Noticing faith

Protest6The snark is gone, for now.

Kudos to Newsweek for its thoughtful new weekly feature, Beliefwatch, written by Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman. This week’s column, on the topic of immigration and what the Bible teaches about it, is particularly noteworthy.

With all the posturing recently from politicians attempting to get God on their side in the immigration debate, it’s refreshing to see a magazine take an honest and straightforward look at what the Bible actually teaches:

Opposition to the Iraq war energized the “religious left.” Now immigration is extending the life of the coalition. The most vocal have been Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Rabbis David Saperstein and Arthur Waskow, Christian ministers Bob Edgar and Jim Wallis and — to stretch the definition a bit — Methodist lay leader Hillary Clinton, who said that some anti-immigrant measures would “criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.” There are divides, of course: almost half of Roman Catholics say “immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care,” according to a Pew Religion Forum survey last month. But the study also showed that those who attend church more often are warmer to immigrants. As with any issue, dueling Bible verses are never far behind.

The column links to a Beliefnet piece that lays out the various passages in the Old Testament, New Testament, Qur’an and Hadith that deal with immigration.

I might have missed previous Beliefwatch articles, but as far as I can tell, last week’s was the first. The topic was not as straightforward — books on Jesus that tell a story other than what is traditionally taught — but adequately handled. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this feature, because it will be interesting to see what type of material Waldman finds.

Photo: day of protest #6 by Kris Kros.

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Harpo America

baby namesForgive my snarkiness, but stories about baby names are just dumb. I have particular disdain for stories on those unusual names that suddenly become popular. First, it ruins the offbeat quality of those names, and second, who cares? Anybody with an Internet connection can look up the popularity of a name.

So the cynical writers here at GetReligion were especially appalled to see The New York Times write about the historic boom in the number of babies named “Nevaeh,” which is, for those clever enough to figure it out, Heaven spelled backward. Whoop-de-do (the story’s headline is, well, lame, despite my own use of the technique):

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls’ names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever. Four years later it cracked the top 100 with 4,457 newborn Nevaehs, having made the fastest climb among all names in more than a century, the entire period for which the Social Security Administration has such records.

Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional.

Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward.

The name has hit a cultural nerve with its religious overtones, creative twist and fashionable final “ah” sound. It has risen most quickly among blacks but is also popular with evangelical Christians, who have helped propel other religious names like Grace (ranked 14th) up the charts, experts say. By contrast, the name Heaven is ranked 245th.

Spectacular indeed is how the Jennifer 8. Lee got this puff piece in the pages of the Gray Lady. Stories on baby names are much more appropriate for things like magazines. This simply isn’t news.

Much to my amazement, as the gossip blog Gawker pointed out, not only is a piece on an “insignificant trend” in the Times, it was also on the front page. I kid you not. Perhaps it is Miss Jennifer 8.’s interesting middle name that makes this story front-page material? Go figure.

One can only imagine our disgust when the article dipped into the realm of the religious. We blame this on Oprah. It’s all her fault. Anything can be religious these days. Even generic religious words spelled backwards. Welcome to Oprah America.

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The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish would tell us what page the story was published the way does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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“Yes, Marvin Olasky, what is your question?”

20060516 4 p051606pm 0531 1 515hRegular readers of this blog may recall previous references to the work of Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who is the author of that must-read essay called “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Click here to check that out.

Over at his PressThink blog, Rosen has an interesting proposal for the new White House press secretary, a suggestion that might help inject more questions about religion and faith into the mainstream press.

Here’s the gist. Tony Snow runs a big operation, with several assistants who could handle some additional press briefings. What would happen if, with the help of experts from other agencies, Snow and company allowed more reporters, and more kinds of reporters, into the press room? Here’s a glimpse of what Rosen has in mind.

8:00 AM … Televised Briefing in Arabic (For journalists from the Muslim world and the Arabic speaking press. You make the evening news in Cairo and Baghdad that night, and the newspapers the next day.)

9:00 AM … Press Gaggle (On the record, audio-cast, not televised, transcripts by noon; this event exists now.)

10:00 AM … Bloggers Briefing. (It’s like a gaggle for stand alone and citizen journalists who self-publish. Same rules.)

11:00 AM … Q and A with the International Press (With a daily briefing open to all, more foreign news providers will send a person to Washington. Televised, in English.)

12:30 PM … The White House Daily Briefing (Televised, the way it is now. Mainly the American news media, and major foreign providers.)

3:00 PM … All-Faith Briefing. (For the religious press worldwide, same rules as the gaggle.)

Interesting. Thus, I emailed Rosen with a few questions. Primarily, I wanted to know how he was defining “religious press.” I wanted to know who that included and who it did not include. Frankly, I think it might work to have a mix of mainstream religion-beat press blended into a pack of reporters from a spectrum of magazines, religious wire services, websites, networks, etc.

The hard part would be deciding who would be left out. Obviously, Richard Ostling of the Associated Press gets in. Ditto for someone from Catholic News Service and Baptist Press. Ditto for the likes of World and Christianity Today. Is the key question whether someone carries a mainstream press card? That would narrow the field too much.

Rosen wrote back:

Haven’t gotten that far. The idea, though, is to draw people who normally wouldn’t be in the White House press corps into White House briefings, people who cover faith or who cover the world for faith communities and publications.

I think that a “God room” would ask some very different and, in some ways, very tough questions. How would Snow and company avoid doctrinal free-for-alls? I mean, it’s hard enough to avoid those whirlpools here at GetReligion.

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How to be fair to “homophobes”

NoSpeechSignLike many in the newspaper business, I keep up with journalism news by reading Jim Romensko’s blog on the very helpful Poynter site. Anyone who thinks that the media world leans left will have their suspicions confirmed by reading Romenesko, but I find there’s no better site with interesting news about the media business. Something he posted yesterday caught my eye:

Billie Stanton says her journalism profs at the University of Arizona 30 years ago were relentless about balance and objectivity. “Every angle must be covered, and if you had any bias, it better not show,” she writes. “This credo served me well for many years. When some talented Denver Post reporters covered an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, their bias showed. Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the homophobes’ side equal credence.”

Stanton made the point in a column in the Tucson Citizen about why she is glad to be on the editorial page. But it just cracked me up. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, certainly, but the question is at least worth asking: how fair of a shake can you give people when you believe their legislative opinion is based on an irrational fear of homosexuality? Of course, I was in college and living in Denver at the time of the vote and remember that things were weird. Our own governor — himself part of an interesting polyamorous family situation — marched in the streets condemning the people of his own state for how they voted.

Anyway, you would expect the irreverant Gawker site to poke fun at Stanton’s statement. But I didn’t think it would be hard to find more respected media analysts defending impartiality and balance. Instead, we have this comment from Steve Lovelady of the Columbia Journalism Review:

Let’s imagine an Alabama editor in the 1950′s writing, “Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the Klu Klux Klan’s side equal credence.” Or how about “Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give Hitler’s side equal credence.”

Where the hell has Billie Stanton been for the past 15 years, during which the most discredited journalism credo in the book has become the premise that “balance” equals truth ?

It is truth that journalism is supposed to be about, not “balance.”

People got mad at her — but not because she shouldn’t have used the word homophobia to describe those with whom she disagreed about a political issue — but because she thought those opponents deserved to have their say! As for Lovelady, I disagree that balance is not compatible with truth. But I’m glad he states his view unequivocally. Too bad he invoked Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies so early in the debate. Seriously, when everybody is Hitler, Hitler doesn’t seem so bad. But Lovelady thinks journalism is not about balance and it shows. Stanton, whose work I’m unfamiliar with, thinks balance and a fair shake are important.

Polls of media professionals’ opinions show that they are out of the mainstream when it comes to issues surrounding homosexuality. Many readers who oppose extending marital rights to homosexuals probably wish someone in the newsroom truly understood why they believed that way. The truth of the matter is that in many papers they’d be lucky to get someone as tolerant of their view as Stanton, who thinks they’re sick in the head but reports on their views fairly anyway.

The thing is that it’s not the reporter’s vocation to slant the news in order to manipulate what the reader thinks. And we should always be on guard against the practice, particularly on the issues about which we have strong personal opinions. If one “side” is so obviously right, the reader will figure it out through simple reading. I mean, come on people. I’m Lutheran. Do you have any idea what I personally believe about James Dobson and his type, to name someone I wrote about recently? But my vocation here is not to tell you what to think of James Dobson’s theology, but merely to look at whether he is portrayed fairly in local and national newspapers.

Oh wow. A further search of journalistic response to Stanton shows the situation is worse than I’d thought. Reporters think they should be the judge and jury. Here’s Attytood‘s Will Bunch saying Stanton’s drive for balance is “what’s wrong with American journalism”:

So, an American journalist of some reputation believes that news articles should accept homophobia as equally “true or valid” to those who do not hate gays — all in the name of something called “balance.”

homophobia.jpgIt’s getting easier for me to see why there’s such a disconnect between Americans who oppose extending marriage to same-sex unions and the media. Views held by a large percentage of the readers are deemed pathological, invalid and unworthy of a fair shake. I wonder if reporters and editors realize that readers pick up on that dismissal of their views. Or if they care:

Objectivity — never a great idea in journalism in the first place — posits that we shouldn’t make value judgments as to the people involved in the story or their views. But I think we can, and should. It may not be universally accepted, but homophobes’ views are NOT equally as legitimate as the views of those who preach tolerance, just as segregationist views are not equally as legitimate as those who preach racial harmony.

I love the unironic use of the word “tolerance” in that comment. The thought police have set up shop at your newspapers! Don’t think for yourself — we’ll tell you which view is acceptable. Obey and submit!

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McCain sat next to someone he once called “evil”

McCainFalwellPOTUS wannabe but for now just Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke at a religious institution this past weekend. This sent political reporters at the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post into a tizzy writing about how weird it was to see two man that apparently once despised each other sit there in their funny robes acting friendly with one another. An amazing political development!

Except we already knew about it. Months ago. Everyone’s been talking about it. Someone should tell Janet Hook of the LAT and Dan Balz of the Post.

Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press grilled McCain within an inch of his life about the appearance more than a month ago, and more than enough ink has been spilled on the subject since then. So while I admire both reporters’ ability to do a bit of spot news reporting, I think their skills can be put to better use. (Plus, I’m sure Lynchburg, Va., is just a wonderful place to spend a weekend. I really hope they found time to go hiking in the beautiful surrounding mountains.)

The problem with spot news these days is that by the time the actual event took place, it’s already old news. Was there any real news in Bush’s Monday night speech? And by the time the article appears in the dead-pulp version known as a newspaper, it’s pretty much as old as the dinosaurs. So why bother?

Media organizations should throw a copy of the transcript and maybe some video clips on the good ol’ website and link to an already written story detailing the situation and historical context surrounding the event. Anybody who cares enough to read 1,200 words on a speech (that’s the approximate word count for the Post‘s article) will take the time to visit the website.

Nevertheless, let’s get down to business. I had issues with Balz’s word usage. Check out the third graph:

LYNCHBURG, Va., May 13 — Six years after labeling the Rev. Jerry Falwell one of the political “agents of intolerance,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered the commencement address Saturday at Falwell’s Liberty University, and vigorously defended his support for the war in Iraq while saying that opponents have a moral duty to challenge the wisdom of a conflict that has exacted a huge toll on the nation.

McCain’s presence on the campus here was as remarkable as what he had to tell the graduating class of 2006, given his clashes with religious conservatives during his 2000 campaign for president. His appearance continued a rapprochement that has been underway for months with a critical constituency in the Republican Party as McCain prepares for another possible campaign in 2008.

The Arizona senator’s speech was shorn of religious references and avoided controversial social issues. Instead, he focused on constitutional principles while touching on themes of humility, patriotism, respect for political opponents and forgiveness that may be relevant to his preparations to seek the Republican presidential nomination again.

McCainPirateI’m not sure where Balz grew up, but it certainly was not on a farm. Last time I checked, the word “shorn” refers to the removal of something, usually hair or fleece. So how were religious references “shorn” from the speech? Did Balz obtain some earlier draft that contained religious references? If so, he should have mentioned it.

Balz also quoted McCain advisers as saying that his speeches (there will be four of them in the next month) will not be tailored to individual audiences. Well, this is in fact partially true.

A GetReligion investigation of the Liberty speech alongside a speech McCain gave Tuesday to Columbia University graduates Tuesday revealed that he droned on for an additional 1,000 words at Liberty. Nothing substantial was added to the Liberty speech other than a bit more nuance, but I’m curious to know whether McCain was given additional time at Liberty.

To the credit of the LAT‘s Hook, her article contained a substantially greater degree of reporting and historical background than the Post‘s version. The Post piece is more of a forward-looking piece and that’s also to its credit.

For a bit of analysis, David Kusnet over at the New Republic writes that McCain preached “a sermon about a religion” despite avoiding the topics of “abortion, evolution, school prayer, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or the role of religion in public life.”

McCain’s message was grounded in “civil religion” and “the restoration of virtue.” I’m not sure whether I am ready to categorize those topics under religion, but Kusnet makes an interesting case in his attempt to catch McCain’s subtle religious undertones:

For all its seriousness, McCain’s message is softened by the fact that the messenger takes pains not to seem to take himself too seriously. Unlike the televangelist who was his host on Saturday, McCain managed to preach without sounding preachy. While Falwell and Robertson present themselves as paragons of virtue, McCain is ceaselessly self-deprecating; he is one moralist who claims never to have met a virtue he hasn’t neglected to display or a sin he hasn’t repeatedly committed. To hear McCain tell it, he was a poor student and an arrogantly opinionated young man who grew up to become a glory-seeking adult whose only redeeming merit has been his occasional ability to achieve a reconciliation with his enemies. Only when he alluded to his heroism as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam did McCain’s reminiscences become sketchy, alluding vaguely to a time “when I confronted challenges I never expected to face” and “in that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized.”

FalwellGargoyleShrewdly and skillfully, McCain apologized to Falwell and Robertson by advocating the very virtue — tolerance — that most challenges his host and his followers. Managing to echo Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, McCain explained: “Let us remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each other.” In an oblique reference to his own harsh words for Falwell and Robertson, as well as anything intemperate he has ever said, he added: “I have not always heeded this injunction myself, and I regret it very much.”

I’ve always found that McCain takes a certain pride in his humility. Wait, that makes no sense, at least on the surface. McCain’s humility is a confusing thing to write about because in the one opportunity I had to meet him back in 2000 (after he had been defeated by George W. Bush), I was struck by this very humility that everyone writes about. But as every reporter knows, McCain never met a television camera or a microphone that he did not like. How is that showing humility? Go figure.

Ultimately, political reporters attempting to cover the story that is the break between McCain and the religious right in 2000 and the supposed reunification need to keep their powder dry and wait for more data to come across their radars. One speech at one university doesn’t mean much on the surface and it will take a lot more for evangelicals to embrace the good senator from Arizona.

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The Very Right Reverend Father Dobson returns

20050623 123335 Dobson1I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but today’s correction in the Washington Post caught my eye:

A May 14 article about Sen. John McCain’s speech at Liberty University incorrectly referred to the chairman of Focus on the Family as the Rev. James Dobson. Dobson is not an ordained minister.

So he’s not an ordained minister . . . thank you very much. The correction might have also mentioned what his honorific and vocation are (he has a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Southern California). In any case, this simple error appears with alarming frequency in American publications. Interestingly, it was Newsweek, which is a Post-owned publication, that struggled with this sin repeatedly in the past year.

Maybe the Post needs to hold an all-company retreat in which Donald Graham addresses the troops with this opening: “For the love of God, you idiots, how difficult is it to remember the courtesy title for this man? Must we hand him more ammo for his fundraising letters?”

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Digging deeper on Ahmadinejad’s letter

Mahmoud AhmadinejadA GetReligion reader named Matt, commenting on the letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, raised an insightful point that I wish I had known and mentioned. But this is the Internet and there is plenty of room for follow-up:

The Iranian President’s letter reminds me of the kind of letter every new Caliph would send to the Roman Emperor in Byzantium.

Posted by Matt at 11:27 pm on May 11, 2006

The historical background, much of which is speculative at this point, is difficult to fit into a news story. But the news of this letter has settled, at least for U.S. reporters, and it will be interesting to see if anyone covers the angles that may not be so obvious to American readers. The most obvious point, as noted by Andrew Sullivan, is that Bush and Ahmadinejad are said to both believe in a coming apocalypse.

It’s easy to see a letter like this through American eyes, but now that we know that this letter has had minimal impact on U.S. policy, it should be examined through the eyes of non-Americans — in particular, Muslims in the Middle East.

Ahmadinejad seems to be attempting to play up to his base of supporters. Was he successful? How did the world community of Muslims view this letter? Ahmadinejad was recently in Indonesia meeting with leaders from the host country, Bangladesh, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Was this meeting timed to the writing of this letter?

Here’s an assessment from The Economist that hints at the deeper religious meaning of the letter:

The diplomatic effort to defuse the gathering crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is sufficiently stuck that anyone involved (bar China’s godless Communists) might have been tempted to invoke the Almighty. Yet the litany of taunts and complaints in a letter from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who chose to address President George Bush this week — the first such direct communication between the leaders of the two countries since Iran’s 1979 revolution — as one believer to (he had heard) another, hardly seems likely to break the impasse. …

What they object to is the most dangerous technologies in the hands of a regime that lied for 20 years to nuclear inspectors and that threatens Israel. “Let us assume these events are true,” says Mr Ahmadinejad, doubting that the Holocaust ever took place; what right, he mused, does Israel have to exist in the region?

Along with criticisms of the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq (though Saddam, he acknowledges, was a “murderous dictator”) and the pressure on the Hamas government in Palestine to recognise Israel, this seems designed to win support in the Arab world. To plenty of Iranians, though, his championing of the oppressed of Africa and Latin America may seem a bit rich from the president of a regime that treats its own opponents roughly. According to Human Rights Watch, an NGO, at least two of Mr Ahmadinejad’s ministers have been involved in systematic abuses of human rights, including executions of dissidents.

What is Mr Ahmadinejad up to? Suggesting that American officials may have helped instigate the attacks of September 11th seems aimed to cause offence, at a time when America is being pressed to consider direct nuclear talks with Iran and some of Mr Ahmadinejad’s rivals at home have shown interest. Might the invitation to “return to the teaching of prophets” have less to do with concern for Mr Bush’s soul, and more with bolstering Mr Ahmadinejad’s political power on earth?

Just because the letter doesn’t mean much to American foreign policy — other than being the first real direct communication between the U.S. and Iran — does not mean it lacks real significance. As Matt pointed out, there is a strong historical and religious significance to the letter, and I’d be curious to know how it was received by Muslims around the world.

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