Atheism in the military

soldiers prayingEarlier this week an atheist in the U.S. military filed a lawsuit claiming that the Army had violated his right to be an atheist. Only the Associated Press has covered this very interesting situation. What was produced only gives one side of the story partly because the military, as one would expect, refused to comment on pending legal matters.

But even if the military did comment on the story, I doubt they would have said anything of significance. The story could have conveyed a more thorough and balanced message if the reporter did not rely so much on the papers filed in the lawsuit:

Hall alleges he was denied his constitutional right to hold a meeting to discuss atheism while he was deployed in Iraq with his military police unit. He says in the new complaint that his promotion was blocked after the commander of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley sent an e-mail post-wide saying Hall had sued.

Fort Riley spokeswoman Alison Kohler said the post “can’t comment on ongoing legal matters” and offered no further statement.

According to the lawsuit, Hall was counseled by his platoon sergeant after being informed that his promotion was blocked. He says the sergeant explained that Hall would be “unable to put aside his personal convictions and pray with his troops” and would have trouble bonding with them if promoted to a leadership position.

Hall responded that religion is not a requirement of leadership, even though the sergeant wondered how he had rights if atheism wasn’t a religion. Hall said atheism is protected under the Army’s chaplain’s manual.

Whenever you see someone claiming a right to something, it’s very important for that person to be required to identify the source of that right. Last time I checked, the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establish of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What is said in the Army’s chaplain’s manual is a far cry from rights established in the Constitution.

The big question for the reporters covering this lawsuit should be is atheism an establishment of religion? Does an atheist exercise religion? I’ve always said that being an atheist takes a great amount of faith, but that’s my personal opinion. That doesn’t give this soldier 5 votes on the Supreme Court, which is what you need to create a right based on the Constitution.

I don’t know the answer to this. There may not be a clear answer. Calling one of the many First Amendment law experts out there would be a good place to start getting some answer. A broader legal perspective on the First Amendment rights being claimed here would do a lot to balance this story.

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Does Obama have a white Catholic problem?

obama 02 It’s time for me to jump on and ride my favorite intellectual hobbyhorse again.

For months, I have criticized MSM reporters for failing to write about trends among Catholic voters. My argument was that a) the white Catholic vote seemed to favor Hillary Clinton and b) the white Catholic vote is acknowledged as a key bloc (read a summary of a 2005 Democratic memo).

So imagine my surprise that The Washington Post wrote about Catholic voters, sort of. It made me think that the Post is starting to get it; by contrast, neither The New York Times nor The Boston Globe wrote about Catholic voters. It also made me think that reporters should examine whether Barack Obama has a Catholic problem.

Post reporter Alec MacGillis quoted political scientists who explained Obama’s problems in Ohio this way:

Experts point to ethnic makeup and decades of political tradition to help explain why Obama was not able to match his performance in Wisconsin, another Midwestern state with a soft economy. While Wisconsin has a strong reform ethos dating to the Lutheran Germans and Scandinavians who once dominated it, Ohio’s ethnic mix leans to Roman Catholics — largely Eastern European and Italian — and Scotch-Irish, while its politics are more top-down and party- and union-oriented.

In other words, these political scientists believe that white Protestants like Obama, while white Catholics don’t. That’s interesting. But does the data back up the assertion? On this question, MacGillis failed to give his readers any statistics.

In fairness to MacGillis, it’s difficult to tell. Over at Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk asserts that white Catholics voted for Clinton and Obama at similar rates. His argument is that if you factor out black voters, the percentage of white Catholics and Protestants who voted for the two Democratic candidates is roughly equal.

Yet Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics found the opposite to be true. Except for the vote in Wisconsin, Northern white Catholics favored Clinton by more than 25 percentage points. So maybe, as Tmatt suggested, there are Catholic blocs, rather than a Catholic bloc?

Reporters should start answering that question more seriously. The next big Democratic primary will be held, on April 22, in Pennsylvania. And as The Post showed in a graph accompanying MacGillis’ story, the Keystone State has lots of white Catholic voters.

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Moment of silence reconsidered

prayer in schoolThe people have spoken in the great state of Illinois, and the law that required the state’s school students to pray or reflect for a moment every day seems to be on the way out. After passing twice through the state’s legislature (the second time by a supermajority due to the governor’s veto), the law that seemed like a good idea at the time looks like a goner.

The Chicago Tribune writes that there are two reasons for the law’s pending doom: the mandate was not popular among teachers and school administrators, and an “activist” had sued a township school district.

This activists and his daughter were previously portrayed by the paper as somewhat opportunistic litigants. It seems that the father-daughter team were trying to widen the lawsuit to bring in the entire state’s school districts, which is a scary thought from the school’s perspective. Suddenly defending against this lawsuit didn’t seem like such a good idea financially and while the state’s Senate has yet to vote on the reversal legislation, the House passed it Tuesday by a whopping 72-31.

Democracy at work, right?

Cross, for instance, switched his position because he decided it was better to have a “voluntary” moment of silence, spokesman David Dring said.

Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Sterling), who voted previously for the moment-of-silence law, changed his mind after hearing from many teachers and superintendents who are unhappy with the law. Mitchell said he didn’t think Fritchey’s bill would interfere with students who want to pray during school hours.

“Most good teachers have at least a couple of minutes of silence already just to establish order,” Mitchell said. “And you and I both know that as long as we have tests in school, we’ll have school prayer. I know I prayed a lot for that reason.”

“I was never passionate about it,” said Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), who also changed his stance. “If you could enforce it, that would be one thing… But what’s the point of it? How in the world would you ever get compliance?”

In fact, the law does not contain any penalties for noncompliance.

The fascinating aspect of this story is how non-partisan this legislation seems to be. If there is a red state/blue state battle going on in the background, the story does not hint at it. See the quotes from the Democrat who wants the legislation requiring the moment of silence for reflection and prayer to stay:

Sen. Kim Lightford (D-Maywood), who championed the required moment, said she would vigorously oppose Fritchey’s proposal, saying school officials in her district have praised the law because children have a chance to gather their thoughts or pray.

‘No one’s giving them a Bible, no one’s asking them to quote Scripture,” Lightford said. “No one’s coming over the loud system saying, “Bow your heads in prayer,” ” as lawmakers do at the beginning of each legislative day.

What a great way to end a pretty good story on this school prayer battle. The fact that lawmakers pray everyday while on official business passing laws removing moment of silence requirements in schools is a reminder that the line dividing church and state is hardly fixed and anything but consistent.

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Not giving the devil his due

sin One of my persistent criticisms of the MSM’s coverage of religion is that reporters fail to note the significance or larger implications of a story. A good example of this problem was Michelle Boorstein’s otherwise fascinating profile of the black metal scene in Northern Virginia.

Boorstein defined her subject well. She showed readers that the popularity of this “devil music” does not reflect a renewed interest in satanic acts; according to one knowledgeable observer, the scene is a bit poserish. Yet the music’s popularity is more than an expression of teenage angst and alienation. It’s really a protest against Christianity.

Bands have names such as Rotting Christ and Black Funeral. One lead singer proclaims that “sins stands for beauty” and that “our king [is] the Antichrist.” Concert goers wear upside-down crosses. As Boorstein concludes,

Fans generally describe this music as anti-religious, but saturated as it is in Judeo-Christian terminology, images and liturgy, black metal is frankly obsessed with the subject. In mood, trappings and lyrics, it explores man’s wrestling with evil — a key religious theme — in a more direct way than most types of music.

Further down in the story, Boorstein quotes one band member to memorable effect:

At the show was Christopher “Lord Kratos” Burke, a Montgomery County high school senior whose band, Valhalla, was one of the night’s early acts. Just after playing, the sweaty singer-guitarist flipped his long hair and checked his streaked whiteface makeup as he explained that Christianity “doesn’t seem real enough.” It seems like a fairy tale, he said.

This was a perfect point for Boorstein to draw out the implications of this music. Alas, she didn’t.

For surely Burke is not referring to a fire-and-brimstone Christianity, the Christianity of the old blues magicians and pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Isn’t the music really a protest against a kind of smiley-face Christianity, a Christianity stripped of its doctrines on sin, the devil, and hell? Perhaps the result is death metal.

In fact, Boorstein has one line that confused readers, or at least confused me. This is her summary of black metal’s essence:

That’s black metal — blurry lines: between loving and hating God, between fantasy and reality.

Read that line again. Loving God — the story showed no examples of this. For that matter, the story showed no examples of hating God.

To make the story great, Boorstein should have asked her interview subjects about their religious backgrounds. This would have helped her draw conclusions about the larger implications of death metal.

No doubt, Boorstein was swamped with work. The accompanying video to her story suggests that she had a camera crew with her or that she filmed her interview subjects herself; several of the quotes in the video appear in the story. Yet would asking a few extra questions take so much time? They could yield revealing answers.

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Devil is in the details

devil The Fort Wayne News Sentinel broke a fascinating story: Native Tim Goeglein, the White House’s liaison to conservative Christians, was guilty of plagiarizing columns for the paper. Here is what reporter Ashley Smith wrote in her lede:

Since 2001, Harding High School graduate Timothy S. Goeglein has been a White House aide, a liaison to conservatives and Christian groups. Since 1985, he has written guest columns for The News-Sentinel, his hometown paper.

Both stints came to an end Friday, after Nancy Nall, a blogger and former News-Sentinel columnist, found Goeglein had plagiarized a column on education published on Thursday’s editorial page.

The lede was pregnant with Godbeat possibilities. What did Goeglein help accomplish for conservative Christians during his tenure? How did Goeglein reconcile his role with his admitted plagiarism? Alas, Smith’s story typified the coverage about Goeglein’s misdeeds: it failed to provide any detailed answers. On what would seem to be an intriguing story mixing human interest and religious politics, reporters gave only generalities.

Take The Washington Post‘s story on Saturday. Reporters Michael Abramowitz and William Branigan explained Goeglein’s job at the White House this way:

Current and former administration officials described Goeglein as a well-liked, mid-level staffer at the White House who worked closely with former top aide Karl Rove and other key officials in outreach to conservatives, especially evangelicals and other Christians.

A past aide to former Republican senator Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and to onetime presidential hopeful Gary L. Bauer, Goeglein regularly kept in touch with conservative activists and religious leaders, helping promote Bush’s agenda and fielding complaints or concerns. He regularly attended the Wednesday Group, a weekly meeting of top Washington conservatives organized by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, often bringing senior officials and Cabinet officers with him, Norquist said.

The passage was less than revealing. Perhaps the reporters were on a tight deadline. Maybe so, but they failed to provide their readers with a follow-up story.

This was important news. According to a 2004 profile of Goeglein in the Post, he played key roles in winning support for President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, AIDS initiative, and faith-based plans. And it’s not like the Post hasn’t written detailed follow ups about fallen White House aides.

Smith’s story in The News Sentinel provided only a bit more information about Goeglein’s duties and accomplishments. It noted his work on the AIDS and faith-based initiatives.

To its credit, The News Sentinel followed up their original story. And a good thing, too: the paper interviewed Goeglein, and he gave an interesting answer for why he copied the work of others in his columns:

Contacted Sunday, the Fort Wayne native attributed the plagiarism to shortcomings in his character: “Pride. Vanity. It’s all my fault. It’s inexcusable. What I did is wrong. I categorically apologize.”

In other words, Goeglein admitted that he succumbed to two of the seven deadly sins. That’s interesting, but as far as readers are concerned, underwhelming, if admirable. How did he justify his plagiarism? Did it trouble his conscience? Did he consider what he did sinful?

Give me a story. The devil really is in the details.

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Scientology attack news reaches MSM

News of a growing, sometimes militant, movement targeting Scientology has been brewing in tech publications for a number of weeks now, and mainstream press is finally stepping up to the plate to cover this rather significant situation. In a lenghy story Monday, The Los Angeles Times covers a couple of months worth of Internet and street protests against Scientology.

Spurred on by the organization’s reaction to the Tom Cruise Scientology video that spilled onto the Internet in January, a certain element of the Internet’s users have organized in an effort to literally shut down Scientology. The movement has moved from the Web to real life protests in front of Scientology facilities around the world.

The story does a good job of outlining the abuses that the people attacking Scientology believe the officials within the organization have perpetrated. Also well explained is the combination of the two groups of people upset at Scientology: former Scientologists and Internet activists.

Threats have been made that cross the line of decency. Official Scientology statements claimed the movement’s goals are “reminiscent of Al Qaeda spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction.” The FBI is investigating a YouTube video that includes a threat to bomb a Scientology building in Southern California:

These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet like grass fires in recent weeks, testing the church’s well-established ability to tightly control its public image. The largest thorn in the church’s side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The high-wattage movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has repeatedly trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.

No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners — Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say — to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.

“What’s actually going on here,” he wrote, is that the church is “knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don’t exist.” Within a day Pilutik’s blog had gotten over 45,000 visitors — so much traffic that his site crashed completely.

Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive.

That last sentence — that Scientology has become defensive — is the key to this story. If this were merely a group of hackers interested in causing an organization problems there would not be a story. But Scientology has become “defensive” and is therefore changing the nature of its behavior.

The story also makes a quality effort at explaining how the Internet has changed things for this rather secretive organization:

The result of all this attention has been that just about any story critical of Scientology — even those that have been publicly accessible for years — can gain immediate Web currency. On Digg.com, a popular “social news” aggregator that features popular stories from around the Web, dozens of Scientology stories have ascended to the site’s most-viewed list in the last several weeks. A successful Digg story can drive tens of thousands of views to the originating site, as was the case with Pilutik’s post about e-meters.

The LAT article makes a good effort at getting the views of both sides. Scientologists get their say and are allowed to call this group a bunch of terrorists, while the people who don’t like Scientology so much are also given their say.

The missing voice of this piece is the neutral arbitrator. Someone needs to ask the question of whether this form of Internet-vigilantism is what’s best for society and for religions in general. Should a religion or group on the unpopular end of an event be subject to treatment on the Internet (and in real life) that crosses the boundary of decency and law?

The other big question is who is next?

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Preacher investigation needs more coverage

Kenneth CopelandSomeone needs to get a good in-depth interview with the staffer (or staffers) on Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s staff who is heading up the investigation of televangelists, which seems to be picking up lately. A couple of meager stories trickled out last week about a couple of ministers/evangelists who are responding to the senator’s inquiries.

One televangelist is not submitting to the tax-exemption inquiry without fuss. The Washington reporter for the Des Moines Register focused on the accusation that Grassley was in the process of taking apart “the wall between church and state.”

At some point this may become a bigger story nationally, but for now, it’s up to the regional papers to follow the letters that are making up this story:

Washington, D.C. — Televangelist Kenneth Copeland, in a letter to his supporters, is accusing Sen. Charles Grassley of attempting to tear down the wall between church and state as the Iowa Republican pursues an investigation of Copeland’s ministry.

“The enemy is not going to steal what the Lord has won through this ministry, and he is not going to use this attack to bring harm to the rest of the churches and ministries in America,” Copeland warns in the letter dated this month.

Aides to Grassley said about three dozen supporters of Copeland, who has a television-based ministry, have called Grassley’s office to complain, though none appear to have been Iowans.

The letter is the latest chapter in the escalating war between Grassley and televangelists unhappy he is questioning spending practices in their tax-exempt churches.

The story rightly points out that Grassley is merely investigating whether Copeland and his organization are following the law. The accusation that Grassley is somehow battering down the supposed wall between church and state falls apart upon closer examination, but the Register articles does little to break it down other than mention that Thomas Jefferson used the phrase in stating his profound belief that state should not interfere with church.

The argument breaks down when you ask whether Jefferson would have stood by and allowed churches to be used as organs to wrongfully avoid paying taxes. Everyone is innocent before found guilty, but that doesn’t mean churches are exempt from investigation if there is probable cause. This of course raises the question of why Grassley’s staff is doing the investigating. Typically the Internal Revenue Service handles this type of job.

As an aside, how ironic is it that a televangelist is raising the church-state wall argument?

The Register story also appropriately points out that Copeland preaches the “prosperity gospel,” but there is little explanation of what that doctrines stands for other than that “adherents will succeed financially.”

The Tampa Tribune had a much shorter version of the story that focused on the local Florida ministries caught up in the investigation, but there is even less information on the more interesting aspects of the story.

There are many ways this story could be followed up on. The two big angles are the actual people behind Grassley heading up this investigation and the theology of the characters being investigated.

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The Martin Sloan of Precious Blood?

tz Millions of American Catholics loved their parochial school, or remember loving it. There is a whole sub-genre of art about this theme. But why Catholics loved their school is difficult to say. Did they feel close to the Holy Spirit? Do they love its sense of community? Or are they feeling nostalgic?

James Ricci of The Los Angeles Times failed to answer these questions in his otherwise evocative story about a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles. Ricci suggested that the school posseses some magical qualities, but he never showed readers their source.

Ricci profiled briefly one devoted alum of Precious Blood Catholic School. Bob Reed implies that his love for the school is a mixture of nostalgia and appreciation of its sense of community:

“I would give anything to get in a time machine and go back to that era and spend the rest of my life there,” Reed said while giving a visitor a tour of the school.

“The neighborhood was actually friendlier to children than many places. Families with kids could rent a place, which was not easy to do elsewhere. Yes, we were crammed into the school, but you didn’t know any better because those were such simple times. Precious Blood school is a timeless jewel in an old neighborhood. Six decades go by, and nothing has changed.”

Yet in the midst of his mini-profile of Reed, Ricci quotes a professor who attributes the school’s appeal to another source:

Paul Contino, a literature professor and associate director of Pepperdine University’s Center for Faith and Learning, said such schools have survived “because they offer something distinctively spiritual at their heart that’s very precious and that people value a great deal. There’s something about being spiritually attuned that encourages being receptive and attentive in the classroom, and even being creative.”

So which is it? Is the appeal of parochial schools “distinctively spiritual,” nostalgic, or communal?

Ricci need to answer this question. According to Catholic theology at least, pure nostalgia is heretical. It enshrines virtue and goodness in the past, not the present. In so doing, nostalgia denies the power of the Holy Spirit to shower graces upon God’s children.

By not answering this question, Ricci presented Reed as the Martin Sloan of Precious Blood. Sloan was the chief character of Rod Serling’s short story, and later Twilight Zone episode, who seeks to return to his boyhood hometown when he was a child, and does.

No doubt Reed told Ricci about his unvarnished feelings for Precious Blood. But Ricci should have asked Reed if he felt any spiritual or religious connection to the school. In the absence of this question, Reed’s love for his boyhood school seems universal rather than, well, parochial.

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