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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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 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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