Race and religious affiliation

mobamaI finally got around to reading Lauren Collins’ profile of Michelle Obama in the March 10 New Yorker. It’s sympathetic but no puff piece — packed full of information that isn’t necessarily flattering. Obama’s stump speech includes the idea that we’re a country that is “just downright mean,” we are “guided by fear,” we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents, and so on.

But much to my surprise, the article deals with Obama’s religious views head on:

The other Chicago connection that dogs the Obamas is Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., their pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. Wright, who drives a Porsche and references Bernie Mac and Terry McMillan in his unorthodox sermons (“Take what God gave you and say, ‘In your face, mediocrity, I’m a bad mamma jamma!’”), officiated at Michelle and Barack’s wedding and baptized their two daughters. Barack took the title “The Audacity of Hope” from a sermon that Wright preached. In 2006, the Obamas gave $22,500 to the church.

Wright espouses a theology that seeks to reconcile African-American Christianity with, as he has written, “the raw data of our racist existence in this strange land.” The historical accuracy of that claim is incontestable. But his message is more confrontational than may be palatable to some white voters. In his book “Africans Who Shaped Our Faith”–an extended refutation of the Western Christianity that gave rise to “the European Jesus . . . the blesser of the slave trade, the defender of racism and apartheid”–he says, “In this country, racism is as natural as motherhood, apple pie, and the fourth of July. Many black people have been deluded into thinking that our BMWs, Lexuses, Porsches, Benzes, titles, heavily mortgaged condos and living environments can influence people who are fundamentally immoral.”

In portraying America as “a Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies and outright distortions,” Wright promulgates a theory of congenital separatism that is deeply at odds with Obama’s professed belief in the possibilities of unity and change. Last year, Trumpet Newsmagazine, which was launched by Trinity United and is run by Wright’s daughter, gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to Louis Farrakhan, leading to accusations that Wright was anti-Semitic.

To some extent, this description and analysis of Wright’s hostile preaching are standard. But the New Yorker permits Obama to respond:

“We don’t want our church to receive the brunt of this notoriety,” Obama told me. I asked her whether Wright’s statements presented a problem for her or for Barack. “You know, your pastor is like your grandfather, right?” she said. “There are plenty of things he says that I don’t agree with, that Barack doesn’t agree with.” When it comes to absolute doctrinal adherence, she said, “I don’t know that there would be a church in this country that I would be involved in. So, you know, you make choices, and you sort of–you can’t disown yourself from your family because they’ve got things wrong. You try to be a part of expanding the conversation.”

Remember that recent Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey that showed that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations? Many reporters covered the story by leading with anecdotes about people who had switched denominations or religions. And that’s where the news was, so that’s a good idea. But even at the time I found myself wondering about the people who don’t pick up and leave their denomination like so many of their fellow Americans.

I might not be Lutheran if my mother hadn’t left the United Church of Christ, so I’m not saying that leaving a church body is a bad thing. But sometimes I’m shocked at how easily folks switch out denominations.

Anyway, chapter two of that survey showed that Protestants in historically black churches were much less likely to engage in denominational switching than those in other evangelical or mainline Protestant churches. I know that the United Church of Christ is not historically black, but I think that this piece of data does inform this discussion about race and religion. At the time, it seemed like a minor point in a mound of data. But in light of recent events, perhaps reporters might want to revisit the survey for more context and additional story ideas.

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Half a story about Russian Orthodoxy

town church russian easterDay after day, your GetReligionistas receive a steady stream of email from people who seem to pay little attention to what it is that we actually do at this weblog.

We receive notices from publishers who want to send us books so that we can review them, even though GetReligion does not do book reviews. We receive notices from people who want to cover upcoming news events. We hear from people who pass along news tips so that we will write articles about them (perhaps they are trying to reach me because of my Scripps Howard column). We receive waves of tips about editorials, opinion columns, articles in religious magazines and other kinds of writing that we rarely, if ever, discuss.

Most of all, people struggle to understand that this is not a weblog about religion news in and of itself. It is a weblog about mainstream media coverage of religion news. There are times when that line blurs, but we strive to keep an eye on it.

I also receive quite a few emails from people who, quite obviously, want me to comment on trends and events in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially if the stories point out weaknesses in my own church. Then, when I don’t write about these articles — because the coverage isn’t all that unusual, in terms of being really good or really bad — the readers often write back to accuse me of ignoring what is going on.

Here is one recent example, drawn from the Telegraph. The headline is nice and blunt, “Orthodox Church unholy alliance with Putin.” The story by Adrian Blomfield focuses on the ties President Vladimir Putin, his successor Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Patriarch Alexei II — calling this an “unholy alliance.”

The president, a proud adherent, has allowed the Orthodox Church to regain much of its Tsarist-era lustre and has won the enthusiastic support of religious leaders in return. …

The relationship might seem odd. It was the KGB, after all, that led persecution of the Church in Soviet times, when priests were regularly jailed, tortured and executed. Neither this nor accusations that Mr Putin is restoring many of the attributes of Soviet rule seem to bother Alexei.

Although he has never confirmed it, the patriarch, like the president, is a former KGB agent codenamed Drozdov, according to Soviet archives opened to experts in the 1990s. Many in the Orthodox hierarchy are also accused of working as KGB informers, a fact that critics say the Church has never fully acknowledged.

The key word in that last sentence is “fully.”

PutinPatriarchAlexeiThis is, of course, painful and tragic territory and the reality in the Russian church is very complex. You will find none of that complexity — both good and bad — in this completely one-sided story. And what is the reality? Here is a small piece of one of my attempts, as a columnist, to sum that up:

Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

That’s painful and that’s real.

There is so much information out there. There are, of course, Orthodox people who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the most candid research into the Soviet era and its crimes. There are people who can talk about the good that is taking place in Russia, as well as the bad (and there is plenty of that).

For a glimpse of the reality, check out some of the reviews of the brutally honest “The Price of Prophecy” by the American priest Father Alexander Webster. Or get your hands on the book, which is out of print but easy to find.

There are many stories to be told, in the Putin machine. The Telegraph article does little or nothing to offer any form of debate about these topics. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t worth commentary. However, the article does exist and you are free to read it.

As is often the case, the best critics of a church or movement can often be found inside its own doors. It helps to seek them out.

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A major address on religion and race

wrightobamaWhat a campaign season this has been. It’s amazing how much religion has played a part this year — from Huckabee’s surprising win in Iowa to Mitt Romney’s big religion in America speech. And now this, as reported by Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:

Barack Obama plans a major speech tomorrow in Philadelphia on race, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the future.

An adviser said that Obama wants to contain the Wright story. He worries that the 1960s-to-1980s prism of race is what everyone has read into it, and Obama wants to move the discussion forward.

He is expected to recount, in detail, how he came to know Rev. Wright, how he came to admire Rev. Wright, the history and meaning of the Trinity church, and address the controversial remarks attributed to Wright.

He is also worried that Wright and church will get caricatured unfairly.

Let us know if you see any particularly good or bad media previews of the speech. And we’ll compare, contrast and analyze how the media portrays the speech tomorrow. Already the media are highlighting that this is a speech about race. I imagine that will be the focus of much of the media coverage, too.

The Washington Post just posted a good preview:

MONACA, Pa — Sen. Barack Obama will deliver a major speech about race in Philadelphia tomorrow that he said would explore his relationship with Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright and the wave of controversy it has stirred in his presidential bid.

“I am going to be talking about not just Rev. Wright, but just the larger issue of race in this campaign, which has ramped up over the last couple of weeks,” Obama told reporters after a town hall meeting here. According to aides, he was up until 3 a.m. Monday working on his remarks.

Wright, who recently retired as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side, was Obama’s spiritual guide when he became a practicing Christian during his 20s. He presided over Obama’s marriage to Michelle and baptized both Obama daughters. But Wright, a fiery preacher, has come under heavy media scrutiny for a series of racially charged remarks he has made from the pulpit, and Obama has played defense on the issue since Friday.

“The statements that were the source of controversy from Rev. Wright were wrong and I strongly condemn them,” the Illinois senator reiterated today. However, Obama added, “I think the caricature that is being painted of him is not accurate. And so part of what I’ll do tomorrow is to talk a little bit about how some of these issues are perceived from within the black church community, for example, which I think views this very differently.”

The story doesn’t ignore the religious angles to this story. Keep an eye out for others that look at the full picture.

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Speaking truth to power

obamacrossThere have been more than a few stories about Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s spiritual mentor and pastor. A survey of broadcast media left me a tad unimpressed with the journalistic treatment. It seems news outlets are either exploiting the political rhetoric of Wright without any context or soft-peddling it to the extreme.

This weekend I contemplated the similarities between the political statements of Wright and other pastors. ABC News last week quoted Wright speaking about America:

“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people,” he said in a 2003 sermon. “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Now consider what Jerry Falwell said after 9/11. Like Wright, he though the attacks showed that some chickens were coming home to roost:

But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”

And yes, I know Falwell apologized the next day whereas Wright seems pretty defiant about the correctness of his views. But comparing the rhetoric of these two pastors is an interesting exercise. Think about how often the media cover the controversial statements of American evangelicals such as Falwell. Now think about how often the media cover the controversial statements of those in the old mainline churches.

More than a few observers on the weekend shows have defended Wright’s rhetoric as typical and even moderate. And if that is true, it’s just downright bizarre that it hasn’t been mentioned by the mainstream media before. If it’s not true, and if Wright is an aberration, one wonders why the Chicago media, among others, have been asleep at the wheel on this story.

As a confessional Lutheran, the sermons I hear are much more likely to be about the sins being committed by, well, me than the political wrongs of others who aren’t in attendance. But political condemnations are a regular feature for many Protestants. The United Church of Christ is hardly an exception. My mother, who was raised in (what became) the UCC, used to tell me of her family’s shock at being told by church leadership that they should support Angela Davis. That was four decades ago. Of the many family members who left the UCC, some did so because of the extreme political rhetoric they were hearing each week. If the mainstream media would cover more than the UCC’s ad campaigns, this Wright story might not be such a bombshell.

As I noted earlier, Falwell retracted his comments and was roundly condemned by more or less everyone. A different story is playing out with Wright. But as some news outlets overplay the Wright story and other outlets underplay it, it might be worth considering how the story was handled for Falwell. Were his comments placed in context and defended as the prophetic speaking of truth to power? Were they overplayed for shock value? Why do the media pay so much attention to folks like Falwell and so little to those on the other side of the American Protestant coin?

And what can news outlets do to cover this story properly? Many readers have already offered thoughtful criticism of how this story is being handled. But as it develops — which is likely — what questions should be asked? What questions shouldn’t be asked?

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If only it were true

luther5This week I’ve been on a bit of a tear about the shoddy coverage of the Vatican’s supposed reissue of the Seven Deadly Sins. But I absolutely can’t let pass another horrible example of media malfeasance. Reporter Richard Owen, who was responsible for much of the “deadly sin” silliness, filed the following report from Rome:

That Martin Luther? He wasn’t so bad, says Pope

Pope Benedict XVI is to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity but only to purge the Church of corrupt practices.

Pope Benedict will issue his findings on Luther (1483-1546) in September after discussing him at his annual seminar of 40 fellow theologians — known as the Ratzinger Schülerkreis — at Castelgandolfo, the papal summer residence. According to Vatican insiders the Pope will argue that Luther, who was excommunicated and condemned for heresy, was not a heretic.

The only problem with the story is that, well, it’s completely untrue. (So, all my fellow Lutherans, put down the lager and take off your party hats.) Anyway, the lack of truth didn’t stop Owen from speculating on why the made-up event is happening:

The move to re-evaluate Luther is part of a drive to soften Pope Benedict’s image as an arch conservative hardliner as he approaches the third anniversary of his election next month.

Ah, yes. I love how Pope Benedict’s image — constructed by the mainstream media — is “arch conservative hardliner.” Anyway, Carol Glatz of Catholic News Service completely dismantled Owen’s story:

Rumors that the Vatican is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, are groundless, said the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. . . .

Vatican officials said the topic of the pope’s annual summer gathering of former students this year has not yet been decided. Of the two topics under consideration, Luther is not one of them, one official told Catholic News Service.

So how did this happen? Reuters Philip Pullella — whose work I praised in the deadly sins debacle — laid out the sequence of events. It’s instructive:

It all appears to have started on March 2, when ApCom, an Italian news agency, ran a three paragraph article, here in Italian, merely saying that the pope and some of his former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schlerkreis), would discuss Luther during their yearly summer encounter in August at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

APcom said the seminar would discuss whether Luther “wanted a rupture . . . or intended to reform the Church but without traumas”.

On March 5, two days after the APcom report, the Turin newspaper La Stampa ran a story with the headline “Ratzinger reforms Luther. ‘He had many Catholic ideas. The theologian pope summons his students for a seminar of study on the heretic.” The article, seen here in Italian, quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as saying the choice of topics was meant “to favour a climate of encounter with Protestants.”

The day after the article in La Stampa, the Times of London reported that “Pope BenedictXVI is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity, but only to purge the church of corrupt practices.”

From there, the story took off, was repeated by some news organisations around the world, was the buzz on the blogs, and even prompted an editorial critical of the pope by the Financial Times, called “Papal Indulgence – Cosmetic changes cannot hide Benedict’s dogmatism“.

The Vatican finally weighed in on March 8, squelching the story. Pullella’s account is a warning to reporters against taking stories from other news outlets without independently checking their facts. Unfortunately, the shoddy reporting he catalogues continues to damage public trust in the media.

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Magnify the supernatural

detail It’s one thing to rip a routine or bad story. It’s another to criticize an excellent story with one flaw. The exercise can seem, and perhaps often is, pedantic. So if the criticism is to be convincing, it better be valid.

With this proviso in mind, I bring to your attention a Baltimore Sun story about former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett.

Everett was paralyzed after suffering a life-threatening spinal cord injury in a football game last year, but he recovered, to the point that he can do most any physical activity except play professional football again. His recovery has been called a miracle. Sun columnist Rick Maese, to his credit, wrestles with the nature of miracles.

I ask him what he thinks a miracle is.

“A blessing, a gift from God,” he says.

… [T]oday, six months later, he walks. A miracle man. Those aren’t my words. That’s what Oprah Winfrey called him on her show last month. I don’t know what a miracle is. Is it something that defies reason? Or merely explanation?

Maese’s questions suggest he is open to a supernatural explanation. Indeed, Maese asks Everett the right follow-up query:

Can Everett credit both God and doctors? Is the fact that he walks today a miracle of faith or a miracle of science?

“Both,” Everett says.

In the following paragraph, Maese reveals that Everett is no dumb jock; he’s a man of uncommon honesty, openness, and wisdom.

What continually impresses me is Everett’s demeanor. There’s not a hint of remorse or regret. At 26, he essentially had spent a lifetime preparing for one thing: to play football. Now, as he is starting over, he refuses to allow his story to become one of despair or disappointment.

I tell Wiande Moore, Everett’s college sweetheart, that I’m simply amazed at the upbeat attitude Everett and everyone around him has maintained. There must have been some bad days in there, though.

“No, not really,” she says. “We just stayed positive.”

Everett interrupts. “Let’s quit with the lies,” he says. “I was sad, depressed. I couldn’t go on …

At this point, Maese’s story was promising indeed. He asked Everett about his faith; was open to the possibility of a supernatural explanation; and revealed Everett’s character. Few stories achieve that trifecta.

But after this point, the story disappointed somewhat. Maese failed to probe Everett’s explanation of God’s role in his recovery. Instead of detailing Everett’s supernatural rationale, he kept it general. Here are a few questions that Maese might have asked Everett: Why do you believe that God played a role? How, exactly, did God play a role? Did you pray to Him for His help?

Those questions are — pardon the pun — completely in bounds. Watch the video of Everett’s injury. After he is paralyzed, players from both teams met in the middle of the field and began to pray; a couple of players even sprinted there. Doesn’t Everett think that their prayers helped?

I don’t make this point lightly. A decade ago, a Roman Catholic priest in Baltimore was stricken with a debilitating heart problem. But he prayed every day to then Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. Behold, one day at a church healing service, the priest fell to the floor for minutes and suddenly leapt up, astonishing the crowd. The priest was healed; Church authorities verified the miracle; and Kowalska was canonized.

Reporters should never discount such a possibility. Sure, a supernatural miracle is unlikely. And Maese was right to detail the medical side of Everett’s miraculous cure. But why not detail the possibility that God intervened?

Alas, even this fine story reflected an unjustified imbalance between natural and supernatural explanations.

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Tagging along with the Cardinal

cardinalgeorge More reporters should tag along with an interview subject. As someone who has gone on ride-a-longs with cops in New Orleans and followed politicians in Washington, I have found that being in a subject’s physical presence is essential, enabling me to see the world from their eyes and walk in their shoes.

So I was happy to read The Chicago Tribune‘s profile of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Reporter Patrick Reardon showed readers a realistic look at His Eminence’s life.

By following the Cardinal, Reardon revealed part of George’s personality and his job. For example, the Cardinal came across as much of a bureaucrat or CEO than a priest. Witness this timeline:

12:50 p.m. — George arrives at his desk on the 4th floor of the administrative offices and begins making his way through a stack of paperwork.

1:30 p.m. — He makes a quick stop at a birthday party for Susan Burritt, the archdiocese’s media relations director.

1:33 p.m. — He heads a meeting with a board of priests who advise him on financial dealings. Then he returns to his desk for more paperwork.

Reardon also showed that Cardinal George, far from being a dour functionary, is a man of humor and wit. This story was a good example:

After attending the wake of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton’s mother at St. Catherine of Siena and St. Lucy Church in Oak Park, George gets into the passenger seat of his black Cadillac with his private secretary, Rev. Daniel Flens, at the wheel.

Flens pulls the car up a couple feet to make it easier for Colleen Dolan, the communications director, to get into the back seat.

But, fully enjoying a child’s joke, the cardinal merrily pretends that the car is about to drive away, leaving Dolan at the curb.

With a wide grin, all teeth, the cardinal archbishop of Chicago waves goodbye frantically — looking for all the world like a 10-year-old boy.

Finally, Reardon showed that the Cardinal is more than the CEO of Chicagoland Catholics; he is their moral and spiritual leader.

George’s spiritual life follows the routine of a monastic. He starts his day by saying his morning prayers from the Divine Office and celebrates mass; prays the Angelus at noon; attends a funeral in the afternoon; celebrates mass and says a homily in the evening; and says his prayers before going to bed.

His moral leadership is expressed via spiritual diagnosis, such as this incident that Reardon shows:

Twenty-four hours earlier, five students at Northern Illinois University had been fatally shot in a classroom, and a reporter asks George about his thoughts.

In his answer, the cardinal notes that American individualism “leaves many people isolated.” At the root of the shootings, he suggests, was a breakdown of the sense of community. “What is the basis of our being together?” he says. “It has to be something more than individual rights or individual dreams or individual desires.”

Reardon noted that the Chicago archdiocese’s top prelate has not allowed access to his residence since 1979. Here’s hoping it won’t be another 29 years.

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Call to prayer

prayerboothNormally we don’t write about columns in mainstream papers. But far too often columns in mainstream papers are nothing more than ego-filled rants. But The Baltimore Sun had such a great column this week that I have to highlight it here.

Columnist Jean Marbella displays remarkable observational skills and stylish prose with her insightful column:

The art student thought she could pray for summery weather, but given yesterday’s sunny skies and shirt-sleeve temperatures, it looked like someone had beat her to it. The unemployed inventor might have prayed for a job, or at least money to continue his life’s work, but he doesn’t kneel very well since a skydiving accident.

Neither Rin (“short for Katherine”) Lack nor Tim Silverwood stopped to take advantage of “Prayer Booth” as they walked by it yesterday, but then, few apparently do. For one thing, it just looks like another phone booth, graffiti-smeared and slightly grimy, that has been abandoned during these cellular times.

But the blue-and-white sign above it says not “Phone” but “Prayer.” And there’s no way to call anyone — on Earth, at least — because there isn’t a pay phone inside, but instead a fold-down kneeler like you’d find in a church.

The entire column is so well written that it’s hard to determine what to excerpt. It turns out the prayer booth is a public art project, one of 30 pieces installed downtown last year.

Marbella interviews people rushing by the prayer booth, records their reactions and makes a confession:

What surprised me yesterday as I accosted passers-by near the piece is how many people do pray — just not in the “Prayer Booth.”

“I don’t think it’s the right place for it,” said Seulki Lee, 22, another MICA student, “There are people passing by and too many cars going by.”

She prays in her head in restaurants before meals, or at the start of the day.

Marbella also tracks down the artist behind the prayer booth — Dylan Mortimer, a 28-year-old Kansas City artist and pastor at a nondenominational church:

He has four “Prayer Booths” in various locales, and they tend to draw both “sincere and sarcastic” users. The artist uses a bit of both himself: His instructions in “Prayer Booth” include the warning, “Please avoid the booth if you are sensitive to or feel threatened by actions that are religious in nature.”

“I’m for people exploring their faith in public, in ways that honor those around them,” Mortimer said. “It’s a balance between censorship and propaganda.”

Marbella also speaks with a public art coordinator, who provides some thoughtful artistic analysis of the piece and its environment. The result of this well-rounded piece of reporting about one piece of art is a beautiful story about a fascinating and complex city. So go read the whole thing.

Photo by Michael Kruse via Kruse Kronicle.

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