On the sidelines for BYU

Some seemed genuinely shocked that Brigham Young University would suspend a basketball player for violating its honor code. Even more surprising, perhaps, was Brandon Davies’ appearance on the bench after his suspension.

A recent New York Times story looks at why the player would remain in the spotlight after hurting the team’s chances in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Most players who run afoul of a team’s rules are shuttled out of sight, out of mind, to minimize the distraction. Initially, B.Y.U. curtly announced that Davies “would not represent the university” for the rest of the season.

…And with every struggle B.Y.U. faces on the court, starting with its first game in the N.C.A.A. tournament on Thursday, the question will come back: who is this 19-year-old whose absence seems to have altered the tournament, but whose presence is so welcomed by B.Y.U. and its fans?

The story follows with fluffy quotes about how the teammates love him, but offers little substance on the religion front. The reporter writes that Davies considered going on a two-year mission trip, suggesting he was raised Mormon but not explicitly saying how religious he is now.

Also, the article start and ends with a similar idea:

“His sins are private. His face is public.”
“The sins are private. Repentance and forgiveness are public.”

Given that sex could impregnate a woman or possibly spread STDs, sex is probably not always deemed private. Further, do Mormons view sex as a private action? Maybe they do, but the repetition without attribution seems a bit odd.

Then again, an alumn argues anonymously on Deadspin that the school made the decision for public relations purposes. It might be interesting to interview students and alumni about whether there are different levels of honor code enforcement; for instance, if a student is caught for drinking alcohol, does it carry the same weight as having premarital sex?

Like all B.Y.U. students, members of the church or not, Davies signed the honor code, an agreement to abide by the lifestyle tenets of the Mormon faith. The rules include abstaining from alcohol, coffee or tea; using clean language; observing dress and grooming standards; and abstaining from premarital sex.

There was no reason to think Davies, familiar with the code, would struggle to obey it. On the basketball team, Davies was a reserve post player as a freshman, averaging 5.4 points and 3 rebounds. As a student last year, he received a team academic excellence award.

I’m not sure the reporter can compare academic and athletic excellence with the school’s honor code, since they seem like comparing apples and oranges in some ways. For instance, did his friends think he was particularly devoted to Mormonism? That might shed more light on his view of the honor code than his points scored and grades achieved.

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More Mormons pursuing the presidency

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, his Mormon faith and the extent of its cultural and political acceptance generated quite a lot of ink. So now that former Utah Gov. and Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman is also considering throwing his hat in the ring, the possibility of two credible Mormon presidential candidates could create a veritable LDSapalooza.

Of all publications, the vaunted Economist is out of the gate with a story that looks at how Mormonism may shape the next presidential race. It’s got a breezy, anthropological tone that is normally deplorable when examining religious issues. However, since the Economist is often geared toward a British and international audience that may not be as familiar with Mormons, I’m inclined to grade it on a curve.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. Here’s how the piece addresses Mormon antipathy in the political realm:

This distrust keeps peeking through. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist and another Republican candidate, insinuated just before the Iowa caucus in January 2008 that Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (Mr Huckabee promptly went on to defeat Mr Romney in that caucus). Last year, when an evangelical Republican in Nevada, Sharron Angle, challenged Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat who is the majority leader of the Senate, her pastor called Mormonism “kooky” and alleged that “Harry Reid’s allegiance is to Salt Lake City,” that Mormons “do illegal things” and that “there’s weirdness going on there”.

Protestants once murmured similar things about the Catholic John Kennedy, with Rome taking the place of Salt Lake City, but have since got over their distrust of papistry. They seem to find Mormonism harder to accept. How plausible is it that a semi-literate man in upstate New York should find golden plates written in “reformed Egyptian” and translate them, while burying his face in his hat, to reveal the tale of a family who left Israel in 600BC and ended up in North America? Then again, to be fair, how plausible are the miracles and resurrection of Jesus?

It’s understandable Huckabee would be mentioned. However, while Harry Reid may be the highest-profile Mormon officeholder in America, that’s a curious example. Angle’s pastor may have said those things about Reid’s religion, but Sharron Angle’s religious views were a far bigger issue in that campaign than Reid’s Mormonism. (Particularly because of the baseless and repeated claim that Angle, a Southern Baptist, was somehow sympathetic to the Christian Reconstructionist movement.)

Then there’s the rhetorical suggestion about the revelations of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Jesus being equally plausible. I’m not going to touch that (and PLEASE remember the comments section below is not a place to discuss this distinction either), but I don’t think tossing off a line like that is a terribly respectful way to smooth over the differences between Mormons and Christians in America.

The article’s characterization of how Mormon beliefs influence the politics of the church’s members also struck me as not quite right:

Through their faith, Mormons tend to inherit many quintessentially conservative values, above all an attachment to the family. Mormons believe that families remain linked together eternally after death, and that one can even include ancestors into this union by retroactively baptising the dead. This explains why the church maintains probably the world’s most sophisticated genealogical database.

But other aspects of Mormonism have liberal, even socialist, elements. Joseph Smith had an egalitarian vision. The church demands, for example, that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a “tithe” to the church, although argument remains about whether this should be applied to income net of government taxes.

The mixture has created overwhelmingly conservative politics in heavily Mormon states such as Utah and Idaho, but with a pragmatic twist, says Kirk Jowers, a Mormon and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. It may not be a coincidence that Mr Romney in Massachusetts and Mr Huntsman in Utah made the two biggest state-level efforts to reform health care (Mr Romney’s reform even resembling Barack Obama’s to a striking degree).

The debate on immigration is another example. The author of a harsh state law against illegal immigrants in Arizona, passed last year, is a Mormon. But as Utah began debating its own version, with anti-immigrant rhetoric taking on racist tinges, the state’s overwhelmingly Mormon policy elite formed a “Utah compact”, an agreement to keep the debate civil and empathetic toward all. The church gave this compact a nod of approval, citing the sanctity of families, including those of illegal immigrants, who might be split up by deportations. It is also aware that more than half of Mormons are outside the United States, many in Latin America.

I fail to see how requiring a tithe speaks to the fact that Mormonism has liberal or socialist elements. The church does have its own internal welfare system, but this goes unmentioned, and I wouldn’t exactly describe the church’s approach to it as egalitarian or socialist. Further, other elements of the church — such as the Mormon requirement that families keep a year’s supply of food storage on hand — speak to a conservative vision of self-reliance. Of course, we could examine the politics of former presidential candidate Joseph Smith, and things might get past the modern and binary right/left distinctions we’re working with here. Further, how the church approaches the political beliefs of its members in the public square is a very complex and nuanced thing. But this article kind of bulldozes past all that.

Then there’s another weird example. As someone who was raised Mormon, I agree with the general assessment that there is a streak of political pragmatism in the church. But I’m not sure that health care is a good example of this. Huntsman was a centrist Republican governor in a very conservative state — consequently, his health care reform policy was very free-market friendly. Romney was perceived at the time as a liberal Republican in a heavily Democratic state, and so his health-care plan does resemble Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My general sense here is that these specific policies were shaped by the political realities with which these governors who happen to Mormon were dealing with. (And that’s saying nothing of the fact that “It may not be a coincidence…” is a kind of a weasel-phrase here.) Dragging their faith into it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. But for what it’s worth, I do think the immigration example is a very good one on this point.

On the whole, I’m a bit conflicted about the story because as a journalist this article trades in far more unsubstantiated generalizations than I’m comfortable with. But as someone who’s more familiar with Mormonism than the average bear, I feel like the generalizations are mostly on target. This is the rare story that misses the trees for the forest.

In any event, I feel like the author had noble intentions and there’s a lot of useful information here and they should be commended for that. For now, I’m eager to see how they move the chains on the Romney-Huntsman story. I suspect this is just the beginning.

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Sex and the college campus

Parents of students at Northwestern University might be interested to learn where some of the $40,000 they spend annually in tuition goes to. From the Chicago Sun-Times:

More than 100 Northwestern University students watched as a naked 25-year-old woman was penetrated by a sex toy wielded by her fiancee during an after-class session of the school’s popular “Human Sexuality” class.

The woman said she showed up at the Feb. 21 lecture in the Ryan Family Auditorium in Evanston expecting just to answer questions, but was game to demonstrate. The course’s professor on Wednesday acknowledged some initial hesitation, but said student feedback was “uniformly positive.”

And Northwestern defended the class and its professor.

“Northwestern University faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and at the leading edge of their respective disciplines,” said Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for University Relations. “The University supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.”

I wonder if the three Methodist ministers who founded the school had this in mind. The story from the Sun Times doesn’t wonder if anyone might have any possible objections. The reporter was only able to find people who thought the live sex show, featuring BDSM toys, was the bee’s knees. The only moral issue that was addressed was whether anyone was coerced. That low bar being met, everyone gives a thumbs up on the show. This includes a researcher from the Kinsey Institute and, allegedly, a grandmother of one of the students there. Something tells me that maybe, just maybe, someone out there might have questioned whether this was appropriate for a public environment, much less a classroom environment.

Someone at Reuters was able to find someone who questioned the decision to host a live sex show was found:

The president of an American university said on Thursday he was launching an investigation into an on-campus presentation of a live sex act performed for students at an after class event.

President Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University, which is of Chicago in Evanston, said he was “troubled and disappointed” after hearing about the use of a sex toy on a naked woman by her fiance in front of more than 100 students.

It’s all worth comparing to coverage of the decision by Brigham Young University to suspend one of its star basketball players for a violation of its honor code:

Here’s an Associated Press sports story:

Zero is the number 6-foot-9 forward Brandon Davies wore before being booted off BYU’s team this week for breaking the school’s honor code.

Does it now also represent the odds the third-ranked Cougars have of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament?

The words “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saints” don’t appear in the story (or in this ESPN story), although the honor code is discussed and the sports implications are really well explained. You can’t really understand any school’s honor code without understanding why they have it. The reader who sent it in wrote:

Interesting clash here between America’s love for sports, a nationally ranked team that has a shot at the national championship, and the media left scratching their head trying to make sense of a religious school and their “Honor Code.”

Slate posted a tweet expressing shock at the school’s decision:

BYU suspends player, FOR THE SEASON, for having sex with his girlfriend.

But later Slate had an interesting piece attempting to answer a few questions about premarital sex at BYU.

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I am an ad campaign

Have you seen those “I’m a Mormon” ads that are, well, everywhere I seem to go on the internet? They’re always the “recommended” YouTube video that pops up when I sign on to show my children pictures of cats or whatever.

Well, Peggy Fletcher Stack had a really interesting story about them — and religious advertising in general — in a recent Salt Lake Tribune. “Mormon, Muslim, Methodist … spreading the word online” looks at the Mormon campaign and why it was chosen.

Here’s the lede:

To many viewers, the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” ad blitz seemed hip, refreshing and original.

The campaign, launched last year in nine U.S. cities, generated a lot of national buzz. Its short videos featured regular folks talking about their lives as doctors, skateboarders, tax attorneys, environmentalists, surfers or former felons before announcing that they are Mormons. Nary an Osmond to be seen.

It helped burst stereotypes of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by showing individual and diverse members expressing their spirituality.

Turns out, lots of other faiths take a similar tack.

So we’re reminded about the “Meet a Scientologist” campaign and the “I am Episcopalian” series. I wasn’t aware of the “Inspired by Muhammad” push by a Muslim agency. We’re also told about Catholic, Methodist and secular humanist campaigns. Some are about evangelism, others are about changing impressions:

As Americans became less religious, they began to look to consumer goods for their identities, explains Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College in New York. They saw themselves as the person who used a “PC” or a “Mac,” drove a Volkswagen or a BMW, and sipped a Starbucks latte or wolfed down a Carl’s Jr. sloppy burger.

That personal approach eventually circled back to spirituality. Religious groups began trying to tell potential members that theirs was a faith for someone who looked and acted like themselves, Einstein says.

The message of these ads is not just that we — Mormons, Methodist, Muslims — are normal, says Einstein, who wrote Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. It’s that “we are you.”

The piece has much more history. Scientologists were the first to use this approach in the early 1990s and they claim that they did it for proselytizing purposes. I tend to dislike the use of that word but it was the one that the spokesman used. The Episcopal Church began its marketing campaign on Ash Wednesday 2000 because they wanted to seem more contemporary and relevant. We learn about the Methodist $20 million marketing push which emphasizes “nonchurch language” and “positive land mines” (issues like Darfur, ecology, helping out with homelessness).

The Muslim campaign is being run in London by the Exploring Islam Foundation where British values are compared with Muslim values and found to be the same. The Mormon campaign came about because the church wanted to correct false impressions about the church’s practices.

I’ve been involved in the planning of a religious advertising campaign, where we were encouraged to adopt a marketing approach that I didn’t really like. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that my ideal campaign would have a more sacramental or liturgical emphasis. One of the things I began to wonder about such campaigns is their effectiveness. There is no data to support the claims of the people in the story that any of the previous campaigns have been effective. I’m not saying they haven’t been effective, but there’s no information to support the claim. I would absolutely love more information on that and how success is measured for church marketing.

I’m also curious about how much of these campaigns is about internal vs. external marketing. Do these ads really reach people outside a given church or do they bolster feelings of current adherents? That might be the mission of campaigns and I can certainly envision why it might be intentional. Religious adherents benefit from understanding their distinctiveness and they can better articulate their niche to others that way, too.

Finally, I’m curious about any possible criticism of church marketing. That wasn’t found in the story. I like some marketing campaigns more than others, but either way, what does it mean for a church body to enter the market in this manner? Does it reinforce the notion of religion as consumer good or identity? Is that good or bad for religious groups?

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Time test flies a faith-free Romney story

I’m sorry to bring this up, but it’s time – once again – to wrestle with the complicated reality that is GOP superstar (sort of) Willard Mitt Romney and the challenges he presents to mainstream reporters who cover his, at this time, unofficial candidacy for the White House in ’12.

Let’s try to see this story through the eyes of a very specific voter, some would say the worst possible voter.

So you are a typical evangelical Protestant in, oh, South Carolina who is highly active in state Republican affairs there and, well, across the Bible Belt. Whenever you hear the name “Mitt Romney” you immediately think that he is:

(1) That Yankee with all the money.
(2) The guy who did semi-government health-care in Massachusetts before President Barack Obama took the idea national.
(3) The sort-of conservative Yankee who took a long time to make up his mind of moral and social issues.
(4) The guy with the strong jaw and great hair.
(5) The Mormon candidate.
(6) All of the above.
(7) Any of the first four options, but not No. 5.

Apparently, if you are an editor at Time magazine the answer is No. 7.

I base that conclusion on a new Time story, entitled “Election 2012: Mitt Romney Readies a Different Kind of Campaign,” that is supposed to be about the hurdles that he faces this time around — based on the outcomes of previous primaries. While it is clear, at this point, that there is no reason whatsoever for religion to dominate the story, the closest it comes to even mentioning Romney’s sincere and vital Mormon faith is a brief aside about the family Christmas card.

At his first two events in New Hampshire, his former state-level campaign strategists hovered in the back of the room, apparently ready to dive in. Soon after, supporters got the Romney-family Christmas card, which pictured the candidate with his wife and 14 of his 15 grandchildren, one of whom seemed to be crying. “Guess which grandchild heard that Papa might run again?” ran the caption.

Then again, readers with any memory of the GOP race to 2008 were also sure to flinch when they read this chunk of the story.

The most damning indictment of Romney’s 2008 campaign came from his archrival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who began telling a story to reporters a few weeks before he beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses. It was the tale of a wealthy man who opened a dog-food company, hiring the best nutritionist, the best marketing people and the best sales force in the industry. When the product was released to great fanfare, sales flagged, so the wealthy man gathered his staff and demanded to know why. “There was a long silence,” Huckabee would say. “And then finally somebody in the back of the room said, ‘Because the dogs won’t eat the darn stuff, sir.’ ”

So why, pray tell, are many GOP dogs declining to eat what Romney is selling?

Meanwhile, we are, of course, talking about the Rev. Mike Huckabee and the reason he is Romney’s “archrival” is that they both need the support of religious conservatives and, the last time they faced off, the Southern Baptist candidate did not bite his tongue and keep silent when offered a chance to discuss the Mormon issue. Surely you recall that rather provocative incident? And Comedy Central was rather fond of punching the religion card, as well.

Whatever. I am sure that many GOP voters have gotten over that and that they have moved on. I am sure that strategists in the Romney campaign are not discussing this issue and, perhaps, even working hard to find the right kind of stump-speech language that will reach out to as many religious voters as possible (since, after all, there are many evangelical and Catholic Republicans who have, at one time or another in the past, endorsed Romney). The potential (cough, cough) candidate may even be trying out that language during his many test flights in New Hampshire, like the events covered in the Time article.

But there is no need to even mention that issue in a story about the challenges facing Romney. I am sure that religious and cultural issues will not play a major role in the upcoming campaign. Besides, it’s best not to talk about religion, whenever possible. Religious issues make simple political stories too complicated.

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Rave review for a Raven

Greetings, GetReligion readers. Here’s your third-string quarterback with a post about a Baltimore Sun story on the Ravens’ Todd Heap, one of four Mormons on the Baltimore squad.

I’m joking, of course, But ordinarily, tmatt grabs most of the stories in his Baltimore hometown (such as this recent one related to the Ravens), while The Other M. Hemingway reigns as our resident expert on Mormons.

This time, though, I jumped to the front of the line in GetReligion’s all-you-can-eat — er, all-you-can-critique — buffet, so I’m going to take a crack at this one.

Years ago, while serving as religion editor of The Oklahoman, I did a feature on a day in the life of young Mormon missionaries. Later, the missionaries invited me to hear Dale Murphy, the former Atlanta Braves’ star, speak at an Oklahoma City area church. I interviewed Murphy about his Mormon faith — and baseball — and wrote a story for the paper’s Sports cover.

My experience writing about Murphy is part of what interested me about this Sun story on a Mormon football player.

Here’s the top of the Sun’s nearly 2,000-word Page 1 story:

In a violent world, where grown men curse and taunt each other in their struggle to reach the end zone, the Ravens’ Todd Heap is strictly PG.

Heap doesn’t smoke, drink or swear. “Gosh darn” are his naughtiest words. The tight end won’t talk trash, but he’ll take out the garbage without being asked. He doesn’t carouse, like many teammates. Tattoos? You won’t find one on Heap’s 6-foot-5 frame.

“Todd leads a great life,” said Haloti Ngata, the Ravens’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle. “When I came here, I looked up to him. I knew that if I followed him, I could have a great life in the NFL, and also at home.”

Like Heap, Ngata is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of four Mormons on the Ravens’ squad. The others are defensive end Paul Kruger and rookie tight end Dennis Pitta. No NFL club has as many LDS members.

That’s a plus for the Ravens as they enter the playoffs, team officials said. Basic tenets of the Mormon faith, such as devotion to family, humility and respect for one’s elders, all translate to football.

It’s an interesting story that seems to gush with praise for Heap and the positive benefits that his faith brings to his team. The story provides a snapshot of Heap’s strong character and upbringing. Readers learn about Heap’s deep Mormon roots:

Heap hails from hardworking pioneer stock who emigrated from England in 1841 in search of religious freedom. His great-great-great grandfather was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A great-grandfather, John Henry Heap, was called by church president Brigham Young to colonize Arizona and settled in the dusty town of St. Johns.

“He [John Henry] rode into town with a team of horses and one trunk with all of his belongings. On his death, he owned two whole townships of land and 15,000 head of cattle,” said Theo Heap, 84, Todd’s grandfather and the family historian.

Despite the piece’s positive attributes, however, it seemed shallow to me. After reading the entire thing, I don‘t feel like I have a clear understanding of what Heap believes and why.

Some of my specific questions:

– Readers learn that Heap is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but where? We hear from no one associated with his home congregation, or stake. Now, using the name of his church might be a privacy issue for his children, but I wondered about that information.

– It’s reported that Heap is rooted in his beliefs, but readers never really find out what he believes theologically. The story is all about morality, but does Heap read the Bible? The Book of Mormon? Do any particular passages speak to him and influence his life?

– The story references three-hour church services on Sunday when Heap was growing up. What about now? How does someone who plays football on Sunday live out his faith? Does he attend a team chapel service or otherwise find a way to worship on game days? Does he participate in the Ravens’ Christian Bible studies with teammates?

– In the background on Heap’s childhood, reference is made to “family home evenings” where kids were asked to sing, recite poems or play musical instruments before parents and siblings. Does Heap maintain this practice with his own children?

– One line in the story says that Heap declined the optional two-year LDS mission for which many young men and women volunteer. I wish the reporter had dug deeper there. Was that an easy decision for Heap? An emotional one? Did his family want him to play football, or would they have preferred that he put his career on hold and go pass out church pamphlets for two years?

My criticisms aside, the piece is worth a read. Check it out and let me know what you think. We may need to bring in the first string.

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Faith-free Sun report on modern families

It is very hard to write about the history of Catholicism in the United States without writing about the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Baltimore is, of course, the senior see in the United States and was established as a diocese on April 6, 1789.

Thus, it’s hard to write about the big-button moral and cultural issues of civic life in this city without some kind of reference to or request for input from someone in the Church of Rome. However, it must be said that, even though this task is a hard one, The Baltimore Sun consistently gives it that good old college try.

Consider, for example, the following report on a subject of the utmost urgency in the Charm City and many other urban areas in the American Northeast (and elsewhere, such as the Midwest) that are struggling with basic demographic issues. Are many schools closing their doors? Even Catholic schools? Do school teachers report that many of their students have little support at home since they are being raised in one-parent families?

The headline on this giant Sun story was simple:

Census: Fewer than 10 percent of city households are nuclear families

The anecdotal lede was just as direct and to the point:

Before moving with her boyfriend of three years to a Hampden home this September, Brandy Washington lived with two other women, both young professionals in their 20s, just like her.

Delaying marriage is a lifestyle that has suited the 27-year-old. She and her boyfriend wanted to “try things out” and live together before becoming more serious — a far cry from her high-school-sweetheart parents, who married right out of college.

Almost all of her peers, Washington said, are living the same way, either with friends or a long-term partner. They have few serious personal commitments, and are free of social stigmas pressuring them to get married and have children on a specific timeline.

“Living in Baltimore, it’s definitely more liberal than other parts of the country,” said Washington, who works in marketing. “It’s nice to have camaraderie and people who are going through some of the same situations as you are. It’s a great way to prolong your youth as well.”

New U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that her choice is becoming more common here. Baltimore and Washington are among a handful of U.S. localities where fewer than 10 percent of households are made up of married couples and their children. In the city, 8.6 percent of households are such nuclear families, compared to 23 percent statewide and nationwide.

Now, I am well aware that this is not a story about religion, per se.

No, it’s a story about sex, cohabitation, marriage, fertility, children, divorce, abortion, single-parent homes, absent fathers and the shifting tides in what once was called “public morality.” This has nothing to do with religion, of course, even in a symbolic city such as Baltimore. One might even be tempted to suggest that this obvious and major trend is important to the future of Catholicism in the urban Northeast, but I digress.

The bottom line: Marriage is old fashioned and has little or nothing to do with sexual morality. That is a big chunk of the new reality — it’s hard to argue otherwise. This, however, has nothing to do with religion. Keep repeating that mantra.

Then again, this does make we wonder why there are so many new marriages of young adults in my Eastern Orthodox parish in an old, old, old neighborhood just out of the Baltimore city line. The number of new children is shockingly high, too. I wonder what churches encourage marriages and children and which do not? Does this have any impact on urban demographics? On life in the public square? On the future of Catholicism?

Surely not. Otherwise there might be a hint of that in this Sun report. Then again, our local newspaper does not even take these kinds of issues into account when writing about, oh, issues such as the decline of Catholic schools or the declining numbers of priests in the region.

For some reason, this also reminds me of that recent Weekly Standard piece about the declining size of traditional two-parent families in this fair land of ours. Do you remember my post on that? As a refresher, here is the money quote:

The best indicator of actual fertility is “aspirational fertility” — the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their “ideal family size” since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

However, this theological statement has nothing to do with Baltimore and it has nothing to do with Catholic Baltimore. Religion does not even play a small role in this important story. Nope. No way.

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DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

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