Dying in the church-state battlefield

FaithHealingTalk about an amazingly complex and poignant church-state separation case.

Not the cross-on-a-cliff story. As far as I can tell from the reports, the justices are going to either say that the cross is now on non-government land (So there!) or uphold the old standard that it is wrong for one overt religious symbol to stand alone in an official, government-recognized location. So hang on for the coverage of that ruling, when it arrives.

No, I’m talking about another church-state story in the same issue of the New York Times, the one under the headline that said: “Wisconsin Couple Sentenced in Death of Their Sick Child.”

The problem is that it isn’t really clear that the Times knows that this is a church-state case, as opposed to being a “faith healing” case and that’s that. Clearly some of the sources know the legal terrain. This may be a case in which the reporter simply was not given enough time and room to get the job done.

Here’s the top of this story:

A Wisconsin couple were sentenced to jail time … for failing to seek medical attention for their ill daughter, renewing a debate in some circles over whether states should allow parents to practice spiritual treatments.

The parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were ordered to spend 30 days in jail each year for the next six years and were placed on 10 years’ probation. Mr. Neumann, 47, and Ms. Neumann, 41, who live in Weston, in central Wisconsin, had been convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in August. Their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, died from untreated diabetes on March 23, 2008, the authorities said. When the girl became ill and could no longer walk or talk, her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor, prosecutors said.

Her parents could have faced as much as 25 years in prison. While on probation, the Neumanns must take the two surviving children who live with them to the doctor if they are seriously injured or sick, said Judge Vincent K. Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court, and the children must undergo periodic health checks.

Defense lawyers for the Neumanns said they planned to appeal the conviction because state law is not clear on the issue of spiritual treatment.

I cannot tell you how many hours professors and students talked about cases of this kind when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

Once again, let me note that — in defense of religious liberty — government officials are supposed to avoid getting entangled (that’s the key word) in precisely these kinds of questions. But when can they get involved? It helps if reporters know the lines that have been drawn in the legal sands. The state is allowed to investigate whether the practice of religious beliefs are leading to (1) fraud, (2) profit and (3) a clear threat to the life and health of individuals. Note the word “clear.”

Obviously, courts give religious groups some leeway here, as can be seen in the history of cases involving Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In particular, it is hard to say when beliefs threaten the “health” of children who are minors.

Take this over into a secular context for a second. Say you have children living in the home of a father who is a gun collector and he also struggles with alcoholism. Are the children consistently in danger? How about children with asthma living in a home in which both parents are heavy smokers? Pull the children out and put them in a safer home?

Obviously, it is hard for judges to say to parents, “We know that you think you worship the God of the universe and all that, but this healing thing isn’t real.” That, friends and neighbors, is doctrinal entanglement. But is it justified? Yes. Where do you draw the line? That’s the problem.

hand_projecting_prana_energy_pranic_healing_chakra_therapyYou can see these issues hovering in the background in this part of the Times report. Note the threat in the first paragraph:

Several state lawmakers, meanwhile, have said they plan to introduce legislation to settle the issue. One bill, for instance, would remove religious exemptions for charges of neglect and abuse, while another would broaden the religious exemption to apply to other types of cases.

Shawn Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the nexus of religion and the law, said the Neumanns’ sentencing was not unusual. … There had been at least 50 convictions in the United States since 1982 in cases where medical treatment was withheld from a child for religious reasons.

“The sentences tend to be halfway punishments where you have relatively mild penalties imposed on parents who are found to be legally guilty of having caused a child’s death,” Mr. Peters said. “It underscores how uneasy we are both politically and culturally when it comes to regulating religious conduct even when the consequences are disastrous.”

Like I said, it is hard to know where to draw the line. People who believe in faith healing, alone, are going to keep having children. Does the state step in at the very start, during that first visit to (cue: theme from “Jaws”) a state-sanctioned health-care provider? How about requiring the children to meet certain medical standards during school? Wait, what if they are home-schooled? Do courts step in the minute the child gets sick? How would the state detect this? What if a asthmatic child is living in the home of parents who believe in faith healing AND they are smokers?

Welcome to the church-state minefield. The Times story is a snapshot of a much larger picture. Maybe it needed one more paragraphs of legal facts. You think?

Top photo is from flickr.com. Use of this photo in no way implies that the photographer endorses the content of this post.

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Imagining racism

quiverfullA reporter friend sent along the following story that appears on BBC. It begins with such a promising headline: “Fighting the ‘contraceptive mentality’.” Unfortunately, the article approaches the topic narrowly.

It deals only with the Quiverfull movement in the United States, not the wide range of opinion that questions the “contraceptive mentality” that is pervasive here and abroad. What is the Quiverfull movement? Well, we’ve looked at other stories about it before, but here’s how the Beeb puts it:

Families with more than 10 children are becoming the norm among a group of traditionalist US Christians. The so-called Quiverfull families believe they are carrying out God’s work, and providing a new generation of moral leaders. The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott went to Illinois to meet some of them.

That’s the introduction to the piece. Nowhere will you find any data to support the idea that 10 children are the mathematical average or standard for people who are not gung-ho about avoiding children. I mean, I come from a religious tradition that views children as a gift from God to be welcomed — and not avoided. And I knew many families with 10, 11 and 12 children. But still, the average number of children was probably around four. Higher than the national average, sure, but not four or five times the national average.

Anyway, the reporter emphasizes the culture warrior aspect of the movement that encourages large families. He says that it has a quasi-military feel and intimates that it’s anti-feminist because husbands are heads of the household — pretty standard fare for writing about this group. There is an interesting reference to the idea that some congregations are in decline because they’ve forgotten the old-fashioned primary church growth method of procreation.

But then there is this utterly bizarre part:

Simply filling the world with white Christians is not what motivated either the Sanfords or the McDonalds – for them having large families was a matter of faith.

The Sanfords have adopted children from around the world.

But many of the traditionalist Christians who make up the Quiverfull movement are perplexed by the low birth rate of their co-religionists.

There is no overt talk about the need to boost white populations but, according to authors who have studied the movement, there is an underlying worry about “race suicide”.

Okay, so the families profiled in the story have adopted children from around the world, and there’s no discussion in the movement of racism. So why are we bringing up the spectre of racism (other than this slur seems to be all the rage these days)? Well, unnamed “authors” have said there is an underlying worry about racism. We don’t know who these people are who make this claim. We don’t know anything about the strength of their claim. And we have evidence that rebuts the claim. The term “race suicide” is in quotes but we don’t know where it comes from. It’s just bizarre.

The thing is that there are so many more interesting theological angles to explore with this movement. You don’t need to throw around the racism slur to have an interesting story. You don’t even need to cry racism to have a critical story. A few months ago, Newsweek published an extremely critical story — mostly from a feminist perspective — by the author of the book above. But, unlike this pale imitation of that piece, it was well-written, full of fascinating information and quoted sources on the record.

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Abortion: new data, new controversy

yellowcrossbabyfeetIs the U.S. public moving towards a more conservative, or perhaps a less generally permissive, attitude towards legalized abortion?

There’s some really fascinating new information out from the Pew Research Center, suggesting such a shift. But not so fast, mes amis. As soon as the data arrived, so did the deconstructionists. I found reading this different pieces both helpful and troublesome — some media outlets accepted the new information as solid evidence that a significant shift has occurred without question, and others immediately challenged its significance.

Read the Pew summary before you jump into the articles. Here’s a fuller version. I found these opening paragraphs most helpful when viewing the article — and again, found it odd that most of the stories didn’t lead with what seem to be the most significant results.

Polls conducted in 2009 have found fewer Americans expressing support for abortion than in previous years. In Pew Research Center polls in 2007 and 2008, supporters of legal abortion clearly outnumbered opponents; now Americans are evenly divided on the question, and there have been modest increases in the numbers who favor reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain. Less support for abortion is evident among most demographic and political groups.

The latest Pew Research Center survey also reveals that the abortion debate has receded in importance, especially among liberals. At the same time, opposition to abortion has grown more firm among conservatives, who have become less supportive of finding a middle ground on the issue and more certain of the correctness of their own views on abortion.

So are we really seeing a big change, some general movement towards a more conservative stance, more polarization among white guys and the more observant or — let’s not get our knickers in a twist yet? Prominent among the skeptics is New York Times pro Laurie Goodstein.

For most of the last two decades, a clear majority of Americans has supported the right to abortion. A new poll, though, suggests that support for abortion may have declined, with the public almost evenly divided over the issue.

The apparent shift, which contradicts some other recent polls, appears in a poll by the Pew Research Center released on Thursday. A 2008 poll by Pew researchers had found that those in favor of keeping abortion legal outnumbered opponents, 54 percent to 40 percent. In the new Pew poll, the gap has narrowed: 47 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 45 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases — a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

Note Goodstein’s use of the words “suggests”, “apparent” and “contradicts some other recent polls.” Goodstein goes on to look at data from some previous polls, that support her assertion that the data is “inconclusive.” That’s fair, although it is possible, given the ever-shifting sands of the health care debate and other hot-button issues, that indeed attitudes have shifted since last spring, when some of the previous polls were taken (note that even last spring Pew found a move towards more conservative attitudes towards both guns and abortion). I wish she’d done more analysis of the Pew data — and her use of the word “complacent” to describe current liberal attitudes towards abortion seemed to imply that liberals better wake up and smell the coffee. Goodstein is right on about the sensitivity of questions on the issue of abortion.

Count “The Pollster” at the Washington Post among those who question the import of this new data. The writers do use a very recent Virginia poll to support their argument for restraint — but it’s also possible that the shift isn’t occuring in Virginia, as swinging a state as it is. But take a look at Dave Cook over at the Christian Science Monitor website. He reports the data without question.

I really don’t like the lede on the CNN.com story by Richard Allen Greene. I have tremendous respect for Pew, and Pew data, but is this really a “dramatic shift?” However, I was intrigued by some of the revealing quotes he gives readers later in the story — particularly the one from N.O.W. President Terry O’Neill.

But Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, firmly rejects religious opposition to abortion.

“Abortion is a blessing when it is chosen freely by a woman who needs it. It is a blessing,” she said, citing the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School.

O’Neill has been in that position herself, she said.

“When I was in my early 20s, I thought I needed an abortion. I was escaping a very violent marriage that lasted about eight months,” she said. “The young man I was married to exploded and severely battered me.”

Wow. Does the language of “blessing” represent the religious left’s (far left) new language on abortion? Readers, keep your eyes open.

So, how about some stories that don’t lede with questions about the reliability of the data, but take a closer look at the results, get some quotes from analysts, not partisans, and then contrast apples and apples? Do you have to either buy the new results hook link and sinker, or question their importance without engaging them? Ah, the disappearing middle ground — the Pew researchers may be unto something.

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Another salvo in the Mommy Wars

MommyWarsI’m fairly new to motherhood, with a 2-year-old and an infant. I recently wrote my take on the Mommy Wars — that term used to describe everything from whether women should work outside the home while raising young children to whether to use cloth or disposable diapers — over at Christianity Today. So I was intrigued by this front-page Washington Post story that looks at a new Census report dealing with stay-at-home moms.

Reporter Donna St. George frames it in a curious manner:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

The story shows that mothering full time at home is a widespread phenomenon with nearly one in four married mothers with children younger than 15 staying out of the labor force. It’s worth noting that this figure does not include women such as myself, who also stay home to raise children. That’s because I’m still in the labor force (I really have the best of all worlds, I think.) Also unrepresented by the Census definition of stay-at-home moms are mothers who work even a few hours a month or just one week out of the year, such as freelancers, those who run their own home businesses and seasonal laborers.

So what is this opt-out revolution? (Style note: do you need both the “so-called” and quotes around opt-out revolution? I’m not sure.) Well, here’s how the story explains it:

The notion of an opt-out revolution took shape in 2003, when New York Times writer Lisa Belkin coined the term to describe the choices made by a group of high-achieving Princeton women who left the fast track after they had children.

It has since been the subject of public debate, academic study and media obsession. It has been derided as a myth but has never quite gone away in an era when women still struggle to balance work and family and motherhood’s conflicts have been parodied and probed in everything from Judith Warner’s book “Perfect Madness” to television’s “Desperate Housewives” and “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom.”

The census statistics show, for example, that the educational level of nearly one in five mothers at home was less than a high school degree, as compared with one in 12 other mothers. Thirty two percent of moms at home have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 38 percent of other mothers.

As much as I love the idea of debunking a story every time a New York Times reporter pens a huge trend piece based on nothing other than anecdotal evidence from three of her friends, this Washington Post article in no way does that. Unless reporter Lisa Belkin said that all women who stay at home to raise their children — or even that most women who stay at home — are “high-achieving Princeton women,” that is. And she didn’t. Neither did, one presumes, any of the other stories alluded to above. Instead, these other stories discussed an increase in the percentage of women who choose to either opt out of the labor force or cut back on their hours to focus on their families. As I mentioned above, this article only deals with women who have completely abandoned the labor market.

The Post article goes on to say that a higher percentage of stay-at-home moms (relative to other mothers) live below the poverty line and smaller percentages of stay-at-home moms live in households with incomes above $75,000 a year. Again, this has nothing to do with proving or disproving an assertion that high-achieving women are opting out or that more women are choosing to stay at home to raise children. In order to determine that, we’d need to see longitudinal studies or, simply, data over time.

Instead we get quotes from folks saying that the census figures are a reality check against the notion of an opt-out revolution. Oh, and the only time-lapse data that is included in the Post story is this bit that undercuts the Post‘s thesis:

Historically, the Census Bureau’s annual population survey shows that there are more mothers at home now than in the mid-1990s.

In 1994, 19.8 percent of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Last year, it was 23.7 percent of families — an increase that [Diana Elliott, a family demographer who is co-author of the U.S. Census Bureau report] said was statistically significant. “I don’t think we exactly know why,” she said.

Now, if the percentage of stay-at-home moms (in married-couple families with kids younger than 15) is increasing — and it is — that actually seems interesting. I wish the Post — and the Census study purporting to debunk the opt-out-revolution theory — had looked into that a bit more. Heck, since Census claimed that the whole reason they did the study was to respond to media reports about women putting their careers on hold, it seems odd that they don’t know anything about this increase.

All this to say that I have a suspicion that women’s decisions about staying-at-home to raise their children might have a few religion ghosts. The story explains, for instance, that Hispanic women are more likely to stay at home to raise their children than non-Hispanic women. Does that have anything to do with higher than average rates of Catholicism and religious activity among Hispanics? I have no idea. Census didn’t break down the data that far, near as I can tell.

The report had some other interesting figures with some religious ghosts, too. For instance, parents in married relationships were more likely to own their own homes, have higher household incomes, be employed, and have at least a bachelor’s degree. They were less likely to receive food stamps than other family types. And 94 percent of fathers who lived with their children, lived with the mother of their children. Only 74 percent of mothers who lived with their children lived with the father of their children.

It’s almost like all that morality stuff that religious groups are shoving down our throats has some merit or something. At least it has some policy implications.

But as far as shedding light on whether women with small children are decreasing their hours or opting out of the labor force altogether — much less why or whether they should — this article doesn’t deliver much.

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Obama: ‘Work it out within the party’

abortion_0515The story had to be written, so the New York Times turned to a veteran who has excelled as the newsroom’s designated expert on doing serious, fair and accurate coverage of cultural and religious conservatives. Yes, the Times has such a person. I have heard media critics on the right praise David D. Kirkpatrick far more often than I have heard them attack him.

Thus, this was the man who needed to write the story that ran under this headline: “Abortion Fight Complicates Debate on Health Care.” Here’s the top of the story:

WASHINGTON – As if it were not complicated enough, the debate over health care in Congress is becoming a battlefield in the fight over abortion.

Abortion opponents in both the House and the Senate are seeking to block the millions of middle- and lower-income people who might receive federal insurance subsidies to help them buy health coverage from using the money on plans that cover abortion. And the abortion opponents are getting enough support from moderate Democrats that both sides say the outcome is too close to call. Opponents of abortion cite as precedent a 30-year-old ban on the use of taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.

My only negative comment about the opening of the story is that it makes it sound like this is something new. I reality, of course, this battle inside the Democratic tent has been going on for weeks or months. Click here and then here to catch up on that, a bit.

The story, you may note, also hints at the line that pro-life Democrats have been trying to draw in the sand, by calling for a simple, public up-or-down vote on the Hyde Amendment.

What will really raise eyebrows, however, is Kirkpatrick’s summary paragraph:

The question looms as a test of President Obama’s campaign pledge to support abortion rights but seek middle ground with those who do not. Mr. Obama has promised for months that the health care overhaul would not provide federal money to pay for elective abortions, but White House officials have declined to spell out what he means.

There you have the key to the whole thing. The president is insisting that he will keep the promise, but there is no singular statement of what the compromise bill will look like. And don’t think that his pro-life critics — left, middle and right — haven’t noticed that. This is also, I would assume, why journalists have hesitated to write about this issue. How do you nail down facts, or even opinions, when you don’t really know what is at stake?

The strength of this story comes near the end, with it’s focus on debates inside the Democratic Party and, finally, a clear statement in the Times about the importance of the U.S. Catholic bishops on this issue. Again, why do they matter so much? Duh. The bishops have a proven record of actually wanting health-care reform to pass.

As always in Beltway battles, people on the inside are already trying to do the math.

Lawmakers pushing the abortion restrictions say they feel the momentum is on their side, especially because the restlessness of other Democratic moderates is making every vote count. At least 31 House Democrats have signed various recent letters to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, urging her to allow a vote on a measure to restrict use of the subsidies to pay for abortion, including 25 who joined more than 100 Republicans on a letter delivered Monday.

Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, a leading Democratic abortion opponent, said he had commitments from 40 Democrats to block the health care bill unless they have a chance to include the restrictions.

After months of pushing the issue, Mr. Stupak said in an interview, Mr. Obama finally called him 10 days ago. “He said: ‘Look, try to get this thing worked out among the Democrats. We want you to work it out within the party,’ ” Mr. Stupak said, adding that Mr. Obama did not say whether he supported the segregated-money provision or a more sweeping restriction. “We got his attention, which we never had before.”

The story meticulously quotes calm voices on both sides, as it should, and ends with the bishops. Once again, the key debates are taking place among people who WANT health-care reform, but have questions about issues — abortion, rationing, etc. — that historically have been debated in terms that are both political and religious.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied for decades to persuade the government to provide universal health insurance, says it opposes the bill unless it bans the use of subsidies for plans that cover abortion.

“We have said to the White House and various Senate offices that we could be the best friends to this bill if our concerns are met,” Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the bishops on abortion issues, said in an interview. “But the concerns are kind of intractable.”

Why? Because many of the concerns are ancient and doctrinal. In other words, this battle is pulling everyone — both opponents of abortion and defenders of abortion rights — into church-state territory.

Stay tuned. Obviously.

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The point? Fatherhood & faith

pg2_g_kanderson1_400It was a strange story from the start. The Washington Post dedicated a lot of newsprint the other day to a story about an ex-hoops star, an urban basketball legend who, strangely enough, lacked strong ties to the D.C. area.

As you would imagine, the heart of this feature wasn’t really about basketball.

No, story of the rise and fall of ex-NBA superstar (or almost superstar, which is crucial) Kenny Anderson focused on another issue altogether — fatherhood. Reporter Dave Sheinin wrapped this drama in the language of moral choices right from the start.

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. – He ran the production like a former point guard, which Kenny Anderson is, and as if his life depended on it, which, in a way, it did. He lined up the consents of five women — the mothers of his seven kids, some of them more amenable to the idea than others — and coordinated the kids’ flights, same days, same arrival times, so as to minimize the waiting-around time at the airport. There was no time to waste. He was finally getting his kids together. …

From the comfort of his home, Anderson, who didn’t know his own father until his early 30s, contemplated the blessings of fatherhood and beamed. In the faces of his kids, he could see the evidence of his own past mistakes — the womanizing, the failed marriages, the hollow attempts at fatherhood he made during a 14-year NBA career that ended in 2005.

But over the course of those few amazing, late-summer weeks, he could also see the seeds of his new beginning, a new chapter for Kenny Anderson — now a 38-year-old, full-time, stay-at-home father to Kenny Jr. and Tiana, and an aspiring college basketball coach who wants nothing more than to distance himself from those past failures as a father, as a husband, as a man.

It’s a long story, full of poignant details, fast cars (lots of them) and millions of dollars that seemed to vanish into thin air.

However, as you might expect, there is a woman standing behind this fancy player who is now trying to mature into something else. That woman is his third wife, a clinical social worker named Natasha. And that’s where the story uses interesting language that points to where it is going.

Thank God for Tasha, say those who are closest to Kenny Anderson. … Natasha, to be sure, was unlike any other woman Anderson had had in his life. She was salt-of-the-earth. She was strong. She “held Kenny accountable for Kenny,” as she puts it.

Just to make sure you get the point, the “thank God for Tasha” language shows up again.

That’s when I started to worry that this was going to be another one of those stories with a sprinkling of vague Godtalk and no actual reporting. It’s one thing to pull God into the picture. It’s another thing to try to figure out — with on-the-record details — the role that faith may actually play in a human life.

You see, playing the “Jesus card” is easy and reporters often let athletes get away with that. In this case, Sheinin didn’t settle for vague labels. He showed that Anderson is trying to build faith and faithfulness into the ordinary details of life. It’s called journalism and here’s a small sample:

It’s a beautiful life Kenny Anderson leads these days, beautiful in its simplicity and its structure. He gets a call every morning, between 6 and 7 a.m., from Al Taylor, his pastor back home, whom Anderson has known since junior high, and who married him and Natasha back in July 2007.

“Sometimes we talk about Scripture, but sometimes there’s something else in his heart, and I just wind up listening to Kenny,” Taylor says. “Sometimes, Kenny is going deep.”

Next, Anderson drives Kenny Jr. and Tiana — Natasha’s daughter — to their public elementary school and finds something to do until it’s time to pick them up again at 2:15. He’s a prolific Twitterer, particularly between, say, 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

It seems easy to do this kind of reporting, but it isn’t.

I was afraid that this story would be haunted by a religion ghost, but that isn’t the case at all. It’s a story about a man learning to be a father and, as often happens, faith is playing a role in helping him keep his vows.

It’s a nice story. Read it all. And if you happen to be a conservative reader who loves to take shots at the Post, please drop the editors a line to compliment this story. Shock them.

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The anti-Gosselins

800px-Genova-Staglieno-IMG_2034Sometimes religion stories are about what happens at the sweeping level of doctrine, traditional and denominational controversy. And sometimes journalists have the chance to inspire readers to ponder the question –could I do that?

A story about a Chicago family of eight who has recently adopted two children from Ethiopia is another home run for Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear, and a sensitive exploration of the realities of what can happen when believers take their faith seriously.

Behind the doors of a modest Rogers Park frame house, Pete and Patty Mueller are acting out their own reality show of “Pete and Patty Plus 8.”

Home-schooling all eight of their children and surviving on one income, the Muellers have not sought the reality show spotlight that helped pop culture icons Jon and Kate Gosselin raise their brood and eventually broadcast the end of their marriage.

Still, there has been a fair share of drama surrounding the Muellers’ adoption of two children from Ethiopia — a process that started four years ago before anyone could have guessed Pete Mueller would lose his job.

The Muellers could have backed out of the adoption. But they didn’t. They believed they were answering God’s call in the New Testament to look after orphans in distress.

The Muellers have truly chosen a countercultural path — but also, apparently a sometimes messy one. There’s a lot that is wonderful about this article. Brachear examines the real life problems (job loss, home repairs, lack of time) that plague not only the Muellers, but many families. But she also highlights the qualities that impelled them to make decisions which many others might not have made.

I wish that she’d explained the normal meaning of “epiphany” (its not lightning bolt) but that seems like a quibble. Particularly interesting is the way Brachear reveals the way in which Muellers view their commitment to social justice as an expression of their faith –readers too often see the faith-works divide. It would have been interesting to have Brachear widen her article a bit to tell readers about the Mueller’s church (this one?) and denomination. I’d like to know- how do the other children feel about two new additions?

Brachear portrays a couple facing many real challenges, but forced, in Patty Mueller’s words “to live by faith, forced to need God.”

Pete Mueller’s evocative end quote, as does the whole piece, invites the reader to look at the families’ ordinary choices and Patty and Pete’s extraordinary sense of divine calling and ask themselves not “why?” but “why not”? To this reader, that’s a real achievement.

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Cain and Abel, Abel and Cain

I’m saving the best (Got News?) for last. But first, let’s cover culture war news from the Values Voter Summit held in D.C. And right off the bat I wanna say (yeah, that’s how we talk in Philly — you gotta problem with that?) that I’m ambivalent about any journalist who uses that term as a descriptor rather than the title of the Family Research Values conference. The term implies that conservative activists are the only ones with values, or that those on the left are value-free, or that voters who fell into the middle of the spectrum don’t take their values to the voting booth. In general, the reporters below tend to be clear that this is a term of choice, not of reality.

A few tidbits from the Summit: if you are looking to 2012 and the Presidential candidates, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was first choice of the approximately 600 delegates who voted (Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty made a strong showing among the more marquee names). Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin chose to welcome her son home from Iraq rather than attend (sounds like a good move to me, but somehow this became controversial). Former Miss California Carrie Prejean gave a speech (which got sympathetic treatment in the Los Angeles Times) that had some delegates in tears.

So why does it matter that fewer than 2,000 voters came to a meeting in Washington, D.C.? For a few reasons. Folks who show up at such meetings tend to be highly engaged. Politicians recognize their importance by courting them. And activists, in the hyperdemocratic environment aided by the Internet and the turmoil in the mainstream press, are more adept than ever at getting the message out to the faithful and adulterous alike.

But some in the mainstream press did consider the Summit worth a mention. Among them was New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney.

Some of the issues with Nagourney’s article are highlighted by this high-snark-factor piece from the Powernetblog.com (we don’t need to know that Nagourney is gay anymore than we need to know that conservative analyst Juan Williams is black — and targeting his “special pleading”? — schoolyard stuff). Conservatives could only be “nearly politically wiped out” if a liberal Great Awakening had occurred last year, sweeping away the right, and it didn’t. Poster John Hinderaker also takes on this statement by Nagourney:

Many Republicans have been arguing that the party’s focus on social issues is a mistake at a time when voters are concerned about the economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the emphasis at the summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, was still decidedly on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who caused a furor by denouncing same-sex marriage at the Miss USA contest, as she declared that “God chose me” to make the case she made

The blogger points out that, at a “Value Voters” meeting, attendants are predictably going to have a high level of interest in social issues, however much other groups are concerned about economic ones. I’m not sure I’d agree with Hinderaker that the focus on social issues in the Republican party is purely Nagourney’s, however — sedate as they might be, Summit attendees have ‘values’ that represent those of a large U.S. minority and in some cases cross party lines — particularly with some of the moderates and independents who voted for Democrats in last year’s election.

The main problems I have with Nagourney’s piece (but he does cover politics, after all) is that an overarching narrative (conservatives!! back from the dead!! (perhaps) ) takes over, mowing down any potential distinctions between attendees. And although one can assume that faith is a driver for many attendees, there’s almost no mention of it.

At ‘the vote blog’ of the website CSmonitor.com, the writers are also guilty of making sweeping generalizations (i.e., that the “tea parties’ and social conservatives are just two faces of the same group). But they do at least seem to get some of the religious tensions in the social conservative movement.

Many younger evangelicals — the type quite likely to be seen tea-partying or at this weekend’s conservative summit– apparently have a noticeably different set of values than their elders. For example, 44 percent favor a larger government offering more services — nearly twice the percentage of older evangelicals. They’re also more likely — 52 percent to 34 percent — to approve of same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Possibly. How do these guys know that the tea parties are either driven by evangelicals or that the younger ones were protesting last week? Some protesters aren’t religious — and not all the religious ones are evangelicals. But the bloggers link to a Washington Post OnFaith “Guest Voices” commentary that is by far one of the better pieces of analysis of “Value Voters Summit” values that I’ve seen. If you want to read something worthwhile and you don’t have much time, this commentary, written before the fact, by Public Religion Research’s Robert P. Jones is excellent because it reveals some of the internal fault lines, and the theological/doctrinal issues that drive many conservatives. That’s exactly what’s missing from the stories I’ve read.

By far the most revealing piece was Politicsdaily.com columnist David Gibson’s dissection of a survey on religious activists. The beginning sums up the thrust of his theme — that activists on both sides are much more alike than they would ever care to admit.

If you’ve ever stood in a pet shop and watched Siamese fighting fish attack their reflection in a glass tank, then you know what it’s like to read a fascinating new survey of more than 3,000 religious activists on the left and the right.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Activists on both ends of the spectrum have strong theological beliefs. They are generally better-off than most citizens in America, older, better-educated, mostly white. In other words, if the word has much meaning anymore, they are “elite.” If you were splitting hairs, you might argue that conservative activists are a bit more “elite” by virtue of income, but it’s pretty much a wash.

But one thing the conservatives and “progressives” have in common — they are convinced that they are right, and most invested in having you believe it, too.

The next time you are reading a story about these activists, it might help to remember that in many respects they are more alike than different. Kudos to Gibson for highlighting this survey, and a big hole in news coverage in general — much more invested in conflict than in sometimes disturbing similarities.

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