History that dares not speak its name

image2 p24 webIt is one of the most controversial events in the history of the 20th century and hardly anyone in America knows about it.

If a government managed to kill off nearly 80 percent of the members of a particular ethnic group within its borders, while also striving to destroy its history and memory, what would you call it?

Genocide? A hoax?

A massacre? A holocaust, even?

What if the victims represented a branch of Eastern Christianity that few in the West knew about? What if the nation being accused of committing genocide were a crucial U.S. friend in the Muslim world and, now, a nation urgently trying to change its image in order to enter the European Union? And how would you treat this event in public schools? Would you allow it to be debated by partisans, pitting those who descended from the survivors against the various interest groups who want this issue to go away?

We are talking, of course, about the 1915-18 massacre of Armenians by the Turkish government. A recent Los Angeles Times story by Elizabeth Mehren offered readers a glimpse into the controversies surrounding the genocide by focusing on a lawsuit in Massachusetts — backed by Turks and others — that says students should hear evidence that the genocide never happened or that it has been blown out of proportion.

Is this a case where free speech is absolute? Or is it somehow similar to cases involving — prepare for thunderbolts — Holocaust denial?

How emotional is this? How loaded are these debates? Listen to these voices:

She was only 3 when her family fled their Turkish homeland 91 years ago. Alice Shnorhokian and her brother were too small to walk the long road to safety in the Syrian desert, so their parents strapped them in boxes on the sides of a donkey that carried the family possessions. … Shnorhokian saw fellow Armenians trying to escape from every village she passed. There was no food, water or shelter, she said. Babies and old people were dying along the way. Eventually, about 1.2 million Armenians would perish.

“In Turkey, in genocide times, we Christian Armenians had three options,” Shnorhokian said. “We paid a heavy tax, became Muslim or died.”

haghbatThen there is high-school senior Ted Griswold, who filed the lawsuit backed by Tuskish-Americans.

The plaintiffs contend that Department of Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll and other state officials violated the 1st Amendment by removing material from a human rights curriculum that questioned whether the mass killings nearly a century ago constituted genocide.

“It’s a case of academic freedom,” said Griswold, who lent his name to the suit to show his support for freedom of speech, and who admitted he knows little about Armenia or the genocide. “A greater perspective makes the truth easier to find,” he said, adding: “This is nothing personal about the Armenians. I realize it is an emotional issue for them.”

This story is just beginning. You can also say that it will never end (even as the destruction of Armenian churches and history continues).

The question, for me, is whether other newspapers and networks care enough about foreign news and, yes, religion news to cover this debate. Why cover religion story on the other side of the planet, even when the controversy reaches into American courtrooms and classrooms?

Why cover a story that offends so many different groups of people?

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Free speech, but only when it suits our needs

free speechFollowing up on last week’s post on whether society can be tolerant of the intolerant, I wanted to point out some of the language being used on the left to justify limiting freedom of speech.

The American Humanist Association issued a press release late last week saying it is “wary” of the Georgia Tech free speech lawsuit. Founded in 1941, the association stands for, among other issues, population control, human rights, sexual equality, civil liberties and alternative technologies. It has given Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Turner and Carl Sagan its Humanist of the Year award.

With that short introduction, here is the language of the left, beginning with a remark by the association’s executive director:

“Of course we Humanists are strongly in support of the right to free speech,” concluded [Roy] Speckhardt. “But we draw the line when — in the special learning environment of the campus — it infringes on the rights of others to receive an education without fear of persecution for their beliefs and sexual orientation.”

There are clear limits on free speech, such as shouting fire in a crowded theatre. In my humble opinion, Ruth Malhotra’s attempt to speak out against something she disagrees with fails to meet that standard. It may be offensive to some (or many, which doesn’t matter), but that does not mean she does not have the right to have those opinions and to share them.

In covering these stories it’ll be interesting to see if journalists pick up on that distinction. It’s clear enough in my opinion. The message from the left is “We only support free speech when it agrees with what we believe.”

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Reading between same-sex union lines

weddingcakeThe big news in David D. Kirkpatrick’s latest New York Times report from the front pews of the Culture Wars is hinted at in the lead and then buried way near the bottom. The big news: It seems that a few leaders on the Catholic left may agree to back a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriages.

Here’s the lead:

About 50 prominent religious leaders, including seven Roman Catholic cardinals and about a half-dozen archbishops, have signed a petition in support of a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage.

And here are the details that really matter, the names of some (repeat some) of the clerics who signed on with that Alliance for Marriage petition.

Organizers said the petition had brought together cardinals from both the left and right sides of the United States bishops’ conference, including the liberal Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and the conservative Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, as well as Cardinals Edward M. Egan of New York, Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

So what is the news in that? After all, the Catholic Church has defended its ancient doctrines on marriage and sex. Even the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has supported a ban on same-sex marriages. The news, and Kirkpatrick underlines it, is that some Catholic progressives have stepped foward to back an effort that has, primarily, been led by evangelicals and by conservative Catholic politicians who do not mind cooperating with evangelicals. This has major political implications.

The petition drive was organized in part by Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, a Catholic scholar with close ties to evangelical Protestant groups. Aides to three Republican senators — Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader; Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and Sam Brownback of Kansas — were also involved, organizers said. …

No one expects the measure to pass this year. But drives to amend state constitutions to ban same sex-marriage proved powerful incentives to turning out conservative voters in Ohio and elsewhere in 2004. At least two states with contested Senate races — Tennessee and Pennsylvania, where Mr. Santorum is seeking re-election against a Democrat who also opposes abortion rights — are debating constitutional bans on same-sex marriage this year.

However, I really do wish that the online version of this story included a link to the full list of the clerics who signed the petition. The Alliance for Marriage site does not have a full list either.

Why does this matter? Almost all of the nation’s major religious groups are opposed to same-sex marriage. But some are acting on the issue and some are not. This list will, in some ways, show who is who on the issue and also offer clues for reporters who are looking ahead to the annual summer doctrinal wars in mainline religious conventions and conferences. It even has implications for which churches stay in, and which churches may vote to leave, oldline groups like the National Council of Churches. There are also updates on growing tensions among major African-American and Hispanic groups.

Read between the lines of these paragraphs:

The prominent conservative Protestant figures included leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, as well as the president of conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a handful of Episcopal bishops.

Other signers included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family; the evangelist D. James Kennedy; Bishop Charles E. Blake of the historically black Church of God in Christ; the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals; Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union; and officials of the Orthodox Church in America.

Has anyone out there found a link to the full list of clergy who signed? There are stories in that list.

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Barnes, Allen and the question

greenegeorgeSpeaking of Fred Barnes and the faith factor, there is a great Fred moment in his op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal. In effect, it opens with Sen. George F. Allen of Virginia trying out his “cultural right” soundbites for the most influential “cultural right” journalist in D.C. journalism.

This audition is taking place during lunch at the Monocle, one of those networking places on Capitol Hill that is also a restaurant.

George F. Allen is staring at me. The normally loquacious Virginia senator is not saying anything and neither am I. Silence hangs in the air for a few seconds.

The impasse, like so many other things in American politics, was owing to Roe v. Wade. Mr. Allen’s position is carefully demarcated: He would like to see the decision “reinterpreted” to allow states to decide the legal status of abortion. Does that mean he would like to see it overturned? He won’t say. So I suggest that Mr. Allen’s “reinterpretation” would produce precisely the same result as overturning the ruling: States would decide the fate of abortion. I pause for a response. Nothing. I get more direct. “Why won’t you say you want Roe reversed?”

Again, Mr. Allen is mum, and eventually I give up.

OK, does anyone remember that statement by Godtalk scribe Michael Gerson, right after the 2004 election, about the divisions in the White House caused by abortion and other social issues? He said that, time after time, the key to debates in this White House is the tension between those advocating a more “Catholic” (with a large C) approach to public life and those taking a more libertarian (with a small L) approach.

So here we go again. We live in a libertarian age and, clearly, Barnes is using the ultimate social issue to find out where Allen falls, when it comes to the big split in the GOP. Of course, the public — muddled on anything absolute — wants compromise, which is something the Democratic establishment cannot allow for its elites and the GOP has little motive to seek, because of the large motivation factor that a strict abortion stand provides for consistent cultural conservatives (in both parties). Neither party has reason to do the dangerous political work of overturning Roe and, thus, getting to compromise.

baby1thumb 2It cannot be said enough: The elite Democrats are united on abortion. The elite Republicans, in their big tent, are divided. The classic article on this is still that Atlantic Monthly piece in 1995 by George McKenna describing “A Lincolnian Position” on abortion.

So back to Barnes and Allen at lunch. Barnes is doing what other journalists on the political beat will have to do — push the major candidates to move beyond mere words and describe what they mean when they use words such as “moderate,” “conservative” and “libertarian.”

As Rod Dreher is saying in his Crunchy Cons book, one party worships libertarian morality and the other libertarian economics. It’s the party of lust vs. the party of greed. And under the surface are the fault lines, with the Democrats seeking new semi-religious language (with no compromises on policy), while worrying about the practicing Catholics. Meanwhile, the Republicans keep trying to use their same old religious language that has worked for a long time, while doing as little as possible in terms of actual policy so as not to run off the Dick Cheney wing of the party.

So here is Allen talking about the size of government. Note the almost magical use of the word “freedom,” which, on abortion, is a word that the pro-abortion-rights crowd has to use early and often.

… (Allen) disagrees with Mr. Bush on the scope of the federal government. The president accepts its size as a given and advocates using it for conservative ends. Mr. Allen says he has “a libertarian sense.” He describes himself as more in sync with Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan than with George Bush. “I’m one who dislikes limits. I don’t like restrictions. I like freedom. I like liberty. Unless you’re harming someone else, you leave people free.”

Unless you are “harming someone else.” OK, Allen is going to have to answer the abortion question sooner or later.

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Does God need good PR?

Larry RossSunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a relatively in-depth profile of Larry Ross, dubbed as possibly “the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” The premise of the article (which goes along the lines of “Why does Jesus Christ need a publicist?”) is thought-provoking, and one that I’m sure came easily to the author, Strawberry Saroyan (author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir).

In introducing the question, Saroyan compares Mother Teresa’s need for a lawyer with the need of Rick Warren, and the entire Kingdom of God, for the help of public relations. “Why does God need someone to sell him?”

That’s a good question, but is Ross really trying to sell God? How about selling the earthly creation that is the church? I know most reporters have this image of public relations officials, especially the type you can hire for a buck, as sellouts and willing to represent anyone at the price, but this is not always the case.

In the nearly 5,000 words devoted to the subject, Saroyan fails to consider that while Ross has been behind some of the biggest Christian-themed moneymakers in the last few years and has directed big-budget marketing campaigns, the most basic need of those he represents is someone with the time and ability to explain their message to journalists who often have a poor understanding of religion.

If successful Christian leaders, preachers and evangelists are to use the mass media to spread their message, modern PR is necessary for the job. One can argue that, as Christians, they should be humble and not seek the spotlight. However, drawing 30,000 members to a congregation is bound to attract media attention. The following paragraph is a great example of this angle:

But Ross seems to be mostly at peace with his role and described it to me one afternoon this way: after invoking a biblical story about Moses’ engagement in a lengthy battle for the children of Israel, he said: “Moses stood there on top of a cliff, and as long as he held up his arms, the children of Israel won. Well, after a while he got tired, so there were two men that came and held up Moses’ arms so they could win the battle. That’s my job — to hold up the arms of the man of God, like Billy Graham or Rick Warren, in the media.” But his eyes really lighted up when he moved onto another topic — the press reception Graham received during his New York crusade last June. “He ended up doing 15 interviews, including all the major talk shows,” Ross told me. “At the press conference itself we had 250 journalists.”

Saroyan seems to think that pastors should be unwittingly put before the media horde, free to stumble over explanations of ecclesiastical language and possible fire and brimstone. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

Perhaps the most intensive training that Ross offers is his “media and spokesperson” sessions. These can last as long as two days and usually include several mock interviews, which are taped. Ross encourages his clients to engage the media, but he wants to prepare them for worst-case encounters, so he administers tough questioning. To loosen clients up, he shows them an old “Bob Newhart” episode in which a talk-show host suddenly turns on Newhart. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. He advises clients to avoid ecclesiastical language when addressing the mainstream (“Somebody talks about the Holy Ghost or the Army of God — that sounds like a revolution and it’s coming out of Iran,” says Lawrence Swicegood, who has worked for Ross and [Mark] DeMoss) and to use metaphors because they stick in people’s minds. Toward the end of a session, Ross looses a “bulldog” interrogator, a role played these days by Giles Hudson, a former writer for the Associated Press, who poses questions ranging from financial queries to “Do homosexuals go to hell?” “Obviously not,” Hudson says is a good response to this challenge. “Each person has their own relationship to Christ. People don’t just go to hell because you’re an alcoholic.” Sometimes Ross and Hudson add a separate, ambush interview. After taking a “break” from a session with Promise Keepers, Ross’s team confronted its president in the reception area, camera crew in tow.

So am I in favor of PR consultants walling off their clients and keeping them from the unfriendly media folks? No, not at all. I deal with those types in my day job. The goals Ross seems to have put before him in his job are not blocking information, but rather spreading information about Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of being a Christian. This message came through clearly in the article, and for that Saroyan deserves praise:

Ross takes pains to distance himself from the more unsavory associations with publicists. Once he playfully asked me, “So, where would a P.R. man fit on the social scale between used-car salesmen, lepers and incurable lepers?” But he also tries to serve his two masters fairly. When he was working with “The Early Show” at CBS during a Graham crusade in 2005, he was approached by “Good Morning America.” He recapped the incident for me: “Their ratings are significantly higher, but I said, ‘I have to tell you, we’re here with CBS, and we have to honor the fact.’ I feel dutybound. It’s not enough to do things right — we have to do the right thing.” Ross also said he is attuned to the spiritual needs of his colleagues in the media. On one occasion he spoke to a producer from a network newsmagazine for six hours, answering her personal questions about Christ. “We have people who come to the crusades to report the story and put down their pens and microphones and commit to God,” he said.

Finally, I believe Saroyan nailed it in explaining Ross’ “near-refusal to acknowledge anything other than the glowingly positive” as a tendency of Christians to not “want to let on to anything negative because they fear it will reflect badly on God.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. It’s one thing to want to keep the Church from being unfairly criticized in the media, but it’s another thing to attempt to cover up its spots and blemishes.

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Can society be tolerant of the intolerant?

don't tolerate intoleranceAs a journalist, I make value judgments every day in my writing and reporting. For instance, “John Smith” is a good source, in my opinion, so I will cite him in my recent story on “bananas.” And that report from the XYZ agency’s inspector general is solid so it also deserves a reference. These are generally snap judgments made throughout any day and most of it is so instinctive, little thought goes into them.

Things get a bit tricky when it comes to moral judgments. At all costs I try to keep my own moral judgments out of my articles. This is easy for me because my subjects rarely relate to anything inherently moral.

But the subject is morality in this Los Angeles Times article by Stephanie Simon, who we’ve given much deserved praise in the past. The story is about a lawsuit for the “Right Not to Tolerate Policies.” Check out the lead:

ATLANTA — Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.

Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation.

Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

So is Malhotra seeking the right to be intolerant, or the right to speak out against homosexuality? We’re talking about two separate moral philosophies and two separate value judgments. Can both exist at the same time? That depends on your point of view. I think we know what Simon thinks from the lead, and that’s too bad from a journalistic perspective.

Overall, it’s a well reported article, but Simon missed a subtle distinction that required a “for the record” update involving one of her sources that shows how complex this issue can be and how a journalist must leave all preconceptions behind.

The editorial page of the Times stepped in with an exceptional op/ed piece on the issue (lest any of you have concerns that the Times‘ editorial influenced Simon’s reporting, I can guarantee there is a giant wall between the editorial page and the newsroom):

It isn’t necessary — or even desirable — to protect gay students, Christian students or any other types of students from opinions they find hurtful. Indeed, the civil exchange of competing views is part of the purpose of higher education. Colleges have the right to protect students from harassment, but they must be careful not to trample on the 1st Amendment rights of other students.

How does that statement compare with the presumptions in Simon’s lead? Is it intolerant to oppose another person’s conduct, or is that just another way of expressing religious beliefs?

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The prayer of the publican

denarius tiberias 1 01I turned over a new leaf last year: I filed my taxes a month before they were due. This year, unfortunately, I’m back to my old tricks. I’ll be with the throng of last-minute filers causing a pedestrian and auto traffic jam at the Capitol Hill post office late tonight.

Easter fell within a day of the tax deadline this year. Most religion reporters wouldn’t think twice about it. Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Salt Lake Tribune‘s longtime religion reporter, wrote a compelling story about it. She interviews local Latter-day Saints who say folks should pay their taxes, libertarians who oppose current tax policy and liberals who oppose tax breaks for those who earn profits. Many have heard Jesus’ saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It’s a complex saying, one which has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Stack provides some context:

When the Jewish leaders asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay Roman taxes, they were setting a kind of trap for him. If he said “yes,” he would be siding with the despised Jews who collaborated with Rome and if he said “no,” he would be arrested.

How to deal with these competing claims?

“In my view Jesus teaches that, for survival, one pays, but one does so knowing a greater loyalty and knowing that soon ‘the kingdom or empire of God’ will be established in full and it will be the end of Rome,” [Warren] Carter[, who teaches at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.,] says. “Jesus’ answer resists Rome’s attempts to humiliate, it secures the dignity of those forced to pay, reminds them of their identity in God’s purposes, and points to the sure completion of those purposes.”

The article also looks at how Jesus treated tax collectors, and puts it in a modern context:

Today’s Internal Revenue Service is only slightly more popular than tax collectors were in Jesus’ time. Many Americans live in fear of being audited or having to deal with one of its agents, despite filing on-time, legitimate forms.

But they don’t have to worry about being cheated or extorted.

In ancient Jerusalem, tax collectors were often locals who contracted to gather a certain amount of wealth to hand on up the imperial system. After paying Rome, these locals — also called “publicans” — were free to collect from the people as they wished and free to make a profit for themselves. They were regarded as traitors, as complicit with the exploiting Romans, or as thieves who collected too much and kept the extra, Carter says.

Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with these tax collectors, choosing one (Matthew) as his apostle, eating at their houses and using them to make a point in one of his famous parables.

In that story, Jesus described two men going to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a temple official) and the other was a publican. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even the publican.

The publican, meanwhile, looks down and says, simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus tells his listeners that of the two, the publican and anyone who is humble will be exalted in heaven.

“He never ever taught that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government or collecting the tax,” [scholar Marcus] Borg writes. “He was opposed to extortioners, but would fling open the door of repentance and salvation to them. He rejected none, not even the worst.”

The prayer of the publican is not something you find in mainstream media very often. And yet it is a prayer that many millions of Christians offer throughout each day. Stack managed to write about both worlds that many of her readers live in — the world where laws are administered and enforced and the world where Jesus’ words reign supreme. It’s a delicate art, and she did a great job writing about both Easter and tax day.

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Any Koranic verses in particular?

Koran Open2I am sorry to keep returning to this subject so often, but the reporting coming out of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial is so gripping, unnerving and frustrating that I can’t stop reading it.

Once again, we need to ask Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times for more information.

Why? Think of it this way. Let’s say that some traitor to the pro-life cause was part of a plot to massacre thousands of people that he or she believed were trying to destroy Christianity. Then let’s say that this terrorist pled guilty and, on the witness stand, sat holding a Bible lined with Post-it notes and, during questioning, read verse after verse from those Holy Scriptures while attempting to defend the righteousness of the massacre.

Here’s my question: Wouldn’t you want to know what some of those verses said? Wouldn’t you want to know what traditional believers thought those verses actually mean (as opposed to being justifications for mass murder)?

With that in mind, let’s turn to Serrano’s latest Moussaoui trial report.

Moussaoui … repeated his deep hatred for Americans and predicted another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil before the end of President Bush’s term. He said the strike would be so catastrophic that the government would be forced to release him from prison.

“I fight,” he said. “And God will help me and free me.”

The 37-year-old Al Qaeda terrorist occupied the witness stand for nearly three hours. In his lap he fingered his worn copy of the Koran, sometimes flipping the pages to read a verse to the jury that he had marked with Post-it notes.

How about it? Is anyone else curious about those passages?

I looked around online and could not find any references that actually quoted the Koranic verses that he used in his defense. Across the Atlantic, reporting by Tom Baldwin in The Times did offer this summary, and many more details about Moussaoui’s hatred of Israel and the Jews:

Moussaoui quoted from the Koran which he said called on Muslims to fight for supremacy for Allah. He said that Islam taught that “we have to be the superpower, we have to be above you.”

Gerald Zerkin, for the defence, asked him why he hated the US and Americans.

“For theological reasons and life experience reasons,” he replied. “You are on a crusade, like [President] George W. Bush says. In Europe, they call New York ‘little Israel’,” he replied, attacking the US for being the first, in 1948, to recognise Israel, which he called the “Jewish state of Palestine.”

“There is no difference between the Jewish state of Palestine and Hawaii,” he said.

Once again, we hear the impact of his views of the Koran. But we do not hear what the Koran actually says, nor do we hear how others would interpret these — for him — deadly verses.

I think that we need that information. I think that is part of the story.

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