Give us the faith-based details

orwellIn his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticized modern writers for all manners of sins, not the least of which were a lack of detail and specificity. He cited a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Then he translated it in modern English: “Objective consideration of temporary phenomena compels the conclusion …”

Though written more than 60 years ago, Orwell’s passage is still relevant today. Take the major print coverage of Barack Obama’s faith-based announcement yesterday.

Most of the stories focused on the right topic: the program’s hiring and firing provisions. But their descriptions were almost as general and opaque as Orwell’s second passage.

The New York Times
, as Daniel noted, gave readers the most information about Obama’s plan. Yet reporters Jeff Zeleny and Michael Luo described the controversial provision in only the haziest of terms:

Mr. Obama’s plan pointedly departed from the Bush administration’s stance on one fundamental issue: whether religious organizations that get federal money for social services can take faith into account in their hiring. Mr. Bush has said yes. Mr. Obama said no.

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

So, too, did Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press:

Obama’s support for letting religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions was likely to invite a storm of protest from those who view such faith requirements as discrimination.

Only Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post filled readers in on the details, if partially:

Those aides said an Obama administration would get tough on groups that discriminate in hiring practices and doling out assistance. The groups would have to abide by federal hiring laws that reject discrimination based on race, sex and religion. Obama said he supports federal legislation that would extend those protections to gay people as well, a flash point with some religious organizations that say hiring or assisting gays would run counter to their beliefs.

Except for Weisman’s passage, those of the NYTimes and AP, as well as The Politico, were vague. An otherwise informed reader would wonder what’s the fuss all about. Little would the reader know that Obama’s plan is a big deal: An orthodox Jewish group would have to consider hiring gay Catholics, while a liberal Lutheran organization would need to consider bringing on board conservative Muslims.

In other words, while religious groups can receive federal funds to help the needy, they cannot do so to pick their own co-religionists. Was this not the policy in place before President Bush? If so, the reporters mischaracterized Obama’s plan as an expansion of Bush’s program. In fact, Obama’s plan would all but rescind it.

Another major deficiency in the coverage is a lack of specificity about how Obama would prevent religious groups from discriminating against employees. Does he propose adding an office to the Justice Department?

These stories suggest that God is indeed in the details. They also suggest that You Know What exists in their absence.

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What about the Presbyterians?

PC USA Logo2The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 2.3 million members. By way of comparison, the Episcopal Church has 2.15 million members. I’ve remarked before at how odd it is that the Episcopal Church gets so much more coverage than the other American church bodies with more members. It’s not completely surprising, perhaps, that they get more coverage, given the large Anglican communion, the pomp and circumstance of liturgical worship and the dramatic way in which the church is imploding. But still, it seems out of balance.

Back in early May I marveled at the general lack of coverage of the United Methodist Church convention in Ft. Worth. When the Southern Baptists met in Indianapolis in early June, there was a fair amount of coverage. But the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, the big biennial meeting of the denomination’s highest governing body, was held in San Jose and the coverage was again paltry. What’s odd about that is that the assembly had plenty of reporter-friendly drama. One reader mentioned a few of the highlights:

The GA voted on a number of controversial statements about Israel and the Palestinians; approved a $2 million war chest to sue congregations seeking to leave; approved a change to one of the PCUSA’s confessions that would remove mention of homosexuality from the church’s confessional documents; voted to rescind thirty years’ worth of church policy on the incompatibility of homosexual behavior and Christian life; and voted to remove language from the church’s constitution requiring ordained ministers, elders and deacons to live in faithfulness in marriage or chastity in singleness.

And yet all that was produced in the mainstream media was a single AP story — which incidentally was really pretty well done – a decent LA Times story and an abysmal report from UPI. And in my neck of the woods (Pittsburgh), an area with one of the biggest concentrations of Presbyterians in the country, the major daily has ignored the story completely. Where’s Ann Rodgers on this? Oh, yes — she’s covering the buildup to Lambeth.

It is somewhat odd that Rodgers hasn’t weighed in on the news coming out of San Jose. She does a great job of covering denominational politics in general and PC(USA) drama in particular. She’s done more to explain the property battles embroiling Presbyterians than anyone else.

Far and away the best reporting on the assembly came from Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The PC(USA) is headquartered there. For the paper, he wrote a couple of stories about the PC(USA) membership losses, the denomination’s backtracking on acknowledging that anti-Jewish rhetoric had gotten into discussions over Israel and Palestine, debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, a vote to repeal the church’s constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and removing the explicit condemnation of homosexuality from the church’s constitution.

For the blog, he looked at the membership losses, the church’s new moderator, a vote to alter a reference to homosexuality in the Heidelberg Catechism, a vote to delete a constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, modification of an interfaith statement, approval of executives and stated clerk, including the Belhar Confession into the church’s Book of Confessions, the approval of a $2 million fund for legal battles with departing congregations, and debate over Mideast issues, among others.

Compared to Smith’s coverage, other media outlets dropped the ball. Kim Lawton had a good, but brief, piece for PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

The major story coming out of the convention seems to be the vote on ordination standards. The vote to drop the ban on homosexual clergy requires presbytery approval, something reporters seemed to obscure somewhat. Eric Gorski with the Associated Press handled it quite well:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), bitterly divided over sexuality and the Bible, set up another confrontation Friday over its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.

The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

The proposed change to the church constitution requires approval from a majority the nation’s 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies — a yearlong process that has proven to be a barrier to similar efforts in the past.

Compare that to UPI:

Some U.S. Presbyterian Church members say a move to allow the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy will trigger a backlash by denomination members.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the biggest group under the U.S. Presbyterian umbrella with 2.3 million members, voted Friday to amend its constitution to allow the ordination of gay clergy, just as the church’s national governing body was deciding in San Jose, Calif., to not tamper with its own definition of marriage as being a “covenant between a woman and a man,” The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.

The reporter failed to mention that the vote must be approved by presbyteries or any other context. To that end, the Los angeles Times piece was markedly better. And it’s by Duke Helfand, so that’s good:

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.

At the same time, the church’s national governing body, meeting in San Jose, refused to alter its definition of marriage, calling it a “covenant between a woman and a man.” The actions by the General Assembly came the week after same-sex marriage became legal in California. They also follow the decision of a gathering of Methodists from Southern California and Hawaii, who went against their national church by voting to support same-sex couples who marry and the pastors who welcome them.

Helfand’s piece actually went into some good detail on various votes and what they mean. It does mention later on in the piece about the requirement that presbyteries approve the vote. Helfand also gave some history on the battle as well.

It’s not that I think that conventions and assemblies are the be all and end all of religion reporting, but they seem like a bare minimum requirement. It’s like writing about politics without mentioning the electoral season — it just doesn’t make sense.

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Failing the objective

AnglicanBomb1Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times covered a Virginia state court ruling Friday regarding the constitutionality of a longstanding state law that could allow the 11 congregations who have left the Episcopal Church over the last couple of years to keep their multi-million dollar properties. The tone and perspective of the two stories are rather stark. Just look look at the headlines.

Here is the Post‘s:

Episcopal Church Loses In Court

And now the headline in the Times:

Virginia judge affirms parish property rights

I guess the upholding of one group’s “property rights” is another group’s lost legal battle.

The Times article, written by friend-of-the-blog Julia Duin, focuses heavily on the legal consequences of the judge’s ruling, inter-mixing the history of the conflict, while the Post article primarily focuses on the background of the rather complicated story.

A reader noted to us that the Post‘s reporting unprofessionally uses the word “spat” to describe the conflict and repeatedly refers to the 11 churches as “the breakaway congregations.” Duin on the other hand, refers to the group of 11 churches as “11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop” and subsequently as simply “the churches.” I know the story is complicated but why can’t neutral terms be used to describe the two groups?

The Post goes an extra step further in quoting a seemingly objective “expert” who actually turns out to be taking sides in this legal battle:

It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.

Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the “only way” for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.

Oh, snap! Not such an objective expert after all.

In addition, The Post does not seem to have the contact information of anyone associated with those “breakaway,” “conservative,” churches, while Duin quoted sources on both sides of the battle.

I don’t envy the reporters covering this highly charged, significant, convoluted religious and legal battle. Efforts at objectivity may seem futile, but thoughtful, consistent choice of language and terms is a good place to start. The Post seems to have particular difficulty in talking to representatives of both sides and avoiding pejorative shorthand terms.

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A new “church within a church”

Canterburyleft 01Major, major news coming out of the Jerusalem meeting of Anglican primates. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) has produced a statement with major implications for the Anglican Communion. Before looking at any coverage, you should read the clear and concise statement here. In a section analyzing the current state of affairs in Anglicanism, the GAFCON document says that the church is in crisis over “three undeniable facts”:

The first fact is the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel. This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, not the way, the truth and the life. It promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right. It claims God’s blessing for same-sex unions over against the biblical teaching on holy matrimony. In 2003 this false gospel led to the consecration of a bishop living in a homosexual relationship.

While sexual morality is clearly a major issue at play here, reporters should read what precedes discussions of sexuality when characterizing the nature of the division in the Anglican Communion. The second issue is the realignment of parishes and dioceses in Canada and the United States, joining with provincial bodies in the Global South. The third issues is the “manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy.”

The rest of the document offers a confessional statement of doctrine, and the announcement of a new primatial council for development and discipline. This council will set up an Anglican province in North America for confessing Anglicans who live here.

The GAFCON participants have not split from the Anglican Communion, despite what some reporters are alleging. However, they are formally announcing their intention to set up a “church within a church” to deal with the problems being wrought by the division in the communion. So reporters who were claiming that GAFCON was a gaffe-prone failure to accomplish anything might have to backtrack a bit.

While the Anglican blogosphere did a great job of covering the event, Ruth Gledhill of The Times was, I believe, the first reporter out of the gate with the big news:

The Anglican Communion will be split tomorrow when conservatives representing more than half its total membership will announce the formation of a new orthodox body to be a stronghold against liberal views. It will be schism in all but name.

The new global Anglican fellowship will act within the legal boundaries of provinces such the Church of England that make up the existing Communion but, in North America, it will declare its independence from the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church and from the Anglican church in Canada.

A later piece said the GAFCON move is “in effect a schism.” But one of the sentences from the GAFCON document specifically said, “Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion.” So what is happening, exactly? Gledhill’s blog has some analysis and asks:

When is a schism not a schism? When it is done by Anglicans.

George Conger for the Washington Times put it well, I thought:

Conservative Anglicans will declare a split from the U.S. Episcopal Church on Sunday, but will stop short of schism with the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll had a rather straightforward story mostly comprised of background on the division in the Anglican Communion, but it’s a good thing to read if you need that information.

Gledhill already had some analysis on what this all means, which is helpful for such a massive story as this:

The trigger for the new movement was the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire and the authorisation of same-sex blessings in the New Westminster diocese in Canada.

But to the conservatives, these events were merely the logical conclusion to years of movement away from the Christianity of the Early Church Fathers – the writers and teachers in the first five centuries of Christianity – the Anglicanism of the Reformation and the enthusiasm of the 19th century revivals of Anglo-Catholicism and evangelicalism. . . .

[The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter] Jensen said:”American revisionists committed an extraordinary strategic blunder in 2003. They did not think that there would be any consequences.

“Now if they did not believe that there would be consequences, that is an arrogant thing, I have to say. But I don’t know them, so I really cannot say. The consequences have been unfolding over the last five years. Now their church is divided; it looks as though there will be permanent division, one way or the other.

“All around the world the sleeping giant that is evangelical Anglicanism and orthodox Anglicanism has been aroused by what happened in Canada and the United States of America. It was an act of folly.”

Is that an angle that reporters should be pursuing? Did the Episcopal Church made a strategic blunder? Was the strategic blunder the failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to effectively deal with the North American church? I honestly have no idea, but we do need reporters to dig into what all this means. As Terry would say, that goes for the local, regional, national and global implications of this story.

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“On Fog” — A Meditation

1247602 The Fog PostersIt’s a question that has been bugging me for a long time: What, precisely, is that sprawling “On Faith” site over at the Washington Post Online?

It’s a question that I’ve been asking ever since that site opened, as you can see by clicking here. You may recall that the very first “On Faith” question to its Parliament of Religions panel was this:

If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

Great question. But is that a news question?

It has become clear that “On Faith” is, in reality, a gigantic and very ambitious op-ed page for discussions and arguments about issues, beliefs and feelings linked to religion. What is not clear is what all of this has to do with news coverage of religion news. I, for one, really wish that there was some way for the “On Faith” site to at least — this would cost nothing, really — gather together all of the news reporting that takes place in the Washington Post newsroom and in its wire-service offerings (Religion News Service, for heaven’s sake) and put it together in a one-stop shopping grid on the weblog so that there is more interaction between the opinion and essays at “On Faith” and, well, the world of facts, doctrines and events that drive religion news.

That’s N.E.W.S. Or is this op-ed-only approach actually the message, implying that there are no real facts to report about religious life, doctrine, history and events? That religion is, in reality, a subject in which everything is opinion and fog and that everyone should just accept that and move on? Thus, there is no transcendence and revelation that is not completely and utterly personal and private. Thus, it is hard to do hard journalism in this realm — other than op-ed opinion.

You can see signs of this approach in founder Sally Quinn’s famous — for the Divine Ms. MZ that was infamous — essay on the weblog’s one-year anniversary. Remember this paragraph?

When we started this I knew practically nothing about religion or the internet. I was not a believer (Jon Meacham is an Episcopalian, a practicing Christian) so I felt secure that I had his experience and knowledge to give us the grounding we needed. Even so it was such an unlikely subject for me to get involved with that even my husband was in shock. My friends still report people sidling up to them at cocktail parties and saying, “What’s with Sally and this religion thing?”

If you don’t know the identity of her husband, then you don’t know Washington, D.C.

Anyway, there is now a new discussion taking place near the often troubled intersection of Catholicism and journalism, linked to Quinn’s affectionate online essay entitled “The Faith and Joy of Russert.” The key section is linked to the recent funeral for the NBC politico, who was an active and outspoken Catholic:

Last Wednesday at Tim’s funeral mass at Trinity Church in Georgetown (Jack Kennedy’s church), communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started “On Faith” and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. … I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I’m so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it.

As you would imagine, traditional Catholics were not amused, in part because one takes communion in an evangelical church and Communion in a Catholic parish. Thus — no surprise — Bill Donohue at the Catholic League quickly expressed displeasure and that reached The New Republic:

“Just reading what Sally Quinn said is enough to give any Christian, especially Catholics, more than a ‘slightly nauseating sensation.’ In her privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings.

“Moreover, Quinn’s statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear. If she really wanted to get close to Tim Russert, she should have found a way to do so without trampling on Catholic sensibilities. Like praying for him — that’s what Catholics do.”

items in the sacristy 06TNR called Quinn and she had just received a really nasty voicemail. The conversation, in effect, led to this Quinn statement to the press and her public:

I’m very pluralistic about religion, and I feel that everyone should respect everyone else’s. … I was really close to (Russert), and I was grieving. And I thought me taking the Eucharist would be a thing that he would really enjoy. And all these things are what religion should be about. … There’s no sign out there that says you’re not allowed to take Communion. [The Catholic Church is] like, “Everyone is welcome. This is God’s house.” God doesn’t turn people away, supposedly.

I think it’s really an important issue. The Pope doesn’t want people who are pro-choice to take it. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd, even the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and others were not allowed. … Frankly, none of that was going through my mind. I was feeling absolutely destroyed. It felt right to do it as a tribute to him. I wasn’t thinking politically at all.

I’ve become a champion of pluralism and a spirit of inclusiveness. Any religious people who purport to be Christians, or whatever faith you might be, would do everything they could to welcome others — in the case of Catholics, to welcome others the way Christ would welcome others. This is a perfect example of WWJD. Would Jesus have said, “No you don’t, Sally Quinn. You’re not going to get away with this one!”

This kind of more-Catholic-than-the-pope logic tends to make pro-Vatican Catholics upset. To read an essay on the traditions and doctrines linked to “closed Communion,” click here for a few words from Mark Shea.

Also, one of the nation’s best-known Jesuits, Father James Martin, said just about everything that a Catholic would want to say to non-Catholics on this topic in a quick online response for America. Yes, on the one hand, Jesus was all about inclusion and welcome, especially when it came to healing and invitations for repentance and forgiveness. However:

On the other hand…

Catholics believe in the “real presence,” the actual presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist: the bread and the wine. It is a central element of our faith, and reception of Communion is something that a Catholic does not do lightly. Which is something of an understatement. “First Holy Communion” is an important passage to adulthood; and even afterwards adults are asked to approach Communion reverently and without being conscious of any grave sin. Catholics also know that the very word “Communion” means that you are in “communion” with the rest of the Catholic church, and accept its beliefs.

Therefore, it is probably not too much to expect that the co-founder of a prestigious online blog about religion run by two of the nation’s premier journals, would understand something about the most basic practices of the Catholic church. Most intelligent people know a few facts about the Catholic church: this is one of them. And even if one doesn’t know this, one would know to act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own. (For example, I am always exceedingly careful not to offend anyone’s sensibilities when in a synagogue, a mosque or a Christian church or meeting place not affiliated with the Catholic church.) An essential element of respect for another religious tradition is approaching their holy places, people and ceremonies with sense of reverence, even awe.

And right there is the point that makes this subject crucial to your GetReligionistas, rather than simply piling on with others who want to knock Quinn for her emotion-driven approach to what it means to partake of a Sacrament in an ancient, doctrinal, Sacramental Church.

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people — left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call “fringe.” Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn’t about emotions and feelings. It’s about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

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God-fearing atheists

thankgodatheistA few days ago, Terry looked at a few of the initial stories that came out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life megastudy. In the comments, a few of you noted one particularly odd statistic from the survey. Here’s how Ed Stoddard of Reuters put it on the news service’s blog:

There seems to be some confusion among self-described U.S. atheists, at least according to the second part of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued today.

It found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying they were “absolutely certain” on this score.

Curiously, more than one fifth — 21 percent — of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

One thing does seem absolutely certain: at least a few U.S. atheists must be confused.

My “Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions” (Wordsworth Reference Series, 1992) begins its definition of the word “atheism” in the following manner: “The denial of the existence of God or gods.”

Indeed, the very definition of the term atheist seems to preclude a yes answer to the question of belief in God or a universal spirit. Whenever I read stories about surveys, I’ve found that going to the original source documents helps. But not in this case. Here’s how the surveyors asked the question:

Question: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

For atheists, eight percent were absolutely certain, seven were fairly certain and 6 weren’t terribly certain. Fifty-five percent of agnostics, who by definition claim ignorance about the existence of God, believe in God. Seventeen percent are absolutely certain, 23 percent fairly certain and 15 percent are less certain.

While atheists and agnostics gave very low marks to the importance of religion and whether they went to church frequently, when asked whether they pray, 21 percent of atheists and 56 percent of agnostics said they did. In fact, a small percentage of atheists said that they received definite answers to prayer at least once a week.

Steve Waldman at Beliefnet has a theory about the numbers:

The Spirituality of Atheists – 21% of Atheists believe in god. What this means is that Atheism has become a cultural designation, rather than a theological statement. Some are likely declaring themselves atheists as a statement of hostility to organized religion, rather than to God. This might help explain polls showing rising numbers of Atheists.

That may very well be, although there is no way to know that for certain from the data. Particularly considering respondents had the option of saying they weren’t affiliated with any organized religion. But even if it were certain, what would that say about the rest of the numbers? It doesn’t really inspire confidence, for me at least, in the survey’s methodology, accuracy or utility.

Certainly a survey so wide — 35,000 random Americans — is by necessity very shallow in it’s theological depth. Particularly when so many of the questions were political instead of religious in nature. In fact, the first 20-plus questions did not discuss religion at all.

Steve Waldman, this time writing for the Wall Street Journal, analyzed another part of the survey:

–On the big culture-war issues, Catholics seem only marginally influenced by the Church’s positions. While 50% of the population as a whole say homosexuality should be accepted, 58% of Catholics say it should be. A narrow majority (48%-45%) of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Part of the explanation: while most Catholics say they have strong views about right and wrong, a paltry 22% say they get their views about morality primarily from religion while 57% say it comes from “practical experience and common sense” — and only 9% of Catholics say religion is the major determinant of their political views.

That’s also some great analysis, as one might expect from Waldman. But the survey again has limitations. For one thing, these numbers combine the views of Catholics who go to mass weekly or daily with Catholics who haven’t been to mass in decades. If there are cultural, non-theological atheists, there are certainly cultural, non-theological Catholics. So before journalists extract dramatic conclusions about the results, I hope they understand the limits of the data.

In the comments to Terry’s post, reader Ron wrote:

I am struck by how hopelessly inadequate the poll’s questions about exclusive truth claims are to capturing the complexity of traditional Christian teaching.

Similarly, I found the question that resulted in Waldman’s second paragraph just lacking in general. It asked “When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance?” The choices were:

Religious teachings and beliefs; philosophy and reason; practical experience and common sense or scientific information.

It’s not just that I would have liked to answer “yes.” It’s the entire premise I find troubling. In my confession of faith (Lutheran), we’re taught that all of these things are gifts from God and that we are to use all of these things to order our daily affairs. Our religious teachings and beliefs come from both revealed and observed truth. They work together.

Or take this aspect of the study as summarized by Jacqueline Salmon of the Washington Post:

The poll, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded. And almost 60 percent believe in hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without repenting are eternally punished, the poll found.

Look at the question that was asked:

Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

I honestly have no idea how would I answer that question. The “heaven” in the question in no way resembles Lutheran teaching about heaven. We don’t believe good works gain people salvation (see: the Doctrine of Justification). It’s a minor point, but one worthy of considering as reporters head off to write big think pieces about what these numbers mean.

Reader Chris Bolinger wrote:

I fear that, with MSM articles on the the latest Pew Forum survey and report, we have the perfect storm of:
* An overreaching survey that tries to cover too much ground and includes many questions that are poorly constructed
* A summary of the resulting 276-page report that tries to boil down results that, frankly, are all over the map
* MSM reporters who are obsessed with politics, know little (and care less) about how surveys are conducted or what flaws may exist in this one, and are itching to call characterize the survey results as “proof” of what they have been reporting for the past few years

These Pew surveys are wonderful and highly addictive for religion reporters. But reporters should be careful about the conclusions they draw from the data given the limitations of the survey.

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Let them eat fruitcake

GoldenFruitcakeWhen one of the country’s most prominent evangelical leaders uses the word “fruitcake” to describe a leading presidential contender’s interpretation of the Constitution, you’re guaranteed to get headlines. You’re not guaranteed to get context.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who also said on his radio program Tuesday that Sen. Barack Obama was distorting the Bible, has gotten increasingly political in recent years. Earlier in this cycle he announced he would not support Sen. John McCain for president. And now he has criticized Obama as well.

Of the many stories written about the kerfuffle, one by CNN’s Chris Mooney was particularly good. Mooney didn’t just explain that Dobson’s negative comments were in response to a 2006 speech Obama gave to the liberal Christian group Call to Renewal, he quoted from that speech:

In the speech, Obama suggested that it would be impractical to govern based solely on the word of the Bible, noting that some passages suggest slavery is permissible and eating shellfish is disgraceful.

“Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy?” Obama asked in the speech. “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount?

“So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bible now,” Obama said, to cheers. “Folks haven’t been reading their Bible.”

He also called Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount “a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application.”

In the comments aired Tuesday, Dobson said Obama should not be referencing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer relevant to the teachings of the New Testament.

“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology,” Dobson said, adding that Obama is “dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”

There is certainly much more that could be said about both Obama’s and Dobson’s exegesis, but for a first-day reaction story, this is pretty well done.

It may seem like Reporting 101 but many other outlets, including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and The Guardian, only summarized what Obama said in the earlier speech. It was all sizzle and no steak.

The ever-reliable Eric Gorski of the Associated Press also quoted from both Obama’s 2006 speech and Dobson’s Tuesday program. It’s a shame that more reporters can’t provide this simple but necessary context for news consumers.

As always, keep comments focused on media coverage rather than your love for/dislike of Dobson, Obama, fruitcake, etc.

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Obama’s private path to salvation

sand footstepsAs I promised in that earlier post, I have kept my eyes open for any additional material about the closed-door meeting in Chicago between Sen. Barack Obama and that group of 40 or so Christian leaders. It seems that much of the gossip about it has moved into more private forums.

Far and way the most interesting short report in the second wave of coverage was the story from veteran scribes Adelle Banks and Daniel Burke at Religion News Service. It included some new debate about that edgy salvation question by the Rev. Franklin Graham. Here is that piece of the report:

“They focused on abortion, gay marriage, and then Franklin Graham tried to get Senator Obama saved,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston.

Rivers, who was representing the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, Charles E. Blake, at the June 10 meeting, said Graham asked about the Illinois senator’s Christian conversion and his father’s connections to Islam. Rivers, who supports Obama, said the senator said of his father: “The least of the things he was was Islamic.”

When asked about whether he believed Jesus is the only way to salvation, “Obama said, brilliantly, ‘Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people,’ ” Rivers recalled.

The Rev. Romal Tune, a Washington pastor with ties to the Democratic National Committee, said Graham’s line of questioning was inappropriate for a politician running to represent a religiously pluralistic country. …

Graham spokesman Mark DeMoss responded: “I believe religious leaders are certainly entitled to ask such questions, particularly of candidates who talk openly about their faith.”

Previously, DeMoss had confirmed the content of Graham’s question, but had declined to give any piece of the answer. Thus, Rivers has become — as far as I can tell — the first person to openly break the embargo around the meeting, with his claim to be quoting the actual words of Obama’s answer.

I, of course, think it’s interesting that this hot-button issue — the role of Jesus in salvation — is one of the “tmatt trio” questions, which just keep coming up in public debates. Please put me down, however, as someone who doesn’t think that this was a crucial question to ask Obama. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to ask him if he thinks that religious groups that deliver any kind of message on salvation should be eligible to take part in government-funded civic programs.

However, Obama’s answer is interesting, if that second-hand quote is accurate.

It is very similar to the answer that Billy Graham has given for years, when asked about the eternal salvation of non-Christians, but with one crucial difference. Graham would say that the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” but that ultimately only God can judge.

Obama’s reported response — “Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people” — makes this a simple matter of personal, private belief with no reference to scripture or centuries of Christian doctrine. Still, evangelicals in the meeting would have noted that he — a faithful member of the liberal United Church of Christ — did not openly affirm a universalist position on the issue.

Stay tuned. Obama’s open appeals to religious believers on the left and right are sure to continue to kick up some controversy. The Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway will have a report shortly on the thunder and lightning coming from Colorado Springs.

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