Covering shallow arguments

LetterToNationHow does a reporter write a balanced profile of a guy who thinks that anyone who believes in God is an idiot and “that religion is the root of all evil”?

The ever-edgy Washington Post‘s Style section took on “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Harris in a lengthy profile Thursday that reads like a ping-pong match where one player refuses to do anything but swing as hard as he can at the ball without regard for his accuracy. The other player, who really doesn’t want to play in the first place, does his best to engage himself in the match, but his opponent continuously slams the ping-pong ball back, preventing a real match from taking place.

To say the least, I am guessing that Harris would not like the mission of GetReligion.

In reading the piece over a couple of times, I am left wondering whether Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, can fashion a decent argument against religion. Which is, I guess, the point:

There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.

This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls “my big mouth,” and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness.”

Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn’t target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

“There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can’t attack people’s religious sensibility,” Harris says in an interview. “That is so wrong and so suicidal.”

sam harrisThere are few serious arguments to work with here. Part of me wonders why the Post decided to pursue this story, but there is interesting material here and Harris has an interesting life story. Then again, if Harris weren’t taking on religion, would anyone care for his shallow arguments about a subject that is rich and substantial?

One part of the piece that I felt was appropriately highlighted is Harris’ attack on religious moderates. The idea that religious moderation provides cover for extremists is in a way honest and refreshingly clear. The only thing missing was a response from another genuine atheist. (The article quotes a retired religious studies professor saying that the “country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” and that “pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics … seems like a very crude mistake”).

“I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th,” [Harris] says. “But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism.”

Reporter David Segal quotes various religion and theology professors on Harris’ belief system (can you call it a set of beliefs?), but near the end of the piece Segal gives us a hint of his own conclusion:

Of course, if religion were merely failed science, it would have been supplanted by real science centuries ago. But it has survived and thrived through a revolution in our understanding of the solar system as well as our bodies and our minds, which suggests that it offers something that deduction, data points and reason do not.

All in all, Segal does a solid job poking and prodding a thinker who offers little substance but plenty of style. There are obviously more significant and thoughtful atheists out there, but few can be compared to Evel Knievel.

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Quiet return of the pink elephant

PinkElephantIt isn’t news when the officially edgy Style section of The Washington Post prints a lengthy feature story that opens like this:

In October 1993, after the ban on gays in the military was replaced with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, three Oklahoma congressmen said they wouldn’t hire an openly gay person onto their staffs. Then-Rep. Jim Inhofe (R) told the Tulsa World: “I would not appoint a gay person in that type of leadership position.”

That declaration sent a ripple of fear across a certain set on Capitol Hill. A small, bipartisan group of staffers huddled and formed the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association, which now has a confidential e-mail list of more than 200. And a frustrated aide contacted the Tulsa World and gave an anonymous interview.

I’m gay, he told the newspaper, and I’m on Inhofe’s staff.

However, for those who are watching the Washington newspaper racks closely for clues as to who is going to get blamed for GOP losses on election day, it is probably more important that The Washington Times quietly stuck a story on the bottom of page one (at least that’s where it was on the print edition delivered in the Baltimore area) that began like this:

One of the inescapable facts of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley is that three key people who had some of the earliest clues about the congressman’s advances toward teenage boys are, like Foley, gay.

Jim Kolbe, a Republican congressman from Arizona, received a complaint from a former page in 2001 or 2002 that Foley had sent the boy e-mails that made him uncomfortable. Jeff Trandahl, the House clerk in charge of the page program, was so concerned about Foley’s behavior several years ago that he reported it to Kirk Fordham, Foley’s chief of staff.

Kolbe, Trandahl and Fordham are openly gay. The question of who knew what, and when, has roiled the uneasy peace between the Republican Party and its cadre of gay staffers, who don’t welcome the spotlight. It also has raised the question: Were Kolbe, Fordham and Trandahl trying to downplay the Foley issue to protect a fellow gay Republican?

If you clicked on that link, you may have noted that this story was not written by reporters at Times. That is interesting, to say the least. You would expect a local byline on a story on page one on such a hot topic, especially since the Times — on its national political beats — often functions as an open window into the thinking of GOP strategerists.

Also, there are no hints that the newspaper has the document that folks in this town halfway expect to see in print before election day, which would be the alleged list of alleged gay GOP staff members that may or may not be circulating via email inside the Beltway.

In other words, the Times has not produced its own pink elephant story yet. Wait for it.

This may, in fact, be the strategery that GOP leaders have chosen — tense silence. Meanwhile, this story by Bill Adair and Wes Allison of the St. Petersburg Times does include a helpful summary of the talking points among top evangelical leaders (So this is why our social-issues agenda keeps being put on the GOP’s back burner) and gay Republican leaders (Hey, gay GOP staffers were the only people who tried to warn folks at the top about what Foley was up to with the pages).

It is hard to imagine that this story will vanish in the days ahead, especially if the goal of the people pushing it is to get cultural conservatives depressed so that they won’t turn out at the polls. Like I said, wait for it.

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Beginning, or end, of religion news?

clinton esquireI’m not sure this is quite the direction I want to see religion coverage veer in mainstream media, but I have to admit that I enjoyed The Dallas Morning News’ “Take our ‘Faith of the Famous’ quiz” feature this weekend. I also learned a few things and, I have to admit, this funny little celebrity feature does show how wacky the modern religious marketplace has become in what I call the age of Oprah America.

The piece, such as it is, was written by Los Angeles freelance writer Sarah Price Brown, who confesses — in writing — that the celebrity quiz idea was lifted from religion writer Tom Schaefer of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas.

Here is the setup:

From Hollywood stars to politicians to pro athletes, the rich and famous live their lives in plain view. But the public usually knows more about what an actress wore to the Emmys, what speaking gaffe an elected official made, or how many points a superstar scored in a game than it knows about what the prominent and powerful really think.

The famous are cultural icons, after all. They’re symbols that stand for something larger than themselves. But they’re also human, with their own thoughts and beliefs about religion, spirituality and the meaning of life. How much do you know about the faith of the famous?

The problem, of course, is that the list is full of silly but famous people and a fair share of serious but famous people, and it is very hard to read the quotations featured in the test and then figure out who said or did not say what. Consider this frightening example:

“I don’t have to worry about what people think of me, whether they hate me or not. People hated on Jesus. They threw stones at him and tried to kill him, so how can I complain or worry about what people think?”

Karl Rove
Tom Cruise
Terrell Owens
Snoop Dogg

And all the people said: “Whoa.”

Or how about this one?

“Probably because of my failings and mistakes in life I’m a much bigger believer in redemption. … I’m much more of a believer in a loving God, a personal God. I’m much less inclined in every way to believe in a vengeful God.”

Robert Downey Jr.
Willie Nelson
John McCain
Bill Clinton

Check it out. Has anyone seen any other novelty features of this kind featued in the news pages of a major newspaper or magazine?

Personal note: No way that I’m telling anyone my score on this confounded thing.

Personal No. 2: I will happily change the photo, if it offends. It is interesting that the old St. Bill image drew such a strong response, since I think we have run it in the past. I found it with a simple Google search for “Clinton” and “saint.”

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Filling that gods-shaped hole

Christus statue temple square salt lake cityAs we slide closer and closer to election day, some political reporters are looking ahead to 2008 and the status of “value voters” and the evangelical vote.

This keeps leading people to Mitt Romney, of course, and the M word.

But reporters are still afraid to talk about the real issues here. They keep pointing at the wrong doctrines. Here’s a Los Angeles Times story from earlier in the week that shows what I mean.

So, reporter Elizabeth Mehren, why are evangelicals so worried about Romney’s faith? Here is a scene on the non-campaign trail in Iowa:

… Romney faces a potential obstacle that has not confronted a presidential hopeful for almost 50 years. As a devout Mormon — and a onetime bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Romney adheres to a faith that makes many Americans uncomfortable. Not since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, sought the White House in 1960 has the religion of a potential president been an issue. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most religious barriers to high office had crumbled, but that 35% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president.

. . . Since he announced in December that he would not seek a second term as governor, Romney has campaigned in key primary states — steadfastly decreeing that his faith was a private matter. He deflects most inquiries by stating that Jesus Christ is his savior. A favorite Romney quip is that in his church, “marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”

This laugh line, and his reluctance to delve deeper into his beliefs, only add to the mystery of a faith that many Americans associate with polygamy — although that practice has long been outlawed by the church — and with customs such as marrying people after they have died and converting the dead.

I have heard lots of traditional Christians discuss this issue and I have never heard anyone discuss polygamy. Maybe it’s the crowd I run with, people who’ve read a lot of religious history, but what I hear people talking about is the very nature of God in Mormon theology.

They are worried about a P word, but it’s not polygamy. It’s polytheism. (Click here for a flashback to my own interviews with top Mormon leaders on this topic.) The P word then leads to the big concept that the press is going to have to face — the E word.

That word is “exaltation,” and its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was. Thus, there are many worlds, creations or spheres that have their own gods (and the gods have many wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. Click here for a typical evangelical Protestant discussion of this conflict.

That’s going to be a tough one to handle in a press conference when it comes up. Romney needs to open that question up on his own turf, on this own terms and, to use that old Washington phrase, “hang a lantern on his problem.”

Mehren almost gets to this issue, via an itnerview with the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Sure enough, he uses the word “cult” in a doctrinal sense of the word.

“We evangelicals view Mormons as a Christian cult group. A cult group is a group that claims exclusive revelation. And typically, it’s hard to get out of these cult groups. And so Mormonism qualifies as that.” In addition, Haggard said, evangelicals do not accept Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith as a prophet. “And we do not believe that the Book of Mormon has the same level of authority as the Bible,” he said.

When Romney says that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior, “we appreciate that,” Haggard said. “But very often when people like Mormons use terms that we also use, there are different meanings in the theology behind those terms.”

And there you have it. Mormons and traditional Christians are often using the same words, with different definitions. And then there is the big divide and that is the word “exaltation.” Mehren’s story is better than most I have seen on this topic so far, but it still has a gods-shaped hole in it.

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At least the Sun is consistent

To my amazement, the Baltimore Sun continues to do something that must be really, really hard — offer virtually faith-free coverage of the Amish school massacre in Nickel Mines, Pa. The Sun did it the other day and now they’ve done it again.

It’s amazing. This new story is about the razing of the blood-stained school. Reporter Jonathan Pitts does note, quoting Bart Township Fire Company spokesman Mike Hart:

A crew of about 40 brought the building down in less than 20 minutes as a small group of Amish looked on. Later, workers with backhoes filled the gaping hole with topsoil.

“It’s not like the Amish to leave a permanent memorial,” Hart said. “They don’t believe in individual attention that way. One day the place will look like a pasture.”

Now, I bet there’s a reason the Amish don’t like to call attention to themselves. I bet there’s a reason they do not create memorials of this kind. I know the Amish are hard to interview, but I bet that someone in Lancaster County can fill in some of the details here. I am almost positive that there is a religious angle to this story. It’s up there. You think?

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Modern Russia does have its ghosts

moscow theater 007Dang it, that’s what I get for waiting an extra day or two before writing about that sprawling Los Angeles Times series, “The Vanishing Russians.” I was waiting until the last day to see if reporter Kim Murphy elected to dig into the religious questions raised all the way through this fascinating and depressing set of four articles.

This is a textbook “project” in a great mainstream newspaper, complete with loads of statistics and personal stories to back them up. This clip will give you the flavor of the thing:

Russia is rapidly losing population. Its people are succumbing to one of the world’s fastest-growing AIDS epidemics, resurgent tuberculosis, rampant cardiovascular disease, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, suicide and the lethal effects of unchecked industrial pollution.

In addition, abortions outpaced births last year by more than 100,000. An estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health. The public healthcare system is collapsing. And many parents in more prosperous urban areas say they can’t afford homes large enough for the number of children they’d like to have.

Let’s see. We have suicide, AIDS, substance abuse, rampant abortion and a loss of hope in the future. All of this in a nation that, in the past century, saw the rise of an atheistic regime that tried to stamp out the practice of faith. Still, the city skylines are dominated by crosses and onion domes.

Let’s see. Do you think there might be a religion element in here somewhere?

But I waited too long. My friend Roberto Rivera, a brilliant Catholic thinker who now writes for The Point blog linked to Prison Fellowship, beat me to it. However, we offer him thanks for using, with credit, a term from GetReligion in his analysis. Rivera says that the opening story in the series is:

… such an important piece that I feel bad about pointing out that it’s haunted by what the folks at GetReligion call a “religion ghost.” (That’s their term for an unacknowledged religious element in a story.) How do you write a story about declining populations, especially declines fueled by substance abuse, abortion and suicide, without mentioning religion? For that matter, how do you write a story about the Russian people without mentioning the role of religion? But, apart from quoting an Orthodox priest on the effects of the Soviet system, Murphy’s story is a religion-free zone.

Reading it, I thought of the scene in War and Peace in which Napoleon asks the Tsar’s emissary, Balashov, if it’s true that Moscow has hundreds of churches and monasteries. When told it is, Napoleon says that this many churches and monasteries are a “sign of the backwardness of the people.” The joke, of course, is on Napoleon: it is “very religious” and “backward” Russia that shatters both his army and the myth of his invincibility. You can’t tell a good, much less complete, story about Russia without talking about her religion or, in this case, the lack thereof. And you especially can’t do it here — the correlations between what is killing Russia and religious observance is just too great.

All kinds of questions leap to mind. Where to begin?

teremFor starters, I wanted to know if officials or researchers have seen any differences between the Russians who are secular and the Russians who are believers in the major faiths of that culture. Are religious believers more likely to have children? This is, after all, a pattern seen in other cultures.

Sure enough, by the time we make it to the fourth installment in the series we discover that Muslim believers are on the rise for multiple reasons, including birthrate. It appears that trends in Russia resemble those in post-Christian Europe.

Which raises another point. Russia is not Europe. Is it impossible for Russia to fit into the Western world on the terms of the modern Western world? The Communists tried to tear an ancient form of Christianity out of the heart of Russia. Is the modern world attempting the same thing, only in the name of — what? — the glories of the shopping mall? Globalization?

The ghosts actually break into song when Murphy has to deal with the issue of suicide:

Russians fling themselves from balconies, slash their wrists or simply walk out in the snow on a bitter night. Russia’s suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on http://www.mysuicide.ru, a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:

I’m going out.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s up or down.
Or who’s holding your hand, an angel or otherwise.
The cold has worn me out.

“People have a lack of hope,” Zavada said in an interview. “That all their efforts are in vain. And also, they have a feeling of eternal emptiness.”

So here is the obvious questions: When it comes to “eternal emptiness,” are all Russians created equal? Are some spiritually emptier than others? Do those who practice a faith face the same sense of emptiness as those who have flung the faith of Mother Russia aside? This is a gripping series, full of crucial questions. I am simply saying that it needed to explore one more big question about this dark night in the Russian soul.

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Fact, not opinion

Up YoursThe New York Times‘ public editor, Byron Calame, devoted his last column to the case of Linda Greenhouse. She’s the Supreme Court reporter who in a June speech at Harvard revealed her liberal opinions about various policy issues:

The government, Ms. Greenhouse said on the NPR audio version of her speech, “had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, other places around the world, the U.S. Congress, whatever. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” She later added, “I feel a growing obligation to reach out across the ridiculous actual barrier that we seem about to build on the Mexican border. …”

Calame’s analysis is great. He asks how Greenhouse’s speech conflicts with the paper’s guidelines governing public expression of personal views by news writers. He also asks about the value of the guideline, considering the reality that reporters have personal opinions. He says Greenhouse clearly stepped across the line with her political remarks.

Times editors did nothing about Greenhouse’s speech, though. That’s interesting, but not nearly so interesting as Greenhouse’s arrogant and disappointing response to the public editor:

Ms. Greenhouse told me she considers her remarks at Harvard to be “statements of fact” — not opinion — that would be allowed to appear in a Times news article. She said The Times has not suggested that she avoid writing stories on any of the topics on which she commented in June. “Any such limits would be completely preposterous,” she said.

Ms. Greenhouse is bitter, unethical and untrustworthy. That’s not my opinion. It’s just a statement of fact.

The copy chief at my paper told me that everyone has biases and opinions and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. What she doesn’t like, though, is when reporters say their clear biases and opinions are statements of fact. That’s where personal opinions are dangerous.

Let’s consider what Greenhouse is saying. She believes that her views in support of abortion are not debatable. And yet she expects us to trust her when she writes up the next Supreme Court decision on abortion. And she’s so confident that she’s right and anyone who disagrees with her is irrational that taking her off the story would be “completely preposterous.”

Many consider Greenhouse a good reporter, and she has her Pulitzer and other awards. But this story just keeps getting worse. When I addressed it previously, I thought it pointed to the simple need for newsrooms to try to hire reporters with a variety of perspectives.

But Greenhouse’s comments are unacceptable. All people, but particularly journalists, should humbly acknowledge that there are multiple views about contentious issues. It doesn’t make your opinions any less valid to acknowledge legitimate differences of opinion. Quite the opposite.

Greenhouse doesn’t know the difference between personal opinions and statements of fact. And that means she’s not a good reporter.

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Did Graham channel Meacham?

billygrahamnycYou know how, when you have typed a word thousands and thousands of times, your fingers tend to fall into that same pattern when you are trying to type a word that is very similar to it?

The same thing can happen to a reporter who is taking notes during an interview. Sometimes you hear what you are used to hearing when, in reality, the person said something else. This can cause major mistakes.

Godbeat writer Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — discovered a really interesting case of this familiarity-breeds-mistakes syndrome in a major Newsweek article that the GetReligion gang already thought it had picked at pretty good. That would be that Billy Graham cover by soon-to-be-editor Jon Meacham.

When Lockwood got around to reading this piece, he noticed something interesting in one of the haunting images near the beginning, as the elderly evangelist wakes up in the middle of the night confused:

On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. “I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me,” Graham recalls. It was frustrating — the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible — but in the end the last line comes back to him: “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.

Wait a minute, thought Lockwood.

Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me? Any self-respecting Southern Baptist knows that the final sentence, in the King James Version, begins “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me …

Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I Googled “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me” and could find no Bible translation that uses that language. However, the same wording is included in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.

Is Billy Graham, in his twilight years, reciting the Book of Common Prayer as he enjoys life in rural North Carolina?

Now this is a very interesting question, because Meacham is an Episcopalian and, to say the least, Billy Graham is not an Episcopalian (no matter what his many fundamentalist critics think).

So Lockwood dropped Meacham an email and, to his credit, Meacham wrote back to say:

“I suspect the discrepancy you detected is mine, not Mr. Graham’s; after he told me the story, I read the lines back to him on the telephone from the translation I had at hand, and he said yes, those were the lines, but I suspect he actually spoke the KJV. So I would not say that Mr. Graham misquoted the psalm, but that I misunderstood which translation he had recited.”

That’s easy to understand.

The question that many people have raised about this article, including Graham himself in that gentle way of his, is whether some of the nuanced, moderated, “mature” theological positions attributed to the evangelist in this article have more to do with Meacham’s beliefs as an Episcopalian than with those of Graham as an evangelical.

Was Meacham hearing what he wanted to hear, what he was used to hearing? All journalists struggle with this, I think, when we are interviewing people whose beliefs are radically different than our own.

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