Young Obama, the state, the unborn

obama2Give credit to Ben Smith and Jeffrey Resner of The Politico. The reporters unearthed a 1990 Harvard Law Review article written by none other than its president, Barack Obama. The story provides an interesting early glimpse into Obama’s thinking about abortion and fetal rights, as the authors explain:

The six-page summary, tucked into the third volume of the year’s Harvard Law Review, considers the charged, if peripheral, question of whether fetuses should be able to file lawsuits against their mothers. Obama’s answer, like most courts’: No. He wrote approvingly of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that the unborn cannot sue their mothers for negligence, and he suggested that allowing fetuses to sue would violate the mother’s rights and could, perversely, cause her to take more risks with her pregnancy.

The subject matter took Obama to the treacherous political landscape of reproductive rights, and — unlike many student authors — he dived eagerly into the policy implications of the court decision. His article acknowledged a public interest in the health of the fetus, but also seemed to demonstrate his continuing commitment to abortion rights, and suggested that the government may have more important concerns than “ensuring that any particular fetus is born.”

Please read the second half of last sentence again. Obama writes that the government should be neutral to the value of prenatal human life or treat it as a secondary interest.

That’s a big statement. I think that the reporters needed to explain or elaborate if possible whether Obama mentioned why he reached this conclusion. Why should the government be value-neutral about pre-natal life, but value-positive about post-natal life?

If Obama never elaborated, which I imagine he did not, the reporters should have said so.

That’s not much to ask — a few baby steps, you might say. In other words, the article needed more Obama on this topic. His words are the story.

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Hammon’s mission to Russia

becky hammonBefore the Olympics wrap up, we must highlight a story that has been covered primarily by newspaper columnists. Becky Hammon, a WNBA player for the San Antonio Silver Stars from South Dakota, signed up to play with the Russian Olympic basketball team after she received a four-year contract worth $2 million to play with one of the country’s professional teams. This meant accepting Russian citizenship, marching into the Olympic Stadium under the Russian flag and wearing the Russian uniform.

This has not made everyone happy. Some critics are asking if she is a traitor. Others are asking whether she is just a good American capitalist. However, there seems to be a religion ghost that everyone is ignoring.

A reader of ours reports that in a post-medals interview, the first thing she did was acknowledge her personal Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The reader also found an article about Hammon from earlier this summer where she is quoted saying the following:

“I didn’t say no to USA Basketball,” Hammon recently told the Houston Chronicle. “The option for me to play for USA Basketball really wasn’t an option. … I don’t think people would be as upset if I was playing for Switzerland. God loves Russia just as much as God loves America.”

If that quote isn’t enough to suggest that there is something deeper going on in Hammon’s life regarding religious faith, see this column:

Hammon, though, insists economics weren’t the determining factor in what she characterizes as a “soul-searching” process. It was about the Olympic opportunity she didn’t have in America.

Was the opportunity purely an athletic decision? Or does Hammon have a bigger mission in mind in going to Russia to play basketball? Here on Saturday The Los Angeles Times writes that “Hammon never intended to make a political statement. She simply wanted to play basketball in the Olympics.” Somehow, I doubt that is the entire story.

Photo of Hammon shooting a basketball during her visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, February 2002, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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An American Catholic tragedy

chicagoHave you read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? The book is a favorite of mine. Its greatness lies not only in the story, but also its accumulation of detail. In reading the book I felt as if I knew all about Clyde Griffiths– his shame at his poor Christian parents, his envy of the wealthy guests at the Kansas City hotel where he worked, his cold-blooded plan to murder his working-class pregnant girlfriend.

I had a roughly similar feeling while reading The Chicago Tribune‘s expose of the Chicago archdiocese’s mishandling and cover-up of its sex-abuse scandal.

Granted, reporters Margaret Ramirez and Manya A. Brachear were fortunate to hit the journalist’s equivalent of a jackpot: the release of Cardinal Francis George‘s deposition. Yet give the reporters credit for describing and quoting from the deposition’s testimony in detail. Consider the passage below about how the Rev. Edward Grace, the archdiocese’s vicar for priests, coached accused abuser Father Joseph Bennett:

In 2002, a male victim voluntarily underwent a lie-detector test that showed he was telling the truth. The cardinal says he never received that information. In 2003, a female victim tells archdiocese officials specific details about freckles on Bennett’s scrotum and a round birthmark on his back that led an archdiocese review board to conclude that sexual abuse “did happen.”

Grace advised Bennett on how to handle the victim’s knowledge of his private parts, according to a memo. According to the testimony, Grace told Bennett in November 2005 to get a note from a dermatologist questioning whether the scrotum marks might be “aging marks” and may not have been present at the time of the allegation.

The victims’ attorney, Anderson, asks the cardinal about the freckles matter, saying: “Grace is–looks like he’s trying to explain it away. Do you read it that way?”

George responds: “It could be read that way.”

Those details are essential. The passage exposes Chicago archdiocesan officials, including the Cardinal himself, as nothing more than dissemblers and enablers. It is hard to get out of one’s mind the image of the freckles on the priest’s scrotum and to forget that Grace sought to explain away those marks. The unstated theme from the passage is obvious: archdiocesan officials cared far more about protecting predator priests than victims.

Even without the benefit of the deposition, the two reporters used quotes and detail to devastating effect. Take this brief passage, which Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher cited:

Therese Albrecht, one of Bennett’s accusers, said she felt ignored when she came forward in 2004.

“I feel indescribable anger and pain. What price can you put on an 8-year-old’s virginity?” she said. “He didn’t call me up. I never got an apology.”

That said, the story was not perfect.

I think that reporters Ramirez and Brachear should have attempted to portray Cardinal George’s subjective view of reality. Part of the greatness of An American Tragedy was that Dreiser took you inside the head of Clyde Griffith and others, making you feel the pressures and lusts and dreams that made him to want to murder his working-class girlfriend. Ramirez and Brachear did not do the same. In consequence, their story reads more like a detailed and novelistic indictment of the archdiocese than a detailed and novelistic story.

Of course, asking two reporters to imitate one of the 100 best novels in 20th-century literature is a great compliment.

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Vision of faith-free US politics

map jesuslandIf you want to see what American life looks like through the eyes of the Los Angeles Times political specialists, then by all means click here. The headline on the story: “Obama and McCain in a statistical tie — A Times/Bloomberg poll finds that Obama shows few signs of winning new voters. The issue of experience goes McCain’s way.”

The intersection of faith and politics — like it or not — is big news right now. (By the way, my quick take on that Pew Forum study. I want to know what the word “politics” means, in the headline, “More Americans Question Religion’s Role in Politics.” Do more believers want their church silent on the candidates or on the moral and religious issues involved in these races? How can churches stay silent on the later?)

But to my amazement, the Los Angeles Times recently published a long, and very interesting, piece on the current race and, lo and behold, there is no religion involved in this picture at all. The lede:

John McCain has begun rallying dispirited Republicans behind him, while Democratic rival Barack Obama has made scant progress building new support, leaving the presidential race statistically tied, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

The survey highlights Obama’s vulnerability on the question of his readiness to lead the nation. Less than half of the registered voters polled think the first-term Illinois senator has the “right” experience to be president, while 80% believe McCain, a four-term senator, does.

The poll also illustrates some racial undercurrents that confront Obama as he strives to become the first African American president. Nine percent of voters say they would feel uncomfortable voting for a black candidate. Most voters say they know people who feel that way. About one in six say the country is not ready to elect a black president.

OK, the race issue is important, too. But read on and on and on.

Am I missing something? I also know that money is important:

For now, voters favor Obama on the economy, the issue they rank as most important. Also, independents, a crucial swing bloc, are leaning toward Obama. And Obama’s supporters remain more enthusiastic than McCain’s, a sign that the Democratic candidate may be able to turn out more voters.

It also seems that Obama is having some problems, as of late. He has stalled in winning new supporters and his negative ratings are headed up.

More striking, however, is the drop in Obama’s favorable rating. It has slid from 59% to 48% since the June poll. At the same time, his negative rating has risen from 27% to 35%. The bulk of that shift stems from Republicans souring on Obama amid ferocious attacks on the Democrat by McCain and his allies.

And on and on it goes. It’s amazing. And it ends in an interesting place too, on the perceptions that voters have of the two candidates and, well, their personalities.

On personal traits, just more than a third of voters agree with the statement that Obama is “too arrogant and presumptuous.” Just less than a third agree with the statement that McCain, who will turn 72 next week, is too old to be president.

Well, that sounds cultural as well as political. No signs of any religious issues in this article, however.

What country are they writing about?

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Media narratives, media myths

JesusRodeADonkey 01The “God gap” has to be one of the biggest religion stories of the year. It seems we can’t go more than a few days without an additional story about Democratic outreach efforts to religious voters.

Leah Daughtry, the Pentecostal minister and organizer of the Denver Democratic National Convention, is the perfect profile subject for stories about the efforts. The latest entry comes from the Los Angeles Times. Reporter Mark Barabak follows Daughtry as she tries to pull together the interfaith service that will launch the convention — no small feat as we discovered yesterday. He paints a picture of Daughtry juggling a gazillion religion-related balls — finding someone to give the Buddhist reading and making room for a congressman angling for a spot onstage. She tells him that her job is to narrow the “God gap”:

Over the last generation, religious voters have become the bedrock of the GOP, with surveys showing the more a person attends services, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. President Bush worked hard to woo the faithful, and in 2004 won the support of nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals, accounting for a third of all his votes.

But that support may be slipping. A Pew Research Center poll found Bush’s approval among young evangelicals falling from 87% early in his term to 42% in August 2007. A June survey by Calvin College, a Christian school in Michigan, found that for the first time since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, a larger percentage of mainline Protestants called themselves Democrats than Republicans.

That may reflect unhappiness with Bush and the GOP amid a weak economy and an unpopular war. But there is also a growing chorus of religious leaders urging worshipers to weigh matters such as poverty, healthcare and environmentalism when they vote.

“The top issues are no longer just abortion and gay marriage,” said campaign strategist Eric Sapp, who works with Democrats on faith outreach. “That creates opportunity.”

Note the first line of the second paragraph. We’ll revisit that in a minute. But the excerpt above represents the media’s 2008 campaign narrative about religious voters. One thing I’ve been following in recent months is whether all this opportunity for Democrats about which the media keeps pounding on and on is manifesting itself in actual vote shifts. I’m beginning to think that the overarching media narrative is blinding reporters to some clues about the larger story. Take this perfect profile subject Daughtry:

Enter Daughtry, 44, a self-described “black chick from Brooklyn,” who was born into politics and the Pentecostal faith. Her father, the Rev. Herb Daughtry, is a longtime civil rights activist. Her earliest memory is walking down a flight of stairs from the family apartment to services, then down another level to dinner with congregants. “It was seamless,” she says.

Daughtry found her professional calling in her senior year at Dartmouth, where she ran the campus campaign for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid. Jackson, a family friend, did her a favor; Daughtry knew nothing about political organizing. “He allowed me to experiment on him,” she says.

After graduating, Daughtry headed to Capitol Hill. She moved to the Labor Department under President Clinton, and in 2002 became chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee. Last year she took charge in Denver, her fourth convention. The city has struggled to raise money, but Daughtry — unflappable and diplomatic, as her juggling of the Sunday lineup suggests — has kept planning on track.

“Very focused. Very talented,” said Steve Farber, a Denver lawyer who helped land the convention. “She gets the job done.”

Faith has been a constant in Daughtry’s life. She sang in the choir at her church, ran its affairs and worked in the kitchen. But she felt God wanted more.

On and on the Times piece goes, explaining how religious Daughtry is. The assumption seems to be that if Democrats can just show that they’re religious, they’ll gain votes. But no one seems to be looking at whether that assumption is correct.

I thought of this while looking at Jeffrey Weiss’ account of the latest Pew survey for the Dallas Morning News. I haven’t looked at the results yet, so I’m just going with what he has:

Based on their religious beliefs, voters are divided between Barack Obama and John McCain today in much the same way they were four years ago between John Kerry and George Bush, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

According to the survey taken in July and August, Mr. Obama has the support of 24 percent of those who say they are white, born-again or evangelical Christians — the same percentage Mr. Kerry had four years ago. And Mr. McCain’s support, 68 percent, is about the same as Mr. Bush enjoyed in August 2004.

Mr. Obama, the Democratic candidate, has lost a few percentage points compared with Mr. Kerry among white mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated. Only among black Protestants has he gained support over where Mr. Kerry stood in 2004.

But none of the changes are more than a few percentage points. And enthusiasm for Mr. McCain among religious conservatives is significantly less than Mr. Bush had in the summer of 2004.

McCain’s enthusiasm gap is definitely an issue, but I find it fascinating that the media keep pushing this narrative about how successful Obama’s outreach is going — when there’s little evidence to support that.

I think that New York Times profile of Daughtry a month ago gave a hint as to why:

[Her father's] ministry has always combined consuming spirituality with black liberation theology — the theology Jeremiah Wright invoked this spring to defend his controversial sermons — and zealous political activism. Leah holds these forces within her.

It also relates to what I wrote yesterday. Activism on the left by religious adherents is not a new concept. It’s just newly noticed by the media. Daughtry’s father was politically engaged in the same way that she is. While the Democratic Party has struggled to fully embrace its religious voters, and has certainly lost more than a few these last couple of decades with some of its platform stances, it has always had a strong contingent of religiously motivated grassroots.

But how much reaching out to non-traditionally Democratic voters is happening, exactly? And is someone who embrace liberation theology the best person to be doing the reaching out?:

Disappointed after the 2004 election — and armed with data showing the correlation between faith and voting — Daughtry launched Faith in Action, an effort to turn the devout into Democrats. There were doubts inside the party.

“People thought, ‘Gee, is this Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?’ ” party Chairman Howard Dean says.

But Daughtry was not interested in “beating people over the head with moral issues” or dictating political theology from Washington.

Instead, Daughtry and her interdenominational staff of six have held countless meetings with religious leaders across the country, listening to their concerns and working to move the discussion beyond contentious social issues. That means appealing to Orthodox Jews — with their large families — by talking about government-funded healthcare for children, or courting Muslims with a promise to fight discrimination and post-Sept. 11 profiling.

DNC hero
But beyond the fact that Orthodox Jews and Muslims are neither a large percentage of the voting population nor reliably Republican voters, on what basis is this type of outreach deemed a good way to reach out to Republican-trending religious voters? I’m not saying it isn’t, necessarily, but I don’t see where it is.

Here’s how the Times piece breaks down the numbers:

Obama probably can’t erase the God gap, even if he seems more comfortable discussing his Christianity than the last two Democratic nominees or, for that matter, his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. A recent Pew poll found Obama trailing McCain among white evangelicals, mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics. But McCain’s support was below Bush’s levels, and even small gains by Obama — winning, say, just 1 in 3 white evangelicals — could significantly reshape the electoral map, says Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma expert on religion and politics.

Presumably the reporter is using the previous month’s Pew poll for this paragraph. But still, the spin is clear. Last month’s poll showed that Obama hadn’t gained evangelical support over Kerry’s support the same time four years ago — he was even a point below it. Neglecting to mention that — because it doesn’t meld with the narrative you’ve chosen for your piece — isn’t good journalism.

That Pew poll, incidentally, appears to have other interesting results. We’ll be looking at mainstream coverage of it in coming days.

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Interfaith and no faith

interfaithOne of the things that annoys me about journalists’ lack of institutional memory is the way religious activism in politics is constantly being rediscovered. Over and over. Year after year.

Usually this is displayed with the quadrennial discussions of the shocking rise of religious activism in the Grand Old Party. But just four short years after the mainstream media meltdown over values voters, we’re seeing lots of discussion of religious movement in the Democratic Party.

The fact is that religious liberals have been active for a long time. For a depressing but provocative look at the declining influence of mainline Protestantism, check out Jody Bottum’s essay in First Things. But the religious left didn’t just crop up in the last four years. Jim Wallis is not new to the political scene. He started Sojourners in 1971. It would be nice if all the coverage of the “new” religious left had some historical perspective.

Anyway, the Democratic National Convention is just around the corner and there’s a ton of religious news coming out of it. We’ve looked at the rash of coverage of its organizer, the Rev. Leah Daughtry. She put together an interfaith service to kick off the convention.

Democrats are clearly reaching out to their religious voters more this year and it’s nice to see the media covering so much of it. They have covered the ups and downs of organizing a religious service for a diverse political group. Some reports are better than others. When one clergy member was disinvited, the Rocky Mountain News printed this cheesily overwritten report:

Fidel “Butch” Montoya is a forgiving soul, being a man of the cloth.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t get upset. And he is upset — at the Barack Obama campaign and the Democratic National Convention Committee. So upset, he’s looking at supporting Obama’s rival, Republican John McCain.

“They embarrassed me,” he said Wednesday.

Montoya is a Pentecostal minister and founder of the H.S. Power and Light Latino faith-based initiative in Denver. He was asked more than two weeks ago by none other than Democratic National Convention Committee Chief Executive Officer Leah Daughtry to be one of four representatives to the Democrats’ Interfaith Gathering to kick off the convention.

Then, abruptly last week Daughtry called Montoya to disinvite him. Montoya said Daughtry told him the DNCC had vetted him and concluded that he had enough “controversy” in his background to warrant being removed.

Other controversies have been better reported. When Ronald Aronson wrote at The Huffington Post about secularists wanting to be included in the interfaith service, one mainstream reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette picked up on the story:

The interfaith service scheduled to take place at the Democratic National Convention’s Aug. 24 in Denver is supposed to be about unity.

But to a Washington, D.C., coalition that supports nontheistic views, it’s about division.

The Secular Coalition Group, a lobbying organization for church-and-state separation, is pushing to get an atheist on the speaker list, and contends the service is divisive because it alienates nonreligious Democrats at a time when the party needs to unite to support the presumptive nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

“We can all hold different beliefs,” said the group’s executive director, Lori Lipman Brown, “but we can still come together as patriotic Americans.”

Reporter Mark Barna speaks with a variety of groups that were not invited to participate:

Becky Hale, a founder of the atheist group Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, said the service discriminates against nonbelieving Democrats.

“By reaching out to people of faith,” Hale said, “they have shown the back of their hand to those who do not believe.”

Unfortunately, the article didn’t include any defense of holding an interfaith service without secularists. It may not seem like a significant story, but the secularist and religious perspective on this event explains a great deal about the specific challenges the Democratic Party has with its religious outreach. The media have spent so much time focusing on religion and the right, they don’t seem to have a vocabulary for explaining or analyzing what’s going on here. Hopefully this will improve over the rest of the campaign cycle — and hopefully journalists won’t ignore the topic until the next campaign season.

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Defining terms, exploring issues

reporter notebookTucked away in The Washington Post‘s metro section Saturday was a quiet story about a pastor and his mission that “lasted 50 years.” In reading this story, imagine what the article would look like if it were about a successful businessman who grew a local Washington, D.C.-area company from 27 employees “to more than 3,300.” Would key terms go undefined and controversial issues be left unexplored?

See here the description of Smith’s rather incredible life story serving his community:

More than 50 years later, Smith is celebrating his vocation — not as a doctor, but as pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood for the past half century.

During that time, Smith has grown the church from 27 members to more than 3,300, served as a local leader in the civil rights movement, worked to eliminate segregation in Prince George’s County and, most recently, oversaw the construction of an $8 million sanctuary.

“It was a calling,” said Smith, 74, who has used his pulpit to preach liberation theology — identifying God and His promise of salvation with the plight of black people throughout history — along with a politically active social gospel.

Oh how daring it is to attempt to define liberation theology in fifteen words or less. I really do not even know where to start with regards to this definition of liberation theology, but the reporter should have at least cited where he found that definition. Since defining liberation theology is difficult to do in a news story, a better option would be simply defining what liberation theology meant to Smith and his church.

The definition of liberation theology aside, the article does an excellent job of showing the significance of Smith in the community and how his theology influenced his involvement in improving the community around him and fighting racism in Maryland.

Unfortunately, the tone of the final paragraphs of the article slip into a bit of advocacy journalism:

In the same way he broke away from the National Baptist Convention to be part of King’s movement, Smith has broken the mold as a traditional pastor — whether it is moving his main service from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Sundays so that people can do other things or ordaining women.

“Rev. Smith is not threatened by women,” said Janet Caldwell, one of three female ministers on the church’s seven-member pastoral staff. “He really supports us, not only in the traditional roles of the church but as preachers of the gospel as well.”

“I have tried to keep a family atmosphere here,” Smith said. “When people feel ownership, they support something. I firmly believe in an equal opportunity church.”

Pastors in the traditional mold only have services at 9 a.m. and refuse to ordain women? All pastors that refuse to ordain women are threatened by women? Obviously, Smith has taken a strong position in a significant theological debate over the ordination of women. Was this position taken merely to “keep a family atmosphere” or to promote “an equal opportunity church” or was there more significant theological reasons? Perhaps the reporter could have asked about Smith’s stance on gay ordinations?

Between the lines of these paragraphs one gets the sense that Smith’s decisions to be less traditional was met with some resistance. Who was opposing him in these decisions and how do they feel about Smith’s ministry? There is an obvious challenge in getting deeper into these issues in a relatively short news story, but that does not mean they should not be addressed.

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Woody Allen: Living with a void

woody 01In her spiritual profile of filmmaker and actor Woody Allen, Newsweek reporter Jennie Yabroff begins her story this way:

Woody Allen cuts his banana into seven slices each morning. Six slices, or eight, and something bad might happen. “I know it would be total coincidence if I didn’t slice it into seven pieces, and my family were killed in a fire,” he says. “I understand that there could be no correlation, but, you know, the guilt would be too much for me to bear, so it’s easier for me to cut the stupid banana.”

In the next paragraph, Yabroff contrasts Allen’s personal behavior with the existentialist, even nihilistic, themes of his movies:

Despite the odd superstition (he also avoids haircuts while shooting a movie), Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres–comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical–only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen’s eyes, they’re all tragedies, since, as he says, “to live is to suffer.” If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.

The rest of the story is a variation on this spiritual and philosophical conflict. Allen makes movies to find meaning in life. Yet Allen asserts that life has no meaning and his films continually make that point. Allen’s latest film finds pleasure in life, albeit of the kind no traditionally religious person would approve of. Yet he rejects the possibility of happy endings, let alone heaven and hell.

Yabroff juxtaposed those two themes well. In doing so, she turned her story into that rarest of specimens: a serious examination of a major filmmaker’s spiritual conflict. It is the sort of story that only a great movie reviewer, such as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, would write or run on the website Metafilm.

Yabroff’s profile was not the deepest examination of Allen’s existentialism. Is he the type that affirms free will or determinism? Given that Badem won an Oscar award last year for playing an existentialist character, the story would have profited from broaching this issue.

But that is a quibble. Yabroff’s story got religion in a major way.

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