Blogging the grilling

As a sidebar to the Divine Ms. M’s post on the Stephanie Simon’s abortion-coverage commentary, let me note that the Washington Post has its U.S. Supreme Court hearings blog up and running again. When I hit the blog this a.m., this excellent multi-media overview of the Samuel Alito grilling was topped by a banner ad for the dispassionate folks at NARAL Pro-Choice America. What are the other blogs that GetReligion readers are watching?

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The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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Define anti-Mormon

mitt romneyMassachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination means we get to read lots of profiles about him. Saying absolutely nothing about his political positions, the man has got charisma and charm for days and certainly adds a nice new face into the never-ending campaign cycle.

James Taranto has an excellent run-down of where Romney stands in his Wall Street Journal article today, the focus of which is whether conservative Christians could support the Mormon. As a Lutheran, I don’t vote for elected officials based on their religion. I vote for elected officials based on their policies and ability to do the job well. I judge church officials, on the other hand, based on their religious views. So I could vote for a Druid for the Municipal Water Authority — or President — in good conscience so long as he shared my political views. Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%). . . .

The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”

The only problem is that it is not necessarily anti-Mormon to say Mormons are not Christian. It is true that Mormons call themselves Christian and may take umbrage that other folks disagree. But if a Christian thinks that a non-Trinitarian conception of God, a belief that God has a wife, and the belief that men can become gods puts Mormons outside of the Christian faith, that’s not anti-Mormon. One can believe that Mormons are not Christian and still donate gobs of cash to Mitt Romney for President. Reporters need to understand this distinction.

Reporters should also realize that it’s not just those on the “religious right” who don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Officially speaking, almost all Christian church bodies do not consider Mormons to be Christian or believe their baptisms to be valid — meaning converts are baptized. This includes the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which accept baptisms from other Christian church bodies. Would it kill reporters to study this or understand why?

Admittedly, learning about Mormonism can be challenging. Mormons believe in ongoing revelation, which is how substantial church doctrines change over the years (polygamy, blacks not having the right to hold the priesthood). There are also difficulties in understanding which statements from the church’s authorities are ex cathedra, so to speak, and which are just personal thoughts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Especially since the country might have its first Mormon president pretty soon. I wonder what James A. Garfield would say?

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When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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Yes, some are offended by “Merry Christmas”

product 3597At last! It is finally time for old-fashioned religious fanatics like me to haul off and say the words — “Merry Christmas.”

But there is a problem, sort of. The traditional greeting among the Eastern Orthodox is to say “Christ is born!” and then the other person replies “Glorify Him!” And then there’s all kinds of hugging and multiple kisses on the sides of people’s faces and other complicated religious stuff.

But, yes, folks do say “Merry Christmas” in the circles in which I move and we will be saying that for 11 more days, since I am writing this on Dec. 26. We do not, however, do the pear trees, birds, golden rings, maids and other things.

So the Christmas Wars are over, are they? At least for this year?

An essay in the Washington Post by Penne L. Restad yearns for this to be true:

At last, Christmas morning. May we now declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? All those poor salespeople who struggled to remember whether company policy was to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” are free to relax and settle down around their Christmas tree or holiday tree or whatever other seasonal symbol they prefer and celebrate in their own private way. For celebrate Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says 96 percent of Americans observe the holiday in some way or another.

But there is a problem. There are other poll numbers to consider.

Take, for example, that recent poll in which 62 percent of Americans said that generic season greetings such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” represent a “change for the worse” in public life. This was music to the ears of conservative news services such as Baptist Press, which added:

In addition, 32 percent of adults say they are bothered when stores use generic holiday greetings on their displays; 68 percent say they are not bothered. By contrast, only 3 percent of adults say they are irked when stores use “Merry Christmas.” The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — says the reference to Christmas doesn’t trouble them. The poll was conducted Dec. 5-8.

“[T]he use of the generic holiday expressions does not bother most Americans in general, including most major political and religious groups examined in this survey. But substantial minorities are bothered — enough, perhaps, to cause concern among some retailers,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote in an online analysis.

Now you would think that this would be good news for cultural conservatives who want to win the Christmas Wars.

But, as Saad noted, there is another way to read the Gallup numbers. For, you see, 24 percent of those polled said generic greetings are a “change for the better.” That’s a lot of people — more than the number of Democrats who vote in primaries, for example.

And then Baptist Press happily reported that only 8 percent of non-Christians told the pollsters that people saying “Merry Christmas” offends them. Now that is a small number, too. However, that is a large number of a significant number of those offended are lawyers, editors, public-school leaders, Hollywood producers and church-state activists.

So will the fighting end? No way. The numbers are absolutely perfect for fundraisers on both sides of the battle lines.

Oh joy.

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The military and the J-word, again

WhiteHouseNC053A long, long time ago, the journalist Stephen Bates wrote a stunning book entitled “Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms.” You knew it was an amazing book because the back cover was full of praise from scholars, journalists and acitivists on the left as well as the right. His thesis: Our public schools have become so biased against traditional forms of religion that they are, ultimately, undercutting the foundations of America’s heritage of public education. They are driving away millions of parents and, thus, their children.

I thought of this book while reading veteran Godbeat reporter Julia Duin’s story in the Washington Times about a hunger strike by Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who says he is one of many U.S. miltary chaplains who face discrimination because he refuses to stop saying traditional Christian prayers in public. In other words, he continues to say the word “Jesus.” (You may recall the excellent New York Times story on this issue that drew GetReligion praise.)

What is the connection?

When I was interviewing Bates about his book, he used two terms that I recalled from my graduate studies in church-state studies — “civic toleration” and “theological (or doctrinal) toleration.”

What the American founding fathers wanted was “civic toleration,” the belief that all faiths or non-faiths would be equal in the eyes of the state. This did not, however, mean that the state would — to use modern language — practice “viewpoint discrimination” and deliberately favor some forms of religion over others. The state would not say that some religions are right and others are wrong.

The problem, said Bates, was that American public schools seem to think that it is their duty to teach “theological toleration,” which teaches that all religions are the same in the eyes of God. This means that faiths that actually teach that their beliefs are true, and others are false, are — well — wrong. This means that they must change what they teach, in order to have any role in the public square. In practice, this leads to state recognition and even support for faiths that take an approach that says that “many religious roads to lead to the same god, gods or God.” The state then has trouble tolerating the faiths that it has ruled are not tolerant enough. This is church-state entanglement of the worse kind.

Bates had a memorable way of putting this. He said this is like people who say, “You know, there are people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should and I really hate people like that.”

This brings us back to Duin’s report about Klingenschmitt, a chaplain who has fought for the religious rights of Jews, Muslims and others under his care, but refuses to pray in a manner that he believes is less than Christian and, thus, heretical. He is backed by a conservative ecumenical group called the National Clergy Council (see photo). According to Klingenschmitt, he is about to be fired. Conservatives want President Bush to step in and defend the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Thus, Duin reports:

Seventy-three members of Congress have joined the request, saying in an Oct. 25 letter to the president, “In all branches of the military, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.” About 80 percent of U.S. troops are Christian, the legislators wrote, adding that military “censorship” of chaplains’ prayers disenfranchises “hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the military who look to their chaplains for comfort, inspiration and support.”

Official military policy allows any sort of prayer, but Lt. Klingenschmitt says that in reality, evangelical Protestant prayers are censored. He cites his training at the Navy Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where “they have clipboards and evaluators who evaluate your prayers, and they praise you if you pray just to God,” he said. “But if you pray in Jesus’ name, they counsel you.” Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains are likewise told not to pray in the name of Allah, in Hebrew or in the name of the Trinity, he added.

If you search for this story on Google, you will discover that, so far, only Stars and Stripes is interested in it (other than the usual assortment of conservative news outlets). Once again, offensive free speech now seems to be more important to conservatives than to those formerly known as “liberals.”

As the New York Times noted, the Navy is facing lawsuits filed by 50 or so Christian chaplains. Thus, the issue will not go away. Let’s hope that more MSM newsrooms notice this fact.

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On the telephone as reporting tool

santa telephoneA few weeks ago a mini-scandal broke out surrounding Ridgeway Elementary School in Wisconsin. It seemed that some official with the school play had secularized the words to the beautiful “Silent Night” (or as we Lutherans call it: “Stille Nacht“) to “Cold in the Night.” Various groups got enraged and sent out press releases and television networks ate it up and ran breathless segments about the war on Christmas.

So Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker did something revolutionary. He picked up his telephone and called the author of the play in which “Cold in the Night” is featured. It turns out that playwright Dwight Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian (President Reagan’s church in California) for decades. The play comes with a “Christian” page which may be inserted and includes Christian Christmas songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the one hand, Tucker pokes fun at Fox News’ John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly and generally gives the impression that the war on Christmas is more perception than reality, but on the other hand he does a good job of explaining why those who feel attacked do so. Tucker does this by speaking with James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He contrasts what Christmas in 1950 might have seemed like to a conservative Christian with the present. Here’s how Neely characterizes it:

And now you wake up and it’s 2005. You go to hear the kid’s Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like “Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds.” The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a “holiday tree” most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say “Merry Christmas.” Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and “the holidays.” What is to be made of all this?

Tucker provides what so few reporters — especially those on the magic electronic box — have done with this cable-driven war on Christmas: he provides historical context, interviewing authors of various books on the American history of Christmas. He mentions the Puritan distaste for Christmas and keeps on going:

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn’t take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn’t made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.

tree2

Thank you! My one complaint, other than the inexplicable editorial “we” the author uses, is the absolutely offensive ending to the piece. Tucker makes fun of Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver for arguing that Christmas trees should not be renamed:

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he’s right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

No offense, but my beloved hometown paper the Washington Post is just about the last place I look for speculation on what the “Deity” thinks about, well, anything. I mean, they could at least try refraining from mocking religious adherents for a few months before tacking on this ending. But it’s still worthwhile to read.

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Tips for understanding the mind war

muslimFor journalists — or anyone for that matter — looking to understand the conflict in the Middle East between the West and the Islamic fundamentalism, take a look at this book review in Sunday’s Washington Post titled “The War for Muslim Minds,” and then consider picking up one or more of these books.

The review by the RAND Corporation’s Bruce Hoffman encompasses three recent books on the minds of Muslims. The heaviest of the three, Fawaz A. Gerges’s The Far Enemy, moves along the theory on “why Jihad went global.” Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Wrestling Islam From the Extremists deals with the more well-known theory that Islam has been hijacked by highly charismatic characters, while Fred Halliday’s 100 Myths About the Middle East seems to be a quick guide worthy of a Christmast-time airplane ride (it’s also only about $10). I should note that I have not read any of these books, but that is no the point of this post.

While masterfully quoting Sun Tzu, Hoffman underscores the point I’ve been trying to make about journalists, only pointing towards the United States’ counterterrorism strategy:

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America’s counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a “kill or capture” approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America’s targets — be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq — have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces — not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

This is a monumental failing because al Qaeda’s ability to continue this struggle is predicated on its capacity to attract new recruits and replenish its resources. The success of U.S. strategy will therefore ultimately depend on Washington’s ability to counter al Qaeda’s ideological appeal — and thereby break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration. To do so, we first need to better understand the origins of the al Qaeda movement, the animosity and arguments that underpin it and indeed the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its gaze still hungrily rests. Each of the three books reviewed here provides a good start in this essential, though lamentably belated, process.

“In my conversations with former jihadis, one of the critical lessons I have learned is that personalities, not ideas or organizations, are the drivers behind the movement,” writes Gerges in his book, implicitly removing the importance of religion in this international conflict.

Why is this important to the average journalist? Most of us are not in the Middle East covering elections and suicide bombings.

Here’s why: the Post also on Sunday carried an article title “Muslim Leader Forges Interfaith Accord” by Fredrick Kunkle of a “popular Imam,” Yahya Hendi, who is supposedly boosting Islam throughout Maryland and beyond.

It’s a fairly straightforward middle-of-the-local-section religion story except for the fact that he’s a cologne-splashing Imam who is convinced that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are more similar than different. Fair enough character, but any reporter digging past the same-day feature story written by Kunkle must pitch some serious questions at Hendi who believes he is the Arabic version of John the Baptist. And to do that one must have at least a primer in what Muslims today believe and it is about as far away from monolithic as you can get.

Then there is the international story of Muslims flocking to the polls in Iraq and the convening of Afghanistan’s first parliament in more than 30 years. What story is more important these days?

These historical moments will receive their due treatment in lengthy magazine pieces followed by thick books, but for the journalist grinding out daily news stories on these dramatic events — whether for the metro section or from the Green Zone — a background in the minds of the Muslims will be crucial for accurately understanding the story.

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