On my mind: Darfur, South Sudan and Rosenthal

AbeRosenthalIt was 10 years ago — next week, in fact — that I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service that began like this:

It’s possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year’s going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle — about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan’s Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan — more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

That was not the last column that I wrote about the horrific conflicts in South Sudan and the massacre of Christians, animists, moderate Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The Sudan story developed in the years after that and, ultimately, helped inspire the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

It has been interesting to watch the mainstream media tiptoe into coverage of hot-button religious liberty issues, especially the rights of embattled religious minorities. I thought about that the other day at the time of the Darfur march here in Washington, D.C. I have been thinking about the South Sudan while watching — with joy — the news that there might be a meaningful Darfur peace agreement in the near future. Still, I have questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheer when I pass Darfur marchers here inside the Beltway. I totally support that cause. But part of me has wondered why the Darfur massacres have become such a popular cause on the American left and among our media elites in general. Why, for example, is Hollywood marching for Darfur, when it all but ignored the South Sudan?

Perhaps Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post was on to something important when, back in 2004, he wrote a report about the importance of evangelical Christians beginning to focus on Darfur:

Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the “genocide” taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Aug. 1 letter marks a shift in focus for the evangelical movement, which previously was interested primarily in halting violence against Christians in southern Sudan. The victims in Darfur, a western province, are mostly Muslim.

Get it? Allen D. Hertzke was even more blunt in a 2003 essay for the Wall Street Journal. The problem with the South Sudan, he said, was that the people who were passionate about this genocide were the wrong kinds of people to draw major (positive) media attention. The victims were the wrong faith and the lobbyists were the wrong faith, too. That’s why it was hard to put these massacres in the South Sudan on the front page.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a … New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a “pet cause of many American religious conservatives.” Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a “pet cause” of American Jews or apartheid a “pet cause” of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes “tainted” by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute.

JebelAwlia lowresYou probably know where I am going with this, if you have scanned the headlines of a major newspaper today.

All of this reminds me of the work of the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who, rung by rung, climbed the ladder in the world’s most powerful newsroom until he reached the top. He covered the world and, as editor, helped shake America to its foundations when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He changed the Times and, as a journalist, he helped shape his times.

At the end of his career, he began writing an op-ed column called “On My Mind.” In it, he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — especially free speech and freedom of conscience. Here is how the Times obituary described this part of Rosenthal’s work:

His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: “Please Read This Column.”As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes — his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America’s war on drugs.

That’s part of the story. Rosenthal was, in short, an old-fashioned liberal. That may be why, in the end, people started calling him a conservative. That may be why, in the end, many people believe that he was forced out of his beloved Times newsroom because he would not stop writing columns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. He would not stop writing about the South Sudan. Rosenthal could not understand why so many mainstream journalists were not interested in this story.

I talked to Rosenthal several times about this, in part because a human-rights activist sent him a copy of that 1996 column that I wrote about slavery and the South Sudan. Rosenthal said that he showed it to several people in the newsroom and asked them why this issue — the persecution of religious minorities — wasn’t a major news story. No one had a good answer. Thus, he pledged that he would write about South Sudan.

Rosenthal decided that, one way or another, political prejudices must have had something to do with this blind spot. Here is what he told me in a 1997 interview, a year in which he wrote nearly two dozen columns about Sudan and the persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

To paraphrase, Rosenthal had been forced by the facts to grasp this fact — many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t get religion.

What he could not understand, he told me, was that many journalists didn’t seem to want to open their eyes and realize that this was hurting them as journalists. Because of this blindness, many newsrooms were missing stories that did not need to be missed. They were losing readers that they did not need to lose. It just didn’t make sense to him.

Now Rosenthal is gone. But his voice is heard, whenever people gather to protest the genocide in Darfur. I hope that his death causes some journalists to dig out some of his columns and catch up with the big story that Rosenthal, as an angry old journalist who cared about human rights, was writing about long before it was acceptable to write about it.

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Covering those flaky religious folks

Ahmadinejad2The 18-page letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush is gaining a lot of attention for its religious imagery and its call for Bush to look closely at his own religious convictions. It reads, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board, like “the Unabomber’s manifesto.” Ouch.

Words from crazy people who threaten to blow up mailboxes and obliterate entire countries deserve a close examination from every angle possible. And while the media in America are jumping all over the religion angle, particularly the New York Times, they have failed so far in explaining the significance of this religious language:

While the letter laid out a litany of policy disputes with the United States, it was also personal, urging President Bush, who is candid about his religious conviction, to examine his actions in the light of Christian values. As he has done in the past, the Iranian struck a prophetic tone, which is certain to be well received by his core supporters and mocked by his opponents.

“We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point that is the Almighty God,” he wrote. “Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teaching of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: ‘Do you want to join them?’”

The letter was framed entirely in religious terms but also laid out a populist manifesto of anti-Americanism, offering illustrations of what has won the Iranian a following among many ordinary people throughout the Middle East. He presented himself as the defender not only of Muslims but of all oppressed people, including those in Africa and Latin America.

As the WSJ editorial aptly said, Ahmadinejad “needs to broaden his daily media sources beyond the BBC.” From my own reading of the letter, Ahmadinejad is attempting to connect with what he sees as a commonality with Bush, which is a strong belief in religion in the public square. Ahmadinejad either needs to broaden his source for news or find better intelligence officers.

Despite what the international media like to say about Bush’s religious convictions, Ahmadinejad’s sources have failed him in informing him of Bush’s religious convictions. Ahmadinejad and the international media could start by reading this article and then this book for a better idea of Bush’s religious convictions.

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Should the state tell black pastors what to preach?

church and stateYou remember how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously asked how Richard Nixon could have won the presidency considering how everyone she knew voted against him? Well, I feel like Pauline Kael a lot since I live in Washington, D.C. If there is a less diverse political environment out there, I’m not aware of it. I was shocked that Bush won in 2004 because we went 90 percent for Kerry. I don’t actually know anyone who voted for Bush and lives in D.C.

Anyway, all the action for political office is in the Democratic Party. The other interesting hallmark of D.C. politics is that near as I can tell we like a good number of our political candidates to be — How does one say this delicately? — clinically insane.

Which brings us to Lori Montgomery’s piece in the Washington Post about how five mayoral candidates in our fine city are all agreeing to erode the barrier between church and state by shaping what is being preached in Washington churches.

Now, as you are reading the relevant portions, let’s think of what would happen if a bunch of conservative groups in Omaha required mayoral candidates to pressure Methodists to handle doctrinal issues differently, such as how they view the sanctity of life for unborn children. Or what if other conservative groups required candidates to pressure Unitarians to change their tune on Christianity’s scandal of particularity? Here we go:

The five major candidates for D.C. mayor pledged last night to promote tolerance for gay men and lesbians in the city’s black churches and to combat attitudes that led two prominent local ministers to denounce homosexuality from their pulpits.

But only two of the five — D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns — expressed unequivocal support for same-sex marriage, an ideological touchstone in the city’s powerful gay community.

Now really, since when is it any business of these five mayoral candidates to tell pastors in black churches what they should or should not preach?

I mean, just imagine the outcry if special-interest groups forced public officials to make campaign promises to change what is taught in mosques. Just imagine the outcry, again, if conservative groups pressured candidates to tell pastors in the United Church of Christ how they should preach the Bible, particularly with regard to homosexuality.

And the thing is, if this were happening in my imaginary scenarios, most reporters would know to call First Amendment scholars up to air their grievances.

Montgomery’s story covers a debate hosted by the District’s largest gay political organization, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. So I rather understand that she didn’t speak to any First Amendment scholars who could respond to this idea that politicians should tell black pastors what to preach. Still, might members or pastors at these black churches have been available for a response?

church stateUnfortunately, coverage of this very issue — the divide between Washington’s black churches and its gay community — has been lacking.

The candidates were asked about a sermon last month in which Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, referred to gay men as “faggot” and “sissy,” as well as the Rev. Willie F. Wilson’s sermon last summer in which he claimed that lesbianism poses a grave threat to the black community. . . .

Later, Brown pounced again, accusing [council chairwoman Linda] Cropp [D] of making “a very homophobic remark” when she said that closeted gay men who also have sex with women have spread AIDS among women. Cropp recited her long record of support for gay causes, including enactment of the city’s domestic partnership laws and legalization of adoption for same-sex couples.

“Language is cheap!” Cropp yelled, rising from her seat. “Nobody’s record is stronger than Linda Cropp’s record! Sitting here, put ’em all together, they can’t beat the Linda Cropp record!”

Man does Mollie Ziegler love that candidate trick of speaking in the third person.

But anyway, notice how in the coverage of this story on how black pastors discuss homosexuality, never is the idea engaged that they have a theological defense for their remarks. I’m not taking sides on the issue, just noting that a defense of their perspective is rarely given space in the pages of the Washington Post. It’s almost as if the newspaper authorities have decided that opposition to homosexuality is wrong and not worthy of engagement. And since the battles between black churches and the gay community don’t seem to be going away, the Post does a disservice to its readers by not better explaining the theology of black churches.

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Why military chaplains matter

SoldiersPrayingLast Sunday’s 8,000-plus-word takeout in The Washington Post Magazine on military chaplains is a tremendous example of why long-form journalism is so helpful in dealing with complex religious issues. The magazine’s editors gave Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, the space needed to tell the story of why chaplains are a necessary part of the U.S. military operations and some of the immense challenges they face:

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who’s not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He’s Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional [P]rotestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into [Smith's] office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers’ workspaces.

chaplainsThe military chaplaincy has become ever more controversial these days, and a growing chorus is calling for the practice to be re-examined. The issue also gets more complicated in Muslim countries and for Jewish chaplains. This type of journalism has an impact in government politics and policies. Not only do policymakers read such articles, but they also hear about them from their wives, children, friends and fellow church members. This article excels not only in its descriptive color, but also in its deep understanding of the issue:

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military’s single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: “It’s in their theological doctrine — very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don’t find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.” Chaplains don’t lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn’t always obeyed.

A washingtonpost.com online chat with Henderson is just as interesting — if not for the answers, then for the questions asked, especially the first one. Clearly Henderson knows her subject and understands the importance of religion. Her article will help people better understand the challenges involved in being a chaplain in the U.S. military.

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Does Da Vinci need a disclaimer?

tom hanksOne thing I’m looking forward to seeing in the launch of The Da Vinci Code next weekend (besides everyone laughing at Tom Hanks’ career-damaging hair) is what type of on-screen language it will open with and what, if any, type of language it will end with.

Director Ron Howard says that there won’t be a disclaimer, but if the book had a disclaimer of sorts (“Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization”), should not the movie have something similar? Here is the Los Angeles Times:

For the lay reader, such musings rank up there with what if the South had won the Civil War or Hitler had triumphed over the Allies. But the theory rankles the devout, hence the drumbeat of criticism. Howard’s movie version contains re-creations of the biblical allusions so viewers understand the alternate religious history that drives the plot. There’s no disclaimer, however, though some critics have asked for one.

“It’s very controversial. What Dan Brown did with the novel, we didn’t back away from in making the movie,” says Howard. “I think what a lot of people have discovered — a lot of theologians — is this is a work of fiction that presents a set of characters that are affected by these conspiracy theories and ideas. Those characters in this work of fiction act and react on that premise. It’s not theology. It’s not history. To start off with a disclaimer … .” he searches for the right words. “Spy thrillers don’t start off with disclaimers.”

Quick question for the LAT: Who are these “lay readers”? Non-priests/pastors? They are the only ones upset about Da Vinci? How about the odd journalist or historian who cares about history and facts? Just curious, because I don’t know anyone who sees this book along the lines of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. While books like Roth’s can be very profound in examining an alternative form of history, Dan Brown goes a huge step further in his mixed portrayal of fact and fiction.

da vinci artBut let’s get back to the main topic. Howard and journalists writing about this movie should know that this is more than just another spy thriller. And they do know that. Otherwise it would just be another movie and nobody would give a hoot and a half, unless, sadly, Tom Cruise was starring. Journalists, armed with the facts, need to call Howard and the movie’s promoters out for such distortions.

For those of us who are concerned about those tricky, sometimes nebulous things known as facts, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News has written a tremendous piece that must in the back of all reporters’ minds as they write about the controversies surrounding the movie (because journalists care about facts, right?):

Experts agree: Dan Brown got most of his facts wrong.

Religion scholars have been whacking The Da Vinci Code like a low-hanging pinata. The swings have come from establishment Christianity — the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and from the fringes of the faith — a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar and the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman.

At least 44 books debunking The Da Vinci Code are for sale at Amazon.com, several written by serious academics or well-known pastors. And with the movie starring Tom Hanks scheduled to open in two weeks, surely more are in the pipeline.

All of which leaves this question unanswered: Why bother?

Weiss goes on to explain that smart people care about Brown’s creation because the book made a pretension of accuracy and it “reeks of truthiness and smartiness.” But the movie’s promoters are not playing the movie like the book when it comes to its alleged grounding in truth. If the movie doesn’t carry some type of “factual” disclaimer at the beginning, will the movie studios lose out on potential ticket sales? As James Frey will tell you, selling truth is always going to be easier than selling fiction:

If Mr. Brown can’t get inarguable facts right, the experts say, what faith can readers place in his conclusions about the nature of Christianity?

Some critics say they’re intent on tearing down the credibility of the book because many people, mostly ignorant of what is known of the early years of Christianity, accept Mr. Brown’s fictions as gospel truth.

“In our experience, readers are taking it as true,” said Dr. Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. “Historians care about what happened in the past, and it’s important … to separate the fact from the fiction.”

The biggest question in this story is whether people will start actually believing Brown’s theories. So far I have yet to see that the book has had that kind of influence. Time will tell with the movie.

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China-Vatican deal goes boom over bishops

CardinalZenOr does it?

Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported Friday that the Vatican excommunicated four bishops because two of them were ordained by the state-controlled church without consent from the Pope. The two bishops who ordained them were also excommunicated. Except they weren’t quite cut off from church fellowship.

Rizzo is a bit too far ahead of the story. Look at this Los Angeles Times story, which mentions the possibility of excommunication:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican declared Thursday that two bishops ordained by China’s state-controlled church without papal consent were excommunicated, escalating tensions as the two sides explored preliminary moves toward improving ties.

The Vatican also excommunicated the two bishops who ordained them, citing church law. The Holy See then criticized China for allegedly forcing bishops and priests to participate in “illegitimate” ordinations that “go against their conscience.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s first major diplomatic clash since his election as pontiff a year ago shatters hopes for any reestablishment soon of official ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Now read this Catholic News Service article:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The threat of excommunication hangs over two Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, but only if they acted knowingly and freely, said a canon lawyer.

And even if they incurred excommunication automatically by acting of their own free will, the penalty is limited until Pope Benedict XVI publicly declares their excommunication to the bishops and their faithful, said Jesuit Father James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Then there is this piece by Edward Cody, who is responsible for a lot of the “Pope goes to Romehype, in the Washington Post from Thursday:

BEIJING, May 3 — For the second time in four days, China’s government-sponsored Catholic church consecrated a new bishop without the pope’s approval Wednesday, casting a deeper chill on what had been promising efforts to end half a century of hostility between China and the Vatican.

The new bishop, Liu Xinhong, was installed as Anhui province’s top prelate in a morning ceremony at St. Joseph’s Church in Wuhu, in eastern China, according to a church official who declined to be identified. His ascension followed the consecration Sunday of Ma Yinglin as bishop of Kunming, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, in spite of a request from the Vatican for more time to consider whether he could meet the pope’s approval.

Excommunication in the Catholic Church is not taken lightly and it is rare that the punishment is inflicted on bishops. If Pope Benedict XVI does indeed approve these excommunications, you can forget about any near-term reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican, despite the church’s willingness to give up ties with Taiwan.

Also from the Times piece is this interesting information that may shed some light on the diplomatic tit-for-tats:

Some analysts here suggested that China’s abrupt decision to name bishops in defiance of the Vatican came in response to Benedict’s elevation of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal this year.

Zen [pictured] has been an outspoken critic of the communist regime. He said his promotion could make him an important bridge between the Vatican and Beijing. But he has not hesitated to criticize Chinese abuses, including the jailing and persecution of priests and other Catholics.

Most recently, the Associated Press reported late Saturday that a bishop appointed by the Pope will be ordained Sunday, according to the AsiaNews agency out of Rome.

This story isn’t ending anytime soon, and reporters should avoid grand pronouncements about excommunications and potential Vatican trips to China until the facts have settled in place. Too much can shift as the many players work the situation, and the media, to their advantage.

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Doing that Crunchy thing, with Style

9 9 04 Cherry Wood Roasted Free Range Chicken 3It’s time for another mini-round of Crunchy Cons mania, with Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher and his strange little book finally reaching gound zero in the journalistic world of snark. That would be the Style section at the Washington Post.

Reporter Hank Stuever actually went down and visited the infamous Dreher bungalow in urban Dallas, and there is evidence in his piece that he actually wrote some of his feature — half of it, even — after he met the family.

I was lucky enough to eat at the Dreher household — the very table shown in the Post piece — during the time between Stuever’s visitation and the publication of the piece. I must say that special kudos must go to the lady of the house, a journalist by training who is currently doing that homeschooling mother thing, for absolutely nailing what would show up as the lead direct quote in the feature. I mean, she called the soundbite word for word.

Two succulent, naturally raised chickens with good farm references are in the oven, snuggled up in a roasting pan like doomed lovers. Fat, perfect carrots are peeled, chopped, seasoned and ready to simmer.

“Notice that I am literally barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen,” observes Mrs. Crunchy Con, and perhaps, she quips, she should have done her hair for the occasion like Phyllis Schlafly’s. The li’l Crunchy Cons, boys ages 2 and 6, are out back in the warm Wednesday afternoon sun, making sculptures out of a bowl of ice cubes — something constructive and home-schoolish, something very We’re Not Watching TV.

You can read the story for yourself (by the way, the free-range photo with this piece is not from the Dreher household, but it could have been). I would be interested in knowing how GetReligion readers would rate the snark factor. Is it 50 percent snark and 50 percent nice or, my own rating, 25 percent snark and 75 percent nice or what. Offer us your ratings.

The piece is absolutely obsessed with the surface of things. Take the food, for example. Dreher’s ultimate point in talking about food is to talk about the sacramental nature — in an ancient, orthodox sense — of the key elements of life. I recently wrote a pre-Pascha column about an Eastern Orthodox priest who has created a cookbook that hones in on the same point, by which I mean the links between the family table and the holy table in the center of parish life.

This is the central thesis of Rod’s entire book. You can tell that Stuever heard this. It may be unfair to say that he did not grasp it. At the very least, he could not work it into the hip Style-page-flashing-back-to-the-New-Journalism worldview. So we get:

The Drehers are self-conscious and good-natured about living the “sacramental” life described in his book: Dreher writes in a breezy, slightly Southern style that is less dogmatic than a reader of political tracts might expect. He essentially lays out his family’s entire domestic process, from their practice of natural family planning over birth control (Julie’s expecting their third child in October), to what they eat, to Julie’s decision not to work, to how they home-school their boys with help from a parents cooperative.

Please note: Rod did not write a political tract. That is one reason why the political right does not know what to make of this book, which is about faith and culture over politics.

P.S. For those wanting to go whole naturally-fatted hog, there is a new Dreher interview up at Christianity Today. Here is how Capt. Crunchy answers the key question there:

What role does religious faith play in crunchy conservatism?

It’s absolutely at the center. If you’re going to stand against the materialism of the age, the only thing that gives you firm ground to stand on and the passion to fight it is faith in God. We live in a culture where the forces that try to separate families from their values and families from each other are so strong that only faith in God can give you that deeper vision you need to make the sacrifices necessary to live a countercultural life.

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Evangelicals prefer Clinton over a Mormon?

romney in massThe “Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination because he believes in weird things” chorus is singing again. The major theme this time around, as explained in this this excellent blogpost by Ross Douthat, is whether it is constitutional for voters to apply a religious test to candidates for public office.

Romney’s presidential run has picked up some serious steam, thanks to his universal health-care initiative in Massachusetts. National Journal considers Romney one of the big three contenders for the GOP nomination behind Sens. John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia.

Putting his super-secret sources to work, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote Thursday that “Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him.”

There is nothing new to this argument, as The Washington Monthly‘s Amy Sullivan points out. It was Sullivan who wrote in September 2005 that Romney’s Mormon beliefs will be a problem in a 2008 presidential run. Nevertheless, Novak has the super-secret sources and his article will be a watermark in Romney’s presidential run:

Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party’s best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that’s just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.

Evangelicals, whoever these strange folks are, prefer a President Clinton II to a President Romney? You have to be kidding me.

The biggest problem I had with Novak’s article is the assumption that evangelical voters — those who are orthodox in their politics — actually have that level of influence in the Republican Party. The influence of these voters is minimal and must be separated from the millions of churchgoers who readily voted for Ronald Reagan despite his wife’s use of a personal astrologer to help determine his schedule.

romney buttonAn angle that needs to be covered in these pieces of political speculation is that Mormon politicians have historically been very friendly to evangelicals’ ministries and issues. A Washington, D.C., pastor I spoke to last night said that the politician who is most helpful to his ministry is Mormon.

A note to political writers: Romney’s religious beliefs matter. They matter because Romney himself knows they matter. Will conservative evangelical voters and their leaders really not vote for Romney in a general election because he is Mormon? Sounds like a good story for local papers to do during the GOP primary.

Adam Reilly over at Slate wrote a nice piece of political commentary a day before Novak’s piece ran that provides the Romney campaign with some nice suggestions for overcoming what has now become the “Mormon problem.”

In recent months, for example, he’s done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader,” he replied. “But they don’t care what brand of faith that is … I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.” Romney’s contention that the “brand of faith” doesn’t matter is debatable — but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney’s hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney’s ’08 prospects, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter asserted that “[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith” — a line that could have been penned by the governor himself. …

RomneyStandardWhat’s more, there’s a desperate quality to Romney’s eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who’s sure to tout this trip — and his cooperation with O’Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts — while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. “This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith,” Romney gushed at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a [M]ass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.” Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the Boston Globe that A) Romney and O’Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O’Malley told the Globe he hadn’t invited Romney and didn’t really know him all that well. (An O’Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation “similar to that extended to the general public.”)

In between Romney’s lectures that HBO’s Big Love does not represent Mormonism, political reporters are going to have to dig into the true beliefs of this faith. As we have written at GetReligion, those beliefs are hardly monolithic.

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