News flash: Obama is not a Muslim

obama in a churchWhat is the point of reporting on Web rumors that are plainly false and contribute little to the political discussion? Unfortunately it becomes necessary when the rumors and false reports become too much of the story.

The Washington Post reported in a front-page article, “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” From the start, the story rightly exposes rumors and false reports that Obama is a closet Muslim. In the second paragraph, the story explains why these rumors are silly and mentions the nugget of fact that gives these stories their spark:

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama’s stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

The story attempts to lump together two issues: the first is the false Web rumor about Obama being a closet Muslim. The second is that Obama sees his time overseas in the world’s largest Muslim country as an asset and a reason for people to vote for him. It shores up the international experience portion of his presidential resume:

“A lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs is not what I just studied in school. It’s actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live,” he said earlier this month in Clarion, Iowa.

“The day I’m inaugurated, I think this country looks at itself differently, but the world also looks at America differently,” he told another Iowa crowd. “Because I’ve got a grandmother who lives in a little village in Africa without running water or electricity; because I grew up for part of my formative years in Southeast Asia in the largest Muslim country on Earth.”

While considerable attention during the campaign has focused on the anti-Mormon feelings aroused by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), polls have also shown rising hostility toward Muslims in politics. It is not clear whether that negative sentiment will affect someone who has lived in a Muslim country but does not practice Islam.

That last sentence is a pretty poor piece of writing and reporting. First of all, you shouldn’t start sentences with an “it” in general. It (oops) makes it hard to know what the writer is referring to. Second, what isn’t clear about people’s sentiment toward a person who lived in a Muslim country for a few years but doesn’t practice the religion? No one is thinking about opposing a candidate because he lived overseas. They are thinking about opposing a candidate because they think he is a closet Muslim.

The two issues to an extent go hand-in-hand, and one has to wonder how many people out there really believe that Obama is a closet Muslim versus those who consider his time overseas and understanding of Muslim culture as an asset.

Buried at the end of the story, we get these fairly surprising poll numbers that may be out of date, given the coverage already devoted to Obama’s faith:

A CBS News poll in August showed that a huge number of voters said they did not know Obama’s faith, but among those who said they did, 7 percent thought he was a Muslim, while only 6 percent thought he was a Protestant Christian.

The last half of the story repeats the false accusations that Obama is a Muslim and cites the frequent references to it in magazines and Internet message boards. I guess this is necessary for a reporter to convey the message that there are people out there who like to spread false rumors, including talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, but it seems like overkill. Is it really news that there are many instances of people spreading false rumors about a politician?

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A megachurch cost-benefit analysis

megachurchThe business section of The New York Times had another story in its series on how religious institutions in America benefit from government accommodations.

On its face, the series takes the approach that the benefits gained by these institutions are a detriment to the rest of society because of the government accommodations. That perspective, at least in this story, leaves the authors reaching for a detriment that I am not entirely convinced is there.

Overall, this article on big churches using their influence and size to spur local economic development is very informative. A great feature shows where these big churches are concentrated. The article notes that this development challenges the traditional view that churches “drain a town financially by generating lower-paid jobs, taking land off the property-tax rolls and increasing traffic.” This is a good thing, the Times seems to suggest. Yet there has to be a negative:

But the entrepreneurial activities of churches pose questions for their communities that do not arise with secular development.

These enterprises, whose sponsoring churches benefit from a variety of tax breaks and regulatory exemptions given to religious organizations in this country, sometimes provoke complaints from for-profit businesses with which they compete — as ChangePoint’s new sports center has in Anchorage.

Mixed-use projects, like shopping centers that also include church buildings, can make it difficult to determine what constitutes tax-exempt ministry work, which is granted exemptions from property and unemployment taxes, and what is taxable commerce.

And when these ventures succeed — when local amenities like shops, sports centers, theaters and clinics are all provided in church-run settings and employ mostly church members — people of other faiths may feel shut out of a significant part of a town’s life, some religion scholars said.

Two big “buts” come up a lot in this story. The first “but” regarding the tax assessor’s office is an overblown concern. The gist of the problem is that tax assessors have trouble determining what part of the property is taxable. All I have to say about that, as one who recently wrote a massive paper on property-tax exemptions granted to multi-use hospitals, is that these tricky situations can be figured out. This is why we have laws, courts and lawyers.

Churches are not the only groups that raise these complex tax issues. Hospitals, all sorts of charitable organizations and even health clubs are all trying to take advantage of a property tax exception most state constitutions carry that allows exempts certain organizations from taxation. Frequently, legislatures pass such exemptions on the grounds that the benefit provided by the charitable organizations makes up for the lack of tax revenue.

Once you get beyond the sob story from the tax assessment office — “What’s a poor tax assessor to do?” — the story raises some pretty good issues about inclusion and exclusion of people of other faiths. Here’s a segment on First Assembly of God Church near Charlotte, N.C.:

Another contribution the church makes to the city is a free daylong celebration it holds on Independence Day, complete with fireworks.

[City manager W. Brian] Hiatt said no one seemed to find it awkward for a church to conduct the community’s celebration marking the birth of a country committed to separation of church and state.

“It was a very positive event,” he said.

Mr. [Doug] Rieder, the church business manager, paused when asked whether people of other faiths would have felt comfortable at the event.

“We try not to discriminate in doing community service,” he said. “There are Muslims and other non-Christians here, of course. And we do want to convert them, no doubt about it — that’s our mission. We don’t discriminate, but we do evangelize.”

The same quandary confronts Pastor [Karl] Clauson in Anchorage. “There is nothing inherently alienating about what we’re doing economically,” he said. “An Orthodox Jewish youngster or a conservative Muslim child encountering our programs would find zero intimidation.”

Nor does he want his community to become divided along religious lines, he said. But at the same time, “we definitely want to use these efforts as an open door to the entity that we feel is the author and creator of abundant life — Jesus.”

He added, “It’s a tough balancing act.”

I think the overall strength of this story, excepting the great emphasis on the poor tax assessor, is that it takes a national perspective and looks at historical precedents. Community involvement by churches is nothing new, and neither is government permissiveness or encouragement. Another perspective on this story could be why this type of church work went away in the first place.

Photo: The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif., from Wikimedia Commons.

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Fresh eyes on religion coverage

student journalismMichigan State University’s student newspaper, The State News, had a solid feature story a couple of weeks ago by Petra Canan that takes a fresh and personal look at the local Christian Science congregation. Apologies for not mentioning this sooner, but it is important not to let this one slip by.

Many thanks to the reader who gave us the heads up on the story, along with this note:

[The story] deserves to be lauded for its willingness to tackle statements of belief right off the bat, as well as take the time to feature a prayer worker’s perspective on spiritual healing and a historical overview of Mary Baker Eddy, while not fixating on medical issues. I think too often we forget that the journalists of tomorrow are the student journalists of today, and that collegiate papers’ coverage of religion can tell us much about where more general media coverage may go.

As a former student journalist myself, I could not agree more. The viewpoints and perspectives entrenched in today’s newsrooms are often formed and shaped during college journalism careers. Influences range from the classroom to interaction with faculty and university officials, but sometimes a single story can have as great an impact as an entire semester of instruction.

The open and respectful perspective on Christian Science is apparent from the start of the article:

As morning gives way to afternoon, the cold wind blowing outside, a congregation comes to its feet at their pews and chairs. The church, with its crisp white walls and maroon carpet, stays warm with the heat of two fireplaces. Eight windows line the room with lit candles on their sills.

. . . Among them is East Lansing resident Jeanne Troutman, who stands in her usual spot at the back of the church with her husband, facing the front of the room with the words of Christ Jesus and Eddy before her.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” reads the quote from Christ Jesus on the left.

“Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need,” are the words of Eddy.

Troutman, a lifelong student of the Christian Science faith, is a member of the congregation of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, 709 E. Grand River Ave., and a Christian Science visiting nurse. She serves a vital role in the practicing of spiritual healing, which, she said, maintains the ideas of the first creation and the perfect God and the perfect man.

The religion of Christian Science was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, a Congregationalist who rejected the Christian ideas of predestination.

One could quibble with the statement that predestination is a Christian idea since not all Christian denominations accept it. It is in fact one of the most divisive and controversial theological issues one could find two Christians discussing. But that is a minor point on an overall tremendous article.

As our reader noted, the “medical issues” often fascinate reporters, causing them to miss other aspects of the faith. The article is particularly solid when it discusses the theological foundations of the faith:

Eddy went on to research Christian healing and is said to have performed several healings herself. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” first published in 1875, remains the principle text in addition to the King James Version of the Bible.

However, other versions of the Bible are studied.

The main ideas of Eddy’s book include the role of God as divine love, Father-Mother and as supreme, the spiritual role of man as child of God and the power of healing through God. The book has since been published in 17 languages and English Braille and is sold in 80 countries.

The mother church was built in Boston in 1894 and remains there to this day as the world headquarters for the religion.

One perspective on this student-published article is that is not encumbered with the burdens of the modern journalist. Real-life newsroom pressures such as deadlines and money do not press as much upon the innocent student. But then again, students have pressures in their lives as well.

Another, more optimistic, view is that tomorrow’s journalists will be better at understanding and appreciating religion news. The increased attention today’s journalist give religion — for good and for bad — will certainly raise the importance of religion coverage. I hope it will result in greater understanding and respect.

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God is in the details

regrettheerror2My two favorite parts of some newspapers are the obituary and corrections sections. And Sunday’s New York Times did not disappoint:

A headline last Sunday about a Muslim man and an Orthodox Jewish woman who are partners in two Dunkin’ Donuts stores described their religions incorrectly. The two faiths worship the same God — not different ones.

Right. I don’t know about you, but I trust The New York Times‘ religious declarations above anyone else’s. I mean, really. Sure, President George W. Bush believes that Muslims and Jews worship the same God, but I sure as heck don’t. And while it’s charming to find the Times and Bush agreeing on something, that doesn’t mean they’re right. At the very least they have to understand that not everybody shares their opinion.

The original headline, in case you were wondering, was:

Worshiping Different Gods (but United on the Issue of Pork)

The correction is a blight on an otherwise great local feature about religious tolerance in action. Reporter Deborah Kolben’s description of Muslim Sam Habib and Orthodox Jew Cindy Gluck was a great way to show how Muslims and Jews peacefully coexist in neighborhoods of Brooklyn:

“I had never met a Muslim before,” Ms. Gluck said the other day, sitting with her partner in the small office at the back of the Church Avenue store, a space heavy with the aroma of baking croissants. “The first thing I wanted to know was: ‘What kind of Muslim are you?’”

Mr. Habib chimed in with a laugh: “All her friends told her that she should be careful that her crazy terrorist Arab partner doesn’t put bombs in her packages.”

Under the ground rules the pair worked out before making their partnership official, Ms. Gluck takes off Saturdays to celebrate the Sabbath, and Mr. Habib worships at the mosque every Friday. The doughnuts come from a kosher bakery in Borough Park. On Jewish holidays, Mr. Habib technically owns the entire business because Ms. Gluck is not allowed to earn money on those days.

And there is one edict they both obey. “Neither of us is allowed to enjoy the profits of the pork,” Ms. Gluck said. Any money the business makes on the sale of bacon, sausage or ham — foods that are forbidden in both their religions — is split and given away, hers to her synagogue and to Israel, his to the workers as bonuses. . . .

“She’s Jewish and I’m Muslim,” Mr. Habib said. “That doesn’t stop us from creating a business.”

Habib says it well. Without getting into the debate of whether Jews and Muslims worship the same God, reporters need to understand that it’s possible for people who believe in different gods to be friends, family, neighbors and business partners. The essential element of tolerance is, in fact, disagreement. There is no need to deny those differences, particularly the ones about truth claims. It is precisely because Muslims and Jews believe so differently that this story was published — even if a silly correction tries to mitigate that.

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Tony Blair, a man for some seasons

beheaded Judging by The Sunday Times of London, a reader might conclude that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a smart man’s Thomas More or Thomas Beckett. Blair, who is expected to convert to Catholicism, said in an interview that his Christianity “played a hugely important role” during his decade-long tenure, but he feared saying so lest he be known as a “nutter.” As Dipesh Gadher reported,

In his most frank television interview about his religious beliefs, Blair confesses he would have found it difficult to do the job of prime minister had he not been able to draw on his faith.

The admission confirms why Alastair Campbell, then Blair’s director of communications, was so wary of the prime minister mentioning religion. “We don’t do God,” he once said.

In a documentary to be broadcast on BBC1 next Sunday, Campbell now says of his former boss: “Well, he does do God — in quite a big way.”

In a tone of breathless wonderment, Gadher reports what he clearly views as a series of shocking revelations about the depth of Blair’s faith. Wherever Blair was in the world on a Sunday, he insisted on going to church. When Blair sought to use the expression “God bless you” on the eve of war against Iraq, his aides, keen to quell Blair’s religious fervor, urged him to leave out the offending phrase. Before retiring for the evening, Blair read the Bible.

The implication of Gadher’s story is that in the case of Tony Blair, politics and religion, far from being decoupled, were intertwined. Presumably, if Blair was an agnostic or atheist, there would have been no story to report.

I do not know what the British press considers an acceptable form of piety in its public officials. Nonetheless, Gadher’s story struck me as no more substantive than your local anchorman’s wig or dry-blown hair.

To take the most important example, the story does not mention a single instance in which the former Prime Minister’s faith affected public policy. Did Blair’s faith shape his policies toward the poor or immigrants? Was Blair ever ready to stick his neck out for his Christian faith?

Certainly, and I know faithful GR readers have read this before from me, Blair did little to promote the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. During his tenure, Britain legalized human cloning and civil partnerships for homosexual couples; and continued to allow the killing of unborn infants up to their 24th week. Did Blair have a conflict between his personal and public beliefs? If so, what were they?

In short, Gadher fails to paint Blair’s faith against a wider canvas. Maybe the Prime Minister’s Christianity was “hugely important” to him — in some, but not all, seasons.

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Evangelical is not (descriptive) enough

oral roberts universityRichard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., resigned over the long holiday weekend over a series of allegations of misspending the institution’s funds to support expensive shopping trips and trips to the sunny seas of the Caribbean. Only a handful of news agencies have picked up the story, but a few are worth highlighting.

Most notably, The New York Times published an Associated Press story that implies in the headline and says in the body of the story that the university is an evangelical institution.

Perhaps the university’s being founded by televangelist Oral Roberts has created some confusion. I am aware that evangelical is not a very precise word, but the world of Pentecostalism is much broader than that one adjective can encompass.

Thankfully, the AP’s Eric Gorski is on the story and has a very thorough report. These paragraphs highlight an interesting component that would be easy to miss:

At a university that is hardly a den of dissent, the reaction to the scandal has been striking. Before Richard Roberts stepped down, tenured faculty gave him a no-confidence vote and his handpicked provost said he would resign if Roberts were reinstated.

“There was a time when the wagons would circle and we’d protect our own,” said the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a former member of the ORU board of regents who is now a United Church of Christ minister. “But we don’t know what our own is anymore. People are asking questions and questioning answers, and we’re not used to it.”

In other words, there is more to this story than yet another Christian showing that all humans are sinners and are just as capable as self-destructing as everyone else.

Speaking of everyone else, William McQuillen and Jeff St.Onge of Bloomberg News put the news in an larger context:

Roberts becomes the latest president at a U.S. school to lose his post because of allegations of financial impropriety. Benjamin Ladner was ousted from his post as president of American University in Washington, D.C., after an audit found that he used school funds to hire a personal chef, take trips to Europe and throw parties for his family.

The Tulsa World led with a word from the man himself:

Embattled Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts resigned Friday following nearly two months of allegations that he and his family misused university and ministry resources.

In his resignation letter, Roberts states: “I love ORU with all my heart. I love the students, faculty, staff and administration and I want to see God’s best for all of them.”

If there was ever a time to bury a resignation in the news cycle, Thanksgiving week was the time to do it. By resigning Friday, Roberts almost assured that there won’t be much coverage of his resignation after today. That doesn’t mean this story is going away. An independent report is expected to be released maybe next week, but the significance of the story is gone. The subject of the report has stepped down. The next question involves the complicated and undetermined future of the university.

A huge question that remains largely unanswered is how this scandal was affected by the Roberts family’s emphasis on prosperity theology.

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It’s back to court in Jesus’ name

IndianaCapitol 01Indiana media were attentive to the prayer opening the legislative body’s proceedings this week (earlier coverage). The ACLU and others had protested what they considered sectarian prayers at the opening of General Assembly sessions. They successfully sued in 2005, barring prayers in the Statehouse that used the name Jesus Christ or endorsed any single religion. That decision was tossed out on procedural grounds earlier this year, but that didn’t mean the case was over.

The Indianapolis Star was quick to update online readers with the news of what words were used in the opening prayer on Tuesday:

A state lawmaker invoked Jesus Christ during a prayer given this afternoon in the Indiana Senate.

The move is significant, because it marks the first time in more than a year that a sectarian prayer has been delivered before the Indiana General Assembly. …

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, gave a minute-long prayer, that he ended by saying:

“We pray this in the name and beloved power of our Lord Jesus Christ and for his sake, Amen.”

Anyone expecting the ACLU to say amen to that would be wrong. In time to make deadline for Wednesday’s paper, the ACLU was considering suing over Kruse’s invoking the name and power of “our Lord Jesus Christ” in his prayer:

But Ken Falk, an attorney with the ACLU of Indiana, said that if the Senate continues to invoke Jesus Christ in its prayers, his organization likely would sue on behalf of those who are subjected to, and offended by, the prayers.

“We certainly see no reason to back away from our legal claims,” Falk said. “There’s a high degree of probability that this will result in litigation.”

It is good that those few words by Kruse received some coverage along with the suit, but there could have been more.

Some background on Kruse would be helpful (he’s probably one of the most conservative and religious members of the General Assembly), along with maybe a word from him on why he chose the words he did. Democratic House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer’s remark that he was surprised Kruse used the words he did doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Anyone who knows Kruse would not be surprised that he invoked the name of Jesus Christ:

Bauer, D-South Bend, said Attorney General Steve Carter advised him not to give a sectarian prayer Tuesday because the 7th Circuit’s decision is not final, and the court is considering a request to reconsider its decision from the ACLU.

“I’m not going to argue with a bunch of lawyers, but I’ve been advised by the attorney of record for us, the attorney general, that this ban has not been lifted,” Bauer said.

Wasn’t Bauer the politician who said that “censoring one particular religion is almost reverse discrimination” and that “the majority of people in” Indiana are Christian? If Bauer was on notice from the state attorney general that the ban was still in effect, that was news to most of us.

If you read between the lines, it is almost like Bauer is trying to play both sides of the coin. Bauer does not want to upset the state’s large conservative voting bloc that swings between the Republican and Democratic parties, but he also does not want to upset the ACLU and its supporters and induce another expensive lawsuit. Reporters should highlight these polar opposite influences. In some ways, it represents the larger political conflict going on nationally.

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The meaning of life

StemCell2Yesterday media outlets announced the news of a breakthrough in stem-cell research. The details were published in the prestigious journals Science and Cell (PDF).

Translating the research for readers of mainstream media has challenged reporters all over the globe. Two different teams of scientists have figured out a means to obtain pluripotent stem cells without creating — or destroying — an embryo. In fact, no human reproductive material was used at all, including eggs. Now, most pluripotent stem cells are known as embryonic stem cells, meaning they come from an embryo. The new technology, called Direct Cell Reprogramming or Induced Pluripotent State, takes adult cells and regenerates them back to the pluripotent state. It’s quite similar to embryonic stem cells, but they are not embryonic stem cells.

So that’s my first note — headlines such as these two from National Public Radio are problematic:

Skin Cells Can Become Embryonic Stem Cells

Scientists Create Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin

On the other hand, many reporters did a great job of explaining and translating the science and its ethical impact. Here, for example, is Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The need to destroy embryos has made stem cell research one of the most divisive issues in American politics, pitting President Bush against prominent Republicans like Nancy Reagan, and patient advocates who hoped that stem cells could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s. The new studies could defuse the issue as a presidential election nears.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work, conducted by independent teams from Japan and Wisconsin, should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.

Good thing Missouri enshrined embryonic destruction into its constitution! Thinking back to that election battle, one of the criticisms I had was that the mainstream media kept referring to supporters of the Missouri amendment as “favoring stem-cell research.” Of course, everyone, more or less, favors stem-cell research. Stem cells have been considered very exciting avenues for research because of their remarkable potential to develop into different cell types in the body (muscle cell, brain cell, skin cell). Some stem cells come from adults while other stem cells come from embryos. Each type has various advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t think advances in science should come by destroying embryos. Others think that destroying embryos is a price you have to pay for the possibility of developing cures to diseases.

StemCellWhat’s neat about the recent news is the potential improvements on the most promising line of research — without destroying embryos or requiring women to donate or sell their eggs.

Well, all of a sudden, the media seem to have figured out this distinction between stem-cell research and embryonic stem-cell research. Obviously the whole hook of the story was that pluripotent stem cells are being obtained without killing embryos. So reporters had to explain the distinction between embryo-destroying research and non-embryo-destroying research. But what a shame that they hadn’t been doing a better job of this earlier.

Anyway, there are many stories out there about this recent advance. In addition to a straight news story, The Washington Post explored the political significance of the finding:

Still, even skeptics of the president’s approach acknowledged that the new findings could make it more difficult to keep up the political momentum for embryo research, even if scientists say it is too early to abandon it. Most immediately, some said, it could hurt the effort to override Bush’s June veto of a bill that would have loosened the rules on federal funding.

The Los Angeles Times had a thorough article with an interesting comment thread. Kolata had a follow-up story for the Times about one of the scientists who broke the latest discovery, James Thomson. He was the same scientist who touched off debate on embryonic stem-cell research in 1998 when he took stem cells from embryos:

The fact is, Dr. Thomson said in an interview, he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the outset, even though he knew that such research offered insights into human development and the potential for powerful new treatments for disease.

“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”

Interesting. USA TODAY reported on the ethical concerns remaining, something religion reporter Gary Stern highlighted on his blog. Finally, if you are looking for an excellent analysis of the medical and political significance, I recommend (my fellow Phillips Fellow) Ryan Anderson’s piece in The Weekly Standard.

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