Pandora’s pulpit

election creationThe collision of religion and politics always makes for a good story. Last year the IRS opened an investigation into All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, for featuring a liberal political sermon two days before the 2004 election. Bradley Whitford, former Quaker, outspoken liberal and erstwhile star of The West Wing, is a member of the church and wrote up his thoughts about the action a few months ago.

First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech buck up against the U.S. tax code, which prevents nonprofit entities from participating in partisan political activities. However liberal the sensibilities of All Saints, the offensive sermon by former rector George Regas didn’t explictily come down in favor of a particular candidate, according to the Los Angeles Times:

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.

The idea of the Feds investigating churches makes many queasy, but in Ohio, some pastors are actually siccing the IRS on churches across the political aisle. From the Washington Post comes a report that another IRS complaint has been filed against two churches with ties to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell:

In a challenge to the ethics of conservative Ohio religious leaders and the fairness of the Internal Revenue Service, a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches have gone too far in supporting a Republican candidate for governor.

Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush’s narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio’s religious right.

I could not be more personally opposed to the blending of politics and religion. I’m an old-school Luther’s Two Kingdoms kind of person. With that blinding bias out of the way, I have to admit I was surprised by the lack of information in Peter Slevin’s report here. He mentions that 56 Ohio clergy signed the petition but fails to characterize the group as a whole. He mentions that one pastor is with the United Church of Christ — my mom’s former denomination. The UCC is neither apolitical nor leaning conservative. The other cleric mentioned is a Jewish rabbi who describes himself as centrist. Which may or may not be true — self-identification isn’t always the most reliable. Except when I tell you that I am gorgeous, funny and wise beyond my years.

Anyway, the article could have served the reader more by explaining a bit about the motivations of the clergy who are going after these conservative churches. I could be wrong, but I don’t anticipate this same group of clergy monitoring the activity of Detroit churches this fall — or taking notes for the IRS next time they attend the liberal political services at Riverside Church in New York City. In that sense, this could be a case of religious political activity on one side of the aisle being fought by religious political activity on the other.

The questions surrounding political activity and the pulpit are serious — on both sides of the aisle. And I’m not just saying that because I oppose them both. Reporters would do well to illuminate the deeper issues (mostly in American Protestantism) that result in religiously fueled political activity on liberal and conservative issues.

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Free speech, but only when it suits our needs

free speechFollowing up on last week’s post on whether society can be tolerant of the intolerant, I wanted to point out some of the language being used on the left to justify limiting freedom of speech.

The American Humanist Association issued a press release late last week saying it is “wary” of the Georgia Tech free speech lawsuit. Founded in 1941, the association stands for, among other issues, population control, human rights, sexual equality, civil liberties and alternative technologies. It has given Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Turner and Carl Sagan its Humanist of the Year award.

With that short introduction, here is the language of the left, beginning with a remark by the association’s executive director:

“Of course we Humanists are strongly in support of the right to free speech,” concluded [Roy] Speckhardt. “But we draw the line when — in the special learning environment of the campus — it infringes on the rights of others to receive an education without fear of persecution for their beliefs and sexual orientation.”

There are clear limits on free speech, such as shouting fire in a crowded theatre. In my humble opinion, Ruth Malhotra’s attempt to speak out against something she disagrees with fails to meet that standard. It may be offensive to some (or many, which doesn’t matter), but that does not mean she does not have the right to have those opinions and to share them.

In covering these stories it’ll be interesting to see if journalists pick up on that distinction. It’s clear enough in my opinion. The message from the left is “We only support free speech when it agrees with what we believe.”

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Will the Chinese Communists recognize the Pope?

catholic church in china2If you hadn’t seen it yet, Edward Cody had a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post on warming relations between the Communist government in China and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, if you hadn’t heard, the two sides are moving closer to normal relations.

Apparently there are predictions that the diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China will normalize, whatever that means, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Here are the first three graphs, which curiously leave out the effect on underground churches if Vatican ties were normalized (in fact that subject isn’t mentioned until much later in the article):

HONG KONG, April 22 — After more than half a century of hostility, China and the Roman Catholic Church have inched within reach of normal relations, a historic shift aimed at improving the lives of 10 million Chinese who regularly practice the faith, according to leaders and analysts on both sides of the divide.

The irregular contacts, often made at meetings in Rome between Vatican diplomats and Chinese Communist Party officials, remain clouded by mutual suspicion, they said. Party elders particularly fear that the church could become a rallying point for anti-government agitation as it did in Eastern Europe.

But the process has overcome a major stumbling block with recent signals from the Vatican that it is willing to break with Taiwan and set up diplomatic relations with Beijing as part of an overall accord guaranteeing the church’s role in China.

Exactly how will the lives of 10 million Catholics be improved? I could give you a few reasons, but Cody never fully backs that statement up. How about the possibility that normalized relations could improve the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese? Political speculation — the bread and butter of The Washington Post — is rampant throughout the article, with comparisons to John Paul II’s influence on Poland and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. No surprise there. The comparison is just too easy, although the situations are vastly different.

Nevertheless, the effect on China as a nation would be huge. What about the effect on Taiwan? And then there are those pesky house churches to deal with. Cody does not mess around in describing what could be quite dramatic in several ways, depending on how things shake down:

Beijing recently sponsored a conference of world Buddhist leaders, and authorities in general have relaxed controls on Chinese Christians who worship outside officially authorized venues as long as they do not question the party’s political leadership.

In any case, the distinction has blurred in recent years between government-sanctioned Catholic churches, which welcome about a third of China’s estimated 10 million Catholics, and the unsanctioned, or underground, churches that claim the loyalty of the other two-thirds. Priests have started moving openly between sanctioned and unsanctioned churches, and local government officials often look the other way at unsanctioned worship as long as it remains focused on religion.

In addition to Roman Catholics, China has an estimated 15 million Protestants in sanctioned churches and several times that number in unofficial groups, including homegrown evangelical movements. Both Christian communities have taken root in China as the legacy of foreign missionary work before the Communist Party took power in 1949. More recently, they have been fueled by yearnings for a spiritual framework among an increasing number of Chinese. Most of these Christians have little association with a unified hierarchy, however, and are not involved in the contacts between the Vatican and Beijing.

“And especially the newer bishops,” Cardinal [Joseph] Zen [Ze-kiun of Hong Kong] said in an interview. “Everybody knows they were appointed by the Holy Father.”

Vatican and Chinese diplomats could swiftly work out a formula acceptable to both sides if they received instructions to do so from senior leaders, Ren [Yanli, a specialist in church-state relations at the government's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,] predicted. Only a few bishops from among the 120 active in China would have to be retired as part of a formal Vatican-Beijing agreement, he suggested. They include those most closely associated with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-sponsored group that refuses the pope’s authority, and perhaps some veteran clerics who have taken sharply anti-government stands during their years in the underground church movement.

“I can confidently say these are not major problems,” Zen said. “They can be overcome.”

Not major problems? Communist Chinese leaders would agree to retiring bishops appointed by the government? Bishops would refuse to recognize the authority of the Pope? How is this not a major deal?

China’s government is changing, that much is clear. As business modernization and economic needs drives the country’s change, the country is starting to look more and more like the West. The more nebulous area of free speech and religious freedom is another matter. Is this changing as well? Could this ultimately mean recognition of the Falun Gong movement?

The religion angle in China’s modernization is huge and ironic considering that when the West modernized many assumed it would toss off religion. It’s something that reporters ought not to miss.

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Which Islam is a religion of peace?

cc6 26Ever since Sept. 11, there have been several consistent themes in the mainstream media’s coverage of Islam. There have also been some interesting holes, as GetReligion keeps pointing out, and there have been some interesting contradictions.

One of the major themes has been that Islam is a religion of peace.

Another major theme is that there is no “one Islam,” because this faith has no central authority system that says what is right and what is wrong.

Thus, it is wrong to say that Wahabi evangelists in the mountains of Pakistan are preaching the same sermons as peaceful Sufi mystics in Kashmir. Not all Muslims believe precisely the same things, when it comes flying airplanes into buildings and, as shown in new headlines from Egypt, blowing up Israeli tourists and Coptic Christians (hours after Pascha, no less).

I thought about these themes yesterday when reading Richard Serrano’s latest Los Angeles Times piece on Zacarias Moussaoui, entitled “Life of a Terrorist: Seeking, and Finding, His Jihad.”

You see, “jihad” is one of those words, isn’t it? It has different meanings to different believers and that is what this piece is all about, as a young man in London is recruited into a radical form of Islam that is not — let’s face it, reporters — a religion of peace.

Had Moussaoui not surrendered to the spell of the radicals, his life might have been different. After all, he had broken away from his impoverished childhood in France, as well as his violent, alcoholic father. He had made it to London. He was smart; he earned a master’s degree in business.

But that was the road not taken. At the Brixton mosque, he began wearing military camouflage and black boots. He criticized fellow Muslims as too soft. “Where’s the jihad?” he kept asking. “Where’s the jihad?”

In other words, Moussaoui was trying to find out which Islam is the real Islam, because there was conflict over key doctrines.

Note the contradiction. It is hard to say, like a White House mantra, that “Islam is a religion of peace” and then turn around and say that there are many different Islams. So which Islam is a religion of peace? If journalists (and White House talking heads) then say, “The real Islam is a religion of peace,” isn’t that a rather simplistic statement? Imperialistic, even?

Who, in global Islam, gave President George W. Bush, the editorial board of the New York Times or even the Islamic studies faculty at a place like Georgetown University the right to decide which is the real Islam and which is the false one? What if the people who taught Moussaoui have their own doctrines, their own traditions, their own schools and their own definitions of words like “peace”? What if they think they get to define which Islam is the true Islam?

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Can I get a witness?

JamesDid you all catch Frank DeFord’s rather pretentious defense of sportswriting in the Washington Post Book World Sunday? I love Frank DeFord and listen to him all the time on NPR and watch him on (the best sports show out there) HBO’s RealSports with Bryant Gumbel. I also love sportswriting. I’ll never forget the transformative experience that was reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes while on a transcontinental flight.

But not only did DeFord violate my rule against more than one French word in a paragraph, he told too many too-perfect stories. He acts like sportswriting is some derided ghetto when most folks think that the sports pages have the liveliest writing in newspapers across the land. Case in point is the Washington Post‘s Mike Wise and his excellent analysis of Nike’s new ad campaign that uses religious ideas to sell shoes:

At the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue, on the fringes of East Cleveland, the guest minister’s voice rose with fervor on Sunday morning.

“We worship at the cathedral of entertainment,” warned Peter Matthews, “where athletes and rock stars are high priests and high priestesses.”

The pastor looked prescient if you drove 15 minutes toward downtown. An entire building’s facade is dedicated to a black-and-white mural of LeBron James. The basketball is held aloft like a torch pointed toward the heavens.

“We Are All Witnesses,” reads the most visible symbol of Nike’s ad campaign for James, Cleveland’s 21-year-old wunderkind, the NBA’s best young player since Magic Johnson.

The intersection of sports and religion is an area not mined enough. Last year Thomas Herrion, the offensive guard for the 49ers, collapsed and died after a preseason game. His casket was draped not in a baptismal pall but in a blanket with his team logo. And not that it ended well, but I found it interesting that stranded New Orleans residents were told to find sanctuary in the Superdome. Dell deChant, a professor of religion at the University of South Florida, has written a bit about the religious role sports play in our culture. Wise provides examples of the intersections:

Sports Illustrated christened James “the Chosen One” when he was 16 years old, which explains the large tattoo on his back. He also goes by “the Golden Child,” and “King James.”

The unabridged version, of course.

LeBron is not coached as much he is “shepherded” by Mike Brown. LeBron also did not lead the Cavs to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. No, he took them to the promised land.

The Cavs team store is not yet selling nativity scenes with Bron-Bron in a manger, but it’s only April.

Nice. The piece is enjoyable and thoughtful. And largely because of Wise’s original reporting — in a church no less! I wish more non-Godbeat reporters would see the value in considering the religious stories in their areas of coverage.

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What makes Falun Gong so angry?

falun gongWhat would prompt a New Yorker with a medical degree from the University of Chicago to yell at Chinese president Hu Jintao during a state ceremony and risk facing likely arrest and prosecution?

Apparently it’s nothing on the scale of domestic spying or holding foreign nationals captive without charges. No, those are likely small peanuts to Wenyi Wang, a believer in a religion that has been described as a “syncretistic update of Confucianism and Taoism.” For her troubles, Wang could face six months in jail.

Check out the Washington Post‘s take on the incident and the aftermath:

The White House had issued Wang a one-day press pass to cover the ceremony after she presented credentials as a reporter for the Epoch Times. Many of the newspaper’s staff members, like Wang, are Falun Gong practitioners, according to a newspaper spokeswoman.

Falun Gong is a Buddhist-based spiritual movement with millions of members in China and elsewhere. It became the focus of controversy when it was banned by the Chinese government in 1999 after followers staged a series of peaceful protests in Beijing. Founded by a Chinese soldier in 1992, Falun Gong in Chinese means “Practice of the Wheel of Law.” It blends meditation and martial arts.

Adherents say thousands of the group’s followers have been imprisoned by the Chinese government. The Epoch Times recently published articles alleging the harvesting and sale of organs from still-living practitioners held in Chinese labor camps. In the past, the harvesting of body parts from executed prisoners has been widely alleged and detailed in official Chinese government newspapers. The Chinese government has called Falun Gong an “evil cult” and accused its leaders of trying to overthrow the ruling Communist Party.

Terri Wu, spokeswoman for the Epoch Times, said Wang has a medical degree and doctorate from the University of Chicago and has been working for the newspaper for six years, specializing in medical issues. The newspaper issued a statement saying that it did not know that Wang was planning the protest. The statement apologized to Bush and the White House — but not to Hu.

The harvesting of organs from executed prisoners sounds like something any reasonable person would oppose. What is Falun Gong doing that prompts China’s leaders to dismiss it as an “evil cult” bent on overthrowing the government?

Other than mentioning “meditation and martial arts,” the Post article gives us little clue. Meditation and martial arts covers everything from Buddhism to Jackie Chan. Is Falun Gong really that broad or that dangerous?

The Post also published a brief sidebar on Falun Gong, but it leaves many questions unanswered.

This Wikipedia article on Falun Gong — disputed for an alleged failure of neutrality — contains some rich background, and anyone who has walked the streets of New York or Washington has most likely seen the group’s fliers. The information is out there, Post editors.

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Everyone loves to use the word “glossolalia”

apostolic faith churchPentecostals make for great copy. Their leaders are, well, charismatic (and, dare I say, sometimes found dancing near the devil). They have some righteous tunes. And they make frequent claims of dramatic healings. Now they’re celebrating their 100th anniversary, more or less. The Azusa Street Revival — where an interracial Los Angeles congregation of thousands, led by the Rev. William Joseph Seymour, experienced speaking in tongues and physical manifestations of supernatural contact — began in April 1906.

The Associated Press’ Gillian Flacchus has a complete and tightly written wrap-up that tells you most of what you need to know, including this interesting bit about how newspapers followed what was happening. The disaster refers to the San Francisco earthquake:

The same day as the disaster, a major Los Angeles newspaper published a front-page story about Seymour’s strange prayer meetings — all-night services so rowdy that two policemen were posted full time at the church to keep order. The story bore the headline “Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.”

Soon, all eight major newspapers were covering the revival, as were religious newspapers called “holiness circulars” that were passed among evangelical churches nationwide. Word spread across the nation — and then the world — about the massive revival under way in Los Angeles.

One of the revival’s most notable characteristics, experts say, was that blacks and whites worshipped under the same roof and shared pastoral duties.

“At its height, it drew people from all classes, wealthy and poor, Hispanics, blacks, Jews — you name it, everybody came,” said [Pentecostal scholar Vinson] Synan. “Whole churches collapsed and joined it. There was a force there, it was almost supernatural. People said they could feel it in the air from about three blocks away.”

I love that headline Flacchus cites. Anyway, she goes on to explain how Pentecostalism spread throughout the country and world. I have to take issue with the figure she and other reporters use to show how large Pentecostalism is:

The movement, once relegated to the theological fringe, now claims up to 600 million followers worldwide and remains one of the fastest-growing sectors of Christianity, according to Vinson Synan, dean of Regent University’s School of Divinity and an ordained minister of the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

data on charismaticsArgh. Church statistics are difficult on a good day. And it could be true that pentecostals claim 600 million people — the graph at left came from a charismatic magazine. But you can’t just let folks make outlandish claims without noting the problems with the data. Other sources put the size of Pentecostal churches at 115 million or so. And yet every story I read on this this cited the remarkably high number.

Many newspapers are finding local angles to the story. Richard Vara with the Houston Chronicle tells readers that Seymour learned about the baptism of the Holy Spirit only a few weeks before the Azusa Street revival . . . at a Houston Bible school where Charles Fox Parham, the founder of Pentecostalism, taught:

Parham’s involvement with glossolalia began on New Year’s Day 1901 at his Bible school in Topeka, Kan., when student Agnes Oznam spoke in tongues.

Three days later, Parham and other students experienced the phenomenon. . . .

Parham and his Topeka students concluded that speaking in tongues was biblical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit.

“What Parham does is develop a theology that becomes the Pentecostal theology, one that is quite preachable,” [Cecil] Robeck [Jr., professor at Fuller Seminary] said. “He packages it and markets it, in a sense.”

The marketing of Pentecostalism is frequent fodder for critics, from Sinclair Lewis’ satire Elmer Gantry to Ole Anthony’s Trinity Foundation. Anthony is mentioned in the Dallas Morning News, which offers the best package of information I came across. Jeffrey Weiss writes the anniversary story while Sam Hodges looks at Dallas’ Christ for the Nations Institute, including a sidebar with a tidbit about Bob Dylan. Great package.

I have to make a quick book recommendation — Jim Bakker’s autobiography I Was Wrong. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a really fascinating. He wrote it after serving a prison sentence, so I was expecting the title to reference some sort of criminal wrongdoing. In fact, he writes an eloquent critique of the Prosperity Gospel he had advocated for so long. He realized in prison that even though he lost his wealth, his family, his ministry and his reputation, God loved him. You’ll thank me later.

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Barnes, Allen and the question

greenegeorgeSpeaking of Fred Barnes and the faith factor, there is a great Fred moment in his op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal. In effect, it opens with Sen. George F. Allen of Virginia trying out his “cultural right” soundbites for the most influential “cultural right” journalist in D.C. journalism.

This audition is taking place during lunch at the Monocle, one of those networking places on Capitol Hill that is also a restaurant.

George F. Allen is staring at me. The normally loquacious Virginia senator is not saying anything and neither am I. Silence hangs in the air for a few seconds.

The impasse, like so many other things in American politics, was owing to Roe v. Wade. Mr. Allen’s position is carefully demarcated: He would like to see the decision “reinterpreted” to allow states to decide the legal status of abortion. Does that mean he would like to see it overturned? He won’t say. So I suggest that Mr. Allen’s “reinterpretation” would produce precisely the same result as overturning the ruling: States would decide the fate of abortion. I pause for a response. Nothing. I get more direct. “Why won’t you say you want Roe reversed?”

Again, Mr. Allen is mum, and eventually I give up.

OK, does anyone remember that statement by Godtalk scribe Michael Gerson, right after the 2004 election, about the divisions in the White House caused by abortion and other social issues? He said that, time after time, the key to debates in this White House is the tension between those advocating a more “Catholic” (with a large C) approach to public life and those taking a more libertarian (with a small L) approach.

So here we go again. We live in a libertarian age and, clearly, Barnes is using the ultimate social issue to find out where Allen falls, when it comes to the big split in the GOP. Of course, the public — muddled on anything absolute — wants compromise, which is something the Democratic establishment cannot allow for its elites and the GOP has little motive to seek, because of the large motivation factor that a strict abortion stand provides for consistent cultural conservatives (in both parties). Neither party has reason to do the dangerous political work of overturning Roe and, thus, getting to compromise.

baby1thumb 2It cannot be said enough: The elite Democrats are united on abortion. The elite Republicans, in their big tent, are divided. The classic article on this is still that Atlantic Monthly piece in 1995 by George McKenna describing “A Lincolnian Position” on abortion.

So back to Barnes and Allen at lunch. Barnes is doing what other journalists on the political beat will have to do — push the major candidates to move beyond mere words and describe what they mean when they use words such as “moderate,” “conservative” and “libertarian.”

As Rod Dreher is saying in his Crunchy Cons book, one party worships libertarian morality and the other libertarian economics. It’s the party of lust vs. the party of greed. And under the surface are the fault lines, with the Democrats seeking new semi-religious language (with no compromises on policy), while worrying about the practicing Catholics. Meanwhile, the Republicans keep trying to use their same old religious language that has worked for a long time, while doing as little as possible in terms of actual policy so as not to run off the Dick Cheney wing of the party.

So here is Allen talking about the size of government. Note the almost magical use of the word “freedom,” which, on abortion, is a word that the pro-abortion-rights crowd has to use early and often.

… (Allen) disagrees with Mr. Bush on the scope of the federal government. The president accepts its size as a given and advocates using it for conservative ends. Mr. Allen says he has “a libertarian sense.” He describes himself as more in sync with Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan than with George Bush. “I’m one who dislikes limits. I don’t like restrictions. I like freedom. I like liberty. Unless you’re harming someone else, you leave people free.”

Unless you are “harming someone else.” OK, Allen is going to have to answer the abortion question sooner or later.

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