Oklahoma news: A Christmas ‘miracle’ via the local atheists

News stories blending the miraculous with Christmas aren’t difficult to find: families reunited, poor children receiving presents, the homeless fed. A common denominator, though, is usually a denomination, most likely a Christian one. After all, it’s the Christians who connected charity to the whole thing to begin with, right?

Well, things apparently are different in Chickasha, Oklahoma. While I fear to step onto the home turf of Sooner GetReligion duo Bobby and Tamie Ross, tread I must.

The Chickasha Express-News reported a”Christmas miracle” story, but this time, it was area atheists who saved the day, as opposed to reprising what others often view as their “Grinch” role:

CHICKASHA – A group of local atheists saved Christmas for a Chickasha woman after she and her baby were allegedly put through the ringer [sic] at a church’s toy give away.

Tiffany Wait said she, her husband and their 7-month-old baby went to Bible Baptist Church’s Toy Shop Christmas morning to get gifts for their child, but were met with animosity because Wait did not want to give her baby to the volunteers.

“I am poor and would not be able to celebrate Christmas this year without their charity,” she said. “I went last year and it was a life saver. This year however, I was treated shockingly bad.”

Wait said her baby doesn’t like strangers and she’d prefer to be with him. She said the volunteer said it has to be done this way, or the family wouldn’t be able to participate.

“I stood there, fighting back tears and asked, ‘You would turn a baby away on Christmas,’” said Wait.

Two initial questions: (1) Was it a look-alike of some sort (“ringer”) Wait had to somehow be “put through” or was it the metaphorical “wringer” (or clothes press or what the British call a “mangle“) to which the reporter was referring? Also, what’s up with the alleged demand for Wait to “give her baby to the volunteers” at the toy distribution? The church folks could only hand presents directly to the child? Say what?

Anyway, this being the Year of Our Lord 2013, Wait — whose Twitter account describes her as an  Avon representative and one of whose Facebook photos show her with her husband and two children — did what anyone would do, these digital days.

She sought solace online:

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NYT: The Obamas and Christmas (no church)

Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes. It’s a federal holiday as well as a religious observance, so it’s understandable that any president of the United States, regardless of faith, would take the day off. At the same time, most every POTUS has been a Christian of one stripe or another (questions exist about Jefferson and Lincoln, but that’s for another time).

President Barack Obama professes Christian faith as well, something noted here just the other day.

But personal faith and public (or semi-public) practice are often two different things. Ronald Reagan’s non-attendance at church (not to mention his wife’s reported dabblings in astrology) drew barbs from some political opponents and pundits. George W. Bush often hosted worship services at Camp David but was not a frequent churchgoer when in Washington. (That said, Bush averaged 15 visits to churches each year, versus 3.6 per annum for Obama.)

The New York Times caught this, and jumps in on what the president did — and didn’t — do during his current, Christmastide sojourn in Hawaii:

HONOLULU — President Obama celebrated a low-key Christmas in Hawaii this year. He sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base to wish the troops “Mele Kalikimaka” — the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.”

But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.

“He has not gone to church, hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.

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LATimes: ‘Congregationalist’ Obama quotes Pope Francis

This is what passes for news in Washington these days: an immensely famous politician is having a speech prepared and instructs their speechwriters to quote another immensely famous person, because immensely famous person No. 2 says some things immensely famous person No. 1 likes.

Except, it turns out, when immensely famous person No. 1 actually disagrees with immensely famous person No. 2.

What it is the kids say? Oh, yes: “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

Sorry to be so arch so soon after Christmas, but that’s how I felt after even a casual reading of The Los Angeles Times‘ nearly breathless report on President Obama quoting some of Pope Francis’ recent comments about income inequality.

If, in the recent near-deluge of reporting on the HealthCare.gov rollout you’re longing for a straight shot of fawning press coverage of the president circa 2009, I believe I found your “fix” — at least at the start of this report. (The admiration fizzles towards the end.) Read this:

WASHINGTON – When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.

The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.

Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.

White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.

“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.”

Yes, there’s a lot on this pope’s mind, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. Let’s go back to something that seems to have glided by editors at The Los Angeles Times: “Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.”

I’ve never worked in The White House and can’t really judge how a president should or shouldn’t act, but is it really unheard of for a POTUS to at least schedule a phone conversation with a pontiff once said pontiff is elected? Vatican City is a “state” with which the United States has diplomatic relations, and Pope Francis is the chief executive of that state. Yet Obama has never spoken with him? Not even after both men became Time‘s “Person of the Year”?

Then again, perhaps there are some elements of Francis’ message that might make such a conversation a bit awkward, such as a politician treating the pope’s worldview as a buffet: sample this, but don’t touch the other. To its credit, the Times captures this, albeit with the seemingly requisite snark towards Obama’s GOP predecessors, (leaving one to imagine that Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton were perhaps soulmates):

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NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as “low-hanging fruit” in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don’t dare call them “holiday parties.”

One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal‘s online opinion section, specifically his daily “Best of the Web Today” feature, coined the phrase, “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” to describe writing that’s obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times‘ crime reporter who incredulously once noted, “Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates.”

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  ”During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate.” You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let’s begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit — “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light” — but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, “Is this really news?” If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

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Viva la Eurorévolution

Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev this week, but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

The Guardian‘s reporter in Kiev has described the scene on Monday morning:

Throngs of anti-government protesters remained in control of parts of central Kiev on Monday morning, as police kept their distance and Viktor Yanukovych’s government pondered its next move. After huge protests on Sunday, during which several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Kiev to call for the president’s removal, protesters erected makeshift barricades around Independence Square – the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Nearby, the main City Hall building was taken over by protesters without police resistance on Sunday evening.

Many of the windows were smashed and “Revolution HQ” was daubed in black paint on its stone Stalinist facade. Inside, hundreds of people milled around receiving refreshments; many who had travelled from the regions to Kiev were sleeping on the floor.

The independent Eastern European press has characterized the street protests as a revolution.  Lviv’s Vissoki Zamok, stated that nine years after the Orange Revolution, “the Eurorevolution” was underway.

It is symbolic that on December 1, the anniversary of the referendum in favor of independence that took place 22 years ago, Ukraine was once again the theater of mass demonstrations in support of its sovereignty, the rights of its citizens and its European future.

Why is this happening? Protestors have taken to the streets to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 29.

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Oh, those pagan Irish Anglicans?

Was it a case of good manners?

Did the editors at The Irish Times print the obituary of Olivia Durdin Robertson, who it described as, “the self-styled ‘high priestess’ of a Co Carlow-based cult devoted to an ancient Egyptian goddess, [who] has died aged 96,” without any comment or further investigation to avoid a scandal in the Church of Ireland? Or were they unaware of what they had in front of them?

The Church of Ireland is in a delicate state in terms of its unity. Divided roughly along North/South lines over the culture war issues — homosexuality, abortion and the like — the church funeral of Olivia Durdin Robertson might tip the church over the edge.

This Irish Times story marks the passing of a generation: English aristocratic eccentrics (in this case Angl0-Irish) with oddball country house antics. While Miss Durdin Robertson appears not to have aspired to the cat suits of Dianna Rigg, the conversion of her ancestral home, Huntington Castle in the Irish village of Clonegal in County Carlow, into a temple dedicated to “the Goddess” would not have been out of place in an episode of the ’60s television show, The Avengers.

The Irish Times reported:

Ms Durdin Robertson came to international attention in the 1970s when she co-founded the “Fellowship of Isis” with her late brother Lawrence Alexander Durdin Robertson – a former Anglican clergyman — and his wife Pamela.

And noted:

Her nephew David Durdin Robertson, a craftsman and sculptor who predeceased her in 2009, created an Egyptian temple for her in the dungeons of the castle. In recent years this has been opened to the public for tours at Halloween.

Intrigued? Click this link to learn more about the Fellowship, which appears to have drawn heavily from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The article notes:

Her funeral on Wednesday will begin with “a private ceremony in the temple, organised by the Fellowship of Isis, by invitation only” followed by a public Church of Ireland service at St Fiacc’s in Clonegal.

And then closes with odds and ends about the Fellowship and the castle.

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Got news? Bishops stand on HHS mandate (updated)

What you see at the top of this post is the content of today’s Baltimore Sun report on yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops — or at least, many of them — to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.

Right. The box is empty.

I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There’s more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”

Now, everyone knew — coming into this Baltimore meeting — that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.

In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be “religious liberty”), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).

Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.

Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?

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Got news? Has Kristallnacht come to the Middle East?

There was always an important, yet unstated, idea at the heart of the “On Faith” website at The Washington Post: Religion is an important and powerful force in the real world, but the reality is that religion is all about feelings, experiences and opinions, not facts about history, doctrines, laws, scriptures, traditions and governance that journalists should cover in an accurate and balanced manner.

Needless to say, your GetReligionistas have never embraced that foggy point of view.

As a result, the “On Faith” site has always been dominated by waves of low-cost opinion essays written by religious leaders, offering a mix of analysis and information about events and trends from their own perspectives. Most of this content has meshed comfortably with the interests of the agnostic, spiritual and/or Episcopal views of founding editor Sally Quinn, the legendary force of nature in DC social life and the newspaper’s Style pages.

Alas, “On Faith” never even created a format that consistently showcased the NEWS CONTENT generated by the many fine reporters on the staff of the Post, along with the resources provided by Religion News Service.

Now, as most GetReligion readers know, “On Faith” is changing homes. This PR bulletin came out on Oct. 18:

FaithStreet today announced it has hired Patton Dodd as editor-in-chief of On Faith, The Washington Post‘s popular religion website. Last summer, The Washington Post Company WPO +1.87% made an investment in FaithStreet that included the contribution of On Faith to FaithStreet. Dodd will take over the editorial direction of On Faith, while the Post‘s Sally Quinn will remain founding editor and continue to work closely with the site.

“We’re going to reimagine what covering religion can look like,” Dodd said. “I’ve read On Faith for years, and I’m thrilled about the future of this site. The partnership with FaithStreet and its deep connection to local communities of various faiths will give us an on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening with religious people in this country.”

Dodd will oversee a transition in the editorial mission of On Faith, whose content will continue to include religion news and commentary by religious leaders from across the faith traditions. The scope of the new On Faith will be announced early next year.

So, the site will continue to mix news and opinion, but there will be a “transition” in its editorial mission and its “scope” will change.

Does this mean more news or less news? More information or less?

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