As I lay dying

holdinghandsLast week religion reporter David Crumm was featured in our 5Q+1 series. He said that aging is the most important religion story the mainstream media just do not get. Gary Stern of The Journal News had a fantastic story that Crumm may want to check out. He followed a local hospice worker as she attended to the spiritual needs of the dying. Here’s how it begins:

Anyone can have faith when their body is strong and their loved ones are full of life.

Mary Wasacz attends to the faith of those whose bodies are failing or whose loved ones are slipping away.

She holds the hands of the dying as they prepare to meet their maker. She prays with the survivors as their parents or siblings cross to the other side.

“This is the final journey,” she says. “It is just as important as any stage of life. I don’t have any answers, but I have my faith. I look around the world and know there must be a God. It’s a leap of faith to try to help people through it.”

Wasacz was motivated to become a spiritual care coordinator 30 years ago after her third child, Cathy Ann, was born with a fatal condition. She and her husband brought their little girl home from the hospital to die, the first such parents at that hospital to do so. After surviving that heartbreaking tragedy, they started a support group for parents who lost infants. She was already a psychiatric nurse and decided to make bereavement her specialty.

Stern spent two years on the story, accompanying Wasacz as she visited a few patients, some who are devout Christians and some who are irreligious. Wasacz herself is a devout Roman Catholic and a eucharistic minister. Stern describes a visit to the home of Mary Barrett. Wasacz had helped Barrett’s father, Charles, but he had died several months earlier. Now she was taking care of Barrett’s mother, Marjorie, who had suffered a stroke and has congestive heart failure.

“I went to Catholic school and the nuns would say ‘Pray for the grace of a happy death,’” [Mary Barrett] said. “I used to wonder what they meant. Now I know.”

Charles and Marjorie were married for 63 years and lived alone in Yonkers until two years before Charles’ death at 91.

As Wasacz gave Communion to Marjorie, Mary Barrett talked about the importance of faith to her parents and to herself.

“For people who don’t have faith, it must be very sad,” she said. “My parents always had a strong faith. My father was very resigned to whatever was going to be and wasn’t scared. My mother can’t wait for Mary to come and pray with her. I don’t get to church as much as I would like, but I say prayers. We believe in eternal life.”

At 93, Marjorie Barrett continues to fight on and receive Communion.

hospiceThat was one of several mentions of sacraments — a topic that most reporters only notice when politicians are involved. When my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, our family chose palliative care to help relieve her pain as she died. I think Stern’s story does a great job of showing how families use hospice programs and palliative care. Early in the story he introduces readers to Nannie Seward, a dying 96-year-old. At the end of the story, he revisits the patient:

Early this year, Wasacz got to do something unusual: visit a patient who had recovered to the point where she could leave the hospice rolls.

Nannie Seward, who was turning 98, was fighting off her thyroid cancer. She had gotten through some other health scares, too, and was now eating well and feeling strong.

“She eats almost everything in sight,” said her daughter, Mary Wallace, a nurse. “She gets up in the morning and loves to have bacon and eggs.”

Seward was happy as could be to hug and greet Wasacz, a friend full of hope and faith like her own.

“God is so much in your life,” Wasacz said, holding Seward’s hand.

“Oh yes,” Seward said. “Couldn’t do nothing without him. I feel sorry for people who don’t know God.”

Seward sat proud in a straightback chair, a Bible and bowl of candy bars on the coffee table in front of her.

“You were dying and you were ready to go,” Wasacz said. “You were ready for the Lord.”

“I’m not afraid of dying,” Seward said. “Anytime he’s ready for me, I got to go. I’m looking forward to a better place. I got to go.”

There are numerous stories enterprising religion reporters could cover about end-of-life issues. I keep thinking we might see more coverage of a story about a California effort to help people commit suicide:

Physician-assisted suicide advocates — unable to pass legislation and short on cash to push a statewide ballot initiative — will announce today the creation of a consultation service to offer information to the terminally ill and even provide volunteers for those who would like someone to be present when committing suicide.

“Volunteers will neither provide nor administer the means for aid in dying,” said The Rev. John Brooke, a United Church of Christ minister from Cotati and one of the organizers of the new End of Life Consultation Service. “We will not break or defy the law.”

That story was in the San Jose Mercury News. Let us know if you see any other good, bad or ugly stories about how various church bodies treat stories about death and dying.

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Bush the universalist

bushmosqueEvery time President Bush speaks of his Christian faith, the mainstream media get all roiled up. Here’s how a 2003 story in The Christian Science Monitor began:

President Bush has never been shy about injecting his faith into the public arena — his campaign remark that Jesus Christ was his “favorite political philosopher” was an early signal. But his rising use of religious language and imagery in recent months, especially with regard to the US role in the world, has stirred concern both at home and abroad.

In this year’s State of the Union address, for example, Bush quoted an evangelical hymn that refers to the power of Christ. “‘There’s power, wonder-working power,’ in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” he said.

The media have written extensively, if poorly, about Bush’s faith. There was that New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story about Bush’s faith. And countless others which we’ve all read over the past decade.

And yet when President Bush celebrates other religions or otherwise expresses his universalism — which he has done repeatedly — the media barely notice. In an Oct. 4 interview with Al Arabiya, President Bush said:

Well, first of all, I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That’s what I believe. I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.

I don’t know if the media ignore it because it doesn’t fit with their preconceived notion of Bush as an evangelical extremist, but several days later, I have found only two stories about the interview. Mark Silva, writing for the Tribune Company’s The Swamp blog/Washington notebook (I found it in The Sun) had this:

Touting his Iftaar Dinner last night for an evening breaking of the Ramadan fast, Bush refuted any notion in this interview intended for Arab home viewing that he is out to destroy Islam.

“I want to remind your listeners that one of the first things I did after September the 11th is I went to the local mosque. And I did because I wanted to send a message that those who came to kill Americans were young terrorists, and they do not reflect the views of the vast majority of peaceful people in the Middle East.”

Jon Ward, The Washington Times‘ White House correspondent, also wrote up the remarks, which were similar to those Bush made in previous years. Here, for instance, is what he said in a 2004 interview with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON: Do we all worship the same God, Christian and Muslim?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think we do.

CHARLES GIBSON: Do Christians and non-Christians and Muslims go to heaven in your mind?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there.

coexistIt’s so interesting to me that the people who support, say, a priest who believes she is both Muslim and Christian tend to oppose “evangelicals” such as President Bush. And the evangelical support for President Bush doesn’t carry over to someone like Hillary Clinton — whose profession of faith is at least as strong as Bush’s.

But perhaps part of the reason for this is how the media cover the various players.

On that note, here’s another part of that interview with Bush:

And I believe people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people, whether they be a Christian who does that — we had a person blow up our — blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City who professed to be a Christian, but that’s not a Christian act to kill innocent people.

Um, someone might want to let President Bush know that Timothy McVeigh professed no religious belief. Lou Michel, the author of a well-researched book on McVeigh (he spent countless hours interviewing the terrorist before he was executed), had this to say during a CNN chat:

Question from chat room: Does McVeigh have any spiritual-religious beliefs?

Lou Michel: McVeigh is agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he won’t rule out the possibility. I asked him, “What if there is a heaven and hell?”

He said that once he crosses over the line from life to death, if there is something on the other side, he will — and this is using his military jargon — “adapt, improvise, and overcome.” Death to him is all part of the adventure.

Now some might be concerned that Bush equates terrorism done in the name of Islam with terrorism not done in the name of Christianity. Of course, near as I can tell, no mainstream media have even noticed this Bush statement.

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Intactivists of the world, unite!

circumcisionAfter a few of my friends decided against circumcising their newborn sons, I began paying attention to the issue. Every year I happen to be walking around the Capitol during the annual anti-circumcision rally held there. The circumcision rate in the U.S. has been on the decline. And there are all those hipster authors loudly proclaiming against the ancient rite. And the dramatic Andrew Sullivan, of course.

So I was glad to see Reuters reporter Helen Chernikoff cover the issue. She looked at it from a religious angle:

In most respects, Michelle Chernikoff Anderson is a rabbi’s dream congregant. She sings in the choir and takes classes at her synagogue.

But, like an increasing number of Jews in the United States, she has decided not to circumcise her son, rejecting the traditional notion that it is a Biblically prescribed sign of the Jewish relationship with God.

“I see circumcision as a blood ritual that I can let go of,” said Anderson, who lives in Southern California.

Chernikoff, who is not related to Chernikoff Anderson, goes on to cite stats about the decline of circumcision and speaks with various Jewish opponents of the practice. She quotes them saying that the benefits of circumcision are questionable and outweighed in any case by the health detractions. She also mentions a debate about whether sex feels better for circumcised versus uncircumcised men.

What’s missing from this ostensibly religious story, however, is religion! This issue is not a religious one for me, as a Christian. But it is for Jews. And Chernikoff fails to properly engage the religious arguments for or against the practice. For instance, when Chernikoff Anderson said circumcision was a blood ritual she could let go of, why? What is her reasoning for why this law no longer needs to be practiced? And for Conservative and Orthodox Jews who retain the law, what is their response to folks who toss it aside? Chernikoff speaks with one proponent, but the argument doesn’t engage religion but, rather, describes its popularity.

The problem plagues the interesting article to the very end:

Anderson is torn between a desire to protect her son’s privacy and what she thinks may be a religious duty to discuss her decision not to circumcise.

“Hey, it’s my son’s penis, it’s not mine to discuss in the same way it’s not mine to cut. But at the same time, I feel like maybe I have an obligation to share.”

Again, how is this a religious duty? What is the religious significance to this debate? What do Jews who keep this law think about throwing it aside? I think it would be a fascinating way to explore the basis and consequence of Jewish divisions.

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Suck it, MSM (a GetReligion poll)

Mohammed sLet me note, following the gentle snark from the Divine Mrs. M.Z. the other day, that her GetReligionista comrades had, in fact, noted the pronouncement from the public intellectual Kathy Griffin. We simply were waiting for M.Z. to return with her soft, nuanced touch on the keyboard in order to address this weighty topic.

So now we can ask the next question linked to this mini-media flap.

Or, rather, we can let Lisa Miller of Newsweek ask the question for us. Or, rather, we can let her quote the always outspoken William Donohue asking the obvious question. Here is the crucial clip from the latest BeliefWatch column:

Some stories are best told straight. On Sept. 8, Kathy Griffin, a bawdy, foulmouthed comedian, accepted an Emmy Award for her reality show, “My Life on the D-List,” and in her acceptance speech she explained that while other actors might thank Jesus for such an honor, she wouldn’t consider it. “Suck it, Jesus,” she exuberantly added, waving her statuette in the air. “This award is my God, now.”

Outrage from Christian groups predictably followed, led (also predictably) by William Donohue of the Catholic League, who went on CNN to complain that “Hollywood laughs when she says ‘Suck it, Jesus,’ but if she’d said ‘Suck it, Jews,’ or ‘Suck it, Muhammad’ … they wouldn’t be laughing, would they?”

The question here at GetReligion, of course, is not whether Hollywood would prefer to laugh at Jesus, rather than the Prophet Muhammad. We will leave that to some other website, although I think there is pretty good evidence for how that might be handled. What would Theo van Gogh say?

Our question is whether this entire story would have been taken more seriously by the mainstream newsmedia if the actress had aimed her tongue at Muhammad or Moses or Al Gore, as opposed to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity of traditional Christianity.

So what think ye, readers? Yes or no?

Would this have been a bigger media storm — not to mention a potential threat to Griffin’s career, rather than a boon — if she had spoken the magic words, “Suck it, Muhammad”? Use the comments pages to respond and please keep it clean.

Photo: Muhammad the lawgiver, an image in stone at the U.S. Supreme Court

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Breaking: U.S. believes in God, sort of

god2 sistine chapel 600x308This USA Today story has been in tmatt’s infamous GetReligion Guilt file for some time now, but I could not throw it away. It seems that, with the Pew Forum on such a roll, religion-beat reporters are awash in interesting poll data about religion, values, politics, etc. In other words, we are still in the aftershocks of the “values voters” and “pew gap” political earthquakes of 2000 and 2004.

Here is my request: Will someone please go ahead and do a major study of the political and doctrinal beliefs of the Religious Left and the Mushy Middle?

Meanwhile, the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion has been getting lots of ink with its concept — click here for the home page on this — that Americans basically have four different approaches to God and that, amazingly enough, which God they say they believe in tells you a lot about their lives and (gasp!) their politics. Yes, I fear that this is all linked to the phenomenon that faith is most important when it affects the ballot box.

So veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today was given quite a bit of space to roll out many of the details. The key is that her package actually gives readers a chance to grasp the basic structure of the Baylor study.

Here is that heart of the story, the kind of background that reporters don’t get to offer very often. This is rather long, so here is a slightly condensed version. The key voice here is Baylor’s Christopher Bader:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” …

Those who envision God this way “are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals,” Bader says.

“(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools.” They’re also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values.

But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

They’re inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort.

… Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.

For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us,” Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.

This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church, Bader says.

Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.

jesuslandagain 01I thought it was striking that people feared that Baylor University — the world’s largest Southern Baptist linked campus — would lean right in its interpretation of such a study.

That’s a riot. Baylor is in the midst of a multi-decade war over its self-identity and would not, believe me, do anything that would open a door to criticism that it is in some meaningful way “evangelical” or “traditionalist.” Heaven forbid. Also note that the research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is very mainstream or even mainline.

The bottom line: Grossman’s piece does a great job of underlining ways in which American culture is defined, at the moment, by camps of believers who want to believe in Truth, but not specific truths that apply to them, by believers who strongly want to believe, but fear saying that any beliefs are right and others are wrong.

Note, in particular, that this story mentions, once again, that more and more Americans are trying to shun the hot political label “evangelical,” which is the new “fundamentalist.”

Thus, the growth of the emerging evangelical left is, again, a huge story. Americans want to shape their own beliefs, picking and choosing in the open marketplace. That is not a strictly conservative or traditional reality, which the Baylor survey demonstrates.

Check out the story and the survey material. It is must reading for those charting trends in OprahAmerica. It does seem that beliefs and worldview matter. But some beliefs affect actions more than others.

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We have a ‘trio’ alert at Georgetown

1025 5264aIt isn’t very shocking to pick up the newspaper and learn that there has been (a) another clash between Rome and a progressive Catholic theologian and that (b) this scholar teaches at Georgetown University.

However, it is rather strange to read the coverage of the controversy and not really know what is going on, in terms of the Vatican’s criticism of the priest involved. Here is the top of the Washington Post story about the case:

The Vatican and U.S. Catholic bishops are reviewing the work of a Georgetown University theology professor who writes about religious pluralism and are talking with him about whether his writings conform with Catholic teachings.

The inquiries into the Rev. Peter Phan, former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, reportedly focus on his views of Jesus as savior of the world and the value of non-Christian religions, among other things.

“Pluralism,” of course, can mean many things, and the Post connects this with the recent Vatican document about the Roman church’s claim to be, well, the Catholic Church for all of planet earth. This resulted in saying that other religious bodies do not have as full a revelation of the truth as does Catholicism. This is pretty standard stuff.

However, this clash seems — it’s hard to tell — to be centering on a larger conflict. Could it be that Rome is trying to clarify its own teachings on the status of world religions other than Christianity? If so, we might be dealing with an issue linked to ancient doctrines about salvation and the actual nature of Jesus Christ.

If that is the case, then we are faced with a conflict rooted in one of those pushy questions in the infamous “tmatt trio.” For newcovers, this is a set of questions that I have found almost always yields interesting information when used during interviews about conflicts inside Christian bodies:

1) Are 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 marriage a sin?

However, I must admit that it is hard to tell, at this point, precisely what is going on.

For Georgetown officials, this is automatically a case of academic freedom as defined on a secular university campus. For the Vatican, this is an issue of who is a Roman Catholic theologian and who is not, and Rome thinks it should play a role in that decision. Phan is declining comment, which is the normal Georgetown response.

At the end of the story, we learn:

Phan wrote about the challenges and goals of religious pluralism in a January essay for Commonweal, a journal run by lay Catholics. He wrote: “It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians.

“For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God’s self-revelation, the church’s understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful.”

st peters basilica in the vatican rome iNow, I do not believe the Catholic Church argues that it is exempt from sin and The Fall. The Church can make mistakes, as it attempts to teach and live out doctrines that it believes are absolutely true. Am I wrong about that?

But note the references to “differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions.” That’s a completely different set of issues.

Over at the Associated Press, Eric Gorski notes:

The issues underpinning Phan’s case are causing great debate among Catholic theologians grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

“To come to judgment as the Vatican seems to be doing so quickly, before theologians have had time to work out and critique the positions … it’s just premature,” Tilley said. “It’s in a sense cutting off debate before the debate’s started.”

I have no idea what this phrase means — “grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context.” European context? The irony there is that Catholics in other parts of the world are often more clear on the basic issues of Christology and salvation than the folks in Europe.

So, at this point, let’s just say that I am confused and I want to know more. What are the key issues here anyway?

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Spain’s mighty wind of Love

dc 2330 galleryThere just has to be a ghost in here somewhere, seeing as how this story is about the soul of the nation of Spain — which has to be some of the most religion-haunted soil on earth.

Here is the top of the story by Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times, to set the stage:

OROEL, SPAIN – When Spanish schoolchildren sing their national anthem, they particularly love the line about Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his “white rear end.”

OK, so those aren’t the real lyrics. Because there aren’t any.

Spain is one of the few countries that have a wordless national anthem. Popular culture, including the bawdy ballad that children famously sing to the anthem’s melody, has tried to fill the void.

As you would imagine, this puts Spanish athletes in an awkward position during awards ceremonies at the Olypics and elsewhere. How do they sing along?

OK, so the goal is to write appropriate lyrics for the Spanish national anthem, but this is taking place in the context of modern or postmodern, European Union Spain. What can you mention? What words can you use and what words are forbidden? In other words, what is the “civil religion” of Spain, in a land that is so Catholic in terms of history, yet now is so very secular or post-religion? And what about the history with Islam and Judaism?

So we return to the action, with the hammer falling near the end of the story:

… Telecinco, the television station, conducted an online poll and came up with its winning entry, by the poet and journalist Enrique Hernandez-Luike. It’s a piece of “simple metaphors and accessible musicality,” Telecinco said.

It opens with a paean to “Mother Homeland, arms entwined in a sign of peace,” and invokes the flag, freedom, the constitution, “an ensemble of cultures” and “the hand of Europe.”

One thing it does not mention: Spain.

The hand of Europe? As a creator? As a metaphor for Spain’s geography?

Thank goodness, the Times offers a sidebar with an English translation of the lyrics. As it turns out, the lyrics are not strictly secular, but offer a kind of Oprah-esque, foggy spirituality. You will need to sit down, if you like linear thought. Now read on:

Mother homeland, arms linked
in a sign of peace, our voices raised.

All your children at the foot of the flag
and in freedom, with the Constitution.

Art and strength, combination of cultures
firm pedestal of a triumphant people.

Hand of Europe outstretched to the whole world,
bow in the sea to the wind of Love.

The wind of Love? That’s with A. Big. L. Really?

Now there’s an interesting angle that should have been included in this nice feature story.

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NYT: Library moral equivalency?

book chainsMaybe it’s appropriate to write about this on the morning of Sept. 11. How different would things be today if the terrorist attacks of six years ago had never happened?

On Monday Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times gave us a hugely important story about new policies that are limiting the religion books inmates in federal prisons can freely access from their facilities’ libraries. According to Traci Billingsley, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, the agency is responding to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that recommended actions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep prisons from becoming recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. And other groups:

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”

Good for the Times in quoting Earley, but was the organization’s founder, Chuck Colson, unavailable for comment? With his close ties to the Bush administration, it would be interesting to know his thoughts. Obviously this is issue is several steps removed from the White House, but if I’m not mistaken each agency has a White House-designated official who reviews and approves all new agency regulations.

Instead of weeding out books that could be placed into this category, the prison agency talked to a bunch of unnamed people and put together a list of 300 books and multimedia resources comprising 20 religions or religious categories. The Times received a copy of the list from a source who doesn’t like the project. The problem raised by a project like this is, of course, some books won’t be on that list:

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

The identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.

The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

What’s almost as interesting as the list are the book examples provided by the Times. I’ve complained about this before, by why in this era of the Internets can we not just publish the whole list on the Times site and provide a link? All we are given is a list of “http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/09/10/us/20070910_PRISON_CHART.html/”>Some Excluded Works.” It’s a good thing the Times qualified that with “some,” since there is no way to compile the list of all the excluded titles. It would be easier if the Times had just given us the list of approved books.

Nevertheless, the legal justification behind this policy sounds like something the government would try to put forward. The coming legal battle could end up being a defining case in determining the federal government’s relationship with religion.

The Times quotes David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group:

Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”

The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”

Since this is a story about book lists — a genuine news story about lists! — we’re given a few opinions on the thoroughness of the list, which is great. But wouldn’t it be greater for us all to be able to chime in with what we think should be on the list? I’m sure a few of us would have an opinion or two:

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality.”

“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

“I would be completely sympathetic with Catholic chaplains in federal prisons if they’re complaining that this list is inhibiting,” he said, “because I know they have useful books that are not on this list.”

The next step for the journalist is to determine who was on the committee that put this list together. I certainly hope a Freedom of Information Act request has been filed.

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