Green evangelicals on page one (surprise)

Evangelicals and Global Warming A Formal Debate largeAt some point, the whole “moderate evangelicals are starting to care about Creation” story is going to get old, but it sure does not seem that this will happen anytime soon.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an important story. However, it is also an example of an old truth: The quickest way for a conservative to get on page one of a major newspaper is by saying something critical of powerful conservative leaders or groups.

The Green evangelicals stories are also linked to coverage of the rising Christian left, and that’s another important story. And there are many, many doctrinally traditionalist Christians (Can I see some hands raised?) who are tired of seeing journalists link conservative moral stands with GOP position papers on every issue under the hot sun.

However, the best mainstream stories on these trends tend to note that these pro-Green evangelicals (What does one need to believe to be an anti-Green evangelical?) rarely forsake their conservative stands on other moral issues. They are broadening their agenda, not editing it.

However, the hook that some evangelicals are embracing a position advocated by the mainstream press is simply catnip for journalists. That story is heading to page one. Pronto.

This brings us to the latest high-profile Washington Post report on this hot story: “Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold.” It really helps that reporter Juliet Eilperin has a story hook with a church that is clearly, under anyone’s definition, an “evangelical” stronghold. We are talking about Northland Church in Longwood, Fla.

A key question, however, is this: Where did this trend come from? We are told about an activist named Denise Kirsop:

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals. The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.

And this brings us to the key figure in the story:

“I did sense this is one of these issues where the church could leadership, like with civil rights,” said Northland’s senior pastor, Joel C. Hunter. “It’s a matter of who speaks for evangelicals: Is it a broad range of voices on a broad range of issues, or a narrow range of voices?”

Hunter has emerged among evangelicals as a pivotal advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming Earth’s climate. A self-deprecating 59-year-old minister who can quote the “Baby Jesus” speech that Will Farrell delivered in the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights” as readily as he can the Bible, Hunter regularly preaches about climate change to 7,000 congregants in five Central Florida sites and to 3,000 more worshipers via the Internet. He even has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues.

While he remains in a distinct minority, and a number of others on the Christian right disparage his efforts, Hunter and others like him have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.

bible worldIn other words, this man is smart and hip. He hangs out with people from Great Britain. And media people, too! As you would expect, that leads to trouble.

The “greening” of Hunter and others still elicits scorn from many evangelicals, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Prison Fellowship’s Charles W. “Chuck” Colson. They question whether humankind really deserves the blame for Earth’s recent warming and argue that their battles against abortion and same-sex marriage should take precedence.

And there is the giant hole in the story.

The Post team that produced this story does not tell us how Hunter and the members of his flock who have gone Green link their beliefs on this topic with any other doctrines, including moral teachings that have been central to the Christian faith for 2000 years or so. The implication is that this flock has gone soft on the life issues and on moral theology about sex.

In this day and age, it just isn’t fair — to readers or the people quoted — to leave this hole in the story. If there is a clash there, cover it. If these people are linking their conservative beliefs with this stand on the environment, if they see this new stance as consistent with their faith, then let them say it.

It is one thing to say that Hunter wants to move beyond “below-the-belt issues” such as homosexuality and abortion. It is something else to hint that he has changed his beliefs on basic doctrines. Silence just won’t cut it, in this case.

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Ghost in the gorilla mists?

virunga gorillaMost of the time, when I encounter a religious reference in a mainstream news story I can figure out what it is doing there. However, I hit something the other day in Newsweek that really puzzled me and it still does.

The story in question is part of the cover package about exotic species around the world that are in danger of being snuffed out, often by insane human hunting. This leads into a tragic sidebar about those famous gorillas in the Congo, written by reporter Scott Johnson.

It seems that the gorillas are caught in the middle of another round of the hellish wars between the Hutu and Tutsis, with economic interests at stake in the lush jungles of the parklands. Killing the gorillas is one way to lash out at the rangers — many of whom have been killed — who try to enforce the rules of the park. This leads to the following reference that puzzled me:

One of the rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, 43, has been intimately involved in trying to stop the charcoal trade from spreading across Virunga. A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo is fiercely protective of the gorillas in his sector of the park. Six months ago he was lecturing villagers about the threat the charcoal industry posed to Virunga when men in military uniforms showed up, stripped him of his shirt and flogged him in front of the audience. Last month he posted a blog item in which he accused the charcoal merchants of being complicit in the destruction of the gorillas’ habitat. Two days later unknown gunmen killed a female gorilla under his care.

Ngobobo says he has received death threats and warnings to stop criticizing the charcoal industry. Then came last week’s killings, which many in his unit have interpreted as political assassinations — a message from the powerful interests that operate in the area. “There are people who are feeding off this conflict,” Ngobobo warns darkly. Last week authorities arrested Ngobobo and accused him of negligence because the recent killings all happened on his watch; his supporters claim that that was part of the assassins’ plan all along. Ngobobo denies any wrongdoing.

Why the reference to the ranger’s faith? Is it a way to undercut the latter claims of negligence? Perhaps, especially due to that word “devout” in front of the word “Christian.”

I also thought it was interesting that the reporter called him a Christian, instead of using the term Catholic. No, I am not bashing Catholicism. I am merely referring to the fact that the Hutu-Tutsi wars not that long ago included many accusations that powerful Catholic leaders in this part of the world should have done more to stop the bloodshed or, at least, not made it worse.

And is there some link to religion in this new conflict? The rest of the story does not tell us. Strange, no?

I, for one, wanted to know more about that strange description of the ranger.

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A non-haunted story on water-witching

dowsingThe entire Mid-Atlantic region is in a terrible drought right now, although we got a few showers this weekend. It was most strange to visit Central Texas a week ago and see the fields a deep, rich green, while Maryland looks parched and dry.

Anyway, when a weather story rolls on and on like this, newspapers almost always start searching for feature stories that have a dry-weather hook to them. Which leads us to a wonderful feature story in The Washington Post the other day by reporter Delphine Schrank that ran with the headline “A Psychic Path to Water?”

The story was, to cut to the chase, about “dowsers” or “water witches” who believe that they can find water by, well, here is the top of the story:

On a sloping patch of withered grass at his Clarke County, Va., farm one recent afternoon, William Cross did what any seasoned farmer touched with the gift will do in search of a spot to dig a well. With his leathery hands, he gripped the handles of two L-shaped copper rods, held them parallel, tucked his elbows into his ribs, puffed out his chest, marched a few paces back and forth and silently bid the earth to reveal its watery secrets.

Within seconds, the rods appeared to respond, flung across each other by what Cross described as the hand of an invisible force.

“There they go!” said the 82-year-old grandfather and former book publisher — and part-time water witch.

Also known as dowsers, most water witches say they are born with a capacity to locate underground water by channeling its energy, or electromagnetism, or something loopy and twitchy of that kind that has yet to be named by science, through a pair of metal rods, a forked twig, a coat hanger, a pendulum or, in rare cases, acutely alert fingers.

This raises all kinds of questions, beginning with the obvious one: Does it work? But the minute I saw this story, I thought to myself, “Is the Post going to ask the other obvious question?”

One of things GetReligion does is look for what we call “ghosts,” which is when a mainstream news organization covers a story that has an obvious religion angle in it, but simply fails to “get it.”

So I assumed that this would be another “haunted” story. But I was wrong.

As it turned out, Schrank found the ghost and included a short passage in the story that let the reader know that it’s hard to raise supernatural questions without wandering into the field of religion. Here is what that looks like, in print:

Some people decry dowsing as the handiwork of the devil; some laud it as a gift from God. Others, in the name of rational skepticism, just call it bunk. Yet the tradition endures in the fringes of Washington. If you’re going to spend a small fortune poking holes in your back yard to find water, the thinking goes, you might as well try poking a spot marked — often free of charge — by a water witch.

And later we read:

The use of twigs and rods dates to biblical times, dowsers say. Over the centuries, practitioners uttered incantations to empower rods with divine grace to seek water and other hidden substances, from precious metals to lost cats to bad vibes. Lore has it that the term “water witch” derives not from a description of a person but rather from the witch hazel branches preferred by Anglo-Scottish immigrants.

And that’s that. Obvious question answered. Good job!

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Their bodies, ourselves

body worlds 16 01We’ve looked at a few mainstream media articles covering the Body Worlds exhibit that has been traveling around the country. In March of last year, Eric Gorski had a great feature in The Denver Post. In January of this year, Jeffrey Weiss ran an insightful Q&A with the exhibit’s creator in The Dallas Morning News .

And a reader sent along another good article in The Oregonian.

The controversial art exhibit features dead human beings preserved in plastic, flayed open to reveal their inner mechanisms and posed in various positions.

Religion reporter Nancy Haught interviews museum-goers and local ethicists and finds out that some people have deep problems with the exhibit, including sisters Rose Jade and Kyenne Williams:

[Jade's} had some experience with human dissection, she says, and was taught to treat human remains with respect. While she enjoyed eavesdropping on some of the children's comments ("I'm not sure I want this to happen to me after I'm dead," one little girl told her dad. "Well, it's your choice," he replied), the rooms were a little noisy. Some small children didn't seem all that interested. There was nervous laughter from teenagers and some irreverent chitchat. It all seemed a bit disrespectful.

"But I did learn some things," Jade says. So did Williams. She marvels about how small a spleen is, how fragile a body might be, how easy it would be to damage it. "It was educational, but there was something that was not quite right," Williams says.

The two sisters' responses embody the ethical debate that has surrounded Dr. Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds" since its premiere in Japan in 1995. Billed as an educational breakthrough, the exhibit has its share of critics. Their ethical objections include the packaging and sale of human bodies, educational claims they see as dubious, a lack of reverence for the dead and a morbid fascination with cadavers.

Haught interviews people of varying religious beliefs about their view of the plastinates, as they are known. One of the exhibitors’ arguments is that there are no ethical qualms since people volunteer to have their bodies dissected and displayed:

“People volunteer for all kinds of things,” says the Rev. Marilyn Sewell of the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. “People volunteer to be prostitutes. People volunteer for genital mutilation, to kill themselves. That doesn’t mean society should cooperate with their wishes.”

Others compare and contrast the current prohibition on selling organs for transplants with selling tickets to see human remains. Margaret Hogan, who teaches bioethics at the Roman Catholic University of Portland, says that knowledge can be obtained in a more appropriate manner:

Culturally, she says, Americans have been desensitized to death and may be drawn to “Body Worlds” as a sort of entertainment. “But it is a parody on entertainment and on science,” she says, “a terrible marriage of both.”

The Rev. David L. Wheeler, a Baptist pastor and a former professor of ethics, argues that “Body Worlds” reduces the whole human being to only a physical body:

To display human remains, even with legal permission, is itself an invasion of privacy, he says. “If we were to lay out someone’s psychiatric profile publicly, most of us would feel ashamed to look at it.” Probing the deepest parts of a person’s body is not that different from probing their minds or their souls, he adds. “My discomfort is rooted in the belief that the human being, in his or her entirety, is sacred.”

Von Hagens responds that the exhibit is deeply spiritual. The absence of the soul, he says, underlines the soul. And Benjamin Rifkin, who has written about how the human body has been portrayed over time, offers some perspectives:

Rifkin sees a key difference between the Renaissance illustrations, with their spiritual themes, and today’s anatomy shows, which come “from a more recent and less pleasant Romantic tradition.” He traces the body shows back to the same impulse that spawned the book “Frankenstein”: the idea of the horror of dead bodies and cadavers. Since the 1800s, he says, cadavers have been “a sick sideline. To simply look at a cadaver is thrill-seeking . . . a kind of spectacle.”

What fascinates me about this exhibit is how it demonstrates a religious sea change among the masses. There was a time when Christians insisted on burial as a testament to the resurrection of the body, which they confessed. It was the belief that death was a temporary separation of body and soul that made cemeteries such sacred places and dead bodies so respected.

And now we have the widespread popularity of exhibits like these, and cremation, and just the general separation of the notions of body, mind and soul. I’d love for some enterprising reporter to tackle what all this means and how the theology of the body has changed in most Christian denominations and in the culture at large. Which is not to take away from some excellent journalism already out there on these topics. Instead I keep seeing a bunch of jokey stories about the funeral business or wacky cremation schemes.

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A schism among pro-lifers?

babyfaceTwo of the nation’s leading newspapers, theLos Angeles Times and The Washington Post, ran stories within days of each other that deal with the apparent recent crackup in the pro-life movement. The news is not an earthshaking development but another note in the history of the abortion wars in the United States.

Here’s the lede from the Post‘s June 4 story:

In a highly visible rift in the anti-abortion movement, a coalition of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic groups is attacking a longtime ally, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson.

Using rhetoric that they have reserved in the past for abortion clinics, some of the coalition’s leaders accuse Dobson and other national antiabortion leaders of building an “industry” around relentless fundraising and misleading information.

At the center of the dispute is the Supreme Court’s April 18 decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law against a procedure in which a doctor partially delivers a late-term fetus before crushing its skull.

Both articles were quick to acknowledge that splits in the pro-life movement are nothing new, but they did little to explain the history of the splits or ask anyone why there have been little public splits in recent years. Or maybe it’s the case that there have been recent splits and they just haven’t received any coverage. If the reporters wanted to go deeper into history they could have compared the splits in the “let’s ban abortion” movement with the repeated splits in the “let’s ban slavery” movement in the United States and Great Britain. There’s a comparison to be made, but it’s probably a bit of a stretch for a daily newspaper story.

The Post‘s story, written by Alan Cooperman, reads like any Washington political advocacy story: There is this movement that wants to do something that would change American society, but they can’t agree on whether they should go for the Hail Mary or take three yards for a possession and work the clock.

It’s pretty standard stuff and Cooperman should be credited for getting the story first. But the story lacks context. We get a quick definition of a partial-birth abortion and what the new law bans (a procedure in which a doctor partially delivers a late-term fetus before crushing its skull), but that’s it. The Times‘ story, written by Stephanie Simon, provides some helpful background data:

Some of the biggest groups in the movement, including Focus on the Family and National Right to Life, are under attack from fellow activists who accuse them of turning a godly cause into a money-grubbing industry.

Those groups have raised tens of millions of dollars and trumpeted victory after incremental victory in the 34 years since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortions. But about 1 in every 5 pregnancies in the U.S. still ends in abortion. Deeply frustrated, several small antiabortion groups have launched a campaign to force their movement back to an absolutist position: No more compromises, no more half-steps, just an all-out effort for an all-out ban.

How often do you hear that 20 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are terminated, or that there are an estimated 1.3 million performed a year (according to the Guttmacher Institute)? How often do you hear that abortion has been legal in the country for 34 years?

When reading news stories about anti-smoking groups and their attempts to restrict people’s ability to light up, one is frequently told how many people smoke, that kids smoke and that people die from smoke. When you read news reports about the number of people who lack medical insurance in this company, you frequently hear the 40 million-plus number tossed around with the subset of children who lack insurance. Why not with abortion stories?

Simon, who probably had an extra couple of days to work on this story, also includes the broader picture in the anti-abortion fight, including dustups in the South Dakota legislature over a state ban that included no exceptions for women who are pregnant from rape or incest. Simon also included this help statistic involving Brian Rohrbough of Colorado Right to Life:

In general, organizations committed to an incremental strategy take in far more money than the absolutist groups. Rohrbough’s group runs on a budget of about $150,000 a year. By contrast, the National Right to Life Committee raised more than $9.7 million last year, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. Americans United for Life raised $1.9 million.

Overall I found both stories thorough in covering both sides’ positions and stating them clearly. But Simon’s piece excelled in fleshing out the helpful details (numbers) and providing a broader context for the battle between incrementalists and purists in the pro-life movement.

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When choice and diversity collide

DNATreeIt was just a week ago that we looked at New York Times reporter Amy Harmon’s story on genetic testing of fetuses. She wrote that some parents of children with Down syndrome are lobbying other parents not to abort their children with Down syndrome. The story, which was very well done, left me hungry for more coverage of genetic testing issues.

And Harmon delivered just a few days later. In another interesting story headlined “Genetic Testing + Abortion = ???,” she looks at the unease in the abortion rights community over abortion of children with problems. In many ways, this is a story that only the Times could do. The whole premise of the piece is that some people are uncomfortable when the principle of a woman’s choice to abort her child conflicts with disability rights.

One of the reasons that the abortion debate can seem so tiring is because so many people on either side are operating with different first principles. In logic and philosophy, first principles are those axioms that cannot be deduced from other principles. Many in the pro-life movement have the first principle that all humans — born or unborn — have the right to life. From this principle, others develop. It might be said that the first principle in the pro-choice movement is just that: choice. For pro-choicers, their guiding notion is that all mature women have the right to choose whether to abort their fetus. Add into that mix, of course, that most opinions on abortion aren’t based on first principles but gut reactions, emotions, or other methods.

Into this fray falls Harmon’s article, which begins with a pro-choice activist’s decision to allow her child to live after finding out he or she had Down syndrome. She says she thought it would be morally wrong to abort a child for a genetic disability.

Abortion rights supporters — who believe that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body — have had to grapple with the reality that the right to choose may well be used selectively to abort fetuses deemed genetically undesirable. And many are finding that, while they support a woman’s right to have an abortion if she does not want to have a baby, they are less comfortable when abortion is used by women who don’t want to have a particular baby.

“How much choice do you really want to give?” asked Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “That’s the challenge of prenatal testing to pro-choicers.”

Harmon’s contention that “many” abortion rights advocates are less comfortable with the actual abortion of a particular fetus rather than the right to kill any fetus for the reason that the mother doesn’t want it is fascinating. The sole reason offered for this conflict is that abortion on demand goes against the interests of the disabled. But I would have liked a bit more explanation of why it’s worse to kill a disabled fetus or chromosomally-different fetus than one whose abilities and chromosomes are unknown. She quotes Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, as saying this very issue underscores the importance of the right to abortion.

Harmon explains that anti-abortion advocates have criticized the use of prenatal testing for eugenics. But, she says, the selective elimination of unborn children might bother solid abortion rights advocates. She speaks with one disabilities rights advocate who was upset to find out that groups like Planned Parenthood often lobby for exemptions for women who learn their child is disabled on legislative attempts to restrict abortion. Actually, Harmon says the exemptions are being requested on behalf of women who learn their child “would have” a disability.

I think this language and verb tense is interesting, in the same way that people ask me what sex my child will be. Of course sex is determined chromosomally, meaning that sex is given at conception. At least that’s what I learned in high school. So mothers donate the X part and fathers donate either an X or Y chromosome. If a Y is present, you’ve got yourself a boy. If it’s all Xs, you’ve got yourself a girl. My baby is, if our ultrasound technician was on her game, a girl. And that won’t change in utero. In that same sense, is chromosomal disability something you “will have” or something you have at the beginning? It’s just interesting what the language chosen means about the direction of the story. Harmon continues:

“You’ve got these two basic liberal values on a kind of collision course,” said Rayna Rapp, an anthropologist at New York University who has studied attitudes toward prenatal testing.

The questions may only become murkier if testing extends to traits like homosexuality or intelligence.

But Kirsten Moore, president of the pro-choice Reproductive Health Technologies Project, said that when members of her staff recently discussed whether to recommend that any prenatal tests be banned, they found it impossible to draw a line — even at sex selection, which almost all found morally repugnant. “We all had our own zones of discomfort but still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to say, ‘Here’s the line, firm and clear’ because that is the core of the pro-choice philosophy,” she said. “You can never make that decision for someone else.”

The rhetoric of “choice,” however, can take on a more troubling resonance when it comes to selecting children with new reproductive technologies, disabilities rights advocates say. “It so buys into this consumer perspective on our children,” said Marsha Saxton, a senior researcher at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, Calif., who is an abortion rights supporter.

Harmon says abortion rights advocates fear that a move on behalf of disabiltiies rights could provide an opening to limit abortion on demand. But she uses this concern to get back to the discussion of first principles. Here’s how the article ends:

“The fear is that this will be used as an excuse to limit women’s access to abortion,” said Sujatha Jesudason, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit group promoting limits on reproductive technology. “But as these selective technologies are getting popularized we need to try to agree on a set of principles without giving up the fight for reproductive rights.”

If that doesn’t happen, some abortion rights supporters say they are worried that their opponents may hijack the discussion.

“Some religious conservatives say that they trust God to give them the child that is meant to be,” wrote Ann Althouse, a law professor in Madison, Wis., who identifies herself as an abortion rights supporter on her legal blog. “But isn’t there something equivalent for social liberals? Shouldn’t they have moral standards about what reasons are acceptable for an abortion?”

Again, major kudos to Harmon for exploring the ethical issues surrounding genetic testing. It takes courage to wade into the abortion debates. And it takes much more courage and skill to engage philosophy, ethics and politics in one fell swoop. Harmon managed the task well and was very thorough and fair to the various pro-choice viewpoints engaged in debate.

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Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

TimeMostInfluentialTerry and I had trouble agreeing on the method of counting religious leaders in “The Time 100: The Most Influential People in the World.” Terry pointed me toward his recent quip about last year’s list:

In a list of 100 men and women who are “transforming our world,” Time editors included 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers” and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

I enjoy lists like these primarily as exercises in cheekiness, the journalist’s equivalent of singing “My Favorite Things” off-key and then declaring it definitive. I don’t suffer any illusions that the editors of Time (or Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone) have a foolproof way of determining who should be on a list of the most powerful, or It People or the most important rock & roll songs ever. Lists by magazines are so clearly subjective that they could just as easily be about tastes in cheese, pipe tobacco or kitschy television shows.

I was most interested in identifying the people on this year’s list who are known for embracing — or, in one case, regularly attacking — religious faith. I present the list here and quote from relevant passages in Time. Where I am stretching the boundaries (Sacha Baron Cohen, Rick Rubin), I acknowledge this. I’ve left off Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, Al Gore, Garry Kasparov, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth II because their profiles do not engage questions of faith that could have been engaged).

For the sake of continuity, especially for anyone following along at home in the paper version, I’ll follow the same order as Time‘s package.

Barack Obama:

From his very first moment in the national spotlight — his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — Barack Obama has attached himself to the notion of audacity. He spoke that night of the “audacity of hope,” a phrase he borrowed from his minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Condoleezza Rice (in a strikingly warm tribute by Democratic consultant Donna Brazile):

Condoleezza Rice knows who she is and remembers where she came from. Early in her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, she brought then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to her home state of Alabama. She took him to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls had been murdered by an act of racist terrorism. She took him to the Civil Rights Institute, the South’s finest museum about its worst embarrassment. And she took him to attend services at the church where her father served as pastor during the turbulent 1960s.

John Roberts (by Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School):

His early decisions and questions from the bench suggest that Roberts has figured out how to achieve substantive results without appearing to be results oriented or activist. He accomplishes this through the technical mechanism of “standing,” which means a litigant’s power to challenge the actions of the government. . . . Roberts’ statements suggest that he would deny standing to citizens who challenge on First Amendment grounds the Bush Administration’s giving money to church groups that proselytize.

[Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei:

The intimates of [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, call him “the great balancer.” They could as easily call him “the great hedger.” The reticent cleric refuses to make peace with the West but eschews open confrontation. He obstructs democratic reform but holds the country’s most hard-line radicals in check.

Osama bin Laden (a masterpiece of pithiness by Martin Amis, though I do not share his sense that so many moderate Muslims are sympathetic with bin Laden):

What he has is charisma — the visionary smile and a talent for asceticism. Moderate Islam has had to decide whether Osama is a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. That many have opted for the former view owes much to the sacrifices that seem to have been made by this rich but stoic troglodyte.

Pope Benedict XVI:

What makes people rush to this fragile man who speaks softly and politely without moving his hands, without ever acting? Evidently, there is a sort of secret attraction, as if many can sense the fascination of the sacred through the witness of Benedict’s thoughts and his modest and humble life.

Sonia Gandhi:

Imagine if the U.S. were run by an Indian Hindu woman without a college degree. It’s tough: the U.S. has never elected anyone who’s not Christian, white and male — even as Vice President. But India, which is an even bigger democracy, is run in all but name by an Italian Catholic widow with a high school education.

Peter Akinola:

Full schism would be achieved if Anglicanism’s conservative southern provinces decided that even the Anglican Church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is too liberal and chose their own leader — perhaps Akinola.

Sir John Templeton:

The native Tennessean, 94, began awarding the annual Templeton Prize in 1972. Valued at more than $1.5 million, it is for those who exhibit “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities,” from philosophers to physicists.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud:

With his $20 billion fortune, he has endowed American studies at Middle Eastern universities, given $40 million to underwrite Islamic studies at Harvard and Georgetown and helped fund the construction of an Islamic wing at the Louvre in Paris.

(Disclosure: John Templeton and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud are mentioned in a sidebar on “Power Givers.”)

[Army Capt.] Timothy Gittins:

Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the 31-year-old Southern Baptist is devoted to his wife Shelley and their two sons T.J., 6, and Cole, 4. He drinks Bud Light and tries to find time to zoom around on his new Harley.

. . . The Army recently recognized Gittins as one of its most outstanding young officers. The highly decorated Ranger says he loves leading troops in combat. “We have liberties that we stand to lose if we aren’t willing to fight for them,” he says.

Tony Dungy. The tribute by his former colleague and fellow Christian, coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, does not mention Dungy’s faith. But you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of Dungy’s evangelical Christianity, and I say this as a person whose exposure to professional football is limited to an annual indulgence in the Super Bowl.

Amr Khaled:

At a time when conservative clerics have become primary arbiters of power, Khaled, a layman, has one of the Arab world’s most popular websites; regular shows on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel; and an influence that prompts comparisons with everyone from Dr. Phil to Pat Robertson. But Khaled may be most like Rick Warren, who has built an empire around his “purpose driven life” philosophy.

Richard Dawkins (in the most brilliantly counterintuitive pairing of author and subject, this one is by Michael Behe):

Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merits of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.

Rick Rubin. Natalie Maines uses her tribute as another opportunity to vent about the angry response to her criticism of President Bush. Still, any Buddhist who shared a daily Holy Communion with Johnny Cash during Cash’s waning months is a figure worth watching.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Roseanne concentrates on Cohen’s comedic talents rather than his observant Judaism, but that’s Roseanne):

The bigot comes to America and insults its most genteel members, agrees with its most ignorant, and sets out to pursue the Big Breasted Virgin Blonde, the real American male dream. He gets broken, abandoned, betrayed and cuckolded, and then born again. And at long last, he finds his true love in the form of a fat hooker with the proverbial Heart of Gold.

. . . The heart of America honored by Arabs, Jews and vice versa, and versa vice! That, as Borat would say, is NIIIICE!!!

Rhonda Byrne (by Jack Canfield):

I first met Rhonda Byrne in July 2005, when she asked if she could bring her film crew to a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council and interview our members for a movie she was creating called The Secret.

I’ll stop there in Byrne’s item, because to continue would be to drown in a vat of spiritual molasses.

Religious figures also make a few appearances in Joel Stein’s wonderful “Alt Time 100,” in which Stein gathers the collective wisdom of “Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride; Bridget Marquardt, 1/3 of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend and star of E!’s Girls Next Door; Eddie Sanchez, UFC fighter; Tommy the Clown, krump dancer; Dr. Boogie, hairstylist and contestant on Bravo’s Shear Genius; Jimmy Jimmy Coco, spray tanner; Glenda Borden, party planner.”

Here are some of their choices:

3. Russell Simmons, owner[,] Phat Farm
Simmons appeared on a surprising number of the panelists’ lists. It turns out that’s because most of them knew him. “He’s a really nice guy,” said Bridget Marquardt. I had a chance to work and live with him,” said Dr. Boogie. Russell Simmons, despite all the meditation, is not a quiet homebody type.

25. Osama Bin Laden, head of Al [Qaeda]
The panel pointed out that he’s likely to outlast Bush as head of an organization.

28. Jesus
When I made it clear that only living people could make the list, the panel — in loud unison — pointed out that he’s very much alive. There was no talking Jesus off this list.

45. Bono, singer
All that Africa stuff.

48. Rhonda Byrne, author, The Secret
The real Time 100 will probably be nice to Ms. Byrne. But the Alt Time 100 panel was much more honest. Which was striking for a bunch of L.A. celebrities. “People have to watch this to figure that stuff out?” asked Xzibit[.] Still, he wanted her on the list for pulling one over on people so well.

53. Tyler Perry, actor [and friend of T.D. Jakes]
He makes those movies all by himself, basically.

64. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran
“Not because of his mental disabilities, but because he always has a tight blazer on,” explaned Xzibit.

73. Virginia Tech victims’ parents
The group suddenly turned into a group of Time editors. “How do we handle the shooting on the list?” the asked out of nowhere. There was no way they were putting the shooter, even though that seemed the most intellectually honest. At first the victims were considered. Then the grief counselors. Then someone suggested the parents, and everyone was quite pleased. It was exactly like being at a 10 a.m. meeting at Time.

77. Coco Brother, host of Spirit of Hip-Hop
Corey Condry hosts a radio show where he bridges hip-hop with the gospel. And it’s sweeping the nation! Maybe not, but Tommy the Clown thinks it’s important.

90. Barack Obama, senator
A huge hit with the panel. Bridget particularly liked his proposals on health care.

100. Dog the Bounty Hunter, bounty hunter [and self-identified born-again Christian]
Xzibit likes that show. I’m just mad because he was out of town and couldn’t make the lunch.

Grand totals of religion citations:
The Time 100: 17
The Alt Time 100: 10
Inside joke about Time: 1
Clerics: 3
Deity: 1

Thank you for playing, and please visit us again next year!

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Finding religion in new places

oceanThis weekend I was contemplating the similarities between the modern and older nanny states.

Forgive me for the pejorative term, which refers to the attempts of some people — whether they are Puritans or public health activists — to enforce limits on individual freedom. They lobby for regulations about what you can drink, smoke, eat, drive, say, etc., on the basis that personal behavior has significant ramifications for the community. And, of course, as the nanny state grows in scope and size, the definition of personal behavior is further limited and feeds further restrictions.

Attempts to regulate what people can eat or drive are rarely compared with previous attempts at similar regulations enforced or drafted by religiously-controlled societies. I think it would be interesting to see some of the religious undertones fleshed out in more than opinion pieces or books. Sometimes we limit our discussion of religion in ways that hurt our understanding of larger, complex issues such as capitalism, rule of law and multiculturalism.

Which is why I was elated to see a casual religious reference in a New York Times article about carbon credits. The article was even in the Week in Review section, which I had previously thought completely useless. Environmental reporter Andrew Revkin writes about a carbon-cutting plan in which companies estimate their output of greenhouse gases and then try to offset them by paying for projects that absorb an equivalent amount. They plant trees or fertilize the ocean with algae:

As long as the use of fossil fuels keeps climbing — which is happening relentlessly around the world — the emission of greenhouse gases will keep rising. The average American, by several estimates, generates more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide or related gases a year; the average resident of the planet about 4.5 tons.

At this rate, environmentalists say, buying someone else’s squelched emissions is all but insignificant.

“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”

“This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther,” Mr. Hayes added.

There are many religious angles to pursue in modern environmental movements. I’ve been contemplating the similarities between religious folks who talk about the imminent end of the world and environmentalists who occasionally speak in somewhat similar fashion about certain doom for the planet. The angle mentioned by Revkin is even more subtle, but I think it’s provocative and interesting and helps the reader contemplate the issue in a broader context. Nicely handled.

Reader John Hoh noted the article’s accompanying illustration, titled “Repentance and Redemption.” It has a man weeping before a confessional booth saying, “Forgive me, for I have S.U.V.’d.” The man in the booth — who is not dressed like a priest — is taking a money bag, handing over a piece of paper, and says, “Go thy way, thy sins are offset.”

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