Obama and the Jewish votes

obama kah2Here we go again. Remember our discussion of the “Catholic vote”?

The reality, in this post James Davison Hunter world, is that there are Catholic votesplural.

Now the hot story (click for new Politico report) is that Sen. Barack Obama is focusing special attention on the “Jewish vote.” As a matter of fact, during the last election I lived in South Florida, in West Palm Beach, to be precise. I followed the run-up to the election, including all the post-9/11 debates on U.S. policies affecting Israel, and I watched the results.

The bottom line: The variation on the pew gap affected Judaism, as well as the Catholic and Protestant voting. Bush did not do as well as expected among Jewish voters, in general, but won in Orthodox Jewish settings. The press took this as strictly a commentary on Israel policies, but some Orthodox Jewish writers said that social and cultural issues came into play as well.

So here we are in 2008 and you can see some similar ghosts haunting the New York Times piece entitled, “Many Florida Jews Express Doubts on Obama.”

The really interesting thing to note is that religious faith appears to play zero role in the current debates about Obama and the Jews. The really interesting thing to note is that this cultural definition of Judaism, and faith in general, appears to be hurting Obama. Say what? Check this section out:

… (The) resistance toward Mr. Obama appears to be rooted in something more than factual misperception; even those with an accurate understanding of Mr. Obama share the hesitations. In dozens of interviews, South Florida Jews questioned his commitment to Israel — even some who knew he earns high marks from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies the United States government on behalf of Israel.

“You watch George Bush for a day, and you know where he stands,” said Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.

Many here suspect Mr. Obama of being too cozy with Palestinians, while others accuse him of having Muslim ties, even though they know that his father was born Muslim and became an atheist, and that Mr. Obama embraced Christianity as a young man. In Judaism, religion is a fixed identity across generations.

In other words, if religious identity is primarily a matter of ethnicity and culture and one cannot change that through, well, mere religious conversion, then that means that Obama is still in some way — Muslim. So the purely cultural approach to Judaism, which is normally identified with secular Judaism and more liberal cultural views that are far, far from doctrinal, Orthodox Judaism, may not be something that helps Obama in some settings, especially among the elderly.

And the Orthodox? They are not going to be happy at all with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., no matter what happens. They are also not going to be happy with Obama’s very liberal stands on crucial moral and cultural issues. And then there is the issue — Wright or wrong — about Obama’s enthusiastic support for his mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. There is a history there, as in many mainline flocks, of fierce debate about the status of Israel.

Stay tuned. Read the whole Times report. Very complex and confusing stuff.

But keep in mind: There is no one Jewish vote, either. It’s Jewish votes. Plural. You might want to keep your eye on Sen. Joe Lieberman.

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The missing majority (again)

marriagebanYesterday I pointed out the Los Angeles Times‘ rather incomplete survey of “liberal and conservative congregations” on the issue of same-sex marriage. Seventy-five percent of the religious figures who took a position in the article were exuberant about the recent California Supreme Court ruling redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.

This week the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” religion opinion site posed the following questions:

The California Supreme Court has overturned that state’s ban on gay marriage. Is marriage a legal right or a sacred rite? Should the state be involved in marriage? Should religious institutions?

Some of the 16 responses from panelists are interesting, informative and engage the question. But what struck me was that only four of the responses were critical of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Is this further confirmation that in the world of mainstream media, 75 percent of religious adherents have no regard for the traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim view of marriage? I know that the Washington Post/Newsweek site is an opinion site but that’s just bad journalism.

It’s fine to read the views of Starhawk, Deepak Chopra, and Bishop John Bryson Chane, among others, but when moderator Sally Quinn asks questions that seem to be on the level of 8th-grade home room discussions, the debate isn’t exactly riveting:

Homosexual couples are simply two people who love each other. Please explain to me how that can be wrong in the eyes of God.

Tmatt reminded me of former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent’s words on the matter in 2004:

(For) those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that “For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy,” (March 19, 2004); that the family of “Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home,” (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that “Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes,” (Jan. 30, 2004). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (“Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,” by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

But back to the Washington Post/Newsweek forum: In addition to the interesting and valid discussions being conducted by pagans, moderate Baptists, progressive Catholics and United Church of Christ clergy, that site would be an excellent place for a thorough discussion of Christianity’s (and Judaism’s and Islam’s) historic teaching on marriage. There is so much there to discuss that is interesting.

I’m sure Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham know a couple of Roman Catholics who can defend the church’s teaching on marriage. Why is it that when a big same-sex marriage story happens, the media in general can’t seem to find articulate defenders of traditional marriage to talk to even though the majority of the country is with them?

Photo by Flickr user arimoore used under a Creative Commons license.

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An imam and a pastor vs. California

GayMarriageYesterday I complained about a Los Angeles Times story that profiled only one couple — an Evangelical Christian one — to represent the 61 percent of California voters who voted to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It was their support of the traditional definition of marriage that was ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court last week.

In a later article, Times reporters Maria La Ganga, Hector Becerra and Rebecca Trounson surveyed leaders of various liberal and conservative congregations about how they feel about the ruling opening marriage to same-sex unions.

Ten sources were quoted or otherwise represented. Two were opposed to the ruling and six were overwhelmingly supportive. Of those opposed to the ruling, one was a conservative congregational Christian pastor and one was a Muslim imam. Two additional sources, who were noncommittal, were the president of an ecumenical seminary and a Baptist pastor. The six other sources or examples were a Unitarian Universalist Church (they played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at Sunday services); a rabbi at a Reform Jewish congregation (which offers “outreach to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community”); the politically active All Saints Episcopal Church; the president of a multidenominational, theologically liberal Christian seminary; the rabbi of a Conservative Jewish congregation and the rabbi of another Reform Jewish congregation.

So the two examples of clergy who were opposed were a Muslim imam and a conservative Christian pastor? Way to pound the pavement there, team of three reporters! The story focuses on whether the ruling that there is a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage will affect their marriage policies. It seems like a somewhat weird question. Most religious groups base their doctrine of marriage on laws even higher than the California Supreme Court. Mostly, those religious groups that celebrated same-sex unions will continue to do so and those that don’t celebrate same-sex unions won’t. Still, the most interesting quotes were from clergy for whom the ruling had an effect:

A mile or so away at All Saints Episcopal Church, the Rev. Susan Russell led a between-services forum on the religious, legal and political ramifications of the court’s decision.

“The justices have ruled in favor of the sanctity of marriage and against bigotry,” Russell declared, as the audience cheered. “This is good news for all Californians.”

But even though All Saints has been blessing same-sex unions for more than 15 years, the ruling unleashed a wave of uncertainty.

“At this point in the Episcopal Church, our prayer book still defines marriage between a man and a woman,” Russell said in an interview. “There’s some question about whether we can, within the canons of our church, extend the sacrament to same-gender couples.”

The decision raises questions, too, about what All Saints’ blessing ceremonies mean anymore, Russell said. Should couples who have had such ceremonies get married too? Will the civil steps suffice? Or should they go through another church ritual? And what kinds of ceremonies will All Saints provide as it moves forward?

The questions are personal for Russell, who celebrated her union with her partner in an official blessing ceremony two years ago. Russell said she and her partner haven’t begun discussing what the new ruling will mean for them. As for her church, she said, “I’m glad we have 30 days to think it through.”

The article also quotes a Conservative rabbi who says that he did not celebrate the unions of gay and lesbian couples in his past but will as a result of the decision. And the Rev. William Epps, pastor of historic Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, says that he had given no thought to the ruling. Asked if he would marry a homosexual couple, he said it would be something he’d pray about.

All in all, the article bent over backward to represent the views of religious adherents who support same-sex marriage. Their quotes are interesting, lengthy and help the reader really understand their positions. For instance, much of the division between those who retain the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and those who don’t is based on differing views of Biblical authority. In that vein, these quotes from Conservative Rabbi Harold Schulweis are fascinating:
happycouple

Schulweis has been a rabbi for more than half a century and has seen his religion evolve, he said, first allowing women into the full “ritual life of the community,” then ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, and eventually embracing homosexuals.

“It’s one of the most exciting parts of seeing religion as not static and inflexible but as sensitive to different times and different information and different knowledge,” Schulweis said.

“What in the world did people in the biblical time know about homosexuals?”

But the richness of these quotes highlight the great failure of the piece. Where are the equivalent quotes from the many religious adherents who oppose redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples?

When 75 percent of the people taking a position in an article about the religious response to redefining marriage support the change, that’s just ridiculous. California has more Roman Catholics than any other state in the nation. I believe that almost one in three Californians is Catholic. California also has more Latter-day Saint temples than any other state in the union save Utah. The idea that the reporters would highlight three Jewish rabbis (all of whom somehow support redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples), an Episcopal priest, and a Unitarian Universalist Church but only one Christian clergyman who holds the traditional view of marriage as a union of one man and one woman? It would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive and inaccurate.

Back when a Massachusetts court changed the legal definition of marriage to permit same-sex couples to marry, one media critic described the general coverage as “upbeat.” Acting like 75 percent of the clergy are embracing a legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions would have to qualify as more of the same.

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California: Impact on religious liberty

rainbow altar 01It’s the sidebar for the main story of the day, of course.

And New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley does what you expect a reporter to do, in a story that runs with the oh-so-predictable headline: “Gay Couples Celebrate California Decision; Both Sides See a Fight.”

You think?

So the goal here is to have a story that quotes both sides in the other great moral-cultural-religious issue that has dominated the American political scene since the 1960s (give or take a decade). The issue, on one level, is the civil-rights status of people who live public lives as gays and lesbians. The status of bisexuality looms nearby, in a cloud of fog.

But there is another issue closely connected: What are the rights, in terms of free speech and religious liberty, of the people and voluntary associations who continue to hold traditional Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., doctrines on the moral status of sex outside the state of marriage, as traditionally defined? I first heard these issues linked in this manner in a church-state seminar way back in 1977.

On one level, the key question is this: Is sexual orientation the same thing, legally, as race, gender, age, religion and other conditions given special protection in American law? Is it illegal to defend traditional religious views on sexuality in the public square? I need to state right up front that I am a professor in a global network of Christian Colleges and Universities, a perfect example of a voluntary association sure to be touched by this legal conflict (which is, of course, linked to doctrinal conflicts as well).

Thus, McKinley tells us:

“Today will go down as a true turning point,” said Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, a gay rights advocacy group. “It really is a very powerful message that love trumps hate and hope trumps fear.”

But the battle in California is not over. Opponents of same-sex marriage said they had gathered 1.2 million signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, and effectively undo the Thursday decision. …

Robert Tyler, a lawyer with Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which argued against same-sex marriage before the California court, said opponents might seek a stay of the decision until voters could take up the issue in November. Mr. Tyler said he was especially troubled by the court’s drawing on a 1948 ruling that overturned a state ban on interracial marriages.

“Where is the court going to rationally limit marriage if it’s not a union between a male and female?” he said. “There is no evidence to establish that a homosexual lifestyle is an immutable characteristic such as race.”

That last statement is, of course, wrong. There is a stack of evidence that suggests that many people cannot change their sexual orientation, which is not the same thing — for traditional religious believers — as changing their behavior. There is also a large body of evidence that people can change their behavior and, to an imperfect degree, their emotions and orientation.

We will not be debating either side of that equation in the comment boxes on this site. However, I freely admit that there are many journalists who simply believe that there is only one side to this debate and that there is no need for accuracy and fairness in quoting the views of those you oppose in this debate.

People on the right will make that claim, concerning coverage in their own niche publications. People on the left will make that argument about coverage in mainstream newspapers, networks and wire services.

This brings me to a very important article on the religious-liberty issues linked to this news event, one that ran in a conservative publication, The Weekly Standard. This is an article that we have frequently recommended to mainstream journalists because of the fine job that Maggie Gallagher did in standing back and quoting — at length — the sometimes clashing views of activists in the gay-lesbian-bisexual legal community. If you know of articles on the left that take a similar approach to the views of scholars on the right, please let me know. Pronto.

rainbow altar 01This long chunk of the article opens with quotes from Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a wide range of religious groups.

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

For scholars, these will be interesting times: Want to know exactly where the borders of church and state are located? “Wait a few years,” Picarello laughs. The flood of litigation surrounding each point of contact will map out the territory. For religious liberty lawyers, there are boom times ahead. …

Picarello is a Harvard-trained litigator experienced in religious liberty issues. But predicting the legal consequences of as big a change as gay marriage is a job for more than one mind. So last December, the Becket Fund brought together ten religious liberty scholars of right and left to look at the question of the impact of gay marriage on the freedom of religion. Picarello summarizes: “All the scholars we got together see a problem; they all see a conflict coming. They differ on how it should be resolved and who should win, but they all see a conflict coming.”

These are not necessarily scholars who oppose gay marriage. Chai Feldblum, for example, is a Georgetown law professor who refers to herself as “part of an inner group of public-intellectual movement leaders committed to advancing LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual] equality in this country.” Marc Stern is the general counsel for the center-left American Jewish Congress. Robin Wilson of the University of Maryland law school is undecided on gay marriage. Jonathan Turley of George Washington law school has supported legalizing not only gay marriage but also polygamy.

Reading through these and the other scholars’ papers, I noticed an odd feature. Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead–perhaps because they tended to find it “inconceivable,” as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that “a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage.” That’s a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don’t arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a “long way” from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that’s pretty close to the world in which they live now.

Read it all, and please let us know if you see similar article in the mainstream and on the political left. This is going to be a huge, huge issue for Barack Obama and Democrats in the center and on the, relatively speaking, right.

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The War on Whitsunday

pentecostToday is Pentecost, one of the three chief festivals in the Western Christian church year. It would be hard to imagine a complete lack of coverage of Christmas or Easter but Pentecost, the least commercial or secularized of the three days, doesn’t receive much media coverage at all. I don’t have any statistics to back this up but I think that media coverage is particularly sparse during those years, like 2008, that the High Holy Day of Mothers coincides with Pentecost.

Perhaps because Pentecost isn’t celebrated in the home as much as Christmas and Easter, reporters have trouble writing about the day which marks the birthday of the Christian Church. Of the media outlets that even mentioned Pentecost, also called Whitsunday, most simply published personal essays from religious adherents. The Times (U.K.) ran an interesting and thorough essay from the Right Rev. Dr Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. It’s probably one of the few times a piece was headlined, “The celestial fire that brings us new life and inspiration.”

The Columbia Missourian actually had a detailed explanation of the origins of Pentecost:

Although Pentecost is largely regarded as a Christian holiday, it has Jewish roots.

It was during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is associated with the spring harvest and marks the day Moses received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai — that the Holy Spirit came down to spread the good news about Jesus Christ.

According the second chapter of Acts in the Bible, as Jesus’ apostles celebrated Shavuot, the Holy Spirit appeared, marking the beginning of the Christian church’s mission.

The piece even mentioned the symbols, traditions and celebrations of Pentecost. The hymns it says are most popular are not ones I’m familiar with:

“Breathe on me breath of God,” “There’s a spirit in the air,” “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” and “O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us” are among the most popular.

I love Pentecost hymns but don’t recognize those, even after a YouTube perusal. (Today we sang one of my favorites, which we also sang at my wedding: “To God the Holy Spirit, Let Us Pray.”) I would quibble about what makes the cited hymns so popular but I won’t. I’m too excited that a reporter would think to include hymns in a story about popular liturgical celebrations.

Hank Arends, a retired religion reporter, writes a weekly column for Oregon’s Statesman-Journal. For this week, he wrote about the lack of attention paid to Pentecost:

The Rev. Don Shaw of John Knox Presbyterian Church in Keizer once did an informal survey among those who were not active church attendees.

His request: “Identify the three major Christian holidays.” Most easily named Christmas and Easter, with blank looks and answers like Thanksgiving and Lent for the third.

“Not one of those I questioned came up with Pentecost,” Shaw said. He pointed out that the church holy day falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter and “marks the birth of the church.

“So why is Pentecost unknown in our culture, while Christmas and Easter are widely acknowledged? I believe the answer lies in the very nature of Pentecost.”

The pastor said while Christmas and Easter remember the one time events of a birth and resurrection, Pentecost recalls the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church and is “ongoing and continuous.”

Holly Andres, a staff writer for the LA Daily News, used Pentecost as a hook to talk about a local congregation with an interesting approach:

Furious winds and flames overhead are not what the parishioners at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Rite Catholic Church would ever want to experience at their Chatsworth building near the brush-fire prone Santa Susana Mountains.

Except for this Sunday, when it might be thrilling for them to personally experience what Jesus’ Apostles did on Pentecost, which the parish will celebrate Sunday.

Pentecost, which comes 50 days after Easter, is the day Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended and brought spiritual gifts to the Apostles and then, ever since, to anyone who affirms to be a Christian.

“There was a sound like a rushing, mighty wind. There were tongues of flames over their heads. Then the Apostles were speaking in tongues,” said the Very Rev. Anthony F. Rasch from St. Mary. “Our Lord said he would send the Spirit to remind them (of his teachings) and lead them to all truth.”

The small congregation worships God in an historic cemetery chapel and uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I love the way the reporter used the hook of a major church festival to discuss this liturgical congregation.

The three pieces I highlighted here were fine and good. Pentecost is difficult to cover since it has no secular or commercial angle. It is also not celebrated by Christians themselves as much as Christmas or Easter. But perhaps reporters — other than those in the Catholic press — can do a bit better on this in the future.

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Define “emerging,” give three examples

6a00d834520df269e200e54f20cef08834 800wiLong-time GetReligion readers may remember that I have been, and remain, very confused about the meaning of the term “emerging church” and how it relates to that other confusing term “evangelical.” There was even a time, two years ago or thereabouts, when GetReligion.org was named one of the top weblogs linked to the “emerging church” movement. That struck me as most strange. It still does.

Whatever the term means, it is supposed to be linked to a kind of post-evangelical embrace of the nuances of postmodern reality, in an attempt to fuse ancient mysteries with contemporary questions without the certainties of orthodoxy or something like that.

The key figure — in part since his church is so close to the D.C. Beltway — is the Rev. Brian McLaren, an author who has a stunning ability to write thousands and thousands of words without betraying anything specific about where he stands on centuries of Christian faith and doctrine and how they apply to modern issues. That’s where — for a premodern, Orthodox Christian guy like me — the frustrations begin. The last thing journalists need to be doing right now is tossing around another loaded, yet almost totally undefined, term. I mean, imagine trying to write an “emerging church” entry for the Associated Press Stylebook.

Truth be told, the “emerging” people and more than a few other Protestants are trying to run away from that “evangelical” buzz word. That’s part of what is going on with the “Evangelical Manifesto” story right now. Click here for one report on that scene.

Anyway, Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press recently sat down with McLaren for a Q&A that captures some of my frustration with all of this.

It’s common to ask if the “emerging church” represents a move to the theological left and the assumption is that it does.

But that’s an old question. I want to know if the leaders of this movement believe that they are making a move toward ancient faith traditions or simply another attempt by modern people, or postmodern people, to create their own version of the faith that tries to get back to what they believe the early church was all about. This is a recurring theme in American religion for 200 years or so.

Thus, Zoll writes:

Author Brian McLaren is among the most influential American religious thinkers of the last decade. His break with rigid orthodoxy and embrace of new worship styles is at the center of what is called the emerging church — a movement that has gone viral. The emerging church reclaims ancient practices and prayers and creates new ones, while re-examining Scripture to learn how modern-day Christians should live. …

Emerging thinkers contend that evangelicals and others have been too influenced by the broader culture in their reading of Scripture. The emerging church says this has marginalized important Bible teachings and hurt the faith.

See what I mean? This is modern worship that breaks with rigid orthodoxy of the past while reclaiming ancient practices to create a fusion for modernists. To me, that sounds like three parts modern with one part ancient and the postmodernists get to create all the equations that matter, when it comes to authority.

IMG 4499Later, in the interview, there is this exchange:

Q: On the theology behind the emerging church, you reject the idea that there’s an absolute truth. So what boundaries are there on theology that churches are teaching? Can any church just call itself an emerging church?

A: Obviously that’s a challenge. The flip side of that question is look at the Catholic Church: For all of its orthodoxy, it could have bishops covering up for molesting priests. And evangelicals, for all their claims of orthodoxy, can be barbaric to gay people and can blindly support a rush to war in Iraq and can be, as we speak, fomenting for war with Iran. … Obviously, I have a lot of critics and they often say, ‘You’re wanting to water down the Gospel to accommodate to post-modernity.’ I say, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that. But what I do want to do is acknowledge first the ways we’ve already watered down the Gospel to accommodate modernity.’ … I think the naivete of some of those critics is that they’re starting with a pure pristine understanding of the Gospel. It seems to me we’re all in danger of screwing up.

So, no absolute truths? I don’t see a clear answer there, especially not for a minister who is so concerned about social justice. Also, if you are seeking ancient roots, does that include the Nicene Creed? Are creedal absolutes tossed out, too?

You know where I am going with this, right? I think someone — a journalist perhaps — needs to ask this man three specific questions. Cue up the “tmatt trio,” again:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

So read the Zoll interview, you journalists out there. What questions would you have wanted to ask?

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Stalking the religious Democrats

cross in flag cropped smallHey, there you go. It has taken almost the whole primary season, but it now appears that the national press — or, at least, the Washington Post, which is a big deal in my zip code — has accepted that there are religious believers in the Democratic Party. Hurrah.

Long-time GetReligion readers will remember that we’ve been harping on this story for several years now. What’s next? Discovering that there are different kinds of religious believers in the party and that this has something to do with regional, racial and cultural tensions in the White House race and other contests as well?

But first things first. It appears that, for better and for worst, it was the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., who pulled the lever to yank this story into normality. Personally, I thought that the various “Catholic vote” factors would have done the trick.

So click here to get to the Post story with the headline “Wright Controversy Deepens Voter Divide — Religious, Racial Split in N.C., Indiana.” There is really nothing unusual in this story, other than the fact that reporters are getting to interpret some of the same kinds of exit-poll questions about Democrats that they have been seeing asked about people in God’s On Party for years. Here is a sample:

In network exit polling, about the same number of voters in each state said they considered the situation with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. “very important” to their vote as those who said it was “not at all important.” And most who gave the issue a heavy weight voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), while those who said it was not a factor went for Obama, the Illinois senator, by wide margins.

In both states, frequent churchgoers were more apt to say they were influenced by Wright than were less actively religious voters. In North Carolina, among those who said they attend religious services weekly, nearly six in 10 called Wright important to their vote, almost double the figure among those who never attend services. Even among Obama’s own supporters in the Tarheel state, 45 percent who attend services weekly called the controversy important to their vote; among those, a third who rated it “very important.”

In Indiana, the issue also split voters: About half of those who attend services weekly or occasionally rated the Wright issue important, while only a third of those who never attend services said the same.

What the story is lacking is any connection between religion and other issues — such as the Iraq war, health care, abortion, the environment, gay marriage, etc. In other words, we are used to seeing — in GOP coverage — how religious factors (think “pew gap”) affect voter’s views on other subjects.

At this point, the coverage of the Democrats seems to be focused only on race and, to a lesser extent, the mere fact that people are “Catholics” (as if there there was one Catholic vote).

Still, it is good to get even the most basic, blunt data. This is progress, even if everything is coming through the Wright Stuff lens at the moment.

Beyond Wright, Democratic voters again divided along religious lines in Tuesday’s primaries. Clinton carried white Catholics in both states, but by a smaller margin than she did in Pennsylvania two weeks ago. She won about two-thirds of white Protestants in Indiana and North Carolina.The two split weekly churchgoers in Indiana, and Obama held a 12-point edge among these voters in North Carolina. And active religious voters again divided along racial lines: Clinton won white weekly churchgoers in Indiana and North Carolina by 30-point margins, while Obama outpaced Clinton by better than 9 to 1 among blacks who attend church weekly.

Here’s the main point, again. There is content to all of this, facts linked to what groups of people believe, how often they worship and other questions.

It would be good to see the same depth of coverage devoted to religious people on the left side of the political aisle — heck, even people in the middle — as on the right.

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Why Oprah left and Obama stayed

obama and wrightNews reporters are starting to step up to the challenge of exploring the complicated issue of why a person joins a church. A pair of articles published this week explore both sides of the coin that is a person’s decision to attend the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

On one side, Sunday’s The Chicago Tribune an article exploring “what led Obama to Wright’s church.” On the other side, Newsweek asks why afternoon television talk show star “Oprah Winfrey left Rev. Wright’s church.”

Here’s the heart of the Tribune‘s news analysis:

But in Chicago, the choice to attend Trinity for so long is a little less of a puzzle, given Obama and Wright’s shared history on the city’s South Side and the spiritual and cultural haven the church and pastor offered the aspiring politician.

Membership at Trinity is often taken as a progressive credential, a sign that a person is attuned to issues of social justice and equality and supportive of issues important to its gay and lesbian members.

“Rev. Wright is more sophisticated intellectually than many pastors,” said Kwame Raoul, the state senator who took Obama’s place in the Illinois legislature and who is a member at Trinity. “He’s well-read, he takes the theology seriously. He doesn’t just make quick references to the Bible but offers a very deep analysis and an application to current events.”

Shocking isn’t it, that Obama sought out a liberal/progressive church?

But his choice of church — as tmatt stressed the other day — shows a rather strategic decision. Obama intended to avoid what the article puts forward as the less intellectually “sophisticated” pastors in America’s black churches. As for what it takes to be considered sophisticated, the Tribune explains:

Theologically, Trinity has always stood apart from the constellation of black churches in Chicago, many of which offer a more socially conservative message. Wright questions the common sense of Scripture, ordains women, defends gay rights and preaches a theology of black liberation, which seeks to make the gospel relevant to the black experience.

Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a longtime member of Trinity, said Wright has always defied boundaries by cultivating an array of black religious traditions. Visitors on a typical Sunday morning might see and hear flavors of Pentecostal worship, prophetic preaching, political activism, self-empowerment and individual salvation and healing.

Those paragraphs are so packed with the need for explanation. What exactly does it mean for Wright, a very informed pastor theologically, to question “the common sense of Scripture?” Could there be a more vague way of stating what a person believes about what the Bible says? Since what a Christian believes about the Bible is pretty close to the heart of what one believes, vague undefined language is not good enough. A better explanation is needed.

As for Oprah, her decision to leave Wright’s church seems to be motivated by even more self-interest than the aspiring politician’s reasons for joining the church. Oprah, who has endorsed and campaigned for Obama, wanted to set up her own church:

According to two sources, Winfrey was never comfortable with the tone of Wright’s more incendiary sermons, which she knew had the power to damage her standing as America’s favorite daytime talk-show host. “Oprah is a businesswoman, first and foremost,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity when discussing Winfrey’s personal sentiments. “She’s always been aware that her audience is very mainstream, and doing anything to offend them just wouldn’t be smart. She’s been around black churches all her life, so Reverend Wright’s anger-filled message didn’t surprise her. But it just wasn’t what she was looking for in a church.” Oprah’s decision to distance herself came as a surprise to Wright, who told Christianity Today in 2002 that when he would “run into her socially … she would say, ‘Here’s my pastor!’ ” (Winfrey declined to comment. A Harpo Productions spokesperson would not confirm her reasons for leaving the church.)

But Winfrey also had spiritual reasons for the parting. In conversations at the time with a former business associate, who also asked for anonymity, Winfrey cited her fatigue with organized religion and a desire to be involved with a more inclusive ministry. In time, she found one: her own. “There is the Church of Oprah now,” said her longtime friend, with a laugh. “She has her own following.”

It’s great that journalists are starting to take a closer look at why Obama joined Wright’s church. It’s also interesting to compare him to why someone like Oprah would leave Wright’s church.

Obama’s motivation for joining seems pretty well established. He wanted to be apart of a liberal church that was active in helping others in inner city Chicago.

The next question to answer is whether American voters will hold this decision against him and see it as a flaw in his judgment. As Indiana demonstrated Tuesday night, the answer is anything but clear.

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