What can Chuck Norris do for Huckabee?

chuck norrisTwo stories in Wednesday’s Washington Post were placed in interesting ways. On the front page there is a straight political poll-based story bringing the world the news that former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee exists and could just possibly win in Iowa. On the front of the Style section is a piece telling us, in a rather pushy way, that Republicans in Iowa are still searching for a savior.

Out here in the heartland, the big news isn’t the results of some poll or an Eastern newspaper’s opinion on what type of savior people in Iowa should be searching for. Instead, it’s that the pop-culture hero Chuck Norris has endorsed the preacher man (YouTube). Up until now, it’s been easy to get the feeling that reporters in Washington could not care less about Huckabee and in the heartland, people could not care less about politics, at least compared to the people back in Washington.

While reporters in the Midwest may care less about the current emotional and psychological state of the religious right, Washington Post reporter Lois Romano seems to care and seemed to have burned some quality shoe leather getting out into the cornfields of Iowa to give us the scoop on how evangelicals are feeling these days:

Political experts have been perplexed that the evangelical community hasn’t rallied sooner and in greater force for Huckabee. “My sense is that the rank and file on the religious right are waiting for cues from identifiable leaders like James Dobson or Tony Perkins,” says Cary Covington, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

But beyond the horse race, beyond the fact that Iowa is a late-deciding state, the mood among many evangelicals here reflects what is happening nationally, as Christian conservatives grapple with apathy and evaluate whether they should count on the government to legislate morality. Down the highway in Sioux City, home to nearly 300 Christian churches, Jeff Moes, a soft-spoken, 44-year-old senior pastor, is one of those who has nudged his congregation into a “new vision” of the process. “I am hearing ‘what difference does it make?’ ” he says. “They are less and less trusting of government.”

Moes says he [tells] his 1,000 congregants that the church is the institution with responsibility to effect change in the community. “We can’t rely on one man or the government any longer,” he says.

Personally, Moes says he, too, has moved to Huckabee’s corner. John McCain, he says, strikes him as “very negative, very angry,” and Romney’s Mormon religion “bothers more people than they care to admit.”

And thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, whose children don’t seem to be supporting his candidacy, is a non-starter for Moes and many others, he reports, because “he can’t get his own house in order.”

“The Bible says that if a man can’t lead his own family, how can he manage the house of God?” he says. “And I think it’s the same with the country. If he can’t get his kids to love and respect him, how can he command the respect of a nation?”

Moes says he simply doesn’t get why religious leaders aren’t doing more for Huckabee. “The saddest thing for me right now is that no one in the evangelical community is leading — they are all following,” says Moes. “Huckabee is head and shoulders above the rest of the field. . . . If someone like James Dobson came out for Huckabee, it would make all the difference in the world. . . . He’s one of us.”

Stop the presses! Who cares when someone like James Dobson will decide to get out there and endorse when Huckabee may have received one of the most important endorsements of them all? While Midwestern reporters have ignored the evangelical psychoanalysis story, they haven’t missed the Chuck Norris endorsement story:

That e-mail and the new television ad parody an Internet phenomenon of “facts” about Norris, who is fabled to have superhuman powers.

“When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn’t lifting himself up. He’s pushing the earth down,” Huckabee says in the tongue-in-cheek TV ad, which he unveiled this week on Fox News Sunday.

Would it be fair to compare the Norris endorsement with Obama’s endorsement by Oprah?

Reporters can have as much fun with the endorsement and subsequent commercials, but a Chuck Norris endorsement is somewhat significant. Norris is more than just an actor. He has promoted Bible study and prayers in public schools and expressed belief in creationism. In some ways he is Hollywood’s version of James Dobson. But the big question is whether Iowans will even care.

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Drawing lines in interfaith dialogue

coexist bannerStories about interfaith issues are tricky these days, particularly when they involve conflict. Down in Austin, Texas, a Baptist church’s rejection of an interfaith Thanksgiving service because of the involvement of Muslims has sparked an intense discussion of the holiday and how people and organizations of different faiths are supposed to interact with each other in today’s society.

It’s crucial for reporters to convey the issues with the correct terms and definitions along with both sides of the argument. The problem is that, depending on who you talk to, those terms and definitions are different and it may not be entirely clear to anyone what exactly has happened. And then sometimes people don’t talk to reporters or they send out intentionally vaguely worded statements. Reporters trying to get to the heart of an issue really don’t like those.

Take for instance the lede to this Austin American-Statesman story:

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the city’s largest interfaith organization, announced Thursday that its annual Thanksgiving celebration Sunday had to be moved because Hyde Park Baptist Church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

The group learned Wednesday that the rental space at the church-owned Quarries property in North Austin was no longer available because Hyde Park leaders had discovered that non-Christians, Muslims in particular, would be practicing their faith there. The event, now in its 23rd year, invites Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Bahais and others to worship together.

I have no knowledge of this church or of Austin, for that matter, but last time I checked, Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with religious undertones and history.

With that in mind, I am left wondering precisely how this involves worship in the traditional understanding of the word. The rental space in question is a gymnasium, not a sanctuary.

While not specifying when the church started to object to the event, the story seems to point toward a postcard for the event that “promised space for Muslim Maghrib prayer.” The statement from the church says that it welcomes “all faiths” to worship, but won’t allow its property to be used for “non-Christian religions.” This story is about prayer, then. If you take away the prayer element, is the church OK with this?

The statement from the church, urging tolerance for its religious beliefs that prompted the decision, seems to cloud some of the issues. It would have been helpful if the reporter had persuaded church members to expound what precise theological issues prompted them to reject this group after accepting them. Perhaps it is the case that the church only wanted to issue the statement and refused interviews?

Later on in the story is this interesting statement, which includes a term reporters should avoid at all costs:

Of Hyde Park’s decision, he said it was “unfortunate that people still feel this way in this day and age.”

Some Christians object to praying with people of other faith backgrounds or allowing those people to worship in their sanctuaries.

That horribly overused word “some” should really be avoided, especially when it is used as a catch-all summary of what a reporter thinks is the viewpoint of a group of people. This story isn’t even about a sanctuary or the church praying with the group. It’s about church property.

Would it be fair to mention that some Muslims in the area, or around the world, may feel the same way about their property or that traditionally churches consider their property, whether it was the sanctuary or the barn, as sacred? The most intriguing part of the saga comes when local synagogue leaders arrange for space for the event and everybody goes home happy and thankful.

The story gives plenty of room for those who believe interfaith issues are important and how sad and terrible it is that something like this could happen in this day and age, but is it really that difficult to find Christians, or even Muslims, who respect and understand the view that churches can do what they want with their property?

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The spirit of the law

moses and the lawI read with particular interest a Houston Chronicle article on Tuesday about the growing number of “Christian-based” law schools sprouting across the country. The story hooks onto a new law school opening in Louisiana called the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law. The school is supposed to open in 2009 and is named after a lawyer active in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Mary Flood highlights a few interesting points and takes off on a brief survey of religiously affiliated law schools around the country. The story manages to summarize a few highlights, generally miss more substantive issues and note that many of the law schools classes begin with a prayer. Oh, and classes like torts and contracts will have discussions involving religious issues, as if that is some novel development:

“The law school will deliver through the lens of a biblical world view needed today in our nation and our system of justice,” said Joe Aguillard, president of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where he hopes the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law will open in 2009.

Aguillard wants his school to graduate lawyers whose understanding of the law is rooted in “the absolute truth of the Bible” and the foundations the Bible provided for American law.

He notes that means abortion should not be legal. The press release announcing the plans for the private school, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, included a picture of a fetus in the womb reaching a hand out to grasp the finger of a surgeon during an operation.

I am not sure about the relevance of abortion in establishing a law school, but apparently it was important enough to note high in the story. Is it all that surprising that a law school named after Pressler would be against abortion?

The article correctly notes, or implies, that basing an entire legal curriculum on religious issues is not exactly the norm. However, I am not sure that is what these schools or doing, or that what they are doing in highlighting and emphasizing the religious roots of our legal system is that far out of the norm.

I attend a secular state-funded law school, and all of my classes have at one point or another discussed serious religious issues. In three of the four areas of law I am studying — torts, contracts, property — we have discussed how the foundations are in principles found in the Bible. The Good Samaritan rule is a good place to start. (My textbook contained the entire passage from the Book of Luke.)

Another shortcoming is that while the story highlights Ave Maria School of Law, there is little mention of the dozens of other Catholic law schools that will have at least some level of piety in the class room and the curriculum.

Regarding Ave Maria, this paragraph — quoting Charles Roboski, associate dean for external affairs — is priceless:

“Students feel comfortable sharing issues of faith here,” Roboski said. He called it a pro-family campus, meaning students with families may feel especially welcome, and pro-life, meaning anti-abortion.

Thanks for the clarification about those terms. No doubt Roboski is anti-abortion, but is that clarifier all that necessary?

The story rightly points out that there are plenty of law schools affiliated with religious institutions, but they should not be confused with institutions such as Ave Maria:

Despite the new trend merging religion and law, other law schools at universities with religious affiliations have strictly secular curriculum and don’t stop for prayer. In Texas they include the law schools at Baylor University, St. Mary’s and Southern Methodist University.

John Attanasio, dean of SMU’s Dedman School of Law, said his school’s mission “is to train lawyers. The practice of law is largely secular, so that’s what we’re about.”

The article attempts to divide American law schools and the teaching of law into two neat little boxes. There are those secular schools that teach the law the proper way, which start classes with “probing questions about the separation of church and state,” and there are the others, this growing force, that want to “intertwine … the tenets of one or more branches of Christianity into the legal curriculum.”

I would argue that the statement is not precisely accurate since American law is by its nature already intertwined with Christian tenets. How that history is highlighted is another matter, but it is an important distinction. The issue of mixing today’s religion and the law is no doubt controversial, but the issue is not as clear-cut as this story implies.

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Pakistan’s religion-rich conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paging Pat Moynihan, long distance

1101670728 400 01Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghosts in the coach Reid story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheering for women’s ordination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Religious freedom swept under the rug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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