Obama a doomed apostate? (true or false)

obama father topperHey, did you hear that Barack Obama is not a Muslim?

Actually, the mainstream press has — thank God — devoted lots of coverage to shooting down that plague of forwarded emails. However, a more interesting topic has come up for debate over at the New York Times, in the wake of a controversial (to say the least) op-ed by Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.”

The very pushy headline on this piece: “President Apostate?” Here is the heart of the topic being discussed, which centers on the oft-stated claim that Obama’s election would be welcomed by the Muslim world.

This idea often goes hand in hand with the altogether more plausible argument that Mr. Obama’s election would raise America’s esteem in Africa — indeed, he already arouses much enthusiasm in his father’s native Kenya and to a degree elsewhere on the continent. But it is a mistake to conflate his African identity with his Muslim heritage. Senator Obama is half African by birth and Africans can understandably identify with him. In Islam, however, there is no such thing as a half-Muslim. Like all monotheistic religions, Islam is an exclusive faith.

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Well, here we go again. Note the problem areas in this discussion. There is one “Muslim world.” Obama was born a Muslim as Muslim law is “universally understood.” And so forth and so on.

The basic logic goes something like this. Obama’s father was a Muslim, at one time, which means the faith has a claim on his son. Obama is a convert to Christianity, which means that he is a Muslim apostate and, under Sharia law, some would say he should be killed for this offense against Islam. Note that I said “some” would see the issue that way, so I am already heading toward my point.

Luttwak, who is a military historian, goes on to make a number of points about the crime of apostasy and notes, in particular, that while there is some debate about the proper punishment for apostasy, there is wide agreement on the fact that Muslims who kill apostates should not be punished. Really?

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

That an Obama presidency would cause such complications in our dealings with the Islamic world is not likely to be a major factor with American voters, and the implication is not that it should be. But of all the well-meaning desires projected on Senator Obama, the hope that he would decisively improve relations with the world’s Muslims is the least realistic.

The public editor at the Times rejected, well, all of this in a fierce rebuttal column that ran with the headline “Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?”

obama cross 01Once again, Clark Hoyt makes a number of interesting points. But here is the big one:

Did Luttwak cross the line from fair argument to falsehood? Did Times editors fail to adequately check his facts before publishing his article? Did The Times owe readers a contrasting point of view?

I interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

That’s a pity in this case, because it might have sparked a discussion about whether Luttwak’s categorical language was misleading, at best.

As you would expect, I am all in favor of newspapers printing articles that debate these kinds of issues. That’s the whole point, in this case.

Luttwak clearly used language that was too simplistic on the issue of apostasy and Muslim identity, where claims of faith and ethnicity blur many lines. Yet it seems that, after interviewing some scholars in the context of North America — Hoyt comes close to going to the other extreme and saying that all Muslims agree with his more moderate, tolerant, evolving view of Islamic law.

Luttwak makes exclusive statements, based on one view of Islam. Hoyt comes very close to making exclusive statements on the other side of the issue and he certainly says that Luttwak is totally wrong — based on a competing view of Islam.

The problem, of course, is that there is no one Islam, no one view of this issue.

Truth is, debates continue to rage inside a number of different Muslim nations and cultures on how to handle apostasy and blasphemy. Reporters who cover these issues have to read both of these Times op-ed pieces with more than a grain of salt.

So all Muslims will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong.

So there are no Muslims who will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong again.

Be careful out there.

Top photo: Barack Obama, Sr., and his son. Photo released by the Obama campaign team.

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From our “no comment” department

obama messiahThe following is not taken from a news story. It’s part of a column from (wait for it) the San Francisco Chronicle. And, yes, we have crossed paths with this man’s work before.

So I have no comment on Mark Morford’s answer to the question: What’s really going on with Obama (no other names needed at this point)?

I have no comment about the headline: “Is Obama an enlightened being? Spiritual wise ones say: This sure ain’t no ordinary politician. You buying it?”

Read the thesis for yourself, or a small part of it.

Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

The unusual thing is, true Lightworkers almost never appear on such a brutal, spiritually demeaning stage as national politics. This is why Obama is so rare. And this why he is so often compared to Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to those leaders in our culture whose stirring vibrations still resonate throughout our short history.

More? More?

But you gotta wonder, why has, say, the JFK legacy lasted so long, is so vital to our national identity? Yes, the assassination canonized his legend. The Kennedy family is our version of royalty. But there’s something more. Those attuned to energies beyond the literal meanings of things, these people say JFK wasn’t assassinated for any typical reason you can name. It’s because he was just this kind of high-vibration being, a peacemaker, at odds with the war machine, the CIA, the dark side. And it killed him.

Now, Obama. The next step. Another try.

Like I said, I have no comment at all. This is a column by a person whose elevator may or may not stop on all of the floors. I’ll let you judge that.

But you know that this is the kind of thing that is going to get people on the other side of the coin — the Obama is a Muslim and probably the Antichrist side — rolling in their tiny publications that are read by literally dozens of people (as opposed to a daily newspaper in a major city), until they draw mainstream coverage and then it hits Drudge, talk radio, Colbert Report, etc.

Paging Pat Robertson, where are you Pat Robertson?

So I have no comment on this. But you can watch for updates over at the Obama Messiah site. And perhaps Timothy Noah will bring back his “Obama Messiah Watch” feature at Slate.com, which kept an eye on the media Obama worship front.

OK, here is my comment. Sigh.

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Newsweek puffs Obama prayer team

obamaprayLisa Miller of Newsweek wrote about a heretofore unknown element of Barack Obama’s campaign: As many as 100 pastors call in to pray for Obama, including several famous ones, such as T.D. Jakes and Joseph Lowery.

Miller argues that not only is the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee religious, he is deeply so:

Americans are accustomed to images of pastors praying with politicians (Billy Graham has counseled nearly every president since Eisenhower), but never before has prayer — nearly 75 percent of Americans say they pray once weekly or more, according to the Pew Research Center — been such an orchestrated part of a presidential campaign. In addition to the Friday-morning prayers, there are separate weekly prayer-and-strategy calls for the campaign’s Roman Catholic, Jewish, evangelical and African-American faith-group leaders.

When Mollie writes that reporters are “in the bag” for Barack Obama, she is referring to uncritical stories like this one.

For one thing, the relevance of this story is never made clear. Miller writes the following:

Obviously, not every one of the campaign’s prayers has been answered.

The sentence is an evasion. Have any of the campaign’s prayers been answered? The answer seems obvious considering that Obama is the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. But Obama’s religious-outreach coordinator suggests twice that the pastor’s prayers are not to help the candidate win elections. So how has Obama benefited from the pastor’s prayers?

For another thing, Miller leaves out a key element of the story: None of the pastors mentioned are Catholic priests or white evangelical pastors. In researching these religious figures, I found that they were either black Protestants (see here and here and here) or white mainline Protestants (see here and here). This is an oversight. Were Catholic clerics or white evangelical pastors not invited? Did they decline the campaign’s offer to pray for the candidate?

The Obama campaign has every right to choose the pastors it wants. But Newsweek should have mentioned that most were United Methodists, from the United Church of Christ, or black Protestants. By reporting that pastors are praying for Obama, is it not relevant which denominations they represent?

Don’t get me wrong. The inner workings of the Obama campaign is a legitimate topic. After all, the Illinois senator may be elected president. But unless the story adopts a critical attitude, especially about a hot-button topic like religion, a reader will wonder if the story is a newspaper article or campaign literature.

It’s that old GetReligion request: Give us a few pieces of specific information. Facts are good.

(Photo by user Abbyladybug used under a Creative Commons license.)

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How to cover the Womenpriests

Womenpriest ordinationOne of the biggest problems that your GetReligionistas face week after week can be stated this way: We know that many problems on the religion beat would vanish if reporters had more time to write and were given longer story lengths.

Trust me, as a columnist who has for 20 years written to a plus-or-minus 10 words assigned length, I know that having room for one or two extra paragraphs of background information would really help.

That’s why it’s important to note when reporters — even with short, short stories — manage to avoid words that are wrong and use words that are as right as possible, given the realities of daily journalism.

So how does that apply to the whole issue of covering the Womenpriests movement and its fight with the Roman Catholic Church?

Once again, here is the kind of inaccurate language that we are trying to avoid, drawn from the Vancouver Sun:

The Roman Catholic Church should change the “unjust, discriminatory” law denying women the right to be priests, says a Catholic group pushing for reform.

Without the church’s approval, the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Movement ordained two people, James Lauder of Victoria and Monica Kilburn-Smith of Calgary, as Roman Catholic priests Thursday at St. Aidan’s United Church in Victoria.

Note again, that this is a “Catholic” group and that the women are becoming “Roman Catholic priests,” although “without the church’s approval.” Enough said.

Is there any other way to write this story, one that is accurate to people on both sides? Consider this language, used by veteran Godbeat scribe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In a decree intended to close loopholes in canon law, the Vatican has said that any attempt to ordain a woman will bring automatic excommunications that can be lifted only by Rome.

It is aimed at a number of rituals worldwide, including one in Pittsburgh in 2006, that claim to have ordained women as Catholic priests. Experts say that because canon law is designed to be flexible and to favor the accused, and because no law previously dealt explicitly with penalties for attempting to ordain a woman, this decree is intended to eliminate all wiggle room.

It was signed by Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Remaining firm on what has been established by … canon law, both the one who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, and the woman who has attempted to receive the said sacrament, incur latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See,” it said.

Now, was that so hard? This language takes seriously the movement’s claim that it is doing what the Vatican says it cannot do. It does not state, as a given, that the action has been successful — since that would require settling the theological issue.

Short, punchy news writing does require — repeat, require — reporters to write paragraphs that make them want to pound their heads on a marble sanctuary wall. Consider what a veteran, highly informed reporter like Rodgers must have felt like after writing this:

The Catholic Church teaches that only males can be ordained because Jesus chose only male apostles. Advocates for women’s ordination cite a reference to a female apostle named Junia in the New Testament.

Oh there is so, so much more to it than that and, if you follow the national religion-writing scene, you know that Rodgers knows it. But, there is nothing in that paragraph that is wrong.

That’s the rule: First, do no harm.

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Obama’s latest pastor problems

wrightpflegerobamafoxWhat do you think of the media coverage of the latest religious news being made by and around Sen. Barack Obama?

I suspect that I am not alone in thinking that the coverage of Obama’s church, pastors, and religious advisors isn’t going to win any awards. But what do you think could be done to improve it?

I’ll admit I was totally obsessed with the Scripps National Spelling Bee yesterday (go Sameer!) but my survey of mainstream media over the last few days didn’t turn up much about the incendiary sermon preached from the pulpit of Obama’s church last Sunday. Obama’s long-time friend and fellow community activist Rev. Michael Pfleger preached a sermon there that you can watch a portion of for yourself. It’s been all over the political blogs and opinion media but solid mainstream stories have been harder to come by. Of course, now that the Obamas have resigned their membership from Trinity United Church of Christ, coverage is definitely picking up.

Here’s how MSNBC reported the original story:

Saying he was seeking to “expose white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head,” Pfleger mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for appearing to weep at a campaign appearance before the New Hampshire primary in January, saying she was crying because “there’s a black man stealing my show.”

“She always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife, I’m white and this is mine,’” Pfleger said in his fiery sermon.

As the racially mixed congregation responded “Amen!” and “Yes, sir!” Pfleger pretended to cry and shouted: “And then out of nowhere came him, Barack Obama. And she said: ‘Damn! Where did you come from?! I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!’

“She wasn’t the only one crying!” he said. “There was a whole a lot of white people crying!” . . .

After conservative commentators and Fox News Channel latched onto Pfleger’s remarks, which received wide circulation on YouTube and conservative political blogs, Obama released a statement late Thursday repudiating the priest, who resigned from the campaign’s pastoral advisory committee several months ago.

That last paragraph forced me to emit a groan. If it’s true that only conservative commentators and the Fox News Channel care about remarks such as these, I’m not sure I would be highlighting that fact. It seems to me that the media are in the bag for Obama and as a result willfully avoid reporting some negative news surrounding him. I was one of the folks calling for the media to put Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks in context (I didn’t know how overboard the media would eventually go in context-providing) but that doesn’t mean that the remarks weren’t newsworthy. Same here. This reporter’s attempts to downplay the significance of Pfleger’s relationship to Obama seems a bit much. Particularly since it was only Friday that Pfleger’s testimony was scrubbed from the’s web page on Obama’s web site describing the support he’s received from religious leaders. And brutally mocking Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination and calling her a racist from the pulpit of Obama’s church? Surely it’s not just conservatives who care about such things.

One of my favorite political reporters is ABC News’ Jake Tapper. Sometimes I think he’s the only mainstream-based reporter who won’t look back on his performance this year as embarrassingly uncritical of Obama. Not that he’s unfair to Obama, he’s just tenacious with all of the candidates he covers. He’s also done a good job covering the religious angles to the various horse races (perhaps related to his self-description as a “person of faith” here?).

Rather than unnecessarily downplay Obama’s relationship with Pfleger, he explained in his first post on the matter that the Obama campaign brought Pfleger to Iowa in September to host an interfaith forum, and:

Their relationship spans decades. Pfleger has given money to Obama’s campaigns and Obama as a state legislator directed at least $225,000 towards social programs at St. Sabina’s, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Tapper paints a picture of a complex priest, beloved for his social work and criticized for inviting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to speak at St. Sabina’s. It’s certainly much better than this puffy Washington Post video report of Pfleger.

Lynn Sweet, who blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote up the controversy. I found it noteworthy on two fronts. Describing Pfleger as a headline-making household name in Chicago, she provides context for how the controversial priest’s 20-year association with Obama has been underreported:

Pfleger’s crusades against guns, prostitution, porn and tobacco have made good copy for years for a fairly admiring local press corps hooked on cheering for the underdog, the poor and the powerless.

She also nails the largely religious impact of the remarks with a remarkable efficiency of words.

farr and pflePfleger’s comments, she reports, come at a time Obama has been trying to reach out to working-class white voters, he spoke from the pulpit of Trinity, show a troubling connection with Obama, they drive a wedge between women and Obama and they forced Chicago Cardinal Francis George to reprimand Pfleger at a time when Obama is trying to win Catholics over. It would be nice to see a bit of context and analysis of the story — that doesn’t shy away from the religious impact — in more straight news accounts.

This connects to the even bigger — and related — news that the Obamas just resigned their membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. It occurs to me that if Pfleger’s remarks were enough to get the Obamas to quit their church, perhaps that might signal to the MSNBC reporter that they were newsworthy? Who knows.

This Washington Post story covers the Aberdeen, South Dakota, press conference Obama held to announce his resignation from the church. It’s fine, but I think it’s much better to read the full transcript. It’s noteworthy both for the less-than-stellar questions posed by the reporters and the religious content of Obama’s answers:

Q: We talk about some of the sacrifices running for president. Are you surprised how deep this has cut into your personal life and family? Obviously it’s under a lot of scrutiny now you are giving up a church.

BO: I have to say this was one I didn’t see coming. We knew there were going to be some things we didn’t see coming. This was one. I didn’t anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with e-mails suggesting I was a Muslim, later with the controversy that Trinity generated, and the interesting aspect of this is that as some of you know I have been somebody who really has insisted that the democratic party reach out to people of faith and to take issues of faith more seriously and have written and spoken about this in fairly extensive terms. It is something that I still believe that faith is a powerful force in our lives and should be part of our public conversation. This also indicates the difficulties at least in a presidential campaign around these issues. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Obviously colleagues of mine who are catholic for example have had to deal with their public positions on issues verses the decisions the Holy C (sic) has taken predominantly on abortion and contraception. We work these through.

Not all of the questions were that poor but what I really found missing was any discussion of what changed between Obama’s defense of Trinity in his Speech Heard Round the World and now. It’s not like Pfleger’s comments were different in substance or style from what’s he’s delivered over the years. The parishioners at Trinity clearly approved of the comments and they didn’t strike me as different from other comments we’ve heard from that pulpit. If Rev.s Wright, Pfleger and Moss haven’t changed over the years, I’d ask Obama what has changed.

So how do we improve coverage of religious news around Obama? Jacques Berlinerblau of the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith experiment has a few questions he’d like answered.

One of the minor stories I’d be interested in is an exploration of Cardinal George’s relationship with Pfleger. This weekend wasn’t the first time he’s publicly criticized him. I know people are really focused on the political ramifications of Pfleger’s sermons but what about the theological questions? A discussion of Pfleger’s Catholicism is just as interesting as his use of the pulpit for politicking. But that’s probably a minor story line here. What do you think? Do you like the coverage? Do you think it’s bad? What questions would you like answered?

As always, keep your comments focused on the media coverage of the religious angles, not your personal support for or opposition to Barack Obama.

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Refereeing gay marriage wars

sullivanbookYesterday I criticized a Los Angeles Times story on same-sex marriage. While the post received tons of comments, very few — very few — managed to stay on topic to the purpose of this blog. Some posters used the comment thread as a forum to argue against same-sex marriage. Many others resorted to calling supporters of traditional marriage bigots.

Sigh. It was all extremely disappointing. This is not the forum to debate same-sex marriage — it is the forum to debate media coverage. We have a great community here of people who don’t agree on much politically or religiously. Please respect that and keep on topic. I will be more trigger-happy with the comment delete button if necessary. And don’t worry, there’s plenty to fight over even when simply analyzing media coverage of the issue.

The latest news in the gay marriage wars comes as a result of a new Field Poll which shows some interesting results. Over half of Californians would oppose amending the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying according to the poll. When last week’s Los Angeles Times poll showed only 36 percent of Californians supportive of same-sex marriage, that result was downplayed as a narrow, slim victory for supporters of traditional marriage — so you can only imagine how much the mainstream media hyped this result. As in, there are thousands of stories on GoogleNews about the poll.

It’s definitely newsworthy and I’m glad to see so much coverage of the poll. But it is interesting that so few of the stories I read thought it necessary to explain the sudden shift (from Friday, even!) in popular opinion. Rather than look at any of the weaker coverage, I’ll highlight a story from the San Diego Tribune that actually addressed the change:

In 2006, the last Field Poll on the issue, 44 percent approved of same-sex marriage and 50 percent disapproved.

Since then, several things have happened.

In 2007, the Legislature passed for a second time a law approving same-sex marriage, which was again vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For years, California had already allowed same-sex couples to register in domestic partnerships that confer many of the same rights and responsibilities that go with marriage.

Last fall, a gay-rights group, Equality California, conducted a campaign that included television and Internet advertising along with house parties in support of making same-sex marriage legal.

Most significant, the state Supreme Court on May 15 ruled 4-3 that statutes banning same-sex marriage violate the right to marry embodied in the state constitution.

The decision overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 1977 and Proposition 22 approved by 61 percent of California voters in 2000. The ruling made California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages may begin in the state as early as June 14.

While some predicted a backlash from the court’s decision, DiCamillo suggested the court might have helped increase support for same-sex marriage.

“The court is held in high esteem in California,” he said.

So not only does this poll show an 18-point shift from the Los Angeles Times poll from last week, the poll director completely contradicts the Los Angeles Times story from yesterday arguing that the California court ruling would have no ripple effect. This New York Times story breaking the news that New York plans to recognize same-sex marriages in California also undercuts that silly “don’t worry about same-sex marriage ruling” story from the Los Angeles Times. This Associated Press story credits the court ruling for the entire recent shift in attitudes. I only point that out to show how imprecise and all over the place the coverage of this issue is. It’s also worth noting, and I didn’t really see this discussed in any of the coverage, that someone could be opposed to same-sex marriage but not feel that it should be prohibited by an amendment to the constitution. As I mentioned, constitutional amendments are hard sells to the public. And yet that distinction was not mentioned by media coverage. Instead the storyline was that Californians now love same-sex marriage.

Football RefereeAnother piece of coverage completely lacking in all of the 1,400 stories on the matter is the issue of the Spiral of Silence.

The Field Poll is generally trustworthy, but we’ve discussed before the problem with mainstream media advocacy for positions skewing the results of polling. It was in 2000 that over 60 percent of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage, after all. Generally speaking, of course, amendments to the constitution are a harder sell to the public than regular ballot initiatives, but it is also true that respondents to media polls tend to under report their opposition to same-sex marriage. I didn’t see any story address that fact. And, of course, this problem will only be compounded by the media hyping of this story.

The poll did ask respondents for their religious affiliation and this Sacramento Bee story did a good job of including that data:

Born-again Christians objected to gay marriage, 68 to 24 percent. Protestants were opposed, 57 to 34 percent. Catholics were nearly evenly split. Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent. Eighty-one percent of people with no religious preferences supported gay marriage.

“There are huge, substantial differences — whether you live in the Central Valley or on the coast, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Protestant or no religious affiliation,” DiCamillo said. “It’s a divisive issue.”

That should provide some interesting fodder for religion reporters to dig into. Why are people without religion the most uniform in their thinking? Why are Protestants opposed while Catholics are nearly evenly split? Rather than focus, as the Los Angeles Times has, on those “other religious groups” that favor gay marriage, I’d be interested in a story on these other questions.

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What is Morehouse College, today?

MorehouseCollegeWe’ve been jumping on the Los Angeles Times quite a bit in the past week or so, with no apology. Nevertheless, I decided to let another jab wait over the long Memorial Day weekend.

Still I can’t let this one pass.

If you visit the home page of Morehouse College, it includes a short summary of its educational and cultural mission. Here is part of that:

The mission of Morehouse College is to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service. A private historically black liberal arts college for men, Morehouse realizes this mission by emphasizing the intellectual and character development of its students. In addition, the College assumes special responsibility for teaching the history and culture of black people.

Founded in 1867 and located in Atlanta, Georgia, Morehouse is an academic community dedicated to teaching, scholarship, and service, and the continuing search for truth as a liberating force. … The College seeks students who are willing to carry the torch of excellence and who are willing to pay the price of gaining strength and confidence by confronting adversity, mastering their fears, and achieving success by earning it. In pursuit of its mission, Morehouse challenges itself to be among the very finest liberal arts institutions in the world.

Let’s face it. That’s pretty vague.

To find out more about what makes Morehouse tick, you can, of course, turn to its Wikipedia entry. For those of you who want to stay on the safe side of things, factually, you can look at the Peterson’s profile of Morehouse and learn a few more specifics.

Morehouse is a private, independent, four-year liberal arts college for men. It was founded in 1867 in Augusta, Georgia as the Augusta Institute; its purpose, to train freed slaves to read and write. The school moved to Atlanta in 1879 and expanded its scope to prepare blacks for the ministry. Consequently, it was called Atlanta Baptist Seminary. In 1894, the first college instruction was introduced and in 1897, the first bachelor’s degree was granted and the name changed to Atlanta Baptist College. In 1913, the name changed to its present name, Morehouse College.

The key is that there is religious blood in this institution’s veins — to some degree or another.

This brings us to the fascinating Los Angeles Times “Column One” feature by Richard Fausset that ran with this very long and detailed double-stack headline:

Morehouse College faces its own bias — against gays

The ‘Morehouse man’ is a paragon of virtue and strength, a leader destined for great things. But can he also be gay?

The story focuses on the life and times of Michael Brewer, a Morehouse senior who is also a very outspoken gay-rights activist. This causes some tensions on campus, for logical reasons. More than a few African-Americans are conservatives when it comes to moral and cultural issues, or they say that they are. Brewer arrived on campus knowing that he was not going to hide his gay identity and lifestyle.

… (That), historically, has been a problematic strategy at Morehouse. The 141-year-old college has played a key role in defining black manhood in America. But with a past steeped in religion, tradition and machismo, it has struggled to determine how homosexuality fits within that definition.

The private school was founded shortly after the Civil War with the help of Baptists sympathetic to the plight of illiterate freedmen. Over the years, it became famous for turning out the vaunted “Morehouse man” — a paragon of virtue and strength in a society that once institutionalized the destruction of the black nuclear family.

Traditionally, its students have been expected to follow a well-worn path: They were to choose ambitious wives, preferably from Spelman College next door, a historically black school for women. They were to become captains of industry, leaders of men, saviors of a race. But now, more than ever, students like Brewer are forcing the school to confront a vexing question: Can the Morehouse man be gay?

Discussions of religion and civil rights show up early and often in this feature, which isn’t surprising when the chapel on campus is named after the school’s most famous graduate — the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. I want to stress that there’s a lot of important information in this story and that the news hook is solid, especially in a political season in which Sen. Barack Obama has made it clear that he intends to challenge black churches to rethink their doctrines on homosexuality.

You’ll read about a variety of Morehouse men, from churchy students and future ministers who are on the conservative side of this issue and want to witness to the lost. There are Muslim students, too. Then there are “straight allies,” “openly gay upperclassmen” and the “men on the down low,” who are in the closet.

But there is one thing that you will not learn in this story, one crucial fact that is missing.

Liberal arts colleges — left and right — are voluntary associations, which means that students choose to go there of their own free will. And these colleges — left and right — are allowed to openly and clearly set standards for behavior for faculty, staff and students, especially if these standards are linked to openly declared religious doctrines. It’s that “religious liberty” thing, you know.

We need to know: Was Brewer asked to sign a behavior code when he enrolled as a student? Did he sign it? Did it ban sex outside of marriage for all, straights and gays? In other words, Morehouse has religion in its DNA, but are religious truth claims still part of its legal identity today? Note the word “legal.”

We need to know. This interesting story tells us many things, but it does not tell us that one key fact. What kind of college is Morehouse, today? Does it still openly claim its Christian identity?

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Ouch! Those headlines!

gotcha1Here is a fact about daily journalism that every reporter wants news readers to grasp: Reporters rarely, rarely write the headlines that appear above their stories.

Nothing bothers a reporter more than having to take calls from readers who are mad about a headline, especially when the headline does not reflect the contents of the new story.

I bring this up because of two classic examples from the past few days.

Consider the headline
above religion writer Julia Duin’s Washington Times report about the Soulforce visit to Hope Christian Church here in the Washington-Baltimore area. And without delay, here is that headline (which was, I admit, written for a tough two-column slot on an inside page):

Christians, gays not of one accord

Ouch. Which, of course, means that members of the Soulforce gay trights organization — which is a coalition of religious liberals of various kinds — are not Christians? It is true that the Soulforce “Equality Ride” project included some young riders who were not believers. However, as a whole, the organization is a prime example of an active coalition on the religious and, primarily Christian, left.

This is the more complex reality that emerges in Duin’s news report. This was a dinner discussion between two groups of believers, separated by their clashing approaches to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and moral theology.

While there was no rancor or overt anger, there also was no meeting of minds. After nearly 90 minutes of debate Saturday night, no one on either side of the question of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality would admit to changing their minds.

“It was noncombative, nonpunitive dialogue,” said the Rev. Troy Sanders, a gay black pastor from Atlanta who was one of the Soulforce speakers. Soulforce members queried after the dinner said they were pleased with their reception, and several said they would attend Hope Christian’s Sunday service.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member church, acknowledged the evening was “historic” but made no promises about any changes in teaching or policy. “We’ll have to pray about discrimination issues in the gay community,” he said.

Read it all and you’ll see what I am talking about. The doctrinal split is clearly between two different approaches to Christian faith.

As a quick follow-up, here is an even more more glaring case of a headline not fitting the contents of the story, drawn from the Telegraph over the big pond. The headline:

Pope Benedict attacked by Catholic Church’s most senior theologians

Now the lede:

One of the Catholic Church’s most senior theologians, and former mentor to Pope Benedict XVI, has launched a stinging attack on the Vatican.

Father Hans Kung, 80, a Swiss priest and professor at Tubingen university said it was a “tragedy” for the Catholic Church that Rome had failed to follow the path of liberalisation set out by the Vatican II council in 1965.

Over at Catholic World News
, the ever edgy Diogenes had lots of fun with this one, starting with the plural headline and the singular lede.

Wait a minute: You mean one of the most senior theologians? The headline used the plural form. And wait a minute, again: A “former mentor” of Benedict XVI? The Holy Father isn’t exactly young, you know. Are any of his old teachers still alive?

Actually, no. The “most senior theologians” turn out to form a set of one: the irrepressible Hans Kung, who qualifies as a “mentor” because he once recommended Joseph Ratzinger for a post on the theology faculty at Tubingen.

And so forth and so on. How in the world did that headline happen? It’s been up there for days, screaming, “Please correct me.”

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