Katie Couric speaks her mind on modesty

Katie Couric speaks out!

“Plunging necklines and navel-bearing tops” are not appropriate for Halloween, says Couric. In her “Katie Couric’s Notebook” segment Monday night, the CBS Evening News anchor lashed out against the “$5 billion Halloween industry” for marketing “sleazy” costumes to girls. What’s interesting is that this came from an “Only On the Web” videocast. As far as I know, this segment never made it on over-the-air television.

Embedded in this post is the YouTube version of this clip. Apologies for the 15-second ad that comes before Couric’s 60-second musing. If you don’t want to watch the clip, here is the heart of Couric’s message about sleazy Halloween costumes:

Some will say these getups are a sign of women’s confidence about their bodies, but what message are we sending our girls when today’s costumes only reinforce a larger cultural message that they already see in magazines and in ads: that women get more attention by wearing less?

Couric cites the New York Times piece that tmatt blogged about Sunday as the source of her frustrations (her source could also be this NYT piece, but it’s hard to say since they are both behind the money wall).

Couric’s rebellion against the “larger cultural message” is an interesting development. I am not a regular viewer of the evening news, so I would not know if she has directed her news crew to do real news stories on this subject of female modesty. But note the target of Couric’s wrath. It’s not the individuals who dress up as sex witches, it’s those darn marketers and advertisers. Oh, and it’s also the industry’s fault.

But last time I checked, the industry and the marketers will offer what sells. And these sleazy costumes are certainly selling. And it goes beyond Halloween. So who is really at fault for what Couric says is an inappropriate cultural development? And why is this only a Halloween issue? We know you are serious about this subject, Katie, but could you get your notebook out again and do a more serious, in-depth report on what is happening to the self-image of American girls and women?

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The ghost of the moderate Democrat

god in politicsFollowing up on Sunday’s post regarding this new breed of religious Democrats, I want to highlight an excellent comment by one of our readers:

There may be two stories going on here, and I’m not sure that we’ve quite grasped them.

First, there is internal pushback going on in the Democratic Party between the militant secularists (those whom the Deacon, above, rails against) and that significant portion of people who are both religiously observant and politically engaged. For these, faith is a part of their life and why not bring it to the party? Although it is routinely mocked by the conservatives as “putting on a stole and chasuble …” It would be false to dismiss it as mere show or pretense.

A second story is the personal one. It is a recovery of voice of those on the religious left. For a long time they’ve felt immensely frustrated that they were silenced not only internally but in the larger culture. Consciously or not, the Evangelical Right had imported its Reformation-inspired religious wars to its politics, the only difference was that this time they won. The re-emergence of this liberal voice is more fundamentally a personal story.

Now what the story is not: it is not about the organization of a political movement per se (pace Common Good and Jim Wallis). It is not an analogue of the Evangelical Right’s organization — that, as noted, came from deeper theological architecture. It is instead, about the restoration of equilibrium, something noted by Jonathan Alter earlier in October.

Posted by Harris at 8:19 am on October 30, 2006

Well said, Harris, and it seems that The New York Times was listening to you.

But first to Alter’s piece in Newsweek, which appropriately challenges the use of the term “values voter.” I am guilty of using the term repeatedly in the past, and Alter shows that it is not a very helpful way to describe a political segment. I agree. The term is overused and too narrowly defined as typically used. But does Alter have better terms to describe that bloc of voters who put issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer at the top of their priority lists? Or, has that bloc of voters disintegrated in the implosion of the current administration’s foreign policy and failure to deliver on its culture-war promises? Or, as Harris puts it, is it a “restoration of equilibrium” between the left and right sides of the political debate?

In Sunday’s post, I noted how an Oct. 19 piece by the NYT failed to mention religion, but the Times revisited that issue on Monday.

In the 1,500-word story, reporters Shaila Dewan and Anne Korblut outline how most Democratic candidates with the best chance of unseating Republican incumbents are moderates. How does one become a moderate Democrat? Apparently it involves being pro-life, maintaining conservative social views and evangelical beliefs, opposing most gun control (being able to hunt animals is always a plus) and supporting the military.

That’s quite a list of issues, but it’s important to note that to be a moderate Democrat, not all of those have to apply. It’s also important to note a couple of issues the NYT left out, namely stem-cell research and separation of church and state regarding faith-baith initiatives. In Moderate Democrat Land, where do these issues land?

While supporting the military or opposing American involvement in Iraq is not going to create a lot of political noise, opposing abortion rights and gay marriage are likely to cause havoc in the current makeup of the Democratic Party. But the influence of new moderate Democrats on the national debate remains to be seen, at least according to the NYT:

One such candidate, Heath Shuler, was courted by Republicans to run for office in 2001. Mr. Shuler, 34, is a retired National Football League quarterback who is running in the 11th Congressional District in North Carolina. He is an evangelical Christian and holds fast to many conservative social views, like opposition to abortion rights.

. . . But if candidates like Mr. Shuler do help the Democrats gain majority control of Congress, it could come at a political price, which may include tensions in the party between its new centrists and its more liberal political base.

While Democratic leaders have gone to great lengths to promote the views of these candidates, some, like Mr. Shuler, have views on issues like gun control and abortion that are far out of step with the prevailing views of the Democrats who control the party. On some issues, they may even be expected to side with Republicans and the Bush White House.

What’s missing from this NYT piece on the potential new class of moderate Democrats? Do these new moderate Democrats have the markings of the “religious left”? On some issues, absolutely, but based on what I have seen, the voters these candidates are attracting are closer to James Dobson than Jim Wallis.

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When Catholics dissent

womenpriests2 01Not all Roman Catholics agree with official church teachings. Disagreement isn’t really tolerated in the church (Happy Reformation Day, fellow Lutherans!), but conflict is embraced by many reporters. This makes sense, since we reporters love drama. Sometimes I root for political candidates to win based on nothing more than which one appears craziest.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel featured two stories this week about dissent in the church. On Friday, reporter Tom Heinen wrote about an upcoming conference of Call to Action, an organization seeking to change church doctrine on female priests and homosexuality, among other things. The conference will feature a tribute to Cindy Sheehan and a service run by women who claim to have valid, if illicit, ordinations.

Last time we looked at WomenPriests, it was because of a horrifically bad article in the Philly Inquirer. The headline to that piece (“Female Catholic Priest has first Mass”) wasn’t even the worst part of it. Compared to that, the Journal-Sentinel article does a much better job of accurately portraying the relationship between the church and those who oppose its teachings:

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan has termed such ordinations “groundless” and “invalid.” Attempting to celebrate a liturgy led by women who claim to be priests and bishops “would make any claim of Catholic identity by the group to be misleading,” Dolan wrote in his weekly Catholic Herald column in late August.

Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which orchestrated the ordinations and is organizing the service, rejects those characterizations. It is terming the service a Eucharistic liturgy.

“We’ve had a lot of response, e-mails and notes, from people who found this is a very hopeful sign of women now taking their rightful place,” Bridget Mary Meehan, U.S. spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the woman who will preside at the liturgy, said of the ordinations.

“We know our orders are not licit; they are against (church) law. We are saying we want to confront the law,” Meehan said. “But we are claiming our orders are valid because we were ordained by Roman Catholic bishops in full Apostolic succession and in full communion with Rome.”

On Thursday, Journal-Sentinel reporter Bill Glauber wrote about a priest who opposes an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution that defines marriage as the union of one man and one women. Only one priest is named as an opponent of the measure that Wisconsin Catholic bishops support. That article, which meanders a bit, is about his views — with a couple of cursory remarks at the end from people who disagree with him:

Father Bryan Massingale, an associate professor of moral theology at Marquette University, wrote a lengthy essay in which he struggled with the idea that “the amendment, read in its entirety, poses a dilemma for many faithful people.”

“The amendment upholds certain beliefs about the uniqueness of marriage,” he wrote in the Sept. 21 issue. “But it does so at a cost, namely, potentially damaging impacts upon the welfare of individuals and their children.”

He also dealt with the issue of homosexuality.

“Too often, discussions of this issue treat ‘those’ people — specifically, gays and lesbians — as if they were an alien species,” he wrote. “They are not. They are our sons and daughters; our sisters and brothers; our aunts, uncles, and cousins; our friends, neighbors, students and co-workers; our priests, ministers and parishioners. ‘They’ are us!”

The piece reads like a puffy profile of Massingale rather than a balanced look at Catholic views on a controversial amendment. Eric Gorski of The Denver Post wrote a story using a similar hook. An organization of Roman Catholic nuns is urging Colorado voters to support abortion and gay marriage, among other issues. Whether or not you agree that groups that oppose archbishops should get as much coverage as they do, Gorski does a great job of characterizing both sides’ views, as evidenced here:

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has urged Catholics to “act Catholic” when they vote or run for office and called opposition to abortion “foundational.”

“We’re supposed to vote as our conscience tells us, not as the archbishop’s conscience tells him,” said [Sister Mary Ann] Cunningham, a member of the Sisters of Loretto. “I have great respect for the archbishop, but I think that’s kind of treating us like children.”

Jeanette DeMelo, spokeswoman for the Denver Archdiocese, said Chaput has highlighted a broad range of issues, all grounded in Catholic teaching.

“Archbishop Charles Chaput is not teaching his personal opinion,” she said. “This is the church’s teaching, and it is the responsibility of a Catholic to vote their conscience, but their rightly formed conscience, their educated conscience.”

Sometimes it’s just as easy as calling multiple sources for a story. As with these articles, which were sent to us by readers, please keep us informed of good or bad examples from your local papers.

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Religious Democrats on the march

harold ford newsweek coverDid you hear what I heard? There are Democrats out there who are religious. In an attempt to grab a slice of that voter bloc that supposedly put George W. Bush a second term in 2004, Democrats are not shy talking about their faith. And journalists are picking up on it.

In a relatively unrevealing cover story, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Darman explores the Senate candidacy of Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., and starts out talking about — yes, you guessed it — the candidate’s religious beliefs. First of all, I want to take issue with the cover’s title, “Not Your Daddy’s Democrats.” I am hardly The Expert on things before 1981, but last time I checked, my daddy’s Democrats, or maybe that was my granddaddy’s Democrats, were represented by people like Ford. As best I can tell, the secularization of the Democratic Party is something that has happened in my father’s lifetime.

OK, the history is a bit more complicated, but more on that in another post, and now to the actual article, which was actually fairly decent:

The sun is just rising over Chattanooga when Harold Ford Jr. begins to pray. A young African-American congressman from Memphis, Ford is running as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee. Here, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, an audience of 300 has come out of the early-morning darkness into the historic Read House hotel to hear Ford praise the Lord and lecture man. Dressed in dark suits and hats fit for a Sunday service, they bow their heads and thank a God who “even now has dipped us in fresh, anointing oil.” They shout Hallelujah as a soprano sings “Amazing Grace.” And they cheer and clap when Ford welcomes them, and the spirit of Jesus, into the room. “I love Jesus, I can’t help it,” the congressman tells the crowd. “We serve such a big God,” he shouts, and a chorus of Amens agrees.

It is a storied place to pray. “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee,” Martin Luther King Jr. cried in his “I Have a Dream” speech, and four decades later, the diverse crowd that has gathered here suggests that in many ways, freedom has. Looking out at his audience, Ford offers political pronouncements in the cadence of Scripture. “The politics of destruction,” he shouts, “the politics of those who define and malign people, that’s all coming to an end.” He asks the audience to “heal and make whole this great country of ours” with “a renewed sense of faith.” Pointing to the sky, he tells them that “as long as your faith derives from up there, and not down there, we’re going to be OK.”

Ford’s intertwining of the secular and the sacred would make many urban liberals squirm. So would much else that comes out of his mouth today. From the podium, he says he gets “in trouble with my party because I believe a government is only as good as its ability to defend itself and protect itself.” (That stance wouldn’t actually trouble most Democrats, but the implication that Democrats are weak on defense might.) Later, as he makes his way out of the room, he spots a Fox News Channel correspondent who’s flown in from out of town. “Mr. Cameron!” he yells, throwing his arms around Carl Cameron, the network’s political correspondent. “So good to see you again.” Before the day is done, Ford will reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage and late-term abortions.

One of the photos in the multiple page spread stands out. It’s of Ford and his staffers gathering in a group to pray. You don’t see that everyday on the Democratic campaign trail. Or are reporters just now beginning to pick up on its significance and the fact that religion and values actually matter to a large number of voters?

Both parties are now unabashedly courting the pew vote, but one has to wonder how this will play out in actual policy. Ford won’t be chairing any major committee anytime soon. Nor will any of these values Democrats. Will the more secular senior members of the Congress allow them their say? Talking about opposing same-sex marriage and late-term abortions is nice, but will these values-oriented Democrats be able to produce results? And how do the secular Democrats feel about this influence? Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., anyone?

For another example of how reporters are picking up on the values theme, check out this Washington Post piece on Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who is running against Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican. In a more distinct tone compared to the Newsweek piece, reporter Katherine Shaver gets right into the faith and values talk at the beginning of the article, as a way of introducing us to the candidate, and continues on that theme throughout the piece. Sometimes, Cardin even sounds like a person that, and you’re not going to believe this, people who have traditional values could vote for:

During 40 years in public office — 20 in the General Assembly followed by two decades in Congress — Cardin has woven his political life into the faith and family that he says sustain him.

He followed his father and uncle into the state legislature. One of his closest political advisers is Myrna, his wife of 40 years, whom he met in elementary school. At one of the lowest points in his life — when his son committed suicide eight years ago — Cardin carried out a Jewish custom of mourning for 30 days by gathering Jewish staffers and fellow Congress members in his Capitol Hill office for daily prayers.

His faith informs his actions in the House of Representatives, particularly a six-year membership on the ethics committee, he said.

A quick note on this New York Times piece on the rise of Democratic conservatism: There is hardly a mention of religion. What’s that telling us?

As reporters trip over themselves to cover the Democratic candidates who can legitimately court the values voters, it’s important to look back at the earlier stories where reporters were tripping over themselves to cover those other guys who were attempting to corral the supposedly “religious left” into a legitimate political movement. Have they succeeded? If the previous two examples are a barometer, the rise of the religious left remains a tiny dot on the political landscape.

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On bogeymen

bogeymanFrank Lockwood — the Bible Belt Bloggercaught something interesting in an Associated Press story by political reporter Bob Lewis:

Democrat Jim Webb and Republican George Allen both pocketed developments Wednesday important in motivating their core voters in Virginia’s close U.S. Senate race.

. . . Allen, however, may have found in a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex unions the bogeyman he needed to energize social and religious conservatives dispirited by recent Republican scandals to vote in the Nov. 7 election.

Lockwood, who is the faith and values reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the word “bogeyman” caught his eye. The word means “a frightening imaginary being, one often used as a threat in disciplining children.”

The use of the word strikes me as fairly loaded — even in a “news analysis” piece. The word “bogeyman” suggests that gay marriage is an “imaginary” problem — not a real one. I’ll leave it to Bible Belt Blogger readers to debate whether gay marriage is good or bad. My point is simply that Americans are divided on the topic and the word “bogeyman” belongs on the editorial page — not in the news section.

Furthermore, the word “bogeyman” insults people who care about this issue, suggesting they are gullible or childlike if this issue motivates them to vote. Again, this isn’t news — it’s opinion.

Lockwood looks into the tendency of reporters to label Christian conservatives as gullible. He wonders whether the term might be better applied, at times, to mainstream reporters themselves.

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Covering shallow arguments

LetterToNationHow does a reporter write a balanced profile of a guy who thinks that anyone who believes in God is an idiot and “that religion is the root of all evil”?

The ever-edgy Washington Post‘s Style section took on “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Harris in a lengthy profile Thursday that reads like a ping-pong match where one player refuses to do anything but swing as hard as he can at the ball without regard for his accuracy. The other player, who really doesn’t want to play in the first place, does his best to engage himself in the match, but his opponent continuously slams the ping-pong ball back, preventing a real match from taking place.

To say the least, I am guessing that Harris would not like the mission of GetReligion.

In reading the piece over a couple of times, I am left wondering whether Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, can fashion a decent argument against religion. Which is, I guess, the point:

There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.

This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls “my big mouth,” and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness.”

Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn’t target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

“There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can’t attack people’s religious sensibility,” Harris says in an interview. “That is so wrong and so suicidal.”

sam harrisThere are few serious arguments to work with here. Part of me wonders why the Post decided to pursue this story, but there is interesting material here and Harris has an interesting life story. Then again, if Harris weren’t taking on religion, would anyone care for his shallow arguments about a subject that is rich and substantial?

One part of the piece that I felt was appropriately highlighted is Harris’ attack on religious moderates. The idea that religious moderation provides cover for extremists is in a way honest and refreshingly clear. The only thing missing was a response from another genuine atheist. (The article quotes a retired religious studies professor saying that the “country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” and that “pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics … seems like a very crude mistake”).

“I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th,” [Harris] says. “But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism.”

Reporter David Segal quotes various religion and theology professors on Harris’ belief system (can you call it a set of beliefs?), but near the end of the piece Segal gives us a hint of his own conclusion:

Of course, if religion were merely failed science, it would have been supplanted by real science centuries ago. But it has survived and thrived through a revolution in our understanding of the solar system as well as our bodies and our minds, which suggests that it offers something that deduction, data points and reason do not.

All in all, Segal does a solid job poking and prodding a thinker who offers little substance but plenty of style. There are obviously more significant and thoughtful atheists out there, but few can be compared to Evel Knievel.

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When religion reporters cover politics

chaput jpbRemember that 2004 pre-election coverage when political reporters were trying to parse theological statements made by Roman Catholic archbishops? Some reporters had trouble understanding how Catholic leaders had the audacity to discuss whether pro-choice Catholic candidates were violating church teachings. And everyone obsessed about the abortion issue at the expense of other issues Catholic leaders care about. Part of the problem might have been the use of political reporters to discuss a fundamentally theological issue.

The Denver Post solves the problem — and reaps rewards — by having religion reporter Eric Gorski look at church teachings on various political issues facing Colorado voters.

Turns out that both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Colorado Governor are Catholic. And both, to varying degrees, state their opposition to abortion. Gorski digs into that and other issues on which the church takes positions. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput (pictured) declined to critique either candidate, but Gorski got some good info out of him:

The state’s three bishops came out Monday in support of an amendment to raise Colorado’s minimum wage. And over the weekend, a letter was read at Masses supporting the marriage amendment and opposing a domestic partnerships measure.

On the governor’s race, Chaput said he is pleased by some things he hears and worried about others, but wouldn’t elaborate. He said it’s “important that people who claim to be Catholic be Catholic on all issues, not just some of them.”

However, he said abortion is foundational because “it deals with the basic human right, the right to life.” On other issues, such as illegal immigration, Catholics can disagree, he said.

“All people are supposed to have a respect for the immigrants and their dignity and a commitment to the common good,” Chaput said. “But working that out with policy, there’s some flexibility.”

I love how Gorski fleshes out Chaput’s full positions rather than snipping off words or quoting him out of context. Gorski also uses a chart to tell the rest of the story, comparing the two candidates’ positions against those of the Colorado Catholic bishops. He looks at an amendment that would raise the minimum wage in Colorado, as well as an amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gorski doesn’t limit the article to abortion positions, but neither does he de-emphasize its importance for Chaput and Catholic voters. Another nice and helpful piece.

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A Godbeat forum at USA Today

wallis podiumFor more than a week now, I have been trying to remember to let GetReligion readers know that the digital team at USA Today has created a website that makes it easier for people interested in religion news to read the analysis pieces that run every Monday on the op-ed page. The feature is called “Monday: On Religion,” which only slightly freaks me out since my weekly Scripps Howard News Service column has been running for 17 years and it’s called “On Religion.”

But I digress. The national newspaper has run some very interesting essays under that banner and, while the feature runs in the editorial section, it almost always features essays that include lots of information and reporting, as well as opinion. It has even featured some pieces directly linked to religion-beat work, written by religion writers, such as Mark Pinsky’s “Southern Jews and evangelicals: Coming together” and, well, my own “The media, God and gaffes.”

But it was another GetReligion connection that reminded me to post a note about this site — the recent piece titled “Left, right and religion: A double standard.” Not only was the topic interesting, but it was written by Patrick Hynes, author of In Defense of the Religious Right, and our own former GetReligion scribe Jeremy Lott, author of the recent In Defense of Hypocrisy. The heart of the article is its observation that, while almost every move by the Religious Right inspires headlines about “theocracy,” the mainstream media tend to be silent about the actions of religious activists on the left.

What we need, said Hynes and Lott, is more coverage — more balanced coverage — of these “Leftwing Theocrats.” Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose appeals that federal and state budgets are “moral documents” are rooted in the same kind of strategic blending of biblical argument and public policy that, when this mix is served up by people on the right, is usually greeted with derision by disciples of the New York Times editorial page.

Something is wrong with half of this picture:

The religious left is usually given a respectful hearing. That’s a good thing. After all, this is a democracy in which people can make up their own minds about such things. But the same deference should be given to the arguments and ideas of religious conservatives.

Critics are out of line for lambasting the religious right for advocating their beliefs, and they’d be just as wrong blasting the religious left. Yet for liberal and secular pundits, this has been a one-way street.

If that piece is not your cup of tea, USA Today‘s editorial page team then offered a pushy little piece by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and City Journal titled “Conservatism doesn’t need God: The GOP has become the party of religion, and Democrats have been scrambling to play catch-up. The truth, though, is that piety doesn’t belong in politics.”

Check it out. This is a site worth bookmarking, for journalists who care about religion news. It’s also a nice place for Godbeat professionals to send those edgy little freelance pieces that their editors just can’t seem to make room for in the newspaper. It’s a good forum.

Personal note: I’m out the door to lead some seminars at the National College Media Convention in St. Louis. I’ll try to get online whenever I can. I’ll be back inside the Beltway on Monday.

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