Engaged, warm and thoughtful: The Jack Kevorkian I know

wallacebradyA week ago I strongly criticized the tongue bath interview that 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace had with Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian was just released from prison for the murder of one of the 130 people whose lives he ended or helped to end.

I believe my words might have been “disgusting and scandalous.” The interview was really that bad.

Some readers got mad at me for harshing on the old man, but I stand by it, particularly since biased and puffy interviews such as Wallace’s make people think the entire mainstream media establishment is rotten. If I may quote Spider-man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or if I may quote Jesus completely out of context (everyone else does!), “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

So reader Matt notified us of an interesting letter to the editor in the June 10 New York Times. Matt wrote:

For the record, Wallace forsook even the pretence of objectivity in a 10 June letter to the NYT, responding to the NYT’s 5 June editorial criticizing Kevorkian’s actions as counter-productive for the assisted suicide movement. Wallace wants us all to know that Kevorkian speaks Japanese and plays the flute. And though he will refrain from assisted suicides in the future, in compliance with his parole, spokesman Wallace assures us that Kevorkian will continue to advocate for changes in the laws. I’m sure we are all relieved and inspired.

I cannot imagine responding to an editorial by taking sides on an issue or person I’m actively covering. I mean, maybe if I was correcting a factual error, but not for a completely compromising personal defense. Here is the letter written by mainstream media journalist Mike Wallace:

Your June 5 editorial about Jack Kevorkian calls him “deluded and unrepentant.” I disagree.

The Jack Kevorkian I know is a warm, engaged, thoughtful and compassionate individual who speaks Japanese, plays the flute, reads voraciously and is of academic bent. His lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan to commute his long sentence because he was in such bad physical shape.

He was down to a weight of 113 pounds at one point, had to endure waist and leg shackles whenever he was moved around, which resulted in an injury, and was prevented from speaking to the press about his incarceration.

He is a free man now, but must report regularly to his parole officer. He has promised not to assist in any further suicides. He is 79 years old and is being treated for problems with his liver.

In a letter to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist back in September 2000, Mr. Kevorkian wrote, “Today, more than half of all American physicians and an overwhelming majority of the public favor the decriminalization of euthanasia, and a significant number of physicians admit to performing it furtively.”

Mr. Kevorkian, as a condition of his current parole, can no longer evangelize, as he used to, on the subject of euthanasia, but he is permitted to speak out for its legalization. He has told me he intends to do just that.

As I said in the original post: It’s really hard to see why some people think the media are biased on human life issues, isn’t it? Any such personal advocacy as that engaged in by Mike Wallace or The New York TimesLinda Greenhouse is unethical (or would be if journalists had ethical standards to which we were held accountable). But it’s also interesting that the advocacy seems to point in one direction a bit more than another. Or, to be precise, compare the outrage the mainstream media expressed over the unimportant and unread Jeff Gannon’s puffy questions to George W. Bush and the complete radio silence over Wallace and limited and ineffectual discussion of Greenhouse.

Photo of Mike Wallace speaking at a Brady event fundraiser.

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Bill Moyers asks the tough questions

bill moyersBill Moyers interviewed The Episcopal Church’s Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori the other day for his show on the Public Broadcasting Service. I don’t watch Moyers because, frankly, I am not much for his style of one-sided journalism. Then again, I don’t really watch much broadcast journalism period. But enough readers pointed to this transcript of the interview that I gave it a read.

We have been able to read so many transcripts of interviews with Jefferts Schori. I love that. I wish other church leaders commanded the same amount of ink, pixels and television time. This interview is much less compelling than her previous ones, but it’s still so nice to read full answers to Moyers’ questions.

And about those questions . . . If you were able to secure an interview with the woman at the center of a major worldwide drama, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions that elicited some actual answers? Moyers’ questions are boring and friendly and as such they never help shed any light on any of the issues facing the Anglican Communion. Not that I’m surprised, but it’s still worth pointing out.

The interview focuses on three things: science vs. religion, homosexuality and women in leadership positions. I understand that these things are newsworthy and definitely need to be highlighed in an interview, but because of the narrow focus on those questions, he misses the infinitely more important things in religious life. Only an amateur would think that the divide in the Anglican Communion is over issues that only arose in the last few years. Yet the media insist on covering that way.

In general, Moyers’ questions persist in framing all the issues as the big bad meanies of traditional Christianity vs. the good and kindhearted noble people of Moyers’ liberalism. This is mostly a disservice to Jefferts Schori herself, since she keeps advocating a coexistence with those who do not share her theological views. Such a coexistence is not an acceptable theological position for those with a traditional Christian understanding, which is why her approach should be analyzed in more detail. Instead, Moyers just rams through his Us vs. Them agenda without really letting her explain or sell her plan. Even with some of his most leading and puffy questions, though, she retains her position.

One of the things I find interesting about media treatment of the religious divide over homosexuality is how it’s assumed that the defensive position must be taken by those who retain the Christian teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture. I certainly have no problem with such a media approach — so long as those who are pushing a different understanding of homosexuality are also put on the defensive. If anything, it makes more sense to pose tough questions of those advocating radical change than those who are keeping with a thousands-years-long teaching. This interview is a good example of the difficulty media types have with putting those who advocate radical change on the defensive.

Rather than focus on Jefferts Schori’s answers, take a look at Moyers’ questions and see if you think they do a good job of getting meaningful responses or uncovering any of the deeper conflict going on in the Anglican Communion right now:

BILL MOYERS: As I read about the conflict in your church, what I find is that both sides treat the Bible as their source, but they come to totally opposite conclusions as to what the Bible says. What do you make of that? As a scientist and a believer.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Our ways of reading Scripture shape the conclusions we come to. And often what we go looking for shapes the conclusions about what we read. I’ll give you a — you know, a loaded example. The story of David and Jonathan.

You know, Canonically, the traditional way of reading that has been about the friendship between two men. It says in the Scripture that David loved Jonathan with a love surpassing women. Many gay and lesbian people in our church today say, “This is a text — that says something constructive about the love between people of the same gender.” Yet our tradition has rarely been able to look at it with those eyes. I think that’s a fertile ground for some serious Biblical scholarship and some encounter from people who come to different conclusions.

BILL MOYERS: If biology, as I understand it does, tells us that homosexuality is — is a genetic given. And religion says homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, can those two perceptions ever be reconciled?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: How do we come to a conclusion that it’s a sin in the eyes of God?

BILL MOYERS: Well, you’re the –

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: What texts do we read that –

BILL MOYERS: But you know, all of your adversaries say that it is.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Well, I would have them go back to the very sources they find so black and white about that, and ask what’s the context of this passage? What was it written to address? What was going on underneath it that this appears to speak to? And I think we find when we do some very serious scholarship, that in almost every case, it’s speaking about a cultural context that looks nothing like the one in which we’re wrestling with homosexuality today.

BILL MOYERS: So how do you read — Jonathan and David, that story?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I think it’s got some– challenging things to say to us who have said for hundreds of years, thousands of years that it’s inappropriate for two men to love each other in that way.

Now Bill Moyers went to seminary and was ordained a minister. He’s not your average religiously ignorant television reporter. And while his views in support of the liberal agenda are well-known, why not ask less puffy questions? For instance, why not ask about David’s love affair with Bathsheba? The one where she got pregnant and he ended up killing her husband Uriah so he could cover up his sin. Ask how that fits into her theory that he’s gay. Ask whether the mention of something in Scripture equates to approval for same. In other words, even if you were to accept this view that Jonathan and David were lovers, does that mean that God approved? How does that fit in with other mentions in Scripture?

His question about biology is trendy but questionable science, but what I really found interesting was his belief that “religion” says homosexuality is a sin. What is religion? And why ask Jefferts Schori about “religion”? She’s not a representative of religion — she’s the leader of the Episcopal Church. Not all “religion” has the same approach to homosexuality. It’s like asking John Edwards why “politics” believes in socialized medicine, as if there is no difference among those who practice politics.

softball2More than anything, though, there are many verses in the Old and New Testaments of Scripture that condemn homosexual behavior. Some Christians — such as Jefferts Schori — interpret those to mean something less or different than the way they’ve been read for thousands of years. Why not ask her, specifically, about some of the verses? I might not recommend this for a lay reporter, but again, Moyers went to seminary.

BILL MOYERS: Well, many conservative, traditional Christians say that the homosexual life is not a holy life.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: They would say that it’s only holy if it’s celibate. And I think we’ve got more examples out of Scripture even to offer in challenge to that.

BILL MOYERS: But if it is a moral issue, is there a way somewhere between the positions on this? Or is it impossible for a church divided to agree on that way somewhere between the moral judgments?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I do believe it’s a moral issue because it’s about how we love our neighbor. It’s about how we live in relationship to God and our neighbors. When I look at other instances in church history, when we’ve been faced with something similar — the history in this country over the — over slavery. The church in the north. Much of it came to a different conclusion than the church in the south — about the morality of slavery.

What examples from Scripture does Jefferts Schori have to challenge the notion that homosexual behavior is holy? I’m sure she has them — it would be interesting to know a little bit about them and get some good follow-ups. In order to get good follow-ups, of course, Moyers would have to understand the position of Jefferts Schori’s theological opponents — something he clearly didn’t do his homework on.

And that Jefferts Schori is subtly comparing those who oppose church approval of homosexuality with those who supported slavery is profoundly interesting. A good journalist might ask some more incisive questions at just this point. We’re talking about a massive divide in the Anglican Communion. I sense that this point in the interview might be the best place to follow up and get a better understanding of where she sees her opponents. Later in the interview she compares those who support the traditional Christian view of homosexuality to those who fought Galileo. That might also have been a good place to dig deeper. Or maybe take a totally different approach here. Perhaps he could mention that while the Bible repeatedly condemns homosexual behavior, it never commands slavery. He could ask her how that fits into her understanding of which side is which in her slavery analogy. Instead, here’s how he lets the moment pass:

BILL MOYERS: It’s not my intention to hold Episcopalians up as the only arbiter of this issue because the Catholics are facing it, the Mormons are facing it, the Southern Baptist Convention is facing it. Orthodox Jews are facing it. And Islam, of course. Why are so many religious people uptight about sex?

Uptight? Uptight? So it’s not a legitimate view to oppose sex outside of marriage — it’s a hangup. Thank you, Bill Moyers, for that insightful follow-up question. This must be why you get paid the big bucks.

This puff question, part of his Us vs. Them series, isn’t designed for anything other than positioning Jefferts Schori as kind and goodhearted and the Archbishop of Uganda as evil:

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t this what liberals say? We would like to talk and have a dialogue and listen. But do you get that coming back from this? I mean, the [Archbishop] of Uganda would not meet with you. Now, you would be willing to meet and listen, but he won’t. How can there then be any kind of reconciliation?

Jefferts Schori responds by saying that the Archbishop of Uganda did meet with her and that they had a couple of conversations and agree about some things. A better reporter might — while still being friendly — ask about all the damage she is causing the church in Africa. Or somehow get both perspectives in there so she can answer from both sides.

Look at this exchange. Is this an interview? Does this illuminate anything? Does this put the subject on the spot? Is this a fair characterization of the Anglican Church in Nigeria?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Absolutely. Right, and the Anglican Archbishop has been working for a similar kind of law to outlaw all kinds of — not just homosexual activity, but even having conversations about it in public.

BILL MOYERS: Your colleague?


BILL MOYERS: Peter — Peter Akinola?


BILL MOYERS: How can you ever make peace with that kind of people? Or he with you?

I really am curious how she can make peace with that kind of people. Akinola has already stated his view that peace can only come through shared doctrinal understanding. He’s a huge influence in the worldwide Anglican Communion and he’s a force to be reckoned with. Asking puff questions in a comfy American studio doesn’t do much to illuminate whether this marriage can be saved. Moyers’ questions reinforced stereotypes about Africans — and Americans.

What questions would you have liked to see Moyers or other reporters ask Jefferts Schori, specifically pertaining to the African church? Or any other questions, for that matter? And what questions might you like to see asked of Archbishop Peter Akinola and his supporters in Africa and here in the United States?

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Of heteronormative plumbing and men

pipesI’m not terribly clear on why the federal government has a surgeon general, but it’s been one of the highest-ranked public health positions in the land since Ulysses S. Grant filled it with John Maynard Woodworth in 1871. President Bush’s nominee for the vacant seat is one Dr. James W. Holsinger, a University of Kentucky professor.

Holsinger has come under fire in the media and among some gay groups, mostly for a research paper he wrote for the United Methodist Church in 1991. While he’s not criticized for belonging to the United Methodist Church, which officially believes homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, he’s been criticized for belonging to a congregation that has a ministry to homosexuals who desire to leave homosexuality. He’s also been criticized for upholding church doctrine on approving same-sex unions or permitting ordination of gay clergy.

But the big news has been over the research paper. Major kudos to the Lexington Herald-Leader and ABC News for posting the paper online. In the paper, which is very brief but contains citations from The New England Journal of Medicine and The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, he argues that the male and female sex are “indeed complementary.” Nothing terribly earth shattering there. He also goes into great detail about the increased incidences of disease and trauma among those whose sexual behavior involves the gastrointestinal tract. The report was given to a committee studying whether to change the church’s position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The UMC retained its position.

Comparing the results of male homosexual behavior to those of male heterosexual behavior used to be a topic for discussion. Suffice to say that such comparisons are not frequently seen these days. I’m not sure why — if it’s changing ideas about the morality of homosexuality or political correctness dominating academia or a changed understanding of human sexuality and its ramifications in the medical community. I really don’t know why — but there has definitely been a change in how we discuss these issues.

It’s a very interesting story — not only because the topic is rather salacious but also because it says a lot about newsrooms, modern culture and how our approach to issues changes over time. One of the things that makes the report difficult to cover is that it basically lists studies showing higher incidences of medical problems associated with anal erotic behavior. Some of it is graphic, as medical issues tend to be. So media reports have focused on this section of the paper, which is written rather clearly and without graphic descriptions:

[I]t is clear that even primitive cultures understand the nature of waste elimination, sexual intercourse, and the birth of children. Indeed our own children appear to “intuitively” understand these facts. I think we should note that these simple “scientific” facts are the same in any culture — patriarchal or matriarchal, modern or primitive, Jewish or gentile, etc. The anatomic and physiologic facts of alimentation and reproduction simply do not change based on any cultural setting. In fact, the logical complementarity of the human sexes has been so recognized in our culture that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming various pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other. When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur as noted above.

Sarah Vos at the Herald-Leader characterized that section as follows:

Like male and female pipe fittings, certain male and female body parts are designed for each other, Holsinger wrote in a paper prepared for a United Methodist Church committee studying homosexuality.

Here’s how Associated Press reporter Jeffrey McMurray conveyed the report:

Sixteen years ago, he wrote a paper for the church in which he likened the reproductive organs to male and female “pipe fittings” and said homosexuality is therefore biologically unnatural.

Uh, not exactly. He said that it was so obvious how male and female genitalia were complementary and it was so well understood by everyone — even reporters, one could presume — that the terms male and female are used to describe pipe fittings. Again, he argues, the complementary nature of the sexes is so obvious that we even use the words male and female in other contexts. To say that he compared male and female genitalia to pipe fittings is to miss the point of his argument and make it seem less nuanced.

Either way, I’m not sure why that portion of the paper is so noteworthy. If it is noteworthy, it makes one pause — is it possible that the plumbing profession is suffering from heteronormativity? Is it a good thing that plumbers developed their vocabulary before political correctness took over? And how, exactly, would people who oppose Holsinger on this point recommend we rename pipes?

Jake Tapper’s article for ABC suffered from a horrible headline but his story was much better. First, the headline:

‘Homosexuality Isn’t Natural or Healthy’

Bush’s Choice for Top Doc Compared Human Genitalia to Pipe Fittings and Said Homosexual Practices Can Cause Injury or Death

Only problem with the headline is that Holsinger neither said nor wrote those words. We’ve already discussed the problem with the subhead.

Anyway, Tapper actually quoted in detail from the paper and showed some substantive responses to it under the heading “What Holsinger’s Paper Argues”:

Holsinger’s paper argued that male and female genitalia are complementary — so much so “that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other.” Body parts used for gay sex are not complementary, he wrote. “When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur.”

Holsinger wrote that “[a]natomically the vagina is designed to receive the penis” while the anus and rectum — which “contain no natural lubricating function” — are not. “The rectum is incapable of mechanical protection against abrasion and severe damage … can result if objects that are large, sharp or pointed are inserted into the rectum,” Holsinger wrote.

The explanation goes on for three more paragraphs. Precisely because summation of controversial issues doesn’t work well for reporters, Tapper handled this brilliantly. He explained difficult words, quoted directly and somewhat extensively from the paper and put it in context of the question the church was trying to answer. He also went on to quote a number of people, such as the head of the Kinsey Institute, who surprisingly doesn’t agree with Holsinger. The head of the Kinsey Institute also accuses Holsinger of being political, which is kind of funny.

It might have been good to get some quotes from neutral observers, less political observers or more religiously oriented observers. To that end, I thought Vos at the Herald-Leader did a good job of putting Holsinger’s professional views — as opposed to his religious views as a Methodist — into focus:

Holsinger’s colleagues at the University of Kentucky were surprised to learn of the views expressed in the 1991 paper. They said his personal objections to homosexuality — if he had any — would not affect policy decisions as surgeon general.

They pointed to a 2002 incident in which Holsinger, then chancellor of the UK Medical Center, defended a session on lesbian health issues at a women’s health conference over the objection of two state senators. The senators threatened to withhold funding because of the 90-minute session.

Phyllis Nash, who organized the conference, said Holsinger did not have to be persuaded to defend the session. “He basically said we are obligated as individuals to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of orientation.”

At the time, Holsinger defended the session in a Herald-Leader article. “It’s important to educate health care professionals on the issues that surround lesbians,” he said. “It’s important professionals have the knowledge base to do care for these patients in a quality manner.”

It was this vignette that made the story particularly interesting for me. Not that we really know the extent of Holsinger’s personal views or religious views on homosexuality, but let’s say Holsinger has the view that his religious beliefs on this topic should have no bearing on his professional vocation. How does that compare with those Roman Catholic politicians such as John Kerry and Rudy Guiliani who support abortion rights despite their personal view that it is horrible? That it literally destroys an innocent human life? Do you see any differences in how the media treat this issue?

And which angles and approaches on this surgeon general story would you recommend?

NOTE: And since homosexuality is a somewhat controversial subject for some of us, please remember to keep your comments on the topic we discuss here — how the mainstream media treat religious issues. We’re not here to discuss the relative merits of homosexual behavior vs. heterosexual behavior or even how churches handle the issue of sexuality. If you want to discuss those things, please feel free to do so elsewhere.

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The anti-IOKIYAR Right

GiulianiSpeechThomas B. Edsall wrote Thursday on The Huffington Post about how some Republicans are working to persuade others that IOKIYAR (for “It’s OK If You’re a Republican”) should not apply to Rudy Giuliani.

Edsall writes that the two primary anti-Giuliani groups are The Conservative Declaration of Independence and Fidelis, both based in Michigan. He also mentions blogger Steve Dillard of Southern Appeal, who is working on a Catholics Against Rudy website. (Evangelicals for Mitt already exists, of course. Will we eventually see Catholics and Evangelicals Together Against Mitt and Rudy?)

Edsall strikes a tone of skepticism about the tactics and motives of The Conservative Declaration and Fidelis:

The early success of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid has provoked a groundswell of opposition from disparate forces including conservative Catholics, remnants of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns and regional political operatives seeking to break into the Republican firmament.

The opposition is united in its determination to block Giuliani, a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, from becoming the GOP’s standard bearer. But lurking just beneath the surface is another motive for these anti-Giuliani conservatives: cash. The groups hope to benefit from a large constituency of donors willing to write big checks to bring down the former New York City mayor. The donors include backers of Giuliani’s competitors as well as ideologues of the right.

The story has not yet received attention from a major media outlet, but Shir Haberman of the Portsmouth Herald has covered it.

On a related note, longtime conservative activist Grover Norquist tells Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone that early polling suggests the Religious Right does not dominate the GOP after all:

You can make the argument that some candidates would be more enthusiastic about going further on the social conservative agenda, and some may well excite the leadership of the social conservative movement, but I don’t believe that it moves votes. Take a look at how McCain and Giuliani and Romney are polling. Who are the three top guys? Pat Robertson sees two pagans and a Mormon. Everybody’s heard that Giuliani dressed up in drag. If my analysis was wrong, would he be polling as well as he is? Romney is a Mormon, which evangelicals see as theologically flawed, and McCain picked a public fight in 2000 with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Those are the three Republicans polling the best!

If 40 percent of the GOP base truly had Dobson’s 20 point test then a candidate such as Huckabee should be one of the frontrunners. He’s not, and that’s why I think my analysis is the correct one. The press is going to want to talk about and solicit quotations from self-appointed leaders about how unacceptable certain of these candidates are. I don’t think that translates. You have to convince people that one of these candidates would work actively against their privacy zone on faith and childrearing. And I’m not sure that anyone of them is going to fail that test.

Clearly the voting in early primaries will matter more than any poll, but Norquist makes a good argument.

Edsall compares the anti-Giuliani groups to the Swift Vets. That feels too dismissive. What bears watching is whether social conservatives will push more for the candidate they support than against the candidates they believe are bad for the party or the nation. What’s clear, at least from Edsall’s work, is that if IOKIYAR prevails in the end, it will not do so without resistance from some quarters of the Republican Party. For now, they’re being written off (at least by Edsall) as well-funded ideologues. But, then, that criticism could apply to any political partisan.

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‘They made us cry’

Young Terri SchavioUSA Today‘s “Lives of indelible impact” is one of the stranger lists I’ve seen for some time. The concept is not new, as Beliefnet has published its “Most Inspiring Person of the Year” feature for several years now. Within context, the list makes sense: To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the newspaper is publishing 25 lists of 25 items each.

“Lives of indelible impact” is list No. 10, which makes me want to see what else the paper’s editors will enumerate. The first nine lists were of trends, quotes, books, lucrative stocks, NFL draft moments, Internet breakthroughs, public meltdowns (Jimmy Swaggart’s was tops), TV moments and inventions.

What’s strange about this list is that it finds inspiration in several victims of circumstance. “They blazed trails. They showed courage,” the introduction reads. So far, so good. Then this: “They made us cry.”

Consider the paper’s entry on Terry Schiavo:

In 1990 at 26, she mysteriously collapsed and suffered brain damage. Eventually, her husband wanted her feeding tube removed to let her die. Her parents argued she was conscious and gave TV media film of her seeming to smile. They battled in court and Congress. Her husband prevailed; she died after the tube was removed in 2005. Her case prompted greater use of living wills.

Yes, living wills! Never mind that many pro-lifers saw Schiavo’s death as an outrageous state-sanctioned murder, while many others saw the legal wrangling preceding her death as an outrageous intrusion of the state into a family matter. The ABC After-School Special moment in it all was the importance of drafting a living will. What attorney’s breast would not be inflamed with professional pride?

Consider as well these victims of random suffering, who either died quickly or were too young to do anything about their situation.

The astronauts on the Challenger:

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986 as millions of horrified TV viewers watched. All seven crewmembers died, including Christa McAuliffe, an eager junior high school teacher who was scheduled to teach two lessons from space.

Megan Kanka and Jessica Lunsford:

Their deaths frightened us into action. The girls, ages 7 and 9, respectively, were raped and murdered, Megan in 1994 and Jessica in 2005, each by a convicted sex offender. To protect other children, states and Congress passed laws that require sex offenders to register their addresses.

Jessica McClure:

Her ordeal captivated a nation. She was 18 months old when she fell into a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987. Rescuers worked 58 hours to free her from an 8-inch-wide pipe. McClure, 21, married last year and had a baby girl. “She’s just a normal person with a famous name,” says her high school principal, Scott Knippa.

“Baby M”:

She is the baby who first illuminated the thorny issues of surrogate parenting. Melissa Stern, her real name, is the biological child of William Stern and Mary Beth Whitehead, the surrogate hired to carry her. Once she was born, a tearful Whitehead refused to give her up. A court awarded Stern custody. Melissa is a junior at George Washington University in Washington.

Elian Gonzalez:

He was 5 when the small boat carrying him and 13 others escaping Cuba sank in 1999, killing his mother. He survived on an inner tube and was taken in by relatives in Miami. His father in Cuba wanted him back, and Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his return. When the relatives balked, armed federal agents stormed their house and found Elian hiding in the closet. He lives with his father.

Again, so long as the corpses or the abused children embodied a cause, they led lives of “indelible impact.”

USA Today makes several choices that only a grinch would reject, including the heroes of 9/11, Nelson Mandela, Lance Armstrong, Ryan White, the “Man at Tiananmen Square” (the one who faced down a tank, not the many who died there) and Arthur Ashe.

When praising an occasional believer, the paper airbrushes away features that made the believer compelling. The piece praises Pope John Paul II for asking forgiveness for the church’s past sins but ignores his full-throated orthodoxy (think of his celebrating Mass in Poland and in Nicaragua). It praises Mother Teresa for her decades of tending to the sick and dying but does not mention her frequent pro-life remarks. It mentions Muhammad Ali but omits the reason for his adopted name: his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

In the pages of USA Today, it does not matter if these people lived heroically or were murdered or were abducted at gunpoint: They all look like Hummel figurines.

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Waiting for Oneness

ForYourConsideration 01In the May 28 issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes a brief piece in the spirit of Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” in which the theme of a social gathering feels at odds with the upscale surroundings. Here the gathering’s theme is spiritual enlightenment, featuring the actress and recently published author Ellen Burstyn (Lessons in Becoming Myself) and Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love).

Cindy Adams, gossip columnist for the New York Post, is the party’s host, and she makes an easy target with her pampered dogs (one of whom she feeds a pastry held in her mouth) and her Park Avenue apartment, which previously was home to Doris Day.

But let’s get on to the spiritual content. One passage includes a silent cameo appearance by actress Parker Posey, and it has the same humor of Posey’s roles in Christoper Guest’s improv films:

Burstyn, who was to appear that evening at the 92nd Street Y with Williamson, stood under Duke’s black ceiling and explained that her memoir, “Lessons in Becoming Myself,” concerned her life’s spiritual journey. “I’m a Sufi,” she explained, with a beneficent smile. “I like the expression ‘I am one cell in the mind of God.’” Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” was telling Parker Posey that she had recently bought an eighteenth-century Presbyterian church in New Jersey to live in. “It’s very Yankee, with fifteen-foot wavy-glass windows,” Gilbert said, before adding that Julia Roberts had signed on to star in the movie version of her book. Gilbert said that she had asked her sister, a historian, whether she should beware of ghosts: “She said, ‘Presbyterians won’t bother you, with your yoga and your Buddhas and your cursing. It’s not like they’re Methodists.’”

Poor Methodists: The United Methodist Church can hardly be accused of hardcore doctrine wars these days, but its members must endure jokes that were surely funnier about 80 years ago.

There’s also this confusing note about Billy Joel, who for many years made much of being an atheist:

“The women I know are all gravitating to a much more spiritual place,” [April] Kramer said, at which her friend Myra Scheer, who raises money for the Rainforest Foundation Fund, laid her hand on a pearl peace-symbol pendant that she was wearing over her Dolce & Gabbana suit. “I went to a Kabbalah course, and it said that women have to bring light to men,” Scheer said. Among the men to whom Scheer had brought light was Billy Joel, who wore a pendant like hers onstage at the last Rainforest Foundation Fund benefit. “Though he didn’t wear pearls — he wore Swarovski crystals,” she said.

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T.D. Jakes and the mighty Quinn

TD Jakes 2This one comes to you from deep inside tmatt’s GetReligion guilt file, so please hang in there with me for a moment.

One of the hardest things to teach student journalists is that a true news feature story is not simply a long news story. A feature has to have a unique structure all its own and cannot be just another inverted-pyramid story, only two or three times longer.

And then there is personality profile, which is the news-feature form that I think is the hardest to write, especially here in Washington. It’s hard to find people who will talk on the record, with candor, about truly powerful people. It’s so easy to let the story be one-sided, a kind of soft PR package in which powerful politicians (or preachers) are framed totally in the glowing words of people who work for them.

You simply have to find those honest, critical (which is not the same thing as negative) voices to give new insights. And there is one other sin to avoid, a sin that young journalists fall into so easily. A true personality profile is not a long, long, long interview with the subject of the interview. That’s too easy.

Thus, I have never been a fan of those first-person Rolling Stone feature stories, the ones in which the reader is supposed to be so impressed that the author of the story is right there, face to face with the remarkable celebrity who is being profiled. You know the kind of story I’m talking about, the kind that begins with one of those ledes that sounds something like this: “Julia Roberts and I are driving through L.A. and, for once, there is no traffic in sight, primarily because it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and we’re coming from a hot party at Brad Pitt’s secret apartment near the Sunset Strip. Julia is driving and she has, at my request, let that famous hair of hers blow loose in the night air.” Etc., etc., etc.

I made that up, but you know the kind of cover story I’m talking about.

This brings us to newsroom diva Sally Quinn‘s recent Washington Post profile of the Rev. T.D. Jakes, written, of course, for the slightly Rolling Stone-ish Style section. The headline set the mood: “Bishop T.D. Jakes: Living Large, and Letting Go — At Midlife, The Minister Is Wondering What’s Next.” It’s a long feature, even though it is, essentially, coverage of a tour to promote the Dallas superstar’s latest book.

Am I the only religion writer who is having trouble (click here for background) adapting to the idea what Sally “On Faith” Quinn is now one of America’s top writers on this beat? And if this is a profile of Jakes, where are the other voices in this piece, voices other than those of Quinn and Jakes? Where are the voices that provide a skeleton of facts about Jakes and what he believes? This man has plenty of critics. Where are they? Instead we get this opening, which sets the tone for the whole piece:

He’s about to turn 50, and to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. It’s time to take stock.

Is he happy? Satisfied?

Why wouldn’t he be? This is the fabulous Bishop T.D. Jakes. Neo-Pentecostal preacher of the famous mega-church Potter’s House in Dallas. He is a best-selling author, TV personality and head of TDJ Enterprises, which produces books, music and films. His church now has more than 30,000 members and when he last preached in Atlanta he drew more people than Billy Graham ever has. He lives in a mansion, drives a fancy car and wears sharp clothes. He is very, very big, literally and figuratively.

Still, he pauses a long time. “I am becoming satisfied,” he says finally. “I feel like I have little to prove and none to impress. I’m starting to settle in like a bear in a cave in winter. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. I’m finding my own sweet spot and I’m enjoying these years.”

This is what he recommends — for you and for me, for all of us.

Truth be told, there are interesting quotes here. The reader does see Jakes through a unique lens, by which I mean the lens of what interests Quinn as one of The. Most. Important. Journalistic. Voices. Of. Our. Time. Way. Way. Way. Inside. The. Beltway. I am having trouble imagining the Post letting any other writer get away with this anti-profile, even Bob Woodward (who is famous for getting the powerful to open up and talk about each other).

So read the whole feature and see if you can find anything new about Jakes. Who is this story really about?

Your guess is as good as mine.

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Archbishop Williams: Bishop to G7

WilliamsAtDeskThe Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, showed one of his more decisive moments on Tuesday by announcing that he would not invite two bishops — Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire and Martyn Minns of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America — to the Lambeth Conference next year in England. The significance of his decision is captured well in reports by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, Julia Duin of The Washington Times and Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press.

Each reporter brings illuminating details to the story. Duin makes the connection that Williams has declined to invite not only Minns, the U.S.-based bishop consecrated by the Church of Nigeria, but also the bishops of the Anglican Mission in the Americas. Williams’ predecessor, George Carey, repudiated the consecration of AMIA’s first two bishops, but AMIA has continued under the care of the Archbishop of Rwanda.

All three reporters have background remarks from the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, the Anglican Communion’s secretary-general, who stresses that neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor Kearon’s office recognizes CANA as a member church of the Anglican Communion. Goodstein writes:

[Kearon] said there was “no parallel” between Bishop Robinson and Bishop Minns, a rector who was installed as a bishop in Virginia this month by Archbishop Akinola, a crossing of boundaries that the archbishop of Canterbury criticized.

Bishop Minns heads a consortium of churches that have left the Episcopal Church, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Canon Kearon said the convocation was not a recognized body of the Anglican Communion.

Zoll does a fine job of reviewing the recent history that brings the archbishop to this decision, and of the next scenes in this drama:

Anglican leaders have given the U.S. denomination until Sept. 30 to step back from its support of gays or risk losing its full membership in the communion. The Episcopal bishops will meet next on Sept. 20 in New Orleans.

“This decision places the vast majority of American bishops along with others throughout the world in an embarrassing position,” said the Rev. Martin Reynolds of Britain’s Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. “If they accept their Lambeth invitations this might appear to support bishop Robinson’s victimization, while if they reject the invitation they will abandon our communion to the homophobes.”

Activists on both the left and the right have trash-talked the Archbishop of Canterbury with astonishing frequency in recent years. It seems that both sides are all for being part of the Anglican Communion, except when it requires sacrifice for the sake of their theological counterparts. Both sides invest time and money in sending activists, lobbyists and writers to the Lambeth Conference, although one of the most constant refrains about Lambeth is that its role is advisory rather than legislative. (Like any good Anglican meeting the Lambeth Conference plows through reams and reams of paper and the bishops vote on many resolutions — or at least they have in recent decades. That may change in 2008.)

With his action this week, Archbishop Williams has demonstrated that he’s able to play as good a round of Anglican chess as any American. He has shown resolve. He has shown, above all, that groups of Anglicans cannot always expect their actions to be free of consequences. All three reports mention the response of both the left and the right that a lot can change in the 14 months between now and Lambeth. Whether it will change for the better now depends in large part on whether they respond to Williams’ well-played hand with wisdom and charity or simply with more demands.

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