Ghosts in Swiss cultural rage

four churches in ZurichMolly Moore of The Washington Post Foreign Service had a dramatic and tragic story in Tuesday’s paper that shows the surge of immigration — and racist attitudes — in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland.

The land that embraced John Calvin and many other immigrants is struggling to embrace Muslims, but the Post story only hints at this fact, leaving the reader wondering what religion ghosts are hiding behind this story:

One of the world’s oldest democracies is at the center of Western Europe’s most divisive political debate: to embrace an increasingly globalized, multicultural society or to retreat into social isolation in an effort to preserve eroding traditional identities.

Across Switzerland, anti-foreigner and anti-Islamic attitudes have become so pervasive on the streets, in politics and within governmental institutions that the United Nations, European Union, Amnesty International and Switzerland’s own Federal Commission Against Racism have expressed alarm in recent months.

The theme is dominating the campaign for national parliamentary elections Oct. 21 and is crystallized in a controversial campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag above the slogan, “For more security.” …

The Commission Against Racism said those decisions “sometimes take the shape of a refusal with discriminatory and even racist overtones.” The commission said most people denied citizenship were Muslims and natives of the Balkans who were granted asylum during the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

While Switzerland does not have an official state religion, many of the cantons (counties) do have official churches (supported by tax dollars) and represent either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church. While you have this in the background, the country has seen an influx of Muslims, primarily from Albania, among other immigrants (one-fifth of the country’s residents are foreign-born), which is creating political and social tensions.

I wonder if this story is as much about groups of people opposing Muslims moving to their country as it is about racism. Where does one prejudice start and the other begin? And how does the country’s official support of certain religions play into these developments?

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Women do everything . . . but go to church

WomenBoss Mattingly asked me to take a look at the latest Newsweek and write up my thoughts. After I read it all — and I do mean all — I couldn’t figure out why he thought it was GetReligion-worthy.

In the annual “Women and Power” issue, I read “Do Women Lead Differently Than Men?” (a look back at Elizabeth I, mostly), “11 Women Leaders Share Their Success Stories” (including, let’s see, Arianna Huffington!, Kyra Sedgwick, and Lorena Ochoa), “Now This Is Woman’s Work” (about Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin and Arizona’s Gov. Janet Napolitano), “An Authentic Life” (about Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger’s view of her various vocations), “‘You Do What You Have to Do’” (about two Hollywood women who raise money for charity), “What I Learned” (various female leaders share their stories about overcoming obstacles), and a transcript of Napolitano on “Leadership.”

Confused (and angry because the piece was so completely cliched and uninspiring), I tried to figure out what to write. There was a small mention of religion in the Elizabeth I story, but not enough for thoughtful commentary.

So again I pored through the many profiles of various female leaders. Actress Kyra Sedgwick shared her view that female leaders — all evidence to the contrary — don’t believe in war:

I wish that we could come together more as a political force. If women ran the world, I don’t believe that there would be war. I really don’t.

At least she’s just an actress. Swanee Hunt, founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had similar views to Sedgwick’s, adding:

Women tend to be less corrupt, and when you’re talking about developing countries, that is enormous. What they tell me is, “We know that any money that we put into our own pockets is not going to go to hospitals and to schools that will help the children in this country.” They think of the whole country as their family.

Hunt went on to say that women need to get over the idea that other people shouldn’t help raise their children. Shriver had a bit of a different take:

So many women my age thought that success meant being like a man: wanting the same job a man would have and getting paid the same money — basically copying the male resume. But I think a lot of us who went that route now feel ambivalent about the sacrifices we made. What were we really accomplishing? What was the cost, not just to others but to ourselves? Was there another way to do it? Did we have to follow the male role model?

There are ghosts here, to be sure. The notion that women sin less than men. The idea that women’s vocation as mother should be valued highly. But they are ghosts, not actual mentions of religion. In fact, the only mention of religion in the entire package came from Gnostic (and Gnostic scholar) Elaine Pagels:

In my last book, I asked two questions. What is it about Christianity that I love in spite of many things I don’t? And what is it I can’t love about it? I don’t love the claim that it’s the only true religion, and I don’t love the way that many sides of Christianity have been used to nurture hatred and dissension. But I do love the enormous range of stories, poems, chants and testimonies to the ways that people discover the human spirit and express that in relation to each other, in relation to communities. Finding spiritual meaning is essential. This is part of the way we imagine, we hope, we fear, the way we explore. We can’t live without it.

Reading Pagels’ account made me realize what was so interesting about the Newsweek package: the almost complete lack of any substantive discussion of religion. Save Pagels and her distaste for Christianity’s truth claims, none of the women were quoted discussing their faith. None cited religion as an important aspect of their lives. None of the female leaders held religious posts — even though various church bodies or their agencies are led by females.

Turns out this is a pattern. This is at least the third year Newsweek has run a Women and Power issue. Two years ago it put Oprah on the cover and left the religion out, with a tiny exception. Last year it completely ignored the role of religion in women’s lives.

The newsweeklies struggle with irrelevance. Continuing to ignore the role of religion in women’s lives can’t be helping.

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Where’s God in the ORU mess?

Little mention of religion appears in the coverage by The New York Times of a lawsuit filed by three former Oral Roberts University professors. According to the article, the professors are alleging “financial, political and personal irregularities” by Richard Roberts, the president of the Christian liberal arts university in Tulsa, Okla.

The ex-professors, citing a secret internal report by an official of the Oral Roberts Ministries, linked to the university in Tulsa, Okla., sued on Oct. 2. They also contended that the Roberts house on the campus had been remodeled 11 times in 14 years, that the university jet took family members on trips and that the family’s university-paid cellphones sent text messages to “under-age males — often between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.”

The plaintiffs said “some of the more salacious entries” were omitted from the suit “to preserve, as much as possible, the remaining positive image of the university.”

A plaintiff, John Swails, a 14-year tenured professor and the chairman of the department of history, humanities and government, said by phone he had been fired after providing a copy of the report to the university provost, Ralph Fagin, and the university’s Board of Regents in July. “It was the first they saw of it,” Mr. Swails said.

First off, reporters should not include unspecified allegations as a basic rule of thumb. Essentially what that second paragraph says is that Richard Roberts did something really really bad, but we’re not saying since it would hurt the reputation of the institution we so love. Right. Or maybe you can’t substantiate it with any evidence?

Much of the reporting plays off an interview Richard Roberts and his wife, Lindsay, did for CNN’s Larry King Live Tuesday night. A lot of people that you’d think would have interesting things to say were either unavailable or had no comment.

Overall, though, this was a difficult story for the NYT to report, and more details are certainly to emerge in the coming weeks. The big thing missing in this story about a Christian university led by the son of a Christian television evangelist is, well, religious issues. Little is said of the university’s charismatic perspective and even less is said about its connection with the Word of Faith doctrine, which is a close cousin of the doctrine of prosperity.

Could that explain the corporate jet Richard Roberts is standing next to in the NYT photo and the allegation that his home has been remodeled more times than most people deep clean their homes? And why does this story seem so familiar?

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ESPN nails it

jon kitnaThis may be one too many sports-related posts for some of you (and a good start for others), but after reading ESPN The Magazine‘s profile of Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna I couldn’t let it pass. Thank you to all of you who sent us this story, and I agree with the most recent submission that this is one of the most substantive attempts to look at faith and football in a very long time.

Reporter David Fleming uses Kitna’s story as a launch pad for discussing many of the religion issues that have cropped up recently in professional football, and he does so in a thorough and evenhanded manner that allows readers to draw their own conclusions:

Like many athletes who are outspoken about something as personal as faith, Kitna — with his ubiquitous cross hats and constant biblical references — is often dismissed as a loon. But his impact in Detroit is undeniable. He is part of a team prayer group on Friday afternoons and hosts a Bible study for teammates and their wives at his home on Monday nights. …

By combining two of the most fervent elements of society — faith and football — a previously anonymous journeyman quarterback has catapulted himself into the zeitgeist.

“People feel football is too trivial for God to care about, especially with so many bad things happening in the world,” says Tim Pitcher, a spokesman for Athletes in Action, which uses sports to push Christianity. “For a lot of people, the worlds shouldn’t mix.”

Yet they do, sometimes with uncomfortable results. After the Colts won the Super Bowl last February, Tony Dungy asked his team to kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer.

While everyone complied, several players looked at each other in disbelief at the request, which forced them to interrupt their celebrations and interviews. To reporters in the room, the moment appeared awkward and forced.

Such discord isn’t limited to NFL locker rooms. Last June, New Mexico State settled out of court with four Muslim football players who had accused coach Hal Mumme of religious discrimination. Among other things, the athletes said Mumme made the team recite the Lord’s Prayer after each practice and before every game. When they objected, he labeled them “troublemakers.” “Being a coach doesn’t give someone the right to make a football team into a religious brotherhood,” says Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Read the entire story, even if you don’t enjoy sports or professional football. It says a lot about out society, what is acceptable in a professional workplace and how we deal with pressure and criticism.

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Breaking: Evangelicals love violent pop culture

halo 3 prayingEvangelicals were on the front page of the Sunday New York Times again. The story — about how “hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants” are using the massively popular, hugely entertaining and quite violent video game Halo 3 as a recruiting technique — is well-rounded, gives a paragraph to theological issues and quotes a nice variety of people. But something about this story seemed so unfresh, especially when it compared this trend to bingo games in churches during the 1960s:

The latest iteration of the immensely popular space epic, Halo 3, was released nearly two weeks ago by Microsoft and has already passed $300 million in sales.

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.

The alliance of popular culture and evangelism is challenging churches much as bingo games did in the 1960s. And the question fits into a rich debate about how far churches should go to reach young people.

I think if the NYT did a little research it would find that violence and the big screen have gone hand in hand with many evangelical Protestant church groups. And the justifications are the same for churches showing films like Braveheart and Gladiator (feel free to help fill in this list for me, readers). Church leaders want to attract young men, the films portray good versus evil in a way that we like and, hey, what’s wrong with a little violence anyway?

“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”

Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that churches should reject Halo, in part because it associates thrill and arousal with killing.

“To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it’s just pixels involved is an illusion,” he said.

Focus on the Family, a large evangelical organization, said it was trying to balance the game’s violent nature with its popularity and the fact that churches are using it anyway. “Internally, we’re still trying to figure out what is our official view on it,” said Lisa Anderson, a spokeswoman for the group.

As for that one paragraph on theology, I hope I didn’t get your hopes up too high:

Mr. [Kedrick] Kenerly [founder of Christian Gamers Online] said the idea that Halo is inappropriately violent too strictly interpreted the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” “I’m not walking up to someone with a pistol and shooting them,” he said. “I’m shooting pixels on a screen.”

As for the NYT‘s surprise that evangelicals are trying to engage popular culture, it shouldn’t be all that shocked. Evangelicals are the ones who are still up in arms over the National Football League’s efforts to shut down church Super Bowl parties that violated the league’s rules. The issue of church support of professional football on the Lord’s Holy Day hardly came up.

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LAT: Faith, family & baseball

Vladimir GuerreroThe Major League Baseball playoffs are upon us, and Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times has done a great job of reminding us that football isn’t the only sport in which religion can be prevalent.

Vladimir Guerrero, a native of the Dominican Republic, plays right field for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He was the American League’s winner of the 2004 MVP Award, is one of the best hitters in the game today and has a rocket for an arm. Opposing pitchers think he is a “freak” for his ability to hit just about anything, including balls that hit the dirt (he also doesn’t wear batting gloves). His personal story of growing up one of nine children is as compelling as any.

In other words, there is a lot to be said about Guerrero and a lot has already been said. Baxter, to his credit, took on the religion angle in writing about Guerrero before the playoffs began and came up with gold:

Two hours before taking the field for the game that would give his team the division title, the Angels’ best hitter is sitting on the floor in a tiny room behind home plate at Angel Stadium, a Bible in his lap.

Vladimir Guerrero may fear no pitcher, but he’s a little nervous about God.

“I comfort myself with the Bible,” Guerrero says. “It’s like having my family there.”

I’ve said before that sportswriters can be some of the best religion writers out there. In addition to writing event stories (a.k.a. game stories), sportswriters follow people — and people have stories to tell. In Guerrero’s case, his religion clearly plays a huge part of his life. The story is well written and well rounded. There’s plenty of baseball in there for the sports fans to chew on, but it’s a story about a person, not a machine:

In that case, Guerrero is truly blessed on this morning because he has both: the good book and members of his extended family, namely the handful of Spanish-speaking teammates he gathers every Sunday for a short chapel service led by broadcaster Jose Mota.

Today’s reading comes from Galatians 2:20, in which Paul talks about commitment and example. So Mota asks the players to name the person whose example they’ve followed in life.

Guerrero breaks into a wide smile. It’s as if Mota has thrown a batting practice fastball right in his wheelhouse.

“My mother,” he says.

So there you have it: The man many American League pitchers dread most is, at heart, a God-fearing, Bible-toting mama’s boy.

For the non-baseball fans out there, a bit of background is appropriate. Guerrero is known to struggle around this time of the year. He is the team’s superstar and he is expected to perform come autumn. A story about his spiritual and emotional life is more than appropriate and well timed.

As the Angels take on the Boston Red Sox tonight, readers of this article are going to be more informed about the man who carries a Bible with him everywhere. Isn’t that what journalism is all about?

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A church visit without any religion news

Obama in churchHerb Brasher sent us a note about a recent story in The State (Columbia, S.C.) about Barack Obama’s visit to two local churches. The article does a quality job raising the racial issues at play — one of the churches is predominantly black and the other predominantly white — but the religious issues are unfortunately nearly absent from the pieces.

It’s important to note that these are not stories about religion per se. For the Obama campaign, the church visits are all about politics. But a reporter’s job is to note all relevant issues in a story. Here’s some of what Herb had to say:

I had to ask myself, if I were the pastor, would I want to give him special greetings? I think I have too much Lutheran in me to want to give special greetings to anyone, because that is not what worship services are for. The Lutheran worship service is concentrated forward on God, not on who is around me …

That’s a great question for reporters to ask: What would they think or do if they were the pastor of the church?

Here’s the opening of the story. Let me be clear that I don’t have a problem with the story’s focus — it’s probably the most significant political issue — but I can’t help but wonder how some of the religious aspects play into the scene:

“The senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, is with us today.”

Applause follows.

Such is the greeting likely received several times a day by the junior senator from the land of Lincoln.

That Obama is considered a top contender for the Democratic Party’s 2008 nomination for president rarely needs explaining.

For some perspective, I am familiar with some congregations that don’t want applause in a church even after a well-performed musical performance during, say, the offertory. The theological idea behind this is that a worship service is about people focusing on and, not surprisingly, worshipping God. Applauding for a fellow human takes the focus off of God.

With that in mind, consider a pastor’s introduction of a politician. Politely greeting a prominent individual who visits a church is probably just good manners on the part of the preacher, but there are theological issues to consider when congregations applaud that person.

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Clarence Thomas with no soul

Clarence ThomasYet another high-publicity autobiography is out, and once again the media are giving short shrift to religious aspects in the author’s life.

The media’s coverage of My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas has lurched to the apparently small section of the book dealing with his confirmation hearings and Anita Hill, but as the news reports show, there is little fresh material there. Rather than addressing new content in the book, the media are rehashing the Anita Hill story.

The tricky thing with book releases is that while a publication’s book section may given ample space to the book, the news department is under no requirement to give the book any attention — unless there is new material in the book. So what is the news here?

The Washington Post‘s news story does the best job hinting at the religious aspects raised in the book, but hints is all we’re given:

Thomas lovingly describes the iron-willed grandfather who raised him after his own father abandoned him as a toddler, praises the Roman Catholic Church for providing him with an education but criticizes it for not being as “adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now,” and gives a detailed description of the confirmation hearings that electrified the nation in 1991 and the sexual harassment allegations by Anita Hill that he said destroyed his reputation.

Later on there is this tantalizing bit regarding Anita Hill and how Thomas viewed her religious faith:

He writes that Hill did a “mediocre” job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was chairman, and misrepresented herself at the time of the hearings as a “devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee.” “In fact, she was a left-winger who’d never expressed any religious sentiments” and had a job in the administration “because I’d given it to her.”

If you don’t think religious issues are news then you should stop reading this blog. Assuming that you are still with us, what about the revelations of Thomas’s religious faith is not news? The Post mentions the bit about how he had fleeting thoughts of suicide in the early 1980s, but that’s it. Any chance there were some words on how his religious faith played into that incident?

Articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times are equally void of religious discussion. They don’t even mention that Thomas is Catholic.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for a reporter who takes religion seriously and sees its involvement in a person’s life as something significant and worthy of reporting.

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