Missing missions

themissionSome stories sort of get religion. Like a second-rate novel, they give readers only half the picture rather than the full one. Take this Washington Post story by Jacqueline L. Salmon.

Salmon’s story was critical of short-term religious trips overseas. Her lede began this way:

Not long ago, the families of Fairfax Presbyterian Church spent thousands of dollars to fly their teens to Mexico for eight days of doing good. They helped build homes and refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken lands.

Yet even as those trips have increased in popularity, they have come under increased scrutiny. A growing body of research questions the value of the trips abroad, which are supposed to bring hope and Christianity to the needy of the world, while offering American participants an opportunity to work in disadvantaged communities, develop relationships and charge up their faith.

Critics scornfully call such trips “religious tourism” undertaken by “vacationaries.” Some blunders include a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left. In Mexico, a church was painted six times during one summer by six different groups. In Ecuador, a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed.

The story held my attention. Like surely many GR readers, I know someone who undertakes such trips; my younger sister, Anne, returned recently from a group trip to El Salvador. I had long wondered why these Christians traveled abroad when they could help the poor and needy at home, so I was glad to see Salmon examine this topic with critical eyes.

Salmon’s story also featured lots of context — historical, economic, and sociological:

Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have proliferated in recent years. A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips — an average of eight days — in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents.

At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year.

The short-term mission trip is a “huge phenomenon that seems to be gaining in momentum rather than waning,” said David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who studies the trend.

Later in the story, Salmon adduced evidence that some religious trips are expensive and ineffective:

But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.

Mission groups also often bring their own experts and ignore local authorities on the ground.

In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.

Critics also question the expense involved in sending people long distances. Short-term missionaries pay $1,000 each, or far more, in plane fare and other expenses to get to remote destinations.

A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.

“To spend $30,000 to paint a church or build a house that costs $2,000 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a professor of sociology at Calvin College who conducted the research.

Were it not for one major flaw, Salmon’s story was first rate. It was interesting, informative, and well researched.

But the story had one flaw: Its emphasis was almost totally on social work and aid for the poor. What it neglected to emphasize is that some religious trips are designed to save souls.

Yes, Salmon wrote that participants “hold Bible classes” and “evangelize.” But she neglected to elaborate on what those terms mean. The reader is left with the overwhelming impression that overseas religious trips are designed to build homes and paint buildings rather than to win souls for Christ.

This second purpose of missions casts Salmon’s story in a new light. The article notes that many church trips are costly, but what’s the price tag of conversion? The article notes that church trips are increasingly popular, but what percentage are designed mainly for social work vs. evangelization?

Don’t get me wrong. As a Catholic, I appreciate both models. But there are two models, not just one as this story implies.

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Put a cork in it

ChampagnePOPThere is nothing the media like more than to sensationalize undeserving stories. Usually this involves either the disappearance of young, attractive white women or alleged revelations about Jesus. in the latter category, we’ve read that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph, and that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

Usually these stories “break” around major Christian holidays. Remember Easter 2006? When National Geographic argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians? The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. Two years later, the news that National Geographic rushed the story and engaged in shoddy scholastic work (daemon translated as “spirit,” etc.) was not covered in any way approaching the same degree.

The latest example shows the difficulty journalists have in resisting the shock angle on stories. A completely legitimate and interesting story gets turned into yet another thing that is supposed to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Come on! Enough already! Or can the media at least come up with a better spin, hoax or overblown discovery?

The bulk of the story by Ethan Bronner of the New York Times isn’t terrible. Some of it is fascinating. But the spin put on it is regrettable. Here’s how it begins:

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Um, newsflash to the New York Times. Christians pretty much think the entire story of Jesus life, death and resurrection is part of a “recognized Jewish tradition” at the time. In other words, Christians read much of the Old Testament as prophesying about Jesus. They see Jesus as the fulfillment of those prophecies.

After leading with the spin that this table might threaten Christianity, the article has some very interesting information about the tablet. The reporter cautions that it could take decades to clarify whether the tablet is forged, much less what the actual text says. The stone was bought a decade ago by an Israeli-Swiss collector. An Israeli scholar wrote a paper on it last year and a spate of articles will be coming out in the coming year. It turns out that much of the text is unreadable and many of the translations make quite a few assumptions. Results of a chemical examination of the document are pending.

Bronner says the text is a vision of the apocalypse by the angel Gabriel and draws on Old Testament prophets. One of the oddest things about the story, given the angle of “shaking the world of Christology” is that many of the sources for the article are people who want to shake up Christianity. There are no Christian apologists quoted to explain whether or not this discovery bears at all on the Christian faith.

The article explains that the “Gabriel Revelation” describes a suffering messiah. There might be a reference to the “prince of princes” rising from the dead after three days. It mentions that justice defeats evil and that blood and slaughter are pathways to justice. The idea that blood atonement is foreign to traditional Jewish teaching will certainly come as news to readers of the Old Testament. Anyway, here’s a portion of the article dealing with analysis of the tablet:

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” [Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem] contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University.

Okay, I get that much of this is just quoting the scholar in question. But I really wonder whether the reporter chose precisely the wrong angle. I mean, among other reasons why some Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah is because they were expecting a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David. And while you have many prophecies from Isaiah and the Psalmist that speak of a suffering messiah, many folks were expecting an earthly ruler more than a “My kingdom is not of this world” leader.

So if you have some ancient evidence of Jews hearkening back to the prophets to speak of a suffering messiah, why would the angle for the story be that Christianity is threatened? Anyway, check out the way the article ended:

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.

No rebuttal. No response. Again, a scholar of Christianity was desperately needed. Actually, I’m confident that even the children at my church could have told the reporter that Christians believe those ideas go together. (Hint: Jesus was Jewish.)

Anyway, it’s too late for this story to be handled well. Atheist Richard Dawkins and his commenters are rejoicing. Or take this blog post from Hollywood Elsewhere:

As Religulous producer-star Bill Maher or “God Is Not Great” author Chris Hitchens will tell you, anything that undermines any religious myth is cause for popping open the champagne. So Ethan Bronner’s 7.6 N.Y. Times story that calls into question the legend of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection after three days in the tomb is a big whoopee in this regard. Cue the heartland Christian preacher types who will try to deny and spin this thing for all they’re worth.

Yeah. There’s no question how this story — which at it’s heart is quite interesting and compelling — will be taken. I just wish the reporter would have thought a bit about the spin he put on it. Or, as commenter Chris Willman wrote in response to the above:

Before all the Chris Hitchens worshippers pop too many corks, let’s point out that the idea that this discovery somehow undermines Christianity is goofy on the face of it, however much sober glee the NYT writer seems to take in inferring as much. The New Testament writers didn’t take pride in their “originality”–far from it, they went out of their way to connect the story of Christ’s death and resurrection to dozens or hundreds of pieces of prophecy. So, if you think the whole thing was made up, here’s one more piece of plagiarism. If you think it’s true, here is just one more prophecy fulfilled, albeit one that’s a lot closer to 33-ish AD than the ones in the Book of Daniel. Either way, it changes nothing. But don’t let this stop the bubbly from flowing…

Perhaps follow-up stories can keep this in mind.

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To forgive is divine

rwandaforgive 02One of the reasons why I wish reporters would focus more on religion news that’s apolitical is because when they do, the stories turn out so much better. Take this great piece from Gabe Oppenheim of the Washington Post. The news angle for the story is that a local woman won the top documentary prize at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. But that’s about the least interesting aspect to the whole story.

Oppenheim explores the filmmaker’s motivation and ends up with a beautiful story on his hands. Laura Waters Hinson’s film “As We Forgive” is about reconciliation between the survivors and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide:

In the film we meet Rosaria, who pulls up the hem of her dress to reveal mounds of raised scar tissue running down her legs. Hacked and beaten during the genocide, she now lives in a house built for her by Saveri, the man who killed her sister. Another survivor, Chantale, who lost 30 family members, meets John, the stooped gangly man who killed her father. He can’t face her; her eyes are embers. “Remember all your old neighbors,” she says. Yet the next day, Chantale begins working to build a house for another ex-con who confessed his crimes.

For Hinson, it was proof that the “transcendent filters through every aspect of life” and also that the world is really messed up.

Oppenheim goes on to explain that for Hinson, forgiveness is a very personal subject. After moving to be with her boyfriend in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2001, he proposed to her. Then he dumped her in a most humiliating fashion. She had to sell her bridal gown on eBay and reimburse her bridesmaids for their expenses. The reporter doesn’t ignore the ghost in the story:

She’s religious now but wasn’t always. Raised Episcopalian, Hinson says she didn’t get “serious” about it until after Furman, when she joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas. That group broke away from the Episcopal Church — rejecting its liberal reforms, including the acceptance of gay clergy — under the auspices of Rwanda’s church.

The link led her local congregation to plan a trip to Rwanda in 2005. She didn’t sign up to go. She was frenzied, searching for a suitable thesis topic. But one congregant dropped out and a pastor urged Hinson to take the spot. When she got there, she knew she had found her film. She came back and started researching, planning to shoot in the summer of 2006.

She was so interested in the topic that she hosted a dinner at Armand’s Pizza on Capitol Hill for a Rwandan bishop who was working to facilitate reconciliation. There she met a fellow American University student who was also planning on filming in Rwanda in June. He and his friend agreed to shoot her movie, if she’d provide room and board.

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For most mainstream media stories, religion is usually explored as part of some political drama. But for most religious folks, it’s the basis for their daily life or interwoven with their lives just like Hinson’s. Reporters miss out by not exploring the role that religion plays in subjects’ daily life.

Oppenheim writes the rest of the story quite well. He weaves Hinson’s documentary subject together with Hinson’s personal drama:

The story ultimately appealed to Hinson for its reversal of the genre’s cliches. Instead of being a tale of African ruin and our reluctance to help, it was a “tremendously hopeful” picture of people learning to forgive in circumstances, she says, in which we never could. Hinson liked to believe she herself had learned something.

Two weeks after leaving Rwanda, in August 2006, the belief was tested. Her ex-fiance called, 4 1/2 years after their breakup. “I feel kinda crazy,” she recalls him saying. “And I still love you.”

The fiance goes on to repent of his immaturity and hurtfulness. Turns out his story has a religious aspect as well. He had studied to become a priest since they’d been together and learned a great deal about forgiveness and repentance. You have to read the story to hear about their reconciliation. Well, I’ll just give it all away with the last line:

“Our marriage,” she says, “is built on forgiveness.”

What a great story.

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Looking into a secular crystal ball

0060175761The headline on the Newsweek piece really catches your eye: “The $10,000-a-Month Psychic.”

In the magazine’s scheme of things, this is a “society” piece. It’s important to underline that this is not a religion piece. If you want to be really literal about it, there is no “religion” in the story at all. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

Which is really interesting since it is about a woman who is making millions of dollars leasing her supernatural powers (maybe) to giant American corporations that are in the very secular business of anticipating market trends and then making big business decisions.

Like it or not, the story is haunted by a simple question: Is the supernatural real? Or, to state it another way, is this woman tapping into some higher or lower power? Or is she simply a good guesser?

There was one other question that I wondered about. I assume that the millions of dollars that major corporations and celebrities are paying Laura “Practical Intuition” Day are a form of business expense and, thus, tax deductible?

Oh well, here’s a key slice of Tony Dokoupil’s non-religion story:

What exactly is Day’s expertise? While she likes to downplay it as mere “intuition,” her clients prefer another explanation: she’s a psychic.

Day’s feel for the unknown has become a hot commodity among certain high-profile business people, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the 49-year-old mother in the process. The William Morris talent agency has used Day to help it decide whom to represent and how to help the company grow. “It’s like looking over at your opponent’s cards in a poker game,” says Jennifer Walsh, executive vice president of William Morris’s literary department, which reps Day. A big Hollywood producer says Day advised him in 2006 to pass on a can’t-miss animated film, predicting it would bomb at the box office. It did. (The producer didn’t want to be named for fear of public ridicule.) A Manhattan attorney who serves as special counsel to several white-shoe law firms has used Day’s insights to help her select juries and anticipate the opposing team’s arguments.

Day says she has made about $10 million over the past decade and a half, working for corporations and for other interesting clients — such as actress Jennifer Aniston and the Harvard Business School’s network for female graduates.

What was really interesting, for me, was that the story never even asks Day to go on the record, in terms of how she does what she does. What does she believe about herself? This could be supernatural. It may be a sham. It may simply be a talent for making 2 plus 2 add up to 4, while the client believes you have produced the number 8.

lauras 2picsOne thing is clear from the story. Very powerful people are paying her lots of money and they are terrified — perhaps ashamed is a better word — to admit it.

“It’s kind of a dirty secret,” Day says of business people who use psychics like herself. She declines to identify most of her clients, and almost all who spoke to NEWSWEEK also requested anonymity out of concern for their reputations.

Day is one of a small but expanding cadre of corporate psychic consultants — the professionalized face of an occupation better known for hokey headscarves and crystal balls. Rebranded as “intuitionists” or “mentalists” — terms more palatable to mainstream America — psychic advisers in recent years have been crossing over into the world of legitimate business, where they are used by decision makers in law, finance and entertainment looking for an edge in a down economy. “I specialize in nonbelievers,” says Day, referring to her roster of “red-meat-eating, Barneys-shopping, Type A personalities.”

Day admits that she is not always right, adding a classic kicker: “If I were God, I’d be charging more.”

As for me, I could not help but think of that famous quotation that is usually attributed to the great journalist and wit G.K. Chesterton: “”When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

Nope. No sign of any kind of faith in this story. No sign of a ghost at all.

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Sports scribes hurdle religion

hurdlesSports reporters are often some of the most closely read journalists in the local newspaper. They are also often the most knowledgeable journalists about the subject they cover. To some people’s surprise, sports journalists must also have an adequate grasp on just about everything else in life, including religion.

Consider the following New York Times article on the hurdler Queen Quedith Earth Harrison’s dramatic Olympic qualification race Sunday. The reporter goes from describing a rather unique 400-meter hurdles competition to a criminal rap sheet, to an unusual religious faith:

The family names relate to belief in The Nation of Gods and Earths, a black militant group that split from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. It is also known as Five-Percent Nation, with its adherents called Five-Percenters.

The term Five-Percenters derives from the belief that only 5 percent of the world’s people liberate themselves from worshipping a false “mystery God” and become gods to themselves and their families. Some consider it a black supremacist religion; its followers consider it an uplifting way of life.

“It’s really about finding peace with one’s self and really being clean and educated, building yourself up in society where you are known as an underdog, a minority,” Harrison said. “Each black man is considered a supreme being. Woman is the earth, the creation of all things.”

One person’s “uplifting way of life” is another’s supremacist faith. Is that all readers expect to know about this religious faith?

Any journalist would struggle to give readers a full story on this tremendous athlete without delving into the subject of religion. Fortunately, many sports reporters take note of the religious aspects of athletes’ lives. Some choose to ignore it, but most manage to do a reasonable job of explaining how an athlete’s faith drives his or her life and desire to compete.

What are often missing are deeper questions of faith that explain an athlete’s religious ideology. This can be true when the religious identity is unique or unconventional. Too often sports reporters take statements such as “I want to thank the Lord for this victory” on face value.

As the 2008 Olympics approach, I am hoping to see reporters ask athletes to explain exactly what they mean by that type of statement. Perhaps if athletes knew they would be further questioned on the subject of religion, those who are less than sincere would be less casual in making such statements and viewers would get a better understanding of how faith influences an athlete’s life.

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That’s Billy, Billy Graham

billy grahamSomehow I missed the odd reference to some guy named “Bill Graham” in The New York Times article on Obama’s desire to expand the role of religious groups in combating the nation’s social problems. Thankfully, the blog Between Two Worlds picked up the reference:

While evangelical voters, a sizable minority, generally vote strongly Republican, Mr. McCain has had a shaky relationship with the group. He met Sunday with one of the country’s best-known evangelicals, Bill Graham, and his son, Franklin, for what was described as an “excellent conversation” but secured no endorsement.

Between Two Worlds also notes that presumed Republican Presidential candidate John McCain recently referred to the evangelist as “Bill Graham,” which may be where the NYT picked up the reference.

I am aware that The New York Times prefers to address individuals by their full names. But while William Franklin Graham Jr., Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is the preacher’s full name and title, who is doesn’t know that he is most commonly known as simply “Billy Graham?” I can’t tell if this is a case of a reporter’s (or editor’s) ignorance or simply a typo that could be blamed on McCain. Perhaps Billy Graham is known by those closer to him as “Bill?”

Photo of Billy Graham in April 1966 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Going to the dogs

leonaMarie Antoinette had nothing on the late Leona Helmsley. Antoinette, the Queen of France, famously said that the hungry masses should eat cake. Hemsley, the self-styled queen of hotels and real estate, in her will declined to say that people should get that much.

Stephanie Strom of The New York Times broke the story:

Her instructions, specified in a two-page “mission statement,” are that the entire trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs, according to two people who have seen the document and who described it on condition of anonymity.

Indirectly at least, Strom got the heart of the story correct: Helmsley had a strained relationship with humanity in general and humans specifically. Early in the story, Strom reported this eye-opening fact:

The first goal was to help indigent people, the second to provide for the care and welfare of dogs. A year later, they said, she deleted the first goal.

A bit later, Strom summarized Helmsley’s relationship with people no doubt accurately:

Mrs. Helmsley, the widow of Harry B. Helmsley, who built a real estate empire in Manhattan, was best known for her sharp tongue and impatience with humanity.

Toward the middle of the story, Strom noted that the masses might object to Helmsley’s donation:

They are also the trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and, according to the two people who discussed the mission statement, have fretted about the public outcry that disclosure of its terms might incite.

They have reason for concern: News last year that the biggest named beneficiary in Mrs. Helmsley’s will was Trouble, her Maltese, led to death threats against the dog, which now requires security costing $100,000 a year.

What Strom missed altogether was why Helmsley gave her money to dogs. Nowhere in the story were readers told about her views of people and whether her religion or religious upbringing influenced those views. (From what a reader can adduce, Helmsley’s bequest was nothing more than an extension of her ego). If her religion had been mentioned, it would have been important to know what it thinks of this billionaire giving money not for the good of their fellow humans but for animals.

My conclusion, as you might have guessed, is that the absence of an explanation is a religious ghost.

This general story line is not going away. As affluent baby boomers pass away, their donations and bequests will become news. So should their reasons for giving and the response of religious groups.

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Give us the faith-based details

orwellIn his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticized modern writers for all manners of sins, not the least of which were a lack of detail and specificity. He cited a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Then he translated it in modern English: “Objective consideration of temporary phenomena compels the conclusion …”

Though written more than 60 years ago, Orwell’s passage is still relevant today. Take the major print coverage of Barack Obama’s faith-based announcement yesterday.

Most of the stories focused on the right topic: the program’s hiring and firing provisions. But their descriptions were almost as general and opaque as Orwell’s second passage.

The New York Times
, as Daniel noted, gave readers the most information about Obama’s plan. Yet reporters Jeff Zeleny and Michael Luo described the controversial provision in only the haziest of terms:

Mr. Obama’s plan pointedly departed from the Bush administration’s stance on one fundamental issue: whether religious organizations that get federal money for social services can take faith into account in their hiring. Mr. Bush has said yes. Mr. Obama said no.

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

So, too, did Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press:

Obama’s support for letting religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions was likely to invite a storm of protest from those who view such faith requirements as discrimination.

Only Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post filled readers in on the details, if partially:

Those aides said an Obama administration would get tough on groups that discriminate in hiring practices and doling out assistance. The groups would have to abide by federal hiring laws that reject discrimination based on race, sex and religion. Obama said he supports federal legislation that would extend those protections to gay people as well, a flash point with some religious organizations that say hiring or assisting gays would run counter to their beliefs.

Except for Weisman’s passage, those of the NYTimes and AP, as well as The Politico, were vague. An otherwise informed reader would wonder what’s the fuss all about. Little would the reader know that Obama’s plan is a big deal: An orthodox Jewish group would have to consider hiring gay Catholics, while a liberal Lutheran organization would need to consider bringing on board conservative Muslims.

In other words, while religious groups can receive federal funds to help the needy, they cannot do so to pick their own co-religionists. Was this not the policy in place before President Bush? If so, the reporters mischaracterized Obama’s plan as an expansion of Bush’s program. In fact, Obama’s plan would all but rescind it.

Another major deficiency in the coverage is a lack of specificity about how Obama would prevent religious groups from discriminating against employees. Does he propose adding an office to the Justice Department?

These stories suggest that God is indeed in the details. They also suggest that You Know What exists in their absence.

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