A “compound” problem?

FLDS Eldorado hi 2The last few days have been filled with the sad story of the removal of over 400 children along with their mothers from a polygamous community in Texas.

The group that’s in trouble is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints. You might remember them from last year’s dramatic hunt for leader and prophet Warren Jeffs. He was convicted of rape charges in Utah last year.

So you have a group that is definitely on the fringe of mainstream religious thought. And you have charges of sexual and physical abuse against children. As far as groups go, this one is not going to win many accolades.

But how has the coverage been? John Morehead, a Christian writer in Utah, has some complaints, saying that the media have not been objective:

First, most media reports on this incident refer to a raid of a sect “compound.” Why isn’t it referred to as the group’s property, community, or living quarters? The term “compound” has been used of fringe religious groups that have come to embody the worst in the popular consciousness where religious extremism is concerned, being associated with things like Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Is “compound” used because the assumption is made that religious groups that live on the margins of traditional society and religion are automatically suspect? Is there an unconscious connection with the use of the word to those religious groups that have come to personify the worst of religious “cults”?

Second, it is interesting that this recent frenzy on the part of the media and the general public in relation to a controversial religious sect comes with allegations of child abuse. Recall that one of the initial reasons the BATF engaged the Branch Davidians was over the same allegation. Perhaps these allegations will be proven true, perhaps not. We will have to wait for all the facts and evidence to be released in order to know for sure. But we might consider that given our culture’s extreme sensitivities to child abuse that the mere allegation of abuse is enough to initiate the removal of children by authorities and their separation from their parents, and many times the allegations are never proven only to see the children and parents reunited after a long and stressful time of separation. And once an allegation of child abuse is made, it is never possible to completely remove the stigma that the mere allegation raises. (We might also consider that child abuse occurs with unfortunate regularity in both secular and mainstream religious settings as well, so we should exercise caution before throwing stones at an alleged child-abusing “cult.”)

With regard to the first complaint, I’m not sure I see the word compound as a problem. The FLDS sect sets up communities where movement is limited — both in terms of outsiders being permitted in and insiders being permitted out. They guard their cluster of homes with sophisticated defense mechanisms. CNN was one of the media outlets to use the word compound. But, they noted:

CNN’s previous visits to the ranch revealed the compound was guarded by armed men equipped with night-vision gear and other high-tech surveillance tools.

I don’t necessarily see compound as a negative word. And I think that ranch or community might not be the best way to describe the actual situation in which these residents live. What do you think? Is compound the wrong word to use? What would be better?

And as for the complaint about how the media treat people accused of child abuse, I couldn’t agree more. Again, in the case of the FLDS, it’s not like these claims are coming from nowhere. Jeffs’ own family members have been coming forward in droves to report being raped as children. But, as one of the readers who passed along this story noted, the media are expected to be above the fray. Over 400 children were just seized from their parents on the basis of one individual’s claim.

Now that I’m a mother, I’m even more wary of the power of the state to interfere in family matters without due process. I haven’t seen any coverage of the events in West Texas that even asks whether authorities overstepped.

Part of the problem is that fundamentalist Mormons are known for avoiding the media. So the only people speaking to the matter are former members of the sect — many of whom left to avoid the abuse they were subjected to.

So it’s just a very tricky story. How should the media treat religious groups that are outside the mainstream? A few weeks ago, we had the media bending over backward to contextualize the extremist remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Is there any contextualizing of the FLDS? Should there be?

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B16: Cue the theme from “Jaws” (update)

pope bobble head 1Tense religion writers all across this land are sitting at their desks, waiting for the dreaded moment when an editor walks over and says the words no one wants to hear just before a papal visit: “A friend of mine heard that people are buying those pope-soap-on-a-rope things somewhere in town. Why don’t you look into that and see that other kinds of pope junk are out there?”

Oh, the humanity!

Jacqueline L. Salmon drew the short straw over at The Washington Post and focused the heart of her story on official gear that is being sold by official Catholic groups. Think PopeVisit2008.com and Catholic to the Max!

Catholic organizations, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the basilica, the site in Northeast D.C. where the pope will speak on April 16, are selling merchandise, many with a logo licensed from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The logo features a photo of the pope with the slogan “Christ Our Hope.” The archdiocese has also created its own logo: the pope holding a crucifix, with a red rectangle with a cross and crossed keys.

The archdiocese and the basilica’s products were designed and are being manufactured by Catholic to the Max, a division of Nelson Woodcraft, a family-owned manufacturer of Catholic memorabilia in Steubenville, Ohio. The company will share proceeds of the sales — no one will say how much — with the archdiocese and the basilica.

Owner Mark Nelson said he wants the souvenirs to combine the religious and the secular.

“We’ve geared products to be such that they’re not just souveniry but spiritual in nature,” he said.

It’s a fun little story, but I have a problem with it.

The report opens with a catchy riff about some of the stranger products that are already on sale. If you’re a journalist and you’ve covered a papal visit, you know the drill.

If your teddy bear needs a shirt, you can get one with the pope’s picture on it for $15.95.

If Pope Benedict XVI is your man, you can feel close to him with Pope on a Rope soap for $9.99 or the Pope’s Cologne for $25.95.

And if you want pure pope entertainment, there is a bobblehead Pope Benedict for $12.95.

This is all fair game, of course. The problem is that the Post really doesn’t tell us who is selling those rather, well, non-spiritual items.

In fact, the story veers quickly straight into information about a Catholic customer buying much more conventional items at a rather establishment spot — the bookstore of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Are they really selling Big Ben bobbleheads at the basilica? I was there just a few days ago and didn’t see any items of that ilk.

Now, the soap, the bobbleheads and the other funny stuff may be there now. If so, that’s amazing. Normally, that’s the kind of thing you see on street corners and in less official (to put it mildly) locations.

The strength of this story is its emphasis on the official gifts linked to the visit. But that strength turns into a problem when it fails to establish precisely who is selling what kind of papal-visit stuff.

CoabxviOne other funny detail and a possible hook for a follow-up story. It ‘s clear that bear items are going to be hot during the visit. But there is more to that than the fact that Pope Benedict XVI — the former Cardinal Ratzinger — is German.

If you look closely at the pope’s official shield, you will see an interesting and quite personal image — a bear wearing a backpack. What is that all about? As one site on the pope’s life explains:

The bear is tied to an old Bavarian legend about St. Corbinian, the first bishop and patron saint of the Diocese of Freising. According to the legend, when the saint was on his way to Rome, a bear attacked and killed his horse. St. Corbinian punished the bear by making him carry the saint’s belongings the rest of the way to Rome.

The bear symbolizes the beast “tamed by the grace of God,” and the pack he is carrying symbolizes “the weight of the episcopate,” said Cardinal Ratzinger in his autobiography.

“The bear with the pack, which replaced the horse or, more probably, St. Corbinian’s mule, becoming, against his will, his pack animal, was that not, and is it not an image of what I should be and of what I am?” continues the cardinal in his book.

There is content in those symbols, even when they are light-hearted and fun. But whose pack is being carried by this very urbane and learned pope?

UPDATE: Yes, I saw the new Washington Post bobblehead-controversy follow story — the one about the ad with a bobblehead Benedict XVI riding the Metro to the Nationals Park Mass. No real comment. You gotta love this part, though:

In the video, the bobblehead rides the train next to a man reading “Car and Pontiff” magazine. The mock-up of the magazine, also done by Metro media relations, has photos of the popemobile. The man turns to the bobblehead and asks in Latin, “Car in shop?” Then he flips to the last page, which shows an ad about taking Metro to the Mass. “Thank Heaven for Metro,” the man intones.


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Meet the new caricature

GrayjacketI can’t remember when, exactly, the mainstream media decided that it would stop with the unilateral caricature of evangelicals as the Christian Right, but I’m not sure the new caricature is much improved.

Newsweek religion reporter Lisa Miller worked overtime to give the impression that the latest political switch among the formerly Christian Right is in support of legalized abortion. Note this, for instance:

Adam Hamilton does not call himself “pro-choice.” He prefers “pro-life with a heavy heart.” What that means, as he explains in his new book “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,” is that he believes abortion should be available and legal, that there are instances in which it might be necessary and that those instances should be very rare. Further, he says, the abortion debate has been too hot for too long, and that, as a Christian minister, his job is to try “to support people no matter what decision they make.” As an evangelical megachurch pastor in Kansas, a man educated at Oral Roberts University, Hamilton speaks carefully, aware that he’s staking out a controversial position.

Lisa Miller would have you believe that conservative Christians are even giving up on their opposition to abortion. Except that what Lisa Miller worked very hard to keep out of her story is that Adam Hamilton is a mainline Protestant. United Methodist Church, in fact. He received his M.Div. from Southern Methodist University. I mean the United Methodist Church supports legalized abortion. And has for a long time. To portray this as some kind of change in evangelical thought is ridiculous. Methodists have, by their own admission, fine-tuned a statement in support of legalized abortion for almost 40 years. The book’s forward, incidentally, was written by Jim Wallis.

Here, Miller shows how much reporting went into her piece:

In the past, an evangelical who might condone abortion in the case of his ailing wife or 14-year-old daughter would never say so in public. Now, the abortion rhetoric has faded somewhat as evangelicals turn their attention to other things: AIDS, the environment, Darfur. In 2004, megapastor Rick Warren announced that abortion was a “nonnegotiable” for evangelical voters. This year, he’s been silent. What’s new, then, is not that a pastor like Hamilton would take a softer approach to abortion, but that he would feel comfortable enough to say so from the pulpit and in print.

What a disaster of a paragraph. Horrible. First off, the ridiculous “ailing wife” and underage daughter example matched with a hypothetical “evangelical.” Who is this person? Hypotheticals in the abortion debate have always been unhelpful but what is Miller saying? That a man who would have carted his child off for an abortion but would never say so “in the past” might now proudly announce his support of abortion for his daughter? Really? And what is this straw-man “ailing wife” reference? Because evangelicals used to claim they wanted women to die in pregnancy? But now they don’t?

And notice how she says “in the past” an evangelical would have hidden his support for abortion. But now . . . well, now what? Now they just don’t talk about it much? And for our evidence we have Rick Warren? Rick Warren? And, again, it’s not exactly news that a United Methodist pastor clearly articulates the views his church has held for decades. In the small town I grew up in, our local Methodist pastor was saying precisely the things that Hamilton is preaching and writing in his book.

But even though the story is only four paragraphs long, it has yet another clunker of a paragraph:

As for his heavy heart, Hamilton comes by it honestly. Seven years ago he received a letter from a parishioner describing her own teenage pregnancy in the years before Roe, the pressure from her parents to abort and her refusal to do so–in spite of the cost. That letter was from his mother.

And then the story ends. Evangelical support for abortion is worth covering. And if conservative evangelical attitudes are changing with regard to abortion, that is definitely newsworthy. Unfortunately, this story fails to give adequate weight or depth to either of those angles.

The headline of this story, by the way? How Would Jesus Choose? Ugh.

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“If you seek the Lord, you will find Him”

Behold His Mighty Hand 01Charlton Heston raised the tablets containing the Ten Commandments high over his head decades before he did the same thing with a flintlock rifle and, to their credit, most of the journalists who wrote his obituaries managed to cover both of those symbolic gestures.

Heston lived a giant, sprawling life, before being defeated by Alzheimer’s disease. His life was, in many ways, just as big as the epic movies that made him a superstar in his era. However, I am still curious about one thing, after reading dozens of mainstream news accounts about his life. Heston played his share of saints and holy men, but was he a believer? The mainstream obits are silent on this (please correct me if I missed something).

The Los Angeles Times, in a weblog posting, did dig back into the religion-beat files to find this interesting quotation from a long-ago interview by religion writer Dan Thrapp:

It is interesting to note that once Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and talks to God there is never contentment for him again. That is the way it is with us. Once we talk to God, once we get his commission to us for our lives we cannot be again content. We are happier. We are busier. But we are not content because then we have a mission — a commission, rather.”

– Charlton Heston, on how his life was influenced by playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

Back into our day and age, here is a typical summary of some of the key facts, drawn from the Los Angeles Times:

With a booming baritone voice, the tall, ruggedly handsome actor delivered his signature role as the prophet Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical extravaganza “The Ten Commandments,” raising a rod over his head as God miraculously parts the Red Sea. Heston won the Academy Award for best actor in another religious blockbuster in 1959′s “Ben-Hur,” racing four white horses at top speed in one of the cinema’s legendary action sequences: the 15-minute chariot race in which his character, a proud and noble Jew, competes against his childhood Roman friend.

Heston stunned the entertainment world in August 2002 when he made a poignant and moving videotaped address announcing his illness.

Late in life, Heston’s stature as a political firebrand overshadowed his acting. He became demonized by gun-control advocates and liberal Hollywood when he became president of the National Rifle Assn. in 1998. Heston answered his critics in a now-famous pose that mimicked Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. But instead of a rod, Heston raised a flintlock over his head and challenged his detractors to pry the rifle “from my cold, dead hands.”

Personally, I thought some of the most insightful passages had to do with Heston, the man. You can tell a lot about a person by key details in their private life. Heston wrestled with some demons — such as alcohol — but he seemed to have lived a very conventional life, in many ways. Once again, I wondered if there were details about his faith that were missing.

This is from the LA Times, again:

John Charles Carter was born Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Ill. His father, Russell Whitford Carter, moved the family to St. Helen, Mich., where Heston lived an almost idyllic boyhood, hunting and fishing. He entered Northwestern University’s School of Speech in 1941 on a scholarship from the drama club. While there, he fell in love with a young speech student named Lydia Clarke. They were married March 14, 1944, after he had enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Their union was one of the most durable in Hollywood, lasting 64 years in a town known for its highly publicized divorces, romances and remarriages.

Several papers attempted to deal with the range of Heston’s political life, noting that — like Ronald Reagan — was active as a Democrat and as a labor-union leader. Heston always insisted that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party — it left him.

nra heston 2The evidence is that there was more to that parting than the right to bear arms.

The New York Times did an especially good job of blending this part of his life into his controversial years as one of the few cultural conservatives who lived and worked, to some degree, in Hollywood after the 1960s.

Mr. Heston was always able to channel some energies into the public arena. He was an active supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calling him “a 20th-century Moses for his people,” and participated in the historic march on Washington in 1963.

He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1966 to 1971, following in the footsteps of his friend and role model Ronald Reagan. A registered Democrat for many years, he was nevertheless selective in the candidates he chose to support and often campaigned for conservatives. … He became a Republican after Democrats in the Senate blocked the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork, a conservative, to the Supreme Court in 1987. Mr. Heston had supported the nomination and was critical of the Reagan White House for misreading the depth of the liberal opposition.

Mr. Heston frequently spoke out against what he saw as evidence of the decline and debasement of American culture. In 1992, appalled by the lyrics on “Cop Killer,” a recording by the rap artist Ice T, he blasted the album at a Time Warner stockholders meeting and was a force in having it withdrawn from the marketplace.

Actually, that scene was much more dramatic than this simple description lets on. Attending the meeting as a stockholder, Heston stood on the floor and read — his voice was a weapon, in and of itself — the verbatim lyrics of the title track and the even more graphic lyrics of a song about a man raping the young nieces of Al and Tipper Gore (who were known as Hollywood critics at that time). Journalists could not quote him, of course, because the lyrics were too obscene, a reality that Heston found ironic.

There’s much more to say, about Michael Moore and many other topics. But the definitive Heston document is probably his famous speech at Harvard University (full text here), in which he preached — there is no other word that will do — a sermon against political correctness and in favor of free speech, including free speech for his critics.

But all of this left me wondering about the man’s actual beliefs on religious and moral issues. With that voice of his, he made a number of tapes and videos linked to biblical subjects. In one series — Charlton Heston Presents The Bible — he said simply: “If you seek the Lord, you will find Him.”

It would have been nice if journalists had asked a few questions about how that search turned out. Did Moses ever find his own promised land?

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Hannah Montana and Ephesians 6

hannah montana25Let me be silly for a moment.

One of the things I love about the religion beat is that valid and even interesting religious content can show up literally anywhere in the newspaper. If you needed evidence of that, check out this chatty little story from the Washington Times, focusing on the highs and lows of celebrity parenting.

On one side, we have Dina Lohan, the hip mom of that human tabloid story — Lindsay Lohan. On the other side is the achy breaky daddy, Billy Ray Cyrus, the parent in charge of the entertainment-industrial complex named Miley Cyrus, or Hannah Montana, or whatever. What does faith have to do with this contest between Dina and Billy Ray?

One cites Bible verses and grounds his daughter when she misbehaves; the other drinks cocktails and goes club-hopping into the wee hours with her celebrity daughter. Says celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton (aka Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr.): “Billy Ray Cyrus actually sets boundaries. … Dina Lohan is an enabler, a parasite. … The Lohans are role models for dysfunction.”

The effect on the kids? Well, make your own judgment — but one of the girls has been in and out of rehab and has an arrest record; the other recited Ephesians 6:10-11 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Parenting just might be a factor. …

Chicago-based parenting coach Sharon Pieters (childminded.com) says the latter might be easier for Ms. Lohan than the former.

“I think to Dina Lohan, Lindsay is primarily a friend, a playmate,” Ms. Pieters says. “She leans on her kids for emotional support, and in the end, Lindsay and her sister are probably saying, ‘Who’s taking care of me if my mother’s not?’ ” she says, adding, “If she wants to give her children support, she should give them advice and bring them their favorite sandwiches — not go out for tequila shots at two in the morning.”

How judgmental!

And on the other side, what, pray tell, was Hannah Montana quoting to Oprah from the Good Book?

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.

11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.

So this is an interesting faith reference about, I would assume, the Hollywood life. But that’s that. This entire faith-based angle of the story vanishes.

So Billy Ray has his daughter ready for a Bible drill. There are actual faith questions that could be asked at this point. Many a Nashville star and starlet has started out in the church choir. I would imagine that the young Cyrus had a slightly easier lift off than that.

But there’s always an easy question that can be asked: Where is the family pew? Who is their pastor? If the story is about good parenting and, well, bad parenting, and there is a hint that faith has something to do with it in this case, could we please have some facts? In other words, the faith element is worth taking seriously. Can I get an, “Amen”?

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That Voodoo that you do

voodoocardsVoodoo, in its New World form, is a syncretized religion. It blends religion native to West Africa and Central Africa with Christianity. Reporter Marc Lacey wrote about the new Port-au-Prince-based head of Voodoo in a profile for the New York Times:

The goat tethered to a tree outside of Max Beauvoir’s home is doomed.

Beauvoir, tall and majestic with closely cropped white hair, is a voodoo priest who was just named the religion’s supreme master, a newly created position that is aimed at reviving voodoo.

His grand residence on the outskirts of the Haitian capital serves as a voodoo temple for practitioners and a late-night hangout for those paying customers eager to take in an exotic evening of spiritual awakening.

As you can see, it’s just a wonderfully written story. Lacey paints a picture of the vibrant dances and rituals conducted by Beauvoir. Lacey explains how the new position came about:

Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure.

But many of Haiti’s houngans recently came together into a national federation and named Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul. (Think “voodoo economics.”) Even before he got the job, Beauvoir was a voodoo promoter extraordinaire. With his own Web site, www.vodou.org, and a following among foreigners intrigued by voodoo, Beauvoir is criticized by some purists as too much of a showman.

The piece is very detailed, explaining Beauvoir’s education, including graduate study in biochemistry, and how it compares with the largely illiterate population of voodooists.

My only problem is that it didn’t really describe the beliefs of Voodoo. We learn that it mixes the animism of West African religion with Christianity. We learn that Beauvoir thinks Voodoo should play “a role” in resolving Haiti’s problems. But this is the entire explanation of Voodoo beliefs:

Haiti has long been a battleground for Christian missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship and work tirelessly to convert the population to Christ. Voodoo also has one god, modeled on God of the Christian Bible, but it incorporates pagan elements that make Christians uneasy: casting spells and catering to spirits that are seen as the major forces of the universe.

But you can learn that much about Voodoo from clumsy Hollywood depictions. I want more. Anyway, the piece really is very informative apart from that, explaining how politicians in Haiti reach out to Voodooists in order to burnish their populist credentials. Lacey also quotes people who are very leery of Beauvoir, saying they wouldn’t trust him with their money or child. All in all, a good read.

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Press doesn’t get King’s real dream

mlk 02 On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the now famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.

King had arrived in Memphis to help lead a sanitation worker’s strike. His message was that in a violent and unjust age, he was seeking to do God’s will: showing the city’s whites that God’s black children were suffering and must be helped. As King said,

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.

Today is the 40th anniversary of King’s death. Unfortunately, the press has not changed much since his day. Reporters in general continue to focus on the window breaking itself rather than the Christian context in which King understood that it occurred. The result is stories that not only commit the sin of presentism, but also are largely secularized.

To The Washington Post, King was a tragic leader of the Left. Reporter Kevin Merida focuses on King’s career from 1966 to 1968, the time when King had helped eliminate legal discrimination but struggled to achieve economic and social equality, especially for striking sanitation workers in Memphis:

Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today’s anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation’s uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues — war and poverty — that were consuming him at the time of his death.

Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor — despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis — are as voiceless as they were in King’s day, advocates contend.

Merida’s focus on politics unmoored from religion is misplaced. In his mountain-top speech, King explicitly identified himself with Moses, the religious leader who is allowed to peer the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. Instead, Merida portrays King as the political leader of a line that runs from George McGovern to Barack Obama.

To The Washington Times, King was a tragic leader in another sense: His black followers rioted and pillaged Washington and left a legacy of crime and poverty. As Timothy Warren writes,

Beginning in the early evening on April 4, 1968, upon learning of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., angry blacks throughout the city took their frustration and mourning to the streets. They began fire-bombing and looting businesses.

“We saw crowds beginning to form around 7:30 near 14th and U,” said Mr. Barry. “I tried to get them to calm down. That’s when the riot started to break out. Firetrucks couldn’t even get down there till 3 or 4 in the morning.”

“We could see the fires early on April 5,” said Jim McNeece, a Columbia Heights native and volunteer fireman for Prince George’s County at the time, who was brought in to help fight the fires in the District. “About 24 hours later, they called us because the D.C. fire crews were overwhelmed. Rioters pelted us with rocks and bottles as we put out the fires.”

In the end, the riots led to 10 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and 7,600 arrests and damage of $13 million, according to the Washington Star. The aftermath of the riots have had an unfortunate lasting effect on the city, stunting what many think could have been major economic and cultural development for the District.

mlk2 It’s possible to interpret Warren’s story as the conservative rejoinder to Merida’s: While King fought for equal rights and practiced non-violence, his secular followers lay waste to the nation’s capital. This is an interesting and important angle, but also a flawed one. It focuses, literally, on broken windows rather than King’s prophetic role.

To The Los Angeles Times, King was not only a leader of the New Left, but also a man of God. As John L. Mitchell writes, King focused on political issues, while those who heard him give a sermon at a local church remember him as a holy man:

While he was in Los Angeles, King was contacted by the Rev. James Lawson, who urged him to fly to Memphis, where garbage workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions after two workers were accidentally killed in a trash compactor. That Monday, March 18, King flew to Memphis and delivered a speech to more than 15,000 people.

“He was the Moses of our movement, the major spokesperson and symbol for black people and lots of people around the world,” said Lawson, who chaired the strike committee and later was pastor at Holman for 25 years before retiring and teaching nonviolence.

Mitchell’s story had the advantage of focusing on one incident (check out the images and audio recording of the speech; they’re excellent). This allowed him to tell readers about the historical context in which King gave his speech as well as the reactions of those who saw him deliver it. But Mitchell failed to note that King’s sermon had as much a religious element as a political one.

To its credit, The New York Times conveyed King’s Christian character and mindset well. Shaila Dewan wrote an interesting story about a vacation home that King never got to use. In the story, she told this illuminating anecdote:

Ms. Mitchell, a pioneer in early childhood education and one of the first black school board members in Beaufort County (the other was also a Penn staff member), said she was determined to ask Dr. King one question: “How can you tell me to love people who treat me as if I were not human?”

“I will never forget” his response, she said. “He said we are created in God’s image. So you love the image of God in that person.” She added: “I don’t know if I was able to use that, to apply that, in all different situations. But I always remembered it.”

By using this anecdote, Dewan gave readers a sense of King’s spiritual force. Here was a man interested not just in material bounty and equality for his fellow blacks, but rather in doing God’s will through social protest.

It’s tempting to write about historical figures by focusing on their legacy. But if reporters don’t convey to readers the figures’ perception of themselves, especially their religious perception, they will get only half the story.

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John the sort-of Baptist

johnmccain highres2Jonathan Martin, a great reporter for Politico, had a lengthy story looking critically at the lack of religious rhetoric coming from Sen. John McCain.

It’s a very interesting story and one that raises some questions, but first let’s look at this paragraph:

Raised Episcopalian, McCain now attends a Baptist megachurch in Phoenix. But he has not been baptized and rarely talks of his faith in anything but the broadest terms or as it relates to how it enabled him to survive 5 1/2 years in captivity as a POW.

Um, I’m pretty sure that John McCain, raised Episcopalian, has been baptized. Unless we’re going to say that the Baptist view against infant baptism is somehow objectively correct, this paragraph is phrased poorly.

But that’s not where the Baptist bias ends. The whole piece approaches the issue of whether religious rhetoric is appropriate in political contests as if the question has been decided:

Yet in a time when privacy for any politician, let alone a presidential candidate, is virtually nonexistent and open expressions — or at least explanations — of religiosity are expected and sometimes demanded by others, McCain may ultimately have to offer more than just testimony about his belief in America’s civic religion.

“I would be very surprised if he didn’t,” says John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Simply because a lot of voters will want to know about his faith.”

“It’s a faith-based country,” observes Sen. Sam Brownback, a devout Catholic who has grown closer to McCain since backing his candidacy last year. “Presidential candidates should acknowledge that and say just what is their identity as it relates to that.”

Martin talks to many other people who offer precisely the same analysis. It would be nice if just once these stories would include a Two Kingdoms perspective decrying the supposed need for candidates to emote about their religious views. Journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto just wrote a piece about the matter, using Martin Luther’s view that “The emperor need not be a Christian so long as he possesses reason” as a springboard to discuss what he considers the proper role of religion in electoral contests. Those of us who advocate Two Kingdoms perspectives are out there. We’re just not usually found in media reports.

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