Straddling the fence

mccain speakingWe know presidential wannabe Rudy Giuliani is trying to get religion. Is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)?

Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, McCain was grilled by Tim Russert, who tried to establish a McCain embrace of the “religious right.” McCain did his best to say his past tiffs with right-of-center religious leaders were simply politics and he does not hold a grudge. Apparently the religious leaders don’t either. But McCain also refused to associate with the politics of those leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell’s:

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, when you were on here in 2000, I asked you about Jerry Falwell, and this is what you said.

(Videotape, March 5, 2000):

SEN. McCAIN: Governor Bush swung far to the right and sought out the base support of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. That’s — those aren’t the ideas that I think are good for the Republican Party.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Jerry Falwell’s ideas are now good for the Republican Party?

fence straddlingSEN. McCAIN: I believe that the Christ — quote, “Christian right,” has a major role to play in the Republican Party. One reason is, is because they’re so active, and their, and their followers are. And I believe they have a right to be a part of our party. I don’t have to agree with everything they stand for, nor do I have to agree with everything that’s on the liberal side of the Republican Party. If we have to agree on every issue, we’re not a Republican Party. I believe in open and honest debate. Was I unhappy in, in, in the year 2000 that I lost the primary and there were some attacks on me that I thought was unfair? Of course. Do I — should I get over it? Should I serve — can I serve the people of Arizona best by looking back in anger or moving forward?

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Jerry Falwell is still an agent of intolerance?

SEN. McCAIN: No, I don’t. I think that Jerry Falwell can explain to you his views on this program when you have him on.

Seconds later, McCain excused his address at Falwell’s Liberty University graduation ceremony as no different than speaking at “the New College or Ohio State University” and said addressing a student body doesn’t mean that he agrees with their politics.

McCain is making a careful distinction, which reporters should note (the AP handled the story quite well here). He is not aligning himself with Falwell’s policies, but he is strongly courting Falwell’s support. And apparently courting the support is enough for Falwell, at least at this point. Russert’s insistence on getting McCain to admit support for outlawing gay marriage and abortion kept him from missing the big picture: that Falwell finds McCain’s politics acceptable.

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Maybe God only answers the prayers of Methodists

PrayingA $2.4 million study on the effect of intercessory prayer came out last week and received a bunch of coverage. Researchers studying 1,800 heart-bypass patients at three hospitals found that intercessory prayer by strangers has no effect on the health of the person being prayed for. They also found that people fared worse — in the short-term at least — if they knew they were being prayed for.

But the study was a bit more complex than that. Over 3,000 patients were asked to take part in the study and over 1,800 agreed. Patients were randomly divided into three groups:

• people who were prayed for but were told they may or may not be prayed for

• people who were not prayed for but told they may or may not be prayed for

• patients who were prayed for and told they would be prayed for.

Some of the ways this study was done well (and it should have been for $2.4 million!) were that patients were randomly assigned, doctors were not told what group the patients were assigned to, the sample size was large and data collected about the participants showed there weren’t big differences across the three groups.

But there were problems, too. Patients may or may not have been prayed for by people who cared about them and knew them. The study didn’t capture that information — instead it farmed out first names and the first letter of last names to strangers in three different congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant). God had only 14 days to work healing. Or, rather, congregants only prayed for the patients for 14 days. My congregation prays for people as long as they are in need of prayer. In some cases, we have been praying for people for years. It never occurred to us that this meant intercessory prayer was failing!

Stories were sort of all over the map, but most reporters did a good job of characterizing the study. Here’s Michael Conlon of Reuters:

A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.

And here is Rob Stein in the Washington Post:

Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.

It’s just interesting to see two reporters in action. The first lead emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the prayers. While the second lead shows the study looked at prayer by strangers, it makes it seem like the study proves all prayer is ineffective — which is much more broad than the study itself purports.

Anyway, I know the unemployed, sick and dying at my church will still be prayed for. Speaking of lead paragraphs, this satirical one made me laugh:

A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.


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God wants you to be a millionaire

osteenI have a friend, and former editor, who used to watch televangelists with a drinking buddy. They would come home from a night on the town and keep drinking while watching CBN or some other preacher network. It was all fun and games until one night they accidentally donated $50 to Pat Robertson. The good news is that they realized they needed to cut back on their drinking.

I confess that I also like to watch televangelists while imbibing. And one of my favorites is Joel Osteen. I have been watching the ubiquitous preacher for years now, waiting for him to say anything uniquely Christian. If you watch him, you’ll know he has GREAT NEWS where other preachers just have Good News. Did you know God wants you to be wealthy and get a great-looking spouse? It’s true. Did you know God wants you to get a killer job and a fast car and the respect of your peers? True again.

Osteen is everywhere. His book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 3 million copies. He packs the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, with 40,000 devoted fans every week. The New York Times‘ Ralph Blumenthal wrote a fascinating profile of Osteen, who just signed a huge contract for a new book, possibly as much as $13 million.

“You know what, I’ve never done it for the money,” he said in an interview after Sunday’s service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. “I’ve never asked for money on television.” But opening oneself to God’s favors was a blessing, he said. “I believe it’s God rewarding you.” . . .

Or, as he also puts it: “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner.”

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. “Better yet,” he writes, “it was the premier spot in that parking lot.”

The article is all about Osteen’s teaching of the prosperity gospel, so it includes a lot of details about money. He shows how much money Osteen brings in at each week’s services ($1 million), how much money via mail ($20 million), the size of his staff (300), how much it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church ($95 million) and the state of the church’s financial statements (notable for their accountability). The most interesting detail by far is that the church put a globe instead of a cross in what would be the apse.

What’s nice is that Blumenthal treats Osteen respectfully while giving a voice to Osteen’s critics:

In “Your Best Life,” Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as “Christianity lite.”

“He’s not in the soul business, he’s in the self business,” said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: “Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face.”

“There’s breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at — that’s his power,” said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood “the steroid extreme” of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for “diluting and dumbing down” the Christian message, “but in truth,” he said, “what he’s producing is a wild and alluring community.”

The article is really interesting and informative, and I’m sure Osteen’s fans and critics would both agree. I would have liked a bit more comparison between Osteen’s theology of glory and the theology of the cross, but that it was alluded to at all is a great start.

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World goes after Ralph Reed

ReedCoverYou know you’re in trouble when you’re a conservative Christian and an unabashedly conservative Christian magazine goes after you for being linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. You know you’re in even deeper muck when the Washington Post points this out in an article headlined “From a Conservative, a Lack Of Compassion for Ralph Reed.”

The lame play on words in the headline withstanding, it’s a solid article that gives World magazine greater credibility, showing it is somewhat independent from the Christian, and mostly conservative, politicians it often covers:

Ralph Reed, candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, has a standard line when opponents link him to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “The Democrats, radical left, and dominant media have made numerous unfair personal attacks against Ralph,” his Web site declares.

Lately, however, it’s becoming harder for Reed to dismiss his critics as ideologically motivated. One of the toughest is Marvin Olasky, a close associate of President Bush who helped developed the administration’s faith-based initiative and the concept of “compassionate conservatism.”

Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, is editor in chief of World magazine, the mission of which “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Since Nov. 19, World has run 10 articles and essays describing the $4 million in gambling money Abramoff paid to Reed to lobby against casinos competing with Abramoff’s clients. The articles have highlighted incriminating e-mails and other disclosures that have raised doubts about Reed’s explanations of his activities.

Reed clearly has not come to grips with what he has done, and it was very important for World to pursue the Reed story (articles here, here and here).

That Olasky had to explain to his readers why World is “delving into the Ralph Reed scandal” is a bit disheartening, but not surprising. Olasky, an adviser to George W. Bush before the 2000 election, has the difficult job of guiding a news magazine that covers a White House now implementing some of his ideas about compassionate conservatism.

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In God’s name

immigration marchThe current immigration debate in Washington, D.C., is chock full of religion issues that are floating just under the above-the-fold stories on the legislative processes and debates. The religious angle in immigration cuts across political boundaries and shoots directly at the center of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

I have yet to see — and maybe I’m not looking hard enough — a solid story examining the theology behind the “love your neighbor” doctrine and how it relates to the immigration debate, but some religious leaders already know where they stand and they are looking to be heard as this debate rages.

A commenter on a previous tmatt post, coincidentally named Daniel, said the pro-immigration marches across the country are an interesting example of the religious left. Daniel appropriately notes that there has been a lack of coverage of religious leaders in Washington who staged mock arrests earlier this week to demonstrate what could happen if they help illegal aliens.

This Scripps-McClatchy wire story provides a solid summary of the religious issue in the current immigration debate:

DENVER — A wide range of religious groups have been serving a critical role in recent efforts to push Congress to pass what they call humane immigration reforms.

More than 200 religious organizations, including those associated with Catholics, evangelicals, Mennonites, Muslims and Jews, have conducted letter-writing campaigns to President Bush and Congress and encouraged congregation members to attend huge pro-immigrant rallies in cities across the country.

One of the most visible organizations in the debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been training clergy, parishioners and church employees on the religious principles of helping refugees and immigrants. Locally, members of the Denver Archdiocese have been conducting educational presentations on immigration reform about twice a week.

immigration logoAs the story demonstrates, the current immigration debate crosses into religious territory in many ways, including the fact that most immigrants (legal or illegal) come from Catholic backgrounds, the command to love your neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan, to name a few.

The political/religious bombshell of the week was Sen. Hilary Clinton’s invocation of biblical themes in her opposition to a bill passed by the House in December that would criminalize undocumented immigrants:

Surrounded by a multicultural coalition of New York immigration advocates, Clinton blasted the House bill as “mean-spirited” and said it flew in the face of Republicans’ stated support for faith and values.

“It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures,” Clinton said, “because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.”

Clinton did not specifically endorse any competing legislation, including a bill co-authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and another by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), saying she hoped the Senate Judiciary Committee would produce a compromise incorporating the best elements of all the bills and would remove the harsh penalties contained in the House measure.

Immigration2One can disagree with Clinton’s reading of Scripture and question her religious sincerity, but one cannot deny that the junior New York Senator gets the importance of religion when it comes to the country’s cultural/political mindset. And the press is eating it up. While Republicans won’t likely win many votes in 2008 by raising theological issues with Clinton, journalists should do so — because it matters.

I don’t have the expertise or the time to thoroughly parse Clinton’s statement (I’m sure you all will help me). But just as good journalists would never let a public official get away with making this bold a statement regarding policy or history, the same journalists should examine the theology behind Clinton’s statements, as they did when George W. Bush said in his 2000 presidential campaign that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher.

Clinton’s Methodist background is hard to miss these days, and she’s certainly not shy about letting it shine. But how will that play with evangelicals, many of whom believe that denomination represents everything that is wrong with mainline American Christianity?

On a related note, did you hear that Christians in this country feel persecuted? To read the predictably snarky view of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, click here. Check back with us later for more on this.

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But she was wearing a short skirt . . .

rahmanAbdul Rahman, the Christian man who was in danger of being executed under Afghan’s Islamic laws, was released and flown to Italy. The cabinet of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi granted his asylum plea in an expedited process. And just in the nick of time, as the BBC reports:

Suggestions he might be offered asylum have outraged politicians in Afghanistan.

The issue was discussed in the Afghan parliament on Wednesday, with almost all MPs in agreement that “his leaving Afghanistan must be prohibited”, the AFP news agency reported.

Dr Assadullah Hymatyar, an MP from Logar province, told the BBC that parliament was planning to investigate the events that led to Mr Rahman’s release.

Time‘s Rachel Morarjee, writing from Kabul, had a bizarre piece alleging that Rahman was a deadbeat, abusive dad who shamed his family. The title of the piece, by the way, is — and I am not joking — “Abdul Rahman’s Family Values“:

Rahman, 40, has become the poster boy for the Christian right and for religious freedom. Closer up, however, the picture painted by the local police who arrested him shows a candidate not quite ready for family values. Rather, a portrait emerges of a deadbeat dad with psychological problems who couldn’t hold down a job, abused his daughters and parents and didn’t pay child support.

First, what is this “poster boy for the Christian right” business? Does the Christian left not care about Rahman’s fate? Or, if it does, does it get to be camped in the religious freedom camp? Why, then, does the Christian right get its own nonreligious freedom category?

Second, for all we know, these scandalous accusations against Rahman could be true. For all we know, for that matter, Rahman could have tortured small animals, robbed dying widows and taunted disabled children. But last time I checked, Rahman was not facing a death sentence for being unemployed, etc. He was facing a death sentence for converting from Islam. Printing the allegations, which have nothing to do with the international outrage his plight has caused, is about as appropriate as printing the sexual history of a rape victim.

No one was arguing that Rahman should live because he was a good person. Instead, people were arguing that Rahman should not be killed for converting from Islam. While more information about Rahman is needed and desirable, I’m not sure statements from the police reports that led to his life-threatening situation are the best character witnesses. What’s more, the reporter never speaks with anyone who may find the police statements questionable. She also never speaks with anyone who thinks the allegations are irrelevant to the Muslim apostasy problem. It bears repeating that this issue is not going away just because the Italian government provided Rahman with sanctuary.

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The Pope to China?

chinese catholic churchVatican’s foreign minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo created a bit of a stir this past weekend when he said that the “time is ripe” for the Pope and China to establish diplomatic relations, according to this Associated Press account of Lajolo’s interview with the Hong Kong station I-Cable TV, which the Vatican made available to the press.

The underlying big news of this story that doesn’t get much play until the end is that the Vatican could be soon cutting ties with Taiwan, which is the small island’s only current diplomatic ally in all of Europe. The power of the appointment of bishops appears to be the only hang-up.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Lajolo said it was clear that the spiritual needs of the several million Catholics in China are more urgent than those of the 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan.

“For this reason the Holy See has manifested its willingness to transfer the apostolic nunciature from Taipei to Beijing just as in 1952, on account of the circumstances of the time, it transferred the nunciature from mainland China to Taiwan.”

He added that the Vatican had communicated its wish to move its embassy to both governments.

However, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Sunday that the Vatican has reassured Taiwan it will not establish diplomatic ties with China until Beijing allows more religious freedom.

“We are closely monitoring the development, but … the Holy See’s relations with us are kept as normal,” said Michel Lu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

TaiwanWhere is the underground Catholic Church in this story, other than a “but millions belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome” reference at the end? Did Lajolo mention how they would be incorporated? I’m sure those details have yet to be worked out, if this is in fact the direction that the Vatican is heading. But that influential minority deserves at least more than a passing mention.

A switch from Taiwan to China would probably be the most significant event since Pope Benedict XVI took office, and he’s made no secret regarding his hope to spread the gospel in China. If this is indeed true, one would expect the story to receive greater play than it has. I’m guessing the major publications are waiting for the official announcement due to the intricate nature of the Vatican.

Or this all could be more hype. We’ll have to wait and see.

In a related matter, I found this Washington Post article on “panda politics” to be a fascinating explainer on how the Chinese government uses its monopoly on the world’s pandas to influence world leaders and even Taiwan’s voters. I wonder if the Vatican has been offered one of those cuddly little white and black bears.

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Sleep talking is dangerous to marriage

talaqA disturbing trend I’ve noticed among American newswires is the instinct to take a foreign newswire report, copy the news of the story and spin it as a circus or side/freakshow for Americans to laugh at those loonies. The articles often involve religion, and that’s especially disturbing because of the cultural intricacies and details that are often lost in translation.

The laws surrounding copyright are fairly clear. News and information cannot be copyrighted by anyone as long as the source is given credit. Only a headline is deemed exclusive (creative?) content. So while no laws are being broken, I believe the practice is a disservice to the public discourse.

Such is the case regarding this Reuters report on the apparent fact that a Muslim couple must split because the husband muttered the word for divorce, “talaq,” three times in his sleep. The story is, at the time of this post, fourth on’s most popular rankings. I’m sure it’s now subject to the inane humor in American office cubicles, but also has drawn some clever headlines.

The story cites the Press Trust of India — the country’s largest news agency of 450 subscribing newspapers and others around the world — as its primary source (I was unable to find a link to the original article). There’s barely of scent of original reporting by the news agency:

The religious leaders ruled that if the couple wanted to remarry they would have to wait at least 100 days. Sohela [Ansari] would also have to spend a night with another man and be divorced by him in turn.

The couple, who live in the eastern state of West Bengal, have refused to obey the order and the issue has been referred to a local family counseling center.

India’s minority Muslim population is governed by Islamic personal laws on issues such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance.

triple talaqGreat story, until the end, when we find out that Zafarul-Islam Khan, the editor of a popular Indian Muslim newspaper, believes the ruling was bogus:

“This is a totally unnecessary controversy and the local ‘community leaders’ or whosoever has said it are totally ignorant of Islamic law,” said Zafarul-Islam Khan, an Islamic scholar and editor of The Milli Gazette, a popular Muslim newspaper.

“The law clearly says any action under compulsion or in a state of intoxication has no effect. The case of someone uttering something while asleep falls under this category and will have no impact whatsoever,” Khan told Reuters.

So according to Khan, what one does while drunk has no merit? At least under Muslim law? Why weren’t the local Islamic leaders involved in this story interviewed? How about an outside expert on Islamic law? Is there an inside local issue or scandal of which we are left unaware?

This story has spread to more than 50 news outlets, but I have yet to find one that tells much more than the Reuters report. Such is the power of the American newswires, whose stories are republished over and over again without regard for their lack of original reporting and research.

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