Italian PM: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics”

berlusconiThe scandals and corruption charges surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi make the GOP’s problems in Washington seem minor league. Berlusconi is one of the 25 richest people in the world. His businesses create a number of legal problems for him politically, and he is facing charges of bribing judges in a trial involving one of his businesses. He’s also compared himself to Jesus Christ in a speech to political supporters:

But then he went on to complain that he feels like what he called “the Jesus Christ of Italian politics”.

“I’m a patient victim. I put up with everything. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” he said.

Opposition politicians called Mr Berlusconi’s comparison grotesque, although he was simply using popular speech.

In Italian, for example, you can refer to someone as a Povero Christo, or a poor Christ, without being accused of blasphemy.

Berlusconi’s statement will be used against him by his political opponents. Those in the European media, who love gifts like Berlusconi who keep on giving, will blast the comments across their front pages.

But do Italians really care that a man who owns a handful of television stations, some radio stations, a collection of newspapers, an advertising business, some film companies, insurance corporations and food and construction outfits said he’s on the same level as Jesus Christ? It certainly won’t generate any riots or burnings, nor should it.

This politician is conflicted with interests beyond repair, and during his tenure the country’s press freedom ranking dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The Economist has been unrelenting in criticizing Berlusconi (just glance over his Wikipedia file and you’ll get an idea).

Berlusconi recently said that only Napoleon did more than he has as a leader, and called a German European Union MP a Nazi concentration prison camp guard. Berlusconi also once said that Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman.

This is a country where Jesus Christ was put on trial (the case has since been thrown out). With all these comments under Berlusconi’s belt, is this religious reference really all that surprising?

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Free religious speech?

Chaplain ShieldMy brother went to the Air Force Academy, which also happened to be a few miles from where my family lived in Colorado. We loved going to football games, but my father (a pastor) cringed each time they began the pre-game ceremonies with a prayer. Mostly that was because the clergy always prayed for an Air Force victory. He felt this was grossly inappropriate and trivialized prayer.

The good news for my dad is that the new religious guidelines issued Feb. 9 by the Air Force Academy seem to discourage such instances of prayer. The bad news for Pops is that they seem to encourage such trivialized content.

Julia Duin of the Washington Times has been all over this story, providing regular updates and an understanding of the conflict. Here’s how she succinctly sums up the one-page guidelines:

The Air Force yesterday released revised guidelines on religious observance that say chaplains need not recite prayers incompatible with their beliefs, but that also encourage “non-denominational” or “inclusive” prayer in public situations.

It is always interesting to see how various reporters wrap their heads around the odd bedfellows that come together in religious liberty and free speech fights, but most reports did a good job of explaining how some Christians involved in the battle just want the freedom to pray according to their conscience. Having said that, do these first three paragraphs in Robert Weller’s AP account clarify anything?

The Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression Thursday that no longer caution top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

The revisions were welcomed by conservative Christians, who said the previous rules was too strict and lobbied the White House to change them.

Critics called the revisions a step backward and said they do nothing to protect the rights of most airmen.

I mean, the guidelines do caution officers about promoting personal religious views, the revisions were not unilaterally welcome by conservative Christians and who are the critics mentioned in the third paragraph? Adjectives can be our friend! I don’t want to bash on Weller, as I understand wire service accounts can be difficult, but a complex issue deserves a bit more clarification.

Which brings us back to Duin. She not only got the gist of the guidelines, she broke a Washington story that was totally missed by the political trade blogs:

bush allen

Meanwhile, White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, a key aide who had sided with evangelicals on the issue, resigned abruptly Wednesday after five years with the Bush administration. His short letter to the president called it “the best decision for my family.”

In a Jan. 22 conversation with Rep. Walter B. Jones reported in The Washington Times, Mr. Allen promised the North Carolina Republican that President Bush would pressure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into allowing military chaplains to be more explicit about their faith.

She cites a military source saying Allen (pictured with President Bush) resigned to protest the White House’s refusal to lean on the Pentagon about the issue. If true, that’s quite the bombshell. It also shows how religious reporters can break political news that political reporters might not. Again, compare Duin’s info with the befuddlement of National Journal Group’s Hotline on Call or Weller’s lead.

I hope reporters continue to cover these brief guidelines and their implementation. As some keen reporters figured out long ago, this story is more about wars within the Air Force chaplaincy than anything else. Do these guidelines protect the rights of non-mainstream religious leaders? Will the Air Force pay lip service to religious freedom but then not promote the charismatic and evangelical chaplains who preach and pray in ways that make the rest of the chaplain corps uncomfortable?

Also, a final plea: Could reporters covering this story break out from getting all their quotes from the same few people (Mikey Weinstein, Ted Haggard, Tom Minnery)? I mean, there are hundreds of millions of people in this country, more than a dozen of whom have thoughts on the issue. Let’s hear from a more diverse pool.

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Not getting it, again

nytIt’s not the first time I’ve written about The New York Times not getting it. Sadly, this is not the first time the NYT has missed it (remember the Holocaust).

So says Andrew Sullivan:

So we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons — so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT‘s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of this issue. After some thought, I don’t feel, like Sullivan, that the NYT or the Post should print these cartoons. It would only inflame the situation and accomplish little.

But it does matter that extremist Muslims have been able to whip up a huge frenzy over how the Danes — I repeat, the Danes — have allegedly insulted an entire religion and now this group, whoever they may be, are attempting to make a free democratic state bow to their wishes.

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Tip: follow the money

Jesusbus2So evangelical leaders are front and center in a public relations campaign launched this week. Editors and reporters are giving the campaign heavy coverage because the evangelical leaders are surprising them by calling for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times story yesterday hit the major points:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

This is obviously a worthy news story, even if it is an orchestrated PR campaign (more on that later) and Goodstein writes a good account, even if it is lacking in explaining the religious motivations of both the the signers and those who oppose the effort. However, I find it interesting how news coverage of religious adherents is biased in favor of political action. If a religious group does something political — be it protesting cartoons published in Denmark or signing a petition for reduced carbon dioxide emissions — it is ensured heavy coverage. And this makes it seem like the groups have a large relative size and impact. But what about those religious adherents who are more focused on, well, religious notions of salvation, eternal life, doctrine and creeds? They simply aren’t noticed unless they engage in politics. Not that we haven’t discussed this gripe before . . .

In any case, the Chicago Tribune‘s Frank James covers the religious angle a bit more than Goodstein but struggles with accurately conveying evangelical views on the issue. Check this paragraph out, for instance:

But environmental issues have proved divisive within the body of believers who identify themselves as evangelicals. Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

Got that? You either believe Armageddon means environmental issues are meaningless or that God wants humans to protect the earth. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure many prominent evangelicals actually hold the first view (and he doesn’t name any who do), James surely doesn’t think he’s accurately conveyed the views of evangelicals.

Both stories quoted the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I remembered his name from the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign of a few years ago. During research for my book on the interfaith movement, I found that the idea for the evangelical network came from non-evangelical interfaith environmentalist activists who strategically decided to reach out to the politically powerful group. The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign was run by Fenton Communications, which is also responsible for the Alar apple scare of the 1980s and, more recently, MoveOn.org advertisements. The Evangelical Environmental Network itself, which has many evangelical partners, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which isn’t really known for funding evangelical efforts.

I haven’t done research on the Evangelical Climate Initiative, but it definitely has ties to the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign run by Fenton Communications. Hopefully some reporters covering this story will not just parrot the press releases being issued and will look deeper into the genesis of this campaign. And no matter what they find, following the money is always a good idea.

Update: Through a completely egregious error on my part, for which I have nothing but excuses, I missed the fact that Goodstein does mention the funding:

The Evangelical Climate Initiative, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, is being supported by individuals and foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

The initiative is one indication of a growing urgency about climate change among religious groups, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a clearinghouse in Amherst, Mass., for environmental initiatives by religious groups.

Interfaith climate campaigns in 15 states are pressing for regional standards to reduce greenhouse gases, Mr. Gorman said. Jewish, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders also have campaigns under way.

My earlier mention of Pew was with regard to the Evangelical Environmental Network. So it would be interesting to see how, exactly, the two groups are related. It would also be interesting to see what, if any, ties there are to the Tides Foundation and Fenton Communications. Precisely who is orchestrating this interfaith campaign?

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A double standard at the BBC and NYT?

ruscha double standard2Andrew Sullivan has been unrelenting in his criticism of The New York Times for calling the Muhammad cartoons “callous and feeble cartoons, cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper exploiting the general Muslim prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad to score cheap points about freedom of expression.”

Sullivan slams NYT editors for being cowards on this issue and calls them out for publishing images of the Virgin Mary constructed out of dung — but not the Danish cartoons.

An underlying theme in this issue — as pointed out by National Public Radio’s Bob Garfield — is the great lengths that Western European media have been sympathetic and accommodating to Muslims around the world and how they’ve basically lost patience with Islam for reacting this way.

Exactly how accommodating has the press been in Europe?

Sullivan points to a letter (via Andrew Stuttaford at National Review‘s The Corner) in the Times from Will Wyatt, former BBC chief executive, who addresses the inconsistency between the BBC’s history of Islam and Christianity. Here’s what Wyatt had to say:

Sir, I applaud the BBC’s news treatment of the Danish cartoons (report, Feb 4). On its website, however, the cultural cringe is evident and double standards obtain. In its history of Islam we read: “One night in 610 he (Muhammad) was meditating in a cave on the mountain when he was visited by the angel Jibreel who ordered him to “recite” … words which he came to understand were the words of God.” This is written as fact, no “it is said” or “Muhammad reported”. Whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned the BBC adds “Peace be upon him”, as if the corporation itself were Muslim.

How different, and how much more accurate, when we turn to Christianity. Here, Jesus’ birth “is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophesies in the Jewish Old Testament”; Jesus “claimed that he spoke with the authority of God”; accounts of his resurrection appearances were “put about by his believers”.

Go judge for yourself. Here is a link to the BBC’s history of Muhammad and here is a link to the BBC’s history of Christianity. Since when does a secular news organization follow the name of Muhammad with (peace be upon him), or even worse, the acronym (pbuh).

I’ve been wondering why fewer American publications have chosen to publish the cartoons, if simply for their news value. Offending someone certainly has not held them back from publishing gruesome and offensive photos in the past (think Sept. 11 photos or the aforementioned pieces of “art”). I chose not to publish the cartoons on my own blog for reasons of fear (sad, I know), and it’s comforting for me to know that I was not the only one who held back for such reasons. Here’s what The Phoenix had to say:

There are three reasons not to publish the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed with his turban styled as a bomb and the other images that have sparked violent protests and deaths throughout Europe, the Middle East, West Asia, and Indonesia:

1) Out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year publishing history.

Compare that explanation with what NPR’s Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin had to say (hint: “balance considerations of taste”). Are American media organizations running scared?

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Tensions around the black megachurch

ebenezerbcI spent most of the day on the move from Wheaton, Ill., to downtown Chicago and then on to Grand Rapids, Mich. Thus, I am only now — late at night — getting to some of the major stories of the day.

Thus, I want to call attention to some interesting tensions in the Washington Post story by reporter Darryl Fears (with input from Hamil Harris) about the church that hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The service was held in a 10,000-seat suburban megachurch called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County. It was not held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (pictured) that has been so closely connected with the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

The story focuses, as it should, on the contrasts between the urban poor and the new suburban world of the black middle and upper classes. But there are other themes and, sadly, they are so predictable.

… (The) decision by the King children — Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice — to hold their mother’s funeral service outside Atlanta rankled a few members of the civil rights establishment for several reasons. Coretta King recently spoke out for gay rights, at the very time that the pastor of New Birth, Bishop Eddie L. Long, was marching against same-sex marriage and benefits to gay partners.

It was easy to see that theme coming and it leads immediately to the next tension in the world of black faith and politics — the pew gap. The megachurch is where the growth is, it is where the numbers are when it comes time to count the numbers in the pews. This has long been true in white suburbia. Now, as in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and some other urban areas, the rise of the modern black megachurch is creating some interesting dynamics in politics and culture.

Long, a political independent, has also been one of a number of black ministers who have been actively courted by Republicans. He has met with President Bush, who will be among those attending the funeral Tuesday. Bernice King, the youngest King sibling, who rested on her mother’s lap as she mourned her slain father, drove the decision to hold the service at New Birth. She is a co-pastor there, and in the last years of her life Coretta King attended the church more and more, occasionally speaking there.

In other words, what happens if growing African American churches continue to defend the faith and values of the generations that came before them? Who will modernize? Who will rise in numbers? Who will decline? These questions have haunted many American denominations and religious groups. Now we are seeing these questions asked in new settings.

Watch for these themes in the funeral coverage tomorrow.

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Are civilizations clashing?

clash1Political events in the Muslim world have taken a decidedly extremist turn. As we’ve said repeatedly on this site, those in the Western world must understand the Islamic world if a Clash of Civilizations is to be avoided. Some would say this is inevitable, but I would prefer the optimistic viewpoint and hold that this clash is avoidable.

Paul Marshall, a friend of the blog and senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, summarizes the out-of-control cartoon situation in this Weekly Standard article.

This thoughtful and well-researched piece of journalism in The Economist goes a great length in explaining current events — the political rise of Hamas in Palestine, Iran’s extremist government and ongoing nuclear research, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the American occupation in Iraq and Islamic-rooted terrorism around the world — as well as the roots of these events.

I apologize that I am linking to a pay site but this article was too good for me to ignore. Here’s a key section:

For all these reasons, outside observers might be forgiven for thinking that political Islam, in various violent forms, was on the march against the West. In fact, the Islamist movement, though it may look monolithic from afar, is highly quarrelsome and diverse, and in many ways its internal divisions are deepening.

By no means everybody in the Muslim world rejoiced at the Hamas victory. It was disturbing in at least two different quarters. One was the corridors of power in Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, where the Brotherhood is already a powerful grass-roots movement and is steadily gaining confidence. In Egypt’s partially-free elections last November, the Brotherhood did far better than expected; and in Jordan, where the Brothers have long been treated as an innocuous vent for letting off anti-Israel and anti-western steam, the movement is demanding a higher profile.

Even more dismayed by the Hamas victory, it seems, are the al-Qaeda terrorist network and its sympathisers. They were already furious with Hamas for compromising with secular liberal ideas by taking part in multi-party elections, and the fact that Hamas has played the democratic game rather successfully will only increase their dismay.

Here lies a paradox. The two best known forms of political Islam (broadly speaking, al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood) have common ideological origins. Both have their roots in the anti-secular opposition in Egypt, a conservative reading of Sunni Islam and the wealth and religious zeal of the Saudis. But they differ hugely over politics and tactics.

Based on information presented in this article, it appears to me that the Bush administration vastly misjudged Muslim reaction to an invasion of Iraq. Muslims may not have liked the corrupt, evil, secular Saddam Hussein government, but he was certainly better than an American-imposed governmental system and an occupation that Muslims see as the source of the conflict between Muslims in that country.

clash3Religion matters to these people in ways that we Americans (even Red Staters) have trouble understanding. While the United States has a 200-plus-year tradition of separation of church and state, Muslims know nothing of the sort and their extremists are not shy in resorting to violence:

Observing the ideological fights between al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood, and the physical fights between Sunnis and Shias, some American strategists might ask themselves: since they all oppose us and our allies, shouldn’t we take comfort from the fact that they hate each other too?

In reality, things don’t work that way. However little the arcana of Sunni or Shia theology are understood in Peoria or even in Washington, DC, the hard fact is that the American occupation of Iraq has made it appear, to many people in the Middle East, that America is now the main arbiter in the balance of power between the different components of the Islamic world. To put it another way, people who were already inclined to see almost every development in the Islamic world as America’s work will be harder to dissuade.

Despite the darkening clouds in America’s relationship with Iran, many Sunni Muslims are convinced that the Bush administration is subverting their faith by favouring the Shia cause in Iraq and hence promoting Iranian influence. In the slums of eastern Amman, for example, people hardly knew what Shia Islam was until recently. Now the word has spread that neighbouring Iraq is about to get a Shia-dominated government — and, moreover, that it is all America’s fault.

Nor can America escape this opprobrium by tilting its Iraqi policy a few degrees in a more pro-Sunni direction. Anything that seems to favour the Sunnis can also be interpreted as giving heart to the Saudi establishment, royal or clerical. And that in turn will be seen as a boost to Saudi efforts to spread various forms of Sunni fundamentalism all over the world.

The contrasts between different varieties of Islam, and Islamism, are not trivial — either in their teachings or the behaviour they inspire. The western world needs to know about them, if only to know which outcomes and shifts of policy are conceivable, and which are not. But woe betide any western strategist who thinks the problems of the Muslim world can be addressed by a policy of “divide and rule”. The most likely result of that is that western countries will be blamed for divisions that have already existed, in one form or another, since the founding of Islam.

clash2These conflicts go back dozens of centuries, as the article adeptly explains, and without a proper understanding it would be foolhardy for a government to consider intervening.

The same goes for journalists and media organizations. I fully support the freedom of the press, especially in the reprinting of cartoons in support of free speech, but did the originators of this controversy have any idea what they were getting themselves into?

As Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly Die Zeit, stated in Tuesday’s Washington Post, most Western news organizations would not have printed those offensive cartoons on a normal day, but once they became news, they were fair game by any journalist’s standard and when freedom is threatened by violence, the natural and proper reaction of the free is to flex that freedom.

The conflict between two civilizations is well underway. With careful diplomacy and an educated public we may walk away from the brink of what nobody really wants in this world.

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More notes on the Muslim cartoon issue

persianOne of the more interesting aspects of the controversy about Muslim cartoons is the decision of the vast majority of news outlets here in the States not to publish them.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of the few outlets to have published the images. It did so on Saturday. The paper was picketed today by a group of Muslims in response. In any case, the Inquirer defended its decision:

The Inquirer’s senior editors decided at Friday’s afternoon news meeting to publish the most controversial image. It is being published “discreetly” with a note explaining the rationale, said Amanda Bennett, The Inquirer’s editor.

“This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do,” Bennett said. “We’re running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy’s about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history,” she said.

Bennett compared it to decisions in the past to publish photographs of the bodies of burned Americans hung from a bridge in Iraq, as well as the 1989 photography of an artwork by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

“You run it because there’s a news reason to run it,” Bennett said. “The controversy does not appear to have died down. It’s still a news issue.”

It’s nice to see this debate taking place. And even nicer to see it taking place in relative calm. It also needs noting that many reporters (including me) have repeated the “fact” that Islam prevents any depiction of Muhammad. And a few other folks have noted that might not be the case, given the myriad depictions of Muhammad in art museums around the world, such as the Persian example above. A frieze on the north wall of the Supreme Court also shows Muhammad. He’s the one in the middle in the image below. Go here for more examples.

scotusnfriezeReporters really need to start explaining some basic information in this story. It’s getting incredibly frustrating. There are huge groups of Muslims responding to this story in widly divergent ways. Look at the restraint with which American Muslims have responded. Compare that, even, with the extremely violent language used in protests in London this weekend. And then compare those with the property damage, extreme violence, kidnapping and murder occurring in the Middle East and Asia. Is this not a story worth looking into? Charles Moore raises both of these points in the Daily Telegraph:

There is no reason to doubt that Muslims worry very much about depictions of Mohammed. Like many, chiefly Protestant, Christians, they fear idolatry. But, as I write, I have beside me a learned book about Islamic art and architecture which shows numerous Muslim paintings from Turkey, Persia, Arabia and so on. These depict the Prophet preaching, having visions, being fed by his wet nurse, going on his Night-Journey to heaven, etc. The truth is that in Islam, as in Christianity, not everyone agrees about what is permissible.

Some of these depictions are in Western museums. What will the authorities do if the puritan factions within Islam start calling for them to be removed from display (this call has been made, by the way, about a medieval Christian depiction of the Prophet in Bologna)? Will their feeling of “offence” outweigh the rights of everyone else?

Why are reporters and editors so reticent to discuss these differences in Islam? It seems like it would be so newsworthy. It seems like opinion pieces and blogs offer the best news and analysis, which doesn’t bode well for mainstream media.

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