Southern Baptists in brief

religionMapIt’s time to take a trip deep, deep into the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt. You see, with the Iran explosion and a bunch of other major news, I don’t think we made a single reference to coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Louisville.

As anyone knows who has ever covered one, SBC gatherings are big sprawling affairs, even though they are no longer the must-cover events that they were in the 1980s during the civil war for control of America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

When you are there, the daily stories go marching by, from the election of the present to some resolution about this or that political issue. This year, the mainstream press stirred a bit about the Southern Baptists voting to celebrate the election of the nation’s first African-American president, even while stressing the many, repeat many, issues that divide Southern Baptists and President Barack Obama.

As you cover those daily stories, it is often easy to lose sight of the big-picture issues that are looming in the background. Then, if you decide to write about one of these larger stories, it’s hard to crunch it into the small amounts of space that reporters are working with these days.

So let’s pause to celebrate one such effort, by veteran scribe Bob Smietana of the Tennessean in Nashville, home of the SBC headquarters that many call the “Baptist Vatican.” I know, I know, that nickname makes no sense in terms of church polity, but relax.

In the middle of a feature about the convention, Smietana dove into a very complex subject — which is why the Southern Baptists, after decades of growth, have finally suffered some slight membership declines. This, of course, stands in contrast to the demographic earthquake that has hit the “Seven Sisters” of liberal Protestantism. If you are interested in a longer, insider’s take on this SBC issue, see these two essays — here and here — by Will Hall, the head of Baptist Press.

But here is the heart of Smietana’s crisp mini-look at this huge subject:

Three major factors derailed the Southern Baptist system.

First, the birth rate among white Americans fell. That was a problem because most Southern Baptists are white and because they found most of their converts among their children. …

Second, Americans moved from rural areas into cities and suburbs. That’s a problem because almost half of Southern Baptist churches are in rural areas. And Baptists have, until recently, started few new urban churches. Hall disagrees with some critics who think the decline in membership and baptisms is a spiritual problem.

“The problem is not a lack of evangelistic fervor,” he said. “It’s location, location, location.”

The third factor? New churches that don’t act like Southern Baptist churches. Those churches have often exchanged their choirs for rock bands, met in nontraditional places, and have preachers who dress casually and give edgy sermons. And many new churches also have dropped Baptist from their names as denominational loyalty fell.

Now there is a lot going on in there and, yes, there’s a lot more that could be said. The keys, however, are the hard facts about demographics and the reality of the post-denominational age. However, when I was reading up on the decline issue — I plan to write on it myself, sooner or later — one thing stuck out.

When it comes to racial diversity, Southern Baptists are actually seeing a tremendous amount of success. Mainline church leaders may struggle to grasp this, but the most ethnically diverse churches in America are found in these three bodies — the Roman Catholic Church, the Assemblies of God and, yes, the Southern Baptist Convention.

The SBC has been opening many Hispanic and African-American congregations and seeing increases in its ethnically mixed congregations. The Tennessean article notes:

There are signs that the Southern Baptist Convention may be able to reverse its decline. From 1998 to 2007, the number of ethnic minorities in the faith doubled, to 8 percent.

In other words, they have had success — but not enough. Southern Baptists are not keeping up with the rising tide of ethnic diversity in modern America, even though they are doing better than most other denominations. That’s the largest of the larger realities, especially when combined with the issue of declining white birth rates.

This is a very big story. I hope the Tennessean lets Bob return to it and dig much, much deeper.

Print Friendly

The wounded soul of Michael

THRILLER25---Zombie-COVER-ART-724914It will take time for mainstream reporters to find the thread that connects the young Michael Jackson, going door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, to the otherwordly middle-aged man who, after two decades of personal crisis, allegedly converted to Islam, like his brother Jermaine.

To one degree or another, the faith issue will have to surface during his funeral and in other memorial services. Over at the Examiner‘s entertainment site, columnist Michael Essany has a throw-away blurb entitled “Was Michael Jackson religious?” that asks a question or two, but offers zippo in terms of facts or links to information.

Although widely regarded to be “deeply spiritual,” Michael was not overtly religious in the sense that he was an active public worshiper, as one pop culture analyst weighed in.

In 2006, Jackson generated some controversy when he reportedly flirted with “converting to Islam” after pledging to erect a mosque in his adopted home of Bahrain. The Thriller hitmaker earned planning permission to construct a ten-story building just outside Manama on land adjoining the palace of the Bahraini royal family.

Meanwhile, in the mainstream press, the Washington Post has one of the only quotes that comes anywhere near engaging this issue, with a quote from Jermaine (video here) that is left completely unexplained:

Mr. Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, told reporters that “it is believed [Mr. Jackson] suffered cardiac arrest” and that the star’s personal physician had tried to revive him. Jermaine Jackson then asked for something his family is unlikely to get in the next several days: privacy. “And may Allah be with you, Michael, always,” he said.

If you head into the global cyberworld of non-brand-name “journalism” that cites names and dates, while providing nothing in the way of on-the-record material for sourcing, you can find reactions in the wider Muslim world that assumes that Michael did, in fact, take on a new name and a new eternal identity. Here is one report from a “citizen journalism” site in India:

New Delhi – With the most untimely demise of arguably the all time greatest pop singer Micheal Jackson turned Mikaeel, a question is being asked in the Islamic world whether he would be buried according to Islamic rites. Given the fact that he embraced Islam, he has to be buried according Islamic way. …

The singer converted to Islam in a ceremony at a friend’s house in Los Angeles on last November 21. He is said to have sat on the floor and worn a small hat while an Imam of a local mosque officiated. An Imam was summoned from the mosque and Michael went through the “Shahada”, which is the Muslim declaration of belief.

It is, of course, hard to know what to make of a “news” report that includes phrases such as “is being asked” and “He is said to have sat,” etc. Passive voice is the enemy of precision.

However, the online essay by Vivek Shukla goes on to interview real people and ask some real questions, the kinds of questions that are sure to surface in the next few days as mainstream journalists prepare for, and cover, the funeral of the mysterious superstar.

On the issue of his burial according to Islamic ways, Islamic scholar and thinker Umer Ilyasi said that other than washing the body and the burial, the actual ritual that is performed with regard to the death of a Muslim, and the obligation of the community with regard to that death is Salat al-Janazah. If Michael Jackson was a Muslim, Salat al-Janazah has to be performed for him.

However, it is not at all unusual especially among Black American converts to be some kind of mixed service, as different family members may wish to have a Christian service or have their pastor preside over a service for their deceased family member.

That sounds logical, even if the funeral simply involves statements and prayers by Jermaine, as well as other members of the family.

The New York Times does deal, openly, with the last and strangest period of Jackson’s life — when his financial struggles did lead him to the Muslim world seeking funding for his struggling career, if nothing else.

michael-jackson-in-a-veil-in-bahrainThis was, of course, a very strange place to flee after being on trial for the sexual molestation of young boys.

After his trial, Mr. Jackson largely left the United States for Bahrain, the island nation in the Persian Gulf, where he was the guest of Sheik Abdullah, a son of the ruler of the country, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Mr. Jackson would never return to live at his ranch. Instead he remained in Bahrain, Dubai and Ireland for the next several years, managing his increasingly unstable finances. He remained an avid shopper, however, and was spotted at shopping malls in the black robes and veils traditionally worn by Bahraini women.

Despite the public relations blow of his trial, Mr. Jackson and his ever-changing retinue of managers, lawyers and advisers never stopped plotting his return.

So what does this add up to, in a tragic life that begins with — Jackson said — years of physical abuse as a child, followed by years under the knife of doctors, lawyers, psychologists and paparazzi? There is a religion ghost here, or two. But does that mean that there is a religion thread throughout this troubled life, other than yearning and confusion?

The lead story in the Washington Post says it all:

For all his impact on popular music, Mr. Jackson’s life seemed to play out as a metaphor on the delusions and cruelty of fame. He was unlucky in the art of public relations, and sometimes he was just unlucky, as when pyrotechnics set his hair on fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial.

Other misfortunes he seemed to bring on himself — and theories about his behavior were never in short supply. People loved to think they had cracked the mystery of Michael: He wanted his face to resemble Liz Taylor’s. He hated his appearance because his father and brothers used to tease him. He was repressed, he was asexual, he was an addict, he was a pervert, he was from outer space, he was a genius, he was stupid, he was insane. The truth was never known and Jackson recoiled from media scrutiny, and largely thwarted the assistance of image experts, who displeased him.

Stay tuned. It is the understatement of the year to say that, well, the media frenzy is starting something.

Print Friendly

Hearing the voices on the Metro

715px-Rolling_stock,_open_door_-_Metro_CenterOne of the doctrines of this weblog is that to understand how ordinary people live their lives, journalists need to “get religion.” You don’t have to force faith into these stories. In most cases, it’s already there.

This has certainly been true the last few days here in the District of Columbia, where residents and commuters have been dealing with the worst crash in the history of the Metro subway system that binds together our common life inside the Beltway.

Actually, the Metro is what links the places of power in this region, while it is the city’s buses that link the neighborhoods. You don’t have to live here long before you realize that “Washington” rides the Metro, while “DC” rides the buses. I know that there are overtones of race and class in that statement, but it’s true. At the same time, it is true that the Metro brings together a wide variety of people in one rushed, crowded, remarkable space.

This morning, a giant team of Washington Post reporters and editors assembled what can only be called a magisterial news feature on the nine victims — alas, there may be more — of the mysterious Red Line crash the other night at rush hour. This train was headed into town, instead of out to the suburbs, or it would have been even more crowded. Here’s the opening of the report:

The people who stepped on Metro’s Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation’s capital so compelling: a military general, a Bible school teacher, single moms balancing work and children. It was during that common gray space of their day, while they passed the time reading a book or fighting the urge to sleep, that a single event united nine of those diverse people in a common tragic fate. …

At a memorial service yesterday at the transit agency, someone read Psalm 23. A black cloth was draped over the Metro symbol. People prayed for those whose life stories unfolded before them. Ana Fernandez, the woman who left behind so many children. LaVonda “Nikki” King, an aspiring beautician.

“It’s a common bond. Everybody at some point uses Metro,” said Phillip Barrett Jr., who paused to remember those who died. “Everybody was going about their everyday routine. Then this happened.”

Faith details dot these story, as they should. But these details are not spotlighted and there are many other poignant details of human life that fall into place next to the Godtalk. Faith is very human and this is what it looks like when you meet it on the sidewalk:

Scores of children in different parts of the District were affected by the loss of Dennis Hawkins, 64, of Washington. Hawkins had no children of his own, but he was beloved by kids at the school where he worked and in the church where he taught, friends and relatives said. He was on his way from work at Whittier Education Center in Northwest Washington to teach vacation Bible school in Ivy City when he was killed in the crash.

A family friend, Christina Cobb, 23, was sitting in her Bowie bedroom early on Monday evening, chatting with a girlfriend on the telephone, when she heard the call waiting signal. It was her aunt. “Chrissy? Hi, it’s Aunt Dora. Where’s your mom?” Cobb recalled. Cobb, who works at a consulting firm, got up from her bedroom, sensing her aunt’s urgent tone, and headed toward her mother’s bedroom down the hallway.

“She said, ‘Dennis was on the train. Dennis Hawkins,’ ” Cobb said. Then she asked her aunt if he was okay. “She said, ‘No. He was one of the fatalities.’ That’s when I dropped to the floor.”

Members of Bethesda Baptist Church waited and waited for their Bible school teacher to arrive Monday night. Cobb’s grandmother was enrolled. Finally, word from Hawkins’s family reached a church official. And they began to mourn.

When I first moved to the Washington area to work on Capitol Hill, a decade ago, I rode the Orange line east into Maryland every night at rush hour — through some very rough neighborhoods and out into middle- and lower-middle-class suburbs. I now ride a regular-rail MARC commuter train up to the south side of Baltimore every day.

800px-Washington_DC_Metro_in_carI soaked in the sights and sounds of Metro life, in large part because I have always been fascinated with the communities formed by mass transit (dating back to my newspaper and graduate school days on the great bus system in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.). One night, I witnessed a very unusual event that pulled it all together for me. With the encouragement of a close friend at the Post, I pitched a first-person piece about the experience to the Style section.

Well, there was just too much religion in the essay for their tastes. I ended up editing the essay way down, to become a rare first-person column for Scripps Howard. My archived copy of the full-length piece died a few years ago when a Sasser virus nailed the last Windows computer I will ever own. So here is the start of that Scripps column. If “Just another voice on the Metro” hits home, make sure that you read to the part about the Bibles:

The elderly black woman began preaching moments after the train left the Capitol South subway station.

“Praise the Lord. It’s a good day,” she said, starting a 20-minute sermon as her rush-hour congregation rolled toward the Maryland suburbs.

Her voice was calm, strong and serious. She was carrying a cane and, I wouldn’t dare make this up this detail, a fragrant box of spicy fried chicken. I didn’t take precise notes, but what follows is real close to what she said. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher and I have a knack for remembering sermons.

“God’s grace is real, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep on sinning and sinning and sinning,” she said, gazing straight ahead. “God is watching all the time. God sees all of you. … Our God is a Holy God.”

People kept their eyes down, reading their newspapers and paperbacks. A young black woman across the aisle giggled. “Oh no, it’s church,” she whispered to a friend. New riders glanced around in surprise, as they boarded the crowded car. But no one challenged the preacher or asked her to stop.

It may sound strange, but the Metro is a very good place to pray. Right now, I urge you to pray for the people who work and ride on the Metro, day after day.

Print Friendly

A crazy, racist man

holocaustAs the mainstream media devote significant coverage to the shooting of a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum by an 88-year-old white supremacist, we’re seeing attempts to define his motivation and categorize his thinking. He is a white supremacist mostly known for his hatred toward Jews and blacks. He is in the sector of white supremacists who are anti-Christian. He’s a “birther” — one of those people who believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. But he’s also a “truther” — one of those people who believe that former President George W. Bush planned the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was imprisoned for trying to kidnap board members of the Federal Reserve. There are many other interesting tidbits — he had allegedly targeted the conservative Weekly Standard offices, is a socialist, a eugenicist, etc.

It’s important for the media to investigate all of these things and James Von Brunn’s prolific internet ranting and raving make it easy to read and summarize his hateful and confused thoughts. And while the pundits have been on their worst behavior, in my view, trying to take advantage of the shooting to gain political points, many in the mainstream media have done a good job (certainly not all) of just laying the facts out there.

CNN had a lengthy story that took readers through the various online postings attributed to von Brunn. There was this bit of interesting color about von Brunn, who is an artist:

But Jesse Demolli, who once exhibited some of von Brunn’s paintings in his Maryland art gallery, said he was not surprised by the news.

“He was crazy. He was a lunatic. He was scary as hell,” Demolli told CNN affiliate Bay News 9 in Tampa, Florida.

He said about eight years ago, another gallery referred von Brunn to him. Demolli said von Brunn’s paintings consisted largely of portraits of Native Americans. He hung about a dozen of the works for about three days, and said von Brunn called every day to find out whether anything had sold.

After three days, he said, von Brunn accused him of not doing enough to sell the paintings, telling him he “really needed money.” Demolli said he gave the man $20, which he immediately used to buy beer and cigarettes and returned to the gallery, where he quickly began to disparage residents of the surrounding neighborhood, which was largely African-American.

“Then he started talking about the gas chambers, and I said, ‘Jim, that’s it. That’s it. Time out.’ I told him to get out of my gallery, and I started taking his paintings down,” Demolli said. As he removed the last painting, he said, von Brunn opened his jacket to show him a pistol.

“He said he really liked me and today is my lucky day, and he left,” Demolli said. “He was a crazy, racist man.”

There are quite a few other first-hand descriptions of the man from people who knew him well. The story ended by noting von Brunn’s opposition to Christianity, a detail that hasn’t been mentioned in many other stories:

Postings attributed to him on other Web sites declared both Christianity and the Holocaust “hoaxes,” and announced that “Hitler’s worst mistake” was “he didn’t gas the Jews.”

All of the violent acts we’ve seen in recent weeks might also have a mental illness component, something that has been woefully undercovered for each. And whether it’s diagnosed or not, I would hope that most people would see that this idiot’s views are beyond the fringe. They don’t tell us much about mainstream thinking among liberals or conservative, religious or irreligious. But if we’re going to have political grandstanding that capitalizes on such murders but if it’s going to be done, we can ask the mainstream media to get all the facts out there.

Print Friendly

Another political shooting

religion-and-politicsI keep wondering why people who seem so interested in killing Jews also deny that they were killed in the Holocaust. The latest example is this 88-year-old white supremacist who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The Associated Press‘ Brett Zongker and Calvin Woodward had a thorough story with information about the crime:

Guard Stephen T. Johns was shot to death Wednesday by Holocaust denier James von Brunn, who left his car outside an entrance to the museum and walked in holding a rifle at his side, District Police Chief Cathy Lanier said at a news conference.

Von Brunn started shooting immediately, exchanging fire with two other guards who shot and critically injured him, Lanier said.

In his car, officers found a notebook with a handwritten note that read, “You want my weapons — this is how you’ll get them. The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews,” according to a court affidavit.

Von Brunn’s rants ranged far and wide but hatred of Jews seemed to be the focus. The AP story mentions his failed 1981 attempt to kidnap Federal Reserve board members, for which he served time in prison.

The reader who submitted the story highlighted the end, which related the shooting to the other recent shootings in the news:

The attack was the third unsettling shooting that appeared to have political underpinnings.

A 23-year-old Army private, William Andrew Long, was shot and killed outside a recruiting office this month in Arkansas and a fellow soldier wounded. The suspect, a Muslim convert, has said he considers the killing justified because of the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

Late last month, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot to death in his church. The man accused of killing him is a longtime vocal opponent of abortion.

The reader thought it interesting that each of the shootings has a religious angle but that they’re summed up as having “political underpinnings.” While it’s obviously true that each of these killings is political, we should make sure the religious components aren’t downplayed. Of course, politics and religion aren’t as easily separated as we make them out to be sometimes.

Print Friendly

Whose life is newsworthy?

apples_to_applesYesterday an elderly white supremacist shot and killed a private security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The horrible act comes on the heels of the murder of an American soldier at a military recruiting center, which itself came on the heels of the murder of late-term abortion doctor George Tiller.

Each of the alleged murderers had different motives. While we’ll learn more about the Holocaust Museum shooter, I’m glad tmatt highlighted that Associated Press story on the man charged with killing Private William Andrew Long, the army recruiter.

We had previously discussed the disparity in coverage between the murders of Tiller and Long and Alicia Shephard, the ombudsman for National Public Radio, wrote about it as well in a provocative post titled Whose Life is More Newsworthy?:

Some listeners last week were concerned that NPR had done 8 stories or segments on air about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a well-known Kansas doctor who performed abortions, and none on the murder of Army Pvt. William Long, 23.

While I certainly think Tiller’s assassination is more newsworthy than Private Long’s murder, eight to zero is a pretty significant disparity. NPR Managing Editor David Sweeney explained:

“The fact we gave more coverage to the killing of Tiller doesn’t diminish the value of Long’s life,” said Sweeney. “But Tiller was a national figure given his practice and the attention he drew from abortion opponents. His killing has wider implications for the emotive debate on abortion on this country and we have covered those angles in reporting his death.”

If I were an NPR editor, I would defend covering Tiller’s assassination more than Long’s. However, both stories have wide implications. As does the murder of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard gunned down yesterday. Even though he’s not a national figure, I would hope NPR would cover his death and, I imagine, they already have. It will be interesting to see how the coverage of Johns’ death compares with Long’s.

Print Friendly

Hard questions; important answers

jail-bars-iconAs any reporter knows, it’s hard to write a story about the beliefs of an individual, let alone the motives of a killer, if you are not able to talk to the person.

In this case, we’re talking about Abdulhakim Muhammad, the man charged with killing an American soldier at that Little Rock, Ark., U.S. Army recruiting station. Your GetReligionistas — along with a few other people — wanted to know more about the gunman’s religious background, which seemed to be drawing little MSM attention in comparison with that of the anti-abortion activist who gunned down George Tiller.

Now the Associated Press has written the background story (in this case, it is on the New York Times website). Why? The answer to that one is pretty simple:

The Associated Press sent an interview request to Muhammad last week, before a judge ordered parties in the case to remain quiet. After Tuesday’s interview, Muhammad’s lawyer Jim Hensley sent an e-mail to the AP asking it to withhold his client’s remarks.

AP declined to do that, thus we get to hear controversial answers to controversial questions — in this case, straight from the mouth of the Muhammad. One thing is clear: Religion plays a major role in this story.

The lede sets the context:

A Muslim convert charged with fatally shooting an American soldier at a military recruiting center said … that he doesn’t consider the killing a murder because U.S. military action in the Middle East made the killing justified.

”I do feel I’m not guilty,” Abdulhakim Muhammad told The Associated Press in a collect call from the Pulaski County jail. ”I don’t think it was murder, because murder is when a person kills another person without justified reason.”

And later:

”Yes, I did tell the police upon my arrest that this was an act of retaliation, and not a reaction on the soldiers personally,” Muhammad said. He called it ”a act, for the sake of God, for the sake of Allah, the Lord of all the world, and also a retaliation on U.S. military.”

In the interview, Muhammad also disputed his lawyer’s claim that he had been ”radicalized” in a Yemeni prison and said fellow prisoners that some call terrorists were actually ”very good Muslim brothers.” He also said he didn’t specifically plan the shootings that morning. …

Muhammad, 23, said he wanted revenge for claims that American military personnel had desecrated copies of the Quran and killed or raped Muslims. ”For this reason, no Muslim, male or female, sane or insane, little, big, small, old can accept or tolerate,” he said. He said the U.S. military would never treat Christians and their Scriptures in the same manner.

”U.S. soldiers are killing innocent Muslim men and women. We believe that we have to strike back. We believe in eye for an eye. We don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” he said.

Now there are more details, including more evidence of a clash between the gunman and his lawyer over the circumstances of his conversion and, specifically, whether he had been tortured while in that Yemeni prison.

But here is another crucial point. This is one man. One convert. One Muslim.

It’s clear that the AP is looking for connections to other people, and it also seems that the leaders at the local mosque are cooperating with investigators. The faithful there say that Muhammad — who was relatively new in town — was not active in their congregation.

So we have answers to some questions, but not all. This is what journalism does — it is a process. Reporters need to keep asking questions about this shooting and the Tiller shooting. That’s how readers get new information. Right?

Print Friendly

Sotomayor? Probably a “majority” Catholic

sonia_sotomayor_4_smiling_with_her_motherOver the past week, GetReligion has been pursuing this question: What is the mainstream press saying about where Judge Sonia Sotomayor falls in the spectrum of Catholic life and practice? Well, New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein has been researching this for all of the curious minds who read that newspaper (not to mention GR readers), and here’s what she has found out:

Four of the Catholics on the court are reported to be committed attenders of Mass, and they make up the court’s solid conservative bloc — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. The fifth Catholic, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often votes with them.

There are indications that Judge Sotomayor is more like the majority of American Catholics: those who were raised in the faith and shaped by its values, but who do not attend Mass regularly and are not particularly active in religious life. Like many Americans, Judge Sotomayor may be what religion scholars call a “cultural Catholic” — a category that could say something about her political and social attitudes.

First of all, we’re pleased as punch that Goodstein has tackled this question. It’s long been clear that conservative Catholics vote along conservative lines — so the fact that the mass–attending Justices generally trend reliably conservative should not shock anyone. As Terry said in a previous post, the hinge issue is abortion. Is there any way of predicting by her church attendance (and Goodstein has done her homework here) how Sotomayor would vote on abortion-related, or “right to privacy” cases that come before the court?

Franklly, it’s unwise to predict how anyone would vote, even if you think you know. Purely my opinion, but confirmation processes have now become a charade, where aspiring Justices say as little as possible without totally compromising their integrity. Yet it seems clear that piety (if one can judge piety by church attendance, which is a whole other debate) is a factor, if not a totally understood factor, in where one falls on the spectrum of liberal-conservative opinion (as in this poll on the Notre-Dame controversy). Here’s some interesting stats on a few social issues culled by Goodstein.

In fact, 52 percent of Catholics who do not attend church regularly say abortion is morally acceptable, compared with 24 percent of churchgoing Catholics, according to a Gallup study released in March based on polling over the previous three years. Gallup found that 61 percent of non-churchgoing Catholics found same-sex relationships morally acceptable, compared with 44 percent of churchgoers.

But legal scholars say that while Judge Sotomayor’s Catholic identity will undoubtedly shape her perceptions, they will not determine how she would rule on the bench. After all, they point out, Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Frank Murphy, both Catholics, had records as liberals, while Justice Scalia has been a reliable conservative. Their positions have differed, even on issues covered in Catholic teaching, like abortion.

That’s a fascinating stat on same-sex relationships — anyone want to guess what it means? Actually, let’s start with the term “morally acceptable.”

Then there is the whole issue of whether Judge Sotomayor’s ‘Catholic identity’ was shaped by her Hispanic roots. She has talked about being proud of her Latina heritage — did she spend any time with the more than one-half (in this 2007 Pew poll) of Hispanic Catholics who identify themselves as charismatic? There’s no evidence here that she did. And there’s really no way of predicting yet how Sotomayor will vote — with the exception of the Ricci affirmative action case recently argued before the Supreme Court, she doesn’t have a huge paper trail on hot button issues. Generally picks for the Supreme Court don’t.

As much as I liked the Goodstein article, I had a few problems with it. Characterizing Anthony Kennedy (as Professor Powe does) as a “country club Republican” says nothing about his Catholic identity. Nor does telling us that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are Jewish or that Stevens is a Protestant illuminate anything about how their faith and/or culture shapes their decisions. Aren’t you curious about them, too?

But here’s what I want to know — is it possible that “cultural Catholics” aren’t much different than the majority of Americans as a whole? If Sotomayor doesn’t go to church very often, then she’s like most of the rest of us. Does terming someone a “cultural Catholic” in an age of ethnic diversity and diversity of practice really mean a whole heck of a lot anymore? The vague definition here (a commitment to social justice and community service) could as well be applied to Quakers.

In the end, of course, it comes down to what one woman with a Catholic heritage believes — and as excellent a reporter as Goodstein is, she hasn’t been able to get inside Sotomayor’s head. Which won’t keep a lot of other people from trying.

Isn’t this a nice picture of Sotomayor with her mother (Wikimedia Commons)?

Print Friendly