India sorts out terrorist bombings

mumbai bombingDetails on the perpetrators of Tuesday’s horrific bombings of the Mumbai train system are still scant, but investigators are considering it the work of Islamic extremists from Pakistan. As further details come in, it will be important for journalists to sort out the messy theological details of the group and whether it is connected to a more international Islamic terrorism effort.

What is unfortunate for many reasons is that the Mumbai train bombings have been quickly ushered off the front pages of our papers and off the evening newscasts. This is partly because there are no obvious culprits as of yet. Then there is the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, with what is beginning to look like outright civil war in Iraq, and the escalation of violence between Israel and its neighbors. More on that later.

Here’s the BBC’s account from Thursday afternoon on the Mumbai bombings:

Indian police are continuing their hunt for those behind Tuesday’s bomb attacks on commuter trains in Mumbai, in which some 200 people were killed.

Police have questioned hundreds of people, and one person was arrested in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

But police have denied reports they released sketches of any suspects.

A Muslim organisation banned in India, the Students’ Islamic Movement (Simi), is the latest group to deny involvement in the attacks.

While the perpetrators of this attack may not be connected by name to the terrorist attacks in London, New York and Washington, D.C., it is important to question those claims of independence from a larger worldwide movement. Are there theological similarities that allow a Muslim to perform such an act of reckless murder? Is the random killing of hundreds of innocents compatible with the teachings of the Quran? My understanding, from a variety of sources, is that it is not.

Why was India the target of such attacks? An obvious answer is Pakistani militants. A less obvious answer is that India’s rapid secularization horrifies fundamentalist Muslims. Even less obvious is whether this was the action of Hindu extremists. Here is Christopher Kremmer in Australia’sThe Age:

Tuesday’s bombings, targeting commuters in the financial capital of Mumbai, represent not just the ruthless murder of at least 170 people but a strike at the idea of India itself.

Sadly, we are no longer shocked by such attacks. But the real surprise, given the vulnerability of India’s teeming cities and its history of religious and political violence, is that there have been relatively few of them.

Leaders from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh down have wisely avoided rushing to judgment about who may have been responsible. Mumbai’s history of bombings includes underworld elements and Hindu extremists, as well as Muslim ones. Speculation fuels rumours, and rumours can trigger reprisals. The Congress-led coalition now in power has nothing to gain from a collapse of law and order in Mumbai or anywhere else.

I appreciated this Reuters article in the Khaleej Times on Mumbai Muslims giving blood to Hindu bomb victims. But the article begged for answers on why this was significant religiously, other than Muslims and Hindus not usually cooperating on anything.

I regret not writing about the Mumbai bombings sooner. If an attack of a magnitude 10 times less than this had hit my hometown of Washington, D.C., I would have been all over it. Remember the coverage of the London bombings? Needless to say, I think the American mainstream media need to offer some type of explanation for the pittance of coverage this dramatic event has received.

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Peggy Noonan sums it all up

10075248On one level, Peggy Noonan’s column this morning in The Wall Street Journal is not about religion news coverage. In fact, it isn’t about religion, at least not directly.

It’s about politics. Her thesis is that modern Americans expect their politicians to be living, breathing reference-system computers, able to respond with grace and accuracy on a mind-zapping array of issues. It’s an impossible task.

That’s what the column is about.

But here is what hit me, as I read one of those Noonan-esque blitzes of words, issues and images — what percentage of the issues that haunt our non-naked public square are rooted, to one degree or another, in issues of religion, morality and culture? Check them off as you read the following from Noonan’s column:

We are asking our politicians, our senators and congressmen, to make judgments, decisions and policy on: stem cell research, SDI, Nato composition, G-8 agreements, the history and state of play of judicial and legislative actions regarding press freedoms, the history of Sunni-Shiites tensions, Kurds, tax rates, federal spending, hurricane prediction and response, the building of a library annex in Missoula, the most recent thinking on when human life begins, including the thinking of the theologians of antiquity on when the soul enters the body, chemical weaponry, the Supreme Court, U.S.-North Korean relations, bioethics, cloning, public college curriculums, India-Pakistan relations, the enduring Muslim-Hindu conflict, the constitutional implications of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, Homeland security, Securities and Exchange Commission authority, energy policy, environmental policy, nuclear proliferation, global warming, the stability of Venezuela’s Chavez regime and its implications for U.S. oil prices, the future of Cuba after Castro, progress in gender bias as suggested by comparisons of the number of girls who pursued college-track studies in American public high schools circa 1950 to those on a college-track today, outsourcing, immigration, the comparative efficacy of charter and magnet schools, land use, Kelo, health care, HMO’s, what to do with victims of child abuse, the history of marriage, the nature and origin of homosexuality, V-chips, foreign competition in the making of computer chips, fat levels in potato chips, national policy on the humanities, U.N. reform, and privacy law.

And that was just this week.

I would note that Noonan has left out many other moral and cultural issues that dominate American life and center on mass media and popular culture — issues that frame, define and, at times, drown out our political discussions. But that’s another issue, for another time.

Times SquareIf politicians struggle to stay up to date on all of these issues, so do the journalists who cover them. This is one reason that GetReligion is, well, almost asking modern journalists to do the impossible when it comes to spotting and defining all of the various religious ghosts that haunt public life. How can anyone cover all of this?

Well, this is why we have — to quote Martin Marty again — moved past the age of the solo religion writer.

Don’t get me wrong, having a trained, experienced, talented religion writer is very important. But, today, the whole newsroom needs a plan of action for handling religion news. Religion is a factor in many, many news beats. And, yes, newsrooms need to think of this as a diversity issue. The issues are diverse. Newsrooms need to respond to that reality.

End of sermon. Peggy, thanks for the summary.

P.S. Here is my all-time favorite Noonan blitz of information and images, drawn from her classic column about the “Culture of Death,” written immediately after the Columbine High School massacre.

Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by — all are waves. The fish — your child–is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:

. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to kill her children . . . said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . . which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance . . .

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture.

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Sin and shame in Amish country

amishvillageNormally we try to analyze recent mainstream media coverage of religious issues. The magazine article in this post is from January of 2005; it’s a bit dated. But reader Daniel Grover passed it along yesterday and it was too interesting to keep from others.

Not to engage in stereotyping, but who knew that Legal Affairs — “the magazine at the intersection of law and life” — would have such thorough coverage of religion? Senior editor Nadia Labi looked at claims of pedophilia, incest and other abuse among several Amish females. The subject matter was horrifying enough that she avoided adding any excess moral condemnation. She was wise enough to get out of the way and let the story — which was plenty compelling and interesting enough on its own — tell itself.

But she patiently and clearly explained Amish beliefs and how they played into the story. Here she discusses the tolerance the government has for the religious community:

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. “The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit,” said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of “the English,” as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. . . .

But can a community govern itself by Jesus’s teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness — so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

In the case of the women interviewed by Labi, their perpetrators faced punishment ranging from parental admonition to shunning for a few weeks. Labi explains the origins of the Amish, and how their refusal to baptize infants led to persecution in Europe. But this explanation of why they shun the secular world is really interesting:

As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio’s Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren’t taught that the earth was round. “A lot of Amish will tell you they don’t want their kids to be educated,” she said. “The more they know, the more apt they are to leave.”

This approach to the two kingdoms is fascinating to me. I’ve shared previously my prediliction for a Lutheran Two Kingdoms approach, which teaches that the church administers God’s means of grace while the earthly kingdom operates through natural laws and human vocations. In the Lutheran view, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms at the same time. So in our church you can be forgiven for a grievous sin at the same time you’re being carted off to prison. While Lutherans and Amish may be at opposite ends of the Two Kingdoms spectrum, many contentious stories at the intersection of religion and politics are debates about how far to move in one direction or the other. Of course, in American Protestantism of many stripes, the issue is whether to even have two spheres, as debates about school prayer, Ten Commandments monuments and Jesus’ policy views on intercontinental missiles indicate.

Oh how I wish reporters would familiarize themselves better with the different views about church and state. Their reporting would surely improve if they understood the doctrinal assumptions underlying our debates.

But back to Labi. Her feature is more reportage than analysis, but it does raise interesting points. Most notable for me was the idea that the sinfulness of the non-Amish kingdom is a threat while the sinfulness of the people within the Amish kingdom is not. Labi interviewed women from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She researched the legal records for each of the abuse claims. She interviewed — or attempted to interview — the accused and convicted perpetrators. And she thoughtfully analyzed how Amish doctrine plays into the situation. Which is probably why she was nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year.

Photo from fulphillyment via Flickr.

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Getting religion in the public square

the cross in americaThe most recent edition of PBS’ Washington Week included an interesting exchange between a member of the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival and a panel consisting of leading journalists from Time, The Atlantic and NBC News:

Q: I would like to ask how can we keep religion out of government and politics?

MS. IFILL: How can we keep religion out of — how can we or should we?

Q: Hell, how should we? (Laughter.)

I was a bit taken aback by the bluntness of the question. To some, it’s not a matter of whether religion should be involved in public life, but a matter of how it can best be eliminated.

Ifill quickly passed that question to Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, who referred the audience member to American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek. Mitchell said the book shows the role of religion among the Founding Fathers, how religion was not completely excluded from our civic society and how it does have a role.

No, really?

I haven’t read Meacham’s book yet, but it is highly respected and has has helped shift popular Washington opinion toward the understanding that religion can indeed have a role in public society.

But as with all matters of religion, some people disagree.

Peter Slevin of The Washington Post has written a 1,400-word viewpoint, I mean news article, on an organization dedicated to keeping religion in the public square:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A 29-foot war memorial shaped like a cross should be allowed to remain on public land. A teacher should be able to emphasize references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Protesters should be permitted to approach women near the doors of an abortion clinic.

These courtroom fights and dozens of others pending across the country belong to the portfolio of the ambitious Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium. It spends $20 million a year seeking to protect what it regards as the place of religion — and especially Christianity — in public life.

Considering itself the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottsdale-based organization has used money and moxie to become the leading player in a movement to tug the nation to the right by challenging decades of legal precedent. By stepping into the nation’s most impassioned debates about religion in the public sphere, the group aims to bring law and society into alignment with conservative Christianity.

religion in the public squareNote now the article portrays the group as on the offensive. But if you read through the article, all of the examples place the group on the defensive. Rather than attempting to move American law to the right, the group seems more determined to keep the law where it is.

This impression of advancement was helped along by ADF founders Alan Sears and Jeffery Ventrella. The group has a financial interest in proclaiming this version of reality. American values and cultural mores have already been trampled underfoot. And they are the ones, if we can get a check, to bring them back from the brink:

Alliance executives say they are on solid ground when it comes to history and the law, and they insist that the pendulum is beginning to swing their way. Sears said the group, “by grace,” expects to grow 20 percent a year.

“Over and over, there’s a search-and-destroy mission for religious expression,” Ventrella told the trainees in Chicago. “Do we want to forget our religious heritage? When we abandon God, we will forget man. So what’s God got to do with it? Everything.”

The article does an excellent job of documenting the group’s attempts to inflame situations using impassioned rhetoric, but I wonder if the Post would have examined similar efforts by just about any other interest group. I receive ACLU and Sierra Club fundraising letters with rhetoric that could give the ADF a run for its money.

So, why the ADF? The Post article briefly mentions Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel. Those groups, and the Rutherford Institute, surely would appreciate similar front-page treatment.

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Leafy green sacrament

ganjaFrequently we discuss the troubles that mainstream media have with covering traditional religious thought. But religious outliers, while gathering senationalist news coverage, also suffer from poor media coverage. That’s why I was glad to see Arizona Daily Star reporter Stephanie Innes’ look at the Church of Cognizance, a group that advocates the use of marijuana. Reader Charlie Lehardy sent the story along.

It would be easy to fill such a news piece with Cheech and Chong references or, on the other hand, take an approach that ignores the weirdness of such a group. Innes strikes a good balance:

The Church of Cognizance, which has quietly operated here since 1991, has an unusual tenet — its worshippers deify and use marijuana as part of their faith.

Until federal authorities charged them with possessing 172 pounds of their leafy green sacrament earlier this year, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance say they smoked, ate or drank marijuana daily as a way of becoming more spiritually enlightened.

But now, with added conspiracy charges, the Quaintances face up to 40 years each in prison in a case they call religious persecution.

The piece looks at the argument of federal prosecutors who say that religious freedom does not permit the use of illegal drugs. She also looks at the Quaintances’ belief that a recent Supreme Court decision allowing a religious group to use a banned hallucinogenic tea protects them. In that case, she notes, groups such as the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union for Reform Judaism filed briefs in support of the religious group. Innes looks at the crux of the debate:

“Marijuana is the averter of death,” [Dan Quaintance] said. “The energy and spirit that is in marijuana is God. You consume the plant and you consume God. You are sacrificing your body to the deity.” . . .

“Religion is basically putting your faith in what you rely on,” he said. “Jesus started his church because of what he believed and learned.”

He filed a “declaration of religious sentiment” on behalf of the Church of Cognizance with the Graham County Recorder’s Office in 1994, though Dan, his family and other members say the church dates to 1991. . . .

Still, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, says any group seeking an exemption to the nation’s drug laws, even for religious purposes, has a “hill to climb.”

One never knows how these cases will turn out. But, should a case like this proceed through the court system, it would have ramifications on other religious groups. That’s why such disparate groups worked to help out the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (or UDV), which advocated drinking hallucinogenic tea.

Innes’ piece is full of direct quotes from knowledgeable or interested parties. With complex religion stories, it’s better to quote the players themselves than to convey their views inaccurately. I also like how she took the time to explain more about how the courts determine religious sincerity:

The U.S. Constitution contains no legally recognizable definition of religion, but courts still can apply a test of sincerity, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief program for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the UDV church.

If, for example, a group of prisoners calling themselves the Church of Cabernet and Filet Mignon argued religious belief as a reason to be served wine and better food, the government would have a right to question the sincerity of their theological belief, he said.

Mmm. Cabernet.

Photo via Viceroy321 on Flickr.

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We’ll tell you what to think about female ordination

Lutheran ordinationThe latest issue of Newsweek has a story on the ordination of females. Writers Holly Rossi and Lilit Marcus, who I believe are bloggers at the excellent Beliefnet, wrote the story for the mainstream publication. They ask what the election of Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the head of the Episcopal Church means for women seeking a similar path. If they were blogging, the bias of the piece would be just fine. But I’m not sure if they quite have the impartiality necessary for a mainstream news magazine. Let’s see what we think about their tone:

Women make up 61 percent of all Americans who attend religious congregations, but they still struggle for their place in some denominations. A national study led by researchers at Hartford Seminary found that only 12 percent of the clergy in the 15 largest Protestant denominations are women. And some 112 million Americans belong to denominations that don’t ordain women at all, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Southern Baptists, Mormons, Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

Emphasis mine. Now maybe it’s because I’m Lutheran and we follow the historic Christian practice of ordaining only select men after rigorous education and training, but, um, I don’t think there’s any question how the writers want us to feel. We have the words that direct the reader — but, only, at all!

The story also has a chart on various religious groups’ policies on the ordination of women. But the chart, at least in my synod’s case, is wrong. It says we permit females to preach in the church. Actually, we don’t. We believe that preaching is a function of the Office of Holy Ministry, which is not open to females. Sure, our bureaucratic leader may have expressed a desire to the contrary, but we haven’t gone down that road yet.

Anyway, back to the bias in this Newsweek piece:

But there are indications that times are changing. . . .

But according to Adair Lummis, coauthor of the recent Hartford Seminary study, it might be easier in 20 years for women to earn top positions like Jefferts Schori’s than to increase their presence as senior clergy in many local congregations, where congregants’ attitudes might still favor male pastors. The stained-glass ceiling “has certainly been punctured,” said Lummis. But it’s yet to completely shatter.

I mean, the writers didn’t even really try to be fair to the ancient, orthodox view. They didn’t even lightly explore the biblical or traditional basis for why the vast majority of Christians ordain men. Heck, they didn’t even explore the attitudinal sexism they credit to congregations who desire male priests and pastors. Sigh. The reason why some churches ordain women and others don’t is because there’s a doctrinal division. Maybe mainstream media should look into that.

Photo via Flickr.

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Rick Warren will “use” North Korea?

rick warrenSarah Price Brown of Religion News Service scored a nice scoop in a June 27 report that Rick Warren of The Purpose-Driven Life fame was headed to North Korea to speak in a 15,000-seat stadium.

With one of the world’s last remaining Communist regimes pulling all sorts of geopolitical stunts these days, one would think this type of news would be picked up by the mainstream press, but so far there has been nothing. Here’s the RNS story posted at Beliefnet:

LAKE FOREST, Calif., June 27 — Evangelical pastor Rick Warren has been invited to preach this summer to some 15,000 Christians in North Korea, a communist country infamous not only for its nuclear threats but also for its religious persecution.

Warren, author of the bestselling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” said he would make the trip as part of a nearly 40-day journey to meet with the leaders of 13 foreign countries.

“I want to ask you to pray for me,” Warren told about 5,000 worshippers at his Saddleback Church on Sunday (June 25). He said he would be embarking on a “grueling” tour, meeting with presidents, business leaders and pastors in countries such as Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Rwanda and South Korea, where he would preach at the world’s largest church.

And then, he told the crowd, “I’ve received another invitation.” Warren said North Korea would allow him to preach in a stadium seating 15,000, but that he could preach in a larger venue if he could fill the seats.

Quick question: there are 15,000 Christians in North Korea? I guess that number would be difficult to verify, considering that the country restricts the flow of information so tightly.

Associated Baptist Press and the Christian Post were quick to pick up on Billy Graham comparisons, ABP focusing on Graham’s 1982 visit to Communist Russia and the Post focusing on Graham’s trip to North Korea over 10 years ago, but the nature of this trip still seems a bit vague and the international reaction limited due to the lack of media coverage.

Warren attempted to deflect criticism that the trip will be highly staged, as past trips by religious leaders to North Korean have been:

“I know they’re going to use me,” Warren said, responding to a question about whether he was concerned that the invitation could be a set-up, a ruse to draw out Christians so that the government could punish them.

“So I’m going to use them.”

Great. So Rick Warren now has Superman-like powers? Exactly how does he plan to use them?

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What is today Istanbul

1142553 Map of Constantinople IstanbulA 74-year-old Catholic priest was attacked this week in Turkey. A man, who was described as mentally ill, was arrested in the knifing of Father Pierre Brunissen. The previous two were linked to Islamic opposition to Christian clergy. This, however, may be a personal case. Here’s what the BBC wrote:

The man had allegedly made complaints about Fr Brunissen trying to convert people to his faith.

Reports said he was attacked in a busy street about 1km from his church.

“I hope this has nothing to with Islamic fundamentalism,” Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia, told the Associated Press news agency .

“The climate has changed… it is the Catholic priests that are being targeted.”

Anonymously-sourced alleged complaints notwithstanding, this story really could have nothing to do with religious intolerance. But the secular situation in Turkey is very tenuous and worthy of deeper coverage. When I came across this article, I was also pointed to a months-old Washington Post story that looked at the situation in Turkey with a bit more depth. It showed how Muslims believe Roman Catholic missionaries are paying young Muslims to convert to Christianity. It also had this very amazing line:

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

Really? That’s where the Muslim — Christian tension in Istanbul comes from? From before it was a Muslim city? Interesting.

See, I thought that the great and ancient Christian city of Constantinople (or, as the Post says, “what is today Istanbul”) withstood dozens of attacks from Muslims before finally falling to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. I mean, yes, soldiers in the Fourth Crusade took over Constantinople — from the Byzantine Christians. I don’t think that’s where Muslim-Christian conflict came from. And the Western-Eastern divide was centuries older, besides. However, I seem to recall there was a particularly brutal final 54-day siege and capture of the city.

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