Got news? The space between

On Tueday, March 24, leaders in the American anti-abortion movement met with Joshua Dubois, Executive Director of the White House Faith-Based Office to discuss two of that office’s goals.

You’d think that this would be news, wouldn’t you? After all, the Faith-Based Office is staffed by a 26-year old former pastor with the mission of strenghtening ties between the White House and faith communities in arenas that include abortion reduction and encouraging responsible parenthood.

Well, it is news–everywhere (apparently) but in the mainstream press. Initiated by anti-abortion leaders, the projected White House conversation was noted on the Christian Post website.

Here’s part of what CNS (Cybercast News Service) had to say about the meeting before it occured:

“We hope to start a dialogue with the White House faith-based office,” CWA President Wendy Wright told CNSNews.com. “The faith-based office has been reformulated to now have a new mandate, which included reducing the number of abortions and focusing on fatherhood.”

On Feb. 5, when Obama unveiled his faith-based office — an office started during the Bush administration — the new president said the priorities would be to “support women and children, address teenage pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion,” among other priorities addressing poverty.

On the “Brody Blog” David Brody of CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) has a partial transcription of an interview he did with Wright after the meeting, which she termed an “honest” one. Last night MSNBC’s liberal muckraker Rachel Maddow commented on the meeting in her inimitable Maddow style (see video above). Heck, even the lion of the left, Mother Jones, had something to say.

Kudos to the NPR show “Tell Me More, by the way, for doing a really good interview with Wendy Wright and Religion News Service’s Kevin Eckstrom on this topic today.

To strike a note heard before on GetReligion-what makes a story “conservative news?” What makes it “liberal news?” And why, if it seems worthwhile for media from both “wings” to report on an unfolding story, isn’t it being covered by beat journalists with an ear for the political and religious implications?

I’m reminded of a recent column by the New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof. In the “The Daily Me” Kristof talks about our increasing tendency, with the disappearance of many mainstream media outlets and the ascent of blogs and other sources, to seek out news that reinforces how we think about the world already. But what other option does one have when the MSM don’t cover a story that many of the partisan and denominational outlets consider to be real news?

Whatever you think of their opinions, this time, the reporters on either side of the conservative-liberal divide made the right choice–and, by and large, the mainstream media missed out. Readers will just have to fill in the quotes, the context and the information that form the “space betweeen.”

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Who wants to be No. 50,000?

wjcmugbigAs I type this, there are 49,980 comments attached to the 4,157 posts spread out over the five-plus years of life here at GetReligion.

In other words, a milestone is going to fall here in the very near future, maybe by dawn (especially if the Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway knocks out a post on media coverage of post-Proposition 8 debates between gay and straight Mormons in the next few hours).

Just checking — still at 49,980. Things must have have quietened down a bit on the JournoList and “Flash! Vatican opposes birth control” posts.

Anyway, we think that whoever puts up the 50,000th comment deserves a small prize of some kind and we think we know what that should be.

While you can find a decently wide array of GetReligion.org swag over in our corner of the CafePress world, by far the most popular item is one that has chronic blogging written all over it — which would be the extra-large GetReligion coffee cup.

So whoever rings the bell at 50,000 gets one on us. Even if your name is Michael (and you know what I’m talking about).

The Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc and I are watching the WordPress Dashboard page and we think we know how to pick the winner.

Oh, one other thing. Yes, there is a GetReligion teddy bear at the CafePress site. There’s a GetReligion beer stein, too, which would be popular with many of our readers (think Lutheran, naturally) but not with others (hello, Southern Baptists who do not live in Louisville).

But we took down one of those items that grace many CafePress sites and, believe you me, we are not apologizing for that.

So. There.

P.S. Just checking and we’re at 49,981. The deacon is in the house. And Jerry, twice. Still counting.

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Got news? Evangelical crash ahead?

united_states_of_canada_and_jesusland_tshirt-p235441393542492745q6xn_400jpgThe reaction continues to roll in as the mainstream press surfs through the results of the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the one that points to the rising wave of the post-denominational age in American religion.

For background on the survey itself, click here to head over to ReligionLink. For my initial reaction to the “fading Christianity” meme in the MSM Round I coverage, click here. The bottom line: Niches ‘R’ US.

However, I expect that GetReligion readers will — sooner rather than later — start running into a Christian Science Monitor essay by Michael Spencer of InternetMonk.com that ran under the apocalyptic headline, “The coming evangelical collapse — An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.”

Spencer describes himself as a “postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality,” to which I ask, is that “reformation” or “Reformation”?

Anyway, his essay isn’t news copy, that’s for sure. Yet it is a meditation on some of the trends that have shown up in the ARIS survey and in many other places in the past few decades, as I mentioned in my earlier post. These trends are now filtering into mainstream news coverage. I imagine that GetReligion readers are going to want to discuss some of his predictions, as Rod “friend of this weblog” Dreher has already done on his blog.

Read it all. But here is the set of bullets that will set legions of tongues wagging, in Catholic, Orthodox, mainline and Evangelical sanctuaries (both digital and analog). As Spencer sees it, here is the end result of the mainstream Protestant splintering that is just ahead (I have done a tiny bit of pruning):

* Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success. …

* Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more efforts aimed at the “conversion” of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

* A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise through theological renewal. This is an attractive, innovative, and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing, and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches.

* The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.

* Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear.

* Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority. …

* Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. …

And one more for those who must see religion through a political lens:

* Expect a fragmented response to the culture war. Some Evangelicals will work to create their own countercultures, rather than try to change the culture at large. Some will continue to see conservatism and Christianity through one lens and will engage the culture war much as before — a status quo the media will be all too happy to perpetuate. A significant number, however, may give up political engagement for a discipleship of deeper impact.

To cut to the chase, is Spencer merely saying that mainstream evangelicalism needs to settle on a doctrinal core, some kind of creed that defines what that vague, vague, vague word means? Good luck on that. And is he saying that religious liberty will lose some kind of showdown with the sexual revolution at the U.S. Supreme Court?

That’s the kind of detail one would offer in a news report, which this essay most decidedly is not. But still, I wanted to put this up for “Got news?” discussion, before readers swamped us with emails asking us for commentary.

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Got news? New “climate” for God & science

mathematicians_bridge_cambridge_largeIn this year of anniversaries and celebrations, dead scientists like Darwin and Galileo are getting their due. Live ones, like the atheist former Oxford don Richard Dawkins, attract media attention pretty much every time he opens his mouth or slings a godforsaken poster on a bus.

But what of the scientists with strong Christian faith currently building bridges, quietly or outspokenly, between the religious and scientific community? We don’t hear much about them, do we?

These men (interesting that reporters don’t seem to dig for faithful women scientists) are the subject of a lengthy and well-written article in a recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

There are few hiccups here, but they seem minor when one thinks that the topic is so undercovered.

The reporter starts off in England, exploring the paradox of lively and overt faith in an unlikely place-among scientists.

Riding the train down to London last summer, after a two-week fellowship session on science and religion at the University of Cambridge, I noticed an article in the Independent newspaper about a new book which reinforced that notion of an increasingly irreligious Europe. It is true that outward signs of faith–apart from biblical passages emblazoned on London’s famed red double-decker buses by jesussaid.org–are difficult to come by.

But I found deeply felt Christianity alive and well in an unlikely setting: the academy’s scientific community.

The writer goes on to talk about some of the Christian heavy hitters in the fields of cosmology, biology and physics who describe themselves as “evangelicals.” But they are, asserts the author “evangelicals of a particular sort.”

This is typically dangerous territory. Evangelicals in England are often a different sort from American evangelicals. And the writer doesn’t describe what “sort” they are. He compares them (favorably, one assumes) with the “apocalyptic American evangelical tribes of arrogant dominionists or fanciful premillienal dispensationalists of the ‘Left Behind’ stripe.”

Ok, so now we know what they aren’t–and what they reject, like creationism and intelligent design.

But focus of the article is on a hot topic among faithful scientists-climate change. The writer does a lovely job of weaving wonderful quotes from scientists about how their faith does or does not affect their work with examining the impact that their research is having on the debate itself.

There is definitely more than one side to this controversy among conservative Christians. The writer comments that there scientists who believe that there is no such animal as global warming, or that it doesn’t matter because the world might end soon, anyhow. But this view is being debated both in England and in the United States, says the author.

Yet increasingly, the fundamentalist view of climate change is losing force and is being challenged by other scientists who are equally devout in their evangelical beliefs. At Cambridge the renowned reproductive biologist and ethicist Sir Brian Heap, a self-described “open-minded evangelical,” is a leading advocate of addressing climate change. He said he had no difficulty reconciling his personal faith and scientific discovery and advocacy. “When doing my own bench research, it was clear that personal faith influenced decisions about the wisdom of carrying out certain experimentation.” He continued, “The religious foundation comes from the Christian motivation to seek the best for others…for the world we too easily damage.”

I’m not crazy about the use of the word fundamentalist, which becomes an easy tar to brush people who don’t agree with you.

I also wish the author had covered possible interfaces between Christian scientists and activist “green” evangelicals here and in the U.K. He alludes to a relationship between Sir John Houghton and megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, but documenting more such cooperation would make the story even stronger. There’s a political dimension here (the struggle among evangelicals) that definitely needs more coverage. (While we’re on that subject, the topic of what exactly happened to Richard Cizik, formerly of the National Association of Evangelicals is a third rail that he probably would have been advised to stay way from–it weren’t just a fundamentalist revolt.)

I love the quote at the end–it reminds me of the 17th century laments of poets and theologians like John Donne, who saw the two disciplines beginning to separate themselves from each other.

Many believe that ideally science and religion should be inseparable. As Houghton put it, “We are integrated people. Theology was once called the ‘Queen of the sciences.’”

With its flaws, this is still a good beginning. It is news not only that well-known British scientists see no impediment to being believers and researchers both, but that so many are willing to speak out about what has traditionally been considered a deeply private subject. They are British, you know. They’ve got to be feeling pretty passionate about the subject.

Maybe the climate really is changing.

Hat tip: Rod Dreher.

Picture of the Mathematicians Bridge at Cambridge University is from Wikimedia Commons

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Got news? A beet farmer gets serious

dwight_schruteOkay, not a real beat farmer — but Rainn Wilson, the actor who plays the wonderful Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” had an interesting op-ed on CNN.com. It begins with Wilson explaining that he’s not joking, and then he provides an introduction to Baha’i. He says that Baha’i began in Iran in the mid-19th century and that Baha’is believe there is only one God and one religion. All the world’s divine teachers bring the same message and Baha’u’llah refreshed it for the current day and age, he says. He talks about the historic persecution of Baha’is by Muslim authorities in Iran. And then he gets to the newsier part:

Why write about all this now? Well, I’m glad you asked. You see there’s a ‘trial’ going on very soon for seven Baha’i national leaders in Iran.

They’ve been accused of all manner of things including being “spies for Israel,” “insulting religious sanctities” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

They’ve been held for a year in Evin Prison in Tehran without any access to their lawyer (the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi) and with zero evidence of any of these charges.

When a similar thing happened in 1980, the national leadership of the Iranian Baha’i community disappeared. And this was repeated again in 1981.

In fact, since 1979, more than 200 Baha’is have been killed, holy places and cemeteries desecrated, homes burned, civil rights taken away and secret lists compiled of Baha’is (and even Muslims who associate with them) by government agencies.

It’s bad right now for all the peace-loving Baha’is in Iran who want only to practice their religion and follow their beliefs. It’s especially bad for these seven. Here’s a link to their bios. They’re teachers, and engineers, and optometrists and social workers just like us.

He asks readers to keep in mind how Americans are free to worship as they please. There’s a Congressional resolution he asks readers to lobby for before telling readers to get back to beets.

It’s not that this story has received no coverage — it’s just that it appears to be mostly foreign press that’s interested. So congrats to CNN for bringing this story to light — and perhaps that outlet and others could show some interest on the news pages as well.

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One bishop’s public diplomacy

jchane2.jpgWhen the Episcopal Bishop of Washington participates in a conference on religion and politics, it’s not necessarily newsworthy. When that conference takes place in Tehran, Iran, and the same bishop has a private meeting with the theocratic nation’s top spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, it deserves more attention.

Interfaith Voices, an independently produced public-radio show, featured a fine interview with Bishop John Chane. At one moment Chane describes his work, which will lead to another conference in the United States later this year, as public diplomacy.

There’s a separate interview (at 22:30) with Evan Anderson, executive director of the U.S.-Iran Cultural Alliance, who presented a paper that compares the end-times scenarios of Shia Muslims and Western Christians.

Anderson’s paper was one of three that drew an award for exceptional research from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The most pleasant surprise in this interview: When host Maureen Fiedler asks whether interfaith dialogue is really possible when both sides believe they profess the one true faith, Anderson says respectful discourse does occur. (Interfaith Voices links to this copy of Anderson’s paper.)

The stories here are not headline news, but they should not be limited to the niche programming — informative as it is — of Interfaith Voices.

Photo of Bishop Chane published with the permission of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

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Got news? Kristof reports hard truth

As part of our new effort to highlight opinion columnist and their work that could have and should have been covered as straight news, I wanted to highlight a pair of articles by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. The first, which dates just before Christmas, highlights some interesting statistics purporting to show that “[w]e liberals are personally stingy.”

Kristof places himself willingly in the category of being a liberal and goes on to criticize everyone from Democrats to residents of “Northeastern states” for not living up, in their personal lives, to their political proclamations of helping those who are less-well-off than themselves. Sounds like an excellent topic for a news story, but Kristof’s column provides an excellent substitute.

I was pleasantly surprised that Kristof spent a good portion of this column dealing with the claim that conservatives are merely giving their money to their churches:

When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches — that a fair amount of that money isn’t helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires.

It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.

According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.

In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)

Now Kristof’s apparent suggestion that churches don’t even help the poor would hopefully never make it into a news story because many I am aware of do help the poor and needy. Nevertheless, Kristof’s article is a good example of an issue that could easily have been turned into a news story.

An important angle he overlooked would be the fact that charities funded by private individuals are often more effective than government funded charities. Private charities are capable of trying new things — see Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation — while government charities are often directed more towards assisting groups and causes that help the politicians get re-elected. Obviously this is not always the case, but the economic efficiency of private charity should not be overlooked. Also important to look at, and Kristof hinted at this, is the fact that some private charity is not that effective and is more about promoting the individuals doing the giving. Both sides of the issue must be covered.

The second, and far more heart wrenching of Kristof’s columns, was his up-close look at the sickening world we live in when it comes to sex trafficking and the consequences in one girl’s life.

While the story of the girl’s experience in the brothel is extremely disturbing, the fact that Kristof had to spend a rather significant portion of his column disputing whether sex slavery exists today presents a situation that is nearly as upsetting:

After my last column, I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive. It’s true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where teenage girls are slave laborers.

Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.

Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal.

Sex slavery’s existence in today’s world is a story in and of itself. Often when the story gets reported, as it was about a week ago in the Times on prostitution in South Korea, it is mostly a matter of politics.

Another take on the story could be the fact that sex slavery doesn’t receive the kind of attention it should. When was the last time Hollywood looked at the issue in a way that portrayed the industry for its disgusting evilness? Kristof has been writing on this subject for a number of years now and its too bad he is still struggling to get people to recognize the evil of this trade.

This Kristof column does not deal specifically with religion, but religion relates in the sense that many of the non-governmental groups fighting sex trafficking in the world today have faith-based backgrounds.

Kudos to Kristof for this pair of excellent columns. He remains one of my favorite opinion columnists and that’s probably because instead of merely spouting off his opinions or what his friends or saying, he actually goes out there and reports news.

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Got news? Catholics are smart and …

bust-johnpauliiWe’re going to be seeing lots and lots of commentary about the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus and the end of an era, especially if you combine his passing with that of another important Catholic activist on the right, Deacon Paul Weyrich.

Over at the God & Country blog at U.S. News & World Report, Dan Gilgoff has some rather blunt things to say about the role that Neuhaus and other traditional Catholics played in the politics of the past decade or two.

I think what he says is pretty accurate. But, here again, we have a strong statement of opinion that could have been the basis of a very strong, very important piece of news writing. Thus, I am posting this as another example of the “Got news?” syndrome that your GetReligionistas are starting to spotlight.

The headline: “Richard Neuhaus’s Death and the Catholic-Evangelical Tension in Politics.” And here is the crucial passage in this mini-essay:

… Neuhaus’s death … reminds us that Catholics remain the brains of a conservative movement built on evangelical brawn. This played out during the Bush years in Supreme Court nominations. John Roberts, Bush’s first Supreme Court appointment, was embraced by conservative evangelicals, largely because his Catholicism assured them that he was a pro-lifer at heart, despite his thin judicial record.

Bush’s second nomination, Harriet Miers, was initially backed by evangelicals because of her evangelical Christian faith, but nearly every other constituency on the right, including many conservative Catholics, rejected her as an intellectual lightweight. Many conservative Catholics were appalled at the way conservative evangelical leaders like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson appeared to rely on her faith background as the sole basis for their support. The moment threw a light on the split between the social conservative movement’s Catholic head and evangelical heart.

So, basically, Catholics are smart and evangelicals are, well, not as smart. Is that the point?

I think it is possible to say that Catholic intellectuals have played a major role in the era. That’s obvious. But there has been another trend, which is linked to Reformed Protestants playing a larger role and many evangelicals — whatever that word means — spending more time learning about their ancient roots in natural theology and, well, Catholic thought.

You would be amazed how many conservative Protestants know quite a bit about the life and works of John Paul II and Benedict SVI. So I think Gilgoff has HALF of an important equation. But, most of all, I would love to see his magazine report this story, rather than just proclaim it.

Got news? Yes, there is news here. Hard news.

Photo: Bronze bust of Pope John Paul II.

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