Sleep talking is dangerous to marriage

talaqA disturbing trend I’ve noticed among American newswires is the instinct to take a foreign newswire report, copy the news of the story and spin it as a circus or side/freakshow for Americans to laugh at those loonies. The articles often involve religion, and that’s especially disturbing because of the cultural intricacies and details that are often lost in translation.

The laws surrounding copyright are fairly clear. News and information cannot be copyrighted by anyone as long as the source is given credit. Only a headline is deemed exclusive (creative?) content. So while no laws are being broken, I believe the practice is a disservice to the public discourse.

Such is the case regarding this Reuters report on the apparent fact that a Muslim couple must split because the husband muttered the word for divorce, “talaq,” three times in his sleep. The story is, at the time of this post, fourth on CNN.com’s most popular rankings. I’m sure it’s now subject to the inane humor in American office cubicles, but also has drawn some clever headlines.

The story cites the Press Trust of India — the country’s largest news agency of 450 subscribing newspapers and others around the world — as its primary source (I was unable to find a link to the original article). There’s barely of scent of original reporting by the news agency:

The religious leaders ruled that if the couple wanted to remarry they would have to wait at least 100 days. Sohela [Ansari] would also have to spend a night with another man and be divorced by him in turn.

The couple, who live in the eastern state of West Bengal, have refused to obey the order and the issue has been referred to a local family counseling center.

India’s minority Muslim population is governed by Islamic personal laws on issues such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance.

triple talaqGreat story, until the end, when we find out that Zafarul-Islam Khan, the editor of a popular Indian Muslim newspaper, believes the ruling was bogus:

“This is a totally unnecessary controversy and the local ‘community leaders’ or whosoever has said it are totally ignorant of Islamic law,” said Zafarul-Islam Khan, an Islamic scholar and editor of The Milli Gazette, a popular Muslim newspaper.

“The law clearly says any action under compulsion or in a state of intoxication has no effect. The case of someone uttering something while asleep falls under this category and will have no impact whatsoever,” Khan told Reuters.

So according to Khan, what one does while drunk has no merit? At least under Muslim law? Why weren’t the local Islamic leaders involved in this story interviewed? How about an outside expert on Islamic law? Is there an inside local issue or scandal of which we are left unaware?

This story has spread to more than 50 news outlets, but I have yet to find one that tells much more than the Reuters report. Such is the power of the American newswires, whose stories are republished over and over again without regard for their lack of original reporting and research.

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Tmatt, in Texas, with iffy WiFi (and a GOP jab)

Bluebonnets 01In a few hours, I am headed out the door on a long trip into my home state of Texas (I am a prodigal Texan) to visit several campuses in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (see a new trend story here) on behalf of the journalism program that I lead here in Washington, D.C.

The big event during the trip is the CCCU’s global forum on Christian higher education, which may or may not draw press attention.The forum will include a visit by the Soulforce Equality Ride bus, which will almost certainly draw press attention. I hope to have another chat with the Rev. Mel White.

I will spend several days on the long and flat highways of the state so I, for one, am hoping that I have my timing right for some bluebonnets (see photo). The divine Ms. M and young master Daniel (and perhaps even the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc) will, I hope, keep things buzzing during the next week or so because my Internet access may be iffy, other than during the Dallas forum.

But before I go I wanted to draw a connection between three very different stories in three very different publications that all point, in a way, to the very same theme that comes up quite frequently at this site.

So click here for the omnipresent Democratic strategist Amy Sullivan, writing in Washington Monthy about the factors that may, sooner rather than later, cause many evangelical Protestants to bolt the Republican Party.

Then click here to skip over to the Weekly Standard website to read Allan Carlson’s sobering “Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?”

JesusLand2 01Wait! Before you settle in and read those two articles, read this quotation and ask yourself this question: Who wrote the following, Carlson or Sullivan?

… (All) is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming “nontraditional” and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America’s “family wage” system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance.

Can you guess? I point this out simply to note the ongoing political irony of our age. The middle class, for the most part, continues to vote (some would say against its economic interests) for the Republican Party — primarily because of moral and social issues. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the rich, especially along the coasts, has been voting (against its economic interests) for the Democratic Party — primarily because of moral and social issues.

No matter what some people say, these issues are not going away. To see why, click here and read Janet Hook’s “Right Is Might for GOP’s Aspirants” in the Los Angeles Times.

My question remains the same: Will editors in top-flight newsrooms allow their religion-beat specialists to help cover this story?

They should.

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The Post’s error

Balance and ProportionI wanted to share a thought that’s been bugging me amid the furor surrounding the resignation of former Washingtonpost.com blogger Ben Domenech due to evidence that he plagiarized material in his younger years.

In hiring Domenech, Washingtonpost.com was clearly looking for an alternative to Dan Froomkin, who many see as a liberal. Problem: Domenech does not have any journalism in his background and never claimed or wanted to be a journalist. At best he was a commentator who is now going to have to rebuild his career from scratch thanks to what seems to be fairly obvious and egregious cases of ripping other people’s work. But why was it that Washingtonpost.com felt it needed to go outside journalistic circles to find a conservative to counterbalance what was a fairly obvious leftward tilt of Froomkin?

The assumption that mainstream journalism could not have a conservative blogger spills into the religion arena because I believe most decision makers at the major news organizations assume that their reporters are non-religious in the same way they assume that reporters in general could not be conservative.

Ideological balance at a newspaper — particularly on opinion columns and, now that newspapers are catching up with the digital age, blogs — is critical for a media organization that wants to maintain its claim to objectivity. But if Washingtonpost.com feels it needs to go outside journalism for political balance, I wonder where the editors think they need to go if they ever feel the need for more than a handful of staffers of one religious persuasion or another. I have it on good account that it does not represent America, or the demographics of the Washington metropolitan area.

I wonder where the New York Times is looking and, most important, are religious educational institutions ready to step up and support solid journalism programs?

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Be afraid, be very afraid

07Oh no. Are we now going to face Easter Wars (inspired by the thumping media success of the Christmas Wars)?

Here’s the news.

St. Paul City Office Boots Easter Bunny

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Easter Bunny has been sent packing at St. Paul City Hall.

A toy rabbit, pastel-colored eggs and a sign with the words “Happy Easter” were removed from the lobby of the City Council offices, because of concerns they might offend non-Christians. A council secretary had put up the decorations. They were not bought with city money.

St. Paul’s human rights director, Tyrone Terrill, asked that the decorations be removed, saying they could be offensive to non-Christians. But City Council member Dave Thune says removing the decorations went too far, and he wonders why they can’t celebrate spring with “bunnies and fake grass.”

OK, I guess that Christians are supposed to be offended that the wretched bunny and the fake eggs are getting the boot. But what if citizens were, as Christians with some sense of history, offended by the bunny in the first place?

Is that a news story? And has anyone else out there seen signs of Easter War coverage?

Meanwhile, let me post this little advertisement in a shameless display of pre-Pascha public relations. Anyone tired of bunny world can wait another week this spring and celebrate Pascha with the Orthodox. Here is a nice, simple Indianapolis Star piece on the Lent and Easter traditions in the East. Some of you have written me emails asking if I was going to mention the Orthodox traditions on these seasons.

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Atheists in America

atheist homeSome people say this country is one White House Bible study away from a Christian theocracy, but President-elect Dwight Eisenhower may have summed up the religious sentiment of the nation best when he said, in 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

A new University of Minnesota study, which has received precisely no coverage yet, found that people rank atheists below gays, lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims in “sharing their vision of American society.” A press release from the University of Minnesota expounds:

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje of the San Antonio Express-News looks at a few local atheists and finds out they don’t like the negative coverage they often receive:

Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion in public life concur.

“Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America,” says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It’s still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that’s not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they’re not supposed to voice those views, so they don’t. But it’s still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists.”

Stoeltje’s piece, which came out a few days before the University of Minnesota study was released, describes the difference between atheism and agnosticism and talks about the difficulties of being irreligious in a religious society:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And that which I excerpted is precisely how much she substantiated her statement. What about the religious rhetoric of Presidents Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and Carter — to name, well, the last four presidents? Does it make sense that religious rhetoric is more prevalent in the public square than it was when, say, St. Abraham Lincoln was president? Almost every president has used civil religion to advance his political goals, and the current president is no exception. Apart from her claim’s questionable veracity, Stoeltje should have substantiated it.

And regarding her parenthetical about Christianity . . . What, exactly, is specifically Christian about the civil religious rhetoric of today? Civil holiday celebrations, funerals and memorials are all interfaith. President Bush goes out of his way to praise Islam in his speeches. And the name of Jesus just got banned from the Indiana legislature. I’m sure we can find any number of politicians who still use Jesus or specifically Christian tenets to advance their political goals, but they are not doing it any more than was done years ago.

Stoeltje missed an opportunity to highlight how civil religion — which tries so hard to be inclusive and bind the electorate together for the goals of patriotism and nationalism — still manages to alienate those who don’t like the God-talk. We all believe in the same God, worshiped by different names, civil religion tells us. But what if you belong to a religion that has no god or if you are not religious at all? Or what if you don’t agree that all people worship the same God under different names? Where do we fit in civil religion?

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Eye on the right (no liberals in sight)

billboardsTim Graham is a conservative writer for the conservative Media Research Center who has done lots of conservative research showing that mainstream journalists tend to use labels like “conservative” too much.

Which is all well and good. What he has long found interesting, however, is that this tense era is literally crawling with “conservatives” who are in mortal political combat — especially on religious and moral issues — with people who are very rarely labeled at all and, certainly, are rarely called “liberals.”

Graham — a conservative, by the way — has a post up right now taking a few shots at a long, page one Washington Post report by Thomas B. Edsall that ran with the headline “Grants Flow To Bush Allies On Social Issues: Federal Programs Direct At Least $157 Million.”

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that people who back a conservative approach to faith-based ministries are doing well when it comes to landing grants from a new, conservative-sponsored program that is set up to promote faith-based ministries. Edsall writes:

For years, conservatives have complained about what they saw as the liberal tilt of federal grant money. Taxpayer funds went to abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood to promote birth control, and groups closely aligned with the AFL-CIO got Labor Department grants to run worker-training programs.

In the Bush administration, conservatives are discovering that turnabout is fair play: Millions of dollars in taxpayer funds have flowed to groups that support President Bush’s agenda on abortion and other social issues. Under the auspices of its religion-based initiatives and other federal programs, the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies, according to federal grant documents and interviews.

Note the “what they saw as the liberal tilt” language, as if there were no objective facts available for discussion in a major newspaper.

For example, Edsall notes that crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion groups have received more than $60 million in grants. This, for me, raises a pretty obvious question — especially after the previous “liberal tilt” language. How much does, let’s say, Planned Parenthood get in taxpayer money?

Well, a conservative, anti-abortion site — drat, there’s that word again — that stores public reports on this kind of thing says (follow the URL for documentation) that Planned Parenthood received $265.2 million in 2003-04 (hat tip to Dawn “friend of this blog” Eden). It would also be interesting to compare the numbers on grants to groups that take a conservative, evangelistic approach to salvation issues, as opposed to the groups — liberal? — that take a hands-off, many-roads-to-the-same-God stance.

But here is the Edsall paragraph that irked that conservative guy named Graham.

The Education Department awarded a $750,000 discretionary grant to the GEO Foundation, run by Kevin Teasley, a former staffer at the libertarian Reason Foundation and conservative Heritage Foundation, and conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, to “provide outreach and information” on public-school choice. The department also awarded $1.5 million over three years to the conservative Black Alliance for Educational Options, which was created in 2000 with support from such funders on the right as the Bradley, John M. Olin and Walton Family foundations, to provide information about the No Child Left Behind Act.

This one paragraph contains a few of the dozen or so “conservative” flags in this one story. Who are the critics of these new faith-based programs? Was any of the information used in this story actually gathered by groups that might be called “left of center” or something like that?

Thus, Graham ends with this conservative conclusion:

Is it biased to write a story like this? No. It is biased to write this story — but not display an interest in writing a similar story on subsidizing liberal and libertine groups years ago, when the Clinton administration was handing out money to NOW and its social-issues allies.

By the way, I think I used the word “conservative” fewer times than the Post story did.

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Martyrs and magistrates

ArabicBible2In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman is facing execution for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity.

This story is huge in the European and Canadian press and gaining coverage stateside every day. Similarly, other countries seem to be officially condemning the action more than U.S. officials have thus far. German and Italian officials have condemned the human-rights violation but so far the only words from America’s executive branch came from the third-highest senior official at the State Department. And, from Reuters, check out his rousing defense of a man who is about to die for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity:

“We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view, if it’s upheld, then of course he’ll be found to be innocent,” said Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranked diplomat.

An Afghan judge said on Sunday a man named Abdur Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates death for apostasy.

“While we understand the complexity of a case like this and we certainly will respect the sovereignty of the Afghan authorities and the Afghan system, from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their own religion,” Burns told reporters …

The Bush administration may need to bring out a slightly bigger gun — and slightly more compelling rhetoric — if it wants to help Rahman. But why hasn’t Bush addressed the matter? And why aren’t reporters asking him about it?

Bush held a press conference on Tuesday morning where reporters had the chance to ask hard-hitting questions and put him on the spot. Why not ask him why American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan so that a government that executes Christians can be put in place? For a media obsessed with President Bush’s supposed hardline Christianity, they could press him a bit. Or maybe they were too busy composing really tough questions such as “Why did you really want to go to war?” Seriously, Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson is tougher on Bush than is the press corps:

Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free? What have we accomplished for overthrowing the Taliban? This is the kind of thing we would expect from the Taliban, not from President Karzai and his freely elected democratic government.

The Times of London had an interesting article complete with a list of areas where Christians have been persecuted in recent years. They talked with the judge deciding whether an Afghan man should be executed for converting to Christianity. The judge says he does not understand what the big deal is:

“It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting. In your country (Britain) two women can marry; that is very strange. In this country we have the perfect constitution, it is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished.”

The paper had some great analysis and perspective on the situation, including this bit of intel from Rahman’s cellmate (Rahman is not allowed to speak to reporters):

Sayad Miakhel, told The Times: “He is standing by his words; he will not become a Muslim again. He has been a Christian for over 14 years. It is what he believes in . . .” Mr Miakhel, 30, said that conditions in the prison were basic, with 50 men to a cell built for 15. “Most prisoners have food brought to them by their families, but none of Abdul’s family have been to visit. I’m not sure how he is eating.”

“He seems depressed. He keeps looking up to the sky, to God,” said Mr Miakhel.

Most reporters are doing a good job of using Rahman’s story as a hook to explore the lack of religious freedom in Afghanistan, but one reporter’s story stands out in particular. Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, has a meaty piece that explores the family drama that led to Rahman getting busted, describes the religious landscape in Afghanistan and includes some frightening and violent quotes about what Rahman faces. Barker worked on the Tribune‘s series, “Struggle for the soul of Islam,” before taking a job covering Afghanistan. Here, she provides some perspective:

Rahman’s trial, which started Thursday, is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the struggle between Islamic reformists and fundamentalists in the country, which is still recovering from 23 years of war and the harsh rule of the Taliban, a radical religious regime that fell in late 2001.

Even under the more moderate government now in power, Islamic law is supposed to be followed, and many believe it requires the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for another religion.

noose2There was also an interesting and noteworthy headline change to the piece. The original headline was:

Afghan man faces death for being a Christian
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s been corrected to read:

Afghan man faces death for abandoning Islam
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s an important change and one that reporters, copyeditors and editors should keep in mind with this story. Technically speaking, converting to Christianity in a Muslim country will probably not get you killed or otherwise punished — so long as you are not Muslim to begin with (thae judge’s comment above notwithstanding). Certainly non-Muslims are not viewed the same way as Muslims from a legal standpoint — and this caveat manifests itself in wildly divergent ways — but it’s not being Christian that is the crime. Rather, the crime is leaving the Muslim religion.

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Do swing voters go to church?

JesusLand2Want to see an op-ed piece that misses the big picture? Check out the “Swing Is Still King At the Polls” essay today in the Washington Post by former Bill Clinton pollster Mark J. Penn. It’s another attempt to throw cold water on debates about the red vs. blue divide in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

The point of the essay is simple: There is a big and important mushy zone between the pure red voters and the pure blue voters.

Well, duh. This has been a constant theme here at GetReligion forever and ever, amen. The evidence is that there are hard blue zip codes on the left (secularists and the strong religious left) and hard red zones on the right (traditional religious believers with major clout in the Bible Belt and, thus, the U.S. Senate). As I keep saying, you really need to read that “Tribal Relations” piece in The Atlantic Monthly.

But back to Penn. I really hope the Post balances this piece — quickly — with an op-ed by someone (Hadley Arkes perhaps) who understands the role of moral and cultural issues in the red vs. blue era. Yes, friends and neighbors, Penn writes about red, blue and swing voters and totally ignores the very issues that have defined the era. He also seems to have missed the point that the red vs. blue divide is not a pure divide between the GOP and the Democrats. There are red issue voters stranded in the Democratic Party. Then again, perhaps that is why Penn does not bring them up, since it is not in his interest to mention that. This is the hot story as the Democrats ponder what to do with, for example, abortion and the definition of marriage.

Try to find an awareness of these tough issues in this Penn language:

… (O)utside the Beltway, trends show that voters are increasingly open and flexible, not rigid. They are looking at candidates’ records and visions, not their party affiliation. In the past 50 years independents have grown from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, according to Gallup polls. In California, the number of independent voters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party.

According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate — meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa — has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.

Read Penn’s piece. Did I miss something? Can anyone find any threads in it linked to faith, morality and culture? Where has this guy been for the past decade?

At this point, we do not know what will happen to the voters who pivot on the faith and culture issues, for the simple reason that both parties are a bit scared of them at the moment (even the GOP). But those issues will not go away, and it will be impossible to ignore them forever.

SantorumBookLET ME JUMP IN with a quick update: Here is a story by David Kirkpatrick — who covers the conservative disputes beat at the New York Times — that certainly shows the role of social issues in one of the hottest contests in the nation. That would be the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.

It’s a solid story — a variation on the right-wing signing up pastors template — but with one element that is rather buried at the end. What happens when churches on the left do the same thing (or take hot issues into the pulput)?

This is how the story ends. I think this element needed to go higher, with more info. Were these events similar?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the network reflected “a growing backdoor, under-the-radar effort to lure churches into political campaigns” that could risk their tax exemptions.

Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and a speaker on March 6, said such critics were trying to “squelch the free speech” of conservative pastors. No one complained, Mr. Geer said, when opponents of the state marriage amendment had an organizing meeting last week at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pa.

But were materials from any candidates put in the spotlight at the Lutheran gig? Were the materials tightly linked to the social issues being discussed in the forum? That’s the thin line people are walking on the left and right.

That’s what we need to know. Like I said, the social issues are not going to go away.

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