Why did Obama seek out Trinity?

obama 03 It’s a famous storyline from Western literature, not to mention the lives of millions of believers: a person responds to God’s call and becomes Christian. Think of St. Paul falling to the ground and hearing God’s voice or St. Augustine hearing a voice say “Take and read, take and read.”

So have reporters examined why Barack Obama sought out Trinity United in the first place? As you might guess, the answer is no. None of the stories about Obama’s speech have addressed this question.

This is no trivial matter. After all, Obama did not seek out Trinity United as a child. He sought it out as an adult. By then, his reason and will were mature. He could have sought out and joined other churches in Chicago; instead, he sought out and joined this one. As Doug LeBlanc pointed out more than a year ago,

Barack Obama made a conscious decision to become a Christian while attending Trinity United Church of Christ.

Worse, Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times obscures the truth, implying that Obama did explain his decision to seek out the church:

Standing against a backdrop of eight American flags on Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama offered the most thorough explanation to date about his association with the church and his pastor, whom he has known for nearly 20 years.”

“For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course,” he said. “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely–just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

In fact, Obama’s explanation was not his “most thorough explanation to date” about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.. In an interview with Dan Gilgoff, Obama said that he sought out Trinity in admiration for Wright’s speaking ability, despite Wright’s views:

People who are familiar with the black church tradition know that Reverend Wright’s considered one of the greatest preachers in the country. Our church, Trinity United Church of Christ, even though it is part of a 95-, 97-percent white denomination, very much draws on the historical black church tradition and Reverend Wright’s sermons do as well. And that means that sometimes he’s provocative in ways that I’m not always comfortable with and in ways that I deeply disagree with occasionally.

Why Obama sought out Trinity United in the first place might be impossible to determine. But surely reporters should start asking more questions. After all, the South Side of Chicago has plenty of churches, as does the rest of the city. Finding clues as to why he chose Trinity might reveal about not only his politics but also his faith.

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Race and religion in Obama’s sermon?

Unless I have missed something (if so, please correct me), the Washington Post has a mere six news stories and columns in today’s paper about The Speech by Sen. Barack Obama. This may seem a bit out of line, but somewhere out there in evangelical-land there has to be a twisted, right-wing novelist or a screenwriter who is thinking about writing some kind of sequel for the “Left Behind” series. This was one amazing speech.

Following the lead of the Divine Mrs. MZ, your GetReligionistas will be looking at the coverage of the speech today — seeking different takes on the religion elements of the story in various publications. So I think I will try to handle the wave of Post coverage, starting on A1 and working our way inside.

It’s hard to take the religion angle out of a story about years of controversial preaching and, if you stop and think about it, the conversion of an adult to Christianity. That’s what the relationship between the senator and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. boils down to — the birth of Obama’s faith. So what does the Wright controversy tell us about what Obama actually believes?

That’s the story. But there is little new we can learn from the main report by Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz. It’s politics, baby. There is this coverage of some basic facts.

Obama was emphatic … in his criticism of what his former pastor has said, but he refused to walk away from the man who had brought him to Christianity, performed his marriage and baptized his children. He spoke from a biracial perspective, as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother.

“Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive,” he said, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”

Obama acknowledged that he had heard his pastor say controversial things with which he disagreed, but he also said that in personal conversations he never heard Wright speak in a derogatory way about any ethnic group. And the senator described his congregation as typical of African American churches in embodying “the struggles and successes, the love, and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.”

Things get a bit more interesting back on A6, where reporters Alec MacGillis and Eli Saslow dig into the actual rhetoric of the speech and how it might have played with different audiences.

That’s a solid angle and here are the transition, summary paragraphs:

As skilled an orator as Obama is, he has faced few moments as fraught as yesterday’s. The clips of his longtime spiritual mentor declaring “God damn America” for its mistreatment of blacks and saying that the country had provoked the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks threatened to undermine Obama’s promise to bind up racial and political fissures.

Obama needed to address several audiences with the speech: undecided white voters in Pennsylvania, whose Rust Belt cousins Obama struggled to win over in Ohio even before the Wright controversy; African Americans aggrieved by the opprobrium being heaped on Wright; and staunch supporters … who needed reassurance about their candidate.

His solution was to grapple broadly with the nation’s racial problem, beginning with slavery and Jim Crow and the inequities they produced, but to also acknowledge the roots of resentment among struggling whites who “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.” He admitted a fundamental disagreement with Wright that went beyond the angry sound bites, saying the minister had made a “profound mistake” in doubting that the United States could be redeemed over time.

Yes, yes, but what about the actual religious content of the speech? In this case, the Post found someone rare — an expert in political speechmaking who also happens to be an articulate Christian. (Personal confession, this source happens to be a friend of mine.)

So this is promising:

Martin Medhurst, an expert in rhetoric at Baylor University, was struck by the religious intonations as well as the echoes of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on his Catholicism, particularly the summons to overcome divisions to confront common threats.

Will yesterday’s speech be remembered along with Kennedy’s? “If Obama goes on to win the presidency, it will,” Medhurst said. “If he wins the presidency, this will be seen as a very important speech.”

Yes, yes? But that’s it?

You know that if Medhurst said he was impressed by the religious themes of the speech then he probably offered a few specifics. Can we please read a few paragraphs of that?

Here is my point: Did anyone consider that one of the audiences Obama needed to reach is made up of, well, people in pews? This audience is black, white, brown, tan, you name it. But there are lots of readers out there — voters even — who would want to know how this remarkable candidate handled the faith elements of this controversy (which, again, is rooted in his own coversion to faith).

What about the folks in the Style section? A news feature by Kevin Merida offered this headline: “Obama, Trying to Bridge America’s Racial Divide — Pastor’s Remarks Spurred Need to Address Subject.”

Yes, this controversy was caused by sermons — s-e-r-m-o-n-s.

(Obama) had been pushed to this moment by a controversy over video snippets of sermons given by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While condemning Wright for comments that were “not only wrong but divisive,” Obama also sought to put the minister and the black church in context. In doing so, he seemed to recognize that only a frank public disquisition of America’s racial problems and challenges might move the national dialogue forward. …

Obama said that his church home, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, “contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and the successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America. … And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. … He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served so diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Yes, yes? The story does raise the point that the pulpit, in African-American churches, is a logical place for prophecy and even anger. Take, for example, a famous sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “I Have A Dream” text included some tough, even angry language.

King, from 1963: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But what does it say that King’s sermon is best remembered for the passages that are rooted in faith and hope, passages that are quoted today by Americans of every color and creed for the precise reason that King used the language and logic of faith to reach out to those who were not already part of his flock? Was Obama able to build a similar bridge of faith language?

In other words, was this speech about religion as well as race?

There’s more in the Post, starting with another Style piece about how these issues are playing out there in the world of YouTube and the “church of the Internet.”

The facts are, I will confess, striking:

One of Wright’s sermons was the most viewed video online in recent days, according to Viral Video Chart, a daily catalogue of popular videos on Google Video, MySpace and YouTube. On Sunday, days after Wright’s remarks had been replayed on cable shows and dissected in print and online, type “Wright” and “Obama” on YouTube and some 300 videos popped up. Another 500 videos were uploaded the next day. By early Tuesday, hours before Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia on race, the tally had risen above 900.

This is the nation that we live in, these days. I would also imagine that people who love Obama, and people who do not, were talking about these videos in the pews.

Moving on to the editorial pages, Eugene Robinson played the ultimate insider card in this kind of Beltway situation:

Yesterday morning, in what may be remembered as a landmark speech regardless of who becomes the next president, Obama established new parameters for a dialogue on race in America that might actually lead somewhere — that might break out of the sour stasis of grievance and countergrievance, of insensitivity and hypersensitivity, of mutual mistrust.

“My goal was to try to lift up some truth that people talk about privately but don’t always talk about publicly between the races,” Obama told me in a telephone interview later in the day.

Once again, however, this unique access to Obama is used for a discussion of race — period.

Then, a few inches over on the op-ed page former White House scribe Michael Gerson weighed in, under the headline: “A Speech That Fell Short.” Gerson hit hard on one of the facts behind some of Wright’s rhetoric. This is a case where the specifics really sting:

Take an issue that Obama did not specifically confront yesterday. In a 2003 sermon, Wright claimed, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

This accusation does not make Wright, as Obama would have it, an “occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy.” It makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil.

And Gerson also returns to the lessons of King.

… Obama attempted to explain Wright’s anger as typical of the civil rights generation, with its “memories of humiliation and doubt and fear.” But Wright has the opposite problem: He ignored the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and introduced a new generation to the politics of hatred.

King drew a different lesson from the oppression he experienced: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South. … Hate distorts the personality. … The man who hates can’t think straight; the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right.”

In other words, there are theological differences between King and Wright. Has anyone written about that? What are the differences? Where do the doctrines clash? And what does Obama believe? That’s a story that needs to be written.

Believe it or not, but today’s Post needed a seventh story or column.

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Leaving home for the court

home school basketball tournamentIf you are part of a family that homeschools its children and is religious, The New York Times is your friend Sunday morning. The newspaper’s sports section has a nice news/feature story on last week’s national homeschool basketball tournament in Oklahoma City, and for once, the story doesn’t take the “zoo approach” toward homeschooling. (As a disclaimer, my 15-year-old sister played in this basketball tournament this past week.)

What I mean by the “zoo approach” is when a reporter sees a homeschooled family or organization of homeschool families and reports and writes about them as if they are covering an odd new species at the local zoo. Everything they do is considered suspect and strange. Their successes, whether it is spelling bees or starting higher education at age 14, needs extra explaining, prodding and poking around.

This story takes a different approach that seeks out the positives and finds the success stories among the stay-at-home high school basketball players. The story also appropriately highlights the religious aspect of this tournament right in the lead:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Taber Spani, one of the best high school girls basketball players in the nation, holds hands with two opponents as a coach reads a Bible verse. It is the way each game in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships begins.

This is more than a postseason tournament for the 300 boys and girls teams from 19 states that have competed here over the past six days. As the stands packed with parents and the baselines overrun by small children attest, this is also a jamboree to celebrate faith and family.

“You build friendships here with other girls who know what it’s like to be self-motivated and disciplined and share your values,” said Spani, a junior who plays for the Metro Academy Mavericks of Olathe, Kan. “I wouldn’t trade this tournament for anything.”

Only a decade ago, home-school athletics was considered little more than organized recess for children without traditional classrooms. Now, home-school players are tracked by scouts, and dozens of them have accepted scholarships to colleges as small as Blue Mountain in Mississippi and as well known as Iowa State.

I can’t help but wonder if this story was influenced by the recent California homeschooling case. Are homeschool scholars becoming more sympathetic to journalists as a result?

The story also nicely highlights some of the challenges homeschool families have when it comes to extracurriculars like basketball and how things have changed recently thanks to the growth of homeschooling. I’ve always been curious as to why basketball seems to be the sport of choice for homeschoolers, but that’s probably an issue for a longer more features-oriented article.

From a sports perspective, I found the article rather soft, and its claims a bit unconvincing. A quick reading of this story, and you’d think this tournament was a powerhouse tournament that all college recruiters attend. I don’t doubt there are talent players there, but not every player in this tournament is considering college scholarship offers to play for Tennessee’s Pat Summit. But this is not the first time a bit of hype has slipped into the sports pages.

The religion angle continues throughout the piece, and it rightly points out that many of these families choose to teach their children at home for religious reasons:

“Our Christian faith is No. 1 why we did it,” Gary Spani said of why he and Stacey chose to home-school their children. “We’re team oriented, and we wanted to make sure our family was supporting one another. We also agreed that when our daughters reached eighth grade, we’d let them decide if they wanted to go to high school.”

But that’s only half the story. As the accompanying audio slide-show points out, many people homeschool because they are tired of dealing with the problems that can come with the public schools.

Overall, the straightforward nature of this story is refreshing but probably not that unexpected from a sports reporter. I would be curious to see how this type of story would have turned out if it went through the newspaper’s national desk, or The Washington Post style section.

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Seeking the roots of Wright’s audacity

wright 01 Barack Obama supporters won’t like this, but let the word go forth. Reporters should write more stories about Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and his relationship with the Democratic presidential candidate. Yes, I say this even after Wright left the campaign.

This is not a case of piling on. Journalists have underplayed this story.

As Doug LeBlanc noted, consider this profile of Obama in Rolling Stone. Far from being a fresh revelation, some of Wright’s remarks were reported more than a year ago. Yet only now have Wright’s comments caused an uproar. If reporters had scrutinized Wright, the current contretemps would have been long past.

A key starting point for reporters should be the roots of Wright’s theology. In the most recent coverage, newspapers have offered two different explanations. The Chicago Tribune quoted Obama as saying that Wright’s theological views are a byproduct of the 1960s:

Obama compared Wright to an uncle he was fond of but with whom he disagreed, adding: “Like a lot of African American men of fierce intelligence who came of age [then], he has a lot of the language and the memories and the baggage of those times.”

By contrast, The New York Times mentioned nothing about the sixties. Instead, reporter Jodi Kantor emphasized the religious roots of Wright’s vision:

Mr. Wright, 66, who last month fulfilled longstanding plans to retire, is a beloved figure in African-American Christian circles and a frequent guest in pulpits around the country. Since he arrived at Trinity in 1972, he has built a 6,000-member congregation through his blunt, charismatic preaching, which melds detailed scriptural analysis, black power, Afrocentrism and an emphasis on social justice; Mr. Obama praised the last quality in Friday’s statement.

His most powerful influence, said several ministers and scholars who have followed his career, is black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible as a guide to combating oppression of African-Americans.

Granted, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. Every theology is rooted in some historical era. Yet readers of the two stories are confused. Does Wright’s theology owe more to “Soul on Ice” or “A Black Theology of Liberation.” (To her credit, Kantor quoted James Cone, the author of the latter book.)

If the public were better informed about this question, they would know more about Obama and Wright.

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Back to the Texas Bible wars

bible studies in schoolTexas’s El Paso Times had an interesting story Tuesday on a development in the state’s law that initially seemed to require public schools to teach a non-sectarian Bible course that would be an elective taught by teachers who received some sort of specialized training.

It turns out that the law may not be mandatory, and the legislature neglected to fund the training. The state’s education commissioner says that due to lack of funds, there hasn’t been any special training. Amendments made to the law before it was passed seem to suggest that the schools may only have to offer the class if at least 15 students are interested. Another section of the bill says that the schools “may” offer the course, as in, the course is not mandatory anymore.

I’m a little confused how this is only making news now. A reasonable reading of the legislation in its final form would have revealed these problems, but it’s hardly the first time a legislature passed a poorly written law with inherent inconsistencies that will likely be left to the courts to sort out:

AUSTIN — The state’s top education official wants to know whether Texas high schools will have to start offering Bible classes during the 2009-2010 school year.

Last year, lawmakers passed a law requiring high schools to make Bible courses available as electives. The classes, according to the law, would not be a graduation requirement and would be religion neutral.

“Many of us believe the elective course would complement the studies of literature and the arts in the curriculum,” said state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, a co-author of the bill. “I think it’s a good option for students.”

It is interesting to note that the law was co-authored by a Democrat. What’s also interesting is that the story doesn’t seem to explain that the law is not really requiring anything, at least how I am reading it.

Professor Howard Friedman of The University of Toledo College of Law kindly provides a link to a letter on his excellent Religion Clause blog from the state’s education commissioner to the state’s attorney general asking for the law’s proper interpretation. As you can see from the letter, there are at least three ways the law could be read.

But back to the article. In conclusion, the reporter attached the opinions of some of the parents whose children attend local schools. Both comments are generally positive toward the law:

Pamela Perez, who lives in Northeast El Paso and has a 3-year-old and a 13-year-old, said Bible courses in public schools would be a good option for students, teaching them how to treat one another and how to deal with problems without resorting to violence.

“What children will learn from the Bible will help them in their every day lives,” she said.

Cher Poehlein, who has three school-aged children and lives in Horizon City, agreed Bible courses would be a good thing for students in public schools, with one big caveat.

“As long as its nondenominational that would be OK,” she said. “I would be very much for it.”

There are some out there that disagree with this law because both reader comments attached to the story seem opposed to the idea. Was there no one around that disagreed with this bill? Was there anyone in El Paso that thought that the law is not the best use of state education funds?

Since they are not funding the law, the issue may no longer be significant. I also think it’s interesting that the second person quoted believes it is important that it’s nondenominational. Does that mean just within Protestant denominations, or would a Catholic view towards the Bible be included in that statement? Would they object to a course teaching the Koran from a historical point of view?

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Burying a church-state sin

focus 01 In January, I noted that the Las Vegas Review Journal had scooped the national press with its story that a pastor had endorsed Barack Obama from the pulpit, a violation of federal law. Now reporter Jeff Goldblatt of FOX News has done the same, concluding that Obama’s controversial pastor also crossed the line.

“There is a man here who can take this country in a new direction,” [Jeremiah] Wright said during his sermon, according to recordings obtained by FOX News. …

“It’s pretty clear an indirect endorsement of Barack Obama — that’s not something you’re supposed to do according to the tax code,” said Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College who specializes in religion in politics.

The tax code bans churches from participating in or intervening in a political campaign. Violations can result in the loss of a church’s tax exempt status.

Goldblatt makes a compelling case. Obama appeared at the church. Wright endorsed him, albeit indirectly. Why are reporters not investigating this?

Unfortunately, Goldblatt makes a mistake similar to that of Ball — he buried his story. He should have focused exclusively on the church-state violation angle. Instead, he wrote about Wright’s racial views and language. The story’s focus on the latter make it seem like a political hit piece rather than an investigatory article.

To be sure, Goldblatt returns to the church-state angle. He notes that the IRS is investigating whether Obama violated church-state law by speaking at the United Church of Christ’s conference last year. But that is old news, apparently.

By failing to focus on the church-state topic, Goldblatt also confused readers about the nature of Wright’s violation. Wright endorsed Obama indirectly. How does the IRS or federal law regard that as opposed to a direct violation?

Also, Goldblatt quotes Walsh as saying that church-state issues are rarely prosecuted. Why, exactly, is that? Walsh’s explanation, that of a tension between pastors’ right to speak in the public marketplace and IRS rules, is opaque.

Focus on the church-state entanglement, not extraneous political issues.

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Magnify the supernatural

detail It’s one thing to rip a routine or bad story. It’s another to criticize an excellent story with one flaw. The exercise can seem, and perhaps often is, pedantic. So if the criticism is to be convincing, it better be valid.

With this proviso in mind, I bring to your attention a Baltimore Sun story about former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett.

Everett was paralyzed after suffering a life-threatening spinal cord injury in a football game last year, but he recovered, to the point that he can do most any physical activity except play professional football again. His recovery has been called a miracle. Sun columnist Rick Maese, to his credit, wrestles with the nature of miracles.

I ask him what he thinks a miracle is.

“A blessing, a gift from God,” he says.

… [T]oday, six months later, he walks. A miracle man. Those aren’t my words. That’s what Oprah Winfrey called him on her show last month. I don’t know what a miracle is. Is it something that defies reason? Or merely explanation?

Maese’s questions suggest he is open to a supernatural explanation. Indeed, Maese asks Everett the right follow-up query:

Can Everett credit both God and doctors? Is the fact that he walks today a miracle of faith or a miracle of science?

“Both,” Everett says.

In the following paragraph, Maese reveals that Everett is no dumb jock; he’s a man of uncommon honesty, openness, and wisdom.

What continually impresses me is Everett’s demeanor. There’s not a hint of remorse or regret. At 26, he essentially had spent a lifetime preparing for one thing: to play football. Now, as he is starting over, he refuses to allow his story to become one of despair or disappointment.

I tell Wiande Moore, Everett’s college sweetheart, that I’m simply amazed at the upbeat attitude Everett and everyone around him has maintained. There must have been some bad days in there, though.

“No, not really,” she says. “We just stayed positive.”

Everett interrupts. “Let’s quit with the lies,” he says. “I was sad, depressed. I couldn’t go on …

At this point, Maese’s story was promising indeed. He asked Everett about his faith; was open to the possibility of a supernatural explanation; and revealed Everett’s character. Few stories achieve that trifecta.

But after this point, the story disappointed somewhat. Maese failed to probe Everett’s explanation of God’s role in his recovery. Instead of detailing Everett’s supernatural rationale, he kept it general. Here are a few questions that Maese might have asked Everett: Why do you believe that God played a role? How, exactly, did God play a role? Did you pray to Him for His help?

Those questions are — pardon the pun — completely in bounds. Watch the video of Everett’s injury. After he is paralyzed, players from both teams met in the middle of the field and began to pray; a couple of players even sprinted there. Doesn’t Everett think that their prayers helped?

I don’t make this point lightly. A decade ago, a Roman Catholic priest in Baltimore was stricken with a debilitating heart problem. But he prayed every day to then Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. Behold, one day at a church healing service, the priest fell to the floor for minutes and suddenly leapt up, astonishing the crowd. The priest was healed; Church authorities verified the miracle; and Kowalska was canonized.

Reporters should never discount such a possibility. Sure, a supernatural miracle is unlikely. And Maese was right to detail the medical side of Everett’s miraculous cure. But why not detail the possibility that God intervened?

Alas, even this fine story reflected an unjustified imbalance between natural and supernatural explanations.

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How shall local governments pray?

city council prayerGood reporting generally involves some time, coordination and good footwork. Forget secret meetings in Washington, D.C., parking garages. Some of the best stories sit underneath reporter’s noses. A little creativity and thinking outside the box can reveal an aspect of a community that everyone appreciates regardless of which side of the issue they fall.

Exhibit A for this type of journalism is this recent story in The Grand Rapids Press that surveyed the prayer practices of the region’s local legislative bodies. I am sure this story initially seemed a bit daunting, but the journalistic results must be satisfying:

GRAND RAPIDS – About three-fourths of local governments open meetings with prayer, a Press review found, and most of the prayers are overtly Christian, often concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

But even among those that begin with an invocation, practices vary. As a minister and Grand Rapids mayor, George Heartwell combined “reflection” with “invocation” on the City Commission agenda as a way to offer inclusive prayers.

I remember doing these types of stories in the various small towns I worked and lived in during my college internships days. Sometimes the stories involved calling a half-dozen or more local government bodies and other times it involved burning some foot leather and visiting a series of council meetings. Without fail the stories were well received because the community’s readers learned more about themselves. I just wish I had thought of this particular idea.

The story is pegged on a recent request from “a Wisconsin-based free thinkers’ group to strike the phrase ‘strive to serve God’ from the city of Hudsonville’s mission statement.”

For one reason or another the American Civil Liberties Union isn’t quoted in a story that involves church-state separation, but that’s likely because they aren’t involved in this particular legal squabble. The organization’s relative equivalent, the Washington-based American Center for Law & Justice, is involved in defending the city, and we get some analysis of the current constitutional law governing this matter:

“The issue of prayer before any sort of public meeting is pretty well established, and in favor of communities doing it. As long as it’s ‘nonsectarian,’” he said.

He did note that the guiding Supreme Court decision is vague, and lower courts have made various rulings, leaving room for interpretation.

The ACLJ is a religious-based group involved in court challenges “specifically dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, God-given rights.”

But even Manion emphasized the requirement that prayer be nonsectarian — for two reasons: It’s easier to defend in court. And it’s just good manners.

The Wisconsin group protesting the involvement of religion — the Freedom From Religion Foundation — is quoted saying that a survey shows that 16 percent of people are not religious but it’s not clear what segment of the population was surveyed. The viewpoint missing from the story is that this is less about where to draw the separation of church and state line and more about protecting the rights of the minority from the majority.

The story rightly focuses on the individual practices of the various local governments. The reporter brings up subtle distinctions, which is appropriate because slight changes in the wording of a prayer can mean a world of difference in a legal battle.

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