Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t cover

At this point, it appears that Democrats who are fighting to survive in red zip codes are going to make it to Election Day without a clear resolution of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” standoff. That’s the last thing they needed — a final wave of ads talking about a hot-button cultural issue.

Meanwhile, supporters of repeal are not happy, for obvious reasons. Yet many Democrats who understand the politics of the situation in the tightly contested states probably realize that they have dodged a bullet.

To say that military people are tense — on both sides of the issue — is an understatement. In particular, no one knows how many officers from more culturally and religious conservative parts of America will choose to leave the armed forces, rather than live with the policies that will flow out of DADT (whatever the precise nature of those policies). No one knows how this would affect recruiting in red zip codes.

I, of course, remain interested in how this will change one of the most controversial groups of professionals in the ranks of the military — the chaplains.

On the theological left, chaplains say there will be no change — unless so-called “fundamentalists” choose to flee, which means that the changes will be good.

Religious traditionalists in several different camps — Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic — are predicting that troubled times are ahead, with some of these ministers differing on just how big the explosion will be. How many chaplains will be affected? Here’s a hint, coming from the left:

In American Fascists, author Chris Hedges warns of the growing power of fundamentalist Christian evangelicals in the US military, noting that the Christian Right sees the military as a key target. …

Some may challenge Hedges’ estimate that “radical Christians” hold half of the armed forces’ chaplaincies. A New York Times investigation in 2005 determined that the numbers of evangelical and Pentecostal chaplains in the Air Force had grown while, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of mainline Christian and Roman Catholic chaplains had declined.

The number of liberal Protestant chaplains has been affected by several factors, including the statistical decline of those churches, the aging of their clergy, the declining number of clergy who (after Vietnam and the ’60s) want to have anything to do with the military and the rising number of second-career ministers who at the time of their ordination are too old (or too out of shape) to meet the military’s guidelines for chaplains. Thus, the number of chaplains who — doctrinally speaking — are likely to thrive in the post-DADT military is declining.

The number of Catholic priests is declining, period, to no one’s surprise. This affects one of the largest flocks in the American military and, of course, some Catholic bishops are going to openly oppose repeal, while many try to remain silent and out of the line of fire.

I tried to deal with some of that in my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. This was a really hard one to cut down to my usual op-ed page length. I have had lots of feedback on this column, including notes from chaplains involved in this tense situation. Here’s how the column opens:

The setting: The office of a priest who serves as a military chaplain.

The time: This hypothetical encounter occurs soon after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forbids gays, lesbians and bisexuals to openly serve in America’s armed forces.

The scene: An officer requests counseling about tensions with her same-sex partner as they prepare for marriage. The priest says this would be inappropriate, since his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for unions of a man and a woman.

The priest offers to refer her to a chaplain at another base who represents a church that performs same-sex rites. The officer accepts, but is less than pleased at the inconvenience.

What happens next? That question is driving the tense church-state debates that continue behind the scenes of the political drama that surrounds “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

There are at least two strong camps in this debate. Here is what that sounds like in real life:

“If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men,” stated a September letter from 60-plus retired chaplains to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” they argued, will cripple the ability of many chaplains to provide counseling. “Service members seeking guidance regarding homosexual relationships will place chaplains in an untenable position. If chaplains answer such questions according to the tenets of their faith, stating that homosexual relationships are sinful and harmful, then they run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination. And if chaplains simply decline to provide counseling at all on that issue, they may still face discipline for discrimination.”

These complaints are “somewhat disingenuous,” according to the Rev. John F. Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain from the United Church of Christ, the progressive Protestant denomination into which Obama was baptized.

“These chaplains … will continue to have the same rights they’ve always had to preach, teach, counsel, marry and conduct religious matters according to the tenets of their faith. They will also continue to have the responsibility to refer servicemembers to other chaplains when their own theology or conscience will not allow them to perform the services to which a servicemember is entitled,” stressed Gundlach, writing in Stars and Stripes. “Any chaplain who can’t fulfill this expectation should find somewhere else to do ministry.”

How many may have to choose to “find somewhere else”? At this point, one has to start doing some math.

Everyone agrees that the Southern Baptist Convention has an unusually high number of chaplains, primarily because so many Southern Baptists want to do this work. Then there are about 300 Catholic chaplains — about half the number needed. Then there is a flock of evangelical/Pentecostal chaplains from a wide variety of sources, including evangelical and charismatic parishes in otherwise mainline Protestant denominations (think charismatic Anglicans, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, evangelical United Methodists, etc.).

Remember, it’s voices on the LEFT who have argued that “fundamentalists” and “radicals” make up 50 percent or more of America’s military chaplains, those active and on reserved status. And then come the Eastern Orthodox, the Catholics, the Orthodox Jews, the Muslims, etc.

And what happens if the conservatives are right and that any advocacy of traditional doctrines by chaplains is labeled “hate speech,” with offenders either being punished or simply denied the ability to advance in rank? If you read the views of theological liberals, there will be no problems after repeal, unless there are problems. No one is talking about “hate speech,” except for those who believe that conservatives are already guilty of “hate speech.” In other words:

There is no easy way out of this church-state maze.

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.”

So be it, said Gundlach. While these chaplains “worry about being discriminated against, they openly discriminate against some of the very people they are pledged to serve and serve with. If the hate speech currently uttered by some conservative chaplains and their denominations is any indication of how they will respond in the future, we can expect this discrimination to continue.”

These chaplains need to resign, he said. The armed services “will be the better for it.”

This is a story, right? Over at USA Today, veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman is following these trends carefully at her weblog, which I would assume means she is building connections for further coverage on dead-tree pulp.

As you would expect, editors at the conservative Baptist Press know that this is a story. Ditto for the professionals on the left side of the Baptist spectrum, at Associated Baptist Press.

But who else is covering this drama closely? Please let us know. This is a story. Period.

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Yet another big pew gap

Dear GetReligion readers:

You may have heard that we are convinced that many folks in the mainstream press just don’t “get religion.” Right?

At times, we have been tempted to believe that some media folks are actively trying to avoid religion, even when it jumps up and punches them right smack between the eyes.

Case in point? Please read the following essay from The Politico (which is a site that I frequent on a daily basis, I must confess, since I work inside the Beltway). The headline: “United? Yes. But ever more divided.” Here’s the top of the essay by Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder website:

Elections don’t solve differences in America because our differences aren’t about politics. We are separating by the way we live, and these differences are increasing.

This November’s elections are likely to be as inconclusive as all the others of the past generation because politics is only a small part of how this country is sharply dividing. …

Beginning a generation ago, the United States became less a nation than a collection of loosely connected islands — all busy creating their own economies, cultures and politics. If it seems the country can’t find a mutual purpose these days, one reason is that, each year, Americans have less in common with fellow citizens who may live only a few dozen miles down the road.

How to illustrate this? Well there are issues of life expectancy. There are some educational differences (although Bishop handles those in a rather shallow manner). Educational differences lead to economic differences.

Then there are those red and blue differences.

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. political system has also polarized geographically, as most counties became increasingly Republican or Democratic in presidential elections. The 2008 election, billed as the end of the red and blue division, found the nation more politically segregated than in 2000 or 2004.

Pick something to measure, and you’ll find Americans living in increasingly different realities. Suicide rates in rural and urban counties have been diverging since the ’70s. Rural counties continue to send a disproportionate number of their young into the armed forces. …

Differences within the country pile up and then overlap. The way we create families — the age when the average woman has her first child, for example, or the percentage of couples who cohabitate before marriage — varies from place to place. And these family habits increasingly correlate with how people vote in presidential elections.

Finally, he runs in the wall that cannot be avoided:

Meanwhile, as federal and state governments stall in tedious partisanship, cities, with their more homogeneous electorates, become the new laboratories of democratic experimentation. Similarly, national church denominations lose authority as religion becomes less of a unifying institution and more an expression of local and individual ways of life within increasingly homogeneous congregations.

There is now a mismatch between our problems and our politics.

So, a major divide a generation ago? Anyone want to nominate a few major events that could have created that kind of division in our culture, in our education, in our media? Yes, try to focus on the journalistic implications of this. Think media coverage issues, folks.

As I read this Politico essay, I could not help but think about another essay that I read on the train yesterday — the Weekly Standard cover story that ran with the headline, “America’s One-Child Policy.” This is a piece in an advocacy publication, of course, and there are many passages that can certainly be debated.

However, this religion-related passage hit me as especially fact-driven and, thus, relevant to GetReligion readers. The issue? Why people do and do not have children in postmodern America:

Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits. And in a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. “Moral imperative,” of course, is a euphemism for “religious compulsion.” There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.

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.

Fascinating. Timely. There seems to be another pew gap out there. How does this affect the news? If you were the publisher of a major newspaper, how would these realities affect you?

Just asking.

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The courage of our cartoon convictions

We’ve written before about cartoon controversies at the Washington Post. There was this anti-Pentecostal cartoon from 2008. And then there was his anti-Israeli cartoon depicting a fanged Star of David being pushed by a headless, goosestepping soldier. Subtle.

But while the Washington Post has run those cartoons, they’re in a spot of trouble for a cartoon they didn’t run this week. Playing off of the “Where’s Waldo” books, “Non Sequitur” cartoonist Wiley Miller depicted a vibrant park scene with people and animals frolicking about. The text above the picture reads “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher . . . ” And below the picture, the answer: “Where’s Muhammad?”

Considering the sensitivities surrounding the depiction of Muhammad, the cartoon was well executed for maximum provocation with minimum outrage.

But that doesn’t mean that the Washington Post printed it. And they weren’t alone — neither did the Los Angeles Times nor the San Francisco Chronicle. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander was displeased. He devoted his Sunday column to the subject:

What is clever about last Sunday’s “Where’s Muhammad?” comic is that the prophet does not appear in it.

Still, Style editor Ned Martel said he decided to yank it, after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” He added that “the point of the joke was not immediately clear” and that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.

Some readers accused The Post of censorship. “Cowards,” e-mailed John D. Stackpole of Fort Washington, one of several who used that word.

Miller is fuming. The award-winning cartoonist, who lives in Maine, told me the cartoon was meant to satirize “the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons,” as well as “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word ‘Muhammad.’”

“The wonderful irony [is that] great newspapers like The Washington Post, that took on Nixon . . . run in fear of this very tame cartoon, thus validating the accuracy of the satire,” he said by e-mail.

The column itself is well written. Alexander explains that the cartoon accidentally ran on the The Post website and that the paper ran a similar cartoon by Miller during the 2006 Danish cartoon riots that left over 100 people dead. That earlier cartoon showed a street artist next to a sign that said, “Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!” He ends his column by saying that the paper’s decision “can be seen as timid. And it sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend.”

Timid is a pretty timid word to use for this censoring. It’s the same word Los Angeles Times media columnist James Rainey used when he complained ever so mildly about his paper’s refusal to publish the cartoon. In fact, he went out of his way to say he disagreed with those who have called the refusal to run the comic “a cowardly retreat from radicals.” He says that what others see as cowardice, he sees as expediency. He quotes from the Washington Post ombudsman piece and adds the perspective of a few other papers:

The Boston Globe had a similar complaint. Deputy managing editor Christine Chinlund said via e-mail: “When a cartoon takes on a sensitive subject, especially religion, it has an obligation to be clear. The ‘Where’s Muhammad’ cartoon did not meet that test. It leaves the reader searching for clues, staring at a busy drawing, trying to discern a likeness, wondering if the outhouse at the top of the drawing is significant — in other words, perplexed.”

Said Alice Short, an L.A. Times assistant managing editor: “If they had produced a ‘Non Sequitur’ cartoon that said ‘Where’s Jesus?’ I probably wouldn’t have wanted to run that either.”

But if the newspaper editors went about the business of killing less than A-plus work, the comic pages would have many blank spots every day. The result would be the same if they always leaned over backward to cater to the most sensitive among us.

I wonder, does anyone in the world believe Alice Short’s comment? When I read that quote, I put my fist up to my mouth and then coughed out “bullhockey.” Matt Welch over at Reason says the same in his post ““Just Admit it, Newspapers: You’re Scared of Muslims”.”

Thought-provoking is good. Needless provocation is not. This cartoon — which you can see here — is in the former category.

So what do you think? Is the free press doomed if we can’t run inoffensive cartoons that don’t depict Muhammad?

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Got news? Partisan, partisan, partisan

What we have here is a highly partisan op-ed page piece — it’s written by Jim Towey, a George W. Bush staffer — on an openly conservative editorial page that bluntly protests a situation in the mainstream press that certainly looks painfully partisan.

Thus, this is precisely the kind of thing that your GetReligionistas try to avoid, because it’s a partisan, partisan, partisan thing. Ick.

But there’s a problem.

At the heart of this partisan op-ed is a valid faith-based news story that isn’t getting any mainstream ink.

Now, sadly, this is one of those Wall Street Journal pieces where you need a digital subscription in order to read the whole thing. However, in this case the first few paragraphs will do just fine:

I was George W. Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives. Imagine what would have happened had I proposed that he use that office to urge thousands of religious leaders to become “validators” of the Iraq War?

I can tell you two things that would have happened immediately. First, President Bush would have fired me — and rightly so — for trying to politicize his faith-based office. Second, the American media would have chased me into the foxhole Saddam Hussein had vacated.

Yet … President Obama and his director of faith-based initiatives convened exactly such a meeting to try to control political damage from the unpopular health-care law. “Get out there and spread the word,” Politico.com reported the president as saying on a conference call with leaders of faith-based and community groups. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.”

Since then, there’s been nary a peep from the press.

That certainly seems to be true, looking at this Google News search built on a few logical terms.

There was this completely one-sided press release at CNN.com, but I hesitate to point readers toward it because it does not contain a single voice expressing concern about this use of the faith-based project. It’s so PR pitch-perfect that it could be a satire of some kind. Ick.

All of this is rather sad, since it provides more fuel for the people who — with good cause, from time to Time — see the mainstream press as a nakedly partisan force on the side of moral and cultural progressives and in opposition to traditional forms of faith.

Regular GetReligion readers know that I think that complaint is simplistic, most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s easier to make that case on moral and cultural issues than on basic political issues, as candid mainstream journalists have admitted from time (click here) to time (then click here).

Now, I know that some of you are thinking: What does this have to do with the health-care debate? Wasn’t that a high-stakes battle over politics, pure and simple? What’s so controversial about religious leaders getting involved in lobbying for or against health-care reform? I don’t know. Let’s ask Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) about that question.

Anyway, all of this is helping to fuel a high tide of anti-MSM acid out there in Middle America, according to some new data from the folks at Gallup. Here’s the top of the organization’s announcement:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the fourth straight year, the majority of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. The 57% now saying this is a record high by one percentage point. … The 43% of Americans who, in Gallup’s annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, express a great deal or fair amount of trust ties the record low, and is far worse than three prior Gallup readings on this measure from the 1970s.

Trust in the media is now slightly higher than the record-low trust in the legislative branch but lower than trust in the executive and judicial branches of government, even though trust in all three branches is down sharply this year. These findings also further confirm a separate Gallup poll that found little confidence in newspapers and television specifically.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) say the media are too liberal, tying the high end of the narrow 44% to 48% range recorded over the past decade. One-third say the media are just about right while 15% say they are too conservative. Overall, perceptions of bias have remained quite steady over this tumultuous period of change for the media, marked by the growth of cable and Internet news sources.

So, that 48 percent number is pretty high — but it’s not a majority. Then the people who think the press is doing fine, plus the folks who think that the MSM lean to the right? That adds up to about 48 percent or a tick higher.

Sounds like a pretty divided, partisan situation to me. Sad. Sad. Sad.

What to do? Well, for starters, if anyone sees a fine, balanced mainstream news report focusing on that tax-payer-funded, faith-based campaign to back Obamacare, a news report that takes both sides of the debate seriously, please let me know. I am always looking for solid, non-partisan news reporting on tough issues that are rooted in religion. We need more of that, as I am sure the Gallup pollsters would agree.

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Cult? Sect? Folks from a strange church?

Let’s face it, the mainstream press did everything but cue the theme from “Jaws” this weekend, during the initial coverage of the strange news out of Palmdale, Calif. Consider the top of this early New York Times report, which ran under a rather ordinary headline about a “religious group.”

The frantic search began after police issued an alert: Members of a cult on the edge of the Mojave Desert had disappeared, leaving behind handwritten notes that raised fears they had planned a mass suicide.

But Sunday afternoon, the search ended when the women from a small breakaway religious sect were found praying with their children on a blanket at a local park.

The police had been searching the region for the five women and eight children since Saturday afternoon, after the husbands of two of the missing women brought letters their wives had left behind, in purses filled with cellphones, identification and legal papers, to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. The letters mentioned “taking refuge,” “going to heaven” and wanting their families to join them. One of the husbands told the police that his wife and others were part of a cultlike group who had been “brainwashed” by the presumed leader, Reyna Marisol Chicas, 33.

“Based upon the contents of the letters found in the purse, the missing people are possibly awaiting the rapture or some other type of catastrophic event,” Capt. Mike Parker of the sheriff’s office said. Though the letters made no specific reference to suicide, and the group has no history of violence, the apocalyptic talk incited fears of the worst in a part of the country that has seen cult suicides in the past.

So, we are dealing with a “religious group” that is also a “cult,” a “sect” and a “cultlike group.” All we need is a reference to drinking Kool-Aid.

Whatever. While there are still questions to be answered about this group and its activities, at this point it seems that the best way to describe this circle of women — based on the thin reporting available — is “independent Pentecostal prayer group.”

What we have here, as best I can tell, is another totally independent evangelical/charismatic fellowship of some kind. Has anyone seen any facts about the congregation or congregations from which this circle sprang? As far as we know, this is simply a fellowship or prayer group within an existing flock, as opposed to a splinter “sect” (using that word carefully) that has left a normal Christian body because of conflict rooted in doctrinal innovations or a personality cult (in this case centering on Chicas, a Salvadoran immigrant).

The language is just as vague but less inflammatory by the time a second-day story runs in the Los Angeles Times, with a headline that refers to “twelve members of a Christian group.” The lede there states:

The group left behind farewell letters, personal documents and cash and took off into the night on a mysterious religious trip. After relatives reported them missing, authorities began a 22-hour search using horses, helicopters and patrols to comb the sprawling desert terrain around Palmdale as satellite trucks from national news outlets moved in.

Two scenarios loomed large, one unthinkable: a suicide pact that included eight children, inspired by the belief that the biblical “rapture” was upon them. But relief set in Sunday as the second scenario prevailed: authorities found all 13 gathered comfortably at a manicured park less than 10 miles from a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station.

Folks, it would be a really, really strange doctrine of the Second Coming that produced a concept in which the “rapture” takes place when a bunch of believers kill themselves, as opposed to awaiting the return of Jesus Christ to call them home — through his divine actions and will.

It does appear that someone thought to ask police department spokesman Steve Whitmore the obvious question: What, pray tell, did those “farewell letters” say? The answer was a bit on the light side.

The search began when concerned relatives contacted the Sheriff’s Department about 2 p.m. Saturday, saying they feared for their family members’ safety. Whitmore said the letters left by the group read like “a will and testament.” They were addressed to parents and other loved ones and included phrases like “Please take care of,” “Don’t worry,” “Here’s some cash,” he said. Letters written by two of the 14-year-olds were identical, which Whitmore said could indicate they were coached.

The group was found around noon, sitting on blankets laid out in the shade of a pine tree. A resident who had seen news reports on the missing group spotted them and called the Sheriff’s Department about 11:30 a.m. Chicas was playing with some of the children on the swings, while the others sat on blankets praying, said sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker. “They seemed shocked,” Parker said. “They said, ‘We are Christians, and we would never harm ourselves.’ ”

When deputies told them that notes and personal belongings they left behind had made relatives suspect otherwise, they responded by saying, “It’s sinful to have [worldly possessions] when you’re praying because they bring evil,” Parker said.

Once again, there is some strange stuff there, but nothing suicidal, nothing that is truly bizarre in terms of people who believe that the Second Coming is just around the corner. Did anyone in the press (or the police, for that matter) try calling a nearby evangelical seminary for some help translating this theological lingo? I have seen no evidence of that.

One more point, as we await additional information. Is it possible that these women are Pentecostal Christians in Latino families — marriages even — that have been bitterly divided by their conversion to a fire-breathing brand of Pentecostalism? After all, this story tells us:

The Palmdale area is home to several predominantly Latino churches, where it’s not uncommon for congregants to break off into separate prayer groups practicing nontraditional beliefs.

OK, what kinds of churches? Assemblies of God? Pentecostal? Charismatic Catholics? Totally independent fundamentalists (with that word accurately defined)? What are these “nontraditional beliefs”? Please tell us some more facts.

Facts are good. Vague, undefined labels do not help, as a rule.

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Burning the ties that bind

It’s the question that I have heard many times over the past week or so.

But, first, let’s state the question a different way.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Was this a news story?

Was it protected “symbolic expression” when demonstrators, back in the Reagan White House era, burned the American flag? Should the media have covered this event and the resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision?

Was it acceptable for Muslims to burn copies of “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie? Was it acceptable for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa calling for the novelist’s death? Was that a news story?

Does the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist crew have a constitutional right to do that thing that they do? Should journalists cover these media-friendly shock-a-thons as he waltzes from sea to shining sea (a frequent subject for debates here at GetReligion)?

And, yes, all of these questions are in some way related to the debates about the rights of Muslims who want to build the proposed Cordoba mosque near Ground Zero.

We face the question yet again: Would the Rev. Terry Jones simply vanish if all of the journalists in America and around the world simply clicked their heels together three times and chanted, “Can’t we all get along?”

Does Jones have a right — in the name of symbolic expression and free speech — to create a small stack of Korans, carefully keeping his mini-bonfire materials within the limits of local laws, and then strike a match?

Yes, it’s stupid. It’s wrong. It’s reckless. It shows disrespect and worse.

Yes, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for U.S. soldiers, for missionaries, for diplomats, for journalists, for Christians and other members of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands. It’s just plain dangerous.

Yes, almost every Christian on the face of the planet — left and right — would agree that this act is truly sinful, for a wide range of reasons. Ditto for the faithful in other flocks.

But, yes, Jones has a right to light that match.

It’s tragic, but that’s the truth. Otherwise, America has decided to enforce what amounts to a blasphemy law. Do journalists really want to see the First Amendment edited in that way?

Yes, other nations are taking steps in that direction. But as my friend Paul Marshall, and his colleague Nina Shea, have written in a commentary for National Review Online:

… (The) United States is an exception, with its strong protections of free speech under the First Amendment. In the United States, neither blasphemy nor hate speech are violations of the law. … At stake are the freedoms of religion and expression that lie at the heart of our liberal democracy. …

If Islam, and Islam alone, were to be protected by the state from critique, an illiberal interpretation of Islam would attain a de facto privileged status in the United States. Conversely, should Christianity, Judaism, and other religions also benefit from such state protection, fundamental individual freedoms would be essentially negated.

Pastor Terry Jones’s Koran-burning spectacle potentially holds the danger of hurting the war effort, General Petraeus has warned. Jones should be criticized, denounced, and urged — but not coerced — to give up his insensitive publicity stunt.

There is one other angle to this story that — for a very specific group of mainstream religious leaders — is as urgent as the last moments before a train wreck.

By far, my favorite quote in mainstream coverage of this story thus far is found in a Washington Post report (look inside the paper, not out front) about evangelical protests of “International Burn a Koran Day.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he decided not to approach Jones because he believes that the pastor would disapprove of Land’s advocacy for the rights of religious minorities and his general engagement with pluralism.

“If I know my boy, he thinks we’re apostate liberals anyway,” Land said. “My guess is my call would be counterproductive. My calling him would just encourage him to do it.”

He’s right, of course. Phelps thinks the Southern Baptists are doctrinal wimps, too. You know that, right?

Yes, once again we are dealing with a sad reality of this post-denominational age, the age in which more and more local congregations have absolutely zero ties that bind them to anything other than whatever stuff is located between the ears of the pastor who calls the shots (and maybe a few donors). As the old saying goes, for many people these days “church history” is defined as whatever has happened since their pastor preached his or her first sermon.

Who has any valid authority over Jones, other than a local police official who manages to find some legal loophole that the preacher has failed to plug while planning his firestorm? No one.

This is truly a subject worthy of a cover story in The Atlantic (please let the great Peter J. Boyer write it). It’s a subject that would require months of research to even dent — the impact of completely independent evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and, yes, fundamentalist churches on the shape of the Christian faith in American and around the world. But the subject is so, so huge. I am not even sure that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life could assemble a research team to get a handle on it.

Meanwhile, columnist Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel is asking the question that millions of Americans are asking: “What if media had ignored Terry Jones?” Here’s the end of his piece:

I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren’t there to film it, is it news?

Of course not.

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we’ll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention. … We could help head off such future nonsense if we folded up the circus tent and left Jones alone with his blowtorch and 30 followers.

Maybe if Gen. Petraeus told the media that it isn’t Rev. Jones who is endangering troops. That it is our coverage of Rev. Jones. That without us, this book burning would be little more than a grainy video on YouTube.

Put the onus on a responsible party and hope it acts responsibly.

Fat chance.

Sadly, Thomas is wrong. But with his column in mind, return to the top of this post and start over. Read through that list again.

Yes, this topic may burn us up. But it’s news.

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Separation of mosque and state?

The Washington Post ran an intriguing story Sunday about the apparent lack of state funding to provide Muslim chaplains in Virginia prisons.

Unfortunately, the 1,400-word report ignored as many questions as it answered.

Let’s start at the top:

Tamer Mohsen carried his Koran through the metal detector of this medium-security prison outside of Richmond, raising his arms to be patted down by a guard. When the inspection ended, Mohsen walked a familiar route: through Powhatan Correctional Center’s narrow, dimly lit hallways, past barred cells and security checkpoints.

He made his way to the prison’s chapel, where murals of the “Last Supper” and the Crucifixion were concealed by light-blue bedsheets. He’d come here, as he does twice a month, to lead Friday prayer services for more than 40 Muslim inmates, many of them converts, and try to moderate their embrace of a new and unfamiliar faith.

As the number of Muslims in the Virginia prison system has grown to an estimated 2,200, the state has come to lean increasingly on volunteer Muslim chaplains like Mohsen, a 35-year-old lab technician who was born in Egypt.

That’s an excellent lede. Terrific description. Great contrast between the chapel’s usual Christian symbols and its makeshift use as a Muslim worship center on Fridays. But — and this is a big but — that number needs a source.

You know which number I’m talking about: an estimated 2,200. Estimated by whom? By the Department of Corrections? By Islamic leaders? By an outside party? By the Post reporter? Don’t tell me the source doesn’t matter on that particular number. Moreover, if the number of Muslim inmates has grown – and I don’t doubt that it has — then I need to know how much it has grown and in what period. Basic facts, please.

More of the story:

The role the Muslim chaplains play is crucial, because prisons can be a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, said Asghar Goraya, executive director of Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.

But the relationship between the Virginia Department of Corrections and minority faith leaders has long been mired in one of the state’s most glaring anachronisms.

Because of a 200-year-old interpretation of the state constitution that bars Virginia from doing any faith-based hiring, it is the only state where prison chaplains are contractors, not state employees. And until last year, the department maintained contracts only with Protestant chaplains. Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains could visit correctional facilities to minister to Virginia’s 32,000 inmates, but they received no funds from the state.

OK, I must acknowledge that the above section makes little sense to me. Yes, I looked up anachronism in my online dictionary, but I still don’t understand what that sentence is trying to tell me. Seriously. Isn’t the real issue — as noted in the next paragraph — that the state has awarded contracts only to Protestant chaplains? How would that have been different if the state constitution allowed faith-based hiring? Maybe a GetReligion reader understands what the Post was trying to say and can lead me out of the wilderness of confusion.

Later, we learn that the state issued its first subcontract to a non-Protestant group last year, awarding $25,000 to Muslim Chapel Services of Virginia. But Goraya, who has volunteered in Virginia prisons since 1999, complains to the Post about the amount:

“We’re here to preach moderation to the extremists and to defend the needs of the moderate Muslims,” Goraya said.

The biggest challenge to doing that, he said, is the lack of resources. Although the $25,000 from the corrections department is a start, it is small compared with the $780,000 in state money that helps fund 14 full-time and 19 part-time Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal chaplains through the Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia.

Neither Catholic nor Jewish chaplains have sought funding from corrections officials.

“My responsibility is to provide chaplains that are Protestant Christians,” said Cecil McFarland, president of Chaplain Service Prison Ministry. “We have a very good relationship with the Muslim chaplains . . . but my obligation is to my ministry.”

Here we go again. More numbers. More meaningless numbers. Numbers such as these need context, and the Post fails to provide them.

We need to know how many Protestant inmates there are … and how many Catholics … and how many Jews … and how many atheists, for that matter. But beyond the estimated 2,200 Muslims out of 32,000 total inmates, the Post provides absolutely no demographic information on Virginia prisoners’ religious preferences. Basic facts, please.

Nor does the story offer any explanation for why Catholic and Jewish leaders have not sought access to state chaplain funding. Are there no Catholic or Jewish worship services conducted behind Virginia bars? Or do those religious groups eschew state funding and assign privately paid priests and rabbis? The Post doesn’t bother to ask — or at least to explain.

How do state leaders and/or prison officials respond to the complaints about the amount of funding given to Muslim chaplains? How do they defend and/or justify the breakdown of the contracts awarded? The Post doesn’t bother to ask — or at least to explain.

The newspaper does, however, go out of its way to make the case for funding more Muslim chaplains (while failing to provide any information at all about how the $25,000 is spent):

Even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Goraya’s effort to win support for Muslim chaplains was largely a one-man crusade. But recently, he’s found a number of allies who echo his concerns.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report warned this year that 36 American Muslims who had been prisoners moved to Yemen in recent months and that several of them “dropped off the radar” and may have connected with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In a separate report, terrorism experts at George Washington University and the University of Virginia said: “In the absence of qualified Muslim religious services providers, inmates can become attracted to radical views and the politico-religious messages coming from other inmates.”

Crusade? Um, I’m not certain that’s the best choice of words, if you know what I mean. But I digress …

Is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee really an ally of Goraya’s? That might be a bit of a stretch. The report by terrorism experts, meanwhile, sounds interesting. Rather than rely entirely on the Muslim leader — who stands to benefit from more funding — to make the case for additional chaplains, why not interview one of the presumably independent experts?

One of the story’s most compelling paragraphs appears near the end:

In three years, the Muslim population in Powhatan has grown from 30 to 80, including converts and those born into the faith. The facility now houses as many practicing Muslims as it does practicing Christians, according to the prison’s full-time chaplain, the Rev. Bernard Morris.

That graf has it all: Basic facts, context and even a source (assuming both sentences can be attributed to Morris, a Baptist pastor).

Too bad the rest of the piece couldn’t have followed that same, simple-but-effective approach to responsible journalism.

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Pray, read the Bible, maybe get married?

So, raise your hands if you are, from time to time, frustrated by news reports that are based on survey data? I know this is a regular subject for posts by the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway, but I would like to step in here and shout an “Amen” anyway.

For starters, when I am covering a survey (something I have to do on a regular basis as a religion columnist), I am always left wondering about the wording of the questions that produced the numbers in the press kit. Whenever possible, I think it’s crucial to tell let readers have that kind of information. Here is an example of what I am talking about, based on a headline-producing Pew Forum survey that raised questions about Universalism.

But what if your editor has not given you enough room to include that kind of information? What if there are questions and answers that needed to be provided to give context for the killer statistic that is supposed to be in the lede and you do not have room for the background material? What if the supposedly simple, cut-and-tried number that is at the heart of your story actually raises more questions than it answers (and you have been given, oh, 600 words to cover all of that)?

This is what ran through my mind as I read a Washington Post news story about the latest blast of data from a major think tank on issues linked to marriage. Let’s start with at the top, which includes language that will inspire legions of preachers to step into their pulpits and a remind their listeners that — chant this, if you will — couples “that pray together, stay together.”

African American couples are more likely than other groups to share core religious beliefs and pray together in the home — factors that have been linked to greater happiness in marriages and relationships. …

In what was described as the first major look at relationship quality and religion across racial and ethnic lines, researchers reported a significant link overall between relationship satisfaction and religious factors for whites, Hispanics and African Americans. The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

True to the old aphorism, couples that pray together stay together, said study co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, based at University of Virginia, and “African American couples are more likely to have a shared spiritual identity as a couple.”

So far so good and, yes, there is absolutely nothing all that surprising about this information.

It’s the very next paragraph that caused me to raise an eyebrow — way up. I imagine many African-American pastors did the same, although maybe not. Read this carefully.

The study found that 40 percent of blacks in marriages and live-in relationships attended religious services regularly and had a partner who did the same, compared with 29 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent of Hispanics. …

The strongest difference-maker for couples was spiritual activities such as praying or reading the Bible. “Praying together as a couple is something that is very intimate for people who are religious,” said Wilcox. “It adds another level of closeness to a relationship.”

Did you catch the odd note in that?

Now, anyone who has covered the African-American church for the past several decades knows that one of the biggest issues faced by these congregations — along with declining attendance by men — is a crisis in what is usually called “marriage formation,” or words to that effect. This is one of the causes of the high numbers of single-mothers in African-American communities, especially in urban areas, from coast to coast.

Relationships have been forming, but then they have not been turning into marriages. The result is, at best, a kind of serial monogamy in which the women are expected to somehow evangelize the men who are in their beds.

But maybe that is not what has been happening after all. So prayer and Bible study improve the quality of life for those who are, to put this into pulpit language, “shacking up”? Gosh, that is a comfort for those who are worried about the future of the black family.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that I was immediately curious about the wording of the questions that produced those numbers. While we are at it, I confess that I am dying to know more about the survey’s statistics describing the size of this slice of the larger whole, this “pray together, maybe stay together, but, hey, we’re not married so what the heck” slice of the African-American church. That sounds like a news story.

Can I get an”Amen”?

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