Ave Maria delivers (headlines)

Ratzinger and FessioAlan Cooperman was understated on Sunday in covering conflicts between Thomas Monaghan and Joseph Fessio, S.J., the founding chancellor of Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida. Monaghan abruptly dismissed Fessio (a former student and longtime friend of Pope Benedict XVI) as chancellor of the school, then brought him back within 24 hours as theologian in residence.

Monaghan has become a primary bete noir for the cultural left because he is (1) rich, as the founder of Domino’s Pizza; (2) A conservative Roman Catholic who affirms his church’s teachings on sexuality and abortion; and (3) Determined to share much of his wealth to with pro-life movement and Catholic-centric causes. Janeane Garofalo’s character in Reality Bites warned her friends way back in 1994 about the evils of eating Domino’s Pizza. (Pro-choicers who believe in pizza choices can relax: Monaghan sold his controlling interest in the chain four years later.)

No coverage of the conflicts makes clear just what led to Fessio’s dismissal, but NBC2.com referred to a post on the anti-Monaghan AveWatch, which links to several of its own critiques of Ave Maria under Fessio’s leadership.

Monaghan and Fessio are both headstrong, visionary men. As California Catholic Daily reported on Thursday:

Departing Ave Maria is not the first of Fessio’s peregrinations. In March 2002, his Jesuit superior, the provincial, Father Thomas Smolich moved Father Fessio from his longtime base in San Francisco to Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte in what some considered a punitive move. After University of San Francisco president Father Stephen Privett changed the character of the Saint Ignatius Institute, founded by Fessio, he started the now defunct Campion College in a building nearby the university. Seeing Campion, perhaps, as a competitor to the Institute, Father Smolich ordered Father Fessio to cease all ties to the college and assigned him to work as a chaplain at Santa Teresita Hospital.

The Naples Daily News has covered the dispute especially well, and this page includes a photo gallery about Fessio, from a cornerstone-laying ceremony one year ago to images of students upset about his dismissal.

The conflict between Fessio and Monaghan feels similar to the very public falling out between Richard John Neuhaus and the Rockford Institute. Monaghan’s detractors are no more likely to cheer for Fessio, who is just as committed to the church’s teachings on sexuality. Indeed, some reporters asked whether Fessio’s recent remarks on homosexuality could have led to his dismissal. It’s difficult to imagine that the remarks would have bothered Monaghan.

As this latest conflict makes clear, Monaghan will stay in the glare of public scrutiny as he builds Ave Maria. But as Peter Boyer’s remarkable New Yorker profile of Monaghan (abstract) made clear, that’s not likely to slow him down.

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Obama’s pastor vs. NY Times

JeremiahWright 01It is rare that we get to hear someone on the left side of the church aisle tee off and blast a major media institution, accusing it of being unethical and, yes, biased.

Well, here’s one.

The seed for this explosion was the New York Times article focusing on the decision by Barack Obama to withdraw his invitation to his some-would-say controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., to do the invocation at the public event announcing the senator’s decision to seek the presidency. The Times noted:

But Mr. Wright said Mr. Obama called him the night before the Feb. 10 announcement and rescinded the invitation to give the invocation. … Some black leaders are questioning Mr. Obama’s decision to distance his campaign from Mr. Wright because of the campaign’s apparent fear of criticism over Mr. Wright’s teachings, which some say are overly Afrocentric to the point of excluding whites.

Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said the campaign disinvited Mr. Wright because it did not want the church to face negative attention. Mr. Wright did however, attend the announcement and prayed with Mr. Obama beforehand.

That leads us to the following letter. Click here to read the whole text (the original begins on p. 10 in this PDF from Wright’s church), but here is the first half:

March 11, 2007
Jodi Kantor
The New York Times
9 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036-3959

Dear Jodi:

Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years. You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a “Spiritual Biography” of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.

For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.

I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office. Your own question to me was, Didn’t I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.

I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just “in word only.” I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.

Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack’s spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that. When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?,” that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it “in his hand.” Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 21st century, and you did not print that.

As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack’s taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed “sound byte” and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.

I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before. …

You get the picture.

This is a very interesting look at the Times from a liberal leader on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. Toward the end, Wright even accuses the newspaper of conservative bias because of its early take on the Iraq war and its acceptance of some Bush arguments — or its straightforward representation of White House arguments as part of a debate with the left. I am sure that many conservatives will read this part of the letter in amazement, trying to imagine a conservative slant at the Times. Can the right feel Wright’s pain?

tower ball and chainIt also seems that Wright sounds rather hurt, perhaps because of his assumption that this particular newspaper would not spin quotes from a liberal leader in a direction that “hurts” him. Certainly a theocratic leader, Dr. James Dobson perhaps, would not go into an interview with the Gray Lady assuming that the newspaper would treat him well. No way.

Finally, there is another side to this encounter.

Click here to read a fascinating post by Newsweek‘s Richard Wolffe on Wright’s church and its attempt to control the access of the press. Oh my, it appears that press paranoia exists on the left and the right.

Check it out! Can you imagine major newspapers accepting this kind of ball-and-chain arrangement at, let’s say, a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention? To land an interview with Billy Graham? Holy PR! Did The New York Times really agree to this stuff?

Wright’s Chicago mega-church, Trinity United Church of Christ, imposes strict requirements on journalists who want to speak to the pastor. Reporters must sign two sets of legal papers on behalf of their news organizations before any interviews in order to be allowed inside the church.

The church has a list of what it calls “policies and procedures for use with outside media sources” or OMS for short. The paperwork states that the journalist will “fact-check the article” with the reverend’s daughter, Jeri Wright, who is his media services director. The journalist also agrees to “give a full and fair idea of what to expect from the story.” In addition, the journalist promises to give the church “any quotes derived from the interview process, prior to publication” and promises that all published quotes “are original quotes and will not be altered by the OMS in any way.”

The second agreement, entitled “official waiver for use with outside media sources,” states that “any infraction” of the church’s OMS policies and procedures would lead to the reporter’s “immediate removal” from the church and the confiscation of all interview notes and photos.

Has anyone seen a reaction to all of this by Obama?

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Andrew Sullivan’s scary bedtime stories

AndrewSullivanLike any journalist who has worked for an opinion journal, Andrew Sullivan is entitled to some favorite themes. One of his favorites for the past few years is the insidious threat of what he calls Christianism, or theoconservatism. In his 7,400-word New Republic takedown of Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, that theme is so prevalent that it calls to mind one of those outrageously large American flags favored by car dealerships (at least in the Deep South), popping defiantly in the wind.

That D’Souza’s book attracts sharp criticism should be no surprise. As Sullivan points out, many conservatives have taken issue with this book, which frankly discusses what cultural and social concerns Christians have in common with Muslims (which has widely been read as sharing those concerns with terrorists).

What I find most striking in Sullivan’s critique are two things: his apparently not knowing what D’Souza believes about God, and his rush to conclusions about what conservative ex-Episcopalians must believe because of their affiliation with Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion.

First to D’Souza’s faith, about which Sullivan writes:

D’Souza is rehearsing the mainstream view of the religious right with respect to the notion of separating church and state. They oppose it, and so does he. But with what a twist! Where he differs from the religious right is in his willingness to find the proper political authority, the proper models of political virtue, in Islam. Islam and Christianity together: that is D’Souza’s dream. He does not seem especially interested in God. He writes nothing about his own faith, whatever it is. His interest is not in the metaphysics or the mysteries of religion, but in the uses of religion for social control. (Somewhere Machiavelli is smiling.) In the goal of maintaining patriarchy, banning divorce, outlawing homosexuality, and policing blasphemy, any orthodoxy will do. D’Souza’s religion, in a sense, is social conservatism. He is not going to let a minor matter such as the meanings of God get in the way of his religion.

As the most basic Internet search will reveal, D’Souza’s faith is Roman Catholic. For several years he edited a magazine — well known among both conservative and liberal Catholics — known as Crisis. He appeared on EWTN’s The World Over recently (Real Media), where he was both mistaken for a Muslim by a caller and engaged in a feisty discussion with host Raymond Arroyo.

As for the ex-Episcopalians in northern Virginia, Sullivan sees them as a test case for taking theoconservatism global:

D’Souza believes that his side is losing the culture war at home, and may soon be losing the political one as well. The 2006 elections proved the severe fragility of a political strategy dependent on a base of evangelical believers corralled into supporting a theoconservative social policy and a neo-conservative foreign policy. D’Souza runs the numbers at home and, with the war in Iraq coming undone, senses he cannot win. So what to do? As with many generals who find themselves losing a war, D’Souza has decided to widen it.

Widen it how? By globalizing theoconservatism. This is the central argument of D’Souza’s book: that cultural globalization is the last chance for theoconservatism in its death match with liberal modernity. If a majority of Americans do not support a system of government resting on an external and divine moral order, then the obvious next move is to enlist the billions of fundamentalist believers in the developing world to forge a global alliance. If you combine the premodern patriarchs among the Christians of Africa and Asia and the Muslims of the Middle East and pit them against the degenerate, declining individualists in the West, a global theoconservative victory is possible.

That is D’Souza’s vision, and he is not shy about it. The test case for this strategy can be seen most graphically in the Anglican Church. Theoconservative Episcopalians in Northern Virginia have sought protection under a Nigerian prelate who believes that even speech about homosexuality should be criminalized. If theoconservatism cannot work as a governing majority in the First World, then it is time to forge an alliance between half of America with the Third World.

Oh well, so much for a global alliance of Anglicans that has been building for more than a decade (and, arguably, since the Lambeth Conference of 1988). Andrew Sullivan has determined — from the collective unconscious? from an across-the-Beltway soul scan? — that the Episcopalians of northern Virginia are theoconservatives, and that’s all we need to know. Oh, and they’re invariably Republicans, as Sullivan concedes that even they may not be ready to sign on to D’Souza’s full vision: “Even the Republican Episcopalians in Falls Church eager to be run by Nigerians draw the line at Nigerian Muslims (with whom Nigerian Christians are actually at war).”

For what it’s worth, I’ve known many of these Episcopalians for more than a decade, and in past years worked with some of them on projects of shared concerns. Never once did we discuss how we voted. Nor did we exchange misty-eyed glances at the mere mention of Ronald Reagan.

Finally, no such essay would be complete without a Count Floyd reference to those scary creatures known as James Dobson and Tim LaHaye:

As D’Souza continues his campaign in op-eds, speaking engagements, and television appearances, you can see the coherence of his case. There is a difference only in degree, after all, between Islamism’s view of the role of women and that of James Dobson or Tim LaHaye. Very, very few women control any religious institutions on the religious right. Patriarchy rules there as it rules in Pakistan. There is only a difference in degree between Islamism’s view of the relationship between mosque and state and Christianism’s view of the relationship between church and state. … The notion that blasphemy, pornography, or homosexuality should be protected, let alone celebrated, is anathema to Islamists and Christianists alike. D’Souza’s sole sin is to say so publicly in a way no one can misunderstand. He has blown the medievals’ cover.

Theoconservatives, you may now return to flogging or impregnating your wife (or wives, as the case may be).

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Some stories take time to unfold

Maroon Bells   Before 6 1 04 021While working at the Rocky Mountain News, I was able to visit a private facility on the western side of Colorado that specializes in counseling pastors and their spouses whose marriages have hit the rocks. I had a chance to profile the counselors and to talk with some of the people who were there for counseling. A few alumni of the program went on the record.

The facility is called Marble Retreat Christian Counseling and the founders are Louis and Melissa McBurney. I mention them here — they work with a great deal of privacy and confidentiality — simply because I want to repeat one of the major themes of the story that I wrote long ago about their work. Louis McBurney stressed that, in almost all of the cases that he had handled, any sexual sins or struggles that threatened these marriages were symptoms of other issues.

It’s sad that clergy almost always have to crash and burn before the people around them see the signs of these larger problems. These kinds of deep wounds take time to develop, and if healing takes place, that takes time, too.

I thought of that statement while reading the latest Stephanie Simon update for the Los Angeles Times on the Pastor Ted Haggard case. The headline sets the tone: “Haggard was no saint, fellow pastors determine — A church board looking into his fall from grace see a pattern of troubling behavior that went unnoticed.”

Well, obviously. If you have read anything about clergy stress and workaholism you know what’s coming.

Simon’s story is up to her usual high standard, and it’s a great example of something that the mainstream media do not do enough of — careful follow-up reporting in the weeks, months and, dare I say it, years after a major story. This is especially important on the religion beat, where institutions, careers and conflicts tend to evolve and morph over time. It’s hard to find the one big, definitive moment when things change forever.

But that isn’t what happens very often on complex stories. You have to read the signs early and often and, eventually, that work pays off. In the case of the Haggard story, Simon is following up on a moment — a statement — that produced one of those headlines that sounded good, but didn’t mean anything.

So here is the heart of this much-needed update story:

Shortly after his confession, Haggard and his wife, Gayle, spent three weeks at a secular counseling program in Arizona. A member of the church’s board of overseers, the Rev. Tim Ralph, told a reporter that Haggard emerged from the treatment convinced “he is completely heterosexual.”

Ever since, Haggard’s friends and mentors have been disavowing that quote.

“The true characterization is that Mr. Haggard had a weakness and he continues to work to strengthen himself,” said the Rev. H.B. London, a member of the three-man team overseeing Haggard’s spiritual recovery.

Even the most ardent proponents of therapy to change same-sex attraction say it is a lifelong struggle, demanding constant vigilance and sacrifice — a price that they find reasonable to avoid relationships they consider sinful.

The key idea there is “lifelong,” as in years and decades. That isn’t the kind of snappy material that makes editors very happy, but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the “completely heterosexual” quote inspired waves of headlines, but it didn’t make any sense. That quote may have inspired some cheers on the far right and jeers on the left, but no one who knows anything about the debates over human sexuality could take those words seriously.

So I am thankful that Simon is staying on the story. I hope her editors are patient, because some stories take time to unfold.

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Where Barack Obama kneels

JeremiahWrightIf anyone is hoping that the loud relationship between politics and personal faith is merely a freakish and temporal effect of George W. Bush’s presidency, simply observing the candidates and reporters warm up this year should dispense with that fanciful wish.

Today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times brings news that Barack Obama was “registered by his family as a Muslim at both of the schools he attended” in Indonesia. Times reporter Paul Watson writes:

Having a personal background in both Christianity and Islam might seem useful for an aspiring U.S. president in an age when Islamic nations and radical groups are key national security and foreign policy issues. But a connection with Islam is untrod territory for presidential politics.

The Times article is enough for blogger Anya Kamenetz of The Huffington Post to hope that Obama becomes “Our First Muslim President.” This raises the awkward question of whether being Muslim is, for Ms. Kamenetz, merely an ethnic identity that one never fully leaves behind. I much prefer taking Obama at his word: Twenty years ago, he walked the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago and became an adult convert to Christianity.

Obama’s membership at Trinity already has generated its share of controversy, including his decision to ask that Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright (pictured), back out of offering the invocation at Obama’s announcement of his candidacy.

My friend Kim Lawton of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly reported on March 9:

In the past few weeks, conservative bloggers and pundits have begun raising concerns about Wright’s Africentric theology and his liberal — some say radical — politics.

I think the journalistic scent already has spread beyond conservative bloggers and pundits. Consider the reporting of Ben Wallace-Wells in Rolling Stone, who in an article dated Feb. 7 brought back this sample of Wright’s indisputably impassioned preaching style:

Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. “Fact number one: We’ve got more black men in prison than there are in college,” he intones. “Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!” There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. “We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!” The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: “And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS [EXPLETIVE]!”

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic describes some of what drew Obama, as a young community activist using the strategies of Saul Alinsky, to Wright’s church:

From Wright and others, Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn’t showing up in the pews on Sunday. When pastors asked him the inevitable questions about his own spiritual life, Obama would duck them uncomfortably. A Reverend Philips put the problem to him squarely when he learned that Obama didn’t attend services. “It might help your mission if you had a church home,” he told Obama. “It doesn’t matter where, really. What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from.”

After many lectures like this, Obama decided to take a second look at Wright’s church. Older pastors warned him that Trinity was for “Buppies” — black urban professionals — and didn’t have enough street cred. But Wright was a former Muslim and black nationalist who had studied at Howard and Chicago, and Trinity’s guiding principles — what the church calls the “Black Value System” — included a “Disavowal of the Pursuit of ‘Middleclassness.’”

I know that much more reporting on Obama’s church is inevitable. As Wright said to Kim Lawton in what sounded like a tone of experienced resignation, “You think it’s ugly now. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to get much worse.”

Evaluation, or criticism, of Jeremiah Wright’s theology is not in itself ugliness. Wright is a gadfly, and that’s bound to attract journalistic and political curiosity. Still, the decision about where to attend church always depends on the pastoral realities of a city, a denomination and a congregation.

Barack Obama made a conscious decision to become a Christian while attending Trinity United Church of Christ. For Christians and others who are inclined to vote for him anyway, that probably will be enough reason to allow Jeremiah Wright his political, social and theological hobby horses and not to assume that Obama predictably rides alongside him.

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Baptist Press tries a GetReligion story

SMALL CarlaCoverLike it or not, digital technology and blogging software have raised up armies of freelance media critics, many of whom are dedicated to taking potshots at the principalities and powers in the mainstream press.

That is part of what we do here at GetReligion, although we also try to praise the solid Godbeat reporting that we see.

A few days ago, the national Baptist Press — the news wire for the largest non-Catholic flock in America — published a column by Kelly Boggs, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, that marched boldly into territory that we usually cover here at GetReligion. Here is the opening:

Imagine a prominent conservative Christian publicly announcing that he has renounced heterosexuality and will henceforth and forever be homosexual. Add to the scenario the leader declaring he is dedicated to promoting the glory of gayness and encouraging others to become homosexual. Now try to imagine the mainstream media ignoring such an announcement.

Try as I might, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine the mainstream press failing to report such news. Instead, there would be a media firestorm. The news would spread fast and furious from sea to shining sea …

If the mainstream media types would be quick to pounce on the news of a Christian leader coming out of the closet, and I believe they would, do you think they would be as eager to cover a prominent homosexual activist who embraced Christianity and renounced his or her homosexuality?

To make a long story short, Boggs wants to know why we’re not seeing mainstream coverage of the decision by former gay activist Charlene E. Cothran, editor of Venus magazine, to embrace Christianity and renounce her life as a lesbian.

This has also, needless to say, had a major impact on her magazine and its leadership role among African-American homosexuals. Let’s put it this way — her cover article in the February issue is titled “Redeemed! 10 Ways to Get Out of the Gay Life, If You Want Out.” Boggs focuses on these quotes from Cothran:

Over the past 29 years of my life I have been an aggressive, creative and strategic supporter of gay and lesbian issues. I’ve organized and participated in countless marches and various lobbying efforts in the fight for equal treatment of gay and lesbians.

… But now, I must come out of the closet again. I have recently experienced the power of change that came over me once I completely surrendered to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Once again, the question for Boggs is why this story isn’t getting mainstream ink. I think that’s a good question, but there might be complicating factors.

For starters, some would argue that Cothran isn’t a national figure. Thus, her change of heart and life isn’t a mainstream story. However, she was a leader in a highly symbolic and newsworthy niche — the much-discussed world of black gays and lesbians. It is clear that her magazine was important in those circles.

Thus, this story is already receiving major attention in gay periodicals. The New York Blade, for example, openly alleges that Cothran “sold her soul” to right-wing homophobes in the black church and in the world of Christian outreach ministries to homosexuals seeking to change their lives. Why would she do such a thing? To raise money to save her struggling magazine.

venusMeanwhile, the more interesting story in the gay press is at Windy City Times, which published a question-and-answer piece by reporter Amy Wooten that, among other things, notes that Cothran’s standing with the black church does not appear rock solid — at least not yet.

Also, Wooten writes:

Cothran does not consider herself to be a spokesperson … for the so-called ex-gay movement. “I consider myself to be a spokesperson — if I am a spokesperson — for Jesus Christ,” she told Windy City Times, adding that she has applied to three universities and is prepared for seminary training.

Until Venus recently changed its mission and direction, the publication, at times, covered stories about the ex-gay movement. “I remember the stories we did on ex-gay movements [laughs] in Venus years ago,” Cothran admitted. “I understand our community’s view of the ex-gay movement. My personal testimony has been skewed by their view of the ex-gay movement as I know it to be.”

. . . Condemning or vilifying lesbians and gays is something Cothran doesn’t think of herself as doing. “It’s offering a way out through Jesus Christ and prayer for those who desire a way out. And I am getting letters from those who desire a way out.”

While I cannot find any mainstream coverage on the Cothran story, it is interesting to note that the Bible of Blue America has published a provocative piece on the work of so-called “ex-gay ministries” — a label that few people who back that cause embrace. Cothran isn’t in this story, but she could have been.

The headline on the New York Times article by reporter Michael Luo is sure to anger people on both sides of the issue: “Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a Controversial Therapy.”

The story itself is sure to raise eyebrows, too. Clearly, some people have, through counseling and prayer, been able to make changes to one degree or another in their sexual lifestyles. Others appear unable to do so. A story that reports both sides of that equation — which is what Luo does — is sure to be seen as heresy by some people on both sides.

Although the scientific community cannot say definitively what determines sexual orientation — whether it is nature or nurture — most mainstream mental health professionals dismiss attempts to eradicate homosexual desires or to change someone’s sexual orientation as quackery that is potentially harmful.

Gay rights advocates say the efforts only provide additional fodder for homophobia. Mental health experts say there is no proof that sexual reorientation therapy, as it is often called, works. Meanwhile, they argue, the damage it can inflict on self-esteem, triggering depression and even suicide, is well documented.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association.

Now, raise your hand if you are surprised that this is what the former chair of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association thinks about this issue. No surprise there. This is something like asking folks at Focus on the Family for their opinion on the moral standing of gay marriage — you already know the answer to that one.

But Luo’s story features the views of many other people and notes the presence of these counseling centers among Protestants, evangelicals, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and elsewhere. It’s a good story. I hope that people on both sides of the issue read it — including people in newsrooms. It’s called journalism.

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A ghostly thought for the day

Garrison KeillorA Southern friend in a cassock and collar sent along this thought for the day, by way of Garrison Keillor and his Writer’s Almanac out in Public Radio land. You can listen to this online, of course:

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen’s (books by this author) play Ghosts opened on the London stage. Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it contained details about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. The play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds when it premiered in London.

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: “I almost think we’re all of us Ghosts. … It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

Hmmmmm … I’m not sure I want to embrace that fear of the “lifeless old beliefs” of the parents, which certainly hasn’t been a major theme in my life. However, that Ghosts in the newspaper thing is rather nice. I like that image.

Does anyone out there want to offer some other (be nice) newsy thoughts for this busy day?

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Positively strange

GlamOprahSometimes Oprah is too much even for Oprah America. That’s the encouraging sign evident in two essays — one in Newsweek, the other in Salon — that take apart her enthusiasm for The Secret, the latest bestselling book (and companion DVD) that champions prosperity theology.

Newsweek‘s essay, written by Jerry Adler and supported by a team of other reporters, is more satisfying because it is more restrained in its criticism. When a writer deals with prosperity theology of any theological flavor, the best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the absurdity speak for itself.

Adler does this well:

In a dramatized interlude in the film, a young woman ogles a necklace in a window, and the next thing you know, it’s around her neck. A child imagines himself with a new bike, and it appears outside his door. No need to do a lot of boring chores or get a newspaper route: the universe provides. Contrariwise, a worrywart who obsessively checks the locks on his bicycle returns to find it stolen; the law of attraction has called down on him just the predicament he hoped to avoid. A financial consultant reliably finds parking, just by visualizing an empty spot — which implies, by another law of the universe, the one about two objects occupying the same space, that he believes his thoughts can induce someone else to leave. Is this someone you’d trust with your investments?

Peter Birkenhead’s essay in Salon has its satisfying moments, but his consistent mistake is to drag George W. Bush into the argument, as if the president is somehow responsible even for Oprah being Oprah:

I’m already sickened by an American culture that teaches people, as “The Secret” does, that they “create the circumstances of their lives with the choices they make every day,” a culture that elected a president who cried tears of self-congratulation at his inauguration, rejects intellectualism, and believes he can intuit the trustworthiness of world leaders by looking into their eyes. I’m sickened by a culture in which the tenets of the Oprah philosophy have become conventional wisdom, in which genuine self-actualization has been confused with self-aggrandizement, reality is whatever you want it to be, and mammon is queen.

Birkenhead even manages to equate The Secret with Intelligent Design. It’s an argument of guilt by association, except that the only association is in the author’s imagination:

These believers may believe in the healing power of homeopathy, or Scripture or organizational skills — in intelligent design, astrology or privatization. They all trust that their devotion will be rewarded with money and boyfriends and job promotions, with hockey championships and apartments. And most of all they believe — they really, really believe — in themselves.

Newsweek provides the public service of tying The Secret to its true soulmates, including Emile Coué, Charles Filmore, Deepak Chopra and Norman Vincent Peale. Birkenhead is on the track in seeing the interfaith nature of prosperity theology. But he draws the circle more broadly still, turning what could be a sublime takedown into just another screed.

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