Another story in the Iraqi whirlwind

synagoge baghdadFrom time to time, we receive emails from people concerned about a lack of mainstream media coverage of the persecution of the ancient churches inside Iraq, an already tragic situation that is getting worse as Iraq begins to fly apart into competing Islamic states, or tribes, or whatever. This is, of course, part of a wider story in the region — as I learned during my recent visit to Istanbul.

However, this morning I was reading my usual newspapers on the train when I ran into two paragraphs in The Washington Times that added yet another stunning angle to this story. This is one of those situations where I knew something was happening — at the head level — but the bare facts in the newspaper still hit home.

The story by veteran religion writer Julia Duin, a friend of this blog, focuses on yet another hearing by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Sadly, hearings of this kind take place all the time and, thus, this rather short story was located on an inside page. Here’s the lede:

Iraq’s outnumbered Christians and other religious minority groups are targets of a terror campaign and are facing a dire situation where killings and rapes have become the norm, a panel of witnesses testified yesterday on Capitol Hill.

But here are the two paragraphs that snuck up on me. The quote is from the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad:

Iraq’s eight remaining Jews, now hiding in Baghdad, are “the oldest Jewish community in the world,” he said, referring to the 597 B.C. Babylonian conquest of ancient Judah that brought the Jews to the region as captives.

“The international community has done nothing to help these people,” Mr. White said, explaining that the group is trying to emigrate to an Iraqi Jewish enclave in the Netherlands, which won’t admit them.

Here’s the question that popped into my mind: Which is more surprising, that there are only eight Jews left in Iraq or that officials in the Netherlands will not grant them asylum?

Have I missed it, or has there been extensive coverage of this issue? There will, of course, be headlines when the last Jews are killed or exiled against their will. I think.

Photo: The synagogue in Baghdad.

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Open source religion reporting works

open sourceDavid Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had the enviable task of coordinating a rather significant open-source religion journalism project that involved “forty strangers in a virtual room” talking about their faith.

Wired News, a collaborator in the project, carried a summary story on July 12 that was part of a larger open source project, Assignment Zero. According to the piece, the diverse set of 40 writers, or sources on the religion team, did three waves of reporting, or discussion, and after each Crumm would compose “an evolving story” that compiled the various thoughts and ideas put forth. Those summaries can be found here.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the results of this project is what is not there, rather than what is discussed. Politics hardly comes up, and neither do denominational debates. Here’s how Crumm described the project in his summary piece:

What, exactly, is open source religion? It’s the cutting edge of individual spirituality that’s thriving outside the walls of organized religion. It’s a historic shift in power and authority from religious leadership to the consumer-oriented adherents of religious movements.

In other words, the traditional influences on religion news are removed — the denominations and political groups — and the gaps are filled by Crumm’s sources.

By its very nature the project is introspective and engages in self-criticism that one hardly sees in more established publications. In fact the members addressed the major criticisms I thought I could make of this project before I plowed through the actual series:

That’s the nearly universal motive that attracted the participants — who took pains to point out that they’re hardly a random cross section of the U.S. population.

But what emerged from the discussions is strong evidence that there’s real energy behind open source religion: People are eager to express their most sacred insights within emerging grassroots crowds that are forming around the world.

One of the best areas the project addresses is the growing number of prominent atheist thinkers out there. A major finding of the project — what I would define as the “news” — came from a contribution of a professional:

There’s solid sociological data behind this observation. It comes from multiple waves of World Values Surveys, analyzed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne E. Baker, who also joined our forum. Baker wrote about this in his 2006 book, “America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception.” As Baker sorted out the data, he showed that religious values are very strong and widespread across America. Americans rank with traditionalist countries around the world, places like Pakistan, in the strength of our religious values. But Americans also are almost off the chart in another powerful value — our desire for individual self-expression. (We rank with Scandinavia on that scale.)

While I started reviewing this project skeptically, I found that it worked amazingly well in uncovering compelling wrinkles in the religion landscape. The story unfolded over the course of weeks rather than hours. But isn’t that the amount of time reporters usually take for a significant in-depth look at a subject? The natural next question is if this could be the future of religion journalism.

A carefully researched, thorough report on a subject involves talking to a diverse set of sources who are experts in the subject matter. Could journalists do this in a more open manner that results in better results? Possibly.

Key challenges that must be avoided include the navel-gazing that typically happens when sources are given a wide platform and porous filters, and an obsession with the “open source” process rather than simply getting on with the work.

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Where the *&^# is that ABC story on hell?

Vision of HellOne of the many, many things that we GetReligionistas do not do very well is handle religion news carried on broadcast and cable television. There is, however, a good reason for this. Actually, there are several of them.

One is that I don’t watch very much television. Not because I am some kind of elitist snob. It’s just that I’d rather watch movies rather than news. I would rather read the news or interact with multimedia news online. Surprise.

I realize that there are some wonderful archives of television news stories online. However, the whole matter still seems to be rather hit and miss. And the “miss” side of things really ticks me off.

Take, for example, what I understand was a rather interesting 20/20 feature the other night on hell. What time does 20/20 come on, anyway? However, I know about the piece because Jeffrey Weiss wrote about it the other day at the Dallas Morning News religion weblog:

I’d love to post a link, but the stupid ABC site is just about unnavigable and I can’t find what I heard last night. But I noted two interesting items:

(1) In an extended discussion about the Christian idea of salvation, including an interview with what was described as an evangelical pastor, I never heard the word “Jesus.” Maybe I missed it?

(2) The segment claimed that Satanists are all actually atheists. And interviewed a self-styled Satanist who filled the bill. That seemed to be a serious stretch. It’s not like there’s a Satanic “pope” who sets “doctrine” for everyone who claims to be a Satanist, after all.

Now if you go to the 20/20 site, you will find a story, “Touching Heaven and Hell — One Man’s Brush With the Beyond Changes His Life,” by reporters Sylvia Johnson and Rob Wallace. It starts like this and quickly turns into yet another standard-issue NDE ratings booster:

Matthew Dovel says he calls himself “a hostile witness to heaven and hell.” Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they’ve been to heaven.

Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he’s seen both. And he’s had a few brushes with death.

That doesn’t seem to be what we want to find. So maybe what we are looking for is this Good Morning America story about one evangelical pastor — repeat, one — wrestling with timeless issues of God, free will and theodicy:

A prominent Tulsa, Okla., minister was scandalized not by sex or embezzlement, but by his belief in hell. When Carlton Pearson began wondering if modern believers still need a medieval pit of fire, it cost him his congregation.

Breaking news: Christians only believed in hell during the Medieval era. Forget all of those Eastern Orthodox icons, passages in the New Testament and other hellish references in the early church. And forget John 14:6, while we are at it.

ladderBut it appears more likely that the story for which Weiss saw a promo was this 20/20 feature by Rob Wallace and Farnaz Javid: “The Fascination With Hell’s Fury — Hell Has Played a Role Across Cultures and History, but What Does It Mean Today?” And, yes, if you search the short print version of the report it appears that the word “Jesus” is “not found.”

We are told this:

This afterlife for so-called sinners has fascinated society since the dawn of time. The very thought of the place inspired Dante to write his “Inferno,” giving us history’s most detailed description of the underworld.

Since then, artists from Michelangelo to Marilyn Manson have shaped our opinion of the infernal abyss. Most religious teachings describe hell as the netherworld anyone might end up in who strays from the straight and narrow. That view seems to be changing in this age of logic and political correctness.

A decade ago, 56 percent of Americans polled said they believed in hell. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number shot up to 71 percent (polls conducted by Harris and Gallup), then fell in recent years, but this pattern is not a new phenomenon. Man’s definition of the abyss has shifted since the dawn of humanity. And through it all, it seems the more sinister hell is made out to be, the more it is mocked and embraced. It is a surefire punch line on television and in movies, and it’s used to market everything from comic books to chewing gum.

This report, however, is only 626 words long (whew, as opposed to 666). Surely this is not the whole story on such a complex topic. And, alas, there are no atheist Satanists in sight. Perhaps that was in a different feature?

That’s how things go, when you try to cover television online. The images flicker past or you miss them altogether because you have to do something like cook supper for your family, take a walk or go to church. Then it is hard to find what you are looking for with the search engines.

So let me end by joining with Weiss and asking: Did anyone see any of these reports? Are there illegal versions of them somewhere user-friendly, like YouTube?

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Cynical coverage of the ‘religion-industrial complex’

heavy industryJacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor and program director at Georgetown University, has launched an On Faith column on the “religion-industrial complex.”

I find the whole On Faith site confusing in both layout and content. Berlinerblau’s project, which is equally confusing in its layout, seems associated with Georgetown University, but there is a reference to “university scholars” so that might mean non-Hoyas will be contributors as well.

That said about the layout the concept of covering the “religion-industrial complex” is pretty compelling. Yes, the “-industrial complex” construction has been overused in Washington since the days of Eisenhower, but it is fitting. It is also rather sad to think that the concept has come to the subject of religion.

According to his Georgetown profile, Berlinerblau holds two doctorates: one in ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures and another in sociology. He is the visiting professor at Georgetown for Jewish civilization and directs the Jewish Studies program. He is also an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University.

A reader of ours, Christian Hamaker, brought the post to our attention using the handy Submit a Story link and said that he’s hoping the posts are not saturated in cynicism. But based on the introduction, I have a feeling Christian may be disappointed:

The goal of this blog is to change that by casting a self-reflexive glance on the 2008 faith industry from a non-partisan perspective (about which more anon). By necessity, this will be an incomplete look, a peek. The industry is so vast and decentralized that no one observer could hope to cover it all. But, if all goes well I hope to draw your attention to key trends, emerging patterns, failures of judgment, and moments of critical heroism that will come to pass in 2008.

The goal of this blog, however, is not to appoint or anoint myself ombudsman of the entire, sprawling unregulated enterprise. Such an endeavor would be insufferably boring. Self-righteous. Puritanical. Rather, a sort of overarching apprehensiveness will pervade my bi-weekly posts. My maxim is: when dealing with faith and politics few things do violence to our (already limited) powers of impartiality like our own faith and our own politics. Whether writing about a presidential aspirant’s latest play of the religion card, or an emerging issue being championed by a special interest group, or a poll showing that this community of faith supports that candidate, my goal is to write with an acute awareness of how religious and political passion can obscure and cloud the good judgment, moral reasoning, and analytical clarity of industry commentators (including myself) and those they comment on.

Berlinerblau’s perspective on religion in politics is somewhat shocking in its honesty. The fact that America has developed a religion and politics industry is rather amazing considering the roots of the country. How often do you see the story framed in those words? Perhaps this blog can help reporters see a different perspective on the stories involving politics and religion.

But as our reader said, let’s hoe that cynicism does not dominate the story. Faith has had a persistent and often positive role in American politics since its founding. The fact that it seems to have emerged in the 2008 race may be more of a re-emergence after a generation-long sabbatical. That doesn’t mean reporters covering religion in politics shouldn’t be somewhat cynical, though. Let’s just keep things in perspective and consider the historical role faith has played in American public life.

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The Latin Mass and that ‘trio’ again

ratzingertlm9as 01Time for another visit to the doctrinal terrain of the infamous “tmatt trio” (cheers).

For those who need a brief refresher course on this Sunday morning, here is the trio of questions that I have found — as a journalist, not as a churchman — yield me the most interesting information when I am interviewing leaders involved in conflicts inside mainstream Christian groups.

They are doctrinal questions that loom in the background and help define the various camps. Here we go.

(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?

This brings us back to the big story from Rome that GetReligion has been anticipating for quite some time, and here is the lede in the Los Angeles Times. (Click here for a Google search of the mainstream media coverage in general.)

Pope Benedict XVI … authorized wider use of the long-marginalized Latin Mass, a move that delighted Roman Catholic traditionalists but worried others who fear the erosion of important church reforms.

Revival of the old service, which had been largely supplanted by the modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council, also angered Jewish groups because it contains a passage calling for the conversion of Jews.

In a decree known as a motu propio, essentially a personal decision, the pope urged priests to celebrate a 1962 version of the 16th century Tridentine Mass when their congregations request it. Until now, priests could use the Latin Mass only with permission from their bishops, which was not always forthcoming.

There are all kinds of things hiding in there, from the much-discussed “spirit of Vatican II” to the tensions between bishops on the left wing of the church and the conservatives in their dioceses.

But my question is simple. If you were a journalist right now and you were covering this story, how would the questions in the “tmatt trio” relate to it? Which question is the most relevant and why? Which question does not seem to be relevant, but if you know anything about post-Vatican II Catholicism, it actually is?

Here is a more than obvious hint from the Los Angeles Times story.

Some of the strongest criticism Saturday came from proponents of interfaith dialogue and from Jewish organizations. Although references to “perfidious Jews” have been removed from the old liturgy, its Good Friday prayers contain a call for the conversion of the Jews and for God to lift the “veil from their hearts” so that they might know Jesus Christ.

“This is a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations,” Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is in Rome for meetings with Vatican officials, said in a prepared statement. “It is the wrong decision at the wrong time.”

Clearly, this is an important issue, one linked to historic changes in Vatican II.

But what is the basic doctrine of Christian theology that is at the heart of this? Are there any mainstream stories today that even raise this “trio” question?

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More on that Media Matters study

god saidEvery now and then, a topic covered here at GetReligion kind of hangs around in my mind and turns into one of my weekly “On Religion” columns for the Scripps Howard News Service. That’s what happened this week.

Also, there are people who ask me to post my Scripps column here, which I resist because people can already find it online at the wire service home page — like this – if they really want to see it early. Nevertheless, this is a week when I think the column needs to be stored here, too.

Why? As anyone knows who has read GetReligion for a year or more, I am sincerely interested in seeing more coverage of what can be called the religious left. I am also interested in the growth of the segment of the American population that is either fiercely secular or, in a related trend, spiritual yet opposed to religious traditions of almost any kind. Combine that story with the rise of the religious left and you have an emerging force in American life. That’s news.

So I wrote about Media Matters’ “Left Behind” survey this week, which has been covered on this blog before. There are echoes of the earlier post in this, but lots of new material, as well. I should have added lots of hyperlinks to all of the personalities mentioned in this but, hey, it’s really late here in Istanbul and, well, that’s why God made Google.

So here goes.

When it comes to covering religion news, the mainstream American press is a vast right-wing conspiracy that consistently commits sins of omission against religious liberals.

No, wait, honest. Stop laughing.

The leaders of a liberal advocacy group called Media Matters for America recently released a study entitled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media” that says journalists consistently dedicate more ink to covering conservative leaders than to those on the left side of the spectrum.

“Coverage of religion not only over represents some voices and under represents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives,” according to the study. “Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religious-based values.”

The bottom line, according to Media Matters, is that religious conservatives were “quoted, mentioned or interviewed” 2.8 times more often than liberals. The study focused on coverage between the 2004 election — the “values voters” earthquake — and the end of 2006. It focused on coverage in major secular newspapers, the three major broadcast television networks, major cable news channels and PBS.

With a few exceptions, the study contrasted the coverage of a small circle of evangelical Protestants with the coverage of a more complex list of liberal mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals and others.

The 10 conservatives included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

The 10 liberals and “progressives” included Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ, C. Weldon Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.

Were these lists fair representations of a spectrum of beliefs on either the left or the right? The conservative list does not, for example, include a representative or two drawn from the ranks of Roman Catholic clergy, Jewish rabbis or doctrinally conservative mainline Protestants. The list on the left is better, but there are glaring omissions — such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

It is certainly true that leaders on the religious right have drawn more than their share of news coverage during recent decades of American political life. However this raises a crucial question, which is whether religious movements should be judged by the political maneuvers of a handful of outspoken leaders. Should politics always trump doctrine?

Meanwhile, many conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others have to cringe whenever they see themselves represented in the national media by more quotes from Dobson or Robertson. Who are the leaders on the religious left who make other liberals cringe whenever they open their mouths?

So why have a few religious conservatives dominated the news, while religious liberals have been left in the shadows?

For starters, conservative groups have been growing in size and power, while liberal groups — especially mainline Protestant churches — have lost millions of members. Journalists pay special attention to groups that they believe are gaining power.

Journalists also focus on trends that they consider strange, bizarre and even disturbing. Certainly, one of the hottest news stories in the past quarter century of American life has been the rise of the religious right and its political union with the Republican Party. For many elite journalists, this story has resembled the vandals arriving to sack Rome.

One of the nation’s top religion writers heard an even more cynical theory to explain this evidence that journalists seem eager to quote conservatives more than liberals when covering religion news.

“Personally, I think there’s much truth to what the study claims,” said Gary Stern of the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., in a weblog post. “But why? Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad.”

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We call it ‘selective reduction’

LizaMundyIn recent weeks we’ve seen a couple of really good articles about the ethics and values of abortion supporters. Liza Mundy, a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, had another excellent entry that relates to the topic with her Sunday piece on women pregnant with more than one fetus who wish they had fewer.

Mundy, who just wrote the book Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World, speaks with mothers of multiple fetuses and one of the doctors who ends the lives of some of them. In an online chat the Post provided the day after the article ran, Mundy says she supports what advocates of the practice call “selective reduction.” Having said that, the piece balances that sympathy with some of the most shockingly straightforward details I’ve seen in abortion-related reporting. She also looks at the psychological suffering and ethical qualms of the women who end the lives of some of the fetuses inside of them. To wit:

And, sure enough, on [sonographer Rachel] Greenbaum’s screen were three little honeycombed chambers with three fetuses growing in them. The fetuses were moving and waving their limbs; even at this point, approaching 12 weeks of gestation, they were clearly human, at that big-headed-could-be-an-alien-but-definitely-not-a-kitten stage of development. Evans has found this to be the best window of time in which to perform a reduction. Waiting that long provides time to see whether the pregnancy might reduce itself naturally through miscarriage, and lets the fetuses develop to the point where genetic testing can be done to see which are chromosomally normal.

. . . So far, there was nothing anomalous about any of the fetuses. Greenbaum turned the screen toward the patient. “That’s the little heartbeat,” she said, pointing to the area where a tiny organ was clearly pulsing. “And there are the little hands. There’s the head. The body.”

“Oh, my God, I can really see it!” the patient cried. “Oh, my God! I can see the fingers!”

“Okay!” she said, abruptly, gesturing for the screen to be turned away. She began sobbing. There were no tissues in the room, so her husband gave her a paper towel, which she crumpled to her face. The patient spent the rest of the procedure with her hospital gown over her face, so she would not see any more of what was happening.

The fetus is killed — or “eliminated” and “deleted” as the Post article puts it — through an injection of potassium chloride to the heart. The article reminded me of Stephanie Simon’s excellent write-up of her day inside an abortion clinic for the Los Angeles Times. In fact, Mundy did camp out at the doctor’s office for two days while she met with women carrying multiple fetuses. One compelling story was that of lesbian couple Emma and Jane, who had decided they would terminate the lives of two of their quadruplets by looking for chromosomal abnormalities, fetal position, medical instincts and, finally, sex. All four of the fetuses were healthy:

“I used to be totally not willing to talk about gender,” elaborated [Doctor Mark] Evans, who has pieced together his own ethics during more than 20 years of practice. At the outset, he worked with a bioethicist to develop guiding principles. For years, he says, the majority of sex-selection requests came from Asian and Indian parents, who tended to want to keep the boys. That he would not do. Increasingly, however, what people want is the Holy Grail of the modern two-child family: one boy and one girl. He finds that morally acceptable.

Emma positioned herself on the table for her sonogram, while Jane scrutinized the four fetuses on the screen. “They are all tucked in really nicely into their little nests,” she said, fascinated. “The most I’ve ever looked at in utero is two.”

. . . Jane wanted to safeguard Emma’s pregnancy but was feeling some ethical qualms. “It’s killing me that we’re going to do this,” Jane said. “I never thought I would feel that. I’m the most pro-choice person. I’m vehemently pro-choice.”

It’s interesting that it’s not morally acceptable to kill a girl if it’s because Indian and Asian parents prefer boys, but it is morally acceptable to kill a girl if it’s because she already has a sister. I wish Mundy had explored that more. What is the logic behind that? The article also covers a woman from Puerto Rico whose mother pushes her to terminate one of the three girls she is carrying:

Evans worked for a while trying to get the needle into the right spot.

“I’m not in,” he said at one point, tensely. Then he pinned C with the needle, and pushed the plunger to release the chemical. The fetus, which had been undulating and waving, went still. It would remain in the womb, while the other fetuses grew and developed.

Evans explains that what he does is not technically an abortion since that procedure “kills the fetus and empties the uterus.” Since he aims to continue a pregnancy with the dead fetus inside the woman and the living fetuses continuing to grow, it’s not an abortion. The one pro-lifer in the article mentions that this distinction isn’t that noteworthy from her perspective.

Anyway, it made me think back to the term we were using: selective reduction. Remember that big, record-breaking discussion we had when the Supreme Court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act? I do. Some readers supported mainstream media’s decision to put the term in quotes or refer to it as something only critics of the practice called it. And yet the actual medical term for what Evans is doing is chorionic villus sampling feticide or embryoctony.

Selective reduction, like partial-birth abortion, is not a medical term, but the one used by proponents of the practice. And yet it’s not put in quotes by the mainstream media. Curious. The only time I recall seeing it put in quotes was when someone critiqued a New York Times Sunday Magazine article by a woman who killed two of her triplets so she wouldn’t have to make trips to Costco or move out of the East Village. I’m not joking. The New York Times got in a bit of trouble over that piece — not because of the content but because it failed to mention the woman in question had worked for Planned Parenthood.

Anyway, Mundy gets some explicit religion in the story through the concerns of the sonogram technician who says she sometimes feels like she’s playing God. She justifies her behavior by saying her Jewish beliefs enable her to terminate fetuses for sound medical reasons.

Still, she says: “It’s a very hard procedure, because the baby is moving, and you are chasing it. That is what is very emotional — when the baby is moving and you are chasing it.

I wish the ethics and religious guidelines of each patient had been delved into more because it was fascinating each time Mundy did broach the subject. The doctor used to refuse to terminate one twin, although he is willing now since some patients only want one child. His thinking is that if it’s okay to abort a pregnancy, there’s no logical argument that means it’s not okay to reduce a pregnancy from two to one. Mundy says there is a debate about that notion but she then refers to another doctor who simply talks about how it’s possible to have a healthy pregnancy carrying multiple fetuses. That’s not a refutation of Evans’ logical argument. Mundy also mentions psychological consequences, including severe bereavement and a more complex attachment to the remaining babies.

The lesbian couple ends up selecting for sex. They want a boy and a girl. One of them is worried about the karma of what they are doing, particularly after one of the little ones they selected to terminate is moving and waving:

Evans prepared two syringes, swabbed Emma with antiseptic, put the square-holed napkin on her stomach. Then he plunged one of the needles into Emma’s belly and began to work his way into position. He injected the potassium chloride, and B, the first fetus to go, went still.

“There’s no activity there,” he said, scrutinizing the screen. B was lying lengthwise in its little honeycomb chamber, no longer there and yet still there. It was impossible not to find the sight affecting. Here was a life that one minute was going to happen and now, because of its location, wasn’t. One minute, B was a fetus with a future stretching out before it: childhood, college, children, grandchildren, maybe. The next minute, that future had been deleted.

Evans plunged the second needle into Emma’s belly. “See the tip?” he said, showing the women where the tip of the needle was visible on the ultrasound screen. Even I could see it: a white spot hovering near the heart. D was moving. Evans started injecting. He went very slowly. “If you inject too fast, you blow the kid off your needle,” he explained.

SuzannePoppemaI thought the article — including that last quote — was shockingly straightforward. I was struck by how many comments in the Washington Post chat championed the reporter for sympathizing with women who terminate some of their fetuses. It would be just as easy to praise her for shedding light on the monstrosity of “selective reduction.” I thought it was, like many of Stephanie Simon’s stories, rather balanced — which is interesting because Simon had an abortion story that wasn’t terribly balanced. So there you have it. Apparently I do not offer unending praise for 100 percent of her stories. Anyway, she writes about medical students who want to become abortion doctors.

For the article, Simon speaks with three students and one doctor — all in her home base of Colorado. The doctor is Warren Hern, who is rather notorious for aborting babies throughout pregnancy. I was surprised at the limited scope. It also uncritically parrots the pro-choice talking points, including horror stories from pre-Roe days. She mentions that, while abortions are quite common, a decreasing number of doctors perform them. Abortion opponents suggest the reality of the procedure is too grisly. Abortion rights advocates blame picketing of doctors’ offices and “increasingly” (what does that mean, exactly?) the home:

Physicians who choose to provide abortions also chafe at a lack of autonomy. In many states, every detail of their practice is regulated: the width of clinic hallways, the number of air vents, even how often their staff must take physicals.

On the federal level, Congress has banned a particular technique for ending mid-term pregnancies, known by critics as “partial-birth abortion.” The Supreme Court last month upheld that ban; doctors can be prosecuted for using the method even if they determine it’s the safest approach for a given patient.

Every doctor I know complains about over-regulation — is this managing of hall space limited to abortion clinics? I don’t really know the answer to that, but some comparison must be made. And the second paragraph is just disappointing. That’s not a Stephanie Simon paragraph — it’s a NARAL fundraising letter.

Hern, 68, practices in Boulder, Colo., a liberal college town. Still, he’s afraid to open his blinds at night for fear of a sniper hidden in the bushes. His clinic is protected by a fence and four layers of bulletproof glass.

Abortion is so stigmatized, Hern said, that his fellow physicians shun him. Even his patients often regard him with disgust: “They’ve absorbed so much antiabortion rhetoric, they feel a sense of revulsion that they have to come into my office and seek treatment.”

Having grown up in Colorado and having attending the University of Colorado, I’m familiar with Hern. To put it as gently as I can, he’s a character. He’s completely outlandish and when I was growing up there, he was quoted all the time for his extreme statements. Think Pat Robertson for the pro-abortion crowd. If other physicians shun him, it might not just be because of his chosen line of work.

Anyway, what I love about Simon’s articles is that I learn so much about the topics she covers. She’s also just a wonderful writer who really gets her subjects and explains their perspectives well. This article was very well written, but I’m not sure how illuminating it was.

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More than a politico

Jerry FalwellThe general consensus in the day-after coverage of the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell has been that he ignited the political movement that is today known as the religious right. Here’s Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times:

A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.

He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.

The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.

Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.

Falwell’s greatest effect on America was undoubtedly the political movement he baptized as the “founder of the religious right,” as USA Today reporters Susan Page and Cathy Lynn Grossman put it. But in a page A6 story from The Washington Post‘s Hanna Rosin, the theme is that Falwell’s movement had moved beyond him like Russia did with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reaction to Falwell’s death has produced an avalanche of statements from President Bush to Al Sharpton to Larry Flynt. Who was the last person, other than former presidents, whose death received this level of attention? And what could be the level of polarization in the statements?

The Post/Newsweek On Faith has posted comments from its panel of distinguished religious figures, including Rick Warren (“A Real Compassionate Conservative“), Diana Eck (“A Good Person with Bad Theology“), Anthony Stevens-Arroyo (“The Wolsey Moment“) and Jonathan Sarna (“Friend to Israel; Enemy to Anti-Semites“).

One angle that has been neglected was Falwell’s genuine attempts to bring conservative Christianity into modern times.

Here’s Jesse Walker at Reason:

Falwell fulminated til the end against homosexuality, feminism, and the other alleged evils of modernity. But it’s hard to escape the impression that his cohort not only lost the culture war, but perhaps did more than anyone else to usher Hollywood’s America into Christian homes. In the early days, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network refused to air reruns of Bewitched on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. Today the outlet is owned by ABC, which calls it the ABC Family Channel and happily broadcasts not just The 700 Club but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, not to mention the frequently ribald humor of Whose Line Is It Anyway? As intensely intolerant as Falwell could be, it’s harder than ever to imagine America reembracing his views about gender relations or the sinfulness of homosexuality. The one cultural war he may have won, perhaps without even meaning to wage it, was the battle against Protestant hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his illiberal platform and rhetoric, Falwell’s long-term legacy might be one of tolerance.

That could depend, of course, on whether the centralized, politicized fundamentalist community he helped create survives the next media revolution. Television tends to smooth over our differences; the Internet allows diversity to bloom. The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now, pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube. He might even call his little films The Old Time Gospel Minute. Don’t let the title fool you.

It’s easy for the press to get caught up in the left-right divide that tends to dictate the direction of public statements issued to remember Falwell’s passing. But taking a longer perspective on Falwell shows that for all his dramatic pronouncements and controversies, he changed the American religious landscape, and subsequently America, in rather significant fashion. The political spats that made Falwell famous will pass away, but the rise of the religious right and his influence on the use of technology (think television) in religion will be his lasting legacy.

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