The church of punditry

coulterIt’s so difficult to write about Ann Coulter. Sometimes I think that those of us who do are all pawns in her game of making hoards of money. Having read her first book — which was harsh but not a bad read at all — I have come to the conclusion that she writes them and then inserts completely over the top and uncharitable statements at the last minute. This is for the sole purpose of having the mainstream media get outraged and bring her on the air to discuss it. She then goes home and watches the Amazon counter spin out of control.

I do have to admit that one of her columns still makes me laugh when I think of it. She was asked to opine about the Democratic Convention in 2004 for USA Today. She writes a typical Coulter column that the paper refuses to run. She had the column and the edits on her website for a while, but I couldn’t find them today. They were hilarious for revealing the profound disconnect between Ann’s populist-conservative philosophy and mainstream editors. Here was a sample I found from an old webpage:

Looking at the line-up of speakers at the Convention, I have developed the 7-11 challenge: I will quit making fun of, for example, Dennis Kucinich, if he can prove he can run a 7-11 properly for 8 hours. We’ll even let him have an hour or so of preparation before we open up. Within 8 hours, the money will be gone, the store will be empty, and he’ll be explaining how three 11-year olds came in and asked for the money and he gave it to them.

USA Today editor: I DON’T GET IT.

Not that her inability to take edits isn’t notorious. Anyway, Coulter’s new book argues that liberalism is a godless religion — a fascinating thesis. But media types were too busy acting aghast at her remarks about 9/11 widows to get to what she was saying. Which is a shame, since her books are read by many.

In comes Charlotte Allen, who wrote recently the surprisingly blunt piece in the Los Angeles Times on membership declines of mainstream Christian churches:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for [Gene] Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. . . .

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

So that’s Charlotte Allen. Not exactly an apologist for godlessness. Which is why the interview, which it appears they conducted by e-mail, was so interesting. It’s a tough interview, and as Allen asks Coulter to defend her thesis, we get to see a bit of the difference between two women who oppose relativism. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

We’ve done some polls here at Beliefnet, and a surprising number of Democrats at least say they are religious. Some 61 percent say they pray daily and 72 percent attend worship services once a month or more. How would you explain that?

Just curious: What percentage of them know which Testament the Book of Job is in?

You say you’re a Christian. Do you think Jesus would want you to be nicer to your political opponents?

Who knows? Maybe He’ll say I was too tough or maybe He’ll chastise me for not being tough enough on those who hate Him. Ask the money-changers in the temple how “nice” Jesus was. Maybe He’ll say I needed more jokes or fewer adjectives. I’ll just apologize for not getting it right and thank him for dying for my sins.

What does it mean to be a good Christian, and do you consider yourself to be a good Christian?

To believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins. Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.

It’s a pretty interesting read, both in terms of the questions and the answers.

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Putting “theocracy” fears in their place

theocracyRoss Douthat, an associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote an inspired piece in the August/September edition of First Things taking apart, piece by piece, theories about a “theocracy movement” in America. Here’s a snippet:

This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist “Republic of Gilead,” with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that “moral values” had pushed the president over the top — and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.

Later, more cool-headed polling analysis suggested that the values explanation was something of a stretch: The movement of religious voters into the GOP played a role in Bush’s victory, but the uptick in his support between 2000 and 2004 seems mainly to have reflected national-security concerns. Still, these pesky facts didn’t stop Garry Wills from announcing the end of the Enlightenment and the arrival of jihad in America, or Jane Smiley from bemoaning the “ignorance and bloodlust” of Bush voters in thrall to a fire-and-brimstone God, or left-wing bloggers from chattering about “Jesusland” and “fundies” and plotting their escape to Canada.

Consider Douthat’s piece The Guide for blogging about the “theocracy” movement.

Rod Dreher over at Crunchy Con writes that the piece “calmly but utterly eviscerates the wack-job paranoia of the Kevin Phillipses, the Michelle Goldbergs, and other writers who have made a cottage industry of portraying the role of Christian conservatives in contemporary American politics as a dark conspiracy to take over America and turn it into a Christofascist theocracy.”

Here’s more from Dreher:

… These same writers celebrate the role Christianity has played in American public and political life when it has led the way in achieving goals important to liberals, like civil rights. Which is fine, but you can’t have it both ways: you can’t praise religious leaders like Martin Luther King for bringing their faith to bear on politics while at the same time condemning Pat Robertson for doing the same. To be sure, it’s perfectly fair to criticize Robertson (or whoever) for the particular stands they take, but if it’s fair for the Religious Left to get involved in politics, it’s fair for the Religious Right to do the same thing. As I’ve said before, the whole “preachers should stay out of politics” line you get from liberals these days is the mirror image of the same stance I heard as a child down South from whites who resented clergy active on behalf of civil rights.

I think it’s important to note that preachers have been equally inconsistent in what type of politics they choose to get involved in. It was Jerry Falwell who shunned the civil rights movement, stating that it would take time away from turning people to Christ, but who plunged headfirst into politics soon after Roe v. Wade.

People scream “Theocracy! Theocracy! Theocracy!” for political reasons, and they are not always going to be consistent. But don’t forget that preachers’ reasons for involving themselves in politics are not necessary consistent either.

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Mutually assured destruction

retaliation 01I read an op-ed in Monday’s New York Times that has stayed with me. It’s not religious in the sense that we normally discuss on these pixels, but I can’t help but think it’s a great example of how religious writing could be deepened.

He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t” was written by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He looks at the psychology behind people justifying their behavior, essentially. Here he looks at the notion that our behavior is a response to other people’s behavior but their behavior is not in response to ours:

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

My fiance and I were in premarital counseling with my pastor on Monday when he alluded to the tendency of spouses to obsess on how they were wronged while ignoring the unkind things they have said or done to their spouses. He said this pattern can cycle out of control and wreak havoc in marriages and other relationships. Gilbert takes a more macro look at the phenomenon:

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin.

Oh how true this is. We wonder why others can’t put the best construction on our behavior but respond by putting the worst construction on our neighbors’ actions.

The rest of the op-ed is interesting as well. Gilbert looks at how applying a similar amount of force in response to an attack is difficult for individuals to gauge. Tests showed that volunteers trying to respond to another volunteer’s touch with equal force responded with 40 percent more force than they had received. This escalates as the exercise continues.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew.

I think of how certain newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have a religion beat that includes faith and values. Articles such as this one are excellent for a beat structured that way. A piece like this, particularly if it emphasizes personal relationships as well as global conflict, would be of a lot of interest to readers. All people, I imagine, justify their behavior and demonize others’ when conflict arises. Or maybe it’s just me and my friends and family! But a bit of understanding of what we Lutherans consider an eighth commandment violation and what psychologists have different names for makes for a fascinating read.

Photo via Muir on Flickr.

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Ghosts in conservative documentaries

BreakingDVCodeBuried throughout this New York Times piece on the attempts of conservatives to get into the documentary film business is the question of whether these conservatives are motivated by something more than a political desire to promote conservative ideas.

This “uprising on the right in a world that leans left,” as the Times‘ headline puts it, goes deeper than what John Anderson was able to report when he talked to Jim Hubbard, Michael Wilson and Charles Sellier. The three are heavily involved in creating and promoting conservative films in an attempt to balance what they see as a dominance of liberal documentaries:

What the three acknowledge, however, is that something besides liberal bias is responsible for the striking shortage of conservative nonfiction cinema at a time when filmmakers on the other end of the spectrum are flooding screens with messages about global warming, the war in Iraq and the downside of Wal-Mart.

Mr. Hubbard, for one, is out to fill the void. He said a philanthropist, whom he declined to identify, had come forward with money to help finance a series of six documentaries that Mr. Hubbard wanted to produce, on various subjects, including the growth of government and whether it is “potentially a threat to our freedom.”

Mr. Hubbard traces his own passion for the hitherto missing conservative cinema to an experience almost five years ago, when he was attending the University of Arkansas law school. He and his wife, he says, went to their local art house, where the menu was “Bowling for Columbine,” “Frida” and “The Life of David Gale” — films, respectively, by a liberal, about a Marxist and against capital punishment. The Hubbards weren’t pleased.

Being “upstream of the culture” is a challenge that goes deeper than getting a few political films and launching a film festival. If Hubbard is simply trying to be a conservative antidote to Michael Moore, then this is a fine article. But I sense there is something deeper, a few questions left unanswered.

Check out this section of the article:

The notion that conservatism is essentially static would probably come as a surprise to some of the exuberant right-leaning thinkers who have upended the talk-radio world. Yet Mr. Sellier, with several religious documentaries to his credit, finds some truth in the idea.

“In order for a mind to soar at the possibilities and come up with someone no one ever thought of and making a film about it and showing it at a film festival — it means you’re out of the box,” he said. “And if you’re out of the box, you’re out of conservative thinking, aren’t you?”

Richard Peña, program director of the New York Film Festival and a member of the New Directors/New Films selection committee, similarly noted a dearth of strong conservative prospects. “For a number of years we received submissions from a Christian university of films that always looked like cheap sci-fi and were always about forced abortions,” Mr. Peña said.

Anderson casually mentions later in the article that Sellier describes himself as an evangelical Christian.

I don’t doubt that Wilson, Sellier and Hubbard want to make conservative films. I just want to know their motivations and if their mission goes beyond political wars and into cultural wars.

Perhaps these guys are interested in just throwing out political bombshells, but I suspect the six documentaries that Hubbard has been commissioned to make, supported by some mysterious donor, have something deeper to explore than mere conservative politics.

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That secretive Anschutz

Philip Anschutz A 6,800-word Los Angeles Times article by Glenn Bunting on the cigar-chomping, money-making, deal-cutting multibillionaire Philip Anschutz is a piece of journalism for which newspapers live.

Here is how it works. Newspapers want to cover people involved in their community. Usually this involves an interview, a nice photo and a couple of quotes. Controversial subjects are addressed (hopefully), but that’s routine since people typically know about the controversies.

There are those occasions when the person does not want to be interviewed, or involved in the article, but wants to be left alone. But when you are worth $7.2 billion, give to charities and own sports teams, venues, a movie company (think Ray and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the nation’s largest theatre chain, and an aspiring newspaper chain in three major cities, you should expect to attract some attention. And if you don’t cooperate, a reporter is not likely to write as kindly.

Bunting did a very nice job hooking the story to Anschutz’s activities in Los Angeles to make it a relevant local story for the Times. But it quickly becomes a review of court documents and interviews with people who have had legal spats with Anschutz. It is not an article about religion, but religion definitely slips in there through Anschutz’s spokesman, Jim Monaghan:

Anschutz’s religious beliefs have been scrutinized, especially within the movie business, because he is regarded as a moral conservative who has invested heavily in films that appeal to families and Christians.

Although Anschutz and his wife have worshiped at an Evangelical Presbyterian church in suburban Denver, they no longer do so, according to Monaghan. He said that Anschutz considers himself “spiritual” and now attends services at churches of various denominations. When in Southern California, friends say, he prefers spending occasional Sunday mornings on the golf course.

That’s about as deep as the article goes in trying to understand Anschutz’s faith. This article is about money, power and scandal, but I think a more thorough look at Anschutz’s faith would have been compelling. That’s difficult because Anschutz obviously does not want anyone writing about his life, let alone his faith. For more on Anschutz and his faith, see Ross Douthat’s report for The Atlantic.

Anschutz’s press-averse ways make it difficult to do a balanced report, particularly regarding alleged improprieties with his Qwest telecommunications company and the gutting of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System:

Paula Smith, 56, a Denver mother of two teenagers, said she faces the prospect of working “until the day I die” after losing nearly $240,000 in retirement savings and $220,000 in the value of her Qwest stock.

Smith was hired as a technical writer for Mountain Bell in 1980 and took a buy-out in June 2001 — exactly one year after Qwest acquired the company.

It infuriates her that Anschutz has moved on to make spiritual films laced with moral messages.

“The thing I resent most about Anschutz is that he never steps up to the plate and holds himself accountable,” Smith said. “Funding ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is not going to exonerate him in the eyes of the Lord.”

Ouch. Knowing that Anschutz is a Christian, I believe he would agree with Smith’s statement based on basic Christian doctrine. Nothing we do on Earth will save us in the eyes of God. But how does one fit that into a newspaper article when the guy isn’t talking?

One of the more interesting segments of the article deals with Mel Gibson and a lawsuit his movie company filed against a Anschutz’s theatre chain, claiming that the company cheated the actor’s distribution company out of payments for The Passion of the Christ:

Testimony in the case disclosed that Anschutz’s theater group charged church groups a $500 “worship price” on top of the normal admission to attend special screenings of “The Passion of the Christ.” Regal routinely levies an administration fee to cover marketing and overhead costs for private screenings.

Gibson became so upset that he ordered his company to issue more than $500,000 in refunds to churches and Christian groups.

“Icon was shocked and disappointed that this additional fee (which was never reported to us) was being charged to faith-based organizations,” Icon wrote in a letter accompanying the refunds.

Worship prices for churches and Christian groups? Why the term “worship” and not the more routine “administrative fee”? That smells fishy.

Finally, as a person fascinated by the life of Howard Hughes, I am not persuaded by the article’s comparing Anschutz to Hughes.

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Mennonite mania grips cycling fans

landisI spent last week with my brother, a huge Tour de France fan. He kept me updated on Floyd Landis, his favorite cyclist, who ended up winning the race a few days ago.

So Landis was winning heading into the 16th stage. But then he did very poorly in the Alps, losing his lead. During the 17th stage, he pulled way, way, way ahead of the peloton and almost regained the lead. Or something. I’m going based on my brother’s excited updates and my poor memory. Anyway, he ended up winning.

Well, where’s the religion angle, you ask? It’s everywhere. Every single story of Landis mentions his upbringing as a Mennonite. Here’s The New York Times yesterday:

Landis said he believed that aspects of his upbringing, in a strict Mennonite family in eastern Pennsylvania, with no television and many expectations about what constituted proper behavior, contributed to his rise to the top of his sport.

“I don’t pretend to know a lot about what’s going on in life most of the time,” he said. “But I had good parents who taught me that hard work and patience were some of the most important things in getting what you wanted. It took me a long time in my life to learn patience. But that and persistence, I think, is the lesson that even I learned from this race.”

Or check out this AP story:

FARMERSVILLE, Pa. — As Floyd Landis crossed the Tour de France finish line yesterday, his devout Mennonite parents were riding their own bicycles home from church.

Paul and Arlene Landis were so confident their son would win the cycling’s greatest race they didn’t have to choose between going to church and watching it on TV at a neighbour’s house.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to make that choice. Church is very important to us,” Arlene Landis said.

A reader sent along a few more substantive articles, if you’re interested. No matter what the article, it’s interesting to see what an endless source of fascination Landis’ Mennonite ties are to the media.

Photo via Guano on Flickr.

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The Orthodox come to Opryland

nm IMG 1280Many Orthodox Christians, at some point in their lives, claim a particular priest as their “spiritual father” and as a special source of inspiration in the faith. When my family converted to Orthodoxy, it was very much under the spiritual leadership of a gentle Southern Baptist turned archpriest named Father Gordon Walker, now the retired — a meaningless word in his case — leader of St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tenn.

I bring this up just to say that I know a little bit about Orthodoxy in Guitar Town and the unique culture that is Nashville, one of the buckles of the Bible Belt. And last week, a friend there sent me some links to the short — but interesting — stories about one of those bizarre events that happen every now and then in religion news. To make a long story short, a national convention of Greek Orthodox clergy and laity met in the — brace yourselves — kingdom of deep-fried culture known as the Gaylord Opryland resort. Now that must have been a sight.

Like I said, it helps to know that there are some very strong Orthodox parishes in Nashville and the region around it. Most of these parishes are packed with converts, many of whom are survivors of the wars in the Southern Baptist Convention and/or the world of liberal mainline Protestantism. The GetReligion reader who sent me the clips from The Tennessean thought it was interesting that reporter Anita Wadhwani included the following material in the story, but with very limited commentary — from herself or from participants.

Here is a lengthy chunk of Wadhwani’s main article. The Greeks have their problems, but they are not the ones that have been making headlines lately:

“We’re concerned that many young people are engaged in trying to professionally do as much as they can and might not be directly involved with the church,” said His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, 78, of New York City, the chief spiritual leader of about 2 million Greek Orthodox church members living in the United States. At the same time, he said, “we have many new members who have been attracted to Orthodoxy in the past decade.” The number of new converts baptized — most not of Greek heritage — has increased about 12% or 13% each year, he said.

Unlike other similar national gatherings of Christian denominations that have grabbed headlines this summer — Episcopalians, Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, for example — the Greek Orthodox Church’s 2006 Clergy Laity Congress will include no heated debates over thorny social issues such as gay marriage and women in leadership positions. There are no women clergy and no plans to recognize or perform same-sex weddings.

And unlike those denominations, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is not grappling with stalled membership growth or declining numbers of clergy members. While the church is always in need of new priests, there has not been any decline in the number of clergy members, also because of a large number of converts to the faith, the archbishop said. About 20% of the church’s priests and seminary students are converts to the faith, he said.

In other words, the Greeks have young people leaving the church as they assimilate into American culture in the generations after the arrival of their ethnic families on these shores. At the same time, they have Americans entering the church who are, to one degree or another, seeking to live a more countercultural life — even if that means leaving their “Americanized” churches. This is a trend that is affecting other Orthodox flocks in the United States even more than the Greeks. In some parts of the nation, 70 to 80 percent of the Orthodox clergy are converts. My own parish is about 90-plus percent convert.

But there is a story here, a kind of “The Greeks Come to Opryland” trend that deserves more attention. Click here if you want to read a column I wrote about a small slice of that bigger story.

Or click here if you want to wade into an issue of Again magazine — a publication that began with the trend of evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy — dedicated to the big, big issue of whether there can be one Orthodox church in the United States, as opposed to overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

Note, in particular, the blunt (and I do mean blunt) sermon delivered two decades ago on this topic by Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the longtime leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in North America. Ironically, if he delivered this sermon today it would almost certainly cause more heat and controversy than it did long ago.

Why? Because today the topic is getting more and more newsworthy. Greeks at Opryland?

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Watching that circle go round and round

phelps2Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals.

I’ve held in the past that Phelps’ attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can’t help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.

For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let’s not forget the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” Falwell said on The 700 Club.

So now we’ve come full circle:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.

God and gaysIt’s tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It’s certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I’ll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:

“I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them,” said Phelps’s daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. “At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.”

A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper’s comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote — with no background or context — fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.

Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.

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