Did Hudson think he could make this story go away?

Hang on. I don’t say he “deserved” it. I do say that he should have expected it, and was foolish to have thought that he could get involved in secular politics at his level and not have it come out. His hubris, as much as the act itself, brought about this act of self-immolation. As someone famous said recently, you can’t be naive if you want to play in that sandbox.

Posted by: Rod Dreher | August 25, 2004 12:40 PM

It’s no surprise, I guess, that there are waves of interesting ideas and questions in the comments section of the Deal Hudson post. One of the big questions remains: Was the National Catholic Reporter story a “hit job”?

Come on folks, of course it was a hit job. But it was also a valid news story. Remember that NCR is a partisan publication. It’s in a doctrinal war with orthodox Roman Catholics (and, on another level, this White House) and the purpose of the story — however that purpose is worded — was to take somebody down. On the flip side, see the Clinton era. Many hit jobs? Yes. Many valid stories? Yes.

What could have improved the NCR piece?

It appears, of course, that Hudson did not do an interview with them that would tell his side. I can understand that. To do that interview would have required trusting NCR.

But let’s stop and think about this, since this blog is in the business of encouraging the coverage of religion news in mainstream media. Hang in there with me. What if Hudson had granted that NCR interview? (Let’s assume that he can speak, without violating some kind of settlement agreement a decade ago.) And what if he had granted that interview on the condition that he could tape it, as well. Then he could run the transcript on a website or print it in Crisis. Last time I checked, he was associated with a magazine of his own, correct?

In other words, the story is going to come out. And the NCR report contains part of the story. A valid part of the story. A damning part of the story. The NCR story contained the sin and some of the punishment. However, if any journalist is going to be able to detail the repentance and the reality of the life AFTER THE FALL, then that information would have to come through Hudson and his contacts. Correct? Who else can talk about that?

This is part of what I was trying to say about the tragedy of major stories breaking in partisan media. This is a journalism job for Richard Ostling at the Associated Press — QUICK!

One more thing. Let me assign everyone to read Chapter 10 of the revised edition of Chris Matthews’ “Hardball.” It’s called “Hang A Lantern on Your Problem.” The key section deals with a less explosive issue, but the principles are still relevant. When faced with nasty comments about his age, Ronald Reagan made this a central theme OF HIS campaign.

Matthews writes:

“In slaying the age issue, Reagan had also demonstrated an important lesson of politics: if a question has been raised publicly about your own personal background, you need to address the issue personally.”

The question, of course, is whether religious conservatives can trust the mainstream media to serve up balanced, accurate and in any way nuanced reports that will tell their side as well as the side of the critics. The hard truth is that a 50-50 news report is a bloody miracle in the current media climate, where the sexual revolution has defined the sacred cows in most newsrooms and not just the openly partisan ones.

But, again, did Hudson think that the story was not going to get printed? Did he think no one would read an NCR story? Did he actually think, as many conservatives do, that they could hinder the printing of a partisan story by refusing to cooperate?

Get real. Faced with NCR printing large chunks of the truth about his past, his only real option — rather than writing a small insider piece for National Review — was to jump right on the issue in a media forum that was more powerful and more dedicated to fairness than the Catholic enemy that wanted his head.

Any suggestions on the newspaper or wire service to which he should have offered the story? I say Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post.

UPDATE: Catholic Exchange has a new commentary up on this sad affair. Here is a long, and gracefully sane, passage from this editorial.

Deal Hudson portrayed his becoming a confidant of the Bush team as something he was tapped for rather than as something he actively sought. Be that as it may, it is surely the fact that regardless of whether he put himself forward or was brought into the limelight, he has known all along about this sordid incident lurking in the background, and he could have demurred — it is our opinion that he should have. Poor judgment on his part left his vulnerabilities open to attack, and it is therefore correct for him to say that he let many people down. But even as we forgive, we beg our fellow Catholics to regard this as a cautionary tale. …

If you are a Catholic seeking to serve the Church or your country and you have a scandalizing secret that you never want your children to read in the papers or on the web, keep a low profile. There is much to be done — in fact most of the work of building God’s Kingdom is being done — in the background, out of the public eye, and you are indispensable in only two positions: being a husband or wife to your spouse and a father or mother to your children.

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Is the Crisis crisis a big deal? Of course it is

hudson_ewtnFor the past four or five days — or whenever it was that I staggered out of registration here at the university and saw the wave of Deal Hudson reports — I have been trying to recover a piece of information lost in the file cabinets of my brain.

Don’t you hate it when (a) you forget who said something important that you read, but you can’t remember where, and (b) you can’t find the quote in Google, because if contains too many common words (or your middle-aged brain does not have enough of the words in the right order).

Whatever. I give up. Here is the gist, as I remember it. Right at the peak of the most recent wave of Roman Catholic clergy-abuse stories, a candid conservative commentator reminded his readers never to forget that sexual sin is not an issue of conservative and liberal, orthodox and progressive. The article was not in Crisis magazine, I know that.

In other words, there are skeletons rattling in conservative cloisters that affect important news stories, as well as in those on the liberal side of the church. The two doctrinal armies do have different responses to sexual sin and they do have clashing beliefs on what is sinful and what is not. But the larger truth is that everyone struggles with these issues and there is no evidence that it is any easier for conservatives to repent than for liberals to do so. Sin is sin. Repentance is repentance. Shame is shame. Secrecy is secrecy.

Which brings us, of course, to the National Catholic Reporter and its red-hot story about the sinful past of conservative Catholic leader Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine and the Bush campaign’s outreach program to Catholic voters (or one brand of Catholic voter).

A number of excellent blogs have been all over this story for nearly a week, led by the usual suspects — the crack teams at Christianity Today’s blog (for a sample go here) and the freewheeling folks at TheRevealer.org. At the latter, head hauncho Jeff Sharlet has more than made his feelings clear that this is a story that deserves more attention than it has been given. Are we seeing a strange case of pro-conservative bias, or at least nerves?

Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman gets in on the Deal (Hudson) deal with an A-6 snoozer. Why is the resignation of the Bush’s chief Catholic advisor — a position of much greater power than the governorship of New Jersey — getting so little attention? Even leaving aside the undisputed charges of profound sexual misconduct, why doesn’t this story rate? The resignation of the DNC’s religious advisor, for the crime of having supported the removal of “under God” from the pledge, won way more column inches. We’re not being rhetorical here: What gives?

To which Christianity Today’s online maestro Ted Olsen quipped:

Weblog thinks reporters are ignoring it just to see if The Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet merely starts walking the streets of New York in a sandwich board, or if he turns apoplectically into The Hulk, pummeling reporters who haven’t followed up on the story.

Sharlet is amused, but ready for another few rounds of debate. His bottom line: There is substance to this story that journalists are struggling to get into print.

The CT folks also chided us here at GetReligion.org a bit for our relative silence, which was, I assure you, based on the event catching Doug in the middle of a trip and me swamped with the opening of the semester here at Palm Beach Atlantic University. But I also have to admit that it took me a few days to sort through what I think is the heart of this story about a news story. Here are some of my other impressions:

* At this point, I agree with Sharlet that this story has been strangely undercovered. Let me state clearly that this is a major news story and its presence in the pages of daily newspapers cannot be written off as a blast of anti-traditional Catholic bias in big newsrooms.

* At the same time, there is no question in my mind that this was a degree of payback at work for the NCR editors, based on Hudson’s role in exposing the pro-Kerry work of an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is Cooperman on that angle (in a story that I thought was not spectacular, but not a snoozer).

Hudson himself may have gotten the ball rolling with a column early this year revealing that the moderator of the Catholics for Kerry Web site was an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference subsequently fired the employee, Ono Ekeh, for using his work computer to make postings to the political Web site.

Ekeh, 34, said yesterday that he sympathizes with Hudson.

“It’s come to the point where disagreements about doctrine or ideology have made people consider the other side as bad people,” he said. “So it’s moved from ideological disagreements to personal disagreements, and that’s bound to get destructive.”

As I have been saying all along on the Kerry Communion story, there is more to the situation than politicians trying to grab undecided Catholic voters. It isn’t news to note that there are bitter divisions in this country between Roman Catholics and American Catholics, to use the kind of spin that would be common in conservative Catholic publications — such as Crisis.

* The Hudson story is a valid news story. But, you know what? The Ekeh story was a valid news story and one that cuts to the heart of the Catholic wars in this nation. Conservative Catholics tend to get mad when church employees spend their time promoting the cause of a liberal Catholic politician who has never missed an opportunity to support abortion rights. The bishops conference is Ground Zero for these conflicts.

So what we have here are two valid, important stories — both of which broke in the pages of highly partisan publications. Thus, the mainstream coverage is, in part, being shaped by reactions to the prejudices of the competing Catholic armies. This is what happens — think Clinton scandals, if you will — when news stories are shaped by their first incarnations in fiercely partisan media.

Just ask yourself this question: Would reactions to this story be different if it had broken, not in NCR, but in the pages of Newsweek, written by veteran scribe Kenneth Woodward, or in an Associated Press piece by Richard Ostling?

* So I am hoping that there is more coverage of BOTH of these stories, both the Ekeh story and the Hudson story. They are part of the same larger story, a story that I don’t think is wrapped up yet.

At the same time, let me note that the NCR (this is war, remember) told the worst possible version of the Hudson story, even if the most sordid and sensational details of the story were accurate and valid. It is, for traditional believers, crucial to ask if Hudson confessed his sins, paid the price and has been a different man since then. In this case, I think repentance is part of the story, including the story of Hudson’s marriage and the future of his family.

Reporter David D. Kirkpatrick of the “issues that divide conversatives” beat at the New York Times ended his report on the crisis with this angle, noting that in his book “An American Conversion,” Hudson had:

… discussed his “past mistakes” and “the role they played in my conversion through the grace and the forgiveness I have found in the Catholic Church.” At one point in the book, published last year, Mr. Hudson wrote about the cooling of passion in a long marriage. “I experienced, the hard way, that passion does subside, and I was foolish not to realize that the love that follows is better,” he wrote. “No doubt this led to unfortunate and destructive behavior on my part,” he added. “I am blessed that I have not gotten what I deserve.”

He concluded the book by recalling a romantic episode that took place a year before his conversion: “I was jolted by the sudden departure of someone I loved but who I had not treated well. The hurt was compounded by my sense of failure. I spent many months hoping to win her back but without any progress. I was to blame and I knew it.”

He wrote that in despair, he prayed to the Virgin Mary at his local parish, the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “My prayers brought me both relief from my loss,” he wrote, “and a sense of forgiveness for my failure.”

Hudson has spoken out twice on these matters in recent days, first in a “hang a lantern on your problem” piece for National Review Online that tried to knock down some of the affects of the upcoming National Catholic Reporter piece. He also sent a letter to a Crisis e-mail list that was posted in one of the most serious Catholic niches on the World Wide Web, Amy Welborn’s “Open Book” blog. For examples of the threads that have spun out of this, click here or here.

Writing to Welborn, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News (and friend of this blog) sent this sober reminder to his fellow Catholic conservatives. The bottom line: This is a news story, folks. Admit it. When shoes drop, they drop.

Powerful and charismatic older male violates his vows by taking sexual advantage of troubled, emotionally unstable young person, using alcohol. This is a familiar Catholic narrative of late, isn’t it?

I wish it weren’t so, but come on, y’all, if this were about a liberal priest, or involved two men, most of the people here would be calling for the wrongdoer’s head. I used to write for Crisis about a decade ago, and know Deal Hudson a little bit, so I’m not going to kick him while he’s down. This is an ugly and sad situation for his wife and children. I only want to say that it’s important for those of us who consider ourselves conservative Catholics remember not to be hypocrites when one of our own, so to speak, is revealed to have had feet of clay. Attacking the alleged motives of NCR and its reporter does not make the facts go away, or any easier to take.

Posted by: Rod Dreher at August 19, 2004 03:32 PM

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On abortion: Any signs of real change out there?

GEOlsen’s article is mainly just worthless spin. He ignores key facts and misrepresents the implications of others.

1. The undeniable global trend of the past several decades has been to reduce legal restrictions on abortion, not increase them. There is no sign that this trend is reversing. A broad legal right to abortion now exists in almost all the industrialized democracries, and countries where abortion is still severely restricted are under increasing pressure to ease those laws. …
Posted by: Fred | August 22, 2004 03:57

I have been working on a late catch-up post on the Deal Hudson crisis. But as I continue to work on that, along with my column for this week and the opening week of classes here at the university, let me jump in and add a few thoughts on Doug’s post from this weekend, focusing on trends related to abortion.

Interesting questions raised. Here are a few comments and questions of my own:

* I agree that it might be too strong to call recent abortion-debate trends the best news opponents of abortion “have heard in years.” I would not go that far. I have major doubts. Nevertheless, I would request some specifics from those who see increasing support for abortion rights — just as I hope those who oppose abortion rights would also quote specifics (or point to where we might find them).

Olsen does give interesting links to follow and to criticize. Good for him. I would like to see more from both sides. It is one thing to disagree with one another. It is something else to disagree and quote a source and some specifics. Anyone want to offer a few URLs?

* It still seems to me that the nation is in pretty much the same shape as portrayed by James Davison Hunter in the poll-data chapter of “Before the Shooting Begins” — strong cores of 15 percent or so who are clearly pro-abortion-rights or anti-abortion, sandwiching a large majority that talks pro-life (or variations thereof) but does not favor political action.

* If there has been a change, it is the one that sounded alarm bells at Planned Parenthood last year — a sign of weakening support for legalized abortion among young Americans. For specifics, click HERE.

I have ticked off some of my fellow pro-lifers by saying that I doubt those numbers, in part because that would seem to run against the growing cultural trend toward relativism/individualism on moral issues. If there has been a move toward a more traditional stance on abortion, it has merely pushed the nation back towards a more painfully divided situation.

* While we are at it, it helps to note that this discussion is not always a matter of “left” and “right” if we are talking about politics (as opposed to moral theology). The dominant political wind of our age is not left or right, but Libertarian, especially on moral issues. Remember that President Clinton betrayed labor unions, but never the lifestyle left. Meanwhile, the GOP is trying frantically to remind the mushy middle that its big tent contains few moral absolutes.

The party of moral absolutes these days is the Democratic Party, when the issue is abortion. It is absolutely certain that the abortion-rights stance is morally correct. Check out the changed language in the last two party platforms. Note especially the conscience clause in the 2000 text.

The Democratic Party stands behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of ability to pay. We believe it is a fundamental constitutional liberty that individual Americans — not government — can best take responsibility for making the most difficult and intensely personal decisions regarding reproduction. This year’s Supreme Court rulings show to us all that eliminating a woman’s right to choose is only one justice away. That’s why the stakes in this election are as high as ever.

Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous. We support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing. The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.

The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.

I had to edit that some for length. Please see the full text. Now, here is the only abortion material in the 2004 platform.

We will defend the dignity of all Americans against those who would undermine it. Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that choice. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

Note the lack of a conscience clause — will the GOP have one this time around? — and the statement, in effect, that anyone opposed to abortion is automatically backing the Republican Party. Those are fighting words to many, many old-coalition Democrats.

You may have seen that Zogby recently had a poll showing that 43 percent of registered Democrats say they are opposed to abortion (while not saying what they would do to stop it). Meanwhile, the Boston Globe found a mere 2 percent of delegates to the Democratic convention who were opposed to abortion. The convention was not a very big tent on cultural issues.

* One final comment. As a media professor, I constantly remind my students that we live in a culture dominated by two things — images and emotions. Call it Oprah America.

My hunch is that recent technological trends are making more Americans — journalists even — nervous about abortion as they look at stunning images of unborn children. These images create strong feelings. These feelings may even show up in poll data. These figures may offer hope to those who oppose abortion and fray nerves among those who support abortion rights.

But does any of that equal political change? Or is it just another sign of a painfully divided culture?

I am not even sure that the race for the White House will yield much new information on this. Tune in for a reality check, as soon as there is an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Red churches, blue churches, smart churches, dumb churches

red-churchOver the weekend, I ran into an amazing pair of articles on the Newsweek home page that really left me pondering this question: Has anyone in that newsroom ever heard of people like Martin Marty and James Davison Hunter?

Without a hint that others have been writing about this topic for, oh, a decade or so, Newsweek ran a commentary by Melinda Henneberger entitled “Red and Blue Churches: Is religion more influenced by our politics than the other way around?” For GetReligion.org readers, this ought to sound like a major-league echo chamber. If not, click here or here.

Or even better, go get yourself an old, used copy of “Culture Wars” by James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and read up on the ongoing divide between the progressives (truth is personal, experiental and evolving) and the orthodox (truth is transcendent, revealed and eternal).

In her quest for red and blue churches, Henneberger visits Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in the appropriately named Zionsville, Ind. It does not appear that the reporter understands that this is a conservative congregation in a more progressive denomination, even if the word “Evangelical” is in the title. So there is a layer of irony missing.

But the people in these pews are not interested in the religious views of John Kerry, since they believe his stands on basic issues of Christian morality clash with his newly adopted faith-friendly soundbites. You end up with comments like this:

Gala Wurdeman, wife of the assistant pastor at the fast-growing suburban church, said President George W. Bush’s faith is very important to her “because my faith is important to me.” But of Kerry’s beliefs, she said wryly, “I think I have a pretty good idea” already.

Another church member, Marilyn Mesh, said that in fact, she was infuriated when Kerry “started off quoting the Bible” at a local campaign appearance she saw on television. (“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord,” Kerry had said, quoting from the Psalms.) “I thought, “Oh, that sounds sacrilegious to me,” Mesh said, “speaking these words as if he were a prophet … I know his voting record is very liberal and to me that does not jibe with a profession of faith.”

It will not be a surprise that the Newsweek reporter attends a blue church. It is also not all that surprising that it is a blue Catholic church, in a blue Catholic stronghold, with an enthusiastically blue Catholic priest who believes that it is wrong for his church to enforce its doctrines at the level of its own sacraments. That sounds like this:

In America in 2004 there are very definitely Red State churches, like theirs, and Blue State churches, like my Roman Catholic parish in Georgetown, where John Kerry, who lives in the neighborhood, received communion not long ago.

blue_churchA priest there who announced at a later mass that Kerry had been given communion at the church received a hearty ovation, amid the controversy over whether pro-choice lawmakers are entitled to receive the
sacraments. (I would like to believe the applause was not for the candidate, but for the principle that no one should be turned away from the communion rail.)

The article contains a variety of other interesting details, such as the progressive true believer who mildly stuns the reporter why his pronouncement that conservative Christians scare him more than anti-American terrorists. Henneberger quips: “Not me; I’ll take the roomful of Biblical literalists every single time.”

But the big idea seems a bit vague. She does not seem to grasp that the red vs. blue pew phenomenon is rooted in concrete Christian teachings about our culture’s hottest political issues. Like I said, there seems to be little recognition that this is an old story, one dissected by some fine commentators on both the left and the right.

Perhaps it is hard to see this reality when the worldview of the publication is — dare I suggest — so closely aligned with one side of the debate?

For a shockingly blunt statement relevant to this claim, check out the conclusion of the Eleanor Clift commentary in the same Newsweek online package — the one with the headline “Faith vs. Reason.” Honest, that’s the headline. It ends with this statement, which sweeps aside volumes of competing data and dogma on some of the most complex issues of our time.

The Republican message is don’t vote for Kerry because he supports abortion rights. Kerry thinks abortion is wrong, but he’s not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country. Bush on the other hand has turned his religious beliefs about embryonic stem cells into public policy.

Voters have the choice between a president who governs by belief and a challenger who puts his faith in rational decisionmaking.

So there. In addition to red churches and blue churches, there are also smart churches and dumb churches and, apparently, some major voices at Newsweek have certainly decided which churches are which.

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Many gods, but no saints in Costas commentary?

I didn’t have a chance to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night. People in South Florida were more interested in the Weather Channel, to be honest.

So I cannot comment on the following letter from a reader, which was — for lack of a better location — sent to the comments page on the coven and state commentary. It’s worth pulling out front, because we are interested in what readers see in the media — really, really interested. You guys have more eyes and mice than we do.

As a bias disclaimer, I must note that I am a major fan of Bob Costas. I have cruised the WWW a bit this morning and have found no other references to the possibility of religious ghosts in the Athens rites. I would post a link to the Dallas Morning News review of the broadcast, but I am on a Mac right now and the Dallas site is very Apple-phobic, or at least the browser Safari. I wonder what that is all about. (I got a different browser running and got that Dallas link.)

I digress. Here is the letter. By the way, the nickname is “tmatt.” Gotta watch those case-sensitive style issues.

TMatt — I’m putting this here for lack of anywhere else i can think of to put it, along with your meme of “ghosts”: i may be overreacting, but on the Olympic opening ceremonies broadcast, there was not a single odd bit of trivia Bob Costas did not share, nor an attention getting variation from the US norm that did not earn his explanation (it’s still going on in the living room, as i type this).

But when all the “Saint Blank” countries came first in the alphabet, no note of why that would be; in the parade of the millenia, his only significant silence was during the delightful live action ikons as they passed — he muttered, to Katie’s counterpoint, something about the Byzantine era, and may have mumbled the word “church” once (i’d have to see a transcript).

Small items, but glaring to me in how Bob seems to assume that the only trivia too trivial to tell is faith-oriented, and the only gods worth mentioning are carved in marble with colonnades around them. Or maybe i just can’t stand Costas’ commentary.

Peace. And enjoy the Olympics! (And i’ll keep watching for Terry’s ghosts!)

Posted by: Jeff | August 13, 2004 09:59 PM

I will keep looking around a see if I can catch some kind of replay in the next day or so. Please use this post as a chance to share what you are seeing, or not seeing. If there is a show transcript out there, please nab the URL for us.

UPDATE: Did anyone else hear the reference to Athena as the “patron saint” of Athens?

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A dose of cynicism at this blog? No way

As I await hurricane reports and loss of my DSL, let me pause to respond to a letter that gently accuses me of cynicism in my post yesterday on the separation of coven and state.

Let’s go straight to the comments section:

Could it be that tmatt is just trying to gin up a little spurious contoversy by waving some red meat at the right? And if so, then how does this fit into the stated purpose of this blog?

Also, another interesting question has been asked. How does the United States manage to have Baptist chaplains in the military, when Baptists are about as fragmented and “free church” as one can get?

Indeed, I thought of the Baptist analogy. That’s why I used the “free church” analogy in the first place. But there are some Baptist structures at this point, some seminaries and powerful people with whom the state can negotiate. At this point, there is no similar pagan establishment of this kind.

And what does this whole topic have to do with the stated purpose of this blog?

That’s easy. First of all, I really did want to praise the original source story. We are here to praise good work on the religion beat, as well as poke at the coverage that we think is lacking. Honest.

Second, this coven and state thing is not a joke. It is an emerging issue in church-state law. The government is not supposed to discriminate on the basis of religious points of view. You can look it up.

The political right will have to deal with that and will struggle to do so. Just as the cultural left stuggles with the same concept. On what basis does the state fund the work of, let’s say, Episcopal institutions that sound neo-Unitarian, but not fund the work of charismatic Episcopal ministries that sound neo-Pentecostal?

And it is also true that the high court has truly knocked away key props that held up what used to known as Western thought. As Charles Colson noted, we can’t have the “mystery of the universe” as a legal standard when it comes time to create stop signs and traffic laws. But where did that absolute standard come from, other than insurance costs and injuries?

This is a valid story. Just watch.

So I was sincere in the original post. The topic is not going away.

“Cosmo” also asked about the funding of this blog.

As I said back at the beginning, GetReligion was born as part of the wider journalism projects linked to my work as Senior Fellow for Journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. In particular, you might want to check out the information at the Best Semester site about the Summer Institute for Journalism.

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Separation of coven and state? Wait just a minute

wiccanOK, let’s stop and think about this.

The U.S. Supreme Court — in its “mystery passage” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — declared that at the “heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they found under the compulsion of the state.`

So if this is the case, what set of universal standards or laws might U.S. military officials cite in order to limit the religious rights of witches, druids, wizards and other pagan folk? I mean, if tax dollars can fund Episcopal chaplains, why not witches? Hey, why not witches who are also Episcopalians? Wait, that’s another story.

I bring this up because reporter Randy Myers of the Contra Costa Times is on to something with his story entitled “Wiccan servicepeople fight for freedom, for foreigners and within the military.” I find this especially interesting because of the ongoing struggles within the ranks of military chaplains to limit the free speech of born-again chaplains, Pentecostal chaplains and others who refuse to go along with the many-roads-to-one-god-or-gods approach to faith.

Yes, it’s that GetReligion.org favorite again — trying to do fair coverage of free speech that many find offensive. This story is just getting started. Myers sets the scene:

Wiccans represent a small fraction of the military, roughly 1,500 among 1.4 million active personnel, but the Pentagon wants to accommodate their faith. The military trains chaplains to meet the religious needs of all service members without compromising their own religious beliefs, said Col. Richard Hum, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board at the Defense Department. …

Wiccans said that some chaplains were trying to convert them and that commanding officers made it difficult to practice. … Wiccans also have been pressuring the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow a Wiccan emblem, most likely the pentacle, for armed forces burial headstones or markers. Mike Nacincik of Veterans Affairs, said the department authorizes 38 emblems, including one for atheists, but none for Wiccans.

Myers notes that Wiccans serve in nearly all military branches, with their leaders saying that some pagans are reaching the top ranks of the armed services. The Air Force attracts the most pagans in uniform, with 1,552. The Marines have 68. The Navy doesn’t report numbers and the Army — so far — claims to have no Wiccan soldiers.

The whole scene is very complicated and hard to handle, in terms of public relations.

The Air Force recognized the religious categories of Pagan, Gardnerian Wiccan, Seax Wiccan, Dianic Wiccan, Shaman and Druid in 2000. Many bases now have circles and hold services. Dog tags can also identify a serviceperson as Wiccan. Wiccans had their first chaplain-service in 1997 at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas. … The department’s bureaucratic hurdles include a written request from the recognized head of the organization, a list of national officers and a membership tally.

See the problem? Military officials cannot figure out who is in charge. Pagans are, to put it in historic terms, a very “free church” flock of believers. It’s a freelance, free-flowing scene with no set creeds or hierarchies. Look at it this way: Where does the military turn to find trained, licensed Wiccan chaplains? What constitutes orthodoxy?

But it’s natural for this story to emerge, since we are in period of explosive growth for alternative forms of “spirituality,” as opposed to established, institutionalized religious traditions. It is also impossible for the highest courts — or even the principalities and powers in Hollywood — to suggest that one form of superstition is better or worse than another.

As I put it in a column a few years ago about a pagan-parenting leader named Kristin Madden:

In Hollywood, this is the age of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Practical Magic,” “Charmed” and “The Craft.” Oprah Winfrey is leading Middle America in prayers to the spirit of the universe and covens can be found in many liberal Christian seminaries. Pentagon debates about pagan chaplains, naked worship and sacred daggers offer the first glimpses of another constitutional issue — the separation of coven and state in the age of faith-based initiatives.

Remember this. We’re all out there together in uncharted legal territory, trying to define the mystery of the universe. And one more thing, there is only one certainty: Nothing is forbidden except to forbid.

So who is to say that tax-payer funds cannot be used to carve pentangles on grave stones in Arlington National Cemetery and other sacred civil religion sites?

This would make a really interesting question in a presidental debate this fall. You think?

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Talking about the power of faith, with "anonymous" at the CIA

osama_bin_ladenI have been dealing with the side effects of a computer crash for some time now at home, yet another sign that this is a fallen world and that Microsoft may have played some role in events at the Tower of Babel.

But I digress. Several items that I meant to blog some time ago were locked up and I couldn’t get to them. But I still think they are worth noting, because of ties into several ongoing threads here at GetReligion.

The first is a quote appearing near the end of a USA Today interview with Michael Scheuer, who is also known as “anonymous.” Scheuer is a CIA terrorism expert who, at the insistence of the agency, does not use his own name when he writes. This 23-year veteran in the war on terror directed research into the life and work of Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 and his most recent book is entitled “Imperial Hubris.”

It is a book full of scary ideas, both for those who currently run the White House and for those who want to overthrow the current regime in Washington, D.C.

Here is the big idea: Americans cannot seem to accept that the course plotted by bin Laden is logical.

That is, it is logical if he is trying to affect the course of American foreign policy and he is acting on motives that are totally consistent with his faith and worldview. According to “anonymous,” this is precisely what bin Laden is doing and these are also the two crucial concepts that American political, intellectual and media elites cannot seem to grasp.

The policies that the radical Islamists oppose, he argues, are easy to list: (1) Support for Israel that allows the Israelis to dominate the Palestinians. (2) U.S., Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula. (3) Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. (4) Support for Russia, India and China against the Muslim militants there. (5) Pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low. (6) U.S. support for corrupt Muslim governments.

And the role of faith? This is where the question and answer transcript ends:

Q: When you talk about the mind-set of the country on the war on terror, where do you think the misconceptions come from? The media, politicians?

A: It’s trite to say, but the idea of political correctness is very, very important in terms of the performance of the intelligence community. How many times has USA TODAY, or The New York Times or The Washington Post discussed the role of Islam as a motivating factor in bin Laden’s appeal in the Muslim world? I can’t remember it very frequently. The director of intelligence and the president say al-Qaeda represents the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, which, on the face of it, is absurd. But there is no one talking about Islam as a motivating factor for war.

There were times when our ancestors went to war to defend their faith. So, the debate is very constricted, not only in America but certainly within the intelligence community. We do a lot of analysis by assertion rather than by reality. Somehow the argument that someone is fighting for his faith is seen as a negative. So we assert that only gangsters do that. We make bin Laden into a gangster. But it doesn’t get you anywhere.

These are sobering thoughts to say the least. It is so much easier, “anonymous” keeps saying, to assume that one’s enemy is a coward and a lunatic than to assume that he is a powerful and consistent religious leader who has reasons to do what he is doing.

This may also be the case in most newsrooms, where discussions of dangerous religion always involve the word “fundamentalist,” which means lunatic.

But what if bin Laden is not a lunatic and the brand of Islam that he advocates is, in large parts of the world, not a set of fringe beliefs? And what if his beliefs are consistent with the brand of Islam that is being sponsored by Saudi Arabia in some growing sectors of Muslim communities in Europe, North America and elsewhere? In other words, what if our enemy’s actions are rooted in a form of faith that is more discreetly advocated by some who claim to be our allies?

These questions have been bothering journalist Rod Dreher for some time now and he (a friend of this blog) recently explored some of the themes of “Imperial Hubris” in the pages of the Dallas Morning News. He begins by noting that even the 9-11 commission concluded: “The enemy is not just terrorism, some generic evil. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.” Dreher begins right there:

Golly, ya think? It’s more than a little ridiculous, three years after 19 Muslims flew airplanes into buildings for the greater glory of God, to see a government panel direct Americans to think about the central role that religion plays in this war. But I’m glad it did, because our continued refusal to come to terms with the essentially religious nature of the conflict prevents us from devising effective plans to combat the enemy. …

From a Muslim point of view … Mr. bin Laden can plausibly be seen as a heroic defender of the faith. To be sure, there are many Muslims who don’t accept this view. The point is that bin Ladenism is at least rational within Islam.

The problem, Dreher noted, is not with the worldview of bin Laden. It is with our own worldview, our own culture’s willingness to minimalize the power of religious faith. We cannot grasp what our enemies consider to be real, true and just.

Because we in the secular West have made God a mere hobby, we don’t comprehend how devout Muslims perceive reality. Our materialist-minded leaders prattle on about solving the “root causes” of terror — poverty, illiteracy, lack of democracy and so forth — because we cannot fathom the idea that hundreds of millions of people believe that obeying the God of the Quran is the most important thing in life. … Islam is the issue, not because we want it to be, but because the enemy explicitly says so and is winning more followers by the day by appealing to the religious sense of the world’s Muslims.

That sound you hear is mainstream politicians, intellectuals and media leaders shouting “SHUT UP!”

But surely these ideas can be discussed and debated. Can’t they? Surely they can be reported, along with the views of those who reject them? Right?

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