So a rabbi walks into a megachurch . . .

RabbiEcksteinNew York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets has published “The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa),” in the cross-town competition’s New York Times Magazine.

Chafets’ report of nearly 4,500 words is a deft and wry portrait of Yechiel Eckstein (left), an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Chafets describes the cultural challenges Eckstein faces in his work. At the Family Christian Center, a megachurch in Munster, Ind., pastor Steve Munson wrongly describes Eckstein as a rabbi who has become a born-again Christian, introduces Eckstein to Munson’s father as “Rabbi Einstein” and pronounces his name as “Yek-eel.”

Chafets captures an even more awkward moment during a regular IFCJ staff meeting. It involves one of Eckstein’s short-lived employees, broadcaster Sandy Rios, formerly of Concerned Women for America:

Throughout this conversation, Rios was clearly eager to join in. And as soon as there was a pause in the discussion, she did. “You know,” she said, “the truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews.”

. . . “Not by some bait-and-switch trick,” she said. “But we believe it’s part of God’s plan.” Eckstein winced the way he had when Pastor Munsey called him a born-again Christian.

“Anyway,” Rios said, “we love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us.”

Three days later, Eckstein called me in New York. Rios had been fired, but her gaffe, and the impression it made, was still on his mind. “It’s really my fault,” he said. “Hiring staff is a problem. Truthfully, it’s extremely hard to find people who understand exactly what we’re doing here.”

Chafets explores the tensions that arise from his work, including feelings among some of his fellow rabbis that he’s harming Orthodox Judaism by associating with evangelical Protestants, and questions of why evangelicals are generally pro-Israel.

Chafets’ portrait strikes a good balance of witty critique and allowing Eckstein to speak for himself. Here’s another passage that describes how Eckstein, who was working for the Anti-Defamation League during one of the great dramas of the 1970s, came to found his organization:

In 1977, American Nazis threatened to stage a march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large population of Holocaust survivors. The A.D.L. sent Eckstein from New York to help the local community round up Christian support. What he found surprised him. In his next year in Chicago, he discovered that the evangelicals, more than any other group, were prepared to stand with the Jews.

Eckstein reported back to New York like Marco Polo recalling his adventures in China. There were Christians in the heartland, he said, who took the Bible literally and believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people. They were, he said, a vast untapped reservoir of support for Israel, Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. This report was greeted hesitantly. Few A.D.L. people had ever met an evangelical Christian face to face, but they had seen “Elmer Gantry” and “Inherit the Wind,” and they associated Bible Belt Christians with snake charmers, K.K.K. nightriders, toothless fiddlers and flat-earth troglodytes.

In 1980, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bailey Smith, seemed to confirm this stereotype when he publicly declared that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” The grandees of the Jewish establishment were outraged, but Eckstein saw an opportunity. He contacted Smith and offered to accompany him on a trip to Israel.

In Jerusalem, Smith and Eckstein were given the royal treatment. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, having previously lost seven straight national elections, had few illusions about the efficacy of Jewish prayer. He did, however, have a keen appreciation for Christians like Smith, who believed that the Bible conferred title to the land of Israel on the Jews. Smith enjoyed being appreciated, and he returned home loudly proclaiming Genesis 12:3: God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

“That was the turning point,” Eckstein says. “From that moment on, I had an open door to the biggest Baptist churches in the country.”

The following year, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. An editorial in The New York Times called the strike “an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression.” Even the normally pro-Israel Reagan administration criticized it. But the evangelicals saw the hand of God and cheered. When Eckstein called this kind of support to the attention of the A.D.L. home office, he was treated like a nudnik. If Menachem Begin wanted to cozy up to Bailey Smith and Jerry Falwell and other such undesirables, well, that was Begin’s problem. Eckstein was told to commune with some respectable Episcopalians.

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Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wrote my master’s thesis on the struggle in mainstream newsrooms to improve coverage of religion. A short version of that turned into a 1983 cover essay for Quill.

On the 10th anniversary of that cover piece, I did a Quill update on the same topic — with an emphasis on what I believe are the four biases that most influence work on the Godbeat. That shorter essay opened with an anecdote about — GetReligion readers will not be surprised — the language that journalists use to describe competing camps in a major story. Here it is:

Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests. I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of “pro-choice.”

The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”

The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.

I’ve been thinking about that issue ever since, especially when covering the work of people who are politically progressive, yet also opposed to abortion on demand. The basic question: Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”? Do we need some term — other than “anti-abortion” — to describe people whose views are more complex than those of, let’s say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

You have probably guessed where I am going with this — the U.S. Supreme Court. Easily the most interesting story during the Week One coverage of John G. Roberts Jr. focused on a fascinating biographical detail about his wife, Jane. The Los Angeles Times had the scoop and reporter Richard A. Serrano set the tone.

The key: Jane Roberts held “antiabortion” views. And she appears to be a devout Catholic.

A Roman Catholic like her husband, Jane Roberts has been deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. She provides her name, money and professional advice to a small Washington organization — Feminists for Life of America — that offers counseling and educational programs. The group has filed legal briefs before the high court challenging the constitutionality of abortion.

A spouse’s views normally are not considered relevant in weighing someone’s job suitability. But abortion is likely to figure prominently in the Senate debate over John Roberts’ nomination. And with his position on the issue unclear, abortion rights supporters expressed concern Wednesday that his wife’s views might suggest he also embraced efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

The obvious question: What does it mean when a highly educated Catholic lawyer is part of a group called Feminists for Life?

What does this group stand for, other than its opposition to abortion on demand? The title implies that this group is not, let’s say, a kissing cousin of Focus on the Family.

The only hint in this groundbreaking story:

Feminists for Life has sponsored a national advertising campaign aimed at ending abortion in America. One of its mission statements proclaims: “Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Now think back to what my editor said in Denver. The people who call themselves pro-life are not really pro-life. They are the kinds of people who think human rights begin at conception and end at birth. They are pro-unborn child, but anti-woman.

So here is my question for my fellow MSM journalists. What happens if Jane Roberts (and even her husband) holds views that are not easily jammed into a perfect left-right split? What if she was and is some kind of pro-life moderate? Someone who was trying to heed all of the Catholic Church’s teachings? What if she was what some call “consistently pro-life”?

Reporters Lynette Clemetson and Robin Toner of The New York Times chased the original Los Angeles Times story and at least suggested that Jane Roberts might not be a right-wing robot.

Here is a section of that report, which once again included that interesting concept that American society has “failed to meet the needs of women”:

Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.

Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”

Read that again — “but not enough.” That might be an interesting concept for further coverage and, might I add, some questions from courageous Democrats. If they ask those questions, people on both sides of the issue will be nervous. That will be good. There is a ghost in there. Trust me.

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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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