties into our discussions of “moderate” Islam, radical forms of Islam and the double-edged sword of assimilation in the West.

Here is the challenge to the press. One one side, journalists can demonize Muslims as some kind of unified threat. On the other side, journalists can made a leap of faith and assume that the “moderate” or even “reform” elements within Islam now represent the majority point of view. This approach leads to waves of stories quoting Islamic leaders repeating the “religion of peace” mantra and very little coverage of the complex, and often disturbing, points of view found elsewhere.

Time after time, I have heard journalists say — accurately — that Islam is not a monolith. The problem is that they then turn around and argue that it will only fan flames of prejudice if American newsrooms dare to do in-depth coverage of radical Islamic influences within local communities. Islam is complex and contains a multitude of voices, but we can only cover one set of voices? That is progress?

In this context, the Times report by Robert Winnett and David Leppard can be seen as somewhat brave. Some will, surely, call it “conservative,” whatever that means in this context. Here is the lead:

Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. A network of “extremist recruiters” is circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees.

The key in this Whitehall document — the ghost even — is contained in its description of the environments that are yielding radical Islamists who might be willing to take part in terror campaigns.

The bottom line: This is not a matter of finding angry young men on the bad, or even oppressed, side of town.

So how big is this dangerous minority within British Islam? The document

. . . (Paints) a chilling picture of the scale of the task in tackling terrorism. Drawing on information from MI5, it concludes: “Intelligence indicates that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than 1%.” This equates to fewer than 16,000 potential terrorists and supporters out of a Muslim population of almost 1.6m.

The dossier also estimates that 10,000 have attended extremist conferences. The security services believe that the number who are prepared to commit terrorist attacks may run into hundreds. Most of the Al-Qaeda recruits tend to be loners “attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion” because of “disillusionment with their current existence”. British-based terrorists are made up of different ethnic groups, according to the documents.

“They range from foreign nationals now naturalised and resident in the UK, arriving mainly from north Africa and the Middle East, to second and third generation British citizens whose forebears mainly originate from Pakistan or Kashmir. In addition . . . a significant number come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or (are) only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction.”

Are similar recruiting patterns forming in the United States? What is happening out it, let’s say, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando and elsewhere? If reporters argued in favor of investigating these issues in the American heartland, would they be accused of bias? Of promoting hate and prejudice?

The goal is to find and accurately quote a wide variety of Muslim voices, trying to find out (a) who represents the majority point of view and (b) who is quietly recruiting Muslims to a more radical point of view. Is this journalistic task possible?

We need to watch the Times for follow-up stories.

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For the love of God, place a period

BurnsAndAllenKevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service does a brilliant job this week of contrasting the United Church of Christ’s “God is Still Speaking” ad blitz with its historic image:

The glitzy “God is Still Speaking” ad campaign by the United Church of Christ features a giant black comma with a quote from comedian Gracie Allen — “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Some conservatives, however, worry that a punctuation mark has pushed aside the UCC’s traditional logo — with its prominent cross and crown of Jesus Christ — and with it, the church’s Christian identity.

As UCC delegates gathered in Atlanta last weekend (July 1-5) for the church’s General Synod meeting, they considered a resolution to reassert the UCC’s 1957 “Cross Triumphant” logo as the “central symbol” for its 1.3 million members.

Eckstrom teases out that clash of images by interviewing the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, leader of the UCC reform group called Biblical Witness Fellowship, and Diana Butler Bass of Virginia Theological Seminary, who’s leading The Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a two-year study of vital mainline churches.

One angle that does not become explicit in Eckstrom’s story is the larger theological debate embodied by the comma versus cross debate: Is there a continuing revelation that contradicts what churches have historically held is God’s definitive self-revelation in Scripture?

Just where this could lead, both theologically and grammatically, is evident in a column (16-page PDF; see p. 2) by Herb Gunn, editor of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s newspaper, The Record:

The idea that God’s message is not finished yet but the real risk is that Christians have stopped listening is the strongest reason I can give for why I was drawn into the Episcopal Church from the Church of my youth, Presbyterian.

The UCC advertisement touches on precisely what I value in a church community and the “comma campaign” is . . . well, a stroke of genius. Not only does the comma suggest more is coming, but move it around.

God is still, speaking
God is, still speaking
God, is still speaking

If the UCC campaign continues attracting this kind of cutting-edge thinking, perhaps The Wittenburg Door might consider choosing Gracie Allen as its first posthumous Theologian of the Year.

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On the road: Did Google get religion?

Whoa! Is it just me, or did everyone click on Google News this a.m. and find the following section available in the main page? If this change has somehow been made in the Google template, the timing could not be better.

The Rt. Rev. LeBlanc may need to cue up the Freak Out theme music again.

Religion »

Religion: God and money
U.S. News & World Report — Jun 14, 2005
You might think so. After all, the father of modern sociology, Max Weber, saw that there was a pretty powerful connection between being a good Protestant and being a good capitalist. But people have been arguing . . .

Tech Central Station
After thinking about it, justices decide to let us think about it
Chicago Daily Southtown — 53 minutes ago
By Marlene Lang. The US Constitution doesn’t name all the messy potential manifestations of “establishment of a religion,” as forbidden in the First Amendment. What we need is a tidy list of all possible situational . . .

Thou shalt not waffle
Marion Chronicle Tribune
Kentucky congressmen back amending the Constitution
Louisville Courier-Journal
Palm Beach Post — commercialappeal.com (subscription) — Roanoke Times Washington Times — all 83 related »

Believers, Save the Republic!
Washington Post — 8 hours ago
By Jon Meacham. On July 4, 1827, a leading clergyman of the day, the Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could . . .

Founding Fathers, founding faith
Orlando Sentinel
Economist — Useless-Knowledge.com – all 5 related »

Scalia’s scary America
St. Petersburg Times — 4 hours ago
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER, Times Perspective Columnist. Justice Antonin Scalia would remake our secular republic into a quasi-theocracy; and with the pending retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, we may soon . . .
Hoisting Liberals on Their Own Petard: Thank You, Justice Scalia MichNews.com
American Rhythms | The court’s delicate dance between church and . . . philly.com
all 6 related »

Etc. Etc. Etc. I don’t even know where to start on this, especially stopped along the roadside on the way to the mountains in a spot of wi-fi.

Speaking of roadside — I saw an interesting kitsch sign about 67 miles into Georga headed north on I-95 yesterday. It said: “America’s smallest church, exit right.” I thought about that and it sort of made sense. Churches on the right tend to split a lot as they fight over doctrine.

I wonder if, somewhere, there is a roadside sign that says: “America’s smallest church with an endowment, exit left.”

Back to the road. Where is the next cyber cafe in the hills?

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