Park51 quietly returns to news

Were you enjoying the fact that the media had more or less dropped any coverage of the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero? Well, it’s back in the news with a couple of updates. There’s the rumor that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might want to buy shuttered St. Vincent’s Medical Center and move the Park 51 mosque to a new Islamic cultural center he would build on the site (story in the New York Post).

And then there’s the revelation that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration helped the mosque organizers more than was publicly known. I believe the New York Daily News broke the story but it’s since appeared in a variety of other New York media outlets have reported on the latest. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission allegedly wanted “political cover” before denying landmark status to a building situated on the site of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, giving critics ammunition in their legal quest to stop the project, records released Thursday showed.

The records–sought by the project’s opponents and released by City Hall–show members of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration working very closely with the organizers of the project, known as Park51, to combat public opposition and navigate various governmental hurdles. One city official ghost-wrote a letter for the project’s organizers.

Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, an outspoken champion of the organizers’ right to build the mosque, said the slew of emails reflects the typical back-and-forth between government officials and members of the community. The project’s opponents said the records show the Bloomberg administration was in cahoots with the organizers. The records, they allege, raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Aug. 3 vote, which paved the way for the project to rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Another story reports that the city’s Community Affairs Commissioner drafted a letter for Daisy Khan, wife of the proposed mosque’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to send to the head of the local community board ahead of its vote on the project. The Commissioner wrote that she hoped that the letter would “get the media attention off of everyone’s backs.”

The story does a fine job of getting the viewpoints from the administration and its critics. But one thing I would have appreciated was some feedback from First Amendment experts. Does the administration cross a line or not? It’s hard to make a judgment without some input from people who study or litigate this for a living and can help us with some perspective.

Another thing that would help is information about whether the administration has helped other groups navigate the New York City bureaucracy. This New York Post follow-up provides Mayor Bloomberg’s defense of his administration’s advocacy on behalf of Park51:

On the radio yesterday, Bloomberg rejected suggestions that the city’s stance on the controversial project — known as both Cordoba House and Park51 — had been “rigged from the start.”

“They asked for help. When the pope came to town, the Catholic New York Archdiocese asked for help. We did the same thing,” the mayor told WOR-AM host John Gambling.

“We wrote letters for them and figured out who they should go to, ’cause they wanted to tell community boards and other churches . . . that there might be traffic and whatever.”

Bloomberg also noted that the city assisted a group of Orthodox Jews in erecting a sukkah in Bryant Park and likened the efforts to official support of the business community.

It’s helpful to find out what the mayor’s defense of his actions is. But is anyone wondering the same thing I am? Remember this church? The one that was destroyed on September 11 when Muslim terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, causing them to come crashing down? The one whose congregation claims they’ve had trouble with government entities reneging on agreements? I think the natural question is to ask Bloomberg what, specifically, he’s done to help that church. The latest on St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox (picture above from its web site), for what it’s worth:

The leaders of St. Nicholas Church, the small whitewashed Greek Orthodox Church destroyed by falling debris on Sept. 11, 2001, have begun legal action against the Port Authority demanding that the church be rebuilt under the terms of a deal worked out several years ago.

A claim filed against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by church leaders and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on Monday accused the agency, which is overseeing Ground Zero’s rebuilding, of engaging in “arrogance, bad faith and fraudulent conduct” and “shabby and unlawful treatment.”

So while the reporting on this story has been fine and good, I think it could be improved by putting the advocacy on behalf of the Park 51 mosque in context of what, if anything, has been done to help the Orthodox Church that has resorted to legal action to get their project moving. And include some knowledgeable First Amendment experts with their takes on what the courts have said about such advocacy by government entities.

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A word on tmatt’s Christmas ‘rant’

Let me start by offering a “Merry Christmas” to all of you pro-tradition Christmas lovers who are celebrating the full season between Dec. 25th and the all-to-overlooked Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6th. We are talking about two crucial days that form bookends that support one another.

This brings me to a “Houses of Worship” article that ran in the Dec. 24th issue of the Wall Street Journal. I have received quite a few emails and Facebook messages about this, for reasons that will soon be apparent. I hesitated to write about this here, except that it actually focuses on a few issues of history and fact that affect reporters who cover both the ancient churches and the many Protestant flocks that place little or no emphasis on the Christian calendar.

The article was written by a Protestant writer named John Wilson who edits the respected bimonthly called Books & Culture, which is part of the wider world of the company best known for publishing Christianity Today. Here’s the headline:

Do Christians Overemphasize Christmas?

Some theologians claim that Easter is more important. That’s wrong. When we celebrate one, we celebrate the other.

Part of the problem is tied up those words “some theologians,” especially when linked with the words “more important.” Here’s the extended opening of this piece:

One of the hallowed Christmas traditions is the Anti-Christmas Rant. It takes many forms, and anyone reading this newspaper will be familiar with most of them. But unless you routinely hang out with people who argue about theology the way many Americans argue about politics or football, you may not have encountered one variant of the Rant that has been gaining momentum in recent years.

It goes like this: Christmas isn’t simply bad for all the usual reasons — the grotesque materialism that its celebration encourages, the assault of sentimentality and kitsch that somehow seems to grow worse every year, and the smarmy wrapping of it all in the most inflated spiritual rhetoric.

On top of all that, says the Ranter, there is a grievous theological error. In placing so much emphasis on Christmas, Christians fail to grasp the meaning of their own story — in which Easter clearly should take pride of place. This complaint isn’t new, but it’s been voiced more frequently of late. And not from the fringes, where members of tiny sects patiently explain that Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays that conscientious Christians must boycott. Well-respected voices are making the argument.

There’s Terry Mattingly of, for one, and N.T. Wright, a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And Rodney Clapp, who presides over Brazos Press, a major Christian publisher.

Where to start with what’s wrong with this analysis?

First, let me join in the views of many of my online correspondents who noted that I should be proud to be included as a “Ranter” in this lofty circle. Indeed, that is true!

What does Wilson say is the key content of our rants? Well, here is one of the key quotes selected from Clapp:

“The climax of the four Gospels is not Christmas … but the events we celebrate as Easter.”

Now, as it turns out, my ranting views are not actually quoted in the WSJ piece.

However, I know from correspondence with Wilson that it was a GetReligion post written last Easter that underlined our sincere differences of belief. Click here to read the whole “What’s Easter about, anyway?” piece, if you wish. Here is an early chunk of material that includes my alleged rant.

My family returned to Baltimore last night after celebrating a joyful Pascha (that’s Easter in the ancient churches of the East) at a church in Salem, Mass., with family and soon-to-be family. Anyway, as we drove home from the airport we made a tiny detour to buy some fried chicken — which is the kind of thing that Orthodox people do when they have a teen-aged son and the family has gone vegan for all of Great Lent.

As we walked in the store, there was an interesting dialogue going on between a patron and the young man behind the counter. To cut to the chase, they were listing all of the reasons that they dislike Easter.

Well, you know, the holiday kind of messed up some people’s work schedules, there weren’t any good parties to go to and, other than the odd chocolate bunny or two, the whole thing was a bit of downer in the gifts department. And then there was the fact that it was so much more religious than Christmas. What was that all about?

Chicken in hand, I joined in for a minute or two. There isn’t any doubt, I noted, that Easter is the single most important day in the Christian calendar.

This statement drew puzzled looks. Easter, asked the guy behind the counter, is more important than Christmas? Why? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, he said. Easter was about “all that rising from the dead stuff. Right?”

Right, I said.

Please note that in this rather humble exchange I referenced the traditions and rites of the Christian calendar. It’s also crucial that the marketplace apologist with whom I was arguing was offended by the intensely Christian content of the Easter season.

What? As opposed to the faith-free season of Christmas?

Here is the ultimate irony. I have, in the past few decades, poured out oceans of ink arguing that — in the context of post-Christian America — hardly anyone is celebrating the actual 12-day Christmas season, as defined in Christian doctrine and traditions. In fact, I may have written more articles and posts about this subject than any other linked to worship life in the modern church. I mean, click here or, if you dare, here.

In short, I am about as pro-Christmas and Epiphany as a guy can get. I would argue that Christmas — the actual season — doesn’t get enough MSM coverage, as opposed to “The Holidays,” the cultural phenomenon in the marketplace.

I would go even further the say that the other great feasts of the Incarnation — especially that of the Annunciation — are sinfully overlooked in most churches, especially in Protestant sanctuaries (but sadly in Catholic and Orthodox settings as well). Thus, these feasts get very little news coverage, as well.

But that isn’t the real issue here, methinks.

Based on the content of the WSJ article (included material that was edited out), I am confident that Bishop Wright and Clapp would join me in wanting to ask Wilson this question: So simply noting the historical fact that Christmas is the faith’s second-ranked feast (with Advent/Nativity Lent as the second-longest penitential season), in comparison with Pascha as the great feast of feasts (preceded by Great and Holy Lent as the longest and most intense penitential season) is a rant against Christmas?

One more question: Saying things like this will get you lumped, even tangentially, in the Wall Street Journal with fringe folks who claim that Christmas should not be celebrated at all?

Now, I think I had better stop right there — before I am tempted to rant.

Meanwhile, let me once again urge GetReligion readers to be alert to mainstream-media coverage of the 12-day Christmas season and/or Epiphany. And, once again, let me offer to those who are celebrating this great fast of the Incarnation: Merry Christmas. And to the Orthodox: Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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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 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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Ultra-tasty story; tiny hint of ghost

You know how, in the competitions during the summer Olympics, the divers’ scores are often calculated on the basis of the difficult of the dives that they are attempting?

There are times when religion reporting is like that.

What we have here is a perfectly wonderful Boston Globe story about a gourmet chef who just happens to cook in a shelter for homeless and poor women. I only know about this story because of a hat tip from my wonderful daughter, Sarah. However, I am sure that if I had read this story without her insider knowledge, I still would have asked the same basic journalistic question.

But let’s start with the wonderful anecdotal lede and set-up for his personality piece:

Curry-seasoned haddock (for vegetarians, tofu) is perched on steamed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, the greens in turn are set on a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and roasted garlic. The fish is garnished with sauteed baby turnips and Swiss chard stems. Accompanying the dish is quinoa pilaf with winter squash and Chinese long beans.

This is lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter for poor and homeless women, located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Here, restaurant-quality food is served, free of charge, six days a week to all women (and their children) who want it. Many of the guests are among the city’s neediest, the chronic homeless; others are simply down on their luck. Besides free lunch and breakfast, there is help with legal and housing issues, financial assistance, a wellness program, hot showers, a nap room, even art classes. …

Enter the protagonist. This is where my mind started to lock in on the details. Is there a religion ghost?

“We’re here to provide a variety of services to women in an atmosphere of dignity and respect,” explains Lauren Reilly, director of development.

But the heart of the Women’s Lunch Place is lunch, and the heart of the kitchen is Josh Birdsall. The bearded, ponytailed, soft-spoken chef has been on the job since August, and by all accounts, he treats his dishes with the same care and respect as the shelter does its guests.

By 11 a.m., the kitchen is humming. Volunteers chop, prep, and cook under the watchful supervision of Birdsall, 27, who seems to be everywhere at once. The chef came here after stints at Whole Foods and Craigie Street Bistrot. He had worked in restaurants throughout college (his degree is in literature).

Now, what is the question that is in your mind? We learn that he works with an all-volunteer crew. He has trouble getting consistent food, since food-bank donations are at the heart of the menu. The budget is tight to nonexistent.

All together now: What is Birdsall doing at Women’s Lunch Place? It can’t be the paycheck. With the facts that are presented, it’s impossible not to ask the “why” question, isn’t it?

And then there is the matter of the ponytail and some of the interesting food choices.

Let’s just say that Eastern Orthodox men, for reasons linked to small-t traditions, tend to like ponytails and beards. Also, for reasons linked to large-T Traditions about fasting from meat and dairy products (think Great Lent), Orthodox cultures tend to produce lots of people who run restaurants that are open to vegetarian and even vegan options. Think about Greeks, Palestinians and the Russians.

As it turns out, this young man is a convert to Orthodoxy. I am not saying that there is a hole in the story because that connection wasn’t made. I am saying that the subject might have come up in the reporter had dug deeper on that totally logical question, “What are you doing here?”

As it is, the story does end this way:

The din of the dining room temporarily diminishes as everyone tucks in. Birdsall takes a moment to reflect on the contrast between cooking here and other kitchen jobs he’s held.

This kind of work, he says, brings its unique satisfaction. “I get to do food for people who really need it. There’s no promises, no pretensions,” he says. “Just good, simple, honest food — and it feeds people beyond just filling their bellies.”

And all the people gathered for lunch said: Amen.

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When is ‘Christmas,’ anyway?

Yes, ’tis the season to hear people arguing about Christmas, inspired by everything from the numbing effect of waves of holiday ads to the “Christmas Wars” coverage on cable TV news shows. At the same time, this is when small bands of traditional Christians in the West begin their brave attempts to honor the quiet, reflective season called Advent (or Nativity Lent in the East).

From time to time, these realities receive a small amount of mainstream news coverage (including by me). Take, for example, this unusually prominent piece that ran recently in the Washington Post.

Here’s the top of the report:

‘Tis the season! Or ’tis it?

Amy Barker, for one, has no doubt that these first days of December are a fine time to start decking the halls. In fact, her halls are decked. Her Christmas season started in November.

“I get so excited about decorating for Christmas, it just seems like a month isn’t enough,” said Barker, an Alexandria mother of three who had two trees up and decorated and the family stockings hung within 48 hours of clearing away the turkey bones. “I figure after Thanksgiving, it’s fair game.”

But her husband, Brian, is in less of a hurry. He loves Christmas, too, he said — just not quite so many weeks of it.

“In her opinion, November is fine,” said Brian, a real estate developer. “In mine, mid-December is better. Besides laziness, it’s that I kind of like to focus on the actual day of Christ’s birth.”

For many families, this is a time of some tinsel tension over a perennial question: Just when should Christmas begin? Some celebrants stretch the season across as many weekends as possible to gain more pleasure and more time for all the gift-buying, box-wrapping, card-writing and gay apparel-donning.

But others — sometimes within the same family — would rather hold back the flood tide of yuletide to avoid holiday burnout and keep things special around the Big Day itself.

At this point, I want to offer cheers that the Post team even attempts to include some material that takes seriously the history of the actual season of Christmas, which begins with the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

For example, the story discusses — gasps are heard all around — the Western liturgical calendar.

Long gone for most American Christians are the Old World norms of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve and backloading much of the holiday into the last half of December. When the retail blizzard starts in September and FM radio’s jingles ring before Halloween on some stations, it’s little wonder that houses all over the region light up on the night after Thanksgiving. …

In Utah … the bishop of Salt Lake City sparked an online debate when he issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to hold off on celebrations until the official liturgical start of the season: Christmas Eve. On the church calendar, Advent fills the first 24 days of December and Christmas starts at midnight. (Those 12 days of Christmas don’t culminate on the 25th; they start then.)

The irony is in the math, although the Post only hints at this.

Many Christmas “traditionalists” delay their parties and decorating until mid-December, thinking that they are in some way observing the “12 days of Christmas,” even though this kind of delay jumps ahead of centuries of Christian traditions.

So here is the irony of this interesting Christmas news story — it isn’t secular enough.

The actual calendar that is stomping on the religious rites of Advent and the Christmas season is a secular calendar now called “The Holidays.” Truth be told, if more Christians wanted to celebrate Christmas during the season of Christmas it would be quite easy to do so, since most civic and family calendars are rather empty during the 12 days following the actual feast. Things are busy — with the NFL playoffs, bowl games and all of that — but they are nowhere near as busy as in the crunch weeks of the secular and, alas, church calendars that follow, well, Halloween.

There are painful delights to be found in the exploration of our culture’s real traditions. For example, I must admit that the following inspireed a sad chuckle for me:

Catheryn Dowd, 55, a Kennedy Center staffer, said she and her four siblings have all maintained their mother’s ironclad rule of not decorating for Christmas until mid-December.

“There’s a strict dividing line at Dec. 15 in my mind,” Dowd said. “Nothing before then.”

When Dowd recently marveled to her parents that the tradition has held fast for so long, her mother surprised her by explaining the origin of the “sacred 15th”: It was payday.

“That’s all it was,” Dowd said with a laugh. “She got paid and she went and bought the tree.”

Now that’s the American spirit.

Once again, let me note that this story is way better than the norm. Cheers!

Also, dare I hope that there will be a sequel. Does anyone out there hold Twelfth Night parties? That would be an interesting story about some true old-school Christmas revolutionaries. There’s a tradition that is so, uh, traditional that it would be news.

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Is it Time’s job to get religion?

This is the cover of the new issue of Time magazine dedicated to “What Really Happened, 2000-2010.”

If you are interested in religion news, there is very, very, very little need to purchase and read this issue. Apparently, the decade in question did not contain many events or issues that were influenced by religion to any significant degree.


That whole Sept. 11 thing? Not really.

How about the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the looming struggles with Iran? Well, there is this passage in the feature entitled “Iraq: Missed Steps.” There is no way to link to the essay by bureau chief Bobby Gosh, since Time did not see fit to do that online (other than this Web extra video). But here is the key passage, which, in it’s own way, is an excellent summary of the whole magazine.

The setting is the just-captured Tigris palace of Saddam Hussein.

Inside Saddam’s gilt- and chintz-filled office, I found a Marine taking down one of the Iraqi flags that hung next to the dictator’s desk and asking his Kurdish interpreter to translate the green Arabic lettering that ran through the middle. I’ll never know why the Kurd lied, replying, “It says, ‘Saddam Hussein.’ ” (It actually read, Allahu akbar, or “God is great.”) Delighted, the Marine took the flag out to the main portico and brandished it at the crowd of Iraqis. Then he fired up a Zippo lighter and, with a triumphant look, announced, “This is what we’ll do to Saddam!”

The Iraqis were aghast.

Nope, no religion ghosts in that scene. None at all.

The decade in question, of course, is the one in which — for nearly seven years — your GetReligionistas have been doing what we do, which is arguing that it is impossible for mainstream journalists to understand what is going on in many of the most important events and trends in the real world without understanding the role played by religious faith in the past and the present. Do you really have doubts about a major role for religion in the future?

But don’t look for that in this highly symbolic issue of Time. If, however, you are interested in the iconic power of Shrek, there is a rather interesting essay on page 80.

So, GetReligion readers, does anyone want to click “comment” and nominate a few religious issues or events that were of great importance in this decade? Did issues linked to faith, morality and culture play a significant role in any of our national elections? How about world affairs in general? How about debates about marriage, health care, abortion, religious liberty, education, science (think stem cells, for example), free speech, etc., etc.?

Oh, and if I missed strong religion content in this issue of Time, please let me know. I looked pretty hard.

So what think ye?

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Chaplain questions older than DADT

Allow me to start with some personal confessions before I take a look at the following news feature about the debates about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the state of chaplains in the U.S. military.

First of all, for the past week or so I have not been wading in the mainstream media as much as usual — due to the rapid decline and death of my mother in Texas. It may take me a few days to get back up to speed.

Second, the author of the following report — Eric Marrapodi — is someone I have known for a year or so, because I cooperated in some of the early blogging discussions that led to the creation of the CNN Belief Blog. I did not, however, have any conversations with him about this story.

Third, this post is built on my long-term interests in the church-state debates that have raged around the wider issue of chaplains (approved by religious organizations and answering to them) working for the state and the military in the first place. This is an astonishingly complex subject and has been for a long time. Controversies about the behavior and rights of chaplains are not new.

Finally, I am well aware that there are people who insist that there is no conflict between religious liberty and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and that, as a result, they believe that the MSM does not need to cover the views of those who believe a conflict exists. However, there are two sides of the debate and, once again, the goal of the mainstream press is to accurately report the views on both sides. There are major religious institutions, including leaders in America’s two largest religious flocks, who are worried about potential — stress, potential — results of repeal. Click here for my Scripps Howard News Service column about all of that.

This brings us to Marrapodi’s report. It focuses on the fact that the status of military chaplains was addressed in the Pentagon report on DADT and the fact that, once again, people are arguing about the results. Here’s the opening of the story:

The Pentagon’s long-awaited study on its policy against gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military found that repeal of the controversial policy would face resistance from some service members on religious grounds, but that repeal would not require anyone to change their personal views or religious beliefs.

“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.”

Once again, the story says that, in the view of the authors of the pro-repeal report, soldiers will not have to change their religious beliefs. However, what about expressions of those beliefs? No limits? That’s where the debates continue behind the scenes.

The main thing that I want to note in this report is a block of material near the end that gets right to the heart of the matter. This section is must reading for journalists and others interested in understanding why this debate is — in terms of public coverage — just getting started. No matter what happens in the lame-duck Congress, reporters can expect hearings in the new House of Representatives on the potential — again, potential — effects of DADT repeal on religious liberty, both for soldiers (liberal and conservative) and chaplains (liberal and conservative).

Read the following very carefully:

A religious group or denomination that is recognized by the military must endorse a clergy member to serve as a chaplain. The report says they reached out to “approximately 200 ecclesiastical endorsing agencies that endorse military chaplains, to gauge the likelihood of continued endorsement in the event of repeal.” If a religious group or denomination pulls its endorsement for a chaplain that individual can no longer serve in the U.S. military.

The report says they received written responses from 77 of the groups they contacted, but those 77 groups represented over 70 percent of the chaplains in the armed forces. They found that “most expressed opposition to a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, based primarily on theological objections to homosexuality. However, none stated that it would withdraw its endorsements for military chaplains if the law were repealed.”

It would be good to know (a) which religious groups were contacted and which ones were not and (b) which groups were contacted and elected not to respond.

Also, it’s crucial that few if any religious leaders have, in the past year or two, suggested that mere repeal would lead to an exodus by chaplains. That isn’t the issue. Thus, read on:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, “A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains’ free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement,” the report said.

In other words, the issue is what happens when traditional religious beliefs on sexuality are expressed in public or in one-on-one ministry.

Truth is, this is where the DADT conflict assumes the form of previous debates about the rights of soldiers to sympathetic chaplains and the rights of chaplains to be true to their ordination vows, in terms of the rites they perform and the doctrines that they publicly advocate or reject.

Thus, read on and prepare to come back to this point and read the following paragraph again:

“Existing regulations state that chaplains ‘will not be required to perform a religious role … in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.’ At the same time, regulations state that ‘Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.’ “

You can see the shape of the debates.

Chaplains are not required to do things that violate their ordination vows. However, some have insisted that their careers are negatively affected if they constantly decline, for example, to pray in public events that would (to avoid offending soldiers of other faiths) require them to drop references to the Christian Trinity or to Jesus Christ.

Chaplains are required to care for all soldiers. But what about the doctrinal content of this care?

Does this mean caring for soldiers in ways that please all of the soldiers? What if the chaplain declines to provide certain rites or reassurances that are requested by a serviceperson? What if a traditional Catholic priest hears the confession of a Catholic soldier — gay or straight — who is in a sexual relationship that violates the Church’s teachings and tells this believer that he or she must repent? Does the soldier have the right to protest, saying that the chaplain has declined to show proper care and respect? Has the chaplain violated the soldier’s rights? Will this conflict help the priest when it is time for a promotion?

Now, go back to that passage on the rights and responsibilities of chaplains. Read it again.

Stay tuned. This is not a new story and it isn’t just about sexuality. It’s about doctrine and the rights of soldiers, the rights of chaplains and what happens when the two clash.

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12 days of whatever, whenever

Yes, I know, I know, I know.

I am a horrible Christian traditionalist (Eastern Orthodox, actually) who cares about liturgical traditions that are not good for the global economy. I get spooked or even angry when I hear a reggae-musak version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” over the speakers in a hamburger joint and it isn’t even Nativity Lent (think Advent) yet.

And then there’s THIS. It’s brilliant, but also kind of sad.

So I recognize that the following Associated Press business report is inevitable and, in fact, it’s an annual event. The question, for me: Why is the Los Angeles Times running this it on Nov. 29?

Here is the oh-so-familiar opening of the report:

In the unlikely event that your Christmas list this year includes every item mentioned in “The 12 Days of Christmas,” be prepared to pay nearly $100,000.

Buying the 364 items repeated in all the song’s verses — from 12 drummers drumming to a partridge in a pear tree — would cost $96,824, an increase of 10.8% over last year, according to the annual Christmas price index compiled by PNC Wealth Management.

So you might want to try for just one of everything. That would cost $23,439, or 9.2% more than last year.

The 27th annual holiday index has historically mirrored the national consumer price index, but not this year. The Christmas index grew 9.2% from last year, compared with just a 1.1% increase in the much broader consumer index.

Much of this is due to surging gold prices, yada, yada, yada. And the cost of hiring nine ladies dancing — presumably these are unionized dancers — is up to $6,294.03. Couldn’t you just get nine ladies to volunteer from your trendy local parish’s liturgical dance team?

But here is what I want to know from GetReligion readers, especially the newsroom professionals: When are the 12 days of Christmas, the real ones? Does anyone know? Does this basic fact even matter? (We are talking, by the way, about the Western calendar, not observances in, oh, Russia or parts of the Middle East. I’m not asking an Orthodox question, here.)

Yes, I realize that some media outlets are already throwing the term around. I think some cable channel started 12 holiday movies in a row, like “Elf,” before Thanksgiving. Ignore that, please.

In an AP story such as this, does the reporter even need to mention the real 12 days? What about media coverage of alleged “12 days” events that do not take place during the real 12-day Christmas season? Do the facts matter at all?

Oh, one more thing. Please feel free to send us, during the next month or so, any really good or really bad stories that you see about the 12-day Christmas season.

What’s a bad story? You’ll know it when you see it. No “War on Christmas” stories, please, unless some mall decides to arrest people for caroling during the actual Christmas season.

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