Muddled millennial musings

millennialismThis is a few days late, but we need to look at that Los Angeles TimesEnd Times” story. I’m not sure if the problem with the story is that it is disorganized or that the reporter just doesn’t get the topic about which he is writing.

Speaking of not knowing about the topic, I’m Lutheran and we think Left Behind is where you get a penicillin shot. Still, I think I’d put any catechumen from my church up against the Times‘ Louis Sahagun. His breathless piece is about how an unspecified number of religious groups of unspecified population — some of which don’t even share the same religion – are using technology to hasten the end times and/or apocalypse and/or the arrival of a Jewish, Christian or Muslim messiah.

I mean, is it me, or is this kind of a big umbrella for one story? Compounding the problem is that some of his examples don’t have anything to do with technology. Maybe it’s a new Times exercise in free-association stories. But since this is GetReligion and not GetOrganized, how about I move on . . .

Sahagun fails to prove his point. If you’re going to claim that people are wacky, it’s important to be specific and substantiate claims with evidence the reader can check:

With that goal in mind, mega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus’ message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Maybe these unquantified megachurch pastors were trying to bring about Armageddon. Or maybe they were doing what Christians have done since, well, Day 1: evangelism. And mayors improving the infrastructure of their city? Well, that is crazy, isn’t it? Put another way, how hard does a reporter have to work to make Ahmadinejad seem like a sensible bureaucrat? This is the man who spins the Holocaust, for crying out loud. I kid you not when I say Sahagun also acts like it’s news that Jews want to rebuild “a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam’s holiest shrines.” A temple? You don’t say . . .

Sahagun glosses over different Christian beliefs about Revelation:

Though there are myriad interpretations of how it will play out, the basic Christian apocalyptic countdown — as described by the Book of Revelation in the New Testament — is as follows:

Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, billions of people perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues, the antichrist arises and rules the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan’s armies and preside over Judgment Day.

Generations of Christians have hoped for the Second Coming of Jesus, said UCLA historian Eugen Weber, author of the 1999 book “Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages.”

“And it’s always been an ultimately bloody hope, a slaughterhouse hope,” he added with a sigh.

armageddon 01Oh, so that’s the “basic Christian apocalyptic countdown”? And we Christians have always had a “slaughterhouse hope” in the end times? That’s good to know. I wonder why my pastor and every other Lutheran pastor and, for that matter, most of Christendom is keeping this from me. I mean, Lutherans, for instance, reject all forms of millennialism. (Happy birthday, Augsburg!) And even among folks who do believe in millennialism, you have your Historical Premillennialists, your Dispensational Premillennialists, Pre-Tribulation Rapture folks, Post-Tribs, Mid-Tribs and Pre-Wrath Rapturites and Partial Rapture folks — all of whom have disparate eschatological views.

Sahagun confuses evangelism with Armageddon (maybe this explains other problems in the newsroom). There are many examples but here’s one:

Apocalyptic movements are nothing new; even Christopher Columbus hoped to assist in the Great Commission by evangelizing New World inhabitants.

Sahagun is unaware that not all Christians are millennialists, part 246:

For Christians, the future of Israel is the key to any end-times scenario, and various groups are reaching out to Jews — or proselytizing among them — to advance the Second Coming.

No. No, no, no. Israel is not the key to any end-times scenario for Christians. There are billions of Christians in the world, all of whom believe in the world to come, as we say. And religious support of Israe? That’s certainly of concern to some Baptists and Pentecostals, for instance. But not everybody.

Complete lack of context. Reporters should use specific words. Avoid the word “some” as much as possible. Sahagun used the word eight times. The article gave the impression that statistical outliers — a farmer in Mississippi trying to breed a herd of red heifers — represent average Christians. And Christian thought is fleshed out much more in the story than Muslim or Jewish thought.

I know I’m not the Times‘ only reader who wants to learn more about millennialism and religious support of Israel. It’s a shame we’re still waiting.

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Religion in comic books

supermanYou have to give makers of comic books credit. They have been able to effectively turn their craft into a big screen wonder lately. With hit after hit, Hollywood box offices are smiling.

I haven’t seen much buzz on the new Superman film, due to hit the screens just before the long Fourth of July weekend, other than it’s supposed to be quite good, but this small item in Newsweek‘s excellent Beliefwatch section made me think that something’s in the making:

Is the Man of Steel a man of faith? The upcoming “Superman” movie has sent fans picking over primary sources. Jews have often claimed the archetypal superhero as their own. Superman sprang from the imaginations of two Jewish cartoonists, and scholars have compared him to golem myth — the supernatural creature who vanquishes the Jews’ enemies (early on, Superman battled the Nazis directly). Most fans believe the man from Krypton is a Methodist, an opinion divined from Clark Kent’s Midwestern upbringing. But there’s another possibility. In the original 1978 movie and the new one, the superhero’s father tells him: “They can be a great people … They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I’ve sent them you, my only son.” Yes, Superman is a Christ figure.

Is the religiosity of a cartoon character going to become part of the culture wars? Of course not. It’s just comic books and they’re open to anyone’s interpretation. But it’s certainly fun to discuss.

The article includes a short snippet of an interview with the founder of Adherents.com, Preston Hunter, who has analyzed comic book characters and found religious denominations for several of them, including Daredevil’s Elektra as Greek Orthodox. I say go figure on that one, I never saw the movie, but placing spiritual attachments in fantasy is nothing new to Christians, particularly the fans of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

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Semitic speech wars

149100062 4d9ff20623The Los Angeles Times has been covering a story about Muslim activists and their Jewish critics on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The story has been brewing for years but let’s look at the recent events.

In March, Muslim college activists decried the College Republicans plan to hold a discussion about Islamic militancy on campuses and whether some Islamic groups in the United States are apologists for terrorism. That, along with the group’s publication of the infamous Muhammed cartoons, didn’t go over well with the activists.

For the last few years, the Muslim Student Union has put on public programs opposed to the existence of the state of Israel. This year’s program featured a mock Israeli “apartheid” wall set up in the center of campus. The TimesKimi Yoshino wrote about the coming program in mid-May:

Controversial events scheduled at UC Irvine next week with such provocative titles as “Holocaust in the Holy Land” and “Israel: The Fourth Reich” are sparking outrage among Jewish students who are asking administrators to denounce aspects of the event.

Jewish students and community leaders say the program is the latest in a string of offensive incidents at the university. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights is investigating anti-Semitism at UCI, the first probe of its kind at a college.

The post-event story from the Times‘ Ashraf Khalil presents the controversy more in the he-said, she-said manner:

These clashes have been the latest in years of tension, mistrust and back-and-forth accusations between activist Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine.

In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized. The next year, an antiZionism mural erected by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case.

Khalil frames the story in a very interesting way:

At the heart of the UC Irvine issue is a fundamental question: Can one be aggressively opposed to the policies and even the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

I think this is an excellent question that is important but difficult to ask. I also think it helps for Khalil to boil down the complexities of campus clashes. But I’m not sure if he’s right that this fundamental and important question is the one through which this conflict must be viewed.

Khalil makes a bold move by framing the debate in the way he does, but this could also be viewed in other ways: as a free speech issue or a campus speech issue or a trend story about the rise of Muslim activism on campuses or a story about public reaction to Muslim activism. Perhaps in subsequent stories he could look deeper how students react to Muslim activists when they say they oppose the “existence of Israel.” For instance, this quote — from one of the speakers brought in by the activists — could be taken in a variety of ways:

“The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down. They are living in fear . . . and it is about time they live in fear,” said Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based Islamic activist, during a May 15 speech on the campus quad. “The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or until we are victorious.”

Khalil goes to great lengths to clarify that Ali is attacking Zionist Jews as opposed to Jews in general. I would be curious to read how various students on campus interpret these remarks. It would also be interesting to readers whether these various groups are taxpayer funded. And I would like a lot more explanation of the religious motivations of the various parties. Still, the Times has been doing a pretty good job covering this local issue.

Photo via Flickr.

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Inside Dan Brown’s Holy of Holies

bonalisa2Just a reminder, gentle readers, that I am still interested in actual news stories about The Da Vinci Code that escape the basic news templates we have seen over and over and over.

Although, I guess, if somebody out there is doing an evangelistic weekend that actually focuses on church history and art, that would be a novelty.

Anyway, the Los Angeles Times did print a feature this week that tries to offer newspaper readers a bit of a trip into a world that they do not see — the life of the screenwriter. In “Breaking ‘Code’ down on the page,” Charles Taylor tried to explain the challenges that Akiva Goldsman faced in taking the novel — that many book reviewers said resembled a bad movie driven by fake cliffhangers — and actually putting it on the screen.

Here’s the key: The book actually is about the ideas in its pages and the action is, for the most part, beside the point. Dan Brown really believes this stuff, and Goldsman tried to honor that. Perhaps director Ron Howard wasn’t up to the challenge? Thus, Taylor writes:

… (It) would be dishonest to pass judgment on Goldsman divorced from any knowledge of what Ron Howard did with his script. Howard is too conventional a director to bring the film the craziness and pace that it needs. (If ever there should be a lapsed Catholic behind the camera, this is the movie.)

But the slow deliberation of Goldsman’s script does provide the pleasant novelty of a summer blockbuster that isn’t punctuated by explosions every two minutes. There’s also no escaping the kick of seeing a big-budget Hollywood movie that qualifies as an honest-to-God blasphemy.

It could be that we are officially entering a new stage of coverage, a kind of “Yes, lots of smart people (click here!) think the movie stinks, but it’s cool that it’s attacking the right people and the ideas in it are worth thinking about even though all of the history and art stuff is bunk.”

It is also clear that many of the ideas that are in the book have been watered down in the movie, almost certainly — as a PR man linked to Sony told me long ago — in an attempt to make the book less offensive to Catholics and other traditional Christians. But the worldview is still there, no matter how hard Tom Hanks tries to say that it is all just a bizarre story.

So what is the heart of the story in the movie? If this is a refreshing blast of blasphemy, what is the key element of its heretical doctrine?

Most journalists have focused on the “Did Jesus get married?” angle, but a few have dug underneath that and hit larger questions. Over at USA Today, veteran religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman sped past the plot and offered this summary: It’s pro-feminist Gnosticism.

Is there really a feminine aspect to God? A theology that’s been sub rosa, hidden for centuries beneath the feminine symbol of the rose, the flower reminiscent of a blossoming womb? Author Dan Brown says one reason his book is popular with women is because it confirms their sense that Christianity has kept women in secondary roles to downplay or disguise the feminine aspect of God, maintain male religious authority and stamp out rival beliefs, such as goddess cults.

Our world today is based on “outdated male philosophy,” Brown said recently on New Hampshire Public Radio. So he countered with a heroine whose very name, Sophie, means wisdom. It’s a salute to Gnosticism (gnosis is Greek for knowledge), a first-century sect some claim was more feminine-friendly.

model smallLike the Matrix movies, DVC does have a massive dose of gnosis. But, in the novel, Brown goes further than that, further back in time, and ends up in a place that, frankly, I have been stunned has not set off warning sirens in some Jewish sanctuaries.

That was the subject of my Scripps Howard column this week. If you want to read that, click here, but here is a hint: There was more going on inside the Jewish Temple than the sacrifice of lambs. The priests and the priestesses were getting it on in there.

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that’s what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in “The Da Vinci Code,” speaking though a fictional Harvard scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fictional, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

One of those “secret rituals” is an eye-opener.

“Langdon’s Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the temple, no less,” wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. “Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses … with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union.”

So, journalists, it might not hurt to include a local Orthodox rabbi in your source list — or a tantric sex expert — for the next round of DVC coverage. Brown’s unique Judeo-Christian Gnosticism has a sexy edge to it.

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Covering intolerance in the Middle East

saudi textbookMajor U.S. media outlets are all over a report [PDF] released Tuesday by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, which found that Saudi Arabian schools are teaching their students things the U.S. government told them not to teach after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the Washington Post‘s Outlook section ran commentary by Nina Shea, the report’s primary author and director of the CRF, I was worried that The New York Times would take a competitive we-don’-like-to-get-scooped pass on the all-important story.

But the Times came out swinging Wednesday morning with an emotionally charged headline reading “Don’t be Friends with Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say.” National Public Radio was a bit more measured, using the headline “Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says.”

NPR played it straight through the entire story. Once the Times was done playing up the more dramatic claims of the report, it got to the heart of the story: Why in the world is the United States government friendly with another government that teaches its children to not be friends with Jews and Christians?

Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.

“It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce,” Mr. Zulfa said.

One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. “We know what needs to be taken out,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to do it.”

The missing element in both of these stories is why the Saudi texts teach this type of religious extremism. There is obviously a religious context rooted in the country’s Wahhabi teaching, but neither story attempts to explain that theology.

Another question is why the news in this report is news to anyone. How hard is it to grab a few textbooks, translate them and report on what they said? Is the problem gaining access to the textbooks, or the translating?

I would also like to commend NPR for providing a link to the full report, Shea’s Post article, the State Department’s religious freedom report on Saudi Arabai, translated experts of the textbooks, an image of a textbook cover, the Freedom House news release on the report, the official response to the report from the Saudi amabssador, the Saudi government’s statement on its campaign against extremism and a transcript of a Saudi Embassy news conference on extremism. Talk about being exhaustively helpful.

The Times, on the other hand, was meager in its offerings. It merely provided a link to a forum on the Middle East. I guess it’s small peanuts, but why can’t the Times provide these types of links?

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The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish NYTimes.com would tell us what page the story was published the way washingtonpost.com does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at www.tikkun.org, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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Postmodern parents: Only time will tell

emptypewsThe Washington Post headline said it all: “Some Parents Who Shy From Religion Want Their Children to Taste Its Psychological and Spiritual Comforts.” (As a former copy editor, I ask, “What was that? A double decker six- or eight-column headline in 36-point type?)

The story by Stacy Weiner was just as broad and appeared, for some reason, in the health section. Still, it raised a perfectly valid issue. What happens when parents who have a skeptical or totally pluralistic approach to faith have childen? How does one teach postmodernism to a toddler? I mean, before they soak it up on Saturday morning in front of a television set?

Clearly, this is part of a larger story that we talk about all the time here at GetReligion — the struggle of a true religious left to find an identity and to hand it down generation after generation. Yet, as Weiner’s story notes, the secular/pluralist niche continues to grow. It is, for example, a growing segment of the Democratic Party’s base. Ask Howard “Call me Job” Dean. Once again, let me urge everyone to read the “Tribal Relations” article that The Atlantic ran not that long ago about religion and politics in American life.

The Post article stresses that parents of vague beliefs should lean left as they explore the pews. You never know when you might run into a damaging blast of certainty.

Nevertheless, what will most readers make of this?

Like her husband, Varun Gauri, Ayesha Khan did some soul-searching and concluded that she wanted religion’s bounties for their daughter Yasmeen and their year-old son, Sharif. At the top of Khan’s wish list: a sense of community and spirituality.

Over the years, says Khan, she’s seen religious community serve several of her friends — mostly Jewish — with its sense of shared history, support and belonging. “We no longer live among extended families and extended communities,” she says Khan, 42, who is legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, she notes, “there really aren’t intergenerational institutions that offer quite what religion does in our society.”

Khan also believes that spirituality — with its sense of purpose and meaning — is key to her children’s emotional well-being. And she’s convinced it would be a lot tougher for them to develop spirituality without the structure and guidance that religion offers.

So she and Gauri are dishing up a religious smorgasbord: Islam from one grandma, Hindu from the other, a Quaker school, a Buddhist retreat and a bit of evangelical Christianity via their former nanny. As Khan acknowledges, “Only time will tell if we were creating great confusion or great enlightenment.”

And there is the rub. Only time will tell. This is a fascinating article and the topic is ripe for news coverage. But I was troubled about several things. For example, Weiner does not interview any traditional authority figure or researcher who is skeptical about all this skepticism. The article is very one-sided, in other words. It could be a Unitarian or United Church of Christ tract.

19566Other than interviewing traditional believers, people who might see links between actual religious faith and its positive impact on the lives of children and adults, who else might this reporter have turned to for authoritative research?

I would suggest a follow-up story, focusing on the attempts of parents in interfaith marriages — the best data has been collected by Jewish groups — to raise their children in two faiths at the same time. During my days on the religion beat in Denver, the Jewish community there wrestled with this issue over and over.

The bottom line: Teaching children that two religions are true only teaches them that neither religion is true. Teaching them that all the religions are true will almost certainly teach them that there is no true faith at all, no religious faith that is worth their commitment.

Time will tell. And does anyone dare discuss eternity?

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On my mind: Darfur, South Sudan and Rosenthal

AbeRosenthalIt was 10 years ago — next week, in fact — that I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service that began like this:

It’s possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year’s going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle — about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan’s Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan — more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

That was not the last column that I wrote about the horrific conflicts in South Sudan and the massacre of Christians, animists, moderate Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The Sudan story developed in the years after that and, ultimately, helped inspire the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

It has been interesting to watch the mainstream media tiptoe into coverage of hot-button religious liberty issues, especially the rights of embattled religious minorities. I thought about that the other day at the time of the Darfur march here in Washington, D.C. I have been thinking about the South Sudan while watching — with joy — the news that there might be a meaningful Darfur peace agreement in the near future. Still, I have questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheer when I pass Darfur marchers here inside the Beltway. I totally support that cause. But part of me has wondered why the Darfur massacres have become such a popular cause on the American left and among our media elites in general. Why, for example, is Hollywood marching for Darfur, when it all but ignored the South Sudan?

Perhaps Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post was on to something important when, back in 2004, he wrote a report about the importance of evangelical Christians beginning to focus on Darfur:

Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the “genocide” taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Aug. 1 letter marks a shift in focus for the evangelical movement, which previously was interested primarily in halting violence against Christians in southern Sudan. The victims in Darfur, a western province, are mostly Muslim.

Get it? Allen D. Hertzke was even more blunt in a 2003 essay for the Wall Street Journal. The problem with the South Sudan, he said, was that the people who were passionate about this genocide were the wrong kinds of people to draw major (positive) media attention. The victims were the wrong faith and the lobbyists were the wrong faith, too. That’s why it was hard to put these massacres in the South Sudan on the front page.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a … New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a “pet cause of many American religious conservatives.” Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a “pet cause” of American Jews or apartheid a “pet cause” of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes “tainted” by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute.

JebelAwlia lowresYou probably know where I am going with this, if you have scanned the headlines of a major newspaper today.

All of this reminds me of the work of the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who, rung by rung, climbed the ladder in the world’s most powerful newsroom until he reached the top. He covered the world and, as editor, helped shake America to its foundations when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He changed the Times and, as a journalist, he helped shape his times.

At the end of his career, he began writing an op-ed column called “On My Mind.” In it, he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — especially free speech and freedom of conscience. Here is how the Times obituary described this part of Rosenthal’s work:

His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: “Please Read This Column.”As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes — his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America’s war on drugs.

That’s part of the story. Rosenthal was, in short, an old-fashioned liberal. That may be why, in the end, people started calling him a conservative. That may be why, in the end, many people believe that he was forced out of his beloved Times newsroom because he would not stop writing columns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. He would not stop writing about the South Sudan. Rosenthal could not understand why so many mainstream journalists were not interested in this story.

I talked to Rosenthal several times about this, in part because a human-rights activist sent him a copy of that 1996 column that I wrote about slavery and the South Sudan. Rosenthal said that he showed it to several people in the newsroom and asked them why this issue — the persecution of religious minorities — wasn’t a major news story. No one had a good answer. Thus, he pledged that he would write about South Sudan.

Rosenthal decided that, one way or another, political prejudices must have had something to do with this blind spot. Here is what he told me in a 1997 interview, a year in which he wrote nearly two dozen columns about Sudan and the persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

To paraphrase, Rosenthal had been forced by the facts to grasp this fact — many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t get religion.

What he could not understand, he told me, was that many journalists didn’t seem to want to open their eyes and realize that this was hurting them as journalists. Because of this blindness, many newsrooms were missing stories that did not need to be missed. They were losing readers that they did not need to lose. It just didn’t make sense to him.

Now Rosenthal is gone. But his voice is heard, whenever people gather to protest the genocide in Darfur. I hope that his death causes some journalists to dig out some of his columns and catch up with the big story that Rosenthal, as an angry old journalist who cared about human rights, was writing about long before it was acceptable to write about it.

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