Not Jewish, but what?

Jude-StarDon’t call it a comeback … But after a month-long sabbatical, during which I completed my first semester of law school, I am, indeed, back.

So where do we pick up? Let’s try Dallas.

Usually when I think of Big D, I think of the Cowboys and a lot of drama. But talk about trauma. You know, a lot a lot of American Jews survived the Holocaust, but I’ve never heard of anyone as afraid that 1939 could come in the United States any day as Denise Brown.

Two years ago, Denise Brown faced a defining moment. It required giving up a lifetime of fear, of relinquishing forever her deepest secret and proclaiming to the world her true self.

The 84-year-old woman, who 60 years ago founded the renowned City Ballet, teaching generations of Dallas children how to dance, would announce to the world what she had hidden all those years from her dancers and their families – that she is Jewish.

“My oldest daughter was becoming a bat mitzvah,” says Denise’s youngest of four children, Evelyn Brown Johnson, 52, who learned at 16 that her mother is Jewish, a secret she, too, agreed to keep.

Denise wanted to present to her granddaughter Madison the tallit, or prayer shawl, that her father had worn at his bar mitzvah, years before being killed at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in 1942. The circumstances of her father’s death were among the many things that Denise had kept private. …

Before revealing her secret at Madison’s bat mitzvah, Denise called her best friend, a Belgian war bride she had known for half a century, to tell her that she’s Jewish.

“You called me for that?” Evelyn quotes the woman as saying. “In my mother’s mind, this all got built up and built up to the point where she thought people would have reacted the way they would have … in 1939!”

Brown’s is a moving story, and Dallas Morning News reporter Michael Granberry did a good job getting out of the way and letting her tell it. I was skeptical, but Granberry explains why Brown hid her Jewishness — paranoia and an anti-Semitic husband and in-laws.

Having said that, Granberry leaves a big question or two unanswered: If Brown insisted on not letting anyone know she was Jewish, did she, in the alternative, practice another religion? And did she believe in it? And, because Judaism is a matrilineal religion, did anyone begin to suspect that Brown was Jewish when her kids began to identify as Jewish?

It seems unlikely that, before moving from a small Texas town to Dallas, that Brown could pass as just not religious. She must have identified as something, right? And if she didn’t, and her husband’s family didn’t either, I’d like to know that too.

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NYTimes: ‘Oops!’ on orphanages?

dickens orphanageAfter publishing a one-sided A1 attack on African orphanages on December 6, The New York Times has now partly corrected its reporting with a shorter A14 story on December 17 that says orphanages may not be so bad after all.

Basically, the two stories compare and contrast two models used to care for needy children: the traditional orphanage model and a decentralized approach that gives small cash payments to families that care for local children.

As I wrote in, “Bah Humbug” on charities!, my Dec. 7 post, the December 6 Times story, which focused on one orphanage in Malawi connected to the pop singer Madonna, took cheap shots at the orphanage model favored by many churches and organizations while praising the newer but unproven family model.

The December 17 Times story, “Study Suggests Orphanages Are Not So Bad” by Denise Grady, largely contradicts–but never specifically refers to–the paper’s December 6 story.

The December 17 story once again misstates the consensus on the issue by its undocumented use of the words, “widespread belief”:

A new study challenges the widespread belief that orphans in poor countries fare best in family-style homes in the community and should be put into orphanages only as a last resort. On the contrary, the care at orphanages is often at least as good as that given by families who take in orphaned or abandoned children, the new research finds.

At least as good? Eight paragraphs later the story finally adds this important insight on what’s best for the kids:

The children living in orphanages generally fared as well as those in the community, or even better, the researchers found.

And four paragraphs later, the story acknowledges that moving kids from orphanages doesn’t necessarily result in improved care:

The pressure to move children quickly out of orphanages could endanger them, [study author Dr. Kathryn] Whetten said, by sending them back to abusive or neglectful families.

Both Times stories on orphanages acknowledge that the challenge of caring for orphans is both vast and urgent:

Worldwide, an estimated 143 million children have lost at least one parent.

That’s what is so confusing about the paper of record’s seeming bias against the orphanage model. Could it that the spirit of Dickens’ Oliver Twist has muddied the issue with its graphic portrayal of London’s horrible workhouses and poorhouses?

Here’s my resolution for the New Year: May the best reporting help caring individuals and hard-working organizations find the best way to care for needy children worldwide!

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Spiritual, but generic, Santas at work

HospiceSantaIt would be impossible not to be moved by USA Today feature story about the volunteers at Santa-America, who swing into action this time of year in 40 states to minister to children who are living in hospice care or those who face the lose of a parent.

There is a ghost in this life-and-death story and guest writer Marcia Manna knows it.

Children are going to ask the big questions. Santa is expected to answer. But the Santas are not there to play God. Maybe.

The Santas are an elite and bearded group from all backgrounds: Some are retired, others work at jobs that range from salesmen to psychologists. Before visiting a home or hospital, they memorize names of family members and pets; they undergo a rigorous background check and receive ongoing instruction in grief, bereavement, symptom management and spirituality.

“First and foremost, you have to remember that these are children, and you have to go in treating them like children,” says John Scheuch, Santa-America’s executive director. “I have visited babies who are only weeks old, and, on Christmas morning, it’s clear that some won’t survive. There are others who are realizing where they are and what is going to happen and they are wrestling with that. I visited a 6-year-old who asked Santa, ‘What is it going to be like when I die?’ After a gulp and a deep breath, I said, ‘I don’t really know, but I do know you will not be hurting or in pain anymore and that can only be more pleasant.’ Then we spoke of other things.”

It’s the small details that grab you in this story, like the all-seeing Santa receiving his briefing papers before he enters each hospice room — making sure that he knows the name of the dog back at home, the nicknames for the grandparents and other crucial, private, details.

But the details stop when it comes time to deal with that final loaded word — spirituality.

Are the Santas briefed to handle the questions of children from religious families as well as those from secular households? We don’t know. Are the Santas briefed to give answers that in any way support the prayers and the pastoral counsel offered by rabbis, pastors, priests and others? We don’t know.

It seems that this is the frying pan that is too hot to touch. But why avoid those details in a story that is already digging into these kinds of raw, emotional questions?

Once again, it is clear that the Santas know that this issue is real. They also know that in many cases they will need to be supportive, yet spiritually neutral. But what about cases in which the family has specific beliefs that need to be supported? I would imagine that an organization of this kind has to have faced that question and developed a policy on how to handle it. I imagine that this question is covered in one of those training briefings in “spirituality.”

The answer just isn’t in this story. The ghost remains right out in the open for all to see.

Santa-America was founded seven years ago by Ernest Berger in southwest Alabama.

“Our motto is ‘Elf Before Self,’ ” says Berger, 66. “Many of us may be people of faith, but we are not a faith-based organization. We deal in a secular world. Rather than deny the elephant in the room, the essence of hospice is that death is natural, though it may not come at a natural time.”

PHOTO: From the photo collection at

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Crouching Tiger, hidden ghosts

nailemIf I may indulge in an awful pun, Tiger ain’t out of the woods yet.

Aside from our unhealthy interest in the cover pictures of the New York Post’s latest documented bimbo eruption, I’ve noticed a bizarre phenomenon surrounding the Tiger Woods scandal. As a topic of discussion, a good many of us seem less concerned with the human tragedy involved and instead we’re trying to outdo everyone else in the office’s fantasy crisis public relations league, dreaming up ever more creative ways the famous golfer “needs to get out in front of the story more” before he loses even more sponsors and “damages his brand.”

(As you might expect, journalists have made a cottage industry out of this speculation about Woods’ endorsement career post-scandal — James Surowiecki’s column in the New Yorker on the economic impact of the Woods scandal is a pretty sophisticated example of what I’m talking about.)

I’ve been caught-up in these shallow conversations with friends and colleagues, only to walk away wondering after the fact whether the impulses behind these conversations are indications that we have a unhealthy cultural dialogue when it comes to sin and redemption.

This weird and increasingly prevalent desire to Monday morning quarterback celebrity scandal is the topic of Michael Hiltzik’s excellent Los Angeles Times column. The column has a fairly anodyne headline — “Tiger Woods’ path to redemption has been blazed by many who preceded him” — but Hiltzik has done some pretty interesting analysis here. Here’s the meat of it:

The comeback trail for Woods has been blazed by many who preceded him; in fact, it’s been obvious almost from the first.

What’s required is the public confessional. Fortunately, one thing our culture has in surfeit is public confessors.

My prediction is that Tiger will eventually go on a national TV program and confess all. Undoubtedly, he will have his pick of venues, all of which are probably already clamoring to offer him a platform on his terms. He need only settle on his preferred atmospherics.

He can talk to Oprah Winfrey if he wants nurturing commiseration. Larry King for a veneer of newsiness. Diane Sawyer for condescending solicitude. Matt Lauer for sensitive, manly contrition. Barbara Walters to display inner turmoil and personal growth.

The key is to produce a foundational narrative encompassing (a) the nature and scale of his offense (adultery); (b) the events of Nov. 27, with all the weird aspects credibly explained even if barely so (i.e., where was he going at 2:30 a.m. and what was his wife really doing with the golf club?); and (c) an apology.

If done right — and we must assume that Tiger is finally consulting with professionals — this procedure will accomplish some very important goals. It will allow him to deflect queries on the subject forever after, by referring questioners to the ur-narrative on videotape. It will satisfy the public’s demand that process be respected — give most people, at least, what pop psychologists like Oprah herself call “closure.”

If done right, it might even enable him to turn the tables on the curious by making them seem the churlish ones. By the way, whatever show he’s on will rack up the ratings of the season.

There are two things that are interesting here. One, Hiltzik breaks everything down with a precision and a matter-of-factness that I think are just spot on. And two, isn’t it striking how this narrative of the celebrity public apologia is almost the antithesis of religious narratives of redemption? Rather than measuring your failings against some objective standard and earnestly confessing your sins and apologizing to the people you have wronged, in Hiltzik’s narrative the whole point is to manipulate the construct by which you are judged. You choose your forum for confession on the basis of how flattering it is to you. And if you really succeed, you deflect future criticism by arguing that the greater crime is not your own sin but the willingness of others to cast judgment.

So yes, we all know the celebrity-industrial complex is morally bankrupt, but this really made me sit-up and notice how seriously, seriously messed up the celebrity redemption narrative is. I came to this realization in part because Hiltzik explains things very accurately, but also because his clinical tone is borderline unsettling:

As for his now-obligatory response, let’s not be too cynical about it. The machinery of the public apology has developed over decades, to the point where its moving parts are very well understood by practitioners and their audiences.

I agree that excess cynicism is a bad thing, but I’m not sure that we should blithely accept this amoral kabuki dance because a) we’re complicit in it to the point we understand its “moving parts” and b) Tiger Woods is just treading down a path “blazed by many who preceded him.”

The fact is that there is an alternative redemption narrative out there, and even Hiltzik can’t explain the Tiger Woods scandal without at least employing the language of religion — there’s a brief discussion about whether “transgression” is a “weasel-word” compared to confessing the specific sin of infidelity; there’s Tiger’s “path from perdition”; and much discussion over the meaning of the “public confessional.”

Now I hardly expect a full-blown theological discussion of the Tiger Woods scandal, but this story’s got more ghosts than an abandoned insane asylum built atop an Indian burial ground. The absence of this perspective is why the end of the column is so jarring:

The spectacle of Tiger Woods being tormented by scandal hasn’t been uplifting or edifying. It may be natural, but it isn’t civilized. Woods is a paragon of physical grace, hard work and athletic achievement, and the best outcome for him would be his speedy return to the tour.

The best outcome is a speedy return to the PGA Tour? Come again?

Granted we’re coming at things from a very specific perspective here at GetReligion, but in a better world I hope the best outcome involves saving Tiger Woods’ immortal soul and somehow making his family whole again.

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Fundies upset about the Lambert kiss?

58990887Time for a short quiz for our readers.

Based on what you know about religion, news and religion in the news, do you think that, when meditating on Adam Lambert’s performance on the American Music Awards, cultural conservatives in this great nation of ours are upset about:

(1) The “spontaneous” smooch that the American Idol star deposited on his male keyboard player.

(2) The “spontaneous” moment when Lambert grabbed one of his male dancers and had him simulate an act of oral sex on the singer.

(3) The fact that the openly gay Adam Lambert exists in the first place and is poised to become a superstar, in part due to his ability to generate headlines.

(4) All of the above.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that the most truthful answer is No. 4.

If that is the case, then I think this Los Angeles Times story about the controversy is rather interesting, in terms of what it discusses and what it chooses not to discuss. Here’s the headline: “Controversy surrounds Adam Lambert’s canceled appearances — A conservative group says his AMA performance was ‘indecent and inappropriate.’ ”

And is religion involved in this story by reporter Maria Elena Fernandez? Of course it is.

Let’s take it from the top:

The decision by ABC to cancel Adam Lambert’s upcoming appearance on the late night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and to remove him from the potential roster of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performers continued to create controversy Thursday, as a conservative Christian group defended its decision to protest Lambert’s sexually suggestive performance last month at the American Music Awards.

The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm closely tied to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia and provides legal assistance in defense of what it calls “Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family,” filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over Lambert’s controversial performance at the AMAs. In it, the group called on the FCC to fine ABC for “airing such an outrageously lewd and filthy performance during a show and time period that is targeted
for family audiences.”

Kimmel’s show airs well after the 10 p.m. cutoff for FCC regulation of indecent material. But Matt Barber, Liberty Counsel’s director of cultural affairs, noted that Lambert’s AMA performance aired at 9:55 p.m. Central Standard Time and may have been seen by children and teenagers.

So what did these conservative Christians find so objectionable in this televised performance? What content did they find objectionable in family-viewing hours?

On Nov. 24, Liberty Counsel filed a complaint with the FCC against ABC contending that Lambert’s American Music Awards performance two days earlier was “obscene” and “indecent.” Although ABC did receive about 1,500 complaints from viewers about Lambert’s sexually suggestive performance, which featured the singer kissing another man, Lambert fans have in turn complained about ABC’s decision to cancel “GMA” and now Kimmel.

Many of Lambert’s supporters, including the Advocate, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and, believe he is being targeted because he is a gay male. They note that Janet Jackson, who opened the AMAs, grabbed the crotch of a male dancer but that was not subjected to the same kind of scrutiny.

Now, a Liberty Counsel representative said that the “over-the-top homoeroticism,” including “public hyper-sexualized acts,” in Lambert’s performance led to their FCC complaint.

This is where things get interesting, in terms of the content, and lack thereof, in the Times story:

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued a statement … saying that, after discussions with ABC executives, the organization was convinced there were no homophobic motives behind the cancellation of Lambert’s appearances.

“It would appear that the kiss between Adam Lambert and his keyboardist did not factor into ABC’s decision,” said Jarrett Barrios, president of GLAAD. “ABC has a history of positive gay and transgender inclusion that includes featuring kisses between gay and lesbian couples on-air.”

So male-on-male kisses are now old hat. But wait, that isn’t all that GLAAD had to say. Let’s look at the statement, as paraphrased in another source, as in

Didn’t see this coming: GLAAD has released a statement approving ABC’s decision to cancel two Adam Lambert appearances in the wake of his controversial AMA performance. Glambert was not cut for kissing a man and simulating oral sex on stage, they explain, but because he did so without telling anyone he was going to do it. It means he can’t stay on script, which is a fate that perhaps befalls stars who get their start in quasi-reality show settings. GLAAD buys ABC’s excuse, noting that the network lets gays, lesbians, and trannies kiss on air from time to time (Go, Ugly Betty, go).

Here is my main question: It seems that the Times doesn’t want to print the details of just how far Lambert went, while the live, family-time cameras were turned on (so to speak). Those Christian fundies are just upset about that male-on-male kiss, not the kiss and simulated oral sex.

Is the Times copy desk almost as squeamish as the folks at the Liberty Counsel office? Wouldn’t it be better if readers — in Los Angeles, of all places — knew that there was more to this complaint than the kiss? Or would that make the complaint sound less, well, crazy and fundamentalist? I mean, it does not appear that the newspaper is afraid of printing references to this kind of sexual activity, including in coverage of Lambert.

So why not provide the facts about the Liberty Counsel complaint?

Just asking. …

PHOTO: Adam Lambert in action on the American Music Awards, taken from Gawker.

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Pastors and gays in D.C.

Gay-420x0Having spent part of the 1990s covering Colorado’s controversial gay rights limitation measure Amendment 2 (which was passed by voters but declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), I know there are always more than two sides to these debates. That’s part of what makes a recent Washington Post story so intriguing.

The Post has done many stories about the District of Columbia Council’s pending vote on same-sex marriage. A Nov. 25 story, “Church’s influence on politics shifting: D.C.’s same-sex marriage debate pushes some clergy further to the sidelines,” by Tim Craig and Hamil R. Harris, contains plenty of nuance and depth.

The article addresses the complaint by Rev. Patrick J. Walker of the New Macedonia Baptist Church, and others, that Christian leaders have less clout than they once did:

The clout of the local faith community, particularly the black church, in D.C. politics has been declining for decades. But with the council heading for a vote next week on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, the near-certain passage of the legislation has come to symbolize both political and spiritual changes in the District.

Ministers who oppose same-sex marriage say they now feel belittled, ignored and isolated by a government that no longer views the clergy as a mighty political force. Activists, political leaders and some ministers who have come to tolerate, if not embrace, same-sex relationships argued that socially conservative ministers just chose to fight a battle they had lost years ago as the city changed around them.

The article explores two important nuances of this developing story. First, the religious landscape in D.C. has changed. Second, some clergy–including some who hold traditional sexual morality–have decided not to involve themselves in current political battle.

Not all church leaders see the inevitable passage of the same-sex marriage bill as a commentary on their influence in the city. Indeed, more than 200 local religious leaders have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, reflecting the large network of progressive
churches in the city.

And even among the more conservative, mostly Baptist, religious leaders, there is disagreement over how aggressively to wade into the issue.

While Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and other ministers who oppose same-sex marriage dominate the headlines, many of the city’s well-known faith leaders have purposely avoided becoming publicly entangled in the debate.

The Rev. Morris L. Shearin, pastor of Israel Baptist Church and former head of the city’s NAACP branch, said he is steering clear of the debate because “there are more substantive issues” to “focus on, like education and fair housing.”

“My perspective is framed by my understanding of Scripture,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, 50, pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church. “But that may not be relevant to someone who doesn’t form their life around the understanding of the Bible. . . . I would never, never want to say or do anything that marginalizes or dehumanizes anyone.”

This article by Craig and Harris dove into the debate, yielding a perspective that was more nuanced than earlier pieces that framed the issue as a simple pro-and-con debate and may have left the impression that some outspoken clergy were crusading homophobes.

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Hey, ‘The Blind Side’ may lift off

The little movie that could, otherwise known at “The Blind Side,” is starting to cause some tremors out on the left coast.

In fact, if you read between the lines in the box office numbers it seems that some people think that John Lee Hancock’s movie about family, football, faith and a very feisty good Samaritan may even catch “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and take over the No. 1 slot this coming weekend.

To make a long story short, the vampires are fading and “The Blind Spot” is still in a gradual, solid, ascent. In other words, this has become a news story.

A few hours after my GetReligion post on this topic, I received an email from the Los Angeles Times seeking input on a story about the movie. I ended up being interviewed.

So, this is essentially a mainstream news report — in LA, which is important — about the small-town, heartland hit phenomenon, as you can see in the double-decker headline:

‘The Blind Side’ writes a new playbook

Unlike most other blockbusters, a small-town blitz has driven it to box-office success.

And here’s the top of the report by John Horn and Ben Fritz:

Hollywood blockbusters aren’t usually born in movie theaters in Dallas, Birmingham or Nashville. But that’s exactly where “The Blind Side” has taken off — a show-business phenomenon driven by audiences in the South and Midwest storming to a movie about Christian charity and football that stars Sandra Bullock.

In one of the more extraordinary box-office stories of the year, writer-director John Lee Hancock’s movie about Baltimore Ravens lineman Michael Oher — who as a homeless black teen was taken in and nurtured by a well-off, churchgoing white couple — nearly toppled the smash sequel “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” at multiplexes in both films’ second weekend of release. Its ticket sales grew by 18% — the first time this year that a movie in wide release saw its domestic gross grow on its second weekend — while those for the teen vampire drama plummeted by 70%. …

Runaway hits usually generate their highest grosses in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but “The Blind Side” is performing exceptionally well miles from those urban hubs: The film’s five highest-grossing theaters this weekend were in Sacramento, Dallas, Birmingham, Ala. and Nashville.

I have heard from people who thought, in my Scripps Howard column and here at GetReligion, that I was arguing that “The Blind Side” is, in fact, a story because it is a “Christian movie,” whatever that means to the person adding the quotation marks.

That’s the precise opposite of what I was saying, of course. Thus, I was thankful that the Times crew let me say my piece (although I don’t think I’m a lofty enough guy to toss “didactic” around in this context):

Terry Mattingly, a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and the director of the Christian-oriented Washington Journalism Center, believes that “The Blind Side” is working with audiences because the film’s Christian back story is neither gratuitous nor didactic.

“What makes a movie like this important to me is that it doesn’t slap people in the face with religion,” Mattingly said. “Most films from Hollywood that involve faith take out all the details — it’s just vague and mushy or it’s negative religious stereotypes. But ‘The Blind Side’ is a real movie. And then it has another factor: showing respect for religious motivations and emotions.”

I also stressed that this was a “real film,” not a tiny cheep Christian niche-market product. It has a real director/writer, who just happens to be a Christian. It has a major star, who went into the project with her eyes wide open about the challenge of playing a conservative, evangelical, Southern woman who is radically different than herself. Bravo. It looks like Bullock may end up with an Oscar nomination for her trouble.

And the Times did talk to the real woman at the center of the storm, which would be Leigh Anne Tuohy. Here’s her take:

… (At) a time when so many people are struggling, Tuohy added, the movie tells people that putting faith into action has never been more important.

“There are a lot of people in this country who do nice things for others,” she said. “If you love the Lord, you do what you need to do. Talk is cheap.”

Stay tuned. Watch the box office.

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Got news? Stark religious numbers

Catholic_Gift_Idea_NunIf you backed up a few years, or even a decade or two, one of the subjects that religion writers in the mainstream press used to debate could be summed up in this question: “Are religion columns a good thing?”

You see, when most journalists hear the phrase “religion column,” they still think of two things. First, they think of religion pages, those gray ghettos back in the Saturday metro sections where, in most daily newspapers, slightly old wire-service copy went to die. Second, and even worse, they think of religion columns as those strange monstrosities in which a low-level reporter or clerk was asked to type up tiny news bites based on all of the press releases that religious congregations sent in the previous week (so that they wouldn’t have to support real news by purchasing advertisements).

The real issue, however, centered on the fact that many mainstream editors used religion pages and columns as excuses to keep religion news and trends out of the main news pages. In other words, religion writers assumed that as long as there were religion columns/pages, there would never be serious religion news on A1 or the metro front.

I always asked, “Why not both? Why not mainstream the coverage and have a religion page?” My assumption was that there would always be religion news that the religion-beat specialist understood was important, but that editors just “didn’t get.” It was nice, I thought, to have a niche in the newspaper in which a religion specialist could print that kind of news. This option wasn’t perfect, but it helped you get some important information into circulation.

Take, for example, meetings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. You know that, whenever they meet, the big headlines are going to be about whatever statement they issue that has something to do with (a) politics, (b) sex or, even better, (c) politics about sex. Trust me: This is the physics of daily journalism.

So what happens if the the bishops discuss other issues that — if viewed through the lens of doctrine or tradition, rather than politics — are actually quite important or even, pray tell, earthshaking? That’s when you need a religion column really, really bad.

This is why I am glad that veteran Godbeat scribe Julia Duin (who took second in the 2009 Religion Reporter of the Year Award competition from the mainstream Religion Newswriters Association) has a regular column over at the Washington Times.

While catching up with my reading after an almost completely wifi-free Thanksgiving, I came across a perfect example of how she uses her columns to get crucial information into the newspaper. In this case, I ran into a column about the recent survey: “Recent Vocations to Religious Life” (click here for .pdf) done by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research. This was discussed during the recent U.S. Catholic bishops’ meetings in Baltimore. Go ahead. Try to find additional coverage of the contents in the secular press.

Why do I think this is so important? I realize that I have, as Bible Belt people say, “gone to preachin’,” but let’s look at two very newsy passages in this analysis column:

Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent. … Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.

(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They’ve got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I’m getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)

nuns for choiceWhat in the world?

After reading that information, a reporter should be asking a logical question: What happened to the support networks that used to support young women and men who were considering entering religious life?

Brace yourselves. The executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference delivered more stunning news:

“When asked to rate the encouragement they received when they first considered entering their religious institutes,” Brother Bednarczyk told the bishops, “newer entrants ranked family members (parents, brothers and sisters), people in the parish and diocesan priests as giving the least encouragement when they first considered entering their religious institute.”

I’ll repeat that. The people from whom the emerging sister or brother expects to get the most encouragement when considering their radical vocation offer the least. Broken down, 30 percent said they were “very much encouraged” by parents, 22 percent were “very much encouraged” by siblings, 31 percent were “very much encouraged” by fellow parishioners and only 17 percent were “very much encouraged” by diocesan priests.

Years from now, decades or centuries even, people who care about the Church of Rome will look back at this trend and say: “What in the world was going on? What happened?”

Answer that question and you have a story that should be on A1, or a series of stories that belong on A1. As for me, I am glad that Duin was able to use her column — mixing hard facts with her own analysis — to put at least a small spotlight on these sobering numbers.

This is what religion columns are all about. Here’s hoping her editors let her dig deeper, because there is hard news in those statistics.

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