Baptism by football

Jesus-army-baptismHere’s a gridiron-and-God story for all of our readers in the beautiful state of Texas who just got home from a high school football game:

The parents of a 16-year-old Kentucky football player who was baptized along with some teammates during a trip organized by their coach said Tuesday they believe their son may have felt some pressure to go through with the ceremony.

Parents said the voluntary trip was organized by Breckinridge County High School football coach Scott Mooney, who is a member of the Baptist church where the revival was held Aug. 26.

Dannie Ammons told The Associated Press he had no idea his son, Robert Coffey, was being taken to a church in another county on a school bus. The teen told them he was going to see a motivational speaker. Eight or nine other players were baptized at Franklin Crossroads Baptist Church, he said.

“There wasn’t supposed to be anything religious,” said Ammons, who is Catholic.

Robert Coffey said the furor surrounding his visit to the church is “kind of stupid” and that he decided to go through with the baptism because some of his friends were doing it.

That’s the story’s lede. And it’s not difficult to imagine the circumstances under which Robert would have felt this pressure. I can just think back to going to a Miles Ahead crusade led by former footballer Miles McPherson. I was there friends from my church, and I was already a Christian. But when they did the altar call, I felt guilty for not wandering down to re-commit my life.

Or better yet, how about this gem shared with your GetReligionistas by the Divine Ms. MZ’s family? You see, her mom was baptized as an infant at a church that became part of the United Church of Christ. And when she was 13, she went with some friends to a Billy Graham revival. They encouraged her to respond to the altar call, and MZ’s mama was worried she would only get a ride home if she made “a decision for Jesus.”

But what about Robert Coffey? The AP article, which is well-informed and strikes a beautiful balance in reporting on what could be such a knee-jerk story, explains that his father is Catholic and mother Baptist. Robert doesn’t seem that into religion, but you know peer pressure. At least it wasn’t drugs, right?

The bigger issue here, of course, is not whether Robert felt required to join the 46 other people submerged in water that night. But why the football team was taken to a church revival in the first place. Again, AP reporter Dylan T. Lovan relates the backstory and the fallout in a way that I don’t think ABC News could:

The church’s pastor, Ron Davis, said Mooney had asked him if he could bring his players. Davis said the baptisms were “spontaneous” and had not been planned by a guest speaker giving a sermon that night.

“There was nobody telling them they had to be baptized that night,” said Davis, whose rural church in Hardin County has about 1,000 members. He said the church typically gets parental consent before baptisms, but “I was sure that they were cognizant enough to make that decision,” Davis said. He said he wasn’t sure if the boys were “16 or 20.”

School Superintendent Janet Meeks, also a member of the church, said Tuesday in a statement on behalf of school employees that the coach’s use of the school bus after school hours for an outside activity was allowed

And then very late in the story — not as a cheap grab for a money quote but for the sake of analysis — Lovan quotes an attorney saying the football trip was illegal and then a school district spokeswoman saying it wasn’t such a big deal.

And that’s it. A detailed story, a sympathetic central figure and an uncertain conclusion. In other words, a job well done.

PHOTO: A river baptism from Wikipedia

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Who’s calling who a liar?

I am sorry to be returning to this topic — the missing voices of the pro-life left — so quickly. However, there’s no way around it at the moment.

Trust me, I do realize that there are secular voices on the pro-life side, but even when you are dealing with a group like the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, I have found that you are almost always dealing with lots of people whose views on this issues are rooted in science, law and faith. Religion is right in there, even on the pro-life left, in these debates over health-care reform and abortion.

So let’s go to Google News and do a basic search or two, to take a quick look at how most mainstream journalists are framing the abortion questions in the health-care debates.

As I write this post, a Google News search for “Obama” and then for “It is a lie” will get you 494 hits in various forms of news sites.

This is, of course, a key phrase from the speech by President Barack Obama — with the “lie” language aimed at critics who he believes are spreading misinformation about several health-care issues, including federal funding for abortion. This would, I noted earlier, mean that the liars include the U.S. Catholic bishops, Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life and other people who are not marching lock-step with the so-called Religious Right.

At the same time, if you search for “Obama” and then “you lie” — as in, “You lie!” — you will get 7,427 hits in Google News.

I guess reporters are more interested in Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “lie” at the president than they are the president calming aiming the word “lie” at a small, but strategic sub-group (right now, all sub-groups are strategic on the Democratic side of the aisle) in his own party. Oh, right, and don’t forget the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Just an aside: I agree that Wilson was way out of line. Where did he think he was, the British Parliament? No, wait, members of parliament are not supposed to call people “liars.” So would Obama be in trouble, too? Obviously, Wilson should have simply booed the president, since that was acceptable earlier this decade. But if you put “Bush,” “boo” and “Democrats” into Google News you get a mere 120 hits, mostly on conservative news sites.

Note to Republicans: Boo next time. That approach is more civil.

Meanwhile, here inside the Beltway, a Washington Post website search this morning turned up five references to the “lie” angle in the Obama speech, mostly in transcripts — not news stories or blog items. However a similar search for Wilson’s “lie” outburst found 58 news items, if I counted right. I got tired to clicking through all the screens.

So this is a story, once again, of Obama and a united Democratic Party taking on the right-wing Republicans who really don’t want health-care reform. That’s it. That’s all.

If you doubt me, check out this Los Angeles Times story, which ran under the headline, “Abortion foes aren’t buying Obama’s assurances — They continue to campaign against healthcare reform, contending that federal money will go toward abortions if the president has his way.”

Here’s the top of the story:

President Obama, a supporter of reproductive rights, forcefully reiterated in his speech to Congress this week that his healthcare plan would not lead to government funding of abortion.

The trouble is, abortion foes don’t believe him. They are working hard to persuade Americans that Obama is wrong — and have even created ads that evoke “Harry and Louise,” the fictional couple that helped tank the Clinton-era attempt at healthcare reform:

“They won’t pay for my surgery,” says an elderly man sitting at a kitchen table. “What are we going to do?”

“But honey, you can’t live this way,” says his wife, patting his arm.

“And to think that Planned Parenthood is included in the government-run health plan, and spending tax dollars on abortions,” he replies. “They won’t pay for my surgery, but we’re forced to pay for abortions.”

The ad, created by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, ran for two weeks in August in five states (California not among them). The ad has been criticized by people on both sides of the healthcare debate as a simplistic and inflammatory depiction of the reform measures Congress is considering.

First of all, I thought the newspaper’s style — along with most of the outlets in mainstream news — would say that the president is “pro-abortion rights,” rather than the vague “reproductive rights.” But I digress.

The Family Research Council is a player, no doubt about it, when it comes time to preaching to the choir on the right. But what influence will that organization and others in that wing of the anti-abortion movement have on Democrats? That’s the question for journalists.

If you read the whole report, you will find a complete gap on the pro-life left — although quoting someone at the Susan B. Anthony List came close to finding a note of balance.

LiarLiarThe story does attempt to quote people on both sides of the crucial question, which centers on whether it is possible to prevent government money from funding abortions without including a clear ban on this in the legislation. Once again, as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) keeps saying, there needs to be a clear up-or-down vote on the Hyde Amendment (click here for background).

The problem, of course, is that Stupak is a Democrat and the story of the day is that Democrats are finding unity, in part because some fiscal Blue Dogs liked the tone of the speech and some liberals may be ready to compromise.

Yes, the Los Angeles Times did a separate story on that angle (as did lots of other newspapers). Read this story and search for signs that the pro-life Democrats exist and may have enough votes to force some clarity on this issue. Once again, the story is framed as Republicans vs. Democrats — as if the GOP has the votes to stop this train in the House and stop a compromise in the Senate that the White House can live with.

Wait a minute, here’s an interesting story:

Pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak has said he can block proposed health care reform legislation unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) allows a vote on a Hyde Amendment to the bill.

The Hyde Amendment, named after the late U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortions. The current health care bill, H.R. 3200, is under fire for measures that allow federal funds to circumvent the Hyde Amendment and also mandate insurance coverage of abortion.

Rep. Stupak of Michigan claimed he has as many as 39 Democratic allies who could join Republicans to block the complete legislation from coming to a vote unless the House leadership allows a vote on a Hyde Amendment.

Drat! That a Catholic News Agency story. That isn’t real news. That’s the wrong kind of Democrat, the kind that tells lies.

NOTE: Before you click “comment,” make sure you have URLs for your quotes and facts. And stick to the journalism side of this post, focusing on the lack of coverage of the pro-life left and the divides within the Democratic Party that threaten this legislation.

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What does the ‘Christian right’ want?

0904CHRISTIAN_RIGHT_wideweb__470x297,0I completely understand why many mainstream journalists get frustrated when they try to write — in a fair and accurate manner — about the political force that is usually called the Religious Right.

First of all, the “religious” right can be defined quite broadly. At the very least, on most moral and cultural issues, this would include the so-called “First Things” coalition of conservative Evangelicals, pro-Catechism Catholics, Jewish conservatives and others. In other words, the “religious” right would have to be interfaith, from the get go. Are Mormon Christians part of that? Certainly.

But we all know that this is not what most reporters are writing about when they use the Religious Right label.

How about “Christian right”? That’s better. But that would really need to include conservative Catholics, the Orthodox, morally conservative (but perhaps economically progressive) Evangelicals, lots of hard-to-label Anglicans, etc. And how about the Latino charismatics and traditional Catholics? How about, on many issues, the African-American church? And, while we are at it, these people lean to the right on what issues?

So what about “Evangelical right”? That’s better, only you then have to wade into the old question of what “Evangelical” does and does not mean. And, again, what political issues are we talking about here?

You can see some of this at work in a pre-presidential health care speech story in the Washington Post that ran under the headline: “Opposition to Health-Care Reform Revives Christian Right.” The term “Christian right” is used throughout the piece. Here’s a crucial passage:

“Movements do better when they have something to oppose,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelicals. “It’s easier to fundraise in those kinds of situations. It’s easier to mobilize volunteers because you have an us versus them mentality, and that plays very well right now for the Christian right.”

After seeing their bread-and-butter issue of abortion take a back seat during the election last year, the Christian right has been a prime force in moving it back to the front row by focusing on it as a potential part of health-care reform.

“It’s a busy time,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family Action, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family. He said donations to Focus Action have climbed beyond expectations, although he declined to say by how much.

Experts say the resurgent interest is proving that predictions of the death of the Christian right — widespread before the election — were again premature. But they say the recent flurry of activity does nothing to solve the underlying challenges facing the movement — the lack of younger leaders to replace aging ones and ways to engage younger evangelicals who want the movement to embrace a wider range of issues.

The story has excellent sources and great quotes. But once again you have to ask: Who are these people? Where are the Catholics, who have offered some interesting comments on health control. How about African-American churches? Are they all on board with President Barack Obama on this one? Are some of them in the “Christian right,” while others are not?

I think the link here to abortion is accurate and crucial. But anyone who has followed this story carefully knows that that is one of several religion-rooted issues on the big plate called health-care reform.

This leads me to another question, one centering on the Democrats who are having the crucial debates over the contents of the key legislation. We all know that the U.S. Catholic bishops want wider or universal access to health care. But the hook for this Post story is that all of these “Christian right” leaders are opposed to health-care reform.

Well, is that true? Has anyone asked these leaders what they would like to see passed? Are they opposed to health-care reform, or are they in favor of a different approach? I guarantee you that some of them, in their surge to oppose Obama, are totally opposed to any change at all. But I bet that many in the widely defined “Christian right” are not opposed to all of the elements of this plan and they may have ideas about compromises that they could support.

That’s my main point for reporters right now. Look at the wider spectrum and tell us (a) who is opposed to all health-care reform, (b) who genuinely backs health-care reform, yet is opposed to some elements of the current plan and (c) who actually backs the Obama plan, or has been given a wink and a nod that the compromise plan will be acceptable to them.

This story tells us quite a bit about the impact of the health-care wars on the white, Evangelical, Protestant, pro-Republican, so-called “Christian right.” But who, pray tell, is talking to the Blue Dog Democrats? What are the pro-life Democrats saying (and are any of them “religious” or “Christian”)?

Who is seeking compromise? That’s another story and one that might overlap, a bit, with the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway’s earlier post.

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Not just wrong but crazy, too!

sanity1Do you oppose same-sex marriage? If so, the Washington Post thinks there’s a good chance that you’re insane.

Last week, reporter Monica Hesse wrote about the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage. Her piece, which even she concedes might have been viewed as “snide,” took the position that there was one defender of traditional marriage laws in the universe who was not cuckoo pants and crazy bigoted and evil.

I joked about this, because it showed just how out of control the mainstream media treatment of same-sex marriage debates are.

To review, I had a few beefs with the piece apart from the idea that sanity was somehow difficult to find among the folks who are interested in retaining marriage as the heterosexual institution it has been throughout all time and places. I thought that, like every single other feature ever written in the Post‘s Style section, it was too puffy. And I thought that while it was nice that the paper included a profile of a traditional marriage supporter, that his arguments should be included in the actual news areas of the paper.

Well, supporters of same-sex marriage found the profile awful and asked people to write into the Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander. Which they did. And he wrote a column apologizing for the story. No, not because it was snide and treated all but one supporter of traditional marriage as bigots. No, that’s not why he apologized. Let’s look at his final criticism of Hesse’s story:

Finally, the headline: “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.” To many readers, The Post was saying Brown’s views are sane. The headline, written by editors, not Hesse, should have been neutral.

Yep, let’s reiterate. The Post is saying that it’s not “neutral” to say that it’s sane to believe that the institution of marriage should be heterosexual. Nevermind that marriage has, until a few short years ago, been universally accepted across all religions, cultures and peoples as a heterosexual institution.

No, actually, you should mind that. And think, again, what the Post ombdusman is saying. Also keep in mind that “sane” means “proceeding from a sound mind.”

I mean, don’t get me wrong — that headline is offensive. But it’s offensive because it takes the view that sanity is somehow in short reserve on the traditional marriage side.

And for good measure, let’s look at what previous ombudsman Michael Getler said about how the Post had mangled same-sex marriage debates back in 2004:

[C]ritics who say the paper has had few, if any, features portraying opponents of this social change in a positive or even neutral light have a point. The overall picture, it seems to me, could use more balance.

Um, understatement of the century. Too bad that the ombudsman trashes a headline that was already too snide against traditional marriage supporters for not being harsh enough.

Neutrality really is important and vitally needed in reporting on hot button topics. What that means is that both supporters and opponents of traditional marriage laws should have their views fairly and accurately described. It means that their arguments should be given equal weight. It does not mean questioning whether support for traditional marriage is sane. As the folks at First Things write, “The raging debate among the reporters over at the Post, it seems, is between those who believe same-sex marriage opponents are “wrong as hell” and yet sane or “wrong as hell” and insane.”

The thing is that I really don’t like the tone of the Style section in general. The pieces are always snark-infested and they always seem to trash one side of the political spectrum. The puff profiles are always infinitely puffier than the one in question was and it’s really hard to read when you know that the subject is much more controversial than the puffy approach lets on. Take this one on Kate Michelman, for instance. The ombudsman basically says that the story approach and the writing technique — the same ones, near as I can tell, used in many other Style profiles — were partially to blame.

But we’ve never seen ombudsmen complaining about the approach until now. I wonder why?

Anyway, the ombudsman review has other interesting parts:

Hesse has been blistered in the blogosphere, even cast as a bigoted conservative who endorses a homophobic agenda.

She’s bisexual. The ombudsman says the reader reaction was as vitriolic as any he’s experienced during his tenure. It’s the same thing I’ve experienced as I write about same-sex marriage. Unbelievable vitriol.

So on that point, whether you support or oppose the ombudsman’s apology for the piece, keep your comments focused on journalism. All others will be happily deleted.

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Putting the mental in fundamentalist

obama-nope-tshirtAs you would expect, your GetReligionistas have received quite a few breathless emails asking us why this site has had nothing to say about President Barack Hussein Obama’s plans to address the nation’s public-school students about the importance of discipline and education in their lives. Haven’t we noticed all of the protests by parents from sea to shining sea?

Yes, I’ll admit that there has been a little bit of ink spilled on this subject. More than a little, actually.

Once again, it seems that many GetReligion readers do not understand what we are doing at this here weblog. Clearly, quite a few people out there in cyberspace just don’t get GetReligion.

So let’s all repeat the mantra: GetReligion is not a religion-news blog. It’s a blog about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

Which raises an interesting question. Why do people automatically think that there is a religion hook in this major news story?

As best I can tell the logic runs like this: Crazy people are protesting the president’s innocent plans to address the nation’s school children about education and self discipline. Religious believers are crazy (especially right-wing Christians). Therefore, crazy Christians must be leading the charge to protest this unique presidential address. Duh.

I am not denying that there is some logic to this, seeing as how religious conservatives have zero trust in this White House when it comes to moral, cultural and religious issues — especially linked to freedom of association and freedom of speech. However, it seems that this particular protest has as much, or more, to do with the timing of the address during the thick of the health-care debates. Consider the top of this typical Associated Press analysis piece, under the headline “Furor over speech typifies polarization.” Steven R. Hurst writes:

The furor over President Barack Obama’s start-of-school speech to the nation’s students — challenging them to work hard, earn good grades and stay in school — typifies the country’s widening rift over politics and social issues.

It’s certainly an unwelcome distraction as the president prepares to address both houses of Congress and the nation Wednesday about his embattled attempt to overhaul the health care system, which has taken a hammering from Republicans and some middle-of-the-road Democrats.

Dating back to his campaign for president, some Obama opponents have tried to paint him as a “socialist.” Since winning the White House, the attacks have continued over his attempts to invigorate the tumbling economy with a $787 billion stimulus. Far-right critics now charge that Obama would use his back-to-school remarks Tuesday to indoctrinate youngsters into his alleged “socialist” agenda.

That sounds pretty normal and political. However, it’s easy to go online and find out that some of the usual religious suspects are raising questions about the address. This angle from the Liberty Counsel squad seems typical, arguing that this is an illegal federal attempt — focusing on the state-funded educational materials prepared for student use after the address (As in the rumored, “How did the president inspire you today?”) — to control what is done in local school systems.

That’s an interesting angle, but note that this is a secular issue, as well.

I’ve been searching to see if anyone in the mainstream press has written an actual story on how major, middle-of-the-road evangelical and Protestant groups — think Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God — have responded. Have I missed something?

I did enjoy this analysis over at the website of World, which is kind of like Newsweek for evangelicals, only with more hard news content. It pointed toward comments by Craig Dunham, a Christian school leader in St. Louis and the husband of World writer Megan Dunham. I’ll end with this quote:

Am I missing something here? If it’s not in the home (and why a homeschooling family would not use this as an opportunity for discussion I have no idea — we are), I would think parents would at least want their kids engaging live presentations like President Obama’s in a Christian school, where I as a teacher am going to ask questions like “What can we affirm?” (importance of education, faithful study, etc.) or “What needs to be challenged?” (ideas different from Scriptural truth, etc.). It shouldn’t matter who the speaker is — these are the conversations I would think a parent would be PRAYING to take place. Why keep your kids home from them? This logic does not compute; after all, why are they/we here?

At some point, folks, Christians have got to stop putting the mental in fundamentalist and start interacting with the world. Teaching our kids to stick their heads in the sand and ignore anyone they may not totally agree with is, in a word, unChristian. Folks, we can’t counter the culture unless we encounter the culture, so let’s take off the blinders, read through Acts 17 again, and be some salt and light around here for crying out loud.

Actually, there is a valid religion news story in there. What are culture-savvy Christian educators and home-school families going to do with this address?

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To do: “Sonogram, funeral plans”

large_babyinfantcaskets_upload_1There are two kinds of people in this world who cannot avoid wrestling with the term “theodicy” — clergy (especially hospital chaplains) and reporters who are committed to covering religion news.

It’s a theological term, obviously, and it gets used here at GetReligion from time to time. Here’s a crisp definition:

Main Entry: the*od*i*cy

* defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

This term certainly comes to mind when reading (and viewing) the materials in multimedia Dallas Morning News package about Deidrea and T.K. Laux and the birth of their baby boy, Thomas Gordon. I heard about this series (several links in that post), of course, through Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher and the Crunchy Con weblog. He knows painful, inspiring, stunning theology when he sees it, too.

There are journalism issues that we could discuss, such as why the unborn child is a “fetus” when medical personnel are in the room, but Thomas Gordon is an unborn child the rest of the time. I think reporter Lee Hancock did a fine job of not letting this kind of issue get in the way of the story. And what a story it is.

There are dozens of passages that I could cite and that’s just in day one. You are simply going to have to grab a box of tissues, and a Bible if that’s something you are comfortable doing, and start reading.

But here is a crucial passage, as these parents wrestle with the medical realities of rare chromosomal glitches called Trisomy 13 and 18. There is no way to avoid religious questions in this series, especially since the parents are devout Christians, and this is a case in which the word “devout” is demonstrated again and again.

Deidrea felt like she was having an out-of-body experience as she heard herself say that they’d already agreed to love any child God gave them.

The doctors’ careful phrases looped in T.K.’s head — “incompatible with life,” “usually fatal,” “option of termination.” If their baby wouldn’t survive the pregnancy, he blurted, why continue? How could they let their baby suffer and put Deidrea at such risk?

Hours later, Deidrea couldn’t sleep. Alone on their living-room couch at 3 a.m., she prayed: Why them? What now? How could she and T.K. come together — not apart?

She felt a flutter in her belly.

She mouthed the name that she and T.K. had settled on just before the sonogram that morning, what now seemed a lifetime ago. Thomas was for T.K., whose given name was Thomas. Gordon honored her grandfather, who died only weeks before she and T.K. learned that they were pregnant.

Thomas, she said to the darkness. Thomas Gordon Laux.

The movement in her belly was unmistakable. Thomas kicked hard. It felt like answered prayer.

There are many crucial players in the story, as well as the parents. They are surrounded by a strong religious community. There is a hospice nurse who is gifted — almost beyond words. The editors were granted permission to reproduce sections of the mother’s private letters to her unborn son (which, of course, made me think of the classic “Letters To Gabriel“).

Read it all, or try to. Then try again. It’s hard to do this kind of journalism, but this is what happens with journalists wrestle with real life.

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A Christian Muslim?

Why-I-Am-Not-A-Muslim-coverA reader submitted a story from CNN that has the strangest headline and lede:

Muslim teen fears for life after changing religion

A Muslim teenager from Ohio says her father threatened to kill her because she converted to Christianity.
Rifqa Bary claims her father wants her dead after she converted to Christianity.

Okay, this one is pretty simple, CNN. If someone converts from one religion to another, they’re by definition no longer the religion that they converted from. She’s not a Muslim teen, she’s a Christian teen.

The story has other problems, too. It’s about a 17-year-old named Rifqa Bary who ran away from her family in Ohio and took refuge in the Orlando, Florida, home of the Rev. Blake Lorenz of the Global Revolution Church. The teen said in an affidavit that her father Mohamed Bary was pressured by his mosque and told the teen that he would kill her. The reporter talks to the father:

Mohamed Bary told CNN a lot of false information has been given and “we wouldn’t do her harm.” He knew his daughter was involved with Christian organizations.

“I have no problem with her practicing any faith,” he said, but Bary admitted he would have preferred his daughter to practice the Muslim faith first.

I could be wrong, but that last paragraph just sounds weird. What does it mean to “practice the Muslim faith first.” I can’t help but think that the reporter explained the father’s quote incorrectly — that he said he would have of course preferred her to practice Islam.

The story is responsible insofar as it includes both the daughter’s and father’s perspective. However, it would have been helpful to have any outside perspective at all regarding the punishment for apostasy in Islam. What, exactly, are the range of beliefs for what should be done to females who convert? Certainly there are places in time and history where the consensus has held that capital punishment is in order for apostates. But there are also Muslims who argue that the Koran and Hadith should not be so interpreted.

It seems that this story would provide an excellent hook for a discussion of this topic, no? The governing body of the World Council of Churches met last week in Geneva and they took up the issue:

The World Council of Churches is calling on Pakistan to repeal the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy in the country’s penal code.

The reader who submitted the story wondered if CNN was trying to make a comment about whether this teen’s conversion was real or allowed. But the United Nations

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines religious conversion as a human right in Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.

Does CNN disagree with this?

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Ghost in the ‘death panel’ image

orthopineI opened up my Washington Post this morning and immediately thought about a forum that took place in my own Orthodox parish last night.

You see, our priest and an attorney in the congregation led a group of parishioners (many with, I confess, gray hair) through an in-depth discussion of end-of-life planning, with a strong emphasis on points where legal options compliment or collide with our faith’s doctrines. It was an enlightening evening.

As far as I could tell, almost everyone there was on board when it came to preparing some kind of document of advance directives to express their own desires about issues such as palliative care, hospices, extraordinary measures to preserve life, etc. It was clear that our church members were anxious to find a way to tell caregivers not to prolong their lives past a point of recovery or meaningful contact with loved ones. However, they did not want to instruct doctors or loved ones to take actions to deliberately end their lives through extraordinary means.

It was an evening for learning how to make intelligent, faithful decisions about complex and emotional issues. It was a night when we learned that centuries of Christian doctrine and practice are highly relevant when discussing what believers have long called “the good death.” It was time to talk about final prayers, confessions and a simple pine box.

At the same time, there was another emotion in the room: Many people were worried about the advice and guidance of medical professionals (and the bureaucrats behind them, who guide policies) who do not share their own Orthodox Christian values. And what about the government?

This is where the Washington Post enters the scene, in the form of a story that ran with the headline: “The Unwitting Birthplace of the ‘Death Panel’ Myth.” Here’s the top of the story:

LA CROSSE, Wis. – This city often shows up on “best places to live” lists, but residents say it is also a good place to die — which is how it landed in the center of a controversy that almost derailed health-care reform this summer.

The town’s biggest hospital, Gundersen Lutheran, has long been a pioneer in ensuring that the care provided to patients in their final months complies with their wishes. More recently, it has taken the lead in seeking to have Medicare compensate physicians for advising patients on end-of-life planning.

The hospital got its wish this spring when House Democrats inserted that provision into their health-care reform bill — only to see former Alaska governor Sarah Palin seize on it as she warned about “death panels” that would deny care to the elderly and the disabled. Despite widespread debunking, those warnings have led lawmakers to say they will drop the provision.

OK, readers, we will not get into debating Palin and what she did or didn’t say.

However, if you listen to other voices — even pro-health-care-reform Catholics — you will find that there are people who wonder about President Barack Obama’s love of “independent” experts who help guide government policies on end-of-life decisions that involve “quality of life” questions, the elderly and, yes, cutting costs. Here’s the New York Times quote (drawn from a recent column I did on the subject) about that looms over the constructive discussions of this:

“That’s where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that’s also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here,” said Obama, in a much-quoted New York Times interview.

“I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. … That’s part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance.”

Now, this new Post article contains all kinds of interesting information about a hospital that appears to be doing good work in this area.

resurrection_icon_critical_cutWhat’s the problem? The problem is that the article is haunted. The Post team seems to think that there is some way to discuss these issues in the context of North America without religion getting into the mix. Simply stated: Do most Americans, or even a large percentage of Americans, want to turn to government leaders, insurance executives and medical personnel — alone — when they make decisions about how they want to die?

In the Scripps Howard News Service column I wrote on this issue recently, I talked with John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on health care. His question: Could there be some way for the health-care-reform package to provide vouchers that would allow Americans to make their own decisions about where to take these questions?

Journalists! Think about this. The Post story seems to assume that it is in the government’s interest to either push or steer people toward secular institutions when it’s time to make decisions that involve their most personal religious beliefs. Perhaps most Americans would prefer to face these ultimate issues with help from their own pastors, rabbis, priests, hospice workers and other religious counselors?

Here’s what Haas had to say:

“The Catholic Church has a highly developed body of teachings and traditions to help guide people through these kinds of decisions,” said Haas. “We believe that hospice care is normal and good. We believe that it’s right to die a good death, with an emphasis on the relief of pain and suffering. …

“But let’s be clear. We think the government has an agenda on these kinds of issues and it’s not the church’s agenda. When it comes to dying, controlling costs is not our primary goal.”

The Post article contains lots of interesting and completely valid information. That’s good. There is a major story here.

But how do you write an article about end-of-life decisions without even mentioning the religious side of this equation? Does anyone else see the ghost here?

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