Christians out of the mainstream

rejectedbyeharmonyFor over a year, I’ve been intrigued by Chemistry.com commercials that go on the attack against the internet dating site eHarmony. It’s only mildly surprising for an upstart company to go after a major player in the market by trying to squeeze out some niche audience.

But Chemistry.com goes after its competitor in a way that strikes me as somewhat self-defeating. The advertisements complain that eHarmony screens out people who aren’t happy enough or whose morals are considered suspect. Assuming that single women are the prize customers of most internet dating services, saying that your company is much less picky than another company is such an odd way to go about getting customers.

As I learned when I wrote about a New York Times story about Chemistry.com last December, the ads are part of a larger campaign targeting eHarmony for only matching single people looking for opposite-sex partners. I still think a line from that Times story was funny:

EHarmony, which is based in Pasadena, Calif., and was founded in 2000 by Dr. Warren, a clinical psychologist, has long been criticized for its practice of turning away applicants who are gay or lesbian, married or serially divorced.

Again, in the murky world of internet dating, keeping out the married dudes is not usually considered a liability — at least by the people I hang around with. Having said that, two of my dear friends who got married in October met each other through Match.com. And the bride refused to try eHarmony because they don’t match homosexual couples. So Chemistry.com is certainly tapping into something.

Anywho, Newsweek religion reporter Lisa Miller jumps into the fray with a story about a lawsuit in California accusing eHarmony of discriminating against gays. The story is engaging and informative, but also a bit condescending:

eHarmony, which has had 20 million users since its founding in 2000, promotes itself as the dating service your mother would approve of. Its implied promise: that in this world of hookups, eHarmony can get you hitched. Lately, though, the company has faced a public relations crisis, triggered both by a competitor’s clever advertisements and by a lawsuit charging that eHarmony discriminates against gays and lesbians. Founded by a 72-year-old Christian self-help author named Neil Clark Warren, the dating site requires users to answer 256 questions about personality traits and values. Then, with the help of a complex algorithm, it matches people with much in common. Warren’s philosophy is as comforting as mashed potatoes: “It is so much better to love someone who is a lot like you,” he told National Review in 2005. A company spokeswoman boasts that 236 eHarmony users marry every day.

A “dating service your mother would approve of,” “as comforting as mashed potatoes.” The truth is that eHarmony is a very profitable powerhouse. Are they really facing a public relations crisis? Maybe they are. Or maybe the Chemistry.com ads are driving people to their internet doorstep. Some numbers to quantify the statement are in order.

Among the young and the single–especially those with Blue State values–wariness about eHarmony runs high.

Again, this may or may not be true. It’s very easy — and makes the story so much better — to quantify this.

Trickier (from a PR point of view), eHarmony rejects about 20 percent of its applicants and doesn’t fully explain why. The Internet is abuzz with possible explanations, and last year a savvy competitor called Chemistry.com capitalized on these suspicions. In television ads, seemingly eligible young people face the camera and complain that they returned their library books on time or were only occasionally depressed–and still were rejected by eHarmony. These ads drew a bright line: Chemistry.com is for people who believe in love and romance; eHarmony is for squares who follow an indecipherable set of rules. An eHarmony spokeswoman explains that the site rejects people who are underage, already married or dishonest–as well as those whose answers raise flags about their mental health.

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A company that is in a position to reject 20 percent of its applicants for being married, underage, dishonest or not well mentally is not necessarily in a tricky PR situation. Yes, savvy competitors can and should try to fill a niche. This is America. The nightclub with a doorman and rope line that doesn’t let everybody in can be frustrating, but it’s usually not portrayed as having a PR problem.

Miller explains that eHarmony was first marketed with the help of James Dobson of Focus on the Family but that the two have since severed their relationship. It was this concluding paragraph that the reader who sent in the story bristled at:

A company lawyer explains that eHarmony makes matches based on unique scientific research into what makes heterosexual unions work; it hasn’t done the same kind of work on gay unions, though it doesn’t rule out such research in the future. While this explanation may be true, it also sidesteps the real problem. eHarmony was founded eight years ago by a conservative Christian who had a passionate interest in the benefits of shared values in heterosexual marriage–and he sold this formula within the Christian world. (Warren was not available for comment.) Today, the company desires to reap the economies of scale offered by a mainstream clientele, and in the wider world, shared values are not as easy to compute.

The phrasing is a bit clumsy. It could read that the “real problem” is that eHarmony was founded by a “conservative Christian.” She’s trying to make a marketing point, but the phrasing is imprecise. And even her marketing point is demeaning. In what way are Christians not a “mainstream clientele”? Even if you accept the contention (made without substantiation) that young blue staters are wary of eHarmony, what makes them more mainstream than Christians? And if eHarmony is having trouble marketing to the “wider world,” than why does it have 17 million registered users?

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Learning the Fundamentalists’ fundamentals

DSCN0572In a story for CNN, reporter Eliott McLaughlin dove head first into a discussion of the religious views of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hook for the piece is the group’s decision to open up and permit some public scrutiny of its lifestyle. They’ve started a Web site and a handful of polygamous wives have been doing a ton of interviews.

The sect moved to Texas to avoid legal problems and its former prophet Warren Jeffs is in federal prison for arranging marriages between older men and underage girls. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar rape charges. The FLDS’ copious holdings in Utah are in control of the state pending further litigation. And now over 400 children have been taken into custody by Texas:

“Because of their history of persecution, they have what you’d call a paranoia complex,” said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. “They’ve never really reached out to outsiders.” . . .

The sect’s sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin — as with most Christian religions — to get to heaven. Those deemed “wicked” go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

I don’t even understand the first sentence of the last paragraph. Christianity is a religion. While there are different confessions, communions, denominations, what have you, it’s just one religion. And what does that mean — that “most Christian religions” believe “you must be free from sin” to get to heaven? Lutherans would not say that. We would say Christ’s death alone saves you by grace alone. And that Christ’s work on the cross is received by faith alone. I’m pretty sure a sizable grouping of other Christians who would agree that salvation does not depend on whether people are free from sin but on God’s grace.

McLaughlin goes into great detail about the FLDS tiers of heaven. Some of it would sound familiar to those who have read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. But some of it doesn’t. The hard thing is that while the church is posting media-friendly information on its Web site, it’s not revealing information about its doctrines other than some pretty standard Latter Day Saints information here. So it’s hard to know if McLaughlin’s sources are right or not:

Those who aren’t deemed wicked go to the “spirit world” to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons — how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

“To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you,” Walsh said. “Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven.”

If you haven’t learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, “you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world” before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

Again, maybe Walsh is totally correct. It’s hard to say because of the lack of good scholarship on the FLDS.

The rest of the piece is remarkably cynical about the public relations efforts of the FLDS. Again using just one source, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years, the reporter says the church’s openness should not be confused with candor:
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The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer — the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site’s name — has been scripted to elicit sympathy, [Hamilton] said.

The sect’s Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, “I don’t want to go.”

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as “officers force their way into homes,” “sacred site desecrated,” “children’s innocence threatened” and “mothers and children torn apart.”

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, “the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves,” Hamilton said. . . .

“They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters,” said Hamilton, the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children.”

The reporter says that the only way to contact the FLDS is through a link to a PayPal page. But at least by the time I checked out the site, it had an email contact.

Anyway, the thing I don’t get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short. It was just last September that Warren Jeffs was sentenced. It wasn’t that long before that he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. It seems we might get more sources here than a post-graduate student and a Cardozo professor.

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You write the NYPost head

bowl chaliceI know this will come as a surprise to some readers, but New York Cardinal Edward Egan is not amused that a Catholic who openly opposes the church’s teachings on the highest of high-profile issues dared to take Holy Communion in the highest of high-profile settings.

It doe not seem to matter that the politico in question is a Republican superstar.

Corky Siemaszko of The New York Daily News has the best lede so far in this perfect-for-tabs news story.

Hey Rudy: Taking Holy Communion at the papal mass was a sin.

An angry Edward Cardinal Egan pounded New York’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani from his Internet pulpit Monday for taking the Eucharist during Pope Benedict’s historic mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God,” Egan said in a statement on the archdiocesan Web site. “Throughout my years as Archbishop of New York, I have repeated this teaching in sermons, articles, addresses, and interviews without hesitation or compromise of any kind.”

It’s the next series of details that really cut.

Egan said he had “an understanding” with the failed Republican presidential candidate “that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion.”

With his third wife Judith beside him, the twice-divorced Giuliani received communion from a priest standing near the Pope on April 19.

“I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the Papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, you know that letters and calls are pouring into the offices of the shepherds who guide House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators John Kerry, Christopher Dodd and Edward Kennedy.

Believe it or not, the New York Post Rudy lede is downright boring. Somebody over there better get his or her act together by tomorrow morning or the paper may have a mucho upset Australian magnate coming out of the newsroom elevator.

Check out this yawner, which I predict will be radically rewritten by tomorrow’s press run:

Rudy Giuliani should not have received Holy Communion during the pope’s visit to New York because the former presidential candidate and mayor supports abortion rights, Cardinal Edward Egan said Monday.

This story does have a nice touch, noting that Rudy said he is willing to meet with Egan, but that his faith is a highly personal matter that “should remain confidential.” Hey, that’s true if that agreement between mayor and cardinal was negotiated inside a confessional.

Meanwhile, let’s play a game. You write a New York Post A1 headline for this one, if the story is sexy enough tomorrow to beat out the misadventures of a certain baseball pitcher and a non-typical Disney picture.

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Young, gay, married

nytphotoyounggaymarriedWhen I saw the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week, I groaned. Beaming out from the pages in ridiculously campy, 1950s-style photos reminiscent of June and Ward Cleaver were two perfectly domestic gay men.

The Newlywed Gays! the text read and I just knew that we were going to get yet another installment about how perfectly normal gay marriage is. I’ve complained before about the “We’re perfectly normal and boring” meme that all reporters use when describing, say, polygamous families or gay parents and their genetic material donors forming multi-parent families. I don’t want sensational coverage, but it always smacks of advocacy. It also subtly denigrates others’ views as opposing, say, polygamy only because it’s not “normal.”

Well, Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ story might be advocacy, but it completely surprised me. It’s long, but really interesting and it feels no need to present readers with 5,000 words claiming that young gay marrieds aren’t just normal, they’re better than normal. Not that I would expect him to, having read his rather provocative pieces on men on the down low and the teen hook-up culture.

Instead, Denizet-Lewis used the piece to satisfy a curiosity. He’d heard about a bunch of young gay men getting married in Boston and he was curious how they might choose to construct and maintain their unions, particularly with no model for how to build a gay marriage. Much of the article deals with whether young gay men expect monogamy, as is a normal expectation (even if not always the reality) with straight couples who marry.

Denizet-Lewis pulls no punches. He quotes a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of a guide to gay intimacy and relationships saying that for many years, gay men in their 20s would have a lot of sex with a lot of different people. It was almost a rite of passage — seen as making up for lost time spent in the closet during adolescence.

Denizet-Lewis spends a lot of time observing four different male couples and a few already-divorced gay men in Boston. It’s obvious that he has spent enough time with them that they are being open and honest with him. He is the most sympathetic of reporters but he really lets the sources speak for themselves and be real people. They each have different understandings of what commitment means.

A major point of the piece is that society’s views about marriage affect each couple in the piece. That is usually a point made by opponents of same-sex marriage. And people usually mock the notion that acceptance of gay marriage might have ramifications on individual marriages and society’s expectations of marriage in general. Denizet-Lewis doesn’t deal with the ramifications on opposite-sex couples but he doesn’t mock the notion that society’s views about marriage, commitment, monogamy and trust do trickle down to each couple.

One engaged couple, Marc and Vassili, say they’re aware that some gay couples have open relationships but that they plan on being monogamous. They consider it a fundamental and important part of marriage, they say:

It is for many young gay couples. Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator who co-wrote the book “A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples” and who has helped gay couples of all ages negotiate prenuptial agreements, told me that young gay men get the most impassioned when talk turns to monogamy. “A very common thing I hear them say in my office is, ‘If he has an affair, he’s not getting any alimony!’” Hertz said. “That’s just not something I hear among older gay men, who often make a distinction between emotional fidelity and sexual fidelity. There’s an emerging rhetoric around monogamy among young gay couples. In that way, they’re a lot more like married heterosexual couples than they are like older gay couples.”

Another couple, both with the first name Brandon, scoff at monogamy:

But the Brandons suspected they were untraditional when it came to their thinking about monogamy. As they saw it, one enduring lesson of heterosexual marriage is that lifelong monogamy is unrealistic for most people — especially men. “Most straight people like to talk a great game about monogamy,” Brandon A. said. “But what are they actually doing? Many of them have affairs at some point or break up because they want to sleep with somebody else. We’re two guys, we’re in our 20s, we haven’t been sexual with that many people, and to pretend like we’re never going to want to experience sex with another person until the day we die doesn’t make sense to us. We’re open to exploring our sexuality together in a way that makes us both comfortable.”

Joshua and Benjamin, another married couple (pictured above), had another interesting view on commitment:

And there were nights out at gay bars. “No one assumes we’re married when we’re out at a club with our friends,” Joshua said. “Maybe it’s because I look like I’m 12, but people see my wedding ring and are like: ‘What? Is that a fashion statement?’ They just hit on us anyway, which, really, is kind of fun. I’ll flirt right back, and I’ll say to Ben, ‘Oh, look at the butt on that one!’”

For Joshua and Benjamin (and for several of the couples I spent time with), there is no use pretending they aren’t attracted to other people. “I think it’s healthy that we don’t have to lie about that like so many straight couples do,” Joshua said. “We’re also two gay guys in the couple, so we’re attracted to the same gender. We can both appreciate a hot guy walking down the street.”

Another issue that Denizet-Lewis raised, gently, was how gay culture went from completely rejecting the trappings of marriage and children to embracing them:
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WHEN I FIRST LEARNED that some young gay men were marrying in Massachusetts, I wondered if their marriages might be a repudiation of the gay world fashioned by previous generations of men — men who reacted to oppression and homophobia in the ’70s and ’80s by rejecting heterosexual norms and “values,” particularly around sex and relationships. Many older gay men would have scoffed at the idea of marrying and having kids. To many of them, their “family” was their network of close gay friends.

He also doesn’t shy away from, or try to overcontextualize, the failure of some gay relationships to go the distance. One heartbreaking story came from a man who told his grandfather about his nuptials, no small feat, only to have the marriage fail in short order. He said he still couldn’t bring himself to tell his grandfather. Denizet-Lewis notes one couple featured in a 2004 MTV documentary, both 22 at the time, became the 44th same-sex couple to wed in Massachusetts only to get divorced within a couple of years.

Both George and Aaron said they’d also felt an added pressure in their marriages to “prove to the world,” as George put it, that gay relationships can last. “My ex and I really wanted to be an example to our families and straight friends that a gay marriage can work,” he said.

Dan Savage, the sex-advice columnist, told me he worried that some young gay men in Massachusetts might rush into marriage as a way to have their relationships validated by their families. “Once, our relationships were only respected if we had remained together for a long, long time,” Savage said. “Only longevity earned us some modicum of respect. Straight couples could always rush that validity by getting married. Now I just worry that some gay kids, desperate to have their gay love taken seriously, will wield their new marriage licenses and say: ‘See how real our love is? We’ve only been together five months, but we’re already married. You better respect us now!’”

There are problems with the article, to be sure. Religion usually plays some role in at least some people’s understanding of marriage and ethical relationships. There’s no mention. Incidentally, is it marriage day here at GetReligion? Particularly when dealing with understanding of trust and commitment, the silence is deafening. All of the people in the pictures are extremely thin, white and wealthy. I have no doubt that gays getting married is a “trend” in that the standard for a journalism trend is “three examples.” But does this story really explore any larger truth for gay men? There’s a reason the couples all live in Massachusetts, what with the laws there, but what do the discussions in the piece tell us about gay men who aren’t wealthy, white or from the Northeast? And what do the discussions in the piece tell us about marriage in general?

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Totally no-fault divorces

DivorceCakeI confess that even my magazines stacked up during the papal visit. Thus, I was a week late getting to the epic Newsweek “Splitsville” cover story by David J. Jefferson on Baby Boomers and divorce in the symbolic Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles.

The heart of this story can be expressed very simply: The sins of the fathers and mothers have been visited on their sons and daughters. The whole story centers on a tidal wave of divorce in what we are told — no real stats to back this up — is the “quintessential American suburb,” that was built on the dreams of the GI Generation.

The story is about marriage, which is a subject that religious people would argue has moral and religious content, in and of itself. Since this is a tale of husbands, wives and lovers and the impact of their choices on their children, you would think that the nature of the moral questions involved might play a major role in the story. You would be wrong.

This becomes especially painful in the next generation, which is the whole point of the story. Choices have consequences and leave scars. The children in these divorced families, we are told, “grew up much too fast,” raised by parents who never seem to have grown up much at all.

Here’s the section of the story where all of that comes together:

As newly single mothers went to work to support their families, children were being left to fend for themselves. “We were latchkey kids,” says Elyse Oliver, whose mom took a job at Hanna-Barbera studios, painting animated characters for shows like “The Flintstones” to provide for Elyse and her sister. “We had the little necklace with the key on it and we’d walk home from school, let ourselves in and take care of ourselves until she came home about 6 or 7. We’d do chores and cook dinner. I remember making drinks for her,” Elyse says. The rest of the girls who lived on her block — the “Martha Street Gang,” they called themselves — didn’t come from broken homes. “It was, like, ‘Eww, your parents are divorced’,” recalls Elyse, whose parents split when she was 5, and whose last name at the time was Croen. By the time she was 13, her mother had been through three marriages: the first two ended in divorce, and her third husband died of a heart attack within a year, the day before Father’s Day.

Like so many kids of divorce, Elyse dealt with the instability at home by acting out. At the age of 9, she was smoking. At 13, she was having sex. “My boyfriend at the time went up to my mom and said, ‘Hey, we want to have sex, can you put her on the pill?’ ” Her mother agreed. At least Elyse was getting birth control: a good friend at the time, another child of divorce, had a baby at 15 and gave it up for adoption. The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1977, but Elyse believes her behavior had more to do with her parents’ divorce and her father’s death when she was 11. “I think I had a problem because I didn’t have my dad around. So I was looking for love that wasn’t there,” Elyse says. She settled for whatever love she could get, putting up with her boyfriend’s cheating for five years, then moving from one relationship to the next. “The same night I broke up with my first boyfriend, I met my next. I was never alone; I mean, there’s something wrong with that.”

But my generation was trained in the art of having to move from relationship to relationship.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course (unless, perhaps, religious doctrines get in the way).

Divorce can be passed from generation to generation, it seems, but this has nothing to do with the nature of the moral choices involved in all of these broken marriages and never-formed marriages, as people slide from one relationship to another and then another and another.

There are ironic twists. Gov. Ronald Reagan — a divorced man, of course — signs the no-fault divorce law that unleashes the whirlwind, yet also gets some credit later for some kind of cultural recovery period.

In many ways, the urge to stay married is stronger in my classmates’ generation than the urge to get divorced was in my parents’. Perhaps this was a backlash to divorce; maybe it was the result of reaching marrying age just as President Reagan’s New Conservatism was shaping the social order. Whatever the cause, my married classmates seem more clear-eyed than their ’50s forebears.

But don’t look for religious content in this piece, for the voices of those whose vows held up — for either secular or sacred. Other than a multi-level family feud at a bar mitzvah, religious plays no role in the choices behind these divorce earthquakes and their aftershocks.

Nope. No religious issues here. I just thought you’d want to know.

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The sensational and sentimental

childcustodyCould there have been two more dramatically different religion stories last week than Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to the United States and the ongoing drama with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It is completely understandable that almost all religion reporting resources focused on papal coverage, but I keep hoping that we’ll see some really good coverage of the ins and outs at the Yearning For Zion compound ranch in West Texas.

Reader FW Ken said it well:

The story in the FLDS business here in Texas needs desperately to tease out the legitimate religious angles from the cultic. The isolation and focus on the leader are classic cult behaviors. The sexual exploitation of younger girls by older men is not uncommon in cults (I’m thinking Moses David and the Children of God back in the 70s), although, to be fair, polygamy and arranged marriages between younger and older is not uncommon in history . . . But that’s the sort of thing that really needs telling, because it is possible to interpret the current event as the government swooping in and stealing the children of people who’s religion and way of life based on that religion aren’t socially acceptable. Look, I’m a Catholic and don’t approve of polygamy. But I amreally uncomfortable with government force being applied to people who believe differently then me. Again, sorting out the cult aspects from the authentically religious choices people make is crucial to protecting the legitimate interests of the kids without force feeding them standard American culture. . . .

Bottom line: I’ve worked for the great State of Texas most the past 40 years in one capacity or another and somehow I don’t trust us to really help these children through our child welfare system. Call me cynical, but this is a job for journalism, but, unfortunately, a journalism that “gets religion” (what a concept!) and doesn’t settle for the sensational and sentimental.

I finally found a few stories that weren’t terribly sensational or sentimental. However, the stories didn’t really help us understand, as FW Ken put it, the religious angles versus the cultic. Written by Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times, their focus is on the DNA tests that members of the polygamous sect are being subjected to:

Current and former members of a deeply conservative polygamous sect whose children have been seized by the state came to a county office building here on Tuesday to donate their DNA for a genetic database that state officials said could be a step toward the reunification of parents and children.

The collections began even as the first children were sent off under a judge’s order into foster care pending an investigation of under-age marriages by the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S.

The parents came in ones and twos and groups on a blisteringly hot day, some resigned to the task, others simmering with resentment. Jarring juxtapositions — old ways and new, science and faith, cynicism and hopefulness — were everywhere. Just after lunch, a group of women in pastel prairie dresses climbed down from a late-model S.U.V. with dark-tinted windows like those used by movie stars. But for the West Texas dust, they looked straight from Hollywood central casting.

David Williams, 32, clutching a Book of Mormon and a binder with pictures of his three sons, said he drove 1,200 miles from Nevada “to give all that I have to aid in the return of the children to their parents.”

Mr. Williams said that he had left the sect three years ago, but that his three sons had continued to live here at the group’s compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch, with their mother. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than a century ago after the Mormons abandoned their traditions of polygamy.

I like that jarring juxtapositions line — a very efficient way to capture a great deal of context. And the imagery in the following line manages to paint quite the picture without being condescending or rude.

Perhaps discussing why Mr. Williams left the sect would be a good way to explore some of the tangled religious issues. He’s carrying a Book of Mormon and he left the sect — he seems like a good potential source.

It’s also worth noting that the timeline about the FLDS is a bit off. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did officially change its position on polygamy over a century ago but I believe the FLDS emerged in the 1930s after the LDS really began cracking down on polygamists. Kirk Johnson’s follow-up story seemed to fix this problem somewhat:

The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.

Anyway, most stories out there continue to take either the “look at these freaks” or the “these poor, poor parents” approach to the story. A more nuanced and less extreme approach is called for as a service to readers.

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Polygamy in context

mormon polygamyLast week we discussed the need for reporters to distinguish between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the comments, reader Michael Nielsen — a Mormon social psychologist — pointed us toward an op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune that argued for improved information about the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church:

To deny polygamy’s importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism is, well, to be in denial. Many Latter-day Saints prefer to avoid polygamy or to think that it has no bearing on the present, but this is pointless if we are to consider what other people think of the church. Evidence of this is found in the results of a recent Vanderbilt study on bias against Mitt Romney and Mormons. Negative opinions in the study shifted markedly when people were provided “clear, accurate information” about polygamy and other stereotypes regarding Mormonism.

From my reading of newspaper letters, article comments and blogs, it seems that defenders of the church too often provide information that is clear but inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it strikes an observer as disingenuous when told “the LDS Church has nothing to do with polygamy,” as I’ve read in the comments to several newspaper articles in recent days. Clear? Yes. Accurate? Not so much.

As if on cue, Peggy Fletcher Stack, ace religion reporter for the Tribune, filed a comprehensive look at the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church. Headlined “Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy,” the article explains exactly how the LDS came to practice polygamy, how it was discontinued, and what the current view is. She explains, for her non-Mormon readers, that Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in clothing from the 19th century or wear, as a rule, unusual hairstyles.

Stack explains how LDS founder Joseph Smith was inspired by Old Testament figures who had multiple wives and recorded that he received a revelation in 1843 defining “a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives”:

After Smith’s death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state. . . .

Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.”

And by policy, men can be “sealed” for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.

Three of the church’s current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.

Stack explains how Mormons see the polygamy of the past differently than they view its contemporary use.

One of the things she gets into is the economic motivation for the polygamous Mormon communities at their height in the 1860s. According to a scholar she interviews, many of the second, third or otherwise plural wives were widowed, divorced, or had no other men to take care of them. That’s a major difference from the FLDS where boys are routinely kicked out to keep up the supply of plural wives. Religion & Ethics‘ Lucky Severson had a fantastic news piece about this back in November, but I haven’t seen much coverage now that the FLDS are back in the news. Slate was one notable exception.

Stories have also failed to explain the general economics of the FLDS. How do the families support themselves? Do they support themselves? Do taxpayers support the plural wives? What are the religious teachings related to the economics, particularly as they relate to self-sufficiency?

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B16: A human life is a human life?

prod 874As we continue to ride the papal tsunami, it appears that The Politico has another interesting story all to itself (unless I have missed it elsewhere and, if so, please correct me).

This is on a blog right now, but may show up in a digest in the dead-tree-pulp edition. The headline is really dry. Perhaps GetReligion readers (if there are any out there interested in this visit by Pope Benedict XVI) can offer comments to suggest improvements.

Here’s the top of the story:

Pope resolution passes after “life” language removed

While Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to Washington received wall to wall coverage, Sen. Barbara Boxer briefly held up a Senate resolution welcoming the pontiff because she objected to language about how the pope values “each and every human life.”

The measure later cleared the Senate Thursday afternoon after the sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), dropped the reference to “human life” because some Democrats saw it as a reference to abortion. According to Republican aides, Brownback, a devout Catholic, did not want a high profile fight over the resolution, which was adopted on a voice vote. In fact, Brownback blackberried his staff from the Pope’s mass at Nationals Park to direct them to drop the references to human life.

In the WWW age, of course, it helps that the post includes the links to texts for the before and after resolutions.

Here is the crucial proposed language:

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has been a clear and courageous voice for the voiceless, working tirelessly for the recognition of human dignity and religious freedom across the globe;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out for the weak and vulnerable, witnessing to the value of each and every human life;

An update to the original post has more information about what was removed.

Boxer’s spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz has written The Crypt to say “we are very pleased we were able to reach an agreement with Senator Brownback to remove the political language and pass this resolution welcoming Pope Benedict.”

“Senator Brownback also agreed to remove the political language referencing religious expression on public buildings,” Ravitz said in an email.

Here is what interests me. The conventional media wisdom is that arguments about abortion pivot on whether the state has the right to rule that an unborn child is, legally, a “human life.” Thus, the original wording — praising the pope for his action to defend the value of “each and every human life” cannot, under current law, refer to the unborn. Human beings are, by definition, those who have been born. Right? So what is the argument actually about?

Please let us know if you see coverage of this elsewhere. I think the odds of this showing up in a political ad are slim to none, since the GOP really doesn’t have much courage on this issue. The libertarian wing seems to be calling for silence.

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