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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The Greatest Divide? Don't ask moral questions in pews

martyThere is an old, old saying among God-beat professionals.

What most mainstream newspaper editors want when they assign a religion news story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin E. Marty.”

That quote is so old I may already have used it on But it’s relevant right now, because of a new column offered up by the nation’s most quoted church historian on the “Sightings” page at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

Marty was reacting to a series by Bill Bishop in the Austin American Statesman which noted (prepare for stunning observation) that there are basically two kinds of churches in America today and that they don’t seem to have much in common with each other when it comes to morality, culture and politics. He calls one side “modernist” and the other side “traditionalist.”

Bishop doesn’t dig too deep into the theology of this, other than to say that churches on the left are more “universalist.” Bingo. Give the man a prize.

(Religious) beliefs and practices have come to align with political party, according to surveys conducted by John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. People who follow more traditional religious practices — Protestants who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and Catholics who accept the authority of the Pope — generally supported Bush in 2000 and say they will vote for him again this year.

Those in what Green describes as “modernist” religious congregations, for example, churchgoers who were more ecumenical, or universalist, in their beliefs, tend to vote Democratic, regardless of denomination. Traditional evangelicals support Bush by 68 percentage points over Kerry in Green’s latest poll, taken in the spring. But modernist evangelicals back Kerry by 8 percentage points over Bush.

Note the term “modernist evangelical” — that deserves more attention. You’ll be hearing more about the evangelical left in the months and years ahead. Then brace yourself for the charismatic left.

Bishop’s “modernist” and “traditionalist” divide sounds very similar, of course, to Dr. James Davison Hunter’s thesis in “Culture Wars,” in which he described the worldviews of the “orthodox” (truth is transcendent, absolute and eternal) and the “progressives” (truth is personal, experiential and evolving). This sociologist at the University of Virginia Center on Religion and Democracy has been talking about the cultural and political implications of this new divide for 15 years or so. I dedicated by 10th anniversary column to his work.

Of course, anyone who covers the world of oldline Protestantism knows how this divide is shaping the wars among United Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and everybody else on that side of the church aisle.

Ballot-box politics aside, when you look at these issues in terms of doctrine and sacraments, I have found that you can almost always sort these churches out by asking three ancient questions: (1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen — in real time? (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? (3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Get answers to those three questions and, nine out of 10 times, a journalist will know who he or she is dealing with in terms of this modernist/progressives vs traditionalist/orthodox divide. How does this affect politics? Well, what percentage of the heat in political life today is generated by discussions of issues linked to the Sexual Revolution, such as abortion and homosexuality? While we are at it, it is also interesting to ponder the impact of these questions on the growth and decline of churches and denominations.

So Bishop never should have expected to find churches in which people calmly and gracefully discuss the issues of the day. Martin Marty says so. Instead of calling his article on churches and politics “The Great Divide” between the two Americas, Bishop should have called it “The Greatest Divide.” Marty noted:

To do our own framing, let me suggest an experiment for those who attend worship (non-attenders can easily get reports from experimenters). In the polite company of fellow-believers, on church premises, whisper words such as “Bush” or “Kerry,” “Democrat” or “Republican.” Thereupon, if you are not met with spite or spit, go on to the second part of the experiment: voice support for one party or candidate and reject the other. The custodian will clean up your broken glasses or other debris left over from the smashing that will follow. …

A church building will not have a sign out front: “This is a Republican congregation” or vice versa. But when the Republicans go trolling for votes by asking for membership lists, or ask pastors for formal endorsements, they know exactly which congregations in any urban or town and country setting to approach. And Democrats, should they also go pushing the edges of I.R.S. regulations by asking tax-exempt churches to go partisan and support a candidate — as some do especially in the case of African-American congregations — they know better than to walk down the aisle of “the other kind” of church and bid.

This divide is disturbing, but real, noted Marty. Religious people have few chances to hear the arguments of other believers, or perhaps even the voice of divine judgment.

But politics will be politics and the religious voices are certainly not staying silent out there in the larger debates. If you don’t believe me, check out the New York Times coverage of the landslide victory in Missouri for an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. You can click here or even here.

Print these stories out and grab a yellow highlighter pen. You should find a dozen or more passages that sound something like this ballot-box collision between two people who probably don’t go to the same church.

Mary Klostermeier, 77, said she saw the need to bar gay marriage. “I guess I’m in the old school,” Ms. Klostermeier said. “I’m just a very religious person.”

But her friend Gene Gabianelli, 72, said he had voted against a ban. “People should do what they want to do,” Mr. Gabianelli said. “This whole thing is all about politics as far as I can tell — all about mobilizing people for George Bush.”

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Taking a photo tour of Greece, or at least parts of it

GreekChurchHello out there in Godbeat land. Anybody home?

I ask this because I want to post something that will take a minute or two of your time. A few clicks of the mouse even.

We are not the most high-tech of blogs, but Doug and I have noticed that interesting things are happening in the online multi-media world. The concept of online slide shows is especially interesting to me, since I love photojournalism in all its forms.

Which meant that I have enjoyed the trailblazing work of the Washington Post in its Camera Works division and I have been clicking my way into the current New York Times efforts to capture the spirit of Greece in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. It’s a journey worth taking.

Start with this one: “Photographers’ Journal: A Journey Through Greece.” The text that went with this said simply:

The Magnum Photos cooperative set out to capture a portrait of Greece to mark the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The work of six photographers, as well as audio interviews with the shooters, is featured in this presentation.

As you may remember, I was in Greece a few weeks ago myself. So I thought it was interesting to note certain differences in the work of these photographers.

Visit the site and look through the slide shows. Then let me ask: Am I the only person who notices any differences — statistically speaking — of these photos? Does it seem to you that the Greece visited by Mark Power, Carl De Keyzer, Alex Webb and Patrick Zachmann was a radically different place than that visited by Constantine Manos (of South Carolina, of all places) and Nikos Economopoulos?

Just asking. Look for yourself. And, by the way, the photograph attached to this blog item has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

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"Kill the Nazis" and other loud opinions (Spot an albatross)

protestersWe’ve had a lively little comments thread going on the past few days inspired by the “Kill the Nazis” post about the protesters and counter-protesters during the Democratic National Convention. That was the one about the pro-peace crowd that tried to kick some sense into a loud anti-abortion activist who had a bad — or good — sense of timing, depending on one’s point of view.

I must admit that I was amused at the whole “tolerant people attacking the intolerant” angle of that story. As some of you may have noticed, I love that old saying: “There are people in this world who don’t love everybody the way that they’re supposed to and I hate people like that.”

But something got lost lost in the lively debate about angry anti-war people and arrogant conservatives and everything else. This is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news and I hoped to get everybody thinking about unusual political-religious stories that the press could cover during the two conventions and the rest of the long and winding road to the White House.

For example, what kind of counter-protest situations might pop up during the GOP convention? Young Republicans throwing Howard Dean plush toys at peaceful throngs of Michael Moore supporters? Choirs of religious right leaders singing “We shall overcome” during a march by the Congressional Black Caucus? Michael Reagan going mano a mano with a sort-of-sibling?

Have some fun with this. Our goal here is to have fun, but also to think about what lively religion coverage can look like. The left and right both have their stereotypes and sacred cows. Let’s spot them. Anyone want to make some predictions about what might happen next on the campaign trail?

Also, any nominations for the best just-off-the-religion-beat story during the Democratic shindig?

The people at the Christianity Today blog — as always — did amazing work. The daily blog at by Steven Waldman was also fun. Both featured sharp insights into the efforts by Democrats to ring spiritual bells, without hanging a copy of the Ten Commandents around the necks of the candidates like a large, heavy ocean-friendly bird with a giant wingspan.

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"Kill the Nazi!" and other examples of offensive free speech

antiwarThree cheers to the Denver Rocky Mountain News (bias alert: my old newsroom) for a interesting slice-of-life color story from the front lines of the free-speech wars at the Democratic National Convention. Also, a tip of the hat on this one to the always fine Christianity Today weblog.

What if are you supposed to do if you are holding a protest against war and state-sponsored violence and somebody shows up who wants to protest violence against the unborn? In other words, should the protesters have mounted a sort-of violent counter protest against the protester who showed up, in his own way, to protest their protest? Or something like that?

Or how about this: What if the guy had been a nun who was carrying papers proving that she was both anti-war AND anti-abortion?

You get the picture.

The second deck of the headline on M.E. Sprengelmeyer’s story was perfect: “Anti-abortionist tests limits of anti-war protesters’ tolerance.” It sort of reminded me of that old saying: “There are people in the world who don’t love everybody the way that they should and I just HATE people like that.” Here is how the scrum broke out.

The incident happened as thousands were gathering in the park to loudly denounce President Bush and, for some, to criticize Democratic challenger John Kerry for voting to authorize the Iraq invasion. … As the crowds of protesters grew and grew, an uninvited guest — anti- abortion, anti-gay activist Leonard Gendron, of Boston — took up a position along a pathway, hoisting a sign showing a picture of an aborted fetus on one side. On the other side were the words “Homo sex is sin.”

To say the least, his ideology clashed with other messages in the predominantly left-leaning crowd.

The protestors were not amused.

Gendron said he was just standing up for free speech. Protesters and camera crews swarmed in. Gendron taunted the people who were taunting him. At one point, reported Sprengelmeyer, someone yelled, “Kill that Nazi.” The pushing and shoving lasted for 15 minutes. The anti-war protesters even turned on one of their own people, dragging off a man who tried to protect Gendron. Then someone really raised the stakes.

“Stop acting like the right, you folks! You’re not helping the cause!” one peace protester screamed, to no avail.

Some in the anti-war crowd finally wrestled the sign away from Gendron. He slipped out of the crowd without his sign, and his opponents quickly ripped the picture off one side and tried in vain to tear the plastic coated placard to pieces.

We can only hope that more journalists visit — with their irony software loaded and in working order — the fenced-in “Free Speech Zone” outside the FleetCenter. There are times when I really wish I had a travel budget.

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Looking for Orthodox news links inside UPI purgatory

OurLadyofKazanFaithful GetReligion readers may have noticed two of my obvious biases.

First of all, I am really intereted in news coverage of religion trends and events. Surprise. Second, I am active in an Orthodox Christian parish. Thus, I am very interested in news coverage of Eastern Orthodoxy. Most of us are driven to find news about the topics that affect us directly. So I have learned some of the places that one goes on the World Wide Web to find news and commentary — independent of the church-sponsored sites — about Orthodoxy.

Some of these sites are fairly predictable, such as the Orthodoxy pages at Beliefnet, or a specialty page such as Orthodoxy Today. Other sources are not quite as obvious, such as the ongoing coverage offered by the Protestant/Anglican news crew at Christianity Today (nice pair of stories up at the moment, in fact) and the consistently excellent work of Ann Rodgers, the veteran religion-beat specialist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But today I am writing to ask readers a question that is indirectly related to this topic. Does anyone know of a place on the World Wide Web to link to the work of UPI religious affairs specialist Uwe Siemon-Netto? I realize that UPI exists in a kind of journalistic purgatory these days. But week after week, this veteran European writer ships out religion news stories and commentaries (I receive them on his own private listserv) on topics that are off the beaten path and, thus, interesting. His brand of conservatism is certainly hard to label in the context of North American religion.

A recent column is a fine illustration, focusing on the decision by Pope John Paul II to return to the “Our Lady of Kazan” icon to the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a symbolic gesture. But it is a very powerful symbol.

Here is a major chunk of Siemon-Netto’s story.

Russian armies used to carry the “Kazanskaya,” as Russians call this 13th-century work of art, into battle in centuries past. It had a reputation of being a protector of their motherland. The pope had originally intended to personally deliver the treasured icon to Kazan and hand it to Alexei II, patriarch of All Russia. But his flailing health and a veto from Alexei II against a papal visit to his realm forced a change of plans.

Still, news that the pontiff will give back “Our Lady of Kazan” as an unconditional gesture of reconciliation is considered highly indicative of the current state of ecumenism, Vatican sources say. It is seen as further evidence that despite Alexei’s intransigence, John Paul has given greater urgency to unity with Orthodoxy than with Western Protestantism.

The latter’s “tendency to succumb to secular fads has become so irritating that our relations cooled considerably,” a Catholic ecumenical officer in Germany told United Press International.

The Kazan icon hangs across from the pope’s desk in his Vatican apartment. It had disappeared from Russia in 1918 shortly after the Bolshevik revolution and turned up in North America, where it was bought by a Catholic organization called Blue Army of Our Lady in Fatima.

The image was to be handed back when Russia converted, a development the Virgin Mary is said to have prophesied in 1917 during an apparition in Fatima, Portugal, which is now a Marian shrine. Catholic conservatives strongly object to the icon’s return at this point, saying that Russia had not converted.

But the pope is serious about making some kind of breakthrough with Eastern Orthodoxy on his watch. This makes people uncomfortable in some Roman circles and, truth be told, in many Orthodox circles as well. But it is certainly a major news story — affecting the oldest and largest bodies in Christendom. As Siemon-Netto says, it is hard to ignore what the pope calls his campaign to “make Christianity breathe again with both lungs.”

This UPI column goes on to cover a wave of other Orthodox and Catholic issues. I wish I could provide a link to it — somewhere, anywhere. It is interesting to note that the best current story on this topic found elsewhere is online at Al-Jazeera. I guess that news team knows a story when it sees it.

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An interesting Muslim criticism of tactics used by al Qaeda

As noted several times in recent weeks, it is quite natural for traditional forms of Christianity and Islam to collide — both are missionary faiths that seek to convert others. Both faiths claim to be the universal faith for all people in all cultures.

There are major differences, however, in terms of how believers in these two faiths are called to accomplish this task. It is also clear that in traditional Christian doctrine, the world will contain both believers and unbelievers at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus. The goal is to offer the gospel to all people and cultures, but it is clear that some will embrace Christian faith and some will not.

Meanwhile, Western Christianianity now includes millions of people who believe in “universalism,” the belief that salvation is found through all faiths — not just through salvation in Jesus. Universalists tend to shun those who believe that evangelism is a must. Some would even say that Christian evangelism is, in an of itself, an evil form of cultural imperialism (as opposed to spreading Planned Parenthood franchises around the world). And what about claims of free speech and common human rights?

This is a major difference between modern Christianity and modern Islam, according to reporter Anthony Browne of the Times. Writing in The Spectator, he recently noted:

Of course, Christianity has been just as much a conquering religion. Spanish armies ruthlessly destroyed ancient civilisations in Central and South America to spread the message of love. Christians colonised the Americas and Australia, committing genocide as they went, while missionaries such as Livingstone converted most of Africa. But the difference is that Christendom has — by and large — stopped conquering and converting, and indeed in Europe simply stopped believing.

Righto — try to find even one Islamic college or seminary run by a univeralist.

I bring this up because Browne goes on to make some other rather blunt statements about modern Islam, and Saudi Arabia in particular. One of his most interesting points is that some outspoken Muslim leaders are quite mad at al Qaeda’s terrorism tactics for a unique and disturbing reason — they believe that terrorism may awaken the West to the threat of Islamic takeover by other, more peaceful means.

In other words, if evangelism, high birthrates and immigration are doing the job, why bomb cities? Why not be patient and allow the West to collapse into a spiritual void that will cry out for rescue? Besides, there is evidence that Americans will surrender certain cultural institutions — such as the military — quite willingly.

Saudi Professor Nasser bin Suleiman al-Omar declared on al-Majd TV last month, ‘Islam is advancing according to a steady plan, to the point that tens of thousands of Muslims have joined the American army and Islam is the second largest religion in America. America will be destroyed.’

Islam is now the second religion not just in the US but in Europe and Australia. Europe has 15 million Muslims, accounting for one in ten of the population in France, where the government now estimates 50,000 Christians are converting to Islam every year. In Brussels, Mohammed has been the most popular name for boy babies for the last four years. In Britain, attendance at mosques is now higher than it is in the Church of England.

Al-Qa’eda is criticised for being impatient, and waking the West up. Saudi preacher Sheikh Said al-Qahtani said on the Iqraa TV satellite channel, ‘We did not occupy the US, with eight million Muslims, using bombings. Had we been patient and let time take its course, instead of the eight million there could have been 80 million [Muslims], and 50 years later perhaps the US would have become Muslim.’

It’s crucial for journalists to realize that these concepts are central to Islam in its normative, orthodox forms, especially in settings such as Saudi Arabia and in the waves of mosques being built in the West with oil money. This is simple logic and there is a word for modernized Muslims who do not hold these beliefs: infidels.

Islam has captured territory with the sword (see Turkey) and through the relatively peaceful spread of its culture (see Indonesia). The faith continues to spread rapidly, even into areas in which Christianity is also alive and well (see Nigeria).

Missionary faiths will do what they do. They will seek to grow and win converts. The issue is how they chose to do this. Here is a summary from Browne.

I believe in a free market in religions, and it is inevitable that if you believe your religion is true, then you believe others are false. But this market is seriously rigged. In Saudi Arabia the government bans all churches, while in Europe governments pay to build Islamic cultural centres. While in many Islamic countries preaching Christianity is banned, in Western Christian countries the right to preach Islam is enshrined in law. Christians are free to convert to Islam, while Muslims who convert to Christianity can expect either death threats or a death sentence. . . . In the West, schools teach comparative religion, while in Muslim countries schools teach that Islam is the only true faith.

A final question: How many Christians are moving to Islamic cultures and, with the cooperation of the local governments, building schools and churches? Just asking.

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Bill McCartney grabs another hornets nest

bill_mccartneyEric Gorski of The Denver Post has written a finely balanced article about Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney’s latest interest: building unity between Christians who grew up Jewish and those who did not. Gorski uses the phrase “Messianic Jews” repeatedly, and that concept, among others, is at the heart of conflicts between the organizations Jews for Jesus and Jews for Judaism.

A quote from one Jews for Judaism document, Seven Answers to Jews for Jesus (PDF), illustrates the tension:

A “Jew for Jesus” is as absurd as a “Christian for Buddha” and as ridiculous as “kosher pork.” The fact that some of the first Christians were Jews didn’t make them right. Their movement died out within three centuries as the church became a Gentile institution.

Rebecca Breeden of The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., ran into this conflict when she reported on the new pastorate of Stuart Rothberg, who grew up in a Jewish home but eventually became a Southern Baptist minister. Some letter-writers to the Advocate took umbrage that Breeden told Rothberg’s story without stressing that he was no longer Jewish.

Writing about any person who grows up Jewish but becomes a Christian is a minefield for any reporter. But with the availability of impassioned, media-savvy members of Jews for Jesus and Jews for Judaism, such stories need never be dull.

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