Why does Time see religion as irrelevant?

time 100 coverMany of you know World as a publication that strives to compete with other newsweeklies, but with an avowed evangelical Christian slant.

As a longtime reader of the publication, I appreciate it most for covering items that did not show up in The Washington Post and The New York Times the previous week, as both Time and Newsweek are known for doing so lamely.

So it’s not surprising that World founder Joel Belz over at the WorldViews blog pointed out that Time, in its list of “100 men and women” who are transforming the world through their “power, talent, or moral example,” sadly failed to include more than three people who could be considered religious figures.

While I cannot say here how disgusting I find the magazine’s hero-worshiping style and selection — Will Smith is on the list? Power? No. Talent? Definitely not. Moral example? Let’s hope not. — I do respect such efforts to catalogue the influential and powerful. It’s relatively interesting, good for conversations (and blog posts) and probably good for the magazine’s bottom line. But as Belz notes, the lack of religious leaders in the list is truly disturbing, especially since being a “moral example” is one of the qualifications:

Indeed, TIME lists 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers,” 22 “leaders and revolutionaries,” 21 “heroes and pioneers,” and 23 “builders and titans.” (The fact that this actually adds up to 109 people may be because TIME saw no mathematicians among the world’s most influential people). The three who might fall into the “religious” category are Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq, Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. Is organized religion really that miniscule in its worldwide influence these days — or is that just the secularist perspective of the editors at TIME?

I would like to think that the lack of religious leaders on the list is not due to “the secularist perspective” of the editors. Smart secularists should be able to recognize the importance of religion in the world. The magazine clearly understood it in putting together its list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in February 2005. I would also, obviously, disagree with the position that organized religion is “miniscule in its worldwide influence,” but an argument could be made that it is difficult to nail down 15 to 20 truly significant international leaders.

Who then should be on the list? Based on the inclusion of Tyra Banks, Stephen Colbert and Steve Nash (who was owned by NBA MVP rival Kobe Bryant on Sunday), one would think just about anybody can get on that list. So why did the editors omit the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Osama bin Laden and Tom Cruise (in jest, for his Scientology crusade)? Who would you add to the list?

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“The service was religious in nature”

nyprayOK, I will ask. If the police are paying informers — one Osama Eldawoody, to be specific — to attend services at two New York mosques, why have the authorities focused on those two sites?

Are the police simply harassing the biggest sanctuaries in town? Have these mosques — the al-Noor mosque on Staten Island and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn — been visited by speakers who, in the past, have incited people to violence? Are the mosques linked to schools in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia with long track records of Wahhabi activism and education work, the kind that often plants the seeds of anger that can grow into al-Qaeda ties? Are the police just being mean?

For the life of me, I can’t find any clues in William K. Rashbaum’s New York Times piece that ran with the headline “Informer in Bomb Plot Trial Tells of His Visits to Mosques.”

Mr. Eldawoody had earlier testified that he had been told to keep “his eyes and ears open for any radical thing,” but many of the details that came out during questioning seemed mundane: How many people attended a service. How long it lasted. The name of the imam who spoke.

A frequent phrase in the reports he made to the police was, “the service was religious in nature.” What he reported sometimes seemed like small talk among worshipers.

Now, if you say that British police are interested in a young Arab male who is known to frequent the Brixton mosque in South London, you know that they are trying to find out if he has become connected with Islamists with ties in that community. The police know that there are moderate Muslims, mainstream Muslims and Muslims active in various forms of radical Islam. They know that some Muslims are wonderful citizens and that a few are Islamists who are dedicated to acts of terror against those they consider infidels, Jews and Crusaders — with the word “infidel” often attached to Muslims with differing views on crucial cultural and doctrinal issues.

So what was the informer supposed to be listening for? What are the doctrinal differences between these mosques? Did anyone ask?

The details in Rashbaum’s report are so strange and banal. Are we simply dealing with simple state harassment? I mean, consider this dialogue with a lawyer in the case, Martin Stolar:

At one point, he questioned the witness about a report that indicated that he had written down the license plate numbers of worshipers at a mosque.

“I was asked to do that,” Mr. Eldawoody replied.

“Who asked you?” Mr. Stolar said.

“The detective,” he said.

“He told you to go out and write down the license plates of people who attended services?” the lawyer asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Eldawoody replied.

Like I said: Why those mosques? Why chase these particular worshipers?

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Where’s the Presbyterian beef?

grill steakPeter Smith is the veteran religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He gets to cover a bunch of interesting religions stories, including an ongoing battle over a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse.

He also does a great job of finding the local perspective on national religious stories. That was a lot easier this week with the news that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was cutting 75 staff positions in the face of budget cuts. The headquarters for the church body are in Louisville.

Smith has written several stories about the cuts, but each one left me asking questions. See if you have the same reaction. Here’s Sunday’s story:

The 2.4 million-member denomination has been losing members for decades, but church officials say donations to congregations are actually at record levels. But church officials say churches are sending less money to the denomination for its mission programs and are spending more of it on their own ministries.

Here’s the Monday update:

In 2002 and 2003, the church cut 85 jobs through layoffs and attrition. Presbyterian officials say the denomination’s 2.5 million members are giving at record levels to their congregations. But those congregations are sending less money to headquarters to fund national programs, church officials say, and are instead spending more on their own ministries.

And here’s Tuesday’s story:

[General Assembly Council Executive Director John] Detterick said Presbyterians are actually donating more money to their churches than they were a decade ago, but congregations are sending less to headquarters and spending more on direct ministry.

“Presbyterians today do not want to write a check and send that money off for somebody else to make a decision on where it goes,” Detterick said. “More and more work is being done more directly by Presbyterians, and the need of the national (office) to do it is not as great.”

Hmm. I wonder why local Presbyterians aren’t giving money to headquarters. I wonder if there’s any more to this story? I can understand not digging deeper if it were just one story, but at some point you have to wonder whether to accept headquarters’ take on the problem. Also, Smith says the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “has been losing members for decades.” That’s one way to put it. Hemorrhaging would be another:

Without a word of explanation, the number crunchers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are projecting record-setting membership losses in 2005 and 2006.

The loss in 2005 was estimated at 65,000, followed by an 85,000 projected loss in 2006. The 2005 figures, which congregations are already reporting, tally membership as of Dec. 31, 2005.

If the Presbyterians are like other church bodies dealing with budget cuts, the reason for funds not reaching national headquarters could be deeper than both the HQ explanation and the dissatisfaction among laity. Yes, laypeople who are dissatisfied with church leaders and the direction of a church begin giving their funds directly to the causes they support. But regional church organizations are also developing expensive bureaucracies and choking off church funds that might go to national headquarters. Both stories are ripe for exploration.

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China-Vatican deal hiccups

chinese cathedralThere goes any prospect of a reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican. Or maybe things aren’t that ominous. Did you hear that the deal, so close to fruition, according to a front-page blast by The Washington Post, has come crashing to the ground due to the government’s insistence on appointing another bishop to its state-run church?

Whatever happened to the Chinese Communist leaders agreeing to retired bishops that were appointed by the government? That type of talk sounded too good to be true. Or maybe both stories were given too much hype?

It will ll be interesting to see if the Post‘s Edward Cody follows up on last week’s pronouncement that “China and the Roman Catholic Church have inched within reach of normal relations.” Here’s an Associated Press report:

HONG KONG — The Vatican should suspend talks with Beijing on restoring diplomatic ties because China’s official Roman Catholic church is ready to ordain another bishop not approved by the Holy See, Hong Kong’s cardinal said Tuesday.

On Sunday, China’s state-sanctioned church ordained Ma Yinglin as a bishop in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Cardinal Joseph Zen told The Associated Press the Vatican was still considering Ma’s qualifications and had asked for more time to approve it, but China refused.

Beijing was to appoint another new bishop, Liu Xinhong, in eastern Anhui province Wednesday, despite the fact the Vatican has deemed Liu not qualified for the post, Zen said.

We all knew that the major problem in restoring relations between the two sides was determining who has the authority to appoint bishops. Giving up that authority would be a massive step forward for the Chinese government. Perhaps at some point they will realize that attempting to control people’s religious affiliation is nearly impossible. But for now, with these developments, whatever deal that was in the works appears to be in the gutter.

From a journalistic perspective, covering negotiations that have gone from “ever so close to an agreement” to outright collapse is surprising, but overall it has a simple storyline.

My big question is who in the Communist government pushed for the appointment of Liu Xinhong. Clearly some Chinese leaders believed that appointing new bishops was a bad idea. But who were they and why couldn’t they stop this one?

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Evangelicals prefer Clinton over a Mormon?

romney in massThe “Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination because he believes in weird things” chorus is singing again. The major theme this time around, as explained in this this excellent blogpost by Ross Douthat, is whether it is constitutional for voters to apply a religious test to candidates for public office.

Romney’s presidential run has picked up some serious steam, thanks to his universal health-care initiative in Massachusetts. National Journal considers Romney one of the big three contenders for the GOP nomination behind Sens. John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia.

Putting his super-secret sources to work, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote Thursday that “Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him.”

There is nothing new to this argument, as The Washington Monthly‘s Amy Sullivan points out. It was Sullivan who wrote in September 2005 that Romney’s Mormon beliefs will be a problem in a 2008 presidential run. Nevertheless, Novak has the super-secret sources and his article will be a watermark in Romney’s presidential run:

Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party’s best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that’s just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.

Evangelicals, whoever these strange folks are, prefer a President Clinton II to a President Romney? You have to be kidding me.

The biggest problem I had with Novak’s article is the assumption that evangelical voters — those who are orthodox in their politics — actually have that level of influence in the Republican Party. The influence of these voters is minimal and must be separated from the millions of churchgoers who readily voted for Ronald Reagan despite his wife’s use of a personal astrologer to help determine his schedule.

romney buttonAn angle that needs to be covered in these pieces of political speculation is that Mormon politicians have historically been very friendly to evangelicals’ ministries and issues. A Washington, D.C., pastor I spoke to last night said that the politician who is most helpful to his ministry is Mormon.

A note to political writers: Romney’s religious beliefs matter. They matter because Romney himself knows they matter. Will conservative evangelical voters and their leaders really not vote for Romney in a general election because he is Mormon? Sounds like a good story for local papers to do during the GOP primary.

Adam Reilly over at Slate wrote a nice piece of political commentary a day before Novak’s piece ran that provides the Romney campaign with some nice suggestions for overcoming what has now become the “Mormon problem.”

In recent months, for example, he’s done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader,” he replied. “But they don’t care what brand of faith that is … I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.” Romney’s contention that the “brand of faith” doesn’t matter is debatable — but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney’s hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney’s ’08 prospects, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter asserted that “[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith” — a line that could have been penned by the governor himself. …

RomneyStandardWhat’s more, there’s a desperate quality to Romney’s eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who’s sure to tout this trip — and his cooperation with O’Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts — while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. “This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith,” Romney gushed at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a [M]ass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.” Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the Boston Globe that A) Romney and O’Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O’Malley told the Globe he hadn’t invited Romney and didn’t really know him all that well. (An O’Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation “similar to that extended to the general public.”)

In between Romney’s lectures that HBO’s Big Love does not represent Mormonism, political reporters are going to have to dig into the true beliefs of this faith. As we have written at GetReligion, those beliefs are hardly monolithic.

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Yes, it’s a big religion story

FacesOfDarfurI joined a few friends from church yesterday and went to the Save Darfur rally on the National Mall. It was a very interesting event, featuring everyone from Manute Bol to George Clooney. My favorite speaker was Paul Rusesabagina. It was not a large rally — only several thousand people, I think — but I was struck by how many of those gathered had signs or T-shirts announcing their religious affiliation. I saw many Christians, but a ton of Jews.

The Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Hay Brown and Laura McCandlish noticed the same:

Days after Yom HaShoah, when Jews remember the victims of Nazi Germany, busloads traveled from the synagogues of Baltimore to make their numbers known. . . .

“The timing of it, coming so close after Yom HaShoah, made it obvious,” said Lisa Pintzuk, a member of Har Sinai. “What’s the point of remembering the Holocaust if you let it happen again?” . . .

“One of the things that allowed the Holocaust to happen was the world’s silence,” said Joel Nathanson, a dentist and part-time cantor at the synagogue. “We just don’t want it to happen again. Especially in this day and age, when information travels so much faster. It’s our responsibility to speak up.”

The “never again” mantra spoken by many Jews has been broadened to include acts of genocide against non-Jews. The Holocaust Museum has a whole shop dedicated to exposing ongoing human rights abuses (NB: one of my housemates is employed there). The sentiment was expressed by one young Jewish woman at the rally who wore a T-shirt that said “Why mourn a Holocaust when you can stop one?”

In the past, the Jewish community has been extremely reticent to see the Holocaust linked with other claims of genocide. Yesterday the linkages couldn’t have been more pronounced. That’s a very interesting development and one that could be covered more.

One quick criticism of the Sun piece, which is really thorough and gives a look at a wide variety of participants at yesterday’s rally: the story never covers the evangelical angle at all. The National Association of Evangelicals was one of the sponsors of the rally and evangelicals got interested in the problems in Sudan years ago. Matthew Hay Brown mentioned their involvement in an earlier piece, but it would have been good to see a mention in the rally write-up.

The Washington Post‘s Sudarsan Raghavan wrote up a rally piece that mentioned evangelical involvement, but read this carefully:

But yesterday’s rally brought together people from dozens of backgrounds and affiliations, many of whom strongly disagree politically and ideologically on many issues. Judging from T-shirts and banners identifying the various groups, Jews appeared to be among the largest contingent of demonstrators.

Among the speakers were Rabbi David Saperstein; Al Sharpton; Joe Madison, a liberal black radio talk-show host who has been pushing the issue; Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; rap and fashion mogul Russell Simmons; and former basketball star Manute Bol, who is himself Sudanese.

I didn’t know Richard Land was president of the Southern Baptist Convention! I knew he was a lot of things, but I didn’t realize he took over the SBC. Does Bobby Welch know?

I also have to mention Alan Cooperman’s Darfur piece from last week’s Washington Post, which is a very good summation of the groups involved in the current efforts in Darfur and how difficult it is to get hundreds of disparate groups on the same page. It has one of the funniest and most colorful closing quotes I’ve read in a while. This passage caught my eye, though:

Some Darfur activists also have complained about the involvement in the rally of a Kansas-based evangelical group, Sudan Sunrise.

Last week, after an inquiry from The Washington Post, Sudan Sunrise changed its Web site to eliminate references to efforts to convert the people of Darfur. Previously, it said it was engaged in “one on one, lifestyle evangelism to Darfurian Muslims living in refugee camps in eastern Chad” and appealed for money to “bring the kingdom of God to an area of Sudan where the light of Jesus rarely shines.”

Yep, get the presses running again. Evangelical Christians continue to evangelize! Don’t they know that evangelism became passe in the last century? Someone should really tell them.

UPDATE: Reader Tom Zoellner just co-wrote Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiography, An Ordinary Man.

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Stalking the blogosphere choir

atlanteWhat do you know? It appears that the people who are most dedicated to reading blogs are very similar to the people who are most dedicated to reading newspapers and, now that you mention it, highly dedicated to reading — period.

Here’s the lead, from a short piece in the Washington Post by reporters Zachary A. Goldfarb and Chris Cillizza (what a scintillating byline).

Think the people who while away their hours reading and commenting on political blogs are slovenly twenty-somethings with nothing better to do? Think again, said a survey last week by Blogads, a company that many leading political blogs have used for ad placements.

In an unscientific Web survey of 36,000 people, Blogads reported that political blog readers tend to be age 41 to 50, male (72 percent), and earn $60,000 to $90,000 per year. Two in five have college degrees, while just a tad less have graduate degrees.

“These are not people who are politically idealistic and born yesterday,” said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who runs the popular liberal site DailyKos.

This survey, which was posted on 110 websites, leaned to the political left because several major conservatives sites elected not to take part. So what we have here, according to Blogads President Henry Copeland, is a look at “the choir” of online geeks who are most interested in arguing about politics. Goldfarb and Cillizza indicate that Republican blog readers “tend to be older, more often male, have higher incomes and less education,” but only by a matter of small degrees. Dedicated blog readers tend to click their favorite URLs and read for about 10 hours a week.

You would be right if you predicted that I wish the survey had included at least one or two questions linked to religious beliefs and practices. Do bloggers go to church more than ordinary Americans?

I ask this for a reason. Ever since the late 1970s I have been watching for survey numbers that show that a high percentage of newspaper readers are also people who are active in their local communities. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, it also seems that people who are highly involved in their local communities as activists and volunteers are more likely to be involved in religious organizations of various kinds than people who are not all that involved in civic life. (Of course, there are many folks who are not religious who make civic involvement a major part of their lives.)

Can these points be connected?

When I speak to newspaper editors, I urge them to think about that. If their religion coverage — due to a basic lack of quality, quantity or accuracy — is consistently offending readers, are they running off core, committed newspaper readers? As we go into the future with digital media, I hope that professionals at Blogads and elsewhere will probe that a bit and include some questions asking if readers in the blogosphere want to get religion.

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Prison ministry questions

image002BAlan Cooperman at the Washington Post has an interesting story about a federal faith-based initiative to prepare inmates for release. I think it’s a very important story and I could not agree more with Americans United for Separation of Church and State in raising concerns. Having said that, let’s look at how Cooperman frames and discusses the story:

The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release. But it has produced an outcry by saying that it wants a private group to counsel the prisoners according to a single faith.

Taking Cooperman at his word, I searched for all the outcry over this program. The only story I could find was his. And the only group raising concern that I could find is Americans United. There are other things, too. For instance, the phrase “up to half a dozen.” This reminds me of when I would go shopping with my mom. When we were deciding what to buy, she would always round up the price of what I wanted. A $40 blouse for me was “almost $50″ while a $60 blouse for her was also “about $50.” Not fair. Anyway, I see no need for the word “dozen” to describe a number between zero and six.

The Justice Department plans, about which no specifics are given, apparently do not establish which religion the program should be, but they rule out both secular programs and interfaith programs. I would gripe about my hard-earned tax money going to any religion or religious program that I don’t believe in, but the aformentioned “outcry” is more narrow in scope:

The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons has tailored its bidding requirements to fit one particular program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Outlining 10 ways in which the Bureau of Prisons’ request for proposals from private contractors dovetails with Prison Fellowship’s “InnerChange” program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Gonzales has not responded to the April 19 letter, Americans United said.

Okay, so there we get to the story. This is part of an ongoing campaign by Americans United against InnerChange! It would be nice for the reader to know about American United’s campaign, but Cooperman doesn’t mention it.

Independent experts on constitutional law asked by The Washington Post to review the bidding documents also questioned the plan’s legality.

I’m all for qualifying the word experts, but what does independent mean? Especially considering that the two independent experts he goes to are Erwin Chemerinsky, an attorney who has argued in front of the Supreme Court for the National Organization for Women and Douglas Laycock, who has writen for the not-so-independent publication The American Prospect. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Laycock. I just don’t think it serves anyone’s interest to refer to him as independent. No one is independent. And I bet we could play a six-degrees-of-separation game between Americans United and these two attorneys and we could end in one or two steps.

Cooperman quotes a Justice spokesman who says the plan is noncoercive and constitutional. He also says the bidding requirements were not tailored to Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley said $3 million has been appropriated for the program. She said it is possible that the bureau could approve several proposals and set up, say, a Roman Catholic program at one prison, a Jewish program at another and an evangelical Protestant program at a third.

“It’s early to speculate, but we hope we’ll have multiple contractors and multiple locations,” she said. She added that she did not know whether inmates would be allowed to transfer between prisons to participate in a program of their choice.

handsSounds about right. The whole point of faith-based initiatives is to treat all religions as equally valid and give them equal access to the huge piles of cash for social programs we give out every day. As a taxpayer who does not want to fund any religion other than my own or give any charity at all to any religion other than my own, these programs infuriate me. The thing is that even though Americans United has its blinders on against Chuck Colson, the religion with the most notable prison ministry is Islam. And even if the rules were written to support Prison Fellowship (which was never substantiated in this piece), other religions could quickly adapt their programs to fit the guidelines. Stephen Schwartz’s analysis in The Weekly Standard gives a descriptive look at the Wahhabism practiced in prisons today:

Soon after September 11, 2001, I and a group of individuals with whom I have worked first began consultations on the problem of radical Islam in prison. We identified change in the prisons as a leading item in the agenda of our nation in defeating the terrorist enemy. Some of us had received letters from American Muslim prison inmates complaining that radical chaplains had harassed and otherwise subjected moderate Muslims in prison to humiliation, discrimination, confiscation of moderate Islamic literature, and even physical threats.

Muslim chaplains have established an Islamic radical regime over Muslim convicts in the American prisons; imagine each prison Islamic community as a little Saudi kingdom behind prison walls, without the amenities. They have effectively induced American authorities to establish a form of “state Islam” or “government-certified Islam” in correctional systems.

Cooperman frequently writes about the same issues that Americans United cares about. He also frequently takes the Americans United angle. I think Cooperman is one of the religion beat’s best technical writers. He’s enjoyable to read. He also explains complex issues in a way that’s easy for the reader to understand. I just wish he would have looked more broadly at this issue. Programs like these could produce an outcry among Americans if they got the bigger picture of what state-sanctioned religious activity in prisons could mean to them personally and to our country’s Constitutional disestablishment of religion. Perhaps he can cover those things in a follow-up. In the meantime, my church will continue our prison ministries without government funds.

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