Persecution in India: It matters only if it’s about Muslims

Nice to know the New York Times cares so much about religious freedom in India — at least for Muslims.

“For Nation’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory,” warns a headline in an 1,100-plus-word story on that nation’s elections Friday. And the newspaper wastes no time in sympathizing, with these as the third and fourth paragraphs:

Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination a key reason. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans.

Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.

The article then quotes an amazing nine sources: journalists, small businessmen, even a professor in London. They remind us of modern India’s violent birth in 1947, when most Muslims were split off into Pakistan. They tell about housing discrimination, with some Hindus even complaining that Muslim neighbors would lower property values.

The sources tell about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, who died in riots in 2002 in Gujarat, Modi’s home state in India. (However, Modi was personally cleared of any participation.) And a member of the “liberal intelligentsia,” as the Times calls him, fears that Modi is a “threat to India’s secularism.”

All that is certainly newsworthy stuff when 15 percent of all Indians belong to the world’s second-largest religion. Helping nearly 190 million people feel safer is a good idea. But what about the safety of Indian Christians and other religious minorities?

Sure, they may amount to less than 28 million Indians, but they’re members of the world’s largest religion — which, of course, is the majority of the Times’ American readers. Yet a search of recent Times stories, especially connected with the election, shows no such concern for them.

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WPost profiles ‘evangelical Catholic’ Bobby Jindal

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I know this will shock — SHOCK! — you, but your friendly GetReligionistas don’t agree on everything.

Those of us who contribute to this journalism website have a tremendous amount of freedom to pick the stories that we critique. But frequently, editor tmatt pushes potential items our way. And in rare cases, he even proposes an angle that we might take.

That’s the case with today’s post on a recent Washington Post story profiling Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — A dozen politically active pastors came here for a private dinner Friday night to hear a conversion story unique in the context of presidential politics: how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal traveled from Hinduism to Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, became what he calls an “evangelical Catholic.”

Over two hours, Jindal, 42, recalled talking with a girl in high school who wanted to “save my soul,” reading the Bible in a closet so his parents would not see him and feeling a stir while watching a movie during his senior year that depicted Jesus on the cross.

“I was struck, and struck hard,” Jindal told the pastors. “This was the Son of God, and he had died for our sins.”

Jindal’s session with the Christian clergy, who lead congregations in the early presidential battleground states of Iowa and South Carolina, was part of a behind-the-scenes effort by the Louisiana governor to find a political base that could help propel him into the top tier of Republican candidates seeking to run for the White House in 2016.

The angle that tmatt suggested for a post: the lack of a liberal viewpoint in the 1,200-word report. That’s certainly a different twist for GetReligion, which often takes issue with the lack of conservative or right-leaning voices in mainstream news accounts. So I called dibs.

The only problem: After reading and reflecting on the Post story, I’m not so certain that I agree with that criticism. (Hashtag: #awkward.)

From my perspective — and as the headline itself points out — this is a story about Jindal trying to “woo (the) GOP base.” Are liberals really part of the GOP base? And more specifically, it’s about a dinner with a dozen politically active pastors from two battleground states. Are any of these pastors liberals? Based on reading the rest of the story, I doubt it.

So, it seems perfectly logical to me that all of the pastors quoted are conservative evangelicals:

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There he goes, there (Bill Keller) goes again …

In light of the latest newsroom drama at The New York Times, let’s pause and reflect once again on why it matters so much who leads America’s most influential news institution.

I know that it only seems like yesterday that editor Jill Abramson was the new boss and we were trying to gauge how that would change the whole theology of journalism at the Times, so soon after the fascinatingly candid (you knew this was coming) remarks on religion, culture and the press by former editor Bill Keller. More on that in a minute.

Now Abramson is out and her top deputy has taken the top chair. Dean Baquet — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of The Los Angeles Times — now serves as another historic figure in the newspaper’s history, as it’s first African-American executive editor. In a press release (questions were apparently not welcomed in this newsroom session), he remarked:

“It is an honor to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that is actually better than it was a generation ago, one that approaches the world with wonder and ambition every day,” he said in a news release.

The Times is certainly better at some things than it used to be, especially in multi-platform journalism. However, many will still debate whether it remains a traditional newspaper or has evolved, on many subjects, into a neo-European advocacy publication.

Some of the best quotes on this matter have, ironically, been printed in the Times — under the bylines of various public editors. I still think Arthur S. Brisbane’s 2012 farewell included some of the best material, from a GetReligion point of view:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Does some of that sound familiar?

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NYTimes leans to the right in Christian legal profile?

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No, the “socially liberal” New York Times didn’t lean all the way to the right.

But it’s difficult to imagine a conservative Christian legal organization receiving fairer, more serious coverage than the Alliance Defending Freedom did in Monday’s newspaper.

With the headline “Legal Alliance Gains Host of Court Victories for Conservative Christian Movement,” the Times used the group’s major Supreme Court victory last week in the Town of Greece, N.Y., prayer case as a timely news peg:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Alan Sears, who has run the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom since its founding 20 years ago, turned to a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office here and noted the decades of blood and tears it took to abolish slavery.

“I think there is no question that one day, this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Sears, a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department.

The comparison may or may not prove apt, but these are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.

A meaty section of the story highlights the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Christian roots:

Alliance Defending Freedom was created by Christian leaders including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James C. Dobson Jr., the founder of Focus on the Family. In the early 1990s the groups had watched with growing dismay as secular groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used the courts to ban school prayer and advance abortion rights even as an emerging gay-rights movement threatened, in their view, to upend the country’s social values.

“People of faith were being outgunned in court,” said Mr. Sears, 62, a Roman Catholic in an organization populated with evangelical Protestants. So the group — then called the Alliance Defense Fund — was founded to foster Christian legal firepower.

The new Christian lawyers have proved to be sophisticated litigants in court, wielding constitutional arguments without invoking religion. But outside the courtroom, the group has provoked the enmity of gay-rights advocates, in particular, by expressing harsh views such as those in a book Mr. Sears co-wrote in 2003, “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” It describes gay people as “trapped” and gay-rights advocates as bent on creating a nation of “broken families and broken lives.”

I was pleased that the Times contrasted Sears’ Catholic background with the prevalence of evangelical attorneys. That detail intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about that dynamic and how, if at all, it plays into the group’s culture and approach. Alas, the Times story ran only 1,200 words. Granted, that’s a full-length novel by concerning new Associated Press standards, but it’s hardly enough space to cover every angle or conceivable question.

Later in the piece, the Times provides more interesting background:

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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

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Pod people: Reindeers and the quest for nonsectarian prayer

So why, you ask, is that generic civic Christmas scene on top of this GetReligion post as the temperatures in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area finally begin to show signs of real summer baseball weather? I am assuming that, at this point, we have seen our last snow flurries in these parts.

I’ll come back to the reindeer in a minute. Trust me, there is a logical connection between that image and the subject material in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which as usual is a joint production of the GetReligionistas and host Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc. Click here to listen in.

For now, click pause on your reflections on years of the “reindeer wars,” which is actually one of the busiest fronts in America’s lively “Christmas Wars.” I want you to picture another church-state battlefield.

Let’s pretend that it is 10 minutes before a meeting of a government body in some typical American setting, perhaps even a place with a name like Town of Greece or what have you.

On this night there is an issue before this government body — perhaps a zoning question affecting a booming evangelical megachurch — that is special relevance to religious institutions of all kinds, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, etc., etc. So there are going to be lots of different kinds of religious believers present. Atheists and agnostics are also highly involved in this dispute, stressing that religious groups should not receive special rights.

Now, under the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, this Town of Greece meeting will open with prayer.

Try, try, try to imagine a prayer on this occasion that would please all of the participants. Depending on who is up to bat in the community’s much disputed multi-faith prayer rotation, there are a number of possibilities and let’s keep score. Ready?

Yes, you could have an evangelical pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Who is happy? (Of course, these believers could gather outside on the sidewalk or steps and pray to their hearts content, even out loud, but who wants to settle for that. Right?)

You could have a liberal or traditional Jewish rabbi pray (substitute liberal or Jewish Islamic cleric if you which). Who is happy, including those present from among the traditional and/or liberal bodies in the faith who lost the coin flip?

You could have an agnostic, or a liberal mainline Protestant, or a Unitarian offer a completely nonsectarian prayer that would sound something like this:

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Yes, it’s crucial that Boko Haram kills and tortures Muslims

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Yes, we need to focus on Nigeria and Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden“). Again.

Why? Why keep coming back to the mainstream coverage of this story?

For starters, the scope of the story is only getting bigger with the planned — limited — intervention of the Obama White House in the efforts to find and rescue the 270-plus teen-aged girls who were abducted last month by this terrorist network. Reports about the precise number still being held as slaves and potential forced brides have varied, according to different sources that are trying to determine how many girls have or have not escaped. The vast majority of the girls are Christians, but some are Muslims.

This story has climbed out the obscure back pages dedicated to non-entertaining horrors on the other side of the world and up into the prime ink-and-video terrain noticed by the masses. I also believe that, as this has happened, mainstream journalists have been doing a somewhat better job of dealing with the religious elements of this story. We are past the stage where our most powerful newspaper can say that Boko Haram is doing mysterious things for mysterious reasons while seeking mysterious goals and that is that.

But I still think one crucial element of this story is receiving inadequate coverage. More on that at the end of this post.

To see how the coverage is changing, consider the following background material in a new Los Angeles Times story about the White House involvement:

On Capitol Hill, all 20 women in the Senate signed a letter asking Obama to pressure the United Nations Security Council to acknowledge Boko Haram’s ties to Al Qaeda and to ask the U.N. to consider international sanctions. The group has already been cut off from U.S. financial institutions. …

Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, has a $7-million U.S. bounty on his head. He said in a video that surfaced Monday that God had commanded him to sell women in the market, adding that girls should marry, not go to school. An April report by the International Crisis Group think tank said Boko Haram “has grown more ruthless, violent and destructive” since Shekau became leader in 2009. The group’s fighters are dispersed in northeastern Nigeria and in nearby Cameroon and Niger.

Covering the evidence of connections between this network and Al Qaeda, and the influence of the Taliban, is a step forward in that it recognizes that this is the kind of group that represents a truly radicalized form of Islamism. It allows journalists to place the religious statements by Boko Haram in a specific context.

Next, readers are told:

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Gasp! NYTimes covers the heart of Kennedy’s argument!

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print.

Wait. Say what?

Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

Readers quickly learn some important facts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion. …

Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” …

She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”

The situation in Greece, N.Y., is pretty familiar. Town officials insist that all kinds of people are welcome to line up to give prayers — atheists included — but, as the story notes, in practice “almost all of the chaplains were Christian.” Some believers have even made references to offensive concepts such as Jesus dying on the cross.

This has, of course, offended some citizens who have lawyers.

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