The value of promiscuous sex

Life-Now-no-one-is-safe-from-AIDSThe Los Angeles Times has a daily front page feature under the name “Column One.” The column is for “interesting” news and is designed to give people surprising or provocative information.

There have been some great pieces there in the past, but recently there have been some real doozies. There was the Hemlock Society press release for euthanasia and the hagiography of Colorado abortion doctor Warren Hern.

Saturday’s Column One is a similarly one-sided and shallow puff piece on married sociology professors who teach a class about sex at UC Santa Barbara. I’m all for putting more stories about sex in newspapers and as a puff piece, it’s certainly enjoyable reading. But talk about imbalance:

How well should people know each other before they have sex?

In the biggest classroom at UC Santa Barbara, sociology professors John and Janice Baldwin are reeling off survey results showing that male and female students are almost equally willing to sleep with someone they love. But the hall erupts in knowing laughter as a gender gap emerges: Men, the long-married couple reports, remain eager for sex through descending categories of friendship and casual acquaintance. Women don’t.

By the time Janice Baldwin gets to the statistic on sex between strangers, the din from the 600 students is so loud, they can hardly hear her announce that 37% of men would have sex with a person they had just met, compared with only 7% of women.

“So you can see, males are a little more likely to go to bed with somebody they don’t know very well,” Baldwin says dryly.

“Or at all,” she adds, to guffaws.

By turns humorous and deadly serious, “Sociology of Human Sexuality” has been an institution at the beach-side campus for more than two decades. So have the Baldwins, unflappable sixtysomethings who are trusted voices on love and lovemaking for thousands of current and former UC Santa Barbara students.

With a lede like that, you’d think the article might feature some discussion about competing moral claims regarding sex. Maybe we could learn a bit more about how well people should know each other before they have sex. Or even get into some interesting territory about same-sex relationships. Instead it’s just the most gauzy look at no-judgment sex education. There’s no need for a story like this to be negative but neither should it be completely uncritical, either.

The article is also just wrong in parts. Take this, for instance:

The survey also found that promiscuity on the campus peaked in the late ’80s, before awareness of AIDS. In 1988, 38% of the school’s sexually active undergraduates said they had had at least one sexual encounter with a person they had known one day or less; by 2007, that figure had dropped to 26%.

Okay, everyone knows that President Ronald Reagan personally spread AIDS dominated the entire 1980s. To say that “awareness of AIDS” came some time after 1988 is just ignorant.

Anyway, here are a few other selected sections from the story:

“We don’t feel we are the sex king and queen of the world,” Janice Baldwin, 63, said recently in the cramped office the couple share, their desks touching. “So this is not about us. It’s about the students, and we are privileged to get to teach a class that can help them avoid the downsides of sex and increase the positives.” . . .

The couple’s aura of nonjudgmental experience helps. . . .

After marrying, they traveled for several years in the jungles of Latin America while he researched the behavior of squirrel monkeys. There, they witnessed the human suffering caused by overpopulation and lack of birth control. The experience influenced Janice to volunteer for Planned Parenthood when they returned to Santa Barbara in the early ’70s. . . .

The Baldwins are tight-lipped about their own lives, except to say that they have no children, were never married to anyone else and spend their free time hiking. They say it is fine for students to abstain from sex, but they also give off the vibe of supportive parents who think it’s all right for young people to be sexually active as long as they keep it safe. . . .

I love how people who oppose birth control or think Planned Parenthood is not a humanitarian institution are frequently portrayed as judgmental by the media. They certainly couldn’t get a puffy piece like this in their favor. But having a competing moral vision makes you nonjudgmental. It’s also very generous of the professors to say it’s “fine” for their unmarried students to abstain from sex.

There’s also a vignette about discussing when it is right to out closeted gay politicians and celebrities and when it’s an invasion of privacy. I thought this was one of the most interesting sections:

The topic that seems to upset students most, the Baldwins say, is parental sex. Year after year, the class breaks into groans at images of mature couples in nude embraces.

“They . . don’t like to think about their parents having sex,” Janice Baldwin said.

And you know the one thing that the article never mentions? Children. There’s discussion of birth control, abortion and infertility. But either the professors themselves or the reporter never mention children as the natural product of sex. It’s so bizarre to read a lengthy discussion of sex — which is something humans do for pleasure, sure, but also the means by which billions of humans have been conceived — and never discuss children. Does this “la-la-la” approach to sexuality, where everything is less important than pleasure and where children are “punishment” for sex turn everyone into idiots? THAT is the topic that most upsets the students? Not, say, herpes? Or the prevalence of other STDs? Or the abortion rate? Or people having sex with strangers?

The story also repeatedly refers to the couple as role models because they’re a long-time married couple. It’s just an interesting acknowledgment of the ideal of marital commitment. The biggest ghost in the whole story is any discussion of the Baldwins’ religious background. It’s the number one question I had while reading the story — particularly while learning about the dismal sex education the duo had growing up. Religion, of course, is one of the biggest shapers of people’s views on sex. But the reporter never asked the question or didn’t include the answer in the story. It’s just an odd thing to leave out.

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Reporters! When in doubt, be specific

Caught with pants downWhile it may surprise GetReligion readers who reside in some parts of the United States, there are thousands of evangelical Christians — millions, globally — who worship in United Methodist pews week after week. That is certainly true down in the Southeastern corner of the Sunbelt, where there seems to be a United Methodist congregation in every small town and in almost every zip code.

Now hold on to that thought.

I am sad to report that ABC News served up a story the other day that, once again, pinned the “evangelical” label on another GOP falling star without offering any practical details that would, or would not, justify that word. At best, this appears to be a story about a man who “voted” evangelical and then got caught with his pants down.

We simply don’t know. Here’s the top of the story, which includes all kinds of slimy details about a scandal that deserves to be called an “affair” in every sense of the word. The detail about the stolen disc of nude photos is especially choice.

What began as a government internship for a one-time honors student with a questionable past has become a full-blown sex scandal that ensnared a married Tennessee state senator and led him to resign.

Republican Sen. Paul Stanley had maintained a low profile until his announcement … that he was resigning from the state Senate effective Aug. 10, after his affair with a 22-year-old intern and a subsequent extortion attempt was revealed to the public.

Stanley, a 47-year-old evangelical Christian with two children, said in his resignation letter that he has “decided to focus my full attention on my family.”

“Whatever I stood for and advocated, I still believe to be true,” he told Memphis radio station WREC-AM Tuesday. “And just because I fell far short of what God’s standard was for me and my wife, doesn’t mean that that standard is reduced in the least bit.”

He had been engaged in a sexual relationship with intern McKensie Morrison when her boyfriend, Joel Watts, contacted him, according to an affidavit filed in Davidson County by prosecutor Douglas Long. Watts threatened April 8 to release nude photos of Morrison at the senator’s apartment unless Stanley paid him $10,000, the affidavit claimed.

So he is an “evangelical” and that’s that. Read on and you’ll see that there is nothing in the story that gives us any clue as to why Stanley fits that label — unless simply being a Republican is enough. Take it away, Jim Wallis.

Now, as a GetReligion reader quickly noted by email, it isn’t all that hard to Google this politician’s name and read the following on his personal website. At least, it was easy to do that before the contents were locked after his resignation announcement. Still, the direct link still works, so click here. That’s where we read that:

From 1997-1999 he was Vice Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. Paul was Senior Field Representative to U.S. Senator Bill Frist from 1995-1997 and served on the Republican State Executive Committee from 1998-2002. He is a member of Christ United Methodist Church where he serves as a Sunday school teacher and board member of their day school.

OtherPaulStanleySo here is the question for the reporter. Why not simply say that the state senator is a Sunday school teacher in a United Methodist congregation? That would be specific and accurate.

But wait, I hear some of you thinking, “But that doesn’t offer any political content about this man who has sunk into this pit of shame. It makes his actions worse if he is one of those ‘evangelical’ people. After all, if you just said he was a United Methodist, then people might think that he’s, uh, well educated and sane.”

As it turns out, the state senator’s “about” page also offers more information, noting that:

He has sponsored and passed many pro-business and technology bills and has a 100% rating from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, NRA and Tennessee Right to Life.

There you go, Stanley had a sky-high voting record from his state’s Right to Life chapter — even higher than the rating by another pro-life evangelical from Tennessee years ago. You remember Sen. Al Gore, don’t you? But he was a Democrat, of course.

In conclusion, there may be all kinds of specific information — other than this one political statistic on life issues — that would justify pinning the stunningly vague term “evangelical” on this latest GOP falling star. However, that information is clearly not in the ABC News story, where all we get is a hollow label.

It was easy to learn that Stanley is a United Methodist. Why not simply be specific, for a change? Go ahead and give us a few details.

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On a highway to hell

What is the biggest religion story in the news today? Why, that would be the tale of the seven-year-old boy who stole his parents car and drove off in an attempt to avoid church. I was going to rip on how overplayed this story was until I watched the video above. The ending is comedy gold. (And, to be clear, the headline above is in complete jest.)

The story brought back many memories of my childhood as a pastor’s kid, which involves quite a bit of churchgoing. There was the time my four-year-old brother (who was very smart and knew how to read) pulled the fire alarm during the middle of services (“Pull down,” it read. Later, he saw that it also said, “In case of fire.”). The fire-extinguishing sprinklers were launched and the power supply was shut off. Which turned off the organ. There was chaos all around. My parents were livid but my grandfather retold that story with pride for years. When I was baptized, he apparently broke loose and ran all around the altar, screaming. There was also the time he debuted his organ-playing skills during an evening worship service during Lent. He wasn’t asked to play ever again after he sped through “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted” so quickly that it sounded like a jazz tune. The thing is that my brother is possibly the most faithful churchgoer I know. And he’s a leader in his congregation, too. Although they still don’t ask him to play the organ.

Anyway, it’s still worth looking at the media coverage. Perhaps it’s because this seven-year-old drives better than half the people on the Beltway here in DC, but this story is getting nothing but guffaws from the media. Fox13 Utah, which had the story first, now even has a story about how widespread the story has become. Commenter Kristy, discussing a separate post yesterday, wrote:

Just a heads up – The NBC news is on, and we just heard a story of a 7 year old boy in Utah who stole a car and drove around to avoid going to church. Maybe local news, but – national?? and there’s going to be more tomorrow morning on TODAY. I can’t wait to hear more about THAT. There’s a religious news story you can’t miss:)

Is this the way the media usually treat stories like this? I’m not sure, but it did bring to mind the very different treatment of another lawbreaking youngster. Last Christmas a Texas tyke busted out of his house and into a nearby toy store and was caught playing with toys after he set off the burglar alarm. I can’t find the particular video I’m looking for, but that also made national news. The talking heads that told viewers about that story, however, were horrified and emphasized the parental neglect. In the case above, it’s played somewhat differently. I wonder why that is.

At least the parents of the Utah kid seem to have a good perspective about it. From the Salt Lake City Tribune:

Parents of a 7-year-old boy who drove off in the family car to avoid going to church Sunday are avoiding media interviews because they don’t want to reward their son for his bad behavior. . . .

“[The family] does not want this attention to be perceived by their son as an incentive or reward for his actions of taking the family car for a joyride,” said Capt. Klint Anderson of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. “Humorous as this event was, it could easily have been a tragic story instead.”

One of my big quibbles with any of the stories about the car chase were that they didn’t even mention what church the kid was avoiding. But at least this story explains why that key information is absent — the parents aren’t talking.

Either way, I like the suggestion my friend Vic Matus had for how to be certain to keep kids interested and well behaved at church — glass coffins. People interested in the topic of bringing children to worship services might be interested in this fantastic and funny essay on the matter by David Skinner.

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Abortion and health care (again)

Terry highlighted one of the more glaring holes in some of the stories covering the public health insurance debate. There have been some other problems with the media’s look at the abortion debate.

Last week the Associated Press had a piece about how pro-life House Democrats oppose the leadership’s health care bill because under it, taxpayer funds could be used for abortions:

Abortion is not mentioned in the 1,018-page bill that Democratic leaders hope will be approved by the last of three House committees this week. Supporters of the legislation say that means the bill is neutral.

But abortion opponents say the bill’s silence is precisely the problem.

Without an explicit prohibition on federal funding for abortion, it could be included in taxpayer-subsidized coverage offered through the health overhaul plan, abortion opponents say. . . .

The Supreme Court has established a woman’s right to abortion, but federal law prohibits government funds from being used to pay for the procedure in most cases. However, nearly 90 percent of employer-based private insurance plans routinely cover abortion.

Or take this from Karen Tumulty at Time:

If an explicit ban on abortion coverage were imposed, say sources involved in writing the legislation on Capitol Hill, it could have much further-reaching implications than the Hyde Amendment ever did. It could, in fact, have the effect of denying abortion coverage to women who now receive it under their private insurance plans. Nearly 90% of insurers cover abortion procedures, according to a 2002 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization whose statistics are relied upon by both sides of the abortion debate.

First off, it’s just not true that 90 percent of employer-based private insurance plans routinely cover abortions, as the AP wrote. (See Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ comments in the New York Times here.) And even the Time magazine’s more moderate use of the statistic has problems, which we’ll see below. Before we get to that, let’s just ask the insurers whether they routinely cover abortion. Here’s a Congressional Quarterly report from a few weeks ago:

Most people with employer-sponsored insurance also must pay for abortions out of their own pocket. “Most insurers offer plans that include this coverage but most employers choose not to offer it as part of their benefits package” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry’s trade association.

Okay, so the insurers say that most employee-based insurance programs don’t cover abortion, although I’ve yet to see anything to substantiate that claim. Beyond that, though, the Alan Guttmacher Institute survey was just that — a survey. It wasn’t a comprehensive report. It just used voluntary responses to see if insurers cover abortion. Considering that the statistic includes abortions that are procured to save the life of the mother, the statistic doesn’t have much meaning, as John McCormack notes here.

It’s just good to get the basic facts down when heading into a big abortion fight. That way you’re not left saying untrue things, as Tumulty did above, when she wrote that a move to public insurance that doesn’t include abortion benefits would mean that women would have to give up an abortion benefit that they currently have.

Now even though Members of Congress are mocking the idea that they should read the health care bill, this abortion fight is the last thing that proponents of public health insurance need as they’re trying to pass legislation.

The Los Angeles Times has a story about publicly funded abortion becoming a big obstacle in this legislative fight. Apart from the absence of any discussion of Catholic bishops or other religious groups such as mainline Protestants who you might expect to be big voices in the fight, it’s actually pretty fairly written, getting perspectives from pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Democrats (Republicans playing a diminished role because of their minority status in both houses):

Opponents of abortion rights believe that unless there is specific wording to the contrary, abortion services will be included. “Unless you can specifically exclude abortion, it will be part of any federalized healthcare system,” said Charmaine Yoest, executive director of Americans United for Life.

Efforts in other House committees to insert such prohibitions have failed. [Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)] has vowed to push Waxman to include them in the version being written by the Energy and Commerce Committee. He was one of 19 Democrats to write to Pelosi last month to say that they “cannot support any healthcare proposal unless it excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan.”

Abortion rights advocates say the bill simply would maintain the status quo, in which companies that offer health insurance are free to choose whether to cover abortion services. And they argue that any government restriction would mean that women who seek abortion coverage could be forced to choose a more expensive private health plan instead of a lower-cost, government-supported one. They also fear that insurers who wished to take advantage of government incentives would be forced to discontinue covering abortion procedures.

Stupak’s proposal has drawn strong opposition from abortion rights advocates such as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who leads the rules committee.

“The starting point for Rep. Slaughter on the healthcare debate was protecting abortion rights,” said Slaughter’s spokesman, Vincent Morris.

As reporters continue to cover this battle, though, it’s upending some of the stereotypes we frequently see in abortion coverage. Both the pro-life and pro-choice sides of the fight are being led by Democrats. Hopefully that means we can get some more thoughtful and less partisan coverage of the various issues in play. On that note, this Wall Street Journal piece about Blue Dog Democrats and healthcare insurance legislation never managed to discuss opposition to abortion. Kind of odd.

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Elbridge is in the house (somewhere)


It’s a bit exasperating when a journalist does a really nice job on many angles of a particular story, and elides others. It seems almost unseemly to say –hey, wait a minute, buster! If religion is a big part of the story, how come its not here?

That’s how I felt while reading this evocative article from the New York Times about the 100th anniversary of a boy’s camp in the Catskills.

You learn a lot about what the camp, with its tradition of inviting boys from disadvantaged backgrounds — there are some wonderful quotes about it how five weeks at the Lake Delaware Boys Camp changed their lives. Readers get a sense for both the rituals and the relative paucity of amenities, as well as the character-building ideals that shape camp values.

The attention to detail in other areas is why a certain apparent carelessness about some religious facts, and lack of background about others, stick out like a sore thumb.

Take this paragraph, for instance:

It is the antithesis of a resort. Picture a sports-centric boot camp with no ammunition in the wooden rifles and no cussing, mandatory daily church services and a weekly dress parade in military regalia. Campers are divested of iPods, cellphones and other battery-operated paraphernalia the instant they step off the bus, a sometimes tearful process.

The camp website says that attendance at weekly services is required. But this sentence, and a few others scattered throughout the story, raise a few questions that never really gets answered, except sideways — why require attendance at services? And are there religious values that are a part of the camp’s living heritage?

Since it’s not exactly evident, let’s play detective.

According to tradition established in 1909 by Robert Livingston Gerry — a descendant of Elbridge Gerry, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a vice president under James Madison — Lake Delaware days begin with Episcopal Mass and conclude with taps.

It is rather unusual to see a reference to “Episcopal Mass” a term used in this country by Anglo-Catholics to describe the eucharist. It is, of course, a more normative term among Roman Catholics. A little research revealed that Vice-President and Declaration signer Elbridge Gerry was an Anglican/Episcopalian (started as the first, ended as the second). I confess that I included this link, and another one, because I hadn’t known that both Lex Luthor and Batman were/are Episcopalians. That probably explains a lot.

But I still couldn’t figure out why the article mentioned a “Mass.” I’m guessing that someone at the camp used the term, and the reporter incorporated it into his story. In the New York Times archives, I found this 1913 letter, which lets us know that some members of the Gerry clan were Anglo-Catholics. (Fascinating to think that Anglo-Catholic clergy were being tagged as being not truly American). I also found that the Gerry’s have a tradition of charitable work on behalf of disadvantaged children.

You would think, then, that there is a connection between the faith of the Gerry family and a dedication to good works? But we don’t get that kind of background. Instead we get more clues:

The green clapboard chapel, with its wainscoted interior and rare 1877 organ made by Hilborne L. Roosevelt, a cousin of Teddy’s, has been the domain of the Rev. Ray Donahue since 1969.

At dawn, the camp’s folksy director, the Rev. James H. Adams, an Episcopal priest from Geneva, N.Y., who morphs into ‘the Colonel’ each summer — his wife, Sue, is known as the General — prowls Company Street, coffee cup in hand, in his regulation khakis. Mr. Adams is the kind of guy who can proclaim, “No bling when you’re on the climbing wall!” and get instant results.

What denomination is Donahue? Is he the chaplain And how about camp director Adams?
What does it mean to have a priest as camp director? You get two clergy roaming the camp, there’s probably some religious teaching going on. But nowhere do we find out what it is — or whether the boys return home having taken in something from a sermon or a talk or a chance encounter. Possibly, in this story, religious teaching is conflated with “character-building” — and that may be true for the camp. But given the Gerry’s family history, and its continued commitment to the camp, I doubt it. Instead, religious themes haunt the story, like, well, the ghost of a vibrant tradition in which faith and social activism could not sundered.

Picture of Elbridge Gerry from Wikimedia Commons

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Mormons don’t eat meat?

mormondietbookMy hometown alt-weekly — Denver’s Westword — had a lengthy and religion-infused profile of a local family that recently lost their beloved patriarch. Inventor Timber Dick died in a car crash a few weeks ago, leaving behind his wife Annette Tillemann-Dick and eleven children. The story emphasizes the quirkiness of the family — the kids have great names such as Charity Sunshine, Liberty Belle and Kimber Rainbow and all have their own area of accomplishment.

But the reporter does a good job of incorporating how the Mormon teaching about the eternal nature of family is helping the Tillemann-Dicks deal with their loss. Here’s a portion of the piece looking at how the parents met and married:

That match seemed far from certain when this spirited blonde met the lanky sophomore at a Yale function in 1976. She was in the divinity school, pursuing her second master’s degree. He’d already flunked out of New College of Florida and was only at Yale because of an academic turnaround and a convincingly plaintive seven-page application letter. She was reading the Bible; he was a bit tipsy. When he introduced himself as “Timber Dick,” she felt like responding, “And my name’s Cinderella.” (Though she swears she didn’t grasp his moniker’s giggle-worthy connotations.)

None of their differences stopped Timber from falling hard. He’d always been intrigued by dynamic forces, about fashioning order from chaos, and in Annette he found a force of nature demanding all of his orderliness and rationality.

He pursued her until she felt the same about him — but that still left her father. Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew, hadn’t escaped a Nazi labor camp in 1944 and scraped together a new life in San Francisco just to see his princess with some shiftless punk, which Lantos made clear with all the formidable passion that would later mark his nearly thirty-year career in Congress. While their relationship survived his wrath, there was another complication. Annette, following in the footsteps of her mother, converted to Mormonism after experiencing an overwhelming feeling one night that the religion had the power of truth, and she would only marry someone who shared her faith.

Timber had always been a spiritual person, one who believed in divine order, but he’d never had a formal religion. Furthermore, to his friends and family, the rigid belief structures and conservative nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed at odds with his and Annette’s open-minded attitudes and political liberalism.

The story includes all sorts of quotes and tidbits supporting that last part — they’re good friends with Dennis Kucinich and are interested in a macrobiotic diet he was telling them about and they say a man who married into the family is loved even though he’s Republican.

When I read the piece, I wanted to highlight something that I believed was an error. Here it is:

As followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the family doesn’t eat meat — or partake in alcohol or coffee, for that matter — since they are all discouraged in Mormon doctrine.

I knew that Mormons abstain from alcohol and caffeine but I was pretty sure that there were no restrictions on meat. There’s a passage in Doctrine and Covenants — scripture that the church holds as revelation given through Prophet Joseph Smith — that says to eat meat sparingly. But I’ve never met a Mormon who interpreted that as a prohibition against meat.

But here are the relevant portions (verses 12 through 15) from section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;

And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;

And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

So it does not seem inappropriate in the least to say that meat is discouraged in Mormon doctrine. Of course, the treatment of meat in Doctrine and Covenants is different than the treatment of coffee and alcohol — the latter of which are banned. Still, you learn something every day on this beat!

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Praise the Lord and pass the severed heads

If a headline by sounds too good to be true — “Drug Dealing for Jesus: Mexico’s Evangelical Narcos” — it’s because the article fails to deliver any serious evidence to back its claim. We’re told that members of La Familia Michoacana “purport to be devout Evangelical Christians” (that D-word should set off incredulity meters across the land) and that “They are also made to study a special Bible authored by the gang’s spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno, alias El Mas Loco, or ‘The Maddest One.’”

Otherwise, reporter Ioan Grillo delivers quotes no more clearly pious than what one would hear on any given Sunday from Joel Osteen:

Federal agents seized one copy of La Familia’s Bible in a raid last year. Quoted in local newspapers, the scripture paints an ideology that mixes Evangelical-style self help with insurgent peasant slogans reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution. “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work,” Moreno writes using terms that could be found in many Christian sermons preached from Mississippi to Brazil.

The more interesting detail I’ve found comes from longtime reporter Joseph Michael Reynolds, at his blog July Dogs, who writes that El Mas Loco appears to be a fan of writer John Eldredge:

There are four separate references to Eldredge in [a] Mexican intelligence memo on La Familia. The cartel has conducted a three-year recruitment and PR campaign across Michoacan featuring thousands of billboards and banderas carrying their evangelical message and warnings. La Familia is known for tagging its executions and other mayhem as “la divina justica” — divine justice.

The report says La Familia leader, Nazario Gonzalez Moreno aka El Loco o More Chayo (“The Craziest”) has made Eldredge’s books required reading for La Familia and has paid rural teachers and National Development Education members to circulate the Colorado-based evangelical’s writings throughout the Michoacan countryside.

El Mas Loco has earned his nickname. I wrote a profile of Eldredge for Christianity Today in 2004, and I feel safe in saying that it would take a truly insane reading of his books to conclude that he has a soft spot for drug-dealing or cutting off the heads of one’s enemies.

That said, I’m swearing off two things: Ever using the word devout as a lazy way to describe someone’s faith, and ever thinking about joining a community of believers calling themselves The Family. Whether in Mexico City, California or Washington, it has become a bad-mojo magnet.

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Sisters a bit too familial

hbo_big_loveHere’s an arresting headline for you: “Mormon sisters share a husband.”

That was courtesy of the London Telegraph last week, and it accompanied one of the strangest stories I’ve read in a long time. Here’s the opening:

The pair live with their husband and eight children in a large house in Salt Lake City in the American state of Utah and insist they are very happy with their choice.

They have three cars, a big garden, wardrobes full of stylish clothes and a mountain of toys for all their offspring.

“People might think it’s weird to share your husband with your sister, but it’s not to us,” said Katie, 28.

“It makes Travis a better husband — he’s more patient.

“He’s had to learn how to cope with two different women with different personalities, and to remember how to make each of us feel special and loved.

“While he’s got to check in with both of us, I’ve got more freedom to see my friends and there’s always someone to help with the childcare.”

Where this story succeeds is in providing a rare window into a polygamist household. But the story raises some serious questions that it neglects to answer.

While the article isn’t apologetic in its tone, the reporter doesn’t do much more than make passing mention at the fact that, you know, polygamy is sort of a taboo and that the younger sister isn’t technically “married” to Travis, but was unofficially wed in an “unofficially church ceremony.”

Church ceremony … excuse me, but I’m not aware of any churches that provide these unofficial ceremonies.

And what about that headline?

Mormon sisters … well, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints banned polygamy more than 100 years ago. The FLDS, the cloistered sect that was led by Warren Jeffs before he was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison for forcing young girls into marriage, still practices polygamy, but it’s not clear that Travis and Katie and Priscilla are members of the FLDS. We’re told they “came from Fundamentalist Mormon families where polygamy was the norm,” but given nothing more.

“We’d always wondered whether polygamy could work for us, because I’d loved having so many brothers and sisters when I was young and wanted the same for my kids,” Katie explained.

You know, I had some friends growing up that were brothers and sisters. There were eight of them in all. And, get this, all came from the same mother. One womb can make it happen.

But that’s not the point of this blog post. While the Telegraph delivered a surprising story here, the reporter for this un-bylined article does a poor job of including the religious context needed for this story. In fact, we’re never even told in this story that the Mormon Church has banned polygamy, only that it is banned in the United States and, apparently, that “Fundamentalist Mormon families” favor polygamy.

A wedding cake for HBO’s “Big Love.”

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