Values-free teen pregnancy coverage

junoThe news of a pregnancy boom at the Massachusetts fishing town’s Gloucester High School has made an amazing fast lap around the Internets over the last couple of days.

The story seems to stem from Wednesday’s publication on Time magazine’s Web site of the allegation that about eight girls younger than 16 had made a “pact” to get pregnant. Publications from Reuters, The Boston Globe, CBS News, The Independent and a New York Times blog have all picked up on the scandalous allegation and cited the Time piece as the source almost as if it were a fact despite the scanty amount of factual detail available at this point.

Here’s the original Time piece:

As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies — more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. Some adults dismissed the statistic as a blip. Others blamed hit movies like Juno and Knocked Up for glamorizing young unwed mothers. But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there’s been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, “some girls seemed more upset when they weren’t pregnant than when they were,” Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. “We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy,” the principal says, shaking his head.

Most of the news organizations picking up on this story, except maybe The Globe, have relied heavily on the Time piece for those tricky things journalists call “facts” and the more pliable things known as analysis.

One question that I wish I could get an answer to is whether Time had more than just the principal as a source for the “pregnancy pact” allegation. Do written reports exist on any of this documenting these alleged facts? How about the “24-year-old homeless guy?” I believe he has just been accused of what is commonly known as statutory rape and could be facing years of hard time if prosecuted and convicted.

Moving beyond my personal frustration with the lack of evidence supporting the “pact” allegation, the Time piece, which was largely followed by the other news organizations, made only a slight effort to address the moral issues behind the recent national trend of a rise in teen pregnancies. The fact that this is an economically depressed “fiercely Catholic enclave” that has seen the break-up of families is featured prominently in the article. But that is about all we get in terms of morality and values coverage.

The solution to this apparent problem — handing out birth control pills at the school with or without parental consent — has not been greeted with open arms in this community to say the least. The article insinuates that it’s those fierce Catholics who are forcing the only viable solution to this problem out of town. But as the article briefly mentions at the end, how would birth control have kept these girls — who made a pact to get pregnant — from getting pregnant? I suspect there is a deeper issue here that a few birth control pills would fail to prevent.

An interesting angle in the article comes in the following two paragraphs of the six paragraph story:

The girls who made the pregnancy pact — some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers — declined to be interviewed. So did their parents. But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally,” Ireland says. “I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.”

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. “We’re proud to help the mothers stay in school,” says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.

There is an ironic disconnect that can be read in-between the lines. The school’s policy of removing the inconveniences of being a teen parent sounds like fine progressive social policy. But why should school officials be surprised when their students actually go ahead and get pregnant? Why should teen pregnancy be viewed — as it is in the article and by school officials — as a negative particularly when they believe that a child will provide them with a source of unconditional love?

The missing element from all of these articles is questions and answers on what is happening to the community’s morals and values for girls to not only feel free to get pregnant, but desire to do so outside the boundaries of which society generally considers appropriate. Before you call me a morally prudish, note that these girls are below the state’s age of consent, which means there was potentially a crime involved when these girls became pregnant depending on the age of the potential father.

But beyond the rather arbitrary, but legally necessary, issue of the girls being under than the age of consent, will reporters start asking the difficult moral questions involved in these stories? How did children in this “fiercely Catholic enclave” start to think that pre-martial sexual behavior was acceptable? When did it move on to a desire to be a mother in order to obtain unconditional love? Perhaps it was the day-care centers or the sex education courses? Or was it just the fact that the community has become economically depressed? How does Barack Obama’s message about the importance of fatherhood play into this story? Apparently even liberal politicians believe it is socially undesirable for children to grow up without the active presence of a father.

Or is the father’s relationship with his daughter(s) now somehow out of bounds for progressives? See this post titled “Pure Tyranny“, on Judith Warner’s New York Times Blog on June 12, 2008:

It was also from The Times, from May 19, and featured 70-odd girls, of “early grade school to college” age, with their fathers, stepfathers and fathers-in-law-to-be, at the ninth annual, largely evangelical “Father-Daughter Purity Ball.”

“The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing” — and which culminated, for at least one father and his daughters, with a dreamy walk in the night around a lake, “was a joyous public affirmation of the girls’ sexual abstinence until they wed,” said the Times article.

“From this, it’s only a matter of degree to the man in Austria,” I’d scribbled across the first page.

The “man in Austria,” of course, was 73-year-old Josef Fritzl, who was around that time also making headlines after it was discovered that he had kept his daughter, Elisabeth, 42, locked up in a cellar for 24 years, during which time he’d raped her regularly, and had her bear him seven children.

Another New York Times blog The Lede appropriately highlighted Thursday the “Dueling Teen Pregnancy Tales: Jamie Lynn and Gloucester High” in post that suggests that Time missed the larger story that teen pregnancies are becoming rather acceptable these days. A guest blogger at the Crunchy Con blog also highlighted the moral angle to the story, appropriately titling the post “Seventeen.”

Of course there is the giant question of whether or not this is any of society’s business. Aside from the issue of these children being below the age of consent, there is nothing illegal about their actions in getting pregnant and desiring to have a child. Sure it may seem irresponsible, but that’s no one’s business, right? Even parents apparently shouldn’t have the right to consent to school practitioners prescribing contraceptives to their children. Or should they? Within these articles there is a sense that what is happening is somehow deeply troubling, but no one is really asked to address that element.

Reporters make a huge mistake when they leave values and morality out of their coverage. Sure, discussing these issues means addressing traditional ideals most progressive thinkers and politicians assumed were abandoned by society 40 years ago, but they continue to lurk in the background. And reporters, unfortunately, generally continue to ignore them.

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Clinging to journalism doctrines

toasterAfter one brief palate-cleansing look at decent stories on the same-sex marriage issue, we can now return to the mainstream media’s attack on defenders of traditional marriage. At this point, I’m not sure how inadvertent the biased stories are.

Take this feature from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. Headline:

California’s gay marriage law revives religious debate over homosexuality

Some cling to literal reading of religious texts. Others call for new interpretations.

One would think that in a year such as this, when Barack Obama got in a spot of trouble for characterizing some rural voters as Bible-clingers, the copy desk would be more sensitive to the word. Some “cling” to the Bible as written while others “call for” new interpretations? Are you kidding me? That is just a shameful and stupid headline.

Perhaps those of us that “cling to” the idea that journalists should at least try to be unbiased in their reporting can comfort each other. Unfortunately, reporter Duke Helfand doesn’t really improve things with his story, which purports to look at the Scriptural battles over gay marriage:

“Homosexual intimacy is out of bounds. It’s not what God created us for,” said Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Mouw cites Romans 1 in the New Testament that decries men and women abandoning “natural relations” and men “inflamed with lust for one another” committing “indecent acts with other men” — behavior that carried death as punishment.

Behavior that carried death as punishment under what law? Jewish? Roman? But Mouw is talking about New Testament teachings. And unless some new verses have been added to Romans recently, I don’t recall Paul calling for the death penalty for homosexual behavior. I mean, unless reporter Duke Helfand is taking the exegetical position that what Paul is doing in his Romans sermon is calling for the death penalty to be imposed on those who sin in general — be it sexual sins, pride, envy or any of the other sins he enumerates in that chapter. To the Christian, the wages of sin may be death — but that’s kind of the whole point of the “good news” of the Gospel.

Anyway, Mouw’s views are followed by the Rev. Mel White’s, former Fuller professor who got married to his male partner on Wednesday:

“The Bible says as much about sexual orientation as it does about toasters or nuclear reactors,” White said. “We have to grow with the times.”

Other clergy reject the scientific argument and say homosexuality is a choice.

I’m not sure why Duke Helfand didn’t write the entire story about this huge piece of breaking news. Science has decided this contentious issue? Sure, scientific studies on this topic are conducted all the time — but has there been a definitive conclusion? Have we found the elusive gay gene? What’s more, many clergy are opposed to homosexual behavior whether it’s innate or immutable. So it’s sort of a silly statement either way, designed to make it seem like there are good people (the scientific types) versus bad people — the idiots who have no basis in reason or science for their awful, backward views.

The entire story is more of an instructional guide for how to argue against traditional religious opposition to homosexuality as opposed to an objective piece of journalism:

Theologians and biblical scholars trace the origins of the dispute to a handful of passages in the Torah, New Testament and Koran.

Perhaps the most frequently cited is Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: It is an abomination.”

The passage from the Torah is repeated, with slight variations, in Christian scripture, which, like the Jewish text, orders death for violators. The Koran also denounces homosexuality, in Chapter 7, Verse 81: “For you practice your lust on men in preference to women: You are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”

reactorThis is just another bizarre passage. It belittles the issue to cast it as a dispute over a “handful” of passages. The teachings about homosexuality — no matter which side you’re on — are about much more than a handful of Scriptures. There is an entire ethic — woven throughout Scripture — about sexuality in which homosexuality is just a part. There are also 2,000 years worth of tradition and church teaching about the matter.

And is Helfand aware that Christians also hold the Torah as Scripture? The Torah — aka the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — may be called the Pentateuch or the Law by Christians but they’re the same books of Moses. Perhaps someone should tell the reporter that they say the same thing. But as for New Testament passages on homosexuality, there is no death penalty, as we mentioned. So Helfand’s writing is just a mess in that last paragraph.

He quotes a Roman Catholic priest saying that the church teaches that homosexuals are to be treated with love and respect but that society does not have the authority to redefine the natural and divine institution of marriage. But that argument is only placed there so that it can be countered:

But other clergy criticize what they see as a selective analysis of the texts. Jesus condemned divorce and remarriage, they point out, but that hasn’t stopped many Christians from splitting and remarrying.

The Old Testament not only denounces adulterers and children who curse their parents, it demands the death penalty for both. It prohibits sex between husbands and wives during menstruation, even though theologians acknowledge the practice occurs without any formal reprimands.

This is not journalism. And no editor should ever permit Helfand to perform any exegesis of any Scripture at any point in the future. This reads like something Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens would write, except not as erudite or witty. Where oh where is Stephanie Simon? How can the paper have fallen from those heights so quickly?

Anyway, Helfand quotes the director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion saying that everybody without exception reads the Bible selectively and that all texts need to be interpreted with regard to the culture and society that they were written in. He shows how the issue has been debated in Conservative Judaism and in some sectors of Islam. The piece then ends with an obligatory quote from Father Thomas Reese, the Larry Sabato of religion stories.

You’ve got to hand it to Helfand. In a sea of bad stories related to California’s same-sex marriage ruling, he’s one big fish.

As always, please keep comments focused on media coverage.

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Obama campaign frowns on Islam?

obama in front of crowdsWho would have thought that a relatively new Washington, D.C., insider’s news organization would scoop all the news organizations in a major U.S. city that boasts two major daily newspapers? The Politico, which has quickly established its turf in a town full of media organizations, reported Wednesday morning that Muslims were “barred from picture at Obama event.”

Here’s how Ben Smith described the incident:

Two Muslim women at Barack Obama’s rally in Detroit on Monday were barred from sitting behind the podium by campaign volunteers seeking to prevent the women’s headscarves from appearing in photographs or on television with the candidate.

The campaign has apologized to the women, both Obama supporters who said they felt betrayed by their treatment at the rally.

“This is of course not the policy of the campaign. It is offensive and counter to Obama’s commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “We sincerely apologize for the behavior of these volunteers.”

Building a human backdrop to a political candidate, a set of faces to appear on television and in photographs, is always a delicate exercise in demographics and political correctness. Advance staffers typically pick supporters out of a crowd to reflect the candidate’s message.

The only other story of substance out there as of Wednesday afternoon was from The Detroit News. The Detroit Free Press has a shorter story with little information not already included in the The Politico‘s report.

Notice how the women are described as appearing in “traditional Muslim dress” and that the Obama campaign was merely concerned with their appearance:

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign apologized Wednesday for incidents in which Muslim women were asked not to stand or sit behind the candidate at a rally in Metro Detroit this week out of concerns about the appearance of traditional Muslim dress associated with the Democratic candidate in published and broadcast visuals of the events.

Unfortunately article by the The News doesn’t quite back up the allegation that these women were barred merely for their traditional Muslim dress. Fortunately, The Politico did some reporting and based on that the message is pretty clear: Obama’s campaign did not want women with headscarves behind him at the campaign. Here’s more:

“We’re not letting anyone with anything on their heads like baseball [caps] or scarves sit behind the stage,” she paraphrased the volunteer as saying, an account Marino confirmed. “It has nothing to do with your religion!”

In most work and school settings, religious dress — such as Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs — is permitted where secular clothing like baseball caps is not.

“The scarf is not just something she can take off — it’s part of her identity,” said Marino.

Photographs of the event also show men with hats in the section behind Obama and former Vice President Al Gore, though not directly behind the candidate.

The question for the rest of the media is whether this is only a minor kafuffle or whether it represents something larger about the Obama campaign that ought to be further investigated. As it stands now, I am of the later opinion for the following reasons.

While Obama may not have been involved, he still bears the responsibility for overseeing an environment where people associated with his campaign felt it necessary to keep him personally away from people that are visually identifiable as Muslims. Reporters should not allow Obama to pass blame for this unfortunate incident off on some random volunteers. A potential president should be held accountable for the actions of his or her staffers because that is the way the game is played once they get to the White House.

The obvious ghost in all of this is that the Obama campaign has been loathe to see their candidate associated with anything Muslim. Rather than shrugging off baseless accusations that Obama is a secret Muslim, the Obama campaign has reacted to the charge as if Obama were accused of some sort of deviant conduct. Many Muslims hoped that Obama would simply respond by saying “So what, if I was a Muslim.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see The Politico pick up on this relatively unreported angle:

But for Obama, the old-fashioned image-making contrasts with his promise to transcend identity politics and to embrace all elements of America. The incidents in Michigan, which has one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country, also raise an aspect of his campaign that sometimes rubs Muslims the wrong way: The candidate has vigorously denied a false, viral rumor that he himself is Muslim. But the denials seem to some at times to imply that there is something wrong with the faith, though Obama occasionally adds that he means no disrespect to Islam.

“I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to,” said Hebba Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.”

In Detroit on Monday, the two different Obama volunteers — in separate incidents — made it clear that headscarves wouldn’t be in the picture. The volunteers gave different explanations for excluding the hijabs, one bluntly political and the other less clear.

Because this happened in two separate incidents, reporters covering his campaign must suspect something bigger is at hand. Are there any policies — spoken/written or unsaid — that have staffers or volunteers intentionally screen the people positioned behind Obama when he speaks in front of large audiences and cameras? Is there an internal campaign policy regarding Obama and his campaign’s association with Islam?

According to the news reports, this type of screening happens all the time on the campaign trail. If that is true for Obama’s campaign, why? And what does that say about the sincerity of the Obama campaign’s larger message of inclusiveness particularly towards Muslims?

Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Hampshire used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

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Narrow view of gay-marriage foes

gaymarriagefoeLast month, Mollie criticized reporters for marginalizing opponents of same-sex marriage. Rather than presenting marriage traditionalists in full, journalists portrayed them as fringe types.

That was more than two weeks ago. How are journalists doing now? Based on three recent stories, I am afraid to say that coverage has improved only slightly.

The Los Angeles Times‘ story today gives a flavor of the coverage:

Opponents of gay marriage made a pointed effort today to keep a low profile on the first full day of same-sex ceremonies in California.

Ron Prentice, chairman of ProtectMarriage.com, wrote in an e-mail to supporters that they will battle in November with a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage.

Prentice had a cautionary message for those protesting Tuesday’s ceremonies. Media outlets, he warned, “would love to see us engage in fierce protests and hostile demonstrations of outrage. . . . We must not fall into this trap.”

There were only a scattering of isolated protests around the state.

A few people carried placards at the county facilities in Norwalk and Santa Ana. In San Diego, a lone protester stood on the sidewalk and cried out a message against same-sex marriage.

“It’s just not right for a man to marry a man; it’s just not normal,” said the protester, Dennis Agajanian, a member of Bikers for Christ.

It’s fair for reporters Cara Mia DeMass and Jessica Garrison to focus on the tactics of traditional-marriage supporters. But their definition of these leaders and activists is awfully constricted: It’s limited to political and civic types.

While the reporters mention that churches belong to the ProtectMarriage.com coalition, they don’t quote any church leaders. That’s an oversight. Church leaders played a key role in approving the state’s gay marriage ban in 2000. And they are likely to play a similarly influential role this fall. Check out the number of churches mentioned in the coalition’s website.

George Orwell once wrote that in times of revolution or crisis, it’s necessary to restate the obvious. In that spirit, I give one cheer to the San Francisco Chronicle. In a profile of same-sex marriage opponents in rural California, reporter Cecilia M. Vega quoted from one woman whose objections to gay marriage are religious:

Like many of her neighbors in Orland, religious beliefs are at the heart of 76-year-old Rae Whitaker’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

She lives with her husband, who was a bomber pilot in World War II, behind their son’s dentist office. The entryway wall is covered in photos of her seven children, 24 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren plus one large photo of former President Ronald Reagan, who Whitaker says is “just about my favorite person after Jesus Christ and my husband.” On her coffee table, she has framed photos of Nancy and Ronald Reagan and President Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

In 2000, she rallied local support for Prop. 22, and she says that if her health is good, she has every intention this fall of working for a measure to amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

“Can they produce children?” Whitaker asked about gay and lesbian couples. “The husband and wife are basic to the family … God ordained the family. He set up the family as woman and man.”

Reporter Vega did not ignore or marginalize religious Californians. Yet her portrait of them is reminiscent of that famous photo of Goldwater’s supporters — the unsmiling, elderly couple sitting down and waving a wan banner. Every single one the gay-marriage opponents quoted in the story is not only old, but also an octogenarian or nonagenarian. Younger opponents, the reader presumes, are either Republicans or fuddy duddies.

This narrow portrait serves the ideological purposes of the gay-rights cause. Only old folks and religious fundamentalists oppose us. But it does not serve the interests of journalism. When the state voted in 2000 on a gay-marriage initiative, 61 percent of voters approved the ban. One-third of registered Democrats voted for the measure, while three-fifths of Catholics did. Where are the voices of these people in the Chronicle’s story?

Not all stories about gay marriage opponents have been so constricted. Via Metapundit, The Modesto Bee wrote a more balanced story, one with the voices of religious leaders:

Father Jon Magoulias of Modesto’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation said:

“Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. …

“As the coming kingdom is concerned, there is ‘neither male nor female.’ But the kingdom has not yet come, and the male and female roles must remain distinct, especially in regard to what we understand family to be. Each has a specific role to fulfill. Obviously, there is overlapping in many areas. But for the male to replace the female or vice versa has never been in God’s plan.

“A good example is marriage between two males or two females. This can never be acceptable because it makes marriage as instituted by God an abomination.”

Magoulias also pointed out that Paul, writer of many of the New Testament letters, uses marriage to describe the relationship between Christ the bridegroom and humanity, his bride.

“In this regard, Saint Paul tells a man and a woman entering marriage that the icon of Christ and his church should be their role model.”

I liked the fact that Bee reporter Sue Nowicki let the priest speak at length. She also quoted the local Catholic bishop and a former homosexual man. Compared to her big-city counterparts, Nowicki is practically an apostle of religious diversity.

Yet Nowicki isn’t of course. She is a reporter, not an advocate.

(Photo by user Philocrites used under a Creative Commons license.)

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An old anti-Catholic device

anticath 01It’s an old anti-Catholic journalistic device.

A reporter writes about a controversial cultural issue such as contraception or abortion. Opponents are identified by their religious denomination. Supporters are not. The lesson for readers is plain: opponents are motivated by religious zeal, while supporters are motivated by humanitarianism and sweet reason.

Plenty of otherwise great journalists have committed this journalistic sin. In the late 1960s, Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times wrote about legislation to liberalize the state of New York’s abortion laws. Schanberg’s stories invariably referred to abortion opponents as Catholics, while abortion supporters were never identified by their religious background or lack thereof.

Now reporter Rob Stein of The Washington Post adds his name to this illustrious list.

Stein wrote about pharmacy stores that refuse to stock contraceptives. The first third of his story was largely unexceptional. He told readers about the controversy over conscience clauses: individual pharmacists assert a right to refuse to sell contraceptives for moral or religious reasons, while some ethicists and professional groups assert that the health concerns of patients trump an individual’s conscience. He also let both sides make their case.

But in the middle third of the story, Stein identified opponents by their religious affiliation while not identifying supporters by the same. Here is one example:

“We try to practice pharmacy in a way that we feel is best to help our community and promote healthy lifestyles,” said Lloyd Duplantis, who owns Lloyd’s Remedies in Gray, La., and is a deacon in his Catholic church. “After researching the science behind steroidal contraceptives, I decided they could hurt the woman and possibly hurt her unborn child. I decided to opt out.”

Some critics question how such pharmacies justify carrying drugs, such as Viagra, for male reproductive issues, but not those for women.

“Why do you care about the sexual health of men but not women?” asked Anita L. Nelson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “If he gets his Viagra, why can’t she get her contraception?”

Lest you think I complain too much, here is another example:

The DMC Pharmacy opening in August marks an expansion by Divine Mercy Care in Fairfax, a nonprofit health-care organization that adheres to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The group runs the Tepeyac Family Center, an obstetrics-gynecology practice in Fairfax that offers “natural family planning” instead of contraceptives, sterilization or abortion.

“We’re trying not to leave our faith at the door,” said John Bruchalski, who chairs the group’s board of directors, noting that one of the organization’s major goals is helping needy, uninsured patients obtain health care. “We’re trying to create an environment where belief and professionalism come together.”

Like the doctors, nurses and other staff members at Tepeyac, Robert Semler, the pharmacist who will run DMC Pharmacy, plans to start each workday with a prayer with his staff, which at first will just be his wife, Pam, a nurse.

And then there is this:

“If you are a health-care professional, you are bound by professional obligations,” said Nancy Berlinger, deputy director of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y. “You can’t say you won’t do part of that profession.”

This is not fair or balanced. It’s political. Stein is leaving readers with a subtle but unmistakable message: Duplantis and Semler seek to impose their Catholic morality on others, while Nelson and Berlinger are operating from altruism.

Now maybe Duplantis and Semler volunteered their religious affiliation. In that case, I think that Stein needed to relay this information to readers. He would have shown that he was seeking to be objective and fair.

Suppose Duplantis and Semler did not volunteer the information. In that case, Stein was obligated to record whether Nelson and Berlinger said their views were influenced by their religious views or lack of same. That’s just an issue of fairness.

Some GR readers may believe that my assessment of Stein’s story is uncharitable. But does he deserve the benefit of the doubt? I don’t know. Whatever the case, reporters have used this anti-Catholic and anti-religious canard for decades. It’s time to retire it.

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Obama on fatherhood and family

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s speech on Father’s Day about the importance of fatherhood is drawing praise from some surprising quarters that the day-after stories struggled to pick-up on. The New York Times rightly focused on the impact the speech had on the African-American community, but this speech is having effects in other communities as well.

Here is the NYT:

Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who sat in the front pew, Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make, telling the mostly black audience not to “just sit in the house watching ‘SportsCenter,’” and to stop praising themselves for mediocre accomplishments.

“Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said, bringing many members of the congregation to their feet, applauding. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”

His themes have also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherlessness in African-American families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain the lack of economic progress.

Mr. Obama did not take his Father’s Day message to Trinity United Church of Christ, where he resigned as a member in May after a series of disputes over controversial remarks by the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Instead, he chose the 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God, a vast brick structure on the South Side near Lake Michigan. The church’s pastor, Byron Brazier, is an Obama supporter.

Many religious conservatives, not necessarily tied to the African American community, have latched on to the speech’s broader theme regarding the importance of fatherhood and the family. The NYT article correctly notes that this is not the first time Obama has spoken on this issue, which is part of the reason traditional conservatives were initially curious about Obama’s candidacy.

The setting of the speech, a powerful church on Sunday morning, was appropriately noted, but there has been little coverage of the scripture Obama used to open his sermon speech. Here it is from the text:

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus closes by saying, “Whoever hears these words of mine, and does them, shall be likened to a wise man who built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.” [Matthew 7: 24-25] …

Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.

One news organization, The Politico, picked up on how Obama ended the speech, which tied directly into the opener:

“We try. We hope,” he concluded. “We do what we can to build our house upon the sturdiest rock. And when the winds come, and the rains fall, and they beat upon that house, we keep faith that our Father will be there to guide us, and watch over us, and protect us, and lead His children through the darkest of storms into light of a better day. That is my prayer for all of us on this Father’s Day, and that is my hope for this country in the years ahead. May God bless you and your children. Thank you.”

Along with the setting of the speech (a church), the use of “the rock” as a religious symbolism to explain a policy position of the potential next president of the United States is significant. Obama is known for choosing the words of his speeches carefully and frequently changing phrases to fit what he believes represents himself. Was this one of them?

How much should reporters, if they covered this aspect, read into the use of “the rock” as a religious symbolism? Saint Peter is frequently referred to as “The Rock” upon which the Church of Jesus Christ would be built. Jesus is also frequently referred to as the “Rock of Salvation,” or the “Rock of Ages.”

In other words, has Obama picked up President Bush’s style of using religious rhetoric to explain his policy positions? If this is the case, will it be as effective in drawing in voters who wouldn’t otherwise identify with Obama?

Lastly, reporters should follow-up on the policy goals behind this speech. The NYT noted that Obama announced he would co-sponsor legislation with Indiana Senator Evan Bayh (huge Hillary Clinton support) intended to increase child support payment enforcement and domestic violence prevention. But is that all? What other positions held by Obama are influenced by this lofty goal of increasing the role of father’s in the lives of this country’s youth?

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Holy matrimony from Cana to California

marriage cana xlOf the many stories dealing with same-sex marriage in California, one San Francisco Chronicle story in particular deserves a look. Headlined “Bay Area churches opened door to same-sex vows,” the reporter skims the surface of the history of same-sex rites in Christian churches and managed to get the attention of more than a few GetReligion readers in the process:

The Bay Area has had a number of seminal moments in the history of gays and lesbians in organized religion. The first ordination of an openly gay minister, William Johnson, took place in San Carlos. One of two openly gay bishops in the Anglican Communion, Otis Charles, is a Bay Area resident.

But even so, the vast majority of churches in the region limit the role of gays and lesbians. Only one mainline Protestant denomination – the United Church of Christ, which ordained Johnson – marries homosexual couples with the same rite used for heterosexual couples. And the number of churches friendly to gays and lesbians is much lower than the number of Catholic, evangelical or other conservative Christian churches in the region.

So while liberal churches helped change the state, the state now has a far more liberal view of same-sex marriage. Flat-out opposition has come from evangelicals and the state’s Catholic leaders – including San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer and Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron. Joint support for a November ballot initiative seeking a constitutional amendment that will codify marriage as between one man and one woman will probably come from them.

In case the language wasn’t clear enough, the bad people “limit,” “flat-out oppose” and aren’t “friendly” to gays. The good churches “help change” the state’s views on same-sex marriage, ordain and marry homosexuals and condone homosexuality. And that bizarre last sentence is conditional and passive why?

Reporter Matthai Kuravila goes on to say that “churches supportive of gay and lesbian rights” are in the difficult position of being in denominations with stricter rules on same-sex marriage than they might prefer:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church, for example, now prohibit using the marriage rite reserved for straight couples for same-sex marriages. Separate – and, some say, unequal – rites are set aside for gays and lesbians. (That’s not true for all churches in those denominations, including some in the Bay Area, where evangelical members insist that marriage should only be between a man and woman.)

I sort of have no idea what he means by this paragraph but love that it’s “evangelicals” in these mainline churches who oppose same-sex marriage. What does that word mean in this context? That middle sentence is also fascinating. It should really form the basis for its own article. In fact, I think an article on Christian marriage rites for same-sex partners is desperately needed.

The Christian model of marriage is based on the relationship between Christ and the church. The husband is to sacrifice for his wife as Christ gave himself to the church. The wife is to respect the husband as the church obeys Christ. You can read all about it Ephesians 5. When my husband and I got married, this was the understanding of marriage that we were instructed in. This was included in our marriage rite. Such clear roles for husband and wife wouldn’t make sense for same-sex partners. Or, if the same rite is used, who represents Christ and who represents the church? Is the same model of Christ and church used for same-sex partners? How is this understood? I would love to learn more about liturgies for same-sex marriage — or just other marriage liturgies in general — rather than some throwaway line about how some people say the rites are “unequal.” I mean, really.

Anyway, the article ends with a discussion of how Bay area Episcopalians have been at the forefront of gay rights issues. Bishop Marc Andrus says that gay couples should have a purely civil ceremony at county clerks’ offices and then return to the church for a blessing. And all couples — straight and gay — should use one of the three rites approved for same-sex blessings. The article fails to mention that these “approved” rites have not been approved by the Episcopal Church itself but, rather, the local California Diocese.

This Religion News Service report appearing in the Washington Post on Saturday notes that even in California, Episcopal bishops hold different views on same-sex marriage rites.

Here’s how the article ends:

Andrus said it is part of a natural order that churches might lead the state, and that the state might lead the church.

“We seek to intently follow Christ, but we don’t contain Christ,” Andrus said. “Christ transcends the boundaries of the church. . . . It’s not a surprise to me that the culture is going to manifest Christ in a way that summons the church to new realities. I really welcome that. I think that’s the way it’s meant to be.”

I feel like this quote needs more explanation, context or a response — but maybe it’s that I moved from California so long ago that I have forgotten the language. Anyway, all that to say that the graphic that accompanies the article is in error.

The chart looks at the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to see whether celibacy is required for gays and lesbians and whether they bless same-sex unions, perform same-sex marriages or ordain partnered gay clergy.

According to the chart, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) do not require celibacy, do bless same-sex unions and do ordain partnered gay clery. Except that that’s not true. Practices may and do vary in both church bodies but the PCUSA does say that unmarried clergy must remain chaste and that people are not free to disobey that rule. And I think they also forbid same-sex marriage blessings. As for The Episcopal Church, 10 dioceses bless same-sex unions but the national church body has not condoned that. And the international Anglican Communion has been pressuring the Episcopal Church to crack down on those dioceses that conduct same-sex union liturgies.

It just seems that if you’re going to write a light and airy piece like this, the least you can do is get the facts right.

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Indy fails to cover its backyard

indy convention centerI was pleasantly surprised last Monday morning to see in my morning newspaper a story of significant length on the Southern Baptist’s convention, held this week across the street from where I work. Indianapolis gets all sorts of conventions, from Gen Con to the National FFA. The newspaper does a reasonable job covering them, but some fall through the cracks.

The reporter on the story, Robert King, is one of my favorite religion reporters, partly because he is local and partly because he is an excellent journalist. If you’re not from Indiana, you wouldn’t care too much about the story though since it focuses on how this “Southern” church is growing in HoosierLand.

Unfortunately, after this story, it seems The Star abandoned all hope of covering the rather significant news coming out of the convention. Our friends over at The Revealer had this to say about the media’s general failure to cover the convention:

Big, big story missed by the press: Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, held in Indianapolis, rejected the relatively moderate vision of outgoing SBC president Frank Page by electing — with big numbers — Johnny Hunt, an Atlanta megachurch pastor associated with the “fundamentalist” wing of the denomination.

The Revealer also notes the fact Hunt that is a Lumbee Indian may be significant in this denomination in terms of race issues and the fact that Hunt doesn’t like Calvinism so much.

While it is right to call on major national media organizations to buy plane tickets to Indianapolis to cover this news, I’d like to call out the news organization down the street from the convention center for failing to give us any substantive coverage of the convention beyond the initial story and posting Associated Press articles on their Web site:

INDIANAPOLIS — Four years ago, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign hosted a reception for Southern Baptist pastors at a hotel across the street from their annual meeting.

The country is electing a president again, the Baptists are meeting again and John McCain’s campaign is nowhere to be seen at a gathering of 7,200 people, most of them staunch Republicans.

The absence has some Southern Baptists wondering whether the Arizona senator wants their vote. Others are more sympathetic to a campaign still gearing up, a candidate not known for talking about his faith, and reticence McCain might feel over his recent rejection of two endorsements by high-profile, evangelical pastors.

Don’t get me wrong, you can’t do much better than the AP’s Eric Gorski in terms of quality religion reporting, but why is The Indianapolis Star using an AP article for an event in its own town? The most obvious answer, unfortunately, is that the newspaper is understaffed.

I understand from Monday’s story that the Southern Baptists are not the biggest religious group in the state and the AP story is a national story but there are plenty of local hooks for covering the country’s largest Protestant denomination and the largest Baptist association in the world.

How about a story on the fact that the governor of the state, former Bush Administration Office of Management and Budget chief Mitch Daniels, is running for re-election this fall and is one of John McCain’s biggest supporters? As Gorski writes, McCain may be nervous about associating too closely with religious groups these days, as Southern Baptists seem to be nervous about him. But what about the state’s politicians? Or is that even an issue in Indiana?

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