Enough with J.F.K., already

JFKinHoustonTime‘s Nancy Gibbs praised John F. Kennedy in mid-May as the model of how Mitt Romney should respond to potential voters who have theological misgivings about his quest for the presidency.

Now, in an issue of Time devoted to what America can learn from Kennedy’s example, Gibbs commends the 35th president as the model for how any candidate should frame personal faith.

Gibbs laces her report with relevant facts and writes it elegantly, but she never quite establishes why J.F.K.’s model is so needed today, other than asserting that “Kennedy provided the case study for candidates ever since who have faced some version of the Religion Test.”

What’s important is that no candidate — including Romney — faces a test that’s quite comparable to what Kennedy faced. Yes, some people have wondered about the extent that Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might influence his decisions as president.

But I’m not aware of any Romney critics who have said of the LDS anything that compares to this from the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, remarking on Kennedy’s candidacy: “All we ask is that Roman Catholicism lift its bloody hand from the throats of those that want to worship in the church of their choice.”

Romney could, like Kennedy, make this promise that Gibbs reports: “If the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office.”

Such a promise would not, however, address the theological misgivings of evangelicals who worry about such things in a political context (I am not among them), or the anxieties of a Romney critic such as Jacob Weisberg, who has written:

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist — a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

I find it reassuring that American politics is not generally hobbled by the anti-Catholicism of the early 1960s or by Weisberg’s facile equation of fundamentalism with fanaticism.

Kennedy’s vanquishing of the anti-Catholics of his day is an inspiring story, to be sure. Most of the candidates in this race do not have to defeat similar spiritual prejudices. Romney is making clear that if he overcomes anti-Mormon prejudices, he will do it by some means other than delivering a “What J.F.K. Said” speech.

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Jobu doesn’t help with curve balls either

santeriaAfter I posted Tim Townsend’s story on Christian Family Day at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, a few readers sent along an article on baseball and Santeria. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter penned a thorough and engaging account of the rise of Santeria practice among Major League players from Latin America:

On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.

“If you see my saints, you’ll be like ‘Golly, they’re ugly,’” Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. “They’ve got blood. They’ve got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes. My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see.”

Guillen’s religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha — multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature — with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.

The article is fantastic, but I had one problem with it. Baxter repeatedly says the religion is misunderstood without substantiating that it’s misunderstood. He references a scene from the movie Major League where the religion is joked about (I riffed on this for the post’s headline) and says that “Judeo-Christian society” dismisses the religion as a blood-letting cult. But no one who has a problem with Santeria is actually quoted in the article — either anti-animal cruelty advocates or religious opponents. It is at the very least theoretically possible that people oppose, joke about or dismiss Santeria while fully cognizant of what it teaches. I’m not sure it’s up to the reporter to be the arbiter of what’s understood and what’s misunderstood. Rather, he should report about it and let the reader decide. Including quotes from practitioners who feel it is misunderstood is perfectly acceptable, but crossing the editorial line to make a judgment about same is questionable.

Other than that, however, the piece is remarkably thorough and smart, particularly considering its writer’s expertise is sports. Baxter explains how Santeria practitioners sacrifice vegetables as well as animals and have complex relationships with chosen saints. He also talks to athletes who have felt their religious views were under attack:

“When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you’re a monster,” said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos. “Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how. Because in this country there’s so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.

“People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don’t blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country.”

Guillen said there’s another popular misconception with Santeria — indeed, with many religions — and that’s the belief that how you worship will determine how you play.

“Some people think because [their] religion works they’re going to get a hit or pitch better,” he said “That’s no reason to do it. I think the main reason to have a religion is faith and belief. No matter what you believe and what you have faith in, you have to make it work.

Not that I don’t find baseball to be the game with the most similarities to religion, but it’s still shocking to see a sportswriter get religion better than almost all the other reporters out there. Good work, Baxter.

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Obama’s ‘awesome’ testimony

barack obama 01We have, I realize, already had a post by young master Daniel Pulliam about the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech to the national convention of his own mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. Well here comes another one, because I think the emerging religious left (Religious Left?) is a major news story that deserves more coverage.

The key issue with the Obama speech was whether the Associated Press did readers a service by focusing on the political angle, his latest round of criticism of the Religious Right, while ignoring the personal, spiritual side of the address — his own journey into Christian faith.

Readers were divided, with some believing that the faith element was old news.

… Obama has told his conversion story many times, including in his bestselling autobiography and again at Sojourners‘ “Pentecost” conference last year. It ain’t news no more …
jim, June 26, 2007, at 9:51 am

Like Pulliam, I think the faith angle was the stronger, fresher story. To answer Jim’s comment, the candidate’s supporters (Sojourners, et al.) may know about his faith, along with those who have actually read his books. The faith element has also been written about quite a bit here inside the Beltway.

But, friends, it is also very, very old news that Obama thinks the Religious Right has given Christianity a bad name. Meanwhile, the actual number of speeches in which he has gone out of his way to express his own faith experience in language that echoes the language of evangelical Christianity is rather small. That’s why, in my opinion, this speech was so important. This pulpit-friendly orator is going to help shape debates inside many evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox congregations about faith and politics in the post-George W. Bush era.

So I thought I would post, this week, my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard — since it focuses on the spiritual elements of the Obama address, while offering a brief glimpse of the religious and doctrinal conflicts that conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews are going to continue to have with his liberal political and, perhaps, theological beliefs.

Let me also note that reporters faced a common, but still interesting, challenge in covering this speech. Obama made some small, but important, changes as he delivered the speech. Thus, some news stories feature quotes from the written text when, in reality, he said something different to the UCC crowd.

Here is a small and, perhaps, symbolic example. It’s the sort of small edit that people will sit around and debate, if they know it exists. In the section of the speech about his conversion, Obama wrote:

… kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

When delivering the speech, Obama changed “truth” to “truths” — which does match the plural noun “works” at the end of the line. Still, I think this plural “truths” reference might show up, sooner or later, in a Dr. James Dobson newsletter or some similar Christian niche-media location. The left tends to avoid references to “truth” — singular.

I suggest that anyone really interested in this speech watch the video archived at the UCC site (this requires, to my elitist shock, Windows Media Player). Meanwhile, here is the top of my Scripps Howard column:

Play the right guitar chords and worshippers in megachurch America will automatically start singing these words: “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom power and love, our God is an awesome God.”

So Barack Obama caused raised eyebrows when he turned to that page in the evangelical songbook during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,” he said, in the speech that made him a rising star. “We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. … We are one people.”

Obama has mixed gospel images and liberal politics ever since and his ability to reach pews without frightening the skeptical elites is crucial to his White House hopes.

Thus, all kinds of people paid close attention last week when he spoke to the 50th anniversary convention of the United Church of Christ, a small flock that has proudly set the pace for liberal Christianity. At the heart of his speech was his own spiritual rebirth two decades ago, when he responded to an altar call by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“He introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” said Obama. “I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle … and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. … But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works.”

And here’s the rest of the column.

Photo: Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

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Found: great story incorporating religion

LostPhone2I know what it is like to lose a cell phone, wallet or keys. There was that time when I left my wallet at the beach. Another time I dropped my cell phone out of my pocket at a baseball game. Then there was the incident of leaving my cell phone on the Metro train.

In each case, my property was returned to me, thankfully, but not without a whole lot of prayer and hoping. In each case, I was extremely grateful to these people, and describing them as “saints” would accurately portray how I felt about them.

As an experienced loser of things, I found Monica Hesse’s feature in Wednesday’s Washington Post on “Good Samaritans” expecting handouts in exchange for their deeds spot on and a fascinating look at our culture’s view of the moral act of giving stuff back to the rightful owner:

But some people never sign that pact. Some people exploit their roles as finders to make a quick buck. Some people are Bad Samaritans.

Jeremy Wilson-Simerman, a congressional staff assistant, left his cellphone on a Red Line Metro train and encountered his own Bad Samaritan. The phone’s finder wanted a reward. Wilson-Simerman suggested $10. The finder suggested $450. Wilson-Simerman suggested the finder was crazy. He never saw his phone again.

Bad form, says Davy Rothbart, editor of Found, a magazine featuring photographs of lost objects. “It’s a violation of the human code if you find something that’s clearly important to someone else and you don’t return it,” he says.

As the Rev. Al Sharpton told atheist Christopher Hitchens recently, exactly who establishes the moral code that says it is “bad form” to fail to return another person’s lost object if you don’t appeal to a higher moral source? If there’s no higher power, what’s wrong with extracting a little money out of them as payment?

Rather than relying on a random editor, Hesse turns to the Bible and another minister to establish what many Americans consider the standard for what is right and wrong:

“It’s a sin,” says the Rev. Thomas Kalita, pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Olney. “Any time a person holds onto property that he or she knows belongs to another person without the intention of giving it right back [he] is dishonest.”

It’s all there in Deuteronomy 22:1-4 (not the part about cellphones, but the general concept), illustrated with those all-purpose biblical examples, farm animals. In part: “If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him.”

The passage does not, hopeful reader, conclude with “after demanding 50 shekels.”

This biblical admonition is at the root of our current criminal code, which labels the practice extortion.

How often do you see that in a major media publication in the United States? The art accompanying the article relies on the biblical Good Samaritan story that so has become engrained into our culture’s moral fabric.

Including basic moral foundations in feature articles touching on issues of right and wrong — not preaching, but explaining — can only strengthen such articles. Who out there would disagree that failing to return a person’s lost property on request places them in any other moral category than “sinner”? Thank the Lord for the saints out there.

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A bête noir of fundamentalist-phobics

EdithAndFrancisSchaefferAs a Salon Premium subscriber, I recently signed on for a free 12-month subscription to Reason. I had seen the magazine on occasion in public libraries, and the subscription has been rewarding enough that I’m likely to become a paying subscriber once the free year has expired.

Contributing editor Cathy Young is one of Reason‘s brighter lights, so when I saw a line in the September issue (not yet online) promoting her reflection on Jerry Falwell’s mixed legacy, I brightened in anticipation of a good contrarian reading on the man from Lynchburg. Then I hit one of those tidy factoids so fatuous that it derails an otherwise entertaining argument:

Francis Schaeffer, a fundamentalist champion of “dominion theology,” reportedly helped allay Falwell’s stated fears of tainting religion with politics. Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule America under the guidance of biblical law. His followers include the radical “Christian Reconstructionists” who would impose Old Testament law — requiring the stoning of homosexuals, for example — in America. In a 2005 report for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bob Moser quotes former Falwell ghostwriter Mel White as saying that Schaeffer “convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with ‘nonbelievers in a political cause.”

This came as news to me. As a younger man in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, I was drawn enough to Schaeffer’s writing to attend a regional premiere of his pro-life film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (which was picketed by pro-choice Unitarians); to use vacation time for several week-long summer conferences; and to spend two months at the Boston-area branch of L’Abri Fellowship, the study center he founded in Switzerland.

If any of these Schaefferite endeavors had sessions devoted to praising dominionism or stoning gay people, I must have been taking a nap. The only L’Abri conference reference to dominionism I could recall was a question from the audience, and it prompted criticism of dominionism’s proponents. I checked the index for the Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. Nope: Not a single reference to dominionism or to its best-known proponent (and Schaeffer contemporary), R.J. Rushdoony.

On a similar note: Richard Land pointed out in a recent interview with the radio show Interfaith Voices that, despite Kevin Phillips’ belief that dominionists have hijacked the Southern Baptist Convention, he knows of only about six dominionist pastors in the SBC, and they are all seen as fringe-element kooks.

I found the report by Bob Moser that Young referred to, and it offered a bit more detail:

But Falwell, like other fundamentalists, worried about “tainting” his religious message by mixing it with politics.

The Rev. Mel White, an evangelical writer and filmmaker who ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography, says Falwell was led to politics in part by Dr. Francis Schaeffer, a rebellious fundamentalist who had begun spreading the word about “dominion theology” and who many see as the father of the anti-abortion movement.

Dubbed the “Guru of Fundamentalists” by Newsweek in 1982, Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule the U.S. — and the world — using biblical law. That meant winning elections.

“Dr. Schaeffer,” says White, “convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with ‘nonbelievers’ in a political cause.”

Schaeffer was admired by a radical group of fundamentalist thinkers called Christian Reconstructionists. Led by Orthodox Presbyterian minister R.J. Rushdoony, the Reconstructionists argued that the Second Coming couldn’t occur until the faithful established a “Biblical kingdom.”

Democracy, which Rushdoony called “the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” would be replaced by strict Old Testament law — meaning the death penalty for homosexuality, along with a host of other “abominations,” including heresy, astrology, and (for women only) “unchastity before marriage.”

Still, there’s nothing more here than Schaeffer’s convincing Falwell that there was no scandal in Christians working with non-Christians on shared political concerns, and his being admired — for whatever reason — by Reconstructionists.

Schaeffer affirmed the common Christian belief that Jesus is Lord of all creation. Nothing in his work suggests, however, that Christians therefore ought to establish a theocracy in the United States or any other nation, much less to gather stones to hurl at anyone. I’ve yet to see an argument to the contrary that amounts to anything more than feverish speculation built on a foundation of hearsay.

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Attack of the vague real-estate zealots

TexasMapHere’s a rather obvious statement: There are a lot of churches in Texas.

Thus, I would think that the average newspaper editor in Texas would understand that there are a lot of different kinds of churches and that they are not all alike, when it comes to their beliefs and practices.

Sometimes, you can even learn a lot about a church just by knowing its name. You think? Please take my word on this, seeing as how I am a prodigal Texan and all of that.

This brings us to a bizarre little business story in The Daily News of Galveston, which came to my attention via journalist Mark Kellner, a friend of this blog. It seems that there is a controversial real-estate deal going down in Galveston, and one of the central players — his name is Darren Sloniger — is part of a Chicago-area church that is very strange, according to the newspaper.

That’s about all we know about it. This story is so vague, I am struggling to decide what category to file it in here at GetReligion. As Kellner noted, in his email to us:

There’s no mention of the name of the church in question, what it believes, or whether its theology is considered normal or aberrant. There’s a claim of “brainwashing” but only a mention of the church being “nondenominational” in the 20th paragraph.

No one from a nearby school — Baylor or Rice come to mind regionally — is quoted on this. No one from Wheaton, which is arguably much closer to Elgin, Ill., than Baylor. The “religious zealot” charge is allowed to hang in midair, and they call this a news story?

It seems that Sloniger believes that God has helped guide his work in real-estate and that this has been very good for his congregation, where he apparently is a volunteer in the pulpit from time to time. Here is the heart of the story:

Pirates’ Beach resident Nancy Higgs said she and a few friends spent a lot of time doing Internet research on Sloniger. When she found a link to an audio recording of the message the developer gave to his church last December, she was appalled.

“It’s very sensationalized,” she said. “His approach to church is brainwashing. This guy’s a crazed religious zealot.”

Sloniger’s message, delivered the first Sunday the congregation moved into its new building, outlines the details of how the church acquired the property and paid for the facility through several well-timed real-estate transactions. Throughout the message, Sloniger credited God with aligning circumstances in the church’s favor and working to bless the congregation’s ministry.

Higgs said she thought Galvestonians, whom she described as more conventionally religious, would be interested to know Sloniger actually believed the events in which he was involved were totally driven by God.

What in the world does “conventionally religious” mean?

With a few clicks of a mouse and help from Google, it’s pretty easy to find out that the congregation in question is West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, Ill. After a quick tour of the website, I would have to say that this is a pretty ordinary looking suburban megachurch that is still on the rise.

While the website is snazzy, yet vague on the details, I really don’t see anything there that sets off the zealot alarms for me. The co-pastors are both linked, at the educational level, to the completely mainstream Independent Christian Churches. In fact, I must confess that I used to teach at Milligan College, a liberal arts college linked to that nondenominational movement.

However, there is, in fact, a link to a Sloniger sermon titled “The Story of Our Building … How We Did It.” If the contents are that bizarre, it seems that it would have been rather easy for The Daily News to have featured a few zealous direct quotations to allow readers to make that decision for themselves.

Actually, it appears that the preacher/real-estate entrepreneur’s worst sin — at least as far as we know — is a willingness to deal with (wait for it) the demons at Wal-Mart. If he sold land to Wal-Mart in Illinois, then he might do it again in Galveston.

That may, in fact, be a sin in the eyes of the Galveston locals. However, The Daily News sure as heck-fire owed its readers more information about this church, if the editors there were going to let its critics throw around words like “zealot” and “brainwashing.” They could at least have provided the name of the church, so readers could have looked up information on their own — since it seems there was no time for a reporter to do that background work.

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‘I am Ax Ishmael,’ again

Hagar   Ishmael Augo4Right after the massacre at Virginia Tech, I wrote an emotional post in which I wondered aloud when the “religion shoe” was going to drop in this story.

Not long after that, I ended another post on a related topic with this note:

Speaking of conspiracy theories, I am receiving all kinds of email about the alleged contents of the Cho suicide videotapes and speculating as to why officials are not releasing transcripts. The assumption, of course, is that they contain waves of religious language — specifically curses against Christianity. I am not interested in another wave of rumors. However, has anyone seen or heard a solid mainstream story on the tapes and the silence from authorities?

Earlier this week, The Washington Post gave us glimpses of what investigators are learning about the heart, mind and soul of Seung Hui Cho, and it is clear that religion is a big part of the story. However, the details are still murky and, quite frankly, I am still fascinated that we are not reading the actual language of Cho himself, in terms of direct quotes in which he explains — rationally or not — why he did what he did.

It’s the same silence and I am still worried about it.

But the new Post story by Sari Horwitz does offer a lot of new information. Here’s the main headline: “Va. Tech Shooter Seen as ‘Collector of Injustice’ — Cho Had Vendetta Against Society, Federal Agents Suggest.”

Society? Check this out:

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called “Ax Ishmael” before his rampage. In the days and weeks leading up to the massacre of 32 students and faculty members, Cho changed his personality from passive to active. On the morning of the shootings, which the agents say were motivated by a vendetta against society, he tried to further erase his identity by deleting his Hotmail account from his computer. In addition, he removed the hard drive, and investigators have not been able to find it, the agents say.

When police found Cho’s body inside a Norris Hall classroom, the words “Ax Ishmael” were scrawled in red on his left arm, and notes and tapes he left also referred to them.

Investigators think “Ax Ishmael” is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of Hagar, a maidservant to Sarah, and the prophet Abraham. Ishmael lived as an outcast, and his brother Isaac was favored. Writings that Cho left in his dorm room, sent to the Virginia Tech English Department and mailed to NBC reveal twisted references to religion as part of his identity.

When, as a journalist, I read that material sent to a school and to a network reveal “twisted references to religion,” then I immediately think that the reporter is about to give me examples — direct quotes. I want the real stuff, the facts of what was said.

While Cho tried to erase parts of the story, it is clear that there is a lot of material out there. Investigators — and journalists — have a lot of information. I am not sure the public needs to read all of it. But, as was the case with the Columbine High School killings, there is also a chance that the authorities think the religion angle of the event is too much for people to handle.

So who did Cho hate and why did he say he hated them?

There is this:

Cho, 23, of Centreville, whose family was religious and had sought help for him from a Woodbridge church, repeatedly made religious references. He said that he had been “crucified” and that, as with Jesus, his actions would set people free. He called himself a “martyr” who would “sacrifice” his life. He wrote that he would go down in history as the “Jesus Christ of the Weak and Defenseless.” He thought his actions would inspire others to fight back and get even.

Among the writings, Cho included three pictures of himself, which investigators think show how his self-image progressed. In the first picture, he is smiling. In the next, his arms are outstretched like Jesus’s on the cross. And in the third, his arms are crossed as if he is lying dead in a coffin, agents said.

And this:

When he was ready, he wrote: “I am Ax Ishmael.”

… “I say we take up the cross, Children of Ishmael, take up our guns and knives … and take no prisoners and spare no lives.”

So, who precisely was the enemy? Isn’t that the question that looms behind this story? Who wronged Cho and how did they wrong him? I would predict that the documents and materials he left tell us the details. Where are those details?

I hope that journalists push authorities to be more candid.

Art: Hagar and Ishmael in the desert

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Sir Salman, champion of free speech

Salman RushdieIn reading news articles about the decision by Great Britain to bestow knighthood on Salman Rushdie, one can’t help but wonder why in the world the British would decide to do this. I mean, all they are doing is upsetting a substantial minority of Britain’s population and inflaming Islamic sentiment around the world by honoring a man who is just a novelist. Since when should we honor people who are attacked and threatened with death for what they say or write?

Or should we?

If you read The Times‘ piece on the matter, you come away with the idea that Rushdie was just a royal pain in the neck by writing The Satanic Verses in 1988.

You all know the backstory, and the news reports paid scant attention to it. The Times had one of the more thorough accounts of what happened:

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for almost a decade after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the death sentence over The Satanic Verses.

On Valentine’s Day in 1989 the spiritual figurehead of the Iranian revolution pronounced on Teheran radio that: “The author of The Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the Prophet, the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”

In Britain, the subsequent hate campaign helped to politicise and radicalise a generation of young British Muslims. The taxpayer is believed to have spent more than £10 million protecting Rushdie.

The Times focuses heavily on Pakistan, where legislators are passing resolutions demanding the removal of Rushdie’s knighthood. The article even quote an independent-sounding editor of the Middle East Economic Survey saying that Rushdie’s knighthood will be seen as “an action calculated to goad Muslims at a time when the atmosphere is already very tense and Britain’s standing in the region is very low because of its involvement in Iraq and its lack of action in tackling the Palestine issue.”

Very little ink has been spent explaining why Rushdie received this honor. Perhaps it is because of the reasons cited by the Times: The British government was trying to upset Muslims. Or maybe not.

The Washington Post‘s brief account of the affair managed to include a quote from a British government official:

Pakistani officials summoned Robert Brinkley, the British high commissioner in Islamabad, to express anger over the honor for Rushdie, which was announced along with British government honors for about 950 people on Queen Elizabeth II’s ceremonial birthday on June 16. The knighthood means that the writer, who turned 60 on Tuesday, will be known in Britain as Sir Salman.

“Sir Salman’s knighthood is a reflection of his contribution to literature throughout a long and distinguished career which has seen him receive international recognition for a substantial body of work,” Brinkley said in a statement. Noting that at least two Muslims had also received honors from the queen, Brinkley said, “It is simply untrue that this knighthood is intended as an insult to Islam or the prophet Mohammad.”

I am not a reporter who likes to take the word of government officials, and I don’t think anyone should in this case either. There’s bound to be a backstory to the decision to grant Rushdie knighthood. An angle that I would encourage reporters to look at, even if it is not the actual reason, relates to the very work we do as journalists: freedom of speech.

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