Pakistan’s religion-rich conflict

bhutto 3The opening sentence in Time‘s guide to the conflict in Pakistan is quite appropriate: “The turmoil in the streets of Pakistan stems from a mercurial mix of history, religion and politics — with explosive results.”

Religion is front and center in this very important part of the world, but are reporters telling the story?

The New York Times scored an interview with embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, and while the religious issues don’t pop out at the reader, they are present:

He said Pakistan was suffering from a “disturbed terrorist environment,” and he appeared to be unaffected by calls from Europe as well as the United States for an end to the emergency rule.

Instead, the general, whose government has received more than $10 billion in aid from the Bush administration, mostly for the military, asked for even more support, and more patience.

The Bush administration has called the general the best bet to fight Al Qaeda and Islamic militants, but has also complained that the cooperation of the Pakistani military has been sporadic and often ineffective.

You don’t have to read too deep between the lines to understand where religious issues come into play. But religious issues remained cloaked in vague terms, such as “moderates,” as tmatt pointed out Wednesday.

As for the Time piece, it is a good start and long overdue. However, it is only a start and it largely fails at explaining the various forms of Islam in Pakistan and how they relate to the law and politics.

A helpful way to go about this would be to compare Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries dominated by Muslim politics. Some are comparing the situation in Pakistan to the pre-revolution situation in Iran. Now that is a scary thought. But how does the presence of the highly professional military in Pakistan negate that factor, and what does religion have to do with it?

Speaking of countries highly influenced by the military that also happen to be allies of the United States, how does this compare to the situation in Turkey? An important aspect of this story is that Pakistan is no Turkey in terms of its relationship with the U.S. The country is far more radical, at least in religious ideology. Before September 11, 2001, the country was headed the way of Iran and Iraq as an official supporter of terrorism. But things changed on that tragic day, and the United States needed help of Pakistanis — along with Iranians — in routing the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

Another significant religion ghost that could receive more attention concerns former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. What is the religious significance that the opposition leader in an Islamic country is a woman? What does that tell us about the way Islam is taught and applied in the country?

Just as everyone was caught off-guard by the Iranian revolution, another surprise could be on the horizon concerning Pakistan. Religion will likely be in the center of it all.

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Paging Pat Moynihan, long distance

1101670728 400 01Here we go again.

For various reasons, journalists have rarely done even an adequate job covering the decline and fall of the African-American family. The share of black babies born out of wedlock in the last four decades has soared to around 70 percent from 25 percent.

Tellingly, the original story was broken not by a reporter but by a young researcher at the U.S. Labor Department, who had grown up in a single-parent Irish Catholic household full of Democrats. In the liberal backlash to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, journalists avoided discussing the topic of black family dissolution, fearing that they were “blaming the victim” or blaming blacks for centuries of racism and oppression. After black sociologist William Julius Wilson in 1978 made the subject respectable again, a few top journalists explored the topic, but they tended to rely on materialist explanations, such as the role of AFDC or welfare and the decline of good-paying, low-skill industrial jobs.

To be sure, it’s difficult for journalists to cover long-term, quantitative- and sociological-driven stories. Yet the story about black family decline has been going on for a long time, entering its fifth decade. Surely some journalist has identified the main problems.

Well, no, Which explains the stunned reaction to a report by the Pew Foundation about a sharp decline in black mobility. As The Washington Post reported in an A1 story:

Ronald B. Mincy, a Columbia University sociologist who has focused on the growing economic peril confronted by black men and who served as an adviser on the Pew project, said skeptical researchers repeatedly reviewed the findings before concluding they were statistically accurate.

“There is a lot of downward mobility among African Americans,” Mincy said. “We don’t have an explanation.”

Pew hopes to develop some answers in future reports in its series on economic mobility. Reports scheduled to be released early next year will probe, among other things, the role of wealth and education in income mobility.

Mincy and others speculated that the increase in the number of single-parent black households, continued educational gaps between blacks and whites and even racial isolation that remains common for many middle-income African Americans could be factors.

Journalists are given no more than speculation and resignation? Michael Fletcher of the Post should have looked elsewhere for his explanations of the trend.

Although the story no doubt has many parts, it’s clear that two key parts are the decline and fall of the two-parent black family and decline in religious attendance. Heck, haven’t we reporters checked out the debate in black America between Bill Cosby and Eric Michael Dyson? Or have we not read what social conservatives such as Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn or black moderates such as Juan Williams had to say about these topics?

dpm lbyPat Fagan, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has emphasized the importance of religion and family structure well:

During the 1980s and 1990s, when religious practice decreased overall, the association between regular religious attendance and marital stability became even more apparent. Those who had ceased religious practice divorced 2.5 times more frequently than those who continued to attend religious services. Paul Amato, a leading authority on the sociology of divorce from Pennsylvania State University, concluded that a possible increase in religious practice among some already existing marriages might have offset the negative effects of the overall decrease in religious practice among many other Americans.

… Parents’ religious practice also counts. The greater the parents’ religious involvement, the more likely they will have higher educational expectations of their children and will communicate with their children regarding schooling. Their children will be more likely to pursue advanced courses, spend more time on homework, establish friendships with academically oriented peers, avoid cutting classes, and successfully complete their degrees.

It’s unlikely that the decline in religious attendance among African Americans and divorce (or marriages that never formed in the first place) entirely explain the jump in downward black mobility. But it’s surely more than what our fellow journalists have been telling us.

The Washington Post, by the way, was not the only major newspaper in serious denial about some of the moral and religious issues tied to this painful and tragic reality in American life. Check out the Los Angeles Times story on the same topic. Keep in mind that this information is at the very bottom of the report, literally the next to last paragraph. The key voice here is John Morton, director of this economic mobility study, who says that “changing family structures” are also a factor that must be considered.

“There is a higher prevalence of single-parent families at a time that it is increasingly important to have two salaries to maintain a standard of living,” Morton said.

And this is a new trend? Or is this now into its second or third generation? What would Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan have said about that?

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Ghosts in the coach Reid story

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy ReidThe troubles in the family of Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid is a difficult story for reporters to cover. In many ways, one would wish for the story to just go away. Coach Reid’s family life is in public disarray. A judge has publicly castigated him about his abilities as a parent and his two oldest sons are in prison because of their long-standing drug addictions.

A headline from The New York Times is particularly appropriate: “There Are No Easy Answers for Reid and His Family.”

Much of this story appropriately has to do with drug addiction and whether it should be considered a disease. But there is another aspect of this highly personal story that has not received much attention, particularly by the Times. The Philadelphia Inquirer, perhaps because it is closer to the story than anyone else, touched on it on Sunday:

The boys were expected to become Eagle Scouts — and Garrett and Britt did so, Tammy Reid said. Piano lessons were required through age 18. Other rules were bent to accommodate the crazy hours of a coach. If her husband “got home at 9 o’clock, you’ll bet the kids are up to see him,” she said.

And when that wasn’t enough, she let him know. “We’ve got our roles down pat,” she said in that earlier interview. “I’m the one who tells him when he really needs to be home. There’s just times you can read the kids’ coverage – that’s what I call it. You just know one of your kids needs their dad. I say, ‘You really need to get to this.’”

As Mormons, the Reids did not allow even alcohol in their home. And Tammy Reid has described her husband’s determined efforts to carve out time with Garrett, Britt, and the three younger children — to be present at their sporting events, to take them to movies, to cut down a tree and sing together on Christmas.

There’s obviously only so much that a reporter can do when reporting on a person’s personal faith. If a public person doesn’t acknowledge that faith publicly, then it is probably out of bounds in stories like this.

But it would be difficult to say that Reid’s Mormon faith is not part of his public character. Check out this story from earlier this year by the sports director at Philadelphia television station NBC 10:

For all of us, there are times when the lines that separate our personal and professional lives are sometimes blurred. This is one of those times for me.

You see, I’ve known Garrett and Britt Reid since they were in their early teens. Their parents, Andy and Tammy, were classmates at BYU in the early ’80s and Andy and I were college teammates. More importantly, we share a common faith, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’re Mormons — which is still a relatively small community here in the East. …

Most Mormon young men apply for and serve a two-year church mission following their freshman year of college. Neither Garrett or Britt did that. A church mission in the Mormon faith is almost a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood — almost like being bar mitzvahed if you’re a Jewish boy. …

The Reids are very private and, as reported in newspaper accounts, very religious.

It’s moments like this that their faith really matters.

To be perfectly clear, the Mormon angle to the Coach Reid story should not be raised to castigate or criticize Reid or Mormonism. Reporters should treat this highly difficult subject with care and resist any urge to cast stones. But ignoring the Mormon angle of the story gives readers an incomplete picture.

Variations of this situation can happen in any family. Faith will often play an important, if not key, role in a family’s efforts to adjust and cope. To the extent that figures in the family are public and the situation becomes public, the faith aspect should not be tucked away or ignored.

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Cheering for women’s ordination

womenpriests2We have written before about Roman Catholic Womenpriests and how the media usually botch coverage of such groups. Roman Catholic Womenpriests wants the Catholic Church to allow women’s ordination and claims to ordain women as Catholic priests. Reporters covering these services often take them at their word that the ordination is genuine.

The problem with the stories is not that they report claims of ordination. That is an established, observable fact. The problem is that the coverage does not reflect that all the ordinations amount to are independent claims without taking into consideration that the Catholic Church does not recognize the services and finds them offensive. Your opinion on the Catholic Church’s position does not matter. The church’s position is a fact reporters should consider in weighing how to convey the news of an event.

A story in Monday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatchobvious cheerleading. The story is even headlined with the crowd’s cheers as if that was the most significant thing to come out of the story. To the credit of reporter Michelle Muntz, the story notes up front that the Roman Catholic Church does not sanction these ordinations. But she also refers to Rose Marie Hudson and Elsie Hainz McGrath the “first women ever in the city to be ordained as Catholic priests.”

To members of the diverse crowd — the dozen ministers in robes and stoles of different colors, those wearing yarmulke, and some wearing buttons saying “God loves us, just ask her” — the ceremony showed unity and understanding.

“What a day, what an occasion, what a case, what a rabbi,” said Patricia Fresen, the ordaining bishop with Roman Catholic Womenpriests, referring to the synagogue’s rabbi, Susan Talve. The room boomed with applause.

The story adequately addresses the fact that the Roman Catholic Church objects to the ordinations and finds them offensive. In fact, the potential response of the ceremony could have led the story, but it’s buried down near the end:

The action irked some. The Rev. Vincent Heir, who directs the Catholic Church’s interfaith efforts in St. Louis, said the archdiocese will not participate in any more interfaith events if Central Reform Congregation is “a leading player.” St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has threatened to excommunicate Hudson and McGrath, asked Talve to reconsider hosting the ceremony.

Though she felt support among the throng of people there Sunday, Talve said, “There is still work to do, still conversations to have to help people to understand why we chose to do what we did. Hospitality outweighed other issues that presented a challenge.”

Threats of ordination and refusal to participate in interfaith events are significant statements and could allow for follow-up stories. Instead, we get to hear about a “booming” crowd that cheered along an invalid, offensive to some, ordination service.

Reporters covering these stories should not pass up the opportunity to address the deeper theological issues involved in the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women. Slanted coverage does not help anyone and just reinforces the view that the media have a stake in the dispute. If you watch this YouTube video, you will see a smart question from reporter Ann Rodgers at a 2006 press conference and an in-depth response that gets to the heart of the issue.

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Religious freedom swept under the rug

Olympic ringsIn response to reports of Web chatter, the Associated Press and other news agencies inquired with Olympic officials about whether Bibles will be allowed in the Olympic Village for the 2008 Olympics in China. Most reporters got the answer they wanted and probably expected. Yes, of course Bibles will not be banned in the Olympic Village. What kind of country do you think this is? Oh, wait.

The nuance and significance of the story are left unstated in most news reports. For example, here is the AP:

The USOC contacted the International Olympic Committee about the issue in response to a story posted on the Catholic News Agency Web site citing a list of prohibited items that was reported to include Bibles.

That story said the Italian daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport, reported that organizers cited “security reasons” for prohibiting athletes from carrying any kind of religious symbol at Olympic facilities. Those reports and others were producing active blog discussions on several Web sites.

USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said the federation contacted the IOC about the news reports.

“We have heard from the IOC and there will be no restriction on athletes bringing the Bible or any other religious book into the village for their personal use,” Seibel said in a telephone interview from USOC offices in Colorado Springs.

The emphasis of that sentence and the story should be on the restriction of Bibles and other religious literature to “personal use.” Are athletes restricted from having their own religious services or Bible studies?

Perhaps that explains a Reuters story in which China proclaims a guarantee that religious services will be held in the Olympic Village:

China will offer religious services for foreigners arriving for the 2008 Olympic Games and religion will play a positive role in the country’s future, its top religious affairs official said on Wednesday.

… Ye [Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs,] said he expected large numbers of religious faithful among the athletes, coaches and tourists swarming into the officially atheist nation during the Olympics.

“We are learning from practices in past Games to make sure that their demands for religious worship are met,” Ye told reporters on the sidelines of the ruling Communist Party’s 17th Congress.

“Here I can promise that religious services we offer will not be lower than the level of any previous Games,” Ye said. He did not say if proselytising would be allowed.

This Reuters piece is Exhibit A for scribe-style journalism. Important person with important title stands up and tells journalists something and their job is just to write the quotes down accurately and spit those quotes out in a sensible manner in 800 words or less. No follow-up questions, please.

Catholic News Agency has been all over this story and reports (with links) that there are still contradictory statements out there. One example is the recommendation that travelers to China only bring one Bible and that “Any printed material, film, tapes that are ‘detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and ethics’ are also forbidden to bring into China.”

The world’s Big Media will descend on China next summer and the country will no doubt do its best to sweep under the rug those policies that restrict personal freedom of speech, the press and religion, among others. Whether the Big Media types, particularly those fancy TV evening news hosts, take the time and effort to stoop down and look under those rugs will say a lot about whether they value the freedoms they enjoy in the U.S.

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The Economist on the resurgence of religion

religion in the economistIf there is one edition of The Economist you should pick up off the newsstand, it is this week’s because of its special report on the state of religion in the world.

Quite appropriately, The Economist notes that it was wrong when it wrote in December 1999 that God’s career was over. If any other journalists felt the same way lately, they should have reconsidered that thought a long time ago.

There is so much that could be said about this report. Generally from what I have read they get it. The general message is that religion matters in the world. Moreover, you have to get it to function.

As you can see from the cover, the big issue of the day is why religion has inspired violence in the modern era. Much of the leading report discusses how the world should “deal with” religion as if all its readers are secular and are frustrated with religion’s role in the world. To me that’s a flawed approach, but not that surprising from The Economist:

Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity — that heady combination of science, learning and democracy — would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050 (see chart 2).

Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places. In general, it is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best — the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the favelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off. In India and Turkey religious parties have been driven by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.

With modernity now religion’s friend, an eternal subject has become fashionable. Father Richard John Neuhaus points out that when he founded his Centre for Religion and Society in 1984, there were only four centres of religion and public life in America; now, he thinks, there are more than 200. Religious people are getting more vocal in all sorts of fields, including business. Religion is also cropping up in economics. Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian, re-examined Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic to explain why Europeans work less than Americans.

One of the things I enjoy most about reading The Economist is its respect and understanding of the broad scope of history. If there is a news report from a far-off place, such as Pakistan, The Economist generally makes the background of the story, particularly if there is a long history behind it, fairly clear. You can debate the conclusions, but at least something is there and it’s generally fairly sound.

In this instance, the report takes a step back and tries to pinpoint when religion in the world decided it was not going anywhere:

In retrospect, the turning point came long before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. For Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on secularism, the symbolic turning point was the six-day war of 1967. It marked a crushing defeat for secular pan-Arabism; meanwhile Israel’s “miraculous” triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. In the same year a Hindu nationalist party won 9.4% of the vote in India.

By the end of the 1970s this counter-revolution was in full swing. America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia ul Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka’s constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic church.

Is it fair and accurate to lump those religious movements together like that? Are they responding in unity to the first revolution of the 1960s?

If you do not have time to read the entire special report or cannot find a place to buy it, check out this free audio interview with John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist and author of the special report. This is Micklethwait’s first special report, and he says he chose religion because of the demand for religion news and commentary.

I hope other journalists are hearing that. If a leading numbers-crunching, libertarian-leaning publication finds religion news in demand and important in today’s society, how can other newspapers serving a more general interest see otherwise?

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Scientology-embracing pastors craziness

south park scientologyWe’ve received so many of your notes regarding this bizarre story that we just had to address it. Maybe it’s because so many people check CNN.com so frequently. The story, headlined “Some Christian pastors embrace Scientology,” is fairly shallow and shabby in its lack of proper definitions.

Reader Jason had this to say about the story:

The reporter seems to frame this as a mixing of theology — “theological hybrid” — but most of the quotes –and there are a lot of them, to the reporter’s credit — are about just using some of the philosophies to help affect changes in peoples lives with the Gospel. I am curious to know about Ross’ religious beliefs and would like to know what kinds of criticism “other pastors” offer.

Ross is, according to CNN, a “court-certified Scientology expert,” whatever that means, and is quoted warning that “mainstream acceptance makes it easier for the Scientologists to achieve their ultimate goal — new recruits.” It’s a scary world we live in, isn’t it?

Here’s the heart of the story. In typical television journalism fashion, the potential reach of Scientology is unbounded and could even be in, heaven forbid, your own community!

The Rev. Charles Kennedy, of the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Tampa, Florida, and the Rev. James McLaughlin, of the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, are among the theological hybrids.

… Kennedy, McLaughlin and a handful of other Christian church leaders — no one can say how many — are finding answers to their communities’ needs in Scientology’s social programs.

For Kennedy, it began two years ago when he attended a meeting at the Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. He was introduced to a book called “The Way to Happiness” — Hubbard’s 64-page, self-described “common sense guide to better living.”

In the book, which lays out ways to maintain a temperate lifestyle, Kennedy found a message he believed could help lift his predominantly lower income African-American congregation. He said the book’s 21 principles help them with their struggle in an urban environment where there is too much crime and addiction and too little opportunity.

Kennedy knew that before he could introduce any Scientology-related text to his congregation, he would have to prove that it did not contradict his Christian beliefs. And so, he found Scripture to match each of the 21 principles.

What are published reports and what does “other religions and ethnic groups” mean?

And there are more questions. What are social programs and “temperate lifestyles”? How do church leaders see Hubbard’s book as better than the millions of other self-help books out there? Do the members of a church become part of Scientology automatically, or do they have to be admitted individually?

These and many other questions come up in a story like this, and considering that the reporters on this story only found a couple of examples, I question whether this is very significant as a trend.

The reporters’ reliance on Ross gets out of hand, and it’s fairly clear that the piece is less about exploring how inner-city churches are looking to Scientology for help and more about scaring people into believing that churches are adopting cult-like practices.

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Of the making of lists there is no end

SgtPepperThe right-of-center Daily Telegraph, Great Britain’s only remaining broadsheet, has published a list of what its editors consider the 100 most influential conservatives and liberals in the United States. The list tells us a lot about how the British see our next presidential election. It’s also a peek into how journalists across the pond understand America’s political power structure. Where do they rank the leaders of our political, business, social and, yes, religious institutions?

Like many others, I tend to find lists like these silly and, by definition, flawed. But they are reasonably interesting conversation pieces worth mentioning, and it is often the subsequent discussion that produces the most interesting insights.

It’s not that surprising to see former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani lead the conservative list, but who would have predicted Hillary Clinton down at number four with her husband leading at number one? Also, is it really that surprising that President Bush wasn’t in the top 20? The Telegraph thought it was significant enough to put in a special word for why the country’s president failed to crack the top 20.

With that aside, for the purposes of this blog, who were the leading conservative and liberal religious figures on the list and how do their rankings compare? The list is fairly focused on people who might have a direct influence on the election (and likely make an endorsement in the primary). It has missed the people, particularly in religious communities, who will probably end up influencing the election in a more indirect but significant way.

That said, here is the Telegraph‘s rather interesting disclaimer about the list:

When in doubt, we have leant towards those likely to be most influential in the future rather than those whose careers and impact lies in the past. But some historical figures cast such a long shadow that it would have been perverse to have excluded them.

The mere holding of a high office did not guarantee inclusion, though it was often an important factor. The future influence of some figures will depend largely on whether the candidate they are associated with wins their party’s nomination or the presidency. Certainly, a year and a week from today, these lists will probably be very — though by no means entirely — different.

Now consider whether the people on this list will exercise future influence or whether they’re just “historical figures” casting a “long shadow.”

On the conservative side, the closest religious figure in the top 20 is Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor who’s now running for president. He’s definitely among the future influential people. On the other hand, Focus on the Family president James Dobson appears at number 26 (one spot in front of Christopher Hitchens), former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is at 70 and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins is number 81. There are others on the list who express religious sentiments regularly, but that isn’t their primary purpose.

On the liberal side, the list of religious figures is a bit shorter: Former presidential candidates and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson (number 44) and Al Sharpton (88). That’s it. Apparently the emerging religious left hasn’t given notice to the folks across the pond that they have influence these days.

From my perspective, this is a fairly significant oversight. There was no room for Jim Wallis of Sojourners, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It? Or is it too difficult to pin him down as a liberal?

The challenge with some of the religious leaders is that they are difficult to pigeonhole on the right or left. Where would you place Rick Warren, if you think he should be on there at all? Perhaps that is this list’s fundamental flaw. What about the leaders of the Episcopal Church? Do Mike Gerson’s efforts to make the Republican Party more aware of Catholic social issues make him somewhat significant?

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