IRS hits home in LAT

render unto caesarCovering a bunch of local stories that evolve into a national trend is difficult for a reporter, but Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times did it quite handily Monday in an article on how the Internal Revenue Service is keeping its eye on religious groups come political season. The article is appropriately timed. In keeping with the Times‘ profile as a national paper, focused little on anything related to New York City. Instead, Goodstein painted in broad strokes and explored trends.

Goodstein breaks little news in this article, but her thorough reporting allowed her to set the national scene that is sure to dribble out into various localities. Also look for the major TV networks to follow this one.

My only issue is that covering this topic from a local perspective is a lot more interesting, but more on that a few paragraphs down.

In a way, Goodstein’s attempt to be bipartisan stretches the article’s premise: both conservative and liberal religious groups are nervous about an IRS crackdown on the political involvement of charities and churches. But the article is quick to rehash the efforts of conservative religious groups in supposedly bringing out the vote for Bush in 2004 and does little to touch on liberal religious groups:

“The stakes for these churches are higher than ever before because of the I.R.S.’s new enforcement efforts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The I.R.S. is taking this very seriously, and I think it’s because the situation was spinning out of control.”

Mr. Lynn said that conservative churches in 2004 had constructed a political machine he likened to “a church-based Tammany Hall.” He said he expected their voters’ guides to be skewed to favor Republican candidates. “It’s absolutely illegal, it’s wrong and it divides churches,” he said.

Clever quotes about Tammany Hall are great, but could we go back to the basics and do a bit of showing and not telling? Otherwise all you have to do to create balance is run one side’s clever quotes against the other’s. That’s style, not substance.

Shifting to the local scene, the Los Angeles Times‘ Scott Glover and Louis Sahagun did a great job reporting on a local church facing an IRS investigation into its political activities. Oh, and the church happens to be liberal. And it gets better. The church is crying freedom of speech and religion. Check this out:

A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency’s request for documents.

“These people are offended,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court.”

Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.

In this wonderful age of the Internet, readers have choices. While the NYT did a nice job summarizing the issue for its national audience, the LAT nailed the issue to the mat and used its particular local situation to explore the matter in a real-life situation, rather than rehash recent American political history.

Here’s a challenge to you readers: send us articles in your local newspaper that deal with IRS regulations regarding politics. Are the pastors in your area aware? Do they discuss the matter in the pulpit?

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A Third Awakening?

camp meetingDid President Bush lose the evangelical vote? Is he trying to get it back? Was there ever an evangelical vote for the Texan to corral? The history of the Bush administration’s relationship with Christians is nowhere near being closed, but Bush said something rather significant Tuesday that is going to receive quite a bit of attention — first from reactionaries claiming that he is trying to bring a theocracy to America, and later from historians.

But first, check out this Weekly Standard piece by Marc Ambinder. In it, Ambinder reflects on what Bush’s political strategists (think Karl Rove) are just now beginning to realize:

For that matter, these organizations are not all that influential inside the Beltway. Nationally, the Christian Coalition is near death; in its place, the Family Research Council and other small groups try to keep the embers burning. They claim hundreds of thousands of members. They have access to top White House officials, and they hold events to keep their membership satisfied; but Republican strategists with access to polling know they move the votes of very few Christians.

The current crop of well-regarded evangelical leaders, like David Barton of WallBuilders, a group seeking to rekindle appreciation of the country’s religious heritage, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are better pastors and behind-the-scenes operators than they are political strategists. They are good at gauging the mood of voters in the states; they don’t try to build national movements.

Ambinder cites a rather significant development of muscle-flexing by smaller, community-based Christian political organizations in local races. His conclusion is that evangelicals are driven by national security and not so much by the culture wars. This is why GOP movers and shakers are looking so fondly at former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Ambinder writes.

But does that mean Karl Rove has given up on courting evangelicals or at casting the current political climate as some grand global spiritual battle between the forces of evil and good? Check out this blog post at National Review‘s The Corner, which The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker jumped on in a page A5 story:

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a “Third Awakening” of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation’s struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as “a confrontation between good and evil.”

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln’s strongest supporters were religious people “who saw life in terms of good and evil” and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

“A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me,” Bush said during a 1½-hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. “There was a stark change between the culture of the ’50s and the ’60s — boom — and I think there’s change happening here,” he added. “It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.”

great awakeningSeeing that Baker could not have started writing this article until after 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, he did not have a lot of time to gather facts or cite history. And seeing that he was not included in this meeting of conservative journalists, he did not have the chance to question Bush on what he meant by a “Third Awakening.”

Baker, who should be credited for catching on to a great news story first cited by another media outlet, did a great job quickly tracking down some historical facts on what Bush meant by Great Awakening. There are no doubt going to be many ways to look at it, but I was impressed by his reporting and his insightful note that Karl Rove, among other Bush aides, has read The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel.

Now an obvious contradiction lies in this comparison. The book talks about a Fourth Great Awakening. Scholars have legitimate debates over whether we have had two, three or more Great Awakenings.

But forget for a moment the historical details and debates over numbering, which in this case is pretty insignificant. Bush is citing a historical movement that is near and dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. This is something prayed for in church, at bedsides and around the dinner table.

How radical is it for Bush to say he believes we are in a Great Awakening? What do historians say? In 40 to 50 years will there be a case to be made that the Bush II years were something of a religious revival? After Bush won reelection two years ago, some were saying that already.

Is Bush just echoing the beliefs of his evangelical supporters? He did say that he feels their prayers.

There is the whole issue of how this plays into the war on terrorism that happens to be primarily against Muslims. Baker addresses that in a brief paragraph that says Bush is now careful not to describe the battle in religious terms (such as “crusade”) and an explanatory statement from an aide (who might that be?).

It will be very interesting to see how this statement plays in overseas media, which will have little appreciation for the historical value of the statement. You can forget about Muslim media. Imagine what type of historical misunderstandings would be communicated if the leader of a major Middle Eastern country made a remark akin to Bush’s. Hey, wait a minute

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Covering America’s day of remembrance

WTC CrossThe stories in today’s papers on 9/11 memorial services provide a broad sense of the nation’s religiosity. Some are better than others in capturing this sense, but overall they are generally good at capturing a sense of the individual experiences Americans are feeling five years later. Of course, whether Americans were feeling religious Monday is another, separate matter worth examining.

The main news articles followed the events’ measured tone and highlighted a handful of individual stories that attempt to speak for the thousands affected on that tragic day. Take, for instance, this New York Times article that is packed with religious imagery and words such as hope, healing and love:

At the pit in Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center stood, they commemorated the day with familiar rituals: moments of silence to mark the times when the planes struck and the towers collapsed, wreath-layings, prayers, the music and poetry of loss and remembrance. All were freighted with emotions that still cut deeply but were showing signs of healing.

“How much do I love you?” Susan Sliwak, a mother of three, intoned at a microphone on a platform above the grieving crowd, quoting from an Irving Berlin lyric in tribute to her husband, Robert Sliwak, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and one of the 2,749 killed at the trade center. “How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?”

As a bass viol, a flute and other instruments softly rendered the Pachelbel Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio and other solemn strains, about 200 spouses, partners and other loved ones took turns reading the names of the dead. Many spoke directly to their lost partners, often in firm, proud voices. Others told tearfully of the births of grandchildren or of having reaffirmed their marriage vows. Many simply expressed their love and that of their children, a promise never to forget.

Yesterday’s coverage was an opportunity for journalists to write their own stories on what the fifth year after the nation’s worst terrorist attack meant. Today, they were forced to follow those doing the remembering and mourning.

Take, for instance, this excellent Akron Beacon Journal article on George W. Sleigh’s amazing escape from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sleigh’s religiosity, particularly at the end, dominates his thinking and thus the story. There’s nothing particularly special about Sleigh’s faith, it’s just part of who he is and it is reflected in the story.

Similarly, The Washington Post‘s article on the day’s ceremonies picks up on subtle religious imagery that would have been easy to miss. It makes for a striking picture of sadness and, amazingly, hope:

Families and firefighters and cops in New York filed slowly down ramps into the three-story-deep pit that is Ground Zero, gray slurry walls rising around them. Bells sounded at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. — the moments when the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. On the podium, Carmen Suarez glanced skyward as she finished reading 10 names of those who died.

Her husband, police officer Ramon Suarez, died in those towers.

“If I could build a staircase to heaven I would,” Suarez said, “just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms.”

On the other hand, I found the Los Angeles Times article on the day of remembrance strikingly devoid of any religious imagery. Was that a reflection of the day’s events, or did the reporters miss something?

bin ladenA fascinating piece of journalism on the NYT‘s opinion pages reveals the way that jihadi websites treated the anniversary. Not surprisingly, they saw the day through the eyes of their religion, although Muslim teaching prohibits celebrating anniversaries:

In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate, Monday morning is the fifth anniversary of the glorious attacks on New York and Washington accomplished by the 19 heroes of the Muslim community — may God have mercy on them and raise them to the highest rank for their sacrifice. They pressed America’s nose into the ground and allowed the whole world to witness the destruction of its economic and military citadels. In so doing, they crushed the myth with which America had terrorized the world, namely that it was the greatest power on earth and no one was strong enough to confront, let alone make an enemy, of it. …

That day changed the world, even by the admission of our enemies, and created … a world divided into two camps, as our sheik and leader Osama bin Laden — may God protect him — has stated: “A camp of belief and another camp of hypocrisy and disbelief.” Choose for yourself, o Muslim, which camp to belong to: that of belief, Islam and jihad under the banner of the holy warriors or that of hypocrisy and unbelief under the banner of America, the crusading West and those hypocrites who have banded with them. Our congratulations to all and we beseech God to show us in America another black day like that blessed Tuesday.

The religious contrast between the two sides could not be greater.

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America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion’s influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice.

The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that “the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening.” Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler’s extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests — say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness — but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn’t mind Adler’s editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side’s position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

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To convert or not to convert, that is …

ignatiusLionIf you have followed this blog from Day 1, then you are almost certainly familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House. As I mentioned during my recent visit to England, Marshall is also one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

When you combine his writing, speaking and research, Paul is one busy man, far too busy to be a regular contributor at this site (but we can wish). However, he does have a new piece in The Weekly Standard that may as well be a GetReligion commentary — so we will gladly treat it as such. It’s called “A Conversion You Can’t Refuse: And the Western media can’t comprehend.”

It is, of course, about the kidnapping of the two Fox News journalists, American Steve Centanni and New Zealander Olaf Wiig by the so-called Holy Jihad Brigades (click here for a previous post by the soon-to-be Ms. M.Z. Hemingway on that topic). One of the key lessions learned in this episode, according to Marshall, is that far too many journalists still do not, well, get religion.

But there are other problems. Here is a large slice of what Paul has to say:

… (Honest) local reporters have their lives threatened if they tell the truth. Palestinian journalists have been killed for reporting that reflects adversely on Hamas or Fatah. Many denounced the Fox duo’s kidnapping, and two days after their release, dozens of journalists in Gaza demonstrated outside the Palestinian Legislative Council offices, demanding an end to the intimidation that cripples their work. Centanni and Wiig made headlines because they worked for an American broadcaster: The suppression of local reporters is all too frequently ignored.

The coverage also showed the continuing cluelessness of much of our media when it comes to religion, despite its growing influence in all Middle Eastern conflicts. Centanni and Wiig were not merely kidnapped but also — something new in the Palestinian areas — forced to announce that they had converted to Islam as a condition not only of their release but of their survival.

The significance of this forced conversion has been downplayed in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post even pronounced the two “unharmed” on release. This judgment is perverse. If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so: No sane person would say the prisoners had suffered no harm.

This blindness also trivializes religion. Many people would sooner die than deny the commitments that shape their lives.

Crucifixion of PeterUnderline that point, please.

Try to picture an army of Ann Coulters — in black leather skirts, perhaps — forcing a pair of defenseless Muslims to convert, with swords at their throats and video cameras aimed at their faces. That would not happen, of course. At worse, Coulter would force them to listen to her do dramatic readings from her upcoming greatest hits collection. But you get the point. At Georgetown University, if would almost certainly be a thought crime to ask two Muslims to get a cup of coffee and discuss the Trinity.

Anyway, this story is not over. The two journalists now must live as Muslims — or face a death sentence, should some imam somewhere choose to issue one.

P.S. Over at Beliefnet, Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher pounded out a post titled “On the failure to become martyrs,” asking his readers if they thought it was wrong to convert or to fake conversion under these circumstances (forget the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights for a moment) and the result was a blitz of impassioned commentary. You can’t tell me that this topic was not worth a page-one feature story or two.

Check it out.

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Observations of a supposed GOP church

hypothesisMichael Crowley’s New Republic cover story on how powerful Republican conservatives have taken over the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., is a fun read. From a journalistic perspective, it makes no pretense of political balance. Liberal elitism has merit and rich yuppie conservatives are bad. But if you can put that aside, you can treat yourself to an interesting look at how conservative, sometimes evangelical, Republican politics has changed a sleepy suburban community.

As a profile of a community, the article naturally touches on religion, right along with a discussion of the schools and architecture. Here is the section that deals with McLean’s churches:

Even churchgoing has a political cast in McLean. Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist Church, just off McLean’s main drag, listen to sermons from pastor Kathleene Card, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. (The church’s signage recently advertised a somewhat belated sermon on Christianity & World Religions: Understanding Islam.) For evangelicals, there is McLean Bible Church, a $90 million complex that seats 2,400 parishioners. (“The Wal-Mart of churches,” one former church employee told the Post in 2004.) McLean Bible is led by the crusading Reverend Lon Solomon, who preaches a particularly doctrinaire and conservative gospel with the aid of elaborate mood lighting, 92 speakers, and the occasional fog machine. Solomon has attracted such prominent Republicans as Kenneth Starr, Dan Coats, Don Nickles, Don Evans, Senator John Thune, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and a clique of young Bush White House staffers. “It’s really because of Lon Solomon that I go,” the conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who sometimes takes notes during Solomon’s sermons, told the Post. “He does things that many others don’t do. He’s not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He’s very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual [marriage].” In one sermon during the Clinton impeachment, Solomon reportedly issued a thinly veiled Clinton-bashing spiel about how lying to the American people is wrong. That would be little surprise, given that Solomon is close to Ken Starr, to whom he sent encouraging personal notes during the Clinton inquisition. Perhaps because of Solomon’s fearless mixing of religion and politics, McLean Bible is a networking hub for young Washington conservatives, and many a GOP power couple has formed there. One McLean lobbyist, a former aide to Senator Phil Gramm named Jay Velasquez, told Roll Call that he met his future wife in the church’s lobby when she complimented his cowboy boots.

McLean Bible Church, described earlier in the piece as “a holy destination for GOP senators and Bush aides,” contains a whole host of fascinating religion story ideas worth exploring from the political perspective.

First, I’d like to take issue with this idea that a church would be used as a hub for networking. I mean, that’s suggesting sacrilege! Who would find their life mate at a church?! But seriously, reporters should note that this idea that a church could be seen by the young and ambitious as an opportunity to meet people and even rub shoulders with the rich and powerful is nothing special. Is it unfortunate? Sure, but it is really not that surprising.

The New Republic piece sets the stage for some potentially fascinating articles over the next two years. There is a very real chance that the balance of power could shift substantially this fall to the Democrats. And who knows what could happen in 2008? If the church is indeed a destination for the GOP powerful and subsequently those hoping to be in the good graces of the powerful, a change in power would create an interesting social dynamic within the church.

If Crowley’s thinly researched but plausible hypothesis — that conservative Christians attend these churches to be near the powerful — is correct, should we expect to see a decline in attendance at McClean Bible in the event of Democratic takeover? A change in the political power in Washington is always interesting from a cultural standpoint, but it’s also going to be interesting from a religious perspective. Crowley and others will have a chance to measure the validity of the concept that certain churches attract crowds because of their high-powered political members.

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One extreme or the other

Adam Gadahn 20060922This weekend, while many Americans were wrapping up their last summer vacations, another American was seen on an Al Qaeda propaganda video. The video, featuring ex-Californian Adam Gadahn, warned Americans to convert to Islam before it’s too late.

I have not read a full translation of the 48-minute video, but apparently it’s a long encouragement — aided by the threat of force, sure — for Americans to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam. It’s almost as if al-Qaeda is trying to tell Americans something. It’s almost like they think this a religious war. It’s almost like the pattern of forced conversions or threats of violence add up to something.

Let’s see what the mainstream media do in the wake of this latest religious missive. Hmm, that’s a curious headline from the Associated Press’ Salah Nasrawi — “Latest al-Qaida message seen as PR bid“:

The new al-Qaida video featuring an American calling for his countrymen to convert to Islam raised fears it signaled an imminent attack, but experts in the region said Sunday it is more likely a bid to soften the terror group’s image.

A public relations bid to soften the terror group’s image? That doesn’t seem to match with the rhetoric from the video, does it? I watched a bit of CNN this weekend where one of the talking heads wondered if the video weren’t an appeal to be better understood. Nasrawi didn’t quote from the video.

The way much of the media treat these Islamic terrorist threats is imperialistic. They apply Western values and constructs to Muslims who view the public square rather differently. These Muslims could not be more clear about their religious aims. But when the media try to analyze them for American audiences, we get insights such as these:

There have been widespread reports that some Muslim religious figures strongly criticized al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden over the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he failed to follow directives in the Quran that require potential victims be warned that conversion to Islam could save them.

The criticism led to speculation after Gadahn’s appearance that the Saturday video meant a warning was being issued and a new attack was imminent.

But experts discounted those fears.

If the reports are so widespread, how come they are not identifiable here? If this unverified criticism led to speculation, could the reporter share with us who was doing the speculating? Or are we just supposed to believe it without any evidence? And finally, who are these experts?:

“This is not a warning for an attack. It is rather a speech aimed at winning the Americans’ sympathy and understanding,” said Gamal Sultan, editor of the Islamic magazine Al Manar.

Columnist Mishari al-Thaydi of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat agreed, saying al-Qaida is trying to portray itself as a group with a religious mission, not a terrorist movement.

Who are these people? What is Al Manar? What is Asharq Al Awsat? Is it too much to ask for a few more details here? And as much as I hope that this latest violent threat is not carried out, did Salah Nasrawi try to get perspective from folks who are more concerned about it than the ones quoted?

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