Newsy, honest Episcopal obit (updated)

NationalCathedralIt is my strong belief that one of the hardest jobs in all of journalism is writing an obituary that — in order to cover the basic facts in a person’s life — has to deal with some controversial issues.

Thus, consider this a salute to Washington Post staff writer Matt Schudel for managing to work a lot of news content into his obit for the quiet, but very controversial, Bishop Ronald H. Haines, a former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.

This starts right in the lede:

Ronald H. Haines, 73, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington throughout the 1990s and ignited a stormy dispute when he ordained a lesbian priest, died March 21 of cancer at his home in Lancaster, Pa.

Bishop Haines was named acting bishop of the Washington diocese in September 1989 upon the death of John T. Walker, the diocese’s first African American bishop. Formally elected bishop on June 30, 1990, Bishop Haines became in effect the second most powerful figure in the Episcopal Church, after the presiding bishop of the full denomination.

Less than a year later, Bishop Haines ordained the Rev. Elizabeth L. Carl, an open lesbian who was pastor at Church of the Epiphany in Washington. The move sparked a period of protests and internal examination, and the matter still has not been fully resolved within the church.

During the ordination ceremony June 5, 1991, Bishop Haines asked whether there was any “impediment or crime” to prevent Carl from becoming a priest. Two people, including a priest of 50 years’ standing, came forward to declare that homosexuality was inappropriate in a church leader.

Bishop Haines turned to the congregation and asked, “Is it your will that Elizabeth be ordained a priest?”

Responding in unison, the congregation said, “It is.”

“The ordination of one whose life style involves sexual relations outside of marriage troubles me greatly,” Bishop Haines said in a statement at the time. But he determined that Carl’s character and priestly commitment, as well as the support of her congregation, outweighed the voices of opposition.

While I am sure that conservative critics might — repeat “might” — want to see a harder edge in this obit, all of the basic facts are there. And there are all kinds of landmines here linked to the warfare that has torn Anglicanism in recent decades. The key is that hard issues are not avoided.

It is true that the views of Haines’ many conservative critics are not featured in the story, but this is not unusual in an obituary.

However, it is understandable that the voice of the bishop’s most important critic is missing — but that is not all that surprising, in light of the circumstances. Thus, Schudel headed into the archives to document one of the awkward realities that shaped the later years of this bishop’s career:

According to a 1992 article in The Washington Post, one of the bishop’s most vocal critics was his wife, Mary, an antiabortion activist who was vice president of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. She even favored her husband’s censure, which he narrowly avoided, at a national gathering of bishops.

“All our family opposed the ordination, except maybe one,” Bishop Haines’s son Joshua said in 1992.

Bishop Haines told The Post that his mind had been opened by the diverse backgrounds of church members in the 42,000-strong Washington diocese and by his experience in raising a gay son. “I saw the pain and the anguish that comes with secret-keeping,” he said.

And near the end, there is one more painful issue to mention:

In 1994, his son Jeffrey sued an Episcopal priest and other church leaders in North Carolina, saying he had been sexually molested for 12 years. The case was settled out of court.

Once you have read the whole piece, click here and compare this very basic — but fair — story with the official obituary from the national Episcopal Church. Quite a contrast. I think they call that public relations.

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Waiting for the “real” pope stuff

tsunamiAt this point, I do not think that GetReligion will be creating its own special web site to cover the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the United States (at least, to the parts of the U.S. that really matter).

That last part was a joke.

You see, journalists who cover religion are all waiting for the arrival of the tidal wave that is a papal visit, which is kind of the Olympic games of the Godbeat, or, better yet, our version of a national political convention. And, above all, we are waiting to find out what the “real” issue will be for this papal visit.

You know. The. Real. Issue.

We all know that the pope will talk about things that do not really matter, like prayer, Jesus, confession, the Eucharist and all those other religious doctrines. But there will have to be a “real” issue or two in there to cover, which means, of course, anything that can be seen as affecting politics and, thus, real life.

If he talks about poverty and health, that will impact discussions of national health care, which may be seen as a covert hint to Catholic swing voters in Ohio that they can, under Vatican II, vote for Bill and Hillary Clinton with a clear conscience despite their records on other life and death issues. You see how it works? Heaven help us all if he mentions the environment. Even if he speaks on the nature of the priesthood, that text will be parsed for language that will have an impact on discussion of gay rights. Will he meet with the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church? Same thing.

There is also a chance that the “real” issue may be the state of Catholic higher education. No, really. The pope has requested a meeting with top Catholic academic leaders.

This issue is sexy because it affects the status of hundreds of Catholic educators who are important sources for American journalists. And, further, this conflict is linked to issues of moral doctrine, which means hot social issues that affect politics, which means abortion (and other issues) and that affects the U.S. Supreme Court and there you go.

Will Benedict demand that Catholic theologians believe the Nicene Creed? Believe that the resurrection was real? Believe that Catholic teachings on marriage are still in effect? Will he praise the new Catholic colleges that are springing up that defend Catholic doctrine and, thus, compete with those that are “diverse” when it comes to the basics of the faith?

You can see this lurking in the recent Washington Post story that ran with the headline “Catholic College Leaders Expect Pope to Deliver Stern Message.” This is actually a pretty solid report, offering a good look at the issues involved — seem primarily from the point of view of the American Catholic educational establishment, but with other interesting pro-Vatican voices thrown in there.

waveEverything centers around the nearly two decades of debate linked to a crucial Vatican document entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae (click here for text). Again, why is this a “real” issue?

Check this out (tmatt trio alert, by the way):

The pope requested the meeting with more than 200 top Catholic school officials from across the country. The gathering will come amid debate over teachings and campus activities that bishops have slammed as violating Catholic doctrine: a rally by pro-abortion rights Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio; a Georgetown University theologian’s questioning whether Jesus offers the only road to salvation; and a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the University of Notre Dame.

Wait, there’s more:

“One thing the pope will emphasize is the importance for all [Catholic] schools to realize that they aren’t independent contractors, they are part of the church,” said the Rev. David M. O’Connell, Catholic University’s president.

Catholic University is the only U.S. Catholic college founded by the nation’s bishops, and it follows the Vatican line more closely than do many other schools. O’Connoll said Rome is concerned about the lack of Catholic faculty at Catholic universities and about rampant “moral relativism” — the belief that there is no objective right or wrong — on campuses.

Last fall, Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus objected to a conference on teen pregnancy held on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross that included speakers from Planned Parenthood and NARAL. And last month: San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez complained about the Clinton rally at St. Mary’s University; St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus should be disciplined for his comments in support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research; and Catholic bishops moved a theological seminar off Notre Dame’s campus to protest an on-campus performance of the play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Bishops have criticized Georgetown for hosting Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and allowing the establishment of a pro-abortion rights student club there. Conservative Catholics are complaining about plans to open a gay resource center soon at the school.

We may need an ongoing contest, during coverage of this meeting, to count all of the scare quotes that reporters are going to put around crucial words such as “relativism,” “truth” and even “Catholic.”

But this academic session will be a crucial topic, because it’s “real.” Especially during an election campaign, you know, with all of those crucial Catholic swing voters in Ohio.

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Abstaining from journalism

abstinenceSo frequently the mainstream media reduces religion to a litany of moral statements. The only time you can get coverage of religion, it seems, is when these moral views intersect with public policy or politics. But then when there is a major moral issue in the news — be it prostitution, plagiarism or embezzlement — religious understanding is noticeably excluded from the coverage.

Terry already noticed a bit of this with his analysis of a New York Times story on the rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among teenage girls. At least one in four teenage girls has an STD.

I also wanted to look at Lindsey Tanner’s article on the matter for the Associated Press. Her article is also full of ghosts. But I’m highlighting it here also because if you thought the lack of balance in the Times story was problematic, this one is kind of jaw-dropping. Here is the second paragraph:

Some doctors said the numbers might be a reflection of both abstinence-only sex education and teens’ own sense of invulnerabilty. Because some sexually transmitted infections can cause infertility and cancer, U.S. health officials called for better screening, vaccination and prevention.

Ah yes. “Some” doctors say that. How big is this quantity of “some”? That is not important. Nor is it important if or how other people disagree. Or even among those who agree, nowhere is it explained whether the higher rates among certain groups of the population are a result of more abstinence education.

The entire piece advocates against abstinence-only education. A medicine specialist at a New York hospital and a “sex education expert” at a teen Web site called and an OB-GYN in New Orleans speak against it. I guess we found who “some” of these doctors were. The reporter also reached out to find this surprising source to speak out against abstinence-only educaiton:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the study shows that “the national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price.”

Okay, so now that we’ve stacked the deck with four quotes from opponents of abstinence-only education, let’s see who the AP quotes for the response.

[crickets chirping]

[wind blowing through the trees]

That’s right — Associated Press reporter Lindsey Tanner, whose entire story reads like a Planned Parenthood press release against abstinence education, managed to quote not one single critic of her premise.

That’s just laziness.

The premise of the piece is weak as well. Even if the federal government is using my hard-earned money to give out various grants for sex education — be it abstinence or otherwise — the notion that that is the reason for teen STD rates or pregnancy rates is silly. Even if it has an effect, it would be very difficult and time consuming — mathematically speaking — to gauge this. To run a regression analysis, you would have to see where the funds are going and make sure that you are properly getting a sample of teens who are getting sex education from the allocated funds as well as teens who are getting sex education from non-allocated funds. Then you would have to control for all sorts of other things — quality of instruction, adherence to the message, all sorts of socio-economic data, etc. Reporters aren’t constructing or running these regressions. Even of the studies I’ve seen comparing abstinence education with other sex education, I haven’t seen one that even had access to good data, much less a good way to analyze it.

I’m not surprised that Planned Parenthood is opposed to abstinence-only education. I’m not even surprised that “some” doctors oppose it. But teen sexuality is a much deeper story, one with extremely serious implications.

Why do we never see angles on stories like this that discuss the tremendous physical and psychological damage caused by deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage? Too much moralizing? Too obvious?

Too religious?

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Something fishy in the STD stats

bratzOne more time, into the whirlpool of questions about how newspapers should handle stories that raise moral questions, yet questions that are — for many readers — may or may not not religious.

In other words:

rob reynolds says:

March 13, 2008, at 8:35 pm …

I couldn’t care less about the whole sin angle. This country needs to move beyond its Puritan roots.

I was going to write about the recent New York Times STD story, but, ironically, the Eliot Spitzer story got in the way. Another GetReligionista or two will weigh in on other reports on the same topic. They are all haunted, to one degree or another.

The basic facts of the story by Lawrence K. Altman are pretty blunt. Here’s what grabbed the headlines:

The first national study of four common sexually transmitted diseases among girls and young women has found that one in four are infected with at least one of the diseases, federal health officials reported Tuesday.

Nearly half the African-Americans in the study of teenagers ages 14 to 19 were infected with at least one of the diseases monitored in the study — human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis, a common parasite. The 50 percent figure compared with 20 percent of white teenagers, health officials and researchers said at a news conference at a scientific meeting in Chicago.

The religion angle shows up quickly, primarily as the political forces are work are brought into play. The various straw people come out to dance — at least on one side of a big question.

The president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards, said the new findings “emphasize the need for real comprehensive sex education.”

“The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure,” Ms. Richards said, “and teenage girls are paying the real price.”

Now, before you click the “comment” link, let me make a comment or two of my own to define what we need to discuss about this story.

The word “abstinence” is, of course, a reference to those who advocate a traditional, religious view of sexual morality. It is a buzz word that means “Religious Right.” Thus, the story contains an important — and totally justified — voice on one side of a very hot moral and religious issue. In its own way, the newspaper introduced the “sin” question.

Where is the other side of this argument? Why quote only one side? That’s the journalistic question that we will discuss.

It is also interesting to note that the “abstinence” issue is the only one raised, as the Times attempts to raise a question that demands — who, what, when, where, why and how — to be raised. Why is all of this happening? Are African-American teen-agers in big cities served by public schools being bombarded with two or three times more “abstinence” education than their white counterparts? Have other forms of sexual education vanished? Are there NO other cultural forces at work in this story? None?

These are questions that need to be raised in a journalistic context. There is no way to avoid the crucial question: “Why are these numbers as high as they are?”

To the newspaper’s credit, it did end the story with at least one reference to the complex nature of the trends being discussed. It seems that there are questions being raised that cannot simply be answered with more condoms.

The Food and Drug Administration has said in a report that latex condoms are “highly effective” at preventing infection by chlamydia, trichomoniasis, H.I.V., gonorrhea and hepatitis B. The agency noted that condoms seemed less effective against genital herpes and syphilis. Protection against human papillomavirus “is partial at best,” the report said.

g fishSo how are we coming to comment on the religion elements of this story?

You can comment all you want about the journalistic question that I have raised. If you want to veer away from that and get into the who issue of sex education and religion, then I urge you to do this — simply offer our readers a URL for another site at which they can read material that you want them to read. Otherwise, I will be spiking as many flame-throwing comments as I can.

But, I will take the liberty to point you to the work of Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, whose reaction to the story was the same as my own. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I found it hard to read this story and not think of the classic column that Peggy Noonan wrote after the Columbine High School massacre:

Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by — all are waves. The fish — your child — is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:

… was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested … had her breast implants removed … took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired … said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide … is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens … court battle over who owns the frozen sperm … contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women … died of lethal injection … had threatened to kill her children … said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” … had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself … protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism … showed no remorse … which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student … which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance …

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture.

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Whatever happened to sin? (updated)

0312084kristen5I have no idea if there is a religion ghost somewhere in the sad story of Ashley Youmans Rae Maika DiPietro Alexandra Dupre — the 22-year-old “escort” better known as “Kristen” in the icky story of Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York.

I do know this. There are times when it is hard to cover the news and avoid the word “sin.”

Read the whole New York Times report that pulled her out into the spotlight. Doesn’t this leave you asking some questions? Is this whole story a parable for the post-feminist age or what? Has there ever been a responsible male in this young woman’s life? Would she know one if she saw one?

Her story is full of painful passages, but here is one that gets to me:

Ms. Dupre said by telephone Tuesday night that she was worried about how she would pay her rent since the man she was living with “walked out on me” after she discovered he had fathered two children. She said she was considering working at a friend’s restaurant or, once her apartment lease expires, moving back with her family in New Jersey “to relax.”

Or how about this?

On MySpace, her page says: “I am all about my music and my music is all about me. It flows from what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen and how I feel.”

She left “a broken family” at age 17, having been abused, according to the MySpace page, and has used drugs and “been broke and homeless.”

“Learned what it was like to have everything and lose it, again and again,” she writes. “Learned what it was like to wake up one day and have the people you care about most gone.

“But I made it,” she continues. “I’m still here and I love who I am. If I never went through the hard times, I would not be able to appreciate the good ones. Cliche, yes, but I know it’s true.”

Or how about this snippet of lyrics from a stereotypical song from her work as a dance-club singer?

I know what you want.
You got what I want.
I know what you need.
Can you handle me?

And on and on and on. Her side of the story is — naturally — unfolding on MySpace. Where else would it be?

But there are no issues in this tale linked to marriage, family, sexuality, sin, guilt, abuse, lust, greed, abuse of power or anything else. If there isn’t a religion ghost in this story, then there should be. Hypocrisy is just the starting point.

UPDATE: The Washington Post says that these kinds of public scandals used to be about sin. But that was a different America.

clinton lewinskyNo more. The major advice from the Style gods to women today. Do not trust politicians. Why? They are wired for this kind of thing.

Think Clinton. Bill. Or Hart, as in Gary.

One reason is because they’ve got the ideal personality for it. Psychologists believe that certain types of personalities are more likely to engage in infidelity — and that those traits uncannily overlap with traits common to politicians.

“Extroverted, prone to be socially dominant, those are traits associated with infidelity and with good politicians,” says David Schmitt, a professor of psychology at Bradley University. “The ability to compartmentalize — not necessarily to viciously lie, but to hold back some truths in one context and then tell those truths in a different context, that’s almost the definition of a politician.”

So there. Still no ghosts around here. Nope.

Top photos: From The Smoking Gun

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Sinful journalism

seven deadly sins wristbandsYesterday I poked fun at the shoddy journalism that marked coverage of the Vatican’s supposed reissue of seven deadly sins. Most of the papers responsible for the bad reporting were British. Which, considering the different standards and approach of the British media, isn’t the most surprising thing in the world.

Last year, the inestimable John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote:

Reporting on religion in the mainstream British press is not only sometimes dreadful, it’s dangerous, and something needs to be done about it.

Allen was writing about an objectively false report in the Times (U.K.) stating that Anglicans and Catholics were considering uniting. But his statement could have been written this week.

Well, the sad news is that the America media can’t get enough of sensationalism either. Fox News was rerunning the Times (U.K.)‘s coverage on this story but ABC News had reporter John Berman come up with an original story for Nightline. It is laughably bad. I think it makes the British papers look good. Take, for instance, the headline:

Wrath, Lust, and Littering? The New Seven Deadly Sins
Vatican Official Says Old Sins Don’t Cut it in the Modern World

Not true. The Vatican official did not say that “old” sins don’t cut it anymore. That’s just not true.

For the last 1,500 years or so, the world of sin has been fairly simple.

Wrath and lust are two biggies on the list of the “seven deadly sins” proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the 6th century, and made famous by Dante in the “Divine Comedy” an Italian poem that portrayed the Christian after-life in the 1300s.

But these days, according to a Vatican official, anger management and a cold shower might not be enough to keep you sin-free not if you litter.

I bet any pastor or priest hearing confession would be able to dispute the notion that the sin of lust is in any way straightforward. My own pastor says sexual struggles are huge, sweeping, nearly universal problems and that the longer he is a pastor, the more he realizes they are some of the deepest problems as well as the most difficult to rectify. The notion that sexual sin is either straightforward or easily cured by a cold shower is offensive and dismissive to the extreme. Since the Brits do “cheeky” better, this kind of silliness comes off better across the pond.

And it’s a shame about this coverage because the underlying story sounds interesting. I presume the Vatican official was talking about modern sin precisely because yahoos like this ABC reporter don’t understand how the sin of lust adapts to ever-changing circumstances.

Also on the list are drug abuse, and huge inequality of wealth with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. Some hedge fund billionaires better start brushing up on their Dante.

Hardy har har! Oh wait, that’s stupid. Speaking of brushing up on Dante, Berman, remember how he talks all the time about the sin of avarice? Well, see, avarice refers to an excessive greediness after wealth. So it’s not really new, then, is it?

And economic injustice — particularly as it pertains to the poorest — isn’t exactly what you’d call a new concern for the church either. Here’s another egregious paragraph:

According to Catholic doctrine, mortal sins are a grave violation of God’s law, and can bring about eternal damnation if you don’t confess. It’s unclear which of the newer sins are mortal, but either way, it’s a pretty big impetus to pick up your trash.

Hurt me. Or to put it in a way he can understand, it’s unclear if Berman’s hacky prose is a regular feature of his writing, but either way, it’s a pretty big impetus to avoid his byline.

So how does all this horrible reporting happen? Catholic News Service blames headline writers having fun. America — the National Catholic Weekly blames a mixture of problems:

My guess is that some in the media bobbled this story for two reasons, neither of them malicious. First, a general unfamiliarity with the contemporary Catholic tradition of social sin, even though under Pope John Paul II something like “anti-Semitism” was often referred to in those terms. And, second, the fact that a headline that reads “Seven New Deadly Sins” is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, “Vatican Official Deepens Church’s Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin.”

Speaking of social sin, Catholic News Service framed the story in a way that might be helpful for readers. I just hope these predictable and boring reporters have gotten the worst journalism out of their systems. I don’t know how much more I can take.

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Home is not where the school is

home schoolA recent California appellate court ruling raises major questions about whether parents have the right to educate their children. While the ruling will be appealed, parents who homeschool their children are reacting to their uncertain future.

Seema Mehta and Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote up the reaction to the ruling, which states that parents without teaching credentials must not educate their children at home:

The California Department of Education currently allows home schooling as long as parents file paperwork with the state establishing themselves as small private schools, hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent study programs run by charter or private schools or public school districts while still teaching at home.

California does little to enforce those provisions and insists it is the local school districts’ responsibility. In addition, state education officials say some parents home school their children without the knowledge of any entity.

Home schoolers and government officials have largely accepted this murky arrangement.

“This works so well, I don’t see any reason to change it,” said J. Michael Smith, president of the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Assn.

While the ruling affects all homeschoolers, the article manages to quote only those practitioners who are conservative and Christian. I come from a huge homeschooling state — Colorado — where all sorts of people homeschool (libertarians, conservatives, liberals, religious, secular, etc.) and it never ceases to amaze me how uniform the group is presented by the mainstream media.

Further, the homeschoolers quoted in the article are not those whose kids are winning all the spelling bees or just generally excelling in their studies but, rather, those who are trying to hide from secularism in public schools. Even among people who homeschool for religious reasons, this isn’t exactly representative.

The article isn’t all bad, and it gets some good information out there, but it just lacks any sense of the debate swirling around homeschooling regulations. Let’s look at a few of the pro-regulation comments from the article:

“Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children,” wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in a Feb. 28 opinion signed by the two other members of the district court. “Parents who fail to [comply with school enrollment laws] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program.” . . .

Teachers union officials will also be closely monitoring the appeal. A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said he agrees with the ruling.

“What’s best for a child is to be taught by a credentialed teacher,” he said.

Even though I’m the daughter of a stellar public school teacher, I can’t be alone in thinking that last line deserves a worthy retort. How many of the world’s worst teachers have been credentialed by governing bodies? If credentials are all that matters, why do so many students in public schools fare so poorly? And yet the only response given in the article is some homeschooling bogeyfather in Sacramento saying he’s worried about his kids being indoctrinated with teachings about evolution and same-sex marriage.

There are so many interesting angles to this discussion but none of the debate is really found in the article. Parents don’t have a constitutional right to homeschool their children? What are the pros and cons of government schools? What are the pros and cons of homeschools? Does the state have an interest in indoctrinating values against the interest of Christian parents? Does the state have an interest in indoctrinating values against the interest of Muslim parents? What rights do children have in these affairs?

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Blessed are the question askers

BlochSermonMountI came across two stories within moments of each other yesterday. Both, ostensibly, deal with the same Barack Obama town hall event in Ohio. And that’s where the similarities end. Here’s the first paragraph (of three paragraphs!) from the Associated Press:

Democrat Barack Obama says he’s tired of questions about his religion. The Democratic presidential candidate told a town hall meeting Sunday in Nelsonvile, Ohio, in the state’s rural southeast, that he is a devout Christian who prays to Jesus every night. He told audience members they would feel right at home at his church in Chicago.

That, plus two additional sentences, was the entire story. The other story is from the Baptist Press, which is one of the more thorough denominational press outlets out there. I’ll give you just the first paragraph from the piece, written by Michael Foust:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama defended his belief in same-sex civil unions March 2 by referencing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and then implicitly criticizing those who view Romans as a binding teaching on homosexuality.

The Baptist Press story goes on to quote Obama’s remarks and analyze them from their particular vantage point. But I couldn’t believe that was the first I heard of the remarks. A search shows that there was other coverage of the remarks, disproportionately from the gay and Christian press. But there were a few mainstream attempts.

The thing I found most interesting, however, was that these stories mentioned Obama’s remarks about the Sermon on the Mount more than they mentioned Obama’s views of Romans. And when they did mention the Sermon on the Mount, they either didn’t specify what portion of the sermon Obama thought dealt with same-sex civil unions or they speculated about Obama’s interpretation.

Here’s how the Baptist Press handled it:

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7, the passage in Romans is found in chapter 1, verses 26-32.

The Los Angeles Times wrote:

That likely would be “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” over “Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves due penalty for their perversion.”

Cybercast News Service:

Obama’s mention of the Sermon on the Mount in justifying legal recognition of same-sex unions may have been a reference to the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Or it may have been a reference to another famous line: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic says CNS reporter Terry Jeffrey has it right:

Having heard Obama work the Sermon on the Mount into several riffs before, I think Jeffrey, who is apt to want to misread Obama, gets it pretty much right. Obama has Matthew 7:1-6 in mind — the discourse on judgementalism –

I have an idea. Rather than speculating, how about one of these fancy reporters ask Obama which specific portion of the Sermon on the Mount he was referencing! I didn’t go to journalism school, though, so maybe I’m wrong.

As you might imagine, with so much confusion about the Sermon on the Mount — much less the portion of Romans dealing with homosexual behavior — coverage of this story hasn’t been too great. Obama called that passage obscure. What did he mean by that? In what way does he see a conflict between the two passages? Obama also talked about abortion and how his support for legal abortion does not make him less of a Christian. Entire stories could be written about just that portion of his remarks.

30obama 600 01The media love to write stories about Obama’s appeal to evangelicals but reporters didn’t bother to ask any substantive questions about how evangelicals feel about Obama’s exegesis.

The partisan and religious press did somewhat better.

The Baptist Press story quoted a theologian praising Obama for using Scripture to justify political positions but noted that it is a common evangelical belief that all Scripture is inspired by God and equally authoritative. The story also noted that Jesus does talk about marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Ambinder at The Atlantic noted that Obama was doing something that usually gets people in trouble:

Obama’s reference was casual, and in referencing scripture he’s committed the same (venial) sin that liberal religionists are always cataloguing as coming from conservatives: that they slip contextless biblical phrases into their political stump speeches and degrade the meaning of both.

If you’d like the full remarks, in context, CNS posted them here.

If Obama is going to use the Bible to justify his policy positions, we’re bound to see more coverage. Let’s hope future coverage does a better job of explaining things.

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