Options on hot question No. 2

dan fireThe tmatt trio issue has inspired another solid question from a loyal reader.

For those new to the discussion, the trio is a set of three — duh — hot questions that I have often used when interviewing clergy and other Christian leaders during this era in which the whole liberal vs. conservative thing has become so rooted in politics, as opposed to doctrine. Once again let me stress that I developed these questions in the mid-1980s as a journalistic tool. I have found that these are the questions that, time after time, help me get past vague labels.

A reader has already asked about question No. 3, which is logical in an era when sex makes so many headlines. But here is the whole set, once again:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Now, Jeff Hubbard has written in with a question about question No. 2. Here is the heart of his letter:

There was a post recently where you explained a little about your reasoning in asking the third question in the famed “TMatt Trio,” the one about sexuality.

I have a similar inquiry about the second question of said trio. … (It) seems this question leaves open the possibility of not getting substantive insight into the theological positions of the interviewee. For example, many people that would hold an inclusivist or universalist view about salvation (myself included) would be able to answer “yes” to this question with no qualms or reservations whatsoever. This is esp. true of Barthian universalists. (Who have a very Christocentric rationale for their universalism.)

Of course some universalists who are pomo/liberal-type folks would just flat out answer “no” to the question. However, a “yes” answer to the question leaves open the possibility for that person to fall anywhere on the theological spectrum … five point Calivinists, Wesleyans, fundies, evangelicals of all sorts, and some universalitsts all could feasibly answer “yes” to this question. So what I’m wondering is if any of these issues have ever come up in response to you asking this question, or one like it. Have you ever thought of fine-tuning this question to include more nuance?

Hubbard is right, of course. There are variations on the universalism that dominates our all-tolerant age. Questions about salvation, and whether any one faith is the true faith, often hover in the background of discussions of everything from public prayers by U.S. chaplains to faith-based initiatives in prisons and elsewhere to MPAA ratings for movies. It’s interesting that this “political” question is usually asked in connection with Christian projects, as opposed to Muslim.

This simple question might not tell you much in the context of a check-this-box opinion poll.

However, I have been asking these questions in the context of interviews, often face-to-face interviews. What you find is that the person being interviewed almost always tries to qualify the answer. This yields information about the very variations of belief that Hubbard describes. It is an especially interesting question to ask Roman Catholics in the post-Vatican II world. Often, it has been years or decades since Catholics have heard a sermon on heaven or hell or questions about how one gets to one or the other.

And what about question No. 1? In the late 1980s, I asked that question to five candidates for the open post of bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. The man who eventually won the job went around and around and never did say “yes” or “no.” It was clear that he did not want to answer. That was, of course, a very revealing answer.

Speaking of click-this-box polls about religion, our friends at Beliefnet still have the Belief-O-Matic quiz online. Is this a revised edition? It looks more nuanced than the one I wrote about long ago (in cybertime). Also note the religion-quiz page, with a wide variety of quizzes for people of different faiths. It’s the tmatt trio times 666.

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Weiss tunes in some GetReligion chat

9781592572229bJeff Weiss of The Dallas Morning News, who is one of the nation’s best-known religion-beat specialists, sent me an email this weekend with a subject line that was impossible to ignore. It read: “this one was partly inspired by some of the chat on getreligion.”

The story is called “Despite shared roots, three faiths find plenty to fight about,” and Weiss set out to do the impossible in a punchy news feature — compare and contrast the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam on several basic religious questions. Of course, as I wrote that sentence I heard the same voice in my head that I am sure Jeff heard as he started work on this one: Compare and contrast the beliefs of Judaism (which one?), Christianity (which one?) and Islam (which one?) in a newspaper story?

This was an ambitious task, to say the least. Here is the summary section of the story:

For all the post-9/11 talk about common roots and interfaith discussion, some theologians say interfaith dust-ups like the one involving Benedict are inevitable. That’s because some of the disagreements are so fundamental.

“Abrahamic” is a big-tent word that implies the three faiths are part of one family. Why can’t we all get along?

But no fights are nastier than family fights — particularly when the battle is over the inheritance. And that’s what was at stake in the most recent squabble: Which faith carries the divine legacy of Abraham, the biblical (and Quranic) patriarch to whom God promises, in Genesis, “and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves”?

Of course, it’s hard enough to offer a detailed summary of one or two clashing groups’ beliefs on a specific question raised by a specific story. How do you think Weiss did taking on so many topics all at once?

Oh, and the art with this post is not a comment on the News article. Honest. Check it out.

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What is newsroom diversity?

media bias alertEarlier this week, NPR’s David Folkenflik broke a story about New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse’s leftist political speech at Harvard Law School. In the comment thread from my original post, reader Charlie wrote:

I’m sorry, but I would MUCH rather have a reporter who wears their biases openly than one who hides them — or worse, one who has no opinions.

I agree that there is a great deal to be said for reporters being transparent in their views. But the issue isn’t simply Greenhouse and her political views. The goal of objectivity in journalism refers to the methodology of the newsroom, not the empty minds of the various reporters and editors involved in getting stories to print.

Newspapers run into problems because even if they strive for objectivity, they suffer a stunning lack of diversity in their newsrooms when covering divisive issues. It’s not news that reporters share similar views on a wide swath of social and economic issues. I have never been a Greenhouse fan, a sentiment which I’m certain causes her to cry over her many journalism awards. But any complaints I’ve had about her writing have been marginal or based in my fear that I can’t trust her because of her activism.

But what if Greenhouse were part of a team that comprised a variety of viewpoints and knowledge bases? How would the coverage differ if a reporter who was morally conservative worked with her?

Well, near as I can tell, there’s absolutely no danger of newsrooms seeking more diversity in which biases they bring into their newsroom. Very few could bring themselves to comment on the story. Even Daniel Okrent, the former ombudsman at the Times, clarified his earlier remark that he was amazed by her speech. In an interview with Newsweek, he said he was thrilled by her outspoken speech.

Do you think it’s a farce to pretend that media bias doesn’t exist?
Obviously it exists in individuals, and it exists in institutions, but it does not exist in all individuals, and it does not exist in all institutions. It’s like anything else in the world, there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong.

What does this mean for journalists who may not want to suppress their political views outside the office?
Well, that’s the thing about it that’s so interesting and amazing and exciting. Maybe this opens up the conversation that journalists can and should [participate].

In my view, this is not about whether reporters can march in rallies or display bumper stickers or donate to candidates. To me, this is about the fact that if they did, there would be very few reporters marching in pro-life rallies.

A decade ago, the Los Angeles Times analyzed media coverage of abortion and found that bias infiltrated reports of the divisive issue. A few years ago, Times editor John Carroll wrote a memo to the staff telling them to work harder to get their abortion biases out of the newspaper.

That happens despite reporters’ best intentions. Could the attempts to write fairly about abortion and other divisive issues be hampered by the stunning and shocking lack of intellectual diversity in America’s newsrooms?

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Did Graham channel Meacham?

billygrahamnycYou know how, when you have typed a word thousands and thousands of times, your fingers tend to fall into that same pattern when you are trying to type a word that is very similar to it?

The same thing can happen to a reporter who is taking notes during an interview. Sometimes you hear what you are used to hearing when, in reality, the person said something else. This can cause major mistakes.

Godbeat writer Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — discovered a really interesting case of this familiarity-breeds-mistakes syndrome in a major Newsweek article that the GetReligion gang already thought it had picked at pretty good. That would be that Billy Graham cover by soon-to-be-editor Jon Meacham.

When Lockwood got around to reading this piece, he noticed something interesting in one of the haunting images near the beginning, as the elderly evangelist wakes up in the middle of the night confused:

On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. “I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me,” Graham recalls. It was frustrating — the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible — but in the end the last line comes back to him: “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.

Wait a minute, thought Lockwood.

Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me? Any self-respecting Southern Baptist knows that the final sentence, in the King James Version, begins “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me …

Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I Googled “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me” and could find no Bible translation that uses that language. However, the same wording is included in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.

Is Billy Graham, in his twilight years, reciting the Book of Common Prayer as he enjoys life in rural North Carolina?

Now this is a very interesting question, because Meacham is an Episcopalian and, to say the least, Billy Graham is not an Episcopalian (no matter what his many fundamentalist critics think).

So Lockwood dropped Meacham an email and, to his credit, Meacham wrote back to say:

“I suspect the discrepancy you detected is mine, not Mr. Graham’s; after he told me the story, I read the lines back to him on the telephone from the translation I had at hand, and he said yes, those were the lines, but I suspect he actually spoke the KJV. So I would not say that Mr. Graham misquoted the psalm, but that I misunderstood which translation he had recited.”

That’s easy to understand.

The question that many people have raised about this article, including Graham himself in that gentle way of his, is whether some of the nuanced, moderated, “mature” theological positions attributed to the evangelist in this article have more to do with Meacham’s beliefs as an Episcopalian than with those of Graham as an evangelical.

Was Meacham hearing what he wanted to hear, what he was used to hearing? All journalists struggle with this, I think, when we are interviewing people whose beliefs are radically different than our own.

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A new era of tithing?

InstaTitheMainstream media are digging into church finances again — or, better put, how churches collect finances.

As time passes, religious institutions adapt to new technology, trends and even tacky fads. Christian churches are by no means different, as one might note the television screens in the Washington National Cathedral, the growth of drop-down screens for PowerPoint presentations and even something as seemingly mundane as sound amplification systems. A change in church tradition is always good for a good local story or two, depending on the level of controversy generated by the change, but rarely will a church operations story raise many eyebrows.

Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times picked up on one of these changes Thursday’s paper — the growth of ATM-style credit card machines — and did a very thorough job exploring the various concerns and issues raised as Americans’ propensity for carrying cash dwindles and plastic becomes more pervasive. Fausset did a great job making the story personal and, through a fairly extensive level of reporting, uncovered many issues that will raise the eyebrows of many a churchgoer:

It was one of Stevens Creek’s three “Giving Kiosks”: a sleek black pedestal topped with a computer screen, numeric keypad and magnetic-strip reader. Prompted by the on-screen instructions, Marshall performed a ritual more common in quickie marts than a house of God: He pulled out a bank card, swiped it and punched in some numbers.

The machine spat out a receipt. Marshall’s $400 donation was routed to church coffers before he had found his seat for evening worship.

“I paid for gas today with a card, and got lunch with one,” said Marshall, 30. “This is really no different.”

Fausset seems to agree with Marshall that tithing is little different from purchasing gas or food. Except that it isn’t. Tithing is by no means a sacrament, but it started as far back as Abraham and is referenced repeatedly in the New Testament. There is no established biblical way of collecting a tithe, but the passing of a basket or collection plate has a long tradition.

Many issues arise in the piece, including the desire to earn airline miles through charge cards, the potential for promoting credit-card debt and the fact that if church ATMs spread, a Georgia pastor and entrepreneur named Marty Baker could become very rich (he receives a small percentage of every dollar charged on the machines). An interesting tidbit that touches on the spiritual nature of tithing during a church service notes that some people drop their credit-card receipts into the offering plate.

But credit cards are the way of the future, right? Why would the church want to resist the changes of the future? Why didn’t Fausset explain why kiosks necessary? Don’t a lot of churches allow members to tithe through automatic debits and credit-card deductions? Is it because there is something special about actually making the tithe while at church? Could the following be where churches are headed?

At the Wednesday service, 27-year-old Sally Rice chose the traditional method of giving. As a Gap Kids store manager, she’s more familiar than most with the way debit and credit cards work. But she hasn’t made the switch at church.

“I still balance my checkbook the old-school way — I write it all down,” she said.

Rice, however, said she had no qualms about the machine itself. She said she might make the switch when she runs out of checks. “I think it’s cool.”

The Bakers figure most people will give up on checks before they give up on their faith. The question is whether churches will adapt.

If they do, the Bakers say they will be ready with their next idea: donation machines that attach to the backs of pews.

Read through the story and let me know if you noticed a void of spiritual content. There are elements buried within the story, but I think the issues could have been addressed more directly.

Satirical image: FreakingNews.com.

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This is how it’s done

prosperity fishAs I mentioned earlier this week, I finally got a chance to read the Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel. I’m sorry to be so late in analyzing the piece, but I heartily encourage you to read it.

The article is conversational and engaging as it digs deep into theological nuances and doctrinal distinctions. Unlike most newsweekly coverage of religious issues, the focus is theology rather than social or political impact. My mouth actually dropped open a few times as I read David Van Biema and Jeff Chu boldly characterize complex theological views. For instance, after letting each side in the “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” debate defend themselves and criticize opposite views, here’s how the two authors sum up the issue:

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion — the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin) — Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have.

When was the last time you read a mainstream media report that characterizes Scripture as well as that? It’s a fantastically difficult trick to fairly and accurately discuss something as contentious as interpretations of Scripture’s view of wealth, and yet I think they did it very well.

After a colorful description of Joel Osteen’s sermons, theology and crocodile-leather shoes, Biema and Chu provide some needed analysis about how prosperity preaching has changed over time. They also spend hundreds of words looking at fine theological distinctions among Protestants. One of my favorite parts was that they quoted religious leaders and scholars I’d rarely seen in mainstream media before — and lots of them. Again, look at how the two reporters get what bothers prosperity teaching’s critics:

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and [Rick] Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s [Stephen] Prothero.

One reader did send along this critique, but I think it’s a remarkable piece. By doing such a good job of characterizing doctrinal distinctions, the authors highlight the barrenness the religious coverage in the current media landscape. Let’s hope they’re working on their next cover story already.

Disclosure: Though I’ve only met him once, I should mention that coauthor Jeff Chu and I were in the same class of Phillips Foundation journalism fellows.

Prosperity fish decal via The Door.

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Making all kinds of churches nervous

TrueLoveWaitsI’ve been wondering, tmatt — in question (3), are you trying to get at the homosexuality question, or something else? If something else, can you say more about why that question in particular? If homosexuality, why phrase it in such an indirect manner? (Since it is often the definition of the marriage sacrament that is contested.) Just curious.

Posted by Liz B. at 10:28 pm on September 27, 2006

This is an excellent question, since battles over sexuality have dominated the religion beat for a decade or two.

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, religion-beat profesionals began to see signs that the progressive wing of the mainline Protestant world — led, in this case, by the Presbyterian Church (USA) — was seeking theological language to declare sexual intercourse, in or out of marriage, a sacrament in and of itself.

Of course this was linked to the gay issue, but the issue is much bigger than that. Some liberal theologians — in a burst of candor — began to say that adultery was not always a sin and that the Holy Spirit might, in some cases, lead a person into adultery. “The wind blows where it will” and all of that. I have searched the World Wide Web and I cannot find a good summary of the crucial document, which was the 1991 report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality in the PCUSA. The chair was a United Church of Christ intellectual named John Carey.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church was arguing about some similar topics, led, as always, by the candor of Bishop Jack Spong of Newark. A key moment came in 1991 with the defeat of the “(Bishop William C.) Frey Amendment,” which simply stated that Episcopal clergy should not have sex outside of marriage. This was too controversial to pass.

But the events on the left were only part of the story, in my opinion.

In the typical “conservative” church, pastors were falling strangely silent on the sins that beset their own flocks, mostly sex outside of marriage and before marriage, while they were often trumpeting their churches’ beliefs on the sexual activities of gays and lesbians. It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue.

I thought it was interesting that I was told, while working on one of my earliest columns about the “True Love Waits” movement, that some of the strongest opposition to the concept came from adults, not teens. The problem was that pastors could not offend divorced deacons or other adults in the church who were having sex before marriage or outside of their marriages.

When it comes to sex, the typical conservative pastor is much more afraid to talk about premarital or extramarital sex than about homosexuality. There is a story there, I think, and it’s an important story.

The emphasis in Christian tradition is on sex and marriage. A journalist who asks religious leaders this question — “Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?” — will disturb many on the left and the right and, I have found, will almost always gain new information.

Again, my goal in creating the tmatt trio questions was journalistic, not theological. I was trying to find out what questions would get me past that old political left vs. right divide.

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Covering Islam in the courtroom

Zacarias Moussaoui's trialWhile the differences between movements may be fascinating, the tie that binds, violence, sort of supersedes that. That’s why I don’t think reporters should go out of their way to report any discrepancies in ideologies just out of opposition to Bush, he’s a politician and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The question remains, do reporters? Is there any particular case in which we are not being well enough informed about different extremist ideologies? And don’t these also relate to the goals of the organization head as much as the religious compulsion?

Posted by Vox Dilecti at 1:53 am on September 22, 2006

In other words, do reporters understand the discrepancies in the various forms of Islamic ideology? In the world of Islamic extremism, which is often accurately associated with terrorism, are the adherents acting on religious compulsion, or to fulfill the will of their leaders?

Vox Dilecti’s astute comment highlights complicated but very important questions that reporters are sorting out as the U.S. legal system struggles to respond to a group of people bent on destroying Western society in the name of religion. A reporter’s job is by no means easier, but unlike lawyers, reporters must be succinct and easy to read.

While space limitations seem to impede the typical Associated Press or Reuters report, writers at The Atlantic operate under looser constrictions (although thankfully I’ve noticed that there seems to be some word-count discipline going on under the new editor, James Bennet). If you have time, take a look at the October Atlantic for “Prophetic Justice,” Amy Waldman’s article exploring the ethics of how the United States is prosecuting suspected terrorists. The material is a bit thick — this is an article about the law, after all — but Waldman is quite thorough and writes at a very high level of understanding. Here’s the article’s lengthy subtitle:

The United States is now prosecuting suspected terrorists on the basis of their intentions, not just their actions. But in the case of Islamic extremists, how can American jurors fairly weigh words and beliefs when Muslims themselves can’t agree on what they mean?

In nearly 10,000 words, Waldman takes us on a tour of the U.S. government’s prosecution of potential terrorists. In a keen insight, she compares recent terrorist trials with the 1925 Scopes trial: when you’re putting a person’s beliefs on trial, you are wading into the circus business.

To take the argument a step further, when reporters attempt to explore an individual’s or group’s beliefs, are they likewise attempting some form of monkey business?

In their exploration of Islam, the recent terrorism trials have had a similar, if perhaps less circuslike, feel. The prosecution introduces beliefs into evidence, and the defense challenges the meaning or significance of those beliefs. Expert witnesses in Islam then fight pitched battles of interpretation for each side. Some of the experts are mainstream scholars, others outliers with unconventional views. Together, they make up a small but often lucrative cottage industry where their expertise can command $200 an hour or more. In the courtroom, they create a theological thicket that may be shaped as much by their own agendas and perspectives as by the facts of the cases.

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel’s revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Such a thorough judicial disquisition of a religion has no modern parallel in America. Unless religious beliefs bear directly on guilt — the use of the illegal drug peyote in religious rituals, for example — they are generally barred from trials as prejudicial. Why have the rules changed? Because, as Aziz Huq, a lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, puts it, in recent times no other religion has been “so intimately linked in the public mind to violence.” Since 9/11, judges have given lawyers wide latitude to bring religion into the courtroom.

Waldman’s essay focuses on legal matters, but the preceding paragraphs are worth discussing from a journalistic perspective. In the same comment thread that Vox Dilecti posted in, Don Neuendorf proposed a Nobel Prize (or a Pulitzer?) for any journalist who can simplify the multiple facets of Islam.

Does it really have to be that complicated for journalists covering developments in the Middle East? I don’t want to issue a blanket statement on all news articles that deal with Islamic terrorism, because some are very good, but we’ve managed to chronicle some of the more problematic articles.

Take, for instance, Solomon Moore’s dramatic Los Angeles Times piece on two Shiite militias and how since February they have killed thousands of Sunnis in Iraq. This is a huge story, but its significance is downplayed. A reader without some understanding of the differences between these two groups may conclude only that two rival Iraqi groups, one with connections to Iran, are duking it out.

Waldman writes:

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel’s revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Is it too much to ask that reporters covering the development of Islamic terrorism help explain those differences, or why Shiite death squads are accompanied by clerical figures who approve executions of Sunnis? To ask it another way: Are the appetites of Americans too shallow, eliminating any type of mass market for accurate, precise coverage that deals with tough theological issues?

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