Custodians of the faith

kramer vs kramerA few readers sent along an excellent story by Neela Banerjee in the New York Times. She looked at custody disputes across the country where religion comes into play. The story is fantastic. Wonderfully balanced, very informative and full of excellent reporting:

MADISON, Ala. — On a January night nine years ago, Laura Snider was saved.

A 27-year-old single mother at the time, Mrs. Snider felt she had ruined her life through a disastrous marriage and divorce. But in her kitchen that night, after reading pamphlets and Bible passages that her boss had pointed her to, she realized she was a sinner, she said, she prayed for forgiveness, and put her trust in Christ.

Four years later, the conservative brand of Christianity Mrs. Snider embraced became the source of a bitter, continuing custody battle over her only child, Libby Mashburn.

Custody disputes with religious overtones are increasing, Banerjee writes, as are custody conflicts in general. She speaks with a family law expert who says that intermarriage and a greater willingness to convert are part of the reason why. No interest groups keep track of how religious disputes are decided but judges don’t show a preference for one side over another, Banerjee writes:

Judges do not want to take on custody disputes rooted in religion, said lawyers like Gaetano Ferro, who until recently served as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Mr. Ferro said, “How will a judge say in any rational fashion that Islam is better than Buddhism, Catholicism better than Judaism, or Methodism better than Pentecostalism?”

Banerjee discusses the case of a parent who converted to Judaism after his divorce and wanted his son, age 12, circumcised. Another parent fought to keep his daughter in school after her mother became Amish. School for Amish girls usually ends at the 8th grade. A Mormon mother fought her former husband after he claimed polygamy as a religious tenet of his faith. In the Snider case, the father was given custody of Libby at the age of 6 because of her strict religious upbringing. In all the cases, Banerjee permits the families to speak freely:

The Sniders are quietly, unapologetically fundamentalist. They believe that American culture, even conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, has drifted perilously far from biblical teachings. They attend a large Independent Baptist church in Madison, where the music, the sanctuary and the congregants are unadorned and old-fashioned.

Women wear skirts as a sign of modesty. They do not swim in mixed company. They eschew rock music and nearly all popular culture. They do not drink, smoke or swear. . . .

At the last hearing, Libby, who spends about 40 percent of her time with the Sniders, testified against Mr. Mashburn.

“I’m more of my mom’s religion, and my dad sometimes talks bad about my mom,” she said. “He called it a cult, and it’s definitely not a cult. It kind of makes me mad sometimes. Maybe he thinks her religion may be bad for me, but I think mainly he doesn’t like my mom and is using that as an excuse.”

Another great story from Banerjee, informative and sensitively told.

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Show us the full faith picture

capitol Shira Schoenberg of the Concord Monitor wrote an interesting story about a Jewish Orthodox politician. Or at least her story was interesting, fascinating even, about the ritual and personal aspects of Jason Bedrick’s faith.

Schoenberg’s lede shows the reader right away that Bedrick’s tale is not that of an ordinary pol:

When Jason Bedrick was considering a run for state representative, an incumbent legislator encouraged him to shave his beard. Bedrick refused.

“I said the beard is off-limits, and that’s not the half of it,” Bedrick said.

Bedrick, an Orthodox Jew, said he wouldn’t enter churches. He wouldn’t campaign at the transfer station on Saturdays. And he wouldn’t shake hands with women. His friend said he didn’t know how Bedrick could win.

“To not shake hands with half your constituents, that qualifies me as a disabled politician,” Bedrick said.

I thought this last tidbit, about Bedrick’s faith requiring that he not shake another woman’s hand, was memorable. In the same way that “Chariots of Fire” showed viewers Eric Liddell’s refusal to compete on the Sabbath, Schoenberg underlined Bedrick’s dedication to his faith.

Schoenberg also ably detailed Bedrick’s personal faith journey. The son of a Conservative Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who converted to Judaism, Schoenberg became Orthodox not through the usual route, as she explains:

The turning point in Bedrick’s observance was when he took a trip to Israel with other college students. Bedrick decided that while in Israel, he would wear a yarmulke. He saw his tour guide wearing tzitzit, a ritual garment with fringes that Orthodox men wear under their shirt. “I thought it was an amazing concept, this garment my people have been wearing for years, to remind you to keep the commandments,” Bedrick said. So he bought a pair.

On the plane ride home, Bedrick began to reconsider his intentions to remove the yarmulke and tzitzit. “I thought, ‘I’m Jewish in Israel, but not America?’ This is my identity.” He kept the clothing and became one of two Babson College students to wear a yarmulke, Bleich said. Bedrick had already given up eating pork and shellfish, and now he started adhering more fully to the kosher dietary laws. He did not eat milk and meat at the same meal. He started walking to the rabbi’s house on Friday night, since observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. After college, he returned to Israel for the summer.

For all of her details about the ritual and personal aspects of Bedrick’s faith, Schoenberg mostly neglected to examine its collective aspects. How does his Orthodox faith inform his politics or social vision? Readers aren’t told.

Yes, Schoenberg notes that Bedrick is a political conservative on many issues; he favors school choice, seeks to build a culture of life, and limited government. Yet how his Orthodox faith informs his positions is unstated.

This criticism is not a quibble. With an unusual story like that Bedrick’s, the reporter ought to tell readers the full picture.

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No easy answers

EasyTShirtNavigating the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses when developing policies for government chaplains can be dizzying. The Washington State Department of Corrections found that out recently when trying to reach a settlement with an inmate who wanted the right to adhere to two religions at the same time. Tacoma News-Tribune reporter Ian Demsky wrote up a thorough and interesting description of the problem:

Tom Suss loves his job. A chaplain at McNeil Island prison, he’s been with the state Department of Corrections for more than 15 years. “It’s really a privilege to work there,” the 63-year-old Catholic priest said in a recent interview.

“When there’s the opportunity to facilitate someone’s realization of living differently, of making better choices, there’s just no better high than that.”

But Suss took a voluntary leave of absence at the beginning of the year because a new Corrections Department policy allowing inmates to profess multiple religions has put his faith into conflict with his duties as a state employee.

Suss is taking six weeks off and he’s not sure what to do after that. He figures his days as a state chaplain are over. The state is attempting to protect inmates’ freedom of religion and Suss’ attempt to keep his religious convictions uncompromised may be futile:

What does it mean to belong to a particular faith or tradition? Can you just say, “OK, I’m Jewish now” (or Hindu, or Catholic, or Buddhist, or whatever), or must you be accepted into that faith through certain sacraments and rituals? Is it meaningful to claim you’re both a Catholic, believing in one triune God, and at the same time a pagan, espousing the existence of many gods and goddesses? Who should get to decide?

Demsky explains that prisoners who claimed multiple religions used to have to get permission from each religion that dual membership was even permissible. In December, the rules were changed to allow inmates to claim multiple religions without any barrier. The policy revision was the result of a lawsuit settlement with an inmate who claimed that the state was violating federal law by preventing him from worshiping both as a Seventh-day Adventist and a Native American practitioner:

Not long after, Suss said, an inmate at McNeil Island decided to become both Catholic and Asatru, a movement harkening back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe and Scandinavia.

For the priest, this presented a dilemma.

“Common sense says you cannot be a pagan Christian,” he said. “As a state chaplain, I must endorse state policy. I have to be willing to endorse this inmate’s freedom to be both religions at the same time, but my own convictions being a Catholic priest don’t allow for a Catholic to be a pagan at the same time.”

When writing about church and state issues, any angle you take can heavily influence how the issue is understood by the reader. Demsky did a great job of handling the incentives prisoners might have to take advantage of the policy:


Carrell also is concerned that inmates will chose to be members of multiple religions – or even all religions – out of a desire to exploit the system, rather than from sincere conviction. For example, an inmate could profess to be Muslim to get a prayer rug to decorate his cell, or Jewish to have access to Kosher meals.

“I don’t know how somebody can be a pagan and a Catholic,” Carrell said. “That’s like being partly pregnant.”

Gary Friedman, who heads up a committee that advises the Corrections Department on religious matters, agrees. Other chaplains also have expressed concerns with the policy, he said.

“The policy change might seem like something minor to a lay person, but in prison, little things become big things,” said Friedman, who is Jewish and trained as a chaplain.

“How can they be sincere if they don’t follow the dictates of the faith they claim to have a sincere belief in?” Friedman asked. “How can they say they’re Jewish, knowing one can’t self-convert under Jewish law?”

He’s seen inmates convert to Judaism and then contact Jewish organizations seeking money.

Demsky goes to a lawyer with the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., law firm that defends religious expression, to get the perspective that freedom of religion is worth the risk.

The article quotes Suss saying that he could be sued for not catering to the pagan inmate who also claims Catholicism and also that it’s ridiculous that an inmate can be something in prison that he can’t be outside — but Demsky also explains how the new policy complies with current interpretations of the free exercise clause:

[Dick Morgan, assistant deputy secretary for the Corrections Department's prisons division] pointed out that the department’s policy doesn’t require anyone to perform ecclesiastical duties that run contrary to the tenets of their religion. A Catholic priest, for example, would not have to give communion to an inmate who had not been baptized, thus violating Catholic tradition.

Suss’ dilemma, however, is that he is not only a Catholic priest, but also a state employee with nonreligious duties that might conflict with his religious beliefs.

There are many complex questions and kudos to Demsky for taking the time to explore multiple avenues and areas where consciences conflict. Too many times reporters covering these issues aggressively push an agenda rather than tell the story.

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Fundies on the march, yet again

marycheneybaby onesie(Cue: Loud sigh.)

It is time to open up our Associate Press Stylebooks and read that entry, once again, about what is, sadly, one of the most popular words in modern journalism:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

I bring this up, yet again, because this weekend I was digging through the back pages of a Washington Post edition from last week and I ran into a story with this headline: “Sex-Ed Dispute Aired in Court — Lessons Violate Md. Law, Opponents’ Attorney Tells Judge.”

Now you just know that, even though this ticks off some GetReligion readers, that this is going to turn into a religion story. It took about two paragraphs, starting with the lede by reporter Daniel de Vise:

A six-year battle over the content of a new sex education curriculum in Montgomery County schools came down to two questions posed yesterday in a Rockville courtroom: Can the school board legally teach students that homosexuality is innate? And can the lessons discuss sex acts other than copulation?

Montgomery educators are defending the new curriculum, approved by the school board last summer, which addresses sexual orientation as a classroom topic for the first time. The lessons place the county at the fore of a trend among some of the nation’s public schools toward more candor in discussing homosexuality. But they have prompted a strenuous challenge from religious conservatives who see the curriculum as a one-sided endorsement of homosexuality.

Now the phrase “religious conservatives” is good, although I think there are lots of people in other kinds of sanctuaries who do not believe that science has resolved the entire nature vs. nurture debate. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the status of homosexuality as a condition, in terms of civil-rights status. So the conflict is almost certainly rooted in the complaints of “religious conservatives,” but the issue is broader than that.

But things get worse later on.

The school system began working on the lessons six years ago at the urging of a citizens advisory group, which noted that the old curriculum permitted teachers to speak about homosexuality only in response to a student inquiry.

A first attempt to revise the lessons ended in 2005, when a federal judge found fault with teacher materials that criticized religious fundamentalism. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast withdrew the lessons before they were taught.

So here is the question: Who used the phrase “religious fundamentalism” in this case?

Was it the judge and, if so, why isn’t the phrase inside quotation marks? If the phrase comes from the Post, why was it allowed in the newspaper when the question of the moral status of homosexual acts has nothing to do with “fundamentalism” per se? What about traditional Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others who believe that homosexual acts are sinful?

In other words, one does not have to be a “fundamentalist” to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin. Why use the word in this case?

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Jews without God

atheist Reporter Manya A. Brachear of The Chicago Tribune had a fascinating story on her hands: a young Jewish movement that does not worship God. Brachear’s story began this way:

When Rabbi Adam Chalom stands before the Sabbath flames and sings the Hebrew blessing to welcome Shabbat, there is no mention of God.

Chalom believes there are no prophets. He preaches that only hard work yields miracles. And until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.”

God has nothing to do with it.

Interesting, huh? Brachear notes that the movement, Humanistic Judaism, reveres culture and ethics rather than God. It sounds like more than a few Christian congregations I know of.

To put the movement in context, Brachear gave readers this helpful statistic:

Chalom contends that the integrity and emotional resonance of Jewish traditions are what appeal most to American Jews. According to the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001 by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about half of the 5.3 million Jews in the United States identify themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular.”

Alas, an interesting story line and a helpful use of statistics were its only valuable traits. Otherwise, the story was rather shallow and uncritical.

For one thing, Brachear’s story had an obvious Biblical analogy: the story of the molten or golden calf. I think she should have asked Rabbi Chalom whether he saw any parallels between his movement and that of the Jewish people waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain top. For example, does he think that his members are worshiping a molten calf and if not, why not?

For another thing, Brachear’s story was uncritical of Chalom’s theology. While it’s difficult for a reporter to question an educated religious figure, Brachear defers to Chalom in a pre-Watergate era sort of way:

– Chalom says that his movement is “keeping people Jewish.” Really, how so?

– Chalom does not believe in God. Why not? Does he consider himself an agnostic or atheist?

– Chalom never mentions that God establishing a covenant with the Jews is the very foundation of the three great monotheistic religions. How can he overlook this fact?

Look, Brachear likely was under time restraints with this story. She probably didn’t have much time to report and write it. But the fact that a Jewish movement proclaims independence from God is a big deal. How about waiting a day or two to report it out?

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Fiddling around on Christmas day

ChineseFoodBowlEvery religious season has its standard stories, its old familiar new ideas. I have one or two others to share during the 12 days of Christmas.

Here comes one of those Christmas classics from earlier this week, care of the Baltimore Sun.

Now, I am pretty hard on the Sun, since, as I have stated before, it’s the newspaper that gets tossed into my yard every morning. When it comes to religion, Baltimore is a progressive Catholic and fading mainline Protestant town, so it’s not much of a surprise that the Sun is well to the left of that, 90 percent of the time. I think I know of only one other Sun subscriber, out of all of my friends in the Baltimore area. Everyone else gave up years ago (and my friends tend to be news junkies who read, read, read).

Believe it or not, the story I am here to praise is even a kind of progressive salute to diversity and, gasp, multiculturalism. So what? It’s a story that delivers some real facts about the changing nature of life in Baltimore, from the old Jewish neighborhoods to the arrival of other faiths and nationalities.

This is, of course, the “what the non-Christians did on Christmas” story, with a strong business theme. So here’s a piece or two of reporter Michael Dresser’s “Yule be served on Christmas — It’s business as usual for many in diverse Baltimore.”

From Pikesville to 33rd Street to Corned Beef Row, Baltimore residents and visitors were providing proof yesterday that you don’t have to be Christian to have a blast on Christmas.

While most mall parking lots were vacant, many of the businesses that remained open bubbled with a celebratory mood, even among those who don’t celebrate the holiday in the religious sense.

In Pikesville, Jewish couples whose children were in school spent their day off from work having a mini-honeymoon at Goldberg’s New York Bagels. On 33rd Street, Hindus were preparing for Christmas parties, and Muslims were laying in extra stores of lamb and goat to share with friends.

People of all faiths or none at all found their way to East Baltimore for the near-religious experience of a corned beef sandwich and cream soda at Attman’s deli.

Wait! There’s one more classic archetype!

The Hankin children were down from New York along with their parents, Richard Hankin and Dawn Hershman, to visit grandparents Murray and Joyce Hankin of Pikesville. Richard Hankin said it was nice to have a family activity to attend when “absolutely everything else is closed.”

“We did participate in the Jewish tradition of having Chinese food last night, and the kids already saw a movie, so we feel we’ve exhausted all the traditional activities,” he said.

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!

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Incarnation? What Incarnation?

AnnunciationIn a day and age in which newspapers fail so miserably at answering the question “What does Christmas mean?” (apart from generic platitudes of goodwill and commercialism), I have to commend Tim Townsend and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story that gives a completely theological response.

I know that this was an editorial, but the New York Times ran something about how the real meaning of Christmas is — sleep.

So an actual news story offering a religious angle to a religious holiday is important. Townsend takes the novel approach of dissecting the religious significance of this Christian holy day:

At some point during the holiday season, most Christians take a break from the cookie baking, card sending and gift wrapping to reflect on what Christmas really means.

One Hebrew word — Emmanuel — captures that meaning for many.

As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew explains in the Christmas story, Emmanuel means “God is with us.”

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have found comfort in their belief in God’s omnipresence.

I find it intriguing that Townsend uses Christmas as an opportunity to discuss the Christian belief in God’s omnipresence. It seems to me that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation might be a better discussion point for the Christmas season — the belief that God’s Son took on flesh and was born of a virgin.

Of course, Townsend then uses his “meaning of Christmas” story to present a one-sided discussion that questions whether or not Jesus’ birth fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, and later into Latin, the Hebrew word “almah,” or “young girl,” was translated as “virgin.”

A New Testament scholar, the Rev. Raymond Brown, has written that from as early as the second century, “… the variation between ‘young girl’ and ‘virgin’ has given rise to some of the most famous debates in the history of exegesis. …”

In 1952, when a new Bible translation, the Revised Standard Version, was published, some conservative Christians burned it because the translators used “young woman” instead of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14.

Some rabbis note that if the author of Isaiah had wanted to use the word virgin, he could have. The more precise word for “virgin,” “bitulah,” is used in other books of the Hebrew Bible such as Exodus and Leviticus.

The charge — that the prophecy was merely of a young woman rather than a virgin — is left without a response.

It is true that with the dramatic rise of modern rationalism in the early 20th century, some scholars sought to explain Jesus Christ as the child of a completely normal pregnancy. (And indeed, with promiscuity the norm these days, the notion of virginity even apart from Christ’s birth is somewhat miraculous.) Anyway, some scholars — particularly those associated with mainline Christian denominations — began teaching that Christ’s birth was not miraculous, per se, and they began refuting not just this story but other accounts of Jesus fulfilling ancient prophecies or performing miracles.

This is not new. But I think it’s somewhat offensive to not let traditional Christians respond to this. This simple Catholic Q&A refutes several of the points in Townsend’s account:

The Hebrew word translated as virgin, almah, can also be translated as “young woman” but as Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon notes “there is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin.”

Additional evidence that the correct translation is “virgin” is supplied by the Septuagint version of the Bible, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made several centuries before Christ. It was translated by Jewish scholars for use by Greek-speaking Jews, mainly in Alexandria.

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew almah into Greek as parthenos. This Greek term has the precise meaning of “virgin.” So several centuries before the birth of Christ, before there was any reason to attack his Church, the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 was clear: almah = parthenos = virgin.

The Townsend article has some good quotes from Archbishop Raymond Burke and Lutheran theologian Jeffrey Gibbs — but they aren’t responding to the diversion in Townsend’s Christmas story. I, for one, get tired of mainstream media rehashes that cast doubt — from 2,000 years away — on the story of Christ. But if you’re going to go with that angle, the least you can do is let those who believe in the divinity of Christ and his miraculous birth respond to those who don’t.

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Baby Jesus, with a GPS device

1661lgBefore the day is done and I start the bedtime reading rituals for the night, let me share one last tale for this day one of the 2007 Christmas season.

You just have to admit that this Miami Herald story is both sad and fun, at the same time.

But first, some context. There are conservatives out there who are convinced that the destruction of Nativity scenes is a rising social phenomenon in our age, a kind of symbolic hate crime for the Christmas wars. How many vandalism cases were there this year? How would one establish that this is some kind of anti-Christian crime wave?

That’s the frame around this Herald story by reporter Rodolfo R. Roman (what a byline!), which offers a technological miracle for our age. Enjoy!

In Bal Harbour, the baby Jesus statue is back where it belongs. And just to make sure the statue doesn’t go missing again, Jesus, Mary and Joseph will be equipped with GPS tracking devices.

For six years, Dina Cellini has put up a Nativity display in Bal Harbour’s Founders Circle. But earlier this month, someone took off with the statue of Jesus. Cincinnati resident Jeffrey Harris read a story about the crime online.

“I felt bad. How could someone steal a baby Jesus?” said Harris, who celebrates Hanukkah, not Christmas.

“Even though I am Jewish, I like the Christmas spirit,” said Harris, a civil attorney. So he offered to replace the figurine.

“He’s a wonderful human being,” Cellini said. “It’s so fitting that this negative act ended generously.”

But now, Cellini is taking no more chances. In perhaps the ultimate merger of old and new, she plans to add GPS tracking devices to the statues.

A kind, but rather cynical, form of techological salvation. What a world we live in.

Photo: Not the Nativity Scene in question.

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