Firing squad as ‘blood atonement?’

I guess GetReligion gets results.

Last month, after a Utah death-row inmate chose a firing squad as his form of execution, I complained about the pitiful coverage of the religion angle. In the comments section, reader Chas Clifton brought up an angle that I had not even considered:

I had been under the impression that the firing squad option reflected a Mormon doctrine (or an older interpretation of a doctrine) of “blood atonement.”

Otherwise, the favored “Old West” method of execution was hanging.

Has anyone asked an LDS theologian?

Flash forward a few weeks, and this is the top of a meaty, 1,650-word story by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack:

After convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner announced last month his intention to be executed by firing squad, national and international reporters suggested it was a throwback to the wild, wild West.

Some Utahns, though, had a different explanation for why such an anachronistic execution technique remained an option in the 21st century: blood atonement.

The term refers to an arcane LDS belief that a murderer must shed his own blood — literally — to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first entered the valley in 1847 until today, most of Utah’s formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.

When Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, began proposing elimination of the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the LDS Church itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated “in quiet, backroom discussions,” she recalls. “A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, ‘We’ve got to have blood atonement.’ ”

By 2004, Allen says, all mention of the Mormon concept “just went away” and the measure passed.

Religion News Service picked up Stack’s story Monday and distributed a wire-length version for national use.

Now, we are much too modest to suggest that the discussion on GetReligion contributed to this excellent piece of journalism. Actually, no, we’re not. But in this case, we really have no way of knowing, so we’ll just throw the notion out there and see if it sticks. Smile.

In all seriousness, this story has it all: politics, history and, yes, religion. It’s chock full of details that help the reader understand the meaning and significance of “blood atonement” in Mormon quarters — in the past and now. Stack even digs up a quote from the death-row inmate himself that raises the possibility of blood atonement as a factor in his decision to choose a firing squad:

Even Gardner, who still could choose the firing squad for his scheduled June 18 execution because his original sentencing preceded the law change, told the Deseret News in 1996 that he would sue for the right to die that way.

“I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” he told the paper.

I could go on, but I’d rather you just read the story. It’s worth your time. Then come back here and let me know what I missed. Who knows — we might inspire a follow-up.

After all, GetReligion gets results.

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How to write a bad story

Every reporter has his off days. I have to think that’s what happened with this story, which ran on page 1 of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union. Written by an award-winning religion reporter, Jeff Brumley, the piece seems to take an almost personal interest in disparaging evangelicals. It’s kind of odd. Here’s the headline:

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt
In fact, observers of Southern politics can’t even remember a candidate.

Well, yes, it is very difficult to elect people to office before they become candidates for office. Now, I have a horrible memory so if you asked me to name a candidate in the most recent election, I’d have trouble. I think you want to have better data than “observer recall,” particularly when there’s actually only one observer in the story even asked to recall the data. Just give us some facts and figures. How many Muslims are there in the so-called “Bible Belt”? One recent religious self-identification survey says that there were 1.3 million Muslims throughout the country, or about .6% of the population. How many are in the South? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups throughout time? Give us some data.

Or, if you don’t have data, how about you just paint all evangelicals as sub-literate yokels with irrational hatred in their heart? Oh you can do that? Great:

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida – or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed’s appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn’t confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can’t recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

“I thought about it, and I couldn’t come up with any names,” said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

“Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen,” Wald said.

The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, “a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity.”

That’s how the story began. Yes, that was the lede. No, I don’t know how the “smart money” or the “snowball” made it into the first sentence. Perhaps they give copyeditors, or editors in general, the weekends off at the Florida Times-Union. I don’t know. But this was not written by a high school student. Brumley is actually a good reporter whose work we’ve praised before.

So why did he think painting evangelicals as members of a religion with “intellectual difficulties” was in any way okay? I do not know.

And just a small point of logic. That there has never been a Muslim candidate running for major office doesn’t speak in any meaningful sense to the probability that one will be elected in the future. If thousands of Muslims had run for office and been defeated, that would be different.

The piece then goes on to say that the election of two Muslim representatives caused consternation among “conservatives nationwide.” But the only substantiation of that claim is a Glenn Beck quote.

It’s sort of a good primer in how not to write a religion story. It’s all over the map, relies on too few actual conservative evangelicals, precisely no liberal evangelicals, and almost all the context is given by this Wald fellow, the one who believes evangelicals have intellectual problems. Another expert says that political opposition to the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, the man named in the lede, was nothing more than racism. Ahmed was the former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has its fans. It was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial involving Hamas funding.

The reporter allowed various sources to trash evangelicals but never found less biased sources or gave the smeared an opportunity to respond. It makes for a really bad story. I know this reporter can do better and I hope he does so in the future.

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South Park goes too far or just full circle?

Hey, guess what! South Park offended someone! I know, I know — is it Thursday already?

In all seriousness, this time Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s pathological need to be irreverent earned them what looks like an honest-to-goodness death threat, despite protestations saying otherwise from the person issuing the threat. The 20th episode of the venerable cartoon featured not one but two depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Or rather, they were jokes about how they can’t depict Muhammad — so one time the Islamic prophet was shown behind a black “censored” bar. Another time, he was said to be inside a bear suit.*

In any event, as a result of their alleged blasphemy, this happened:

The website RevolutionMuslim.com has since been taken down, but a cached version shows the message to “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The article’s author, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the men “outright insulted” the religious leader.

The posting showed a gruesome picture of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was shot and stabbed to death in an Amsterdam street in 2004 by a fanatic angered by his film about Muslim women. The film was written by a Muslim woman who rejected the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for today’s morality.

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show,” Al-Amrikee wrote. “This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

The posting listed the addresses of Comedy Central’s New York office and Parker and Stone’s California production office. It also linked to a Huffington Post article that described a Colorado retreat owned by the two men.

Yikes. But I have to give the Associated Press credit. They actually tracked down Al-Amrikee and spoke with him. Suffice to say, he was quite weaselly in his defense of his posting, claiming it was only done to “raise awareness.” However, he later said “they should feel threatened by what they did.” He also added that couldn’t legally say whether he supported jihad, but did have some words of praise for Bin Laden. So yeah, good guy.

Of course, this is hardly the first time South Park has taken on the subject of religion. AP noted this is not the first time there’s been controversy over the cartoon’s attempts at depicting Muhammad:

In 2006, Comedy Central banned the men from showing an image of Muhammad on their show. They had intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of the Islamic leader. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

Instead, “South Park” showed an image of Jesus Christ defecating on President Bush and the American flag.

That last little tableaux occurred to me when I saw the headline on this CNN story:

Has ‘South Park’ gone too far this time?

So Jesus Christ defecating on an American flag, yawn. Muhammad in a bear suit — they’ve gone too far! (NB: I don’t normally hold writers accountable for their headlines, but in this case the fourth graf is “But have they gone too far this time with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit?”) In any event, the CNN article tries to put the program’s religious irreverence in context:

In the beginning, it wasn’t so much the religion that bothered observers but the language used by the series’ pint-sized cast, [Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark] said.

“The most shocking thing back then was, you had little kids exercising a vocabulary that you hadn’t heard before [from children],” he said. “I go back to the days when [the sitcom] ‘Uncle Buck’s’ ‘You suck’ was a major point of contention on a CBS sitcom and everybody went crazy about ‘how can they have an 8-year-old kid saying this?’ And then ‘South Park’ ratcheted that way up.”

Of course, maybe a TV critic isn’t the best judge of how offensive the show is with regard to religion. The CNN article does quote one Muslim who writes for Beliefnet, but doesn’t otherwise talk to one Christian, Jewish, Scientologist or any other authority affiliated with one of the show’s many religious targets over the years. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are about to do a satirical Broadway musical based on the Book of Mormon. The CNN story mentions this, but doesn’t talk to any Mormons as a point of comparison for what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this kind of irreverent satire.

It’s also worth bringing in religious perspectives from non-Muslims because the show’s religious themes have in fact been very controversial — for instance, the show was banned in Russia on the grounds of “religious extremism.” Some context would be in order here. The contrast to how different Muslims and different religions react to the show’s satirical intentions would be instructive. I understand the death threats from Muslim extremists are the newshook here, but it doesn’t need to drown out other relevant religious perspectives to inform the story.

But the CNN piece did get one thing very right. GR’s own Brad Greenberg, who’s something of a South Parkologist, informs me that there’s one ginormous elephant in the room here that’s gone unmentioned in the vast majority of reporting of the latest South Park controversy.

In season 5 of South Park, in an episode that aired two months before 911, the show actually did depict Muhammad. And not in an oblique or fleeting sort of way. Check it out. The CNN story is the one story I’ve seen that mentioned this:

It wasn’t the first time Mohammed was featured on the show. In the July 2001 episode “Super Best Friends,” he appears as “the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame,” along with other religious figures — Buddha, Moses and Mormon founder Joseph Smith among them — who help the other “South Park” kids rescue Kyle from a cult devoted to magician David Blaine

But that, said Stone and Parker, was before September 11, the van Gogh murder and the 2005 Muslim protests over the Danish cartoons that appeared in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“Now, that’s the new normal. Like we lost. Something that was OK is now not OK,” Stone said.

I give CNN big props for catching this, but they give it pretty short shrift considering what a sea change this represents. (And again, the headline — how can South Park go to far when they crossed this boundary nearly a decade ago without incident?)

So here’s decree from my imaginary assignment desk: I’d really like to see some enterprising Godbeat reporter ask Matt and Trey about how they got away with their previous depiction of Muhammad and what has changed since — in detail. You just know they give good quote and are awfully thoughtful for guys who write poop jokes for a living. Any takers?

UPDATE: Looks like Comedy Central caved in the face of the threat, and is now censoring a good bit of the episode. Read Brad Greenberg’s take here. He makes a good point:

Which leaves me wondering: If “South Park” doesn’t have the license to satirize the hypersensitive, who does?

*It’s something of a non-sequitur, but here’s one of the many reasons why Christopher Walken is the best Saturday Night Live host ever.

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Sacred Sundays, even for rugby

When I attended Wheaton College, one of the schools with an exemption so athletes aren’t forced to play varsity sports on Sunday, there was speculation the NCAA repeatedly scheduled one talented Wheaton athlete to meet the toughest opponent in the playoffs. With an early Wheaton exit, the NCAA could avoid having to reschedule its remaining postseason matchups.

The New York Times covered a scenario where sports and Sunday did collide in this story: “B.Y.U. Women’s Rugby Team Will Forfeit if It Reaches Sunday Game.” The story is worthy of coverage, but I wish reporter Katie Thomas had a little bit more space for context.

Kirsten Siebach, the team captain, explains that the team had good reason to believe they would make it to the the quarterfinals of the national college playoffs this weekend.

Siebach said all 35 team members are practicing Mormons, and because USA Rugby scheduled that round on Sunday, the team has decided to forfeit if it wins its game Saturday against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“We’re obviously just very frustrated,” said Siebach, a senior. “We don’t want to put USA Rugby in a bad light, but at the same time we feel like we’ve been treated wrongly.”

Ashley Voss, a spokeswoman for USA Rugby, said scheduling the round for Sunday was not intended as a slight to the B.Y.U. team. “It’s in no way a move to disregard their religious beliefs,” she said. “We want them to be able to compete. We want them to be here.”

Kristin Richeimer, director of membership relations at USA Rugby, said an oversight was responsible for the scheduling.

Admittedly, the writer probably didn’t have very much room, but instead of wasting the room on meaningless quotes, perhaps she could have spent it explaining why Sunday matters so much to this team. Does the LDS Church give any theological guidance on what is acceptable and what isn’t on Sunday? Are there exceptions for people who might take a “Sabbath” on another day?

The story spends a lot of space on explaining the scheduling oversight before getting to the point: these women believe in something more than the sport of rugby.

B.Y.U., a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not allow its athletic teams to play on Sundays. The N.C.A.A. requires that championship schedules be arranged to accommodate the religious beliefs of institutions, but club rugby does not fall under its purview. Few universities sponsor varsity rugby teams.

Because the team is not formally affiliated with B.Y.U., Siebach said, “if we really wanted to, we could play on Sunday.”

Why stop there? Would it hurt to put in a sentence or two on why Sunday is so significant that the girls won’t play on it? The reporter merely assumes everyone should know why Sundays are so sacred.

If the reporter had more space, perhaps she could have added more historical context, like whether other BYU players have gone on to play on Sundays following graduation. For instance, BYU alumnus Eli Herring wrote letters to NFL teams telling him that he would not to play in the the NFL because teams play on Sunday. He was drafted in 1995 by the Oakland Raiders but became a high school coach.

Are there BYU alumni who took the opposite route after graduation and play in the NFL? We’ve looked at other stories where the day of the sport being played conflicts with a religious tradition. Certainly there are other notable examples of athletes not playing on the Sabbath (Jews) or Sunday (Christians) (hint: cue Chariots of Fire soundtrack). More anecdotes would provide supplemental background, showing how BYU students aren’t isolated in their Sabbath convictions.

Perhaps some religious scholars could weigh in on how society has changed from when we had a stronger Blue Law society where businesses were shut down on Sunday. The burden of observing or respecting religious traditions seems to fall on the individual sporting leagues or businesses. Craving or not, you still can’t get a Chick-Fil-A sandwich on Sunday.

Image courtesy of womenscougarrugby.com.

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Secretive or standard operating procedure?

Having a personal history with the Mormon church, I think I’m more aware than most that the church is controversial. There are certainly elements of the church’s theology and history that feed that perception, but the fact remains that much of the news coverage of the church has a whiff of sensationalism.

Unfortunately, this Vancouver Sun piece, “B.C. Mormons open temple to counter ‘secretive’ image,” was a bit over the top. It didn’t help that this information was right under the headline:

Filed under: polygamy, prophet, Mormon fundamentalists, Mormons, L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Glenn Beck, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, secrets, conversion

Yikes. That’s a lot to wrap into a story. (Though I have no idea why L. Ron Hubbard is listed — neither he nor Scientology are even mentioned in the story.) It doesn’t waste time getting to the juicy details. Here’s the lede:

In a province in which a breakaway sect of Mormon fundamentalist polygamists in the Kootenays draws continuing controversy, the main line Mormon Church realizes it has to work hard to show its wholesome face to the world.

That’s one reason patriarchs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are this month inviting the public to have a rare look inside the luxurious interior of their new temple in Langley.

Well, that may be one reason the church is opening the temple. But the main reason why the LDS church is opening the temple is that they always open temples to the public for tours before they are consecrated. It’s standard operating procedure when they build a new temple, and no where does this article make that clear. The insinuation that the church is taking some extraordinary action here to combat the negative image of some breakaway sect that the church isn’t responsible for is a bit over the top. And that doesn’t even count that I think the title “patriarch” is misused here. Each stake — which is comprised of a handful of wards — has a patriarch that administers patriarchal blessings. But I don’t think that’s what the reporter is referring to.

The article repeatedly emphasizes that church leaders are at pains to dispel the image of the church being secretive — which is why they’re giving journalists tours of the B.C. temple. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the temple and reading this article, you’re out of luck:

Walker showed a handful of journalists on Wednesday the extravagant indoor pool, built on the top of 12 sculpted oxen, on which living Mormons are baptized on behalf of deceased loved ones, so the dead can have eternal life.

Walker also guided journalists to a small, 25-seat room reserved for “eternal weddings,” in which women and men are believed joined together in matrimony forever, including in an afterlife.

That’s all the information the reader is given about the rites that will be performed in the temple. Surely many readers would like to know more about the doctrines and theology involved. But again the writer of this article seems more interested in sensationalist topics:

Most Mormons and most Christians continue to see the two traditions as different religions, [John] Stackhouse [professor of theology at Vancouver's evangelical Regent College] said. “They use similar words — like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘salvation,’ but mean very different things by every one of them.”

This long-standing religious competition came to a head last month when one of the most famous Mormons in North America, popular Fox TV political commentator Glenn Beck (left), told Christians to leave their churches if their clergy ever use the term “social justice.”

Despite the outcry from Catholics and Protestants, Walker said Wednesday that Mormon elders are not attempting to rein in Beck. “He certainly doesn’t speak for the church,” Walker said. “Some Mormons would agree with him, and some wouldn’t.”

The term “social justice” is fairly controversial even within mainstream Christianity. I’m not sure a conservative cable news host known for dramatic antics inveighing against a term that is frequently a shibboleth for a church’s liberal political agenda (but not always, of course) really creates a that much of a rift between Mormons and mainstream Christianity — particularly since the latter isn’t exactly a monoculture.

I suspect Beck’s opinion about the term “social justice” would garner from support from Christians, as well as enmity in roughly equal measure. But the suggestion that this created such a rift or that the church is so desperate to be accepted by mainstream Christianity that they would rein him in over his comments is, again, a bit over the top. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey discussed these issues well last month.)

It’s also wandering very far afield from an article that’s ostensibly about a local temple opening. The article does have some good information, but more hard facts about the church and the temple and a lot less courting controversy would have been a big improvement.

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Faith, hope and sex abuse

Vile. Depressing. Newsworthy.

That pretty much sums up a Page 1 story in The Salt Lake Tribune this week about a children’s charity co-founder charged with sex abuse:

A Wasatch County man known for co-founding the Village of Hope to aid Ethiopian orphans and adopting Ethiopian children has been charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse and child pornography.

Charges filed in Heber City’s 4th District Court allege Lon Harvey Kennard Sr., 68, sexually abused two of his adoptive daughters who are now adults.

Kennard faces 24 first-degree felony counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child, 21 second-degree felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of witness tampering, said Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat.

As soon as I saw the orphanage’s name, this struck me as a story with a strong religion angle. Now, I realize that “hope” doesn’t always connotate a faith emphasis. But in this case, I felt relatively confident it did. So I kept reading. And I made it to the end of the story — without finding any mention of religion. Instead, the story described the orphanage simply as a “non-profit organization” and referred to its work in bringing clean water and health care to an impoverished village.

My bad.

Take that back. After a bit of research, I’m going to blame this one on religion ghosts haunting the Tribune.

A quick Internet search turned up this archived article from Meridian Magazine“The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather,” according to its Web site — about the suspect and his wife. The piece includes an anecdote about the couple asking God to help them find African children to adopt:

One day, when their youngest child was thirteen, Brother Kennard’s usual 50-minute commute from their home in Heber City to Salt Lake City became the start of something unusual. He remembers listening to the radio as he drove down Parleys Canyon. The radio reporter was interviewing a woman who had formed an agency known as Americans for African Adoption.

After listening to the story, Brother Kennard thought about it throughout the day. That night he came home and told Sister Kennard about the many children in Africa who needed homes. He said, “Maybe we’re too old now. Maybe we’ve passed our goal to adopt. But I think we need to think and pray about this.”

The Kennards did, and soon felt inspired to move toward adoption. Knowing the homogeneous nature of Heber City, DeAnna told Lon, “We’d better get two kids so they’re not the only black ones.” Then they talked to each of their children individually to see how they felt about adopting a brother and sister from Africa. Each of them expressed excitement and support.

So the Kennards began to pray that, as Sister Kennard put it, “Out of all the millions of African children, the Lord would help us find two we could love as if we’d given birth to them.”

Unlike the Tribune, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News did not miss the religion angle entirely. The Deseret News buried this important detail in its story:

The sexual abuse outlined in court records allegedly began in 1995, around the time Kennard was serving as bishop of his LDS Church ward and one year after he and his wife founded Village of Hope.

Now, for the Tribune, this is one of those embarrassing cases (been there, done that) where the newspaper did a feel-good feature story about Kennard and his orphanage last year. The headline: “Adopting kids, adopting a village.” In that story, a reference was made to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donating $175,000 for a well project undertaken by Kennard and the orphanage. So, obviously, the newspaper was aware of a religious connection, but chose not to report on it in this week’s front-page story.

I suppose it could be argued that it’s just assumed that everybody in Utah is a Mormon. I mean, in a state where members of the LDS church make up 60 percent of the population, that assumption would be right a majority of the time. And yes, the Tribune could waste valuable dead-tree real estate on peripheral, unnecessary references to Mormon ties in stories with nothing to do with religion. But this is not such a case. Far from it.

This is a story about a high-profile ministry leader whose religious connections and espoused beliefs played a key role, it appears, in the orphanage’s development and his family’s adoptions. That is true regardless of whether the ministry has official or formal ties to the church. It would seem highly relevant to provide at least minimal details on Kennard’s church membership and leadership positions, and to question whether his good standing in the church allowed him to perpetrate alleged crimes.

Yes, this is a court story — a vile, depressing, newsworthy one.

But it’s a religion story too.

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The camel’s nose called ‘evangelism’

Before we look at the journalistic essay that has me so hot and bothered, let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This cornerstone of human-rights work was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Article 18.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note, in particular, the link — by proximity and logic — between the right to convert people to another faith and the right to express one’s beliefs to other people in any medium, which I would certainly assume includes human speech (and newspapers, too). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at a World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, during a debate about public evangelism, one person’s evangelist is another person’s political activist.

Now, there are missionaries who take this too far. I assume that rape and forced marriage is not a valid form of evangelism, even though it is common in Egypt. I assume that bribery is not a valid form of evangelism. The same goes for torture and death threats that must be taken seriously.

With all of that in mind, please read the following online essay — entitled “Christian Soldiers” — from Robert Wright at the New York Times. I would never claim that his point of view dominates American newsrooms. That’s a straw man argument, the kind of thing that conservatives spout who, in reality, tend to hate journalism. However, his point of view is common and may affect coverage in some significant newsrooms.

To comment, you are really going to need to read it all. But here is the top of the piece, which contains a key part of his argument against Christians who insist on following the commands of their Scriptures and attempting to convert other people to their faith.

You see, it seems that missionaries — and even native Christians who are part of local churches in foreign lands — are causing violence. It is also crucial that, according to the Times, Muslims do not attempt to convert others and Christians would be very, very upset if Muslims began trying to spread their faith.

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life. But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

Now, apparently, when some Christians get together with Muslims (and members of other world religions) and talk about areas of common ground between the faiths — while stressing that the faiths are all equally true and there is no need for anyone to convert anyone — this is called “interfaith dialogue” and this is a wonderful thing.

But when former Muslims and foreign missionaries meet with Muslims to discuss areas of common ground between their faiths — while insisting that, as these two faiths claim, one of them is eternally right and the other eternally wrong, this is dangerous evangelism that leads to violence.

The status of both of these activities under the U.N. Charter? They are both protected. But it appears that some civil liberties are more protected than others, even when they involve activities that are tightly linked to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Now here is what we are going to discuss here, since I totally concede that some forms of evangelism are dumb and some are offensive.

However, what is the journalistic argument for arguing that the U.N. Charter is wrong? Is it wrong on press freedom, too, since that is very, very dangerous. Right? Was Tutu right to connect persuasive political speech and persuasive religious speech? Etc., etc.

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About Merlin’s Mormonism…

It was my experience growing up LDS that Mormons have always been eager to point out successful Mormon celebrities where they could. The blog Waters of Mormon explains this phenomenon well:

Having famous Church members in the news in a variety of professional fields–business, sports, singing and dancing — provides a certain comfort to Latter-Day Saints who can see fellow Saints be successful on a national stage, even beyond the simple “good PR for the Church” standpoint.

If I (or one of my kids) wants to be a successful entrepreneur (or musician, or athlete, or writer) it’s nice to be able to point to some famous person and say, “See, he or she is a faithful Church member while also being successful at career X”. Having famous and/or successful Mormons sends the message outwardly that Church members are ‘normal’ and play regular roles in regular society — we’re not all cooped up in armed compounds in southern Utah or Texas or something — but also sends the message inwardly that secular success and spiritual success can mix: that faithful Saints don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other.

Of course, in order for this to really count, those famous Mormons have to be faithful and active also. Just being a member doesn’t mean much: if those famous Mormons are not currently active and practicing — even if the reasons for not being active have nothing to do with their chosen profession — they don’t really work as ‘examples’ for other Saints who might want to believe that they can be successful in their career without being forced to compromise their beliefs somewhere along the line.

In most professions, one can find any number of active and inactive Church members. Acting, however, seems to be an outlier.

It’s true that there just aren’t that many famous Mormon actors. When I was growing up, Merlin Olsen, the former football great turned broadcaster and family-friendly TV star, was frequently identified as a prominent exception. Granted, this is an awfully subjective metric here, but I was always under the impression that he was a Mormon in good standing.

So that’s why I was so sorely disappointed in the coverage of Olsen following his recent death. Olsen’s faith wasn’t mentioned in the Los Angeles Times or USA Today obituaries. And incredibly, for one of Utah’s more famous native sons, it wasn’t noted in the The Salt Lake Tribune. Adding to the confusion, the Los Angeles Daily News does identify him as Mormon. And the The New York Times does bring up his Mormon background, but doesn’t explain much:

“I was raised in a very strict Mormon home and in a Mormon community,” The Post-Standard of Syracuse quoted him as saying when he took the role of the Amish patriarch Aaron Miller. “There are certain things I can lean back on and remember in a family situation that helped me to work as an actor.”

For a guy that was identified as Mormon for decades, isn’t this all a bit odd? It kind of set off alarm bells when even the church-owned Deseret News didn’t discuss Olsen’s faith in their obituary. So I did a little poking around the internet and I saw some claims that Olsen was a non-devout cultural Mormon. He wasn’t an active LDS member, though he was loyal to his family which was still active in the faith. He believed strongly in the Mormon values imparted in him, and as such, perhaps didn’t mind being the face of the church.

That’s an interesting explanation, and if it’s true it would probably make for a fascinating story. Regardless, somebody on the Godbeat ought to get to the bottom of why someone frequently identified as Mormon suddenly wasn’t Mormon when he died.

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