Dang it, there’s that question again

Scales2Here is a story that has been hanging around in my laptop for some time now, just bugging me from last week into this one.

Don’t get me wrong. The story is fine.

But there was something about the question that was included in the lead. It just seemed so — familiar. So click here to see the rest of the New York Times story:

As the issue of gay marriage finally reached New York State’s highest court … the six judges who heard the passionate arguments from both sides put forth a fundamental question: Has marriage been defined by history, culture and tradition since the dawn of Western civilization, or is it an evolving social institution that should change with the times?

Now, does that question remind you of anything?

Perhaps the work of a sociologist down in Virginia? A certain thesis about the ongoing, well, cultural warfare between a “camp of the orthodox” that embraces transcendent, eternal moral absolutes and a “camp of the progressives” that sees truth as an evolving concept in which human experiences and emotions play a strong, strong role?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe not. I also know that there are smart, secular people who adisagree. But the issue isn’t going away. Has anyone else seen a lead as blatant as this one?

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Problems on the abortion beat

18 weeks ultrasoundEarlier this week, newspapers in the United Kingdom reported some abortion figures from the Office for National Statistics. From 1996 to 2004, 20 unborn children in late pregnancies were aborted because ultrasounds showed that they had club feet.

The deformity is fairly common and readily corrected by surgery or physical therapy. Another four babies were aborted because they had webbed fingers or extra digits — also easily corrected. In 2005, a healthy baby was aborted at the sixth month because part of his foot was missing.

The story spread rapidly and was linked to by a number of blogs. Almost all of the reaction about the abortions was negative, even in the stories, such as this one in The Sunday Times:

News of the terminations has reignited the debate over how scanning and gene technology may enable the creation of “designer babies”. In 2002 it emerged that a baby had been aborted late — at 28 weeks — after scans found that it had a cleft palate, another readily corrected condition. . . .

Naomi Davis, a leading paediatric surgeon at Manchester children’s hospital who specialises in correcting club feet, said: “I think it’s reasonable to be totally shocked that abortion is being offered for this. It is entirely treatable. I can only think it is lack of information.”

Stories quoted a number of people expressing outrage that unborn children are aborted for treatable conditions. And other stories were devoted to clerical condemnations.

But that is so dog-bites-man, isn’t it?

Being shocked is reasonable, as the pediatric surgeon says. So wouldn’t it instead have been interesting to substantively interview advocates of abortion? How do they feel about aborting a fetus because of cleft palate? On what basis do they support it? If they don’t support it, why not? Also, in general, the implications of designer babies and the intolerance of imperfection could better be covered by media outlets.

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Missing in the Clinton story

clintonchurchThe Washington Post‘s front-page article on the political dynamics of a Sen. Hillary Clinton presidential run is Exhibit A in a political reporter’s attempt to answer the questions that leading candidates historically refuse to answer. As expected, those questions center on “What does [Clinton] stand for? And where would [Clinton] try to take the country if elected?”

Despite candidate Clinton’s coyness, longtime WaPo political reporter Dan Balz draws out a decent amount of analysis on the New York Senator from an interview he scored Friday:

To the contrary, she made clear in a telephone interview on Friday that her governing philosophy may never be easily reduced to a slogan. “I don’t think like that,” she said. “I approach each issue and problem from a perspective of combining my beliefs and ideals with a search for practical solutions. It doesn’t perhaps fit in a preexisting box, but many of the problems we face as a nation don’t either.”

Her detractors find much — and much different — to criticize. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins dismisses Clinton as the embodiment of “triangulation, calculation and equivocation.” Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos Web site often attacks the Democratic establishment, ridicules her as a leader who is “afraid to offend.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing a view shared by many Republicans, calls her a liberal “ideologue” who is far more doctrinaire than her husband.

A selective reading of Clinton’s record can produce evidence to prove she is a centrist, a liberal and much in between. But there are clear patterns. On defense, she has consistently supported the use of force abroad, having advocated military intervention in the Balkans during her husband’s administration. She differs with Bush administration officials on many aspects of how they have conducted foreign policy, but not on combating terrorism or the imperative of winning in Iraq.

Domestically, she has a more complex profile, a product of life experiences that have shaped and refined her approach to issues. She is an activist who believes in the power of government to solve problems, but those pro-government instincts have been tempered by the health-care debacle of 1993-94 and the nation’s budgetary squeeze. On family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.

Not that there isn’t more than enough to write about when it comes to Clinton, but I found it interesting that Balz all but ignores a previous WaPo splash on the alleged rise of the religious left. Not that I’m complaining at all, but I am curious what the leaders of the religious left think of Clinton and whether Clinton’s people think the group is significant enough to make them worth a political courtship.

Here Balz hints at Clinton’s beliefs on religious issues:

She believes government is an essential partner in a three-sided relationship that also includes the free market, and a “civil society” of churches and nonprofit groups. “I am a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible,” she said. “But I know one of the reasons our country has been one of the most successful organizations in the world is because we got the balance right.”

This and a mention of her January 2005 talk regarding abortion being a “sad, even tragic choice” for women is it when it comes to religion in this story. And that’s too bad, because there’s plenty to write about when it comes to religion and Clinton.

A couple of notes for reporters venturing into this tenuous area: As tmatt has said repeatedly, what of Clinton’s Methodist roots and her very public churchgoing when she was First Lady?

Outside Clinton’s personal life, I think it would be difficult to draw in the religious left angle in an article such as this. The voters who make up the religious left have yet to define themselves or carry a significant candidate to victory.

That said, would Clinton be the religious left’s candidate of choice? Or would that honor go to the more moderate Mark Warner? And what of former Vice President Al Gore? If the religious left story is going to have legs, it’s going to need a candidate for the 2008 election.

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Looking beyond big conferences and grand pronouncements

PhillipsCoverReporters searching for the rise of the “religious left” don’t have to look hard to find people to talk about the surge or growth in the movement. Never mind that no one has really defined exactly what this movement stands for politically, let alone theologically.

Conferences, Bible verse-dropping and citing the history of progressive religious movements (civil-rights, social gospel) are all nice and good for a quick-hit story. But as the Democrats look to rally a religious movement on their own to compete with the religious right, reporters should note the last three paragraphs of this excellent Economist article titled “American Theocracy.” Reporters covering the intersection and politics should remember these poignant insights as they explore the movement:

But is this truly a sea-change in American religious politics? Or is it a brief “hallelujah moment” — born of Bush fatigue and political opportunism — that will bring no lasting change? The betting is on the latter. The religious left suffers from two long-term problems. The first is that it is building its house on sand. The groups that make up the heart of the religious left — mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics and reform Jews — are all experiencing long-term decline. Most of the growth in American religion is occurring among conservative churches. And the constituent parts of the religious left are also at odds over important issues. Middle-of-the-road Catholics are happy to march hand-in-hand with mainline Protestants over immigration and inequality. But they often disagree over abortion and gay rights.

The secular left usually wins

Serious doubts also persist about how much the Democratic Party is willing to change to embrace religion. Some influential Democrats want real change. Others think that all they need to do is drop a few platitudes to religious voters and the God-gap will disappear. Mr Dean’s performance on Pat Robertson’s television programme was as telling as it was laughable. He not only chose to talk to a man who plays a much bigger role in the liberal imagination than among evangelicals; he also let slip that Democrats “have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community.”

The biggest problem for the religious left is that it is badly outgunned by the secular left. The Democratic Party’s elites — from interest-groups to funders to activists — are determinedly secular. So are many of its most loyal voters. John Kerry won 62% of the vote of people who never go to church; and that group is the fastest-growing single “religious” group in the country. These secular voters don’t just feel indifferent to religion. They are positively hostile to it, regarding it as a embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values such as the right to choose. These crusading secularists are in a particularly militant mood at the moment, as the sales of Kevin Phillips’s Bush-bashing book, “American Theocracy”, testify. The last thing they want is a religious left to counterbalance the religious right.

So two thoughts that should be seriously considered in the debate over the alleged rise of the “religious left”:

  • Groups that compose the “religious left” are on the decline.
  • Secularists in the Democrat Party don’t like religion.

It’s up to reporters to discover whether or not there is merit to these arguments — or, better yet, to disprove these arguments. The answers are out there, but it will take some serious digging and going beyond official spokesmen and announcements.

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Semitic speech wars

149100062 4d9ff20623The Los Angeles Times has been covering a story about Muslim activists and their Jewish critics on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The story has been brewing for years but let’s look at the recent events.

In March, Muslim college activists decried the College Republicans plan to hold a discussion about Islamic militancy on campuses and whether some Islamic groups in the United States are apologists for terrorism. That, along with the group’s publication of the infamous Muhammed cartoons, didn’t go over well with the activists.

For the last few years, the Muslim Student Union has put on public programs opposed to the existence of the state of Israel. This year’s program featured a mock Israeli “apartheid” wall set up in the center of campus. The TimesKimi Yoshino wrote about the coming program in mid-May:

Controversial events scheduled at UC Irvine next week with such provocative titles as “Holocaust in the Holy Land” and “Israel: The Fourth Reich” are sparking outrage among Jewish students who are asking administrators to denounce aspects of the event.

Jewish students and community leaders say the program is the latest in a string of offensive incidents at the university. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights is investigating anti-Semitism at UCI, the first probe of its kind at a college.

The post-event story from the Times‘ Ashraf Khalil presents the controversy more in the he-said, she-said manner:

These clashes have been the latest in years of tension, mistrust and back-and-forth accusations between activist Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine.

In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized. The next year, an antiZionism mural erected by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case.

Khalil frames the story in a very interesting way:

At the heart of the UC Irvine issue is a fundamental question: Can one be aggressively opposed to the policies and even the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

I think this is an excellent question that is important but difficult to ask. I also think it helps for Khalil to boil down the complexities of campus clashes. But I’m not sure if he’s right that this fundamental and important question is the one through which this conflict must be viewed.

Khalil makes a bold move by framing the debate in the way he does, but this could also be viewed in other ways: as a free speech issue or a campus speech issue or a trend story about the rise of Muslim activism on campuses or a story about public reaction to Muslim activism. Perhaps in subsequent stories he could look deeper how students react to Muslim activists when they say they oppose the “existence of Israel.” For instance, this quote — from one of the speakers brought in by the activists — could be taken in a variety of ways:

“The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down. They are living in fear . . . and it is about time they live in fear,” said Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based Islamic activist, during a May 15 speech on the campus quad. “The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or until we are victorious.”

Khalil goes to great lengths to clarify that Ali is attacking Zionist Jews as opposed to Jews in general. I would be curious to read how various students on campus interpret these remarks. It would also be interesting to readers whether these various groups are taxpayer funded. And I would like a lot more explanation of the religious motivations of the various parties. Still, the Times has been doing a pretty good job covering this local issue.

Photo via Flickr.

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Covering intolerance in the Middle East

saudi textbookMajor U.S. media outlets are all over a report [PDF] released Tuesday by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, which found that Saudi Arabian schools are teaching their students things the U.S. government told them not to teach after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the Washington Post‘s Outlook section ran commentary by Nina Shea, the report’s primary author and director of the CRF, I was worried that The New York Times would take a competitive we-don’-like-to-get-scooped pass on the all-important story.

But the Times came out swinging Wednesday morning with an emotionally charged headline reading “Don’t be Friends with Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say.” National Public Radio was a bit more measured, using the headline “Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says.”

NPR played it straight through the entire story. Once the Times was done playing up the more dramatic claims of the report, it got to the heart of the story: Why in the world is the United States government friendly with another government that teaches its children to not be friends with Jews and Christians?

Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.

“It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce,” Mr. Zulfa said.

One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. “We know what needs to be taken out,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to do it.”

The missing element in both of these stories is why the Saudi texts teach this type of religious extremism. There is obviously a religious context rooted in the country’s Wahhabi teaching, but neither story attempts to explain that theology.

Another question is why the news in this report is news to anyone. How hard is it to grab a few textbooks, translate them and report on what they said? Is the problem gaining access to the textbooks, or the translating?

I would also like to commend NPR for providing a link to the full report, Shea’s Post article, the State Department’s religious freedom report on Saudi Arabai, translated experts of the textbooks, an image of a textbook cover, the Freedom House news release on the report, the official response to the report from the Saudi amabssador, the Saudi government’s statement on its campaign against extremism and a transcript of a Saudi Embassy news conference on extremism. Talk about being exhaustively helpful.

The Times, on the other hand, was meager in its offerings. It merely provided a link to a forum on the Middle East. I guess it’s small peanuts, but why can’t the Times provide these types of links?

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Asking the obvious Clinton question

238px Clintons2004conventionNow it’s official. That mysterious New York Times story about the state of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s marriage is officially the buzz topic of the week here inside the Beltway. We know that because the official voice of the old D.C. journalistic establishment — that would be David S. Broder — has written a column about it.

So let’s slide backward in search of the ghost in this mess. We start with Broder describing the New York senator’s Tuesday morning appearance at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach. But the buzz in the room was not about her speech — or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit — but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning’s New York Times.

So what did this all-important Times piece say? Almost nothing. And that’s the news. It is very, very hard to write a boring story about the Clintons. Click here if you want to explore it for yourself. Even the headline is a yawner: “Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives.” Here is the thesis statement:

When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage — and how the most dissected relationship in American life might affect Mrs. Clinton’s possible bid for the presidency in 2008.

Democrats say it is inevitable that in a campaign that could return the former president to the White House, some voters would be concerned or distracted by Mr. Clinton’s political role and the episode that led the House to vote for his impeachment in 1998.

You think so? Would these moral concerns be more intense in some zip codes than in others? Would concerns be more common in pews and pulpits than in faculty lounges and newsrooms?

I really don’t have to ask any snarky questions about the article because Jack Shafer of Slate.com has already asked most of them in an essay entitled “The Bill and Hillary Code.” Shafer really doesn’t nail Times reporter Patrick Healy for anything, in part because the piece has the feel of a story that was worked over by legions of editors and lawyers and the lawyers working for the editors. It is impossible to ask the question that the so-called “values voters” out there want to see asked.

Healy could directly ask, “Is Bill cheating?” Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

hillbillyThe morality questions will not go away, for sure. However, I found myself wanting an answer to a simple question that would have been very easy to ask and pretty easy to answer. Bill and Hillary probably — maybe — would have wanted to answer it.

Note that Healy and his army of anonymous, but gentle, sources give us chapter and verse on where the Clintons live and work and how they spend their time (no GPS data, however).

Now, it may have been hard to find out if they share a bedroom at either of their homes and how often said New Democrats are in those bedrooms at the same time. That’s what the buzz is all about, but I think that’s a bit much to ask, don’t you?

But would it have been hard to find out if and when and where these moderate/centrists go to church?

Faith is hot right now. Even Howard Dean says so. Before you know it, journalists will need to know that information about the Clintons in order to prepare for campaign 2008 photo opportunities.

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Scary ghosts in Key West talks

2004 02 28 WeddingSunset OceanKeyResort KeyWestFL 5143 CUT 640For the past few days, I have been down in Key West, Fla., for one of those amazing “Faith Angle” gatherings, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, for journalists and scholars.

As always, the topics were timely and the discussion — almost all of which was on the record — was lively. The speakers this time were Michael Cook of Princeton University, on “Understanding Muhammad and Islam”; longtime Democratic insider William Galston of the Brookings Institution on “Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party”; and James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and Alan Wolfe of Boston College debating the question “Is There a Culture War?” (a preview of their forthcoming book).

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to offering URLs on all those people and those topics. But if you want transcripts of their talks and the discussions, watch this site. Or you can read one journalist’s take on the proceedings, because Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of the Dallas Morning News live-blogged the whole thing for his new Crunchy Con blog over at Beliefnet.

I do not have the time or the energy to cover all that Capt. Crunchy’s flying fingers produced during the sessions. But I will say this: There were two powerful ghosts in the room.

One was the ongoing issue of whether American evangelical Protestants have become so disheartened by trends in the second Bush White House that they have already started a quiet retreat from the nasty business of politics and back into the garden of compassionate deeds and evangelistic words. Is the Rev. Rick “Purpose Driven” Warren of Saddleback Church a sign of this trend? There were many references by reporters and forum leaders to his session with reporters a year ago in Key West.

So, should we look for a louder evangelical left and a quieter evangelical right? Here are two short Dreher notes on that discussion:

Why should Evangelicals lay down power?

The question is put to Wolfe: Why would you think that conservative Protestants, having spent 40 years building a powerful political machine, would abandon it? Because, says Wolfe, its leaders are having an epiphany about what their role as Christians in this culture are supposed to be, and to do. Leaders like Rick Warren are genuinely more interested in fighting poverty and relieving suffering, not fighting in the political realm. There is an authentic re-thinking of Christian mission, of Christian public purpose, among the younger generation of Evangelical leaders.

The coming Evangelical Left

Hunter says that because Evangelicalism is more and more defined by emotional experience, a nascent Evangelical political progressivism is easy to foresee. You can see this especially among the emerging Evangelical elites. Says Hunter, “Most of the Evangelicals I know at the University of Virginia, I only know one who voted for Bush in the last election.”

The second ghost was like unto the first.

Galston’s presentation was excellent and it, of course, raised a fundational question about the current direction of the Democratic Party. Will the party’s elite leaders be willing to do more than talk about religion? Will they be able to actually compromise on hot-button cultural issues — such as abortion and gay rights — in order to reach the massive, mushy, “incoherent” (Wolfe’s word) middle of the American marketplace of emotions (as opposed to ideas)? That’s a hard question, as noted by Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post piece entitled “The New Temptation of Democrats“:

The risk is that, in the process of maneuvering, Democrats’ reframing and rebranding could edge into retreating on core principles. It was unsettling to hear (Howard) Dean — in the process of cozying up to evangelicals — mangle the party platform, saying, incorrectly, that it states that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” In fact, while deliberately silent on marriage, the platform supports “full inclusion of gay and lesbian families . . . and equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections.” …

(By) all means, let Democrats woo evangelicals and cast the message in a way that speaks to religious voters. But in doing so, keep in mind: What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?

Ct 241690Abortion is always a hot topic for Democrats, but it wasn’t the issue lurking in the background in Key West. Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard was there and, at one point, I wished he could have handed out copies of Maggie Gallagher’s recent cover story, “Banned in Boston — The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.”

The basic question: Will the leaders of the Democratic Party do what the Clinton White House was willing to do, which is defend the basic freedom of association rights of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others? During private conversations, Galston said it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to support an attack on the First Amendment rights of millions of traditional religious believers. That simply is not going to happen, he said.

But numerous sources — left and right — quoted in the Gallagher article are not so sure. Consider these remarks from a strategic leader in a Jewish organization that is, needless to say, not part of the Religious Right.

As general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern knows religious liberty law from the inside out. … (He) sees the coming conflicts as pervasive. The problem is not that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages or prevented from preaching their beliefs. Look past those big red herrings: “No one seriously believes that clergy will be forced, or even asked, to perform marriages that are anathema to them. Same-sex marriage would, however, work a sea change in American law. …

Consider education. Same-sex marriage will affect religious educational institutions, he argues, in at least four ways: admissions, employment, housing, and regulation of clubs. One of Stern’s big worries right now is a case in California where a private Christian high school expelled two girls who (the school says) announced they were in a lesbian relationship. Stern is not optimistic. And if the high school loses, he tells me, “then religious schools are out of business.” Or at least the government will force religious schools to tolerate both conduct and proclamations by students they believe to be sinful.

That got my attention, seeing as how I teach at the national headquarters of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Want more?

Will speech against gay marriage be allowed to continue unfettered? “Under the American regime of freedom of speech, the answer ought to be easy,” according to Stern. But it is not entirely certain, he writes, “because sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace principles will likely migrate to suppress any expression of anti-same-sex-marriage views.” Stern suggests how that might work.

In the corporate world, the expression of opposition to gay marriage will be suppressed not by gay ideologues but by corporate lawyers, who will draw the lines least likely to entangle the company in litigation. Stern likens this to “a paroxysm of prophylaxis — banning ‘Jesus saves’ because someone might take offense.”

It was great to be in Key West and surrounded by some amazing journalists and scholars. But the topics were not what I would call “relaxing,” at least not for folks who worry a lot about about religious-liberty issues.

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