Semitic speech wars

149100062 4d9ff20623The Los Angeles Times has been covering a story about Muslim activists and their Jewish critics on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The story has been brewing for years but let’s look at the recent events.

In March, Muslim college activists decried the College Republicans plan to hold a discussion about Islamic militancy on campuses and whether some Islamic groups in the United States are apologists for terrorism. That, along with the group’s publication of the infamous Muhammed cartoons, didn’t go over well with the activists.

For the last few years, the Muslim Student Union has put on public programs opposed to the existence of the state of Israel. This year’s program featured a mock Israeli “apartheid” wall set up in the center of campus. The TimesKimi Yoshino wrote about the coming program in mid-May:

Controversial events scheduled at UC Irvine next week with such provocative titles as “Holocaust in the Holy Land” and “Israel: The Fourth Reich” are sparking outrage among Jewish students who are asking administrators to denounce aspects of the event.

Jewish students and community leaders say the program is the latest in a string of offensive incidents at the university. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights is investigating anti-Semitism at UCI, the first probe of its kind at a college.

The post-event story from the Times‘ Ashraf Khalil presents the controversy more in the he-said, she-said manner:

These clashes have been the latest in years of tension, mistrust and back-and-forth accusations between activist Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine.

In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized. The next year, an antiZionism mural erected by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case.

Khalil frames the story in a very interesting way:

At the heart of the UC Irvine issue is a fundamental question: Can one be aggressively opposed to the policies and even the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

I think this is an excellent question that is important but difficult to ask. I also think it helps for Khalil to boil down the complexities of campus clashes. But I’m not sure if he’s right that this fundamental and important question is the one through which this conflict must be viewed.

Khalil makes a bold move by framing the debate in the way he does, but this could also be viewed in other ways: as a free speech issue or a campus speech issue or a trend story about the rise of Muslim activism on campuses or a story about public reaction to Muslim activism. Perhaps in subsequent stories he could look deeper how students react to Muslim activists when they say they oppose the “existence of Israel.” For instance, this quote — from one of the speakers brought in by the activists — could be taken in a variety of ways:

“The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down. They are living in fear . . . and it is about time they live in fear,” said Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based Islamic activist, during a May 15 speech on the campus quad. “The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or until we are victorious.”

Khalil goes to great lengths to clarify that Ali is attacking Zionist Jews as opposed to Jews in general. I would be curious to read how various students on campus interpret these remarks. It would also be interesting to readers whether these various groups are taxpayer funded. And I would like a lot more explanation of the religious motivations of the various parties. Still, the Times has been doing a pretty good job covering this local issue.

Photo via Flickr.

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Covering intolerance in the Middle East

saudi textbookMajor U.S. media outlets are all over a report [PDF] released Tuesday by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, which found that Saudi Arabian schools are teaching their students things the U.S. government told them not to teach after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the Washington Post‘s Outlook section ran commentary by Nina Shea, the report’s primary author and director of the CRF, I was worried that The New York Times would take a competitive we-don’-like-to-get-scooped pass on the all-important story.

But the Times came out swinging Wednesday morning with an emotionally charged headline reading “Don’t be Friends with Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say.” National Public Radio was a bit more measured, using the headline “Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says.”

NPR played it straight through the entire story. Once the Times was done playing up the more dramatic claims of the report, it got to the heart of the story: Why in the world is the United States government friendly with another government that teaches its children to not be friends with Jews and Christians?

Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.

“It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce,” Mr. Zulfa said.

One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. “We know what needs to be taken out,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to do it.”

The missing element in both of these stories is why the Saudi texts teach this type of religious extremism. There is obviously a religious context rooted in the country’s Wahhabi teaching, but neither story attempts to explain that theology.

Another question is why the news in this report is news to anyone. How hard is it to grab a few textbooks, translate them and report on what they said? Is the problem gaining access to the textbooks, or the translating?

I would also like to commend NPR for providing a link to the full report, Shea’s Post article, the State Department’s religious freedom report on Saudi Arabai, translated experts of the textbooks, an image of a textbook cover, the Freedom House news release on the report, the official response to the report from the Saudi amabssador, the Saudi government’s statement on its campaign against extremism and a transcript of a Saudi Embassy news conference on extremism. Talk about being exhaustively helpful.

The Times, on the other hand, was meager in its offerings. It merely provided a link to a forum on the Middle East. I guess it’s small peanuts, but why can’t the Times provide these types of links?

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“Yes, Marvin Olasky, what is your question?”

20060516 4 p051606pm 0531 1 515hRegular readers of this blog may recall previous references to the work of Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who is the author of that must-read essay called “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Click here to check that out.

Over at his PressThink blog, Rosen has an interesting proposal for the new White House press secretary, a suggestion that might help inject more questions about religion and faith into the mainstream press.

Here’s the gist. Tony Snow runs a big operation, with several assistants who could handle some additional press briefings. What would happen if, with the help of experts from other agencies, Snow and company allowed more reporters, and more kinds of reporters, into the press room? Here’s a glimpse of what Rosen has in mind.

8:00 AM … Televised Briefing in Arabic (For journalists from the Muslim world and the Arabic speaking press. You make the evening news in Cairo and Baghdad that night, and the newspapers the next day.)

9:00 AM … Press Gaggle (On the record, audio-cast, not televised, transcripts by noon; this event exists now.)

10:00 AM … Bloggers Briefing. (It’s like a gaggle for stand alone and citizen journalists who self-publish. Same rules.)

11:00 AM … Q and A with the International Press (With a daily briefing open to all, more foreign news providers will send a person to Washington. Televised, in English.)

12:30 PM … The White House Daily Briefing (Televised, the way it is now. Mainly the American news media, and major foreign providers.)

3:00 PM … All-Faith Briefing. (For the religious press worldwide, same rules as the gaggle.)

Interesting. Thus, I emailed Rosen with a few questions. Primarily, I wanted to know how he was defining “religious press.” I wanted to know who that included and who it did not include. Frankly, I think it might work to have a mix of mainstream religion-beat press blended into a pack of reporters from a spectrum of magazines, religious wire services, websites, networks, etc.

The hard part would be deciding who would be left out. Obviously, Richard Ostling of the Associated Press gets in. Ditto for someone from Catholic News Service and Baptist Press. Ditto for the likes of World and Christianity Today. Is the key question whether someone carries a mainstream press card? That would narrow the field too much.

Rosen wrote back:

Haven’t gotten that far. The idea, though, is to draw people who normally wouldn’t be in the White House press corps into White House briefings, people who cover faith or who cover the world for faith communities and publications.

I think that a “God room” would ask some very different and, in some ways, very tough questions. How would Snow and company avoid doctrinal free-for-alls? I mean, it’s hard enough to avoid those whirlpools here at GetReligion.

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Digging deeper on Ahmadinejad’s letter

Mahmoud AhmadinejadA GetReligion reader named Matt, commenting on the letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, raised an insightful point that I wish I had known and mentioned. But this is the Internet and there is plenty of room for follow-up:

The Iranian President’s letter reminds me of the kind of letter every new Caliph would send to the Roman Emperor in Byzantium.

Posted by Matt at 11:27 pm on May 11, 2006

The historical background, much of which is speculative at this point, is difficult to fit into a news story. But the news of this letter has settled, at least for U.S. reporters, and it will be interesting to see if anyone covers the angles that may not be so obvious to American readers. The most obvious point, as noted by Andrew Sullivan, is that Bush and Ahmadinejad are said to both believe in a coming apocalypse.

It’s easy to see a letter like this through American eyes, but now that we know that this letter has had minimal impact on U.S. policy, it should be examined through the eyes of non-Americans — in particular, Muslims in the Middle East.

Ahmadinejad seems to be attempting to play up to his base of supporters. Was he successful? How did the world community of Muslims view this letter? Ahmadinejad was recently in Indonesia meeting with leaders from the host country, Bangladesh, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Was this meeting timed to the writing of this letter?

Here’s an assessment from The Economist that hints at the deeper religious meaning of the letter:

The diplomatic effort to defuse the gathering crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is sufficiently stuck that anyone involved (bar China’s godless Communists) might have been tempted to invoke the Almighty. Yet the litany of taunts and complaints in a letter from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who chose to address President George Bush this week — the first such direct communication between the leaders of the two countries since Iran’s 1979 revolution — as one believer to (he had heard) another, hardly seems likely to break the impasse. …

What they object to is the most dangerous technologies in the hands of a regime that lied for 20 years to nuclear inspectors and that threatens Israel. “Let us assume these events are true,” says Mr Ahmadinejad, doubting that the Holocaust ever took place; what right, he mused, does Israel have to exist in the region?

Along with criticisms of the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq (though Saddam, he acknowledges, was a “murderous dictator”) and the pressure on the Hamas government in Palestine to recognise Israel, this seems designed to win support in the Arab world. To plenty of Iranians, though, his championing of the oppressed of Africa and Latin America may seem a bit rich from the president of a regime that treats its own opponents roughly. According to Human Rights Watch, an NGO, at least two of Mr Ahmadinejad’s ministers have been involved in systematic abuses of human rights, including executions of dissidents.

What is Mr Ahmadinejad up to? Suggesting that American officials may have helped instigate the attacks of September 11th seems aimed to cause offence, at a time when America is being pressed to consider direct nuclear talks with Iran and some of Mr Ahmadinejad’s rivals at home have shown interest. Might the invitation to “return to the teaching of prophets” have less to do with concern for Mr Bush’s soul, and more with bolstering Mr Ahmadinejad’s political power on earth?

Just because the letter doesn’t mean much to American foreign policy — other than being the first real direct communication between the U.S. and Iran — does not mean it lacks real significance. As Matt pointed out, there is a strong historical and religious significance to the letter, and I’d be curious to know how it was received by Muslims around the world.

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Postmodern parents: Only time will tell

emptypewsThe Washington Post headline said it all: “Some Parents Who Shy From Religion Want Their Children to Taste Its Psychological and Spiritual Comforts.” (As a former copy editor, I ask, “What was that? A double decker six- or eight-column headline in 36-point type?)

The story by Stacy Weiner was just as broad and appeared, for some reason, in the health section. Still, it raised a perfectly valid issue. What happens when parents who have a skeptical or totally pluralistic approach to faith have childen? How does one teach postmodernism to a toddler? I mean, before they soak it up on Saturday morning in front of a television set?

Clearly, this is part of a larger story that we talk about all the time here at GetReligion — the struggle of a true religious left to find an identity and to hand it down generation after generation. Yet, as Weiner’s story notes, the secular/pluralist niche continues to grow. It is, for example, a growing segment of the Democratic Party’s base. Ask Howard “Call me Job” Dean. Once again, let me urge everyone to read the “Tribal Relations” article that The Atlantic ran not that long ago about religion and politics in American life.

The Post article stresses that parents of vague beliefs should lean left as they explore the pews. You never know when you might run into a damaging blast of certainty.

Nevertheless, what will most readers make of this?

Like her husband, Varun Gauri, Ayesha Khan did some soul-searching and concluded that she wanted religion’s bounties for their daughter Yasmeen and their year-old son, Sharif. At the top of Khan’s wish list: a sense of community and spirituality.

Over the years, says Khan, she’s seen religious community serve several of her friends — mostly Jewish — with its sense of shared history, support and belonging. “We no longer live among extended families and extended communities,” she says Khan, 42, who is legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, she notes, “there really aren’t intergenerational institutions that offer quite what religion does in our society.”

Khan also believes that spirituality — with its sense of purpose and meaning — is key to her children’s emotional well-being. And she’s convinced it would be a lot tougher for them to develop spirituality without the structure and guidance that religion offers.

So she and Gauri are dishing up a religious smorgasbord: Islam from one grandma, Hindu from the other, a Quaker school, a Buddhist retreat and a bit of evangelical Christianity via their former nanny. As Khan acknowledges, “Only time will tell if we were creating great confusion or great enlightenment.”

And there is the rub. Only time will tell. This is a fascinating article and the topic is ripe for news coverage. But I was troubled about several things. For example, Weiner does not interview any traditional authority figure or researcher who is skeptical about all this skepticism. The article is very one-sided, in other words. It could be a Unitarian or United Church of Christ tract.

19566Other than interviewing traditional believers, people who might see links between actual religious faith and its positive impact on the lives of children and adults, who else might this reporter have turned to for authoritative research?

I would suggest a follow-up story, focusing on the attempts of parents in interfaith marriages — the best data has been collected by Jewish groups — to raise their children in two faiths at the same time. During my days on the religion beat in Denver, the Jewish community there wrestled with this issue over and over.

The bottom line: Teaching children that two religions are true only teaches them that neither religion is true. Teaching them that all the religions are true will almost certainly teach them that there is no true faith at all, no religious faith that is worth their commitment.

Time will tell. And does anyone dare discuss eternity?

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Preach it, Abe Rosenthal

portada1Here is the New York Times today, adding a few kind words about the late A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, an elite journalist who in the 1990s became a hero to those of us who are deeply committed to those familiar freedoms of the First Amendment. He was passionate about freedom of the press and freedom of religion, even for unpopular religious minorities.

The Times tribute editorial has a handle on half of that equation:

When A.M. Rosenthal’s years as executive editor of this newspaper were over, he wrote fondly of his first day on the job here as a 21-year-old cub reporter. He rushed off on an assignment — a hotel homicide — and after he had proudly flashed his press card and asked to see the corpse, he was told by a detective, “Beat it.” That rebuff was a perfect starting point for Abe Rosenthal. He died on Wednesday at the age of 84 after a remarkable six-decade career that included numerous newspaper achievements but none more of a personal memorial than his fierce defense of press freedom — his bristling refusal to accept “Beat it” from government.

This toughness culminated momentously in The Times‘s battle with the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own classified history of the grievous missteps that mired the nation in the Vietnam War. He put it this way: “When something important is going on, silence is a lie.”

And all the people said, “Amen.” A nice phrase: Silence is a lie.

That kind of reminds me of one of those edgy “On My Mind” columns that Rosenthal used to write. You can dig into the Times archives and find them, but there are also a few floating around online.

So preach it, Abe Rosenthal.

What follows is a large chunk of a column entitled “When Is It News?” from 1999.

After a lifetime in daily journalism, I still worry when real news is treated as no news at all.

Journalists write about what interests them and, they hope, a slice of their particular audiences large enough to keep their newspaper or TV station a daily habit.

In free countries, the variety of journals and broadcasts guarantees information on every subject that touches on what is important in human life, with large dollops of what is deliciously unimportant. Together they are life colors, separating free people from the dreadful dirty-gray of despotism.

Every subject — but not quite. Sometimes journalists decided some subjects were not news — like the Communist slaughter of millions of Soviet citizens, the Holocaust, poverty and racial hatred in our own country, or certain universal essences like religion and sexuality.

Next Tuesday, in a United Nations committee room, delegates of 19 countries will meet on a subject not mentioned on the agenda — slavery: not slavery yesterday, but today, and by all signs for a lot of tomorrows. It is a subject that with shockingly few exceptions is evaded by journalism and democratic political leadership.

I do not know just why. Perhaps, in journalism, it is because in its magnitude it is too complicated and varied for our poor minds to deal with. And anyway, there are no real spot slavery stories — just ongoing horror and misery, and who needs more of that?

Maybe it is because mostly slavery befouls third-world countries that are the current favorites of so many Western journalists, intellectuals, “statesmen” and businessmen. In some of its forms, slavery enchains the bonded child workers of India and Pakistan, and prostitutes in sexual playgrounds like Thailand.

These varieties do not grab much journalistic or diplomatic attention. The slavery involved in the U.N. meeting is the kind that free people thought had disappeared with Abe Lincoln — living bodies captured by slave traders and bought and sold like meat, as in Sudan.

Sudan’s slaves come from the south of their country. They are trapped in the three-decade-long civil war between the Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south. Khartoum sends armed raider-trains southward, to take and sell slaves, and grab food sent to war victims by international organizations.

The slaves live slave lives — murderous labor, rape, hunger, torture, the totality of degradation.

As an old-fashioned defender of human rights, Rosenthal wrote dozens of columns on this topic and others related to it. He refused to stop.

Does anyone else have a favorite Rosenthal column on one of these issues?

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On my mind: Darfur, South Sudan and Rosenthal

AbeRosenthalIt was 10 years ago — next week, in fact — that I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service that began like this:

It’s possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year’s going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle — about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan’s Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan — more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

That was not the last column that I wrote about the horrific conflicts in South Sudan and the massacre of Christians, animists, moderate Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The Sudan story developed in the years after that and, ultimately, helped inspire the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

It has been interesting to watch the mainstream media tiptoe into coverage of hot-button religious liberty issues, especially the rights of embattled religious minorities. I thought about that the other day at the time of the Darfur march here in Washington, D.C. I have been thinking about the South Sudan while watching — with joy — the news that there might be a meaningful Darfur peace agreement in the near future. Still, I have questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheer when I pass Darfur marchers here inside the Beltway. I totally support that cause. But part of me has wondered why the Darfur massacres have become such a popular cause on the American left and among our media elites in general. Why, for example, is Hollywood marching for Darfur, when it all but ignored the South Sudan?

Perhaps Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post was on to something important when, back in 2004, he wrote a report about the importance of evangelical Christians beginning to focus on Darfur:

Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the “genocide” taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Aug. 1 letter marks a shift in focus for the evangelical movement, which previously was interested primarily in halting violence against Christians in southern Sudan. The victims in Darfur, a western province, are mostly Muslim.

Get it? Allen D. Hertzke was even more blunt in a 2003 essay for the Wall Street Journal. The problem with the South Sudan, he said, was that the people who were passionate about this genocide were the wrong kinds of people to draw major (positive) media attention. The victims were the wrong faith and the lobbyists were the wrong faith, too. That’s why it was hard to put these massacres in the South Sudan on the front page.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a … New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a “pet cause of many American religious conservatives.” Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a “pet cause” of American Jews or apartheid a “pet cause” of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes “tainted” by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute.

JebelAwlia lowresYou probably know where I am going with this, if you have scanned the headlines of a major newspaper today.

All of this reminds me of the work of the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who, rung by rung, climbed the ladder in the world’s most powerful newsroom until he reached the top. He covered the world and, as editor, helped shake America to its foundations when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He changed the Times and, as a journalist, he helped shape his times.

At the end of his career, he began writing an op-ed column called “On My Mind.” In it, he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — especially free speech and freedom of conscience. Here is how the Times obituary described this part of Rosenthal’s work:

His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: “Please Read This Column.”As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes — his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America’s war on drugs.

That’s part of the story. Rosenthal was, in short, an old-fashioned liberal. That may be why, in the end, people started calling him a conservative. That may be why, in the end, many people believe that he was forced out of his beloved Times newsroom because he would not stop writing columns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. He would not stop writing about the South Sudan. Rosenthal could not understand why so many mainstream journalists were not interested in this story.

I talked to Rosenthal several times about this, in part because a human-rights activist sent him a copy of that 1996 column that I wrote about slavery and the South Sudan. Rosenthal said that he showed it to several people in the newsroom and asked them why this issue — the persecution of religious minorities — wasn’t a major news story. No one had a good answer. Thus, he pledged that he would write about South Sudan.

Rosenthal decided that, one way or another, political prejudices must have had something to do with this blind spot. Here is what he told me in a 1997 interview, a year in which he wrote nearly two dozen columns about Sudan and the persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

To paraphrase, Rosenthal had been forced by the facts to grasp this fact — many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t get religion.

What he could not understand, he told me, was that many journalists didn’t seem to want to open their eyes and realize that this was hurting them as journalists. Because of this blindness, many newsrooms were missing stories that did not need to be missed. They were losing readers that they did not need to lose. It just didn’t make sense to him.

Now Rosenthal is gone. But his voice is heard, whenever people gather to protest the genocide in Darfur. I hope that his death causes some journalists to dig out some of his columns and catch up with the big story that Rosenthal, as an angry old journalist who cared about human rights, was writing about long before it was acceptable to write about it.

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Why military chaplains matter

SoldiersPrayingLast Sunday’s 8,000-plus-word takeout in The Washington Post Magazine on military chaplains is a tremendous example of why long-form journalism is so helpful in dealing with complex religious issues. The magazine’s editors gave Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, the space needed to tell the story of why chaplains are a necessary part of the U.S. military operations and some of the immense challenges they face:

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who’s not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He’s Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional [P]rotestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into [Smith's] office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers’ workspaces.

chaplainsThe military chaplaincy has become ever more controversial these days, and a growing chorus is calling for the practice to be re-examined. The issue also gets more complicated in Muslim countries and for Jewish chaplains. This type of journalism has an impact in government politics and policies. Not only do policymakers read such articles, but they also hear about them from their wives, children, friends and fellow church members. This article excels not only in its descriptive color, but also in its deep understanding of the issue:

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military’s single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: “It’s in their theological doctrine — very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don’t find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.” Chaplains don’t lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn’t always obeyed.

A washingtonpost.com online chat with Henderson is just as interesting — if not for the answers, then for the questions asked, especially the first one. Clearly Henderson knows her subject and understands the importance of religion. Her article will help people better understand the challenges involved in being a chaplain in the U.S. military.

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