NYT: The Obamas and Christmas (no church)

Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes. It’s a federal holiday as well as a religious observance, so it’s understandable that any president of the United States, regardless of faith, would take the day off. At the same time, most every POTUS has been a Christian of one stripe or another (questions exist about Jefferson and Lincoln, but that’s for another time).

President Barack Obama professes Christian faith as well, something noted here just the other day.

But personal faith and public (or semi-public) practice are often two different things. Ronald Reagan’s non-attendance at church (not to mention his wife’s reported dabblings in astrology) drew barbs from some political opponents and pundits. George W. Bush often hosted worship services at Camp David but was not a frequent churchgoer when in Washington. (That said, Bush averaged 15 visits to churches each year, versus 3.6 per annum for Obama.)

The New York Times caught this, and jumps in on what the president did — and didn’t — do during his current, Christmastide sojourn in Hawaii:

HONOLULU — President Obama celebrated a low-key Christmas in Hawaii this year. He sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base to wish the troops “Mele Kalikimaka” — the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.”

But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.

“He has not gone to church, hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.

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LATimes: ‘Congregationalist’ Obama quotes Pope Francis

This is what passes for news in Washington these days: an immensely famous politician is having a speech prepared and instructs their speechwriters to quote another immensely famous person, because immensely famous person No. 2 says some things immensely famous person No. 1 likes.

Except, it turns out, when immensely famous person No. 1 actually disagrees with immensely famous person No. 2.

What it is the kids say? Oh, yes: “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

Sorry to be so arch so soon after Christmas, but that’s how I felt after even a casual reading of The Los Angeles Times‘ nearly breathless report on President Obama quoting some of Pope Francis’ recent comments about income inequality.

If, in the recent near-deluge of reporting on the HealthCare.gov rollout you’re longing for a straight shot of fawning press coverage of the president circa 2009, I believe I found your “fix” — at least at the start of this report. (The admiration fizzles towards the end.) Read this:

WASHINGTON – When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.

The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.

Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.

White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.

“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.”

Yes, there’s a lot on this pope’s mind, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. Let’s go back to something that seems to have glided by editors at The Los Angeles Times: “Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.”

I’ve never worked in The White House and can’t really judge how a president should or shouldn’t act, but is it really unheard of for a POTUS to at least schedule a phone conversation with a pontiff once said pontiff is elected? Vatican City is a “state” with which the United States has diplomatic relations, and Pope Francis is the chief executive of that state. Yet Obama has never spoken with him? Not even after both men became Time‘s “Person of the Year”?

Then again, perhaps there are some elements of Francis’ message that might make such a conversation a bit awkward, such as a politician treating the pope’s worldview as a buffet: sample this, but don’t touch the other. To its credit, the Times captures this, albeit with the seemingly requisite snark towards Obama’s GOP predecessors, (leaving one to imagine that Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton were perhaps soulmates):

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Duck czar: World-class sinner who has been there, done that

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A long, long time ago — pre-World Wide Web — I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service (RIP) and The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) that tried to explain why a very charismatic evangelical leader of national renown insisted on saying that homosexual acts were sinful.

The leader was University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney, who went on to lead the national Promise Keepers movement. During a 1992 press conference, he was asked about his links to Colorado for Family Values, a network that had taken conservative stands on issues linked to homosexuality (specifically whether homosexuals should be granted special group-status protection, equal to race and gender, under civil rights laws).

The coach was wearing a shirt with a CU logo. Later, he acknowledged that he was wrong to have answered this question while wearing that shirt. Nevertheless, he responded by saying — in part — that homosexuality was “an abomination of almighty God.”

Reactions were rather intense in the city that Colorado folks have long called “The People’s Republic of Boulder.” A Chicago Tribune piece at that time noted:

BOULDER, COLO. – The peace of the Colorado campus, in all its winter splendor, was shattered last February by the sudden appearance of handbills with side-by-side pictures of Adolf Hitler and Bill McCartney, the school’s football coach.

Underneath the pictures were the words, “Twins, separated at birth.”

As you would expect, McCartney’s use of “abomination” language quickly evolved into claims that he was, for example, a bigot who would apply Old Testament punishments (references to stones were popular) to homosexuals and others whose actions he condemned.

McCartney was also quoted as saying: “I did nothing more than call a sin a sin.”

What was missing from the coverage? Well, for starters, people missed that McCartney was well aware that Leviticus 18 called a number of sins “abominations” and the coach, himself, consistently referred to racism as an “abomination” before God.

Most importantly, I kept reminding other journalists, McCartney had — in the press conference that started it all — stated that “my own sins” are an abomination before God and just as horrible as the sins of anyone else. However, he was clearly saying that homosexual acts were sinful and as sinful as x, y and z in any biblical list of sinful behaviors.

What he said was clearly offensive. However, I argued that it was crucial to stress that it wasn’t fair or, in the best sense of the word, “accurate” to give readers the impression that McCartney had singled gays out for unique censure and had, in fact, stressed that his own sins were just as abominable to God. The coach stressed that he was a sinner in the eyes of God and needed to repent and be forgiven, just like everybody else.

McCartney’s words were, of course, offensive to many readers no matter how they were parsed. People had every right to protest. However, I argued, if anyone actually wanted to understand what the coach had said they would need to see his words in context, including his judgments on his own sins.

This brings us, of course, to Phil Robertson and his coarse, offensive and highly anti-evangelical (in the sense of serving as effective evangelism) GQ words on homosexual behavior.

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Paparazzi snap model in church, model snaps back

Instagram photo posted by Cara Delevingne

Can’t a Victoria’s Secret angel slip into a pew without being photographed from the altar?

It would seem not, as UK catwalk sensation Cara Delevingne lamented her loss of privacy Thursday on Instagram by sharing an image of two men with camera gear trailing her inside a Florence, Italy, church.

The Los Angeles Times cobbled together a story for its entertainment section (the standing feature is called Ministry of Gossip, the Gospel on Celebrity and Pop Culture, which I think is funny).

Delevingne, minus her wings, was taking a break from filming the drama (get this) “The Face of an Angel” to visit an unnamed house of worship when she called foul on the photographers, the Times said.

All would have been fine if that’s where the brief had ended. But the Times asked questions it didn’t answer:

Social media-savvy Delevingne was the most Googled fashion figure in the U.K. in 2013, according to the Telegraph, so demand for photos of the Engish “It” girl is not surprising. But do they really need to be in a church? (It’s unclear if the model was sightseeing or praying.)

We have at least three unanswered questions, by my count.

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AP skirts key element of ‘tips for Jesus’ story

As anyone who’s done it can testify — or, to be candid, so I’ve heard — waitering is a tough job. People are rude, hours are long, and wages are often sub-sub-minimum wage, all in the hope of getting some tips. Thus it ever has been, apparently, and thus it ever shall be.

Or, shall it? Someone, the Associated Press informs us, is running around leaving massive, and verified, “Tips for Jesus” on restaurant charge slips:

NEW YORK — The $111.05 New York restaurant receipt includes a $1,000 tip and the words “god bless!” scrawled across it.

The handle @tipsforjesus is stamped next to an illegible signature.

In recent weeks, similar tabs have popped up in restaurants from coast to coast and even in Mexico, with tips of as much as $10,000 — all charged to American Express.

So who’s the anonymous tipster leaving a trail of generosity across the continent?

Tips for Jesus — an Instagram account filled with photos documenting the tips — has more than 50,000 followers. The account displays photos of smiling servers holding receipts with outlandish gratuities on bills also tallied in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Ann Arbor, Mich. On Twitter, Tips for Jesus has nearly 3,000 followers but no tweets.

The Instagram feed comes with the tagline, “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”

Well, that’s made the day for several servers, and good for them. But, there’s something missing here, isn’t there? Let’s look a bit further:

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Pondering duck doctrines and our bubble-bound media elite

Let’s see. Where should we begin on this oh-so-bizarre morning?

What will it be, Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty?

Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty? As my favorite French History professor at Baylor University used to say, with a world-weary and exasperated sigh: “What a world.”

First, let me offer a few relevant confessions on my part.

I would like to echo the following Twitter comment by one of the scribes who often hangs out in my favorite coffee shop here in our neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Yes, this man is a bit of an elite Yankee, but he is what he is. Ross Douthat works for The New York Times. So, sue him.

I’m good to go with all of that, except for the “Merry Christmas” reference — since we are still in Advent, after all. Douthat must be one of those post-Vatican II Catholics (just kidding).

Another confession: I have never watched a single episode of “Duck Dynasty,” although I have tried to do so several times. It’s just not my style. Frankly, when it comes to the masculine virtues I favor Jane Austen’s Captain Frederick Wentworth over the the guys in the duck crew. I also lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years (and plan to live there again someday) and I’ve never even watched a NASCAR race on television. I do, however, like barbecue. A lot. I also like ZZ Top and Eastern Orthodox bishops, so I’m OK with the beards.

There, I needed to get all of that off my chest. Now, I can confess that there is one element of the Duck Dynasty media storm that fascinates me.

Let’s try, for a minute, to ignore duck patriarch Phil Robertson’s reflections on genitalia — although I rather think that if he had rapped that stuff with a strong backbeat, it would have viewed as a kind of elderly Eminem thing. You know, Eminem has to keep his street cred. Elite media folks from places like Harvard and Yale tend to respect street cred way more than they do swamp cred.

No, I want to join the once and always GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway in thinking that the key to this particular duck blind spot is found in this chunk of Robertson GQ prose:

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That mainstream press anti-Catholic ‘Philomena’ pileup

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In the “now I’ve seen everything” category, let’s welcome self-described atheist film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post, now excoriated for defending the Roman Catholic Church, specifically its Irish branch, against “Philomena,” an apparently smarmy new film that applies 21st century scruples to 1952 Ireland.

More than a sentence or two of background is necessary before the media criticism. And, yes, I know that GetReligion rarely if ever digs into the contents of reviews. Trust me, this one is worth it.

The “biopic,” as Hollywood’s press likes to call these things, stars Dame Judi Dench, portraying Philomena Lee, a now-senior citizen from Ireland who, some 60 odd years ago, was pregnant “out of wedlock” as the old saying goes. In Ireland, in the 1950s, being “in a family way” without being married was an express pass to ostracism for both mother and child. Think Hester Prynne on steroids.

Lee finds shelter at the Sean Ross Abbey, run by the Sacred Heart Sisters. As the story goes, Lee signs away the rights to her child, who is plucked from her at age three and packed off to America, long after firm mother-and-child bonds are formed.

Decades later, Lee enlists the help of a real journalist, Martin Sixsmith, apparently down on his professional luck. Together, they trace what happened to the baby she gave up, only to find the son, now named Michael Hess, passed away a few years earlier, a closeted gay man who rose high in Republican U.S. administrations, becoming chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, before tragically dying of AIDS. Ironically, Hess donated money to the Sean Ross Abbey so he could be buried there, in case his estranged birth mother ever sought him.

Smith’s original review doesn’t divulge his own faith background (raised Catholic, he ditched the Church for atheism), but the critic comes out swinging:

The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.

Such criticism apparently didn’t sit well with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose firm is the U.S. distributor for the film. Here’s Smith’s take:

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Joe Jonas unplugged begs for good reporter and editor

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Purity rings, an Assembly of God church breakup, suit-wearing and pew-sitting. Mandatory attendance on Sunday mornings and fulfilling all expectations.

We’ve heard them before, the stories of famous teens-turned-young-adults who grew up as kids of clergy and felt choked by the existence to the point of rebellion: Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Katy Perry, Jessica Simpson to name a few.

Still, the Jonas Brothers brand continues to command attention, with its mainstream fan base and overall wholesome image. And this was a new story and fresh perspective, right?

Not without reporting and good editing, I’m afraid.

Church kid turned Disney mega-star Joe Jonas lifted the lid on his brain and spilled its contents to New York Magazine in a lengthy first-person account of life as a Jonas brother and victim of Christian upbringing.

No format, no careful questions or guidance and definitely no editing. In other words, a tell-all.

In predictable form, the piece has been spliced into stories for news and entertainment outlets across the globe as a sensational peek into the counter-culture existence of a teenage boy who dabbled in sex and drugs along with the rock n’ roll. The version in the Music Times sports the racy headline, “Joe Jonas shares details about religion, sex and smoking weed with Miley Cyrus.”

To some extent, I was used to growing up in public. I was a pastor’s kid, so eyes were always on me, even then. I sat in the first pew of the church, and I had to wear a suit every Sunday, because my parents wanted me to be this role model that I didn’t always want to be. I preferred going to punk-rock shows in small venues in New Jersey, where we grew up, wearing my jean jacket and all my band pins. That’s how I fell in love with music, how I became obsessed with it. I’d stand there, watching the singer running around the stage, owning the crowd. I didn’t even notice whatever else was happening onstage. All I could see was the singer.

But I had certain obligations at that age. If I ever didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, or when I was trying to figure out what religion I wanted to be, or trying to understand spirituality, I would always have to deal with knowing that people were looking up to me. We eventually left our church, Assembly of God, when I was 14. A scandal had erupted involving stolen money, and it caused a big rift in the church. After that the concept of church really upset me for a long time. I mean, I believe in God, and that’s a personal relationship that I have, but I’m not religious in any way.

It’s clear from the content of the piece that Jonas is looking to continue on the path toward full self-disclosure.

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