The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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Define anti-Mormon

mitt romneyMassachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination means we get to read lots of profiles about him. Saying absolutely nothing about his political positions, the man has got charisma and charm for days and certainly adds a nice new face into the never-ending campaign cycle.

James Taranto has an excellent run-down of where Romney stands in his Wall Street Journal article today, the focus of which is whether conservative Christians could support the Mormon. As a Lutheran, I don’t vote for elected officials based on their religion. I vote for elected officials based on their policies and ability to do the job well. I judge church officials, on the other hand, based on their religious views. So I could vote for a Druid for the Municipal Water Authority — or President — in good conscience so long as he shared my political views. Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%). . . .

The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”

The only problem is that it is not necessarily anti-Mormon to say Mormons are not Christian. It is true that Mormons call themselves Christian and may take umbrage that other folks disagree. But if a Christian thinks that a non-Trinitarian conception of God, a belief that God has a wife, and the belief that men can become gods puts Mormons outside of the Christian faith, that’s not anti-Mormon. One can believe that Mormons are not Christian and still donate gobs of cash to Mitt Romney for President. Reporters need to understand this distinction.

Reporters should also realize that it’s not just those on the “religious right” who don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Officially speaking, almost all Christian church bodies do not consider Mormons to be Christian or believe their baptisms to be valid — meaning converts are baptized. This includes the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which accept baptisms from other Christian church bodies. Would it kill reporters to study this or understand why?

Admittedly, learning about Mormonism can be challenging. Mormons believe in ongoing revelation, which is how substantial church doctrines change over the years (polygamy, blacks not having the right to hold the priesthood). There are also difficulties in understanding which statements from the church’s authorities are ex cathedra, so to speak, and which are just personal thoughts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Especially since the country might have its first Mormon president pretty soon. I wonder what James A. Garfield would say?

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CT on top 10 events of the year

I guess I really am alone in thinking that terrorism remained one of the major “religion” news stories of the year. Christianity Today has its list out now and they have also produced a terrorism-free top 10.

CT did have this interesting item at No. 7:

Media Spotlight Religion: 2004 “values voters” bring reporters into churches, Time releases list of 25 most influential evangelicals, The New York Times promises more religion coverage, and CNN hires full-time religion correspondent.

Any other interesting lists out there?

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When is religion news “religion” news?

iraqi firefighter baghdad 11704The 2005 end of the year wrap-up stories are starting to bloom. With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday — massive newspapers — look for tons then.

You will see top 10 lists for news stories and top 10 lists for “religion” news stories. Here at GetReligion, we are interested in both and, especially, in the overlap between these lists. This was the subject of my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. Veteran GetReligion writers will, I confess, hear an echo of the blog in the main theme. Click here if you want to see that.

I started with the Palestinian suicide bomber at the sandwich stand in Hadera, Israel.

Are events such as this “religion” news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers — Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events “religion” news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

I asked these questions again because events related to terror, Iraq (photo), Israel, etc., were missing in the Religion Newswriters Association’s top 10 list of religion news stories in 2005. Click here to get to the RNA home page, which appears to be crashed at the moment. I will try to post the direct link to 2005 RNA list later.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see the role that faith plays in this Peggy Noonan column about the top five news events of the year. It’s from the Wall Street Journal, of course.

Seen any other interesting Godbeat lists you want to point out?

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Moving on with the story

dungyI returned to Washington from Indianapolis this afternoon/evening and expected to be reminded that the story of the death of Colts coach Tony Dungy’s son was a local one. Sure, I thought, if Dungy retires due to this tragic event, people outside the community are going to take notice, but front-page stories on the funeral will be hard to find outside of Colts-land.

But I forgot. Dungy was a man who left a mark wherever he went that must have included journalists based on the tremendous stories that have flowed out of the Florida papers and even in Minnesota where was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings.

Indianapolis Star sportswriter Phil Richards covered the event masterfully, catching Dungy’s key quotes and portraying the scene of deep family sadness:

Tony Dungy had a message for all.

“I urge you not to take your relations for granted,” Dungy told the gathering of about 1,500. “Parents, hug your kids each chance you get. Tell them you love them each chance you get. You don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”

James Dungy, 18, died Thursday in what authorities said was an apparent suicide.

Tony Dungy last saw his son at Thanksgiving in Indianapolis. James was in a rush to return to Tampa. Goodbyes were hurried.

“I never got to hug him,” Dungy said. “I knew I was going to get to see him pretty soon, so it didn’t bother me a lot.”

The faith-theme so prevalent in earlier coverage largely disappeared from the headlines starting Monday, but sub-themes were still there with stories on Dungy’s impact on players as fathers started making their way out of Florida.

As a fill-in for Dungy, Colts assistant coach Jim Caldwell has had the tough job of balancing this team’s needs to support their coach, attending to their own family matters over the Holidays and two road games in the final two weeks of the season. Again Richards nails the spiritual element that is flowing out of this sports-related story:

It’s a reflective time and Caldwell has done much reflecting. The words that keep coming to him are those of Oswald Chambers, a Scottish minister, teacher and author who died in 1917.

“Chambers wrote that so he could serve the Lord in the best way, he would like to be broken bread and poured-out wine,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s a great description of Tony and his family: He and Lauren are broken bread and poured-out wine.”

Caldwell believes that in closing ranks around its leader and his family, an already close team has been welded even tighter.

The spiritual angle of this story is ripe for the picking for any number of Christian publications. Give Dungy and the team some time and a great God-beat story could be told by any number of journalists ready to listen and understand.

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I’m sure this refers to an editorial article and a not a news article, but this correction in the Los Angeles Times is funny.

For the record
Religion and government: A Dec. 18 article defending the separation of church and state stated that the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that Ellen DeGeneres played a role in the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina because she was the host of the Emmy Awards before both events. He made no such claim.

lettermanPerhaps the Los Angeles Times copyediting desk was confused. Falwell did blame David Letterman for his disastrous stint hosting the Oscars in 1998:

“I like Letterman as an interviewer, but what made him think that an extended montage of various celebrities saying ‘Would you like to buy a monkey?’ would be funny?” he asked. “No one saw, let alone remembers, Cabin Boy. A vengeful God could not restrain himself from unleashing devastation on a wicked people who tolerated such poor judgment from their second-highest-rated nighttime talk-show host.”

When asked why it took seven years for God to expres his displeasure, Falwell explained that “Seven years is but a minute in God years.”

In all seriousness, though, I like how this Times correction illuminates how we tend to see the worst in those we disagree with and find it easy to believe really extreme things about them. It’s good for reporters, editors and readers to step back and look at the real nature of disagreements and discuss them civilly. Also, high-profile figures tend to say wacky enough things on their own. The Los Angeles Times need not invent them.

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Yes, some are offended by “Merry Christmas”

product 3597At last! It is finally time for old-fashioned religious fanatics like me to haul off and say the words — “Merry Christmas.”

But there is a problem, sort of. The traditional greeting among the Eastern Orthodox is to say “Christ is born!” and then the other person replies “Glorify Him!” And then there’s all kinds of hugging and multiple kisses on the sides of people’s faces and other complicated religious stuff.

But, yes, folks do say “Merry Christmas” in the circles in which I move and we will be saying that for 11 more days, since I am writing this on Dec. 26. We do not, however, do the pear trees, birds, golden rings, maids and other things.

So the Christmas Wars are over, are they? At least for this year?

An essay in the Washington Post by Penne L. Restad yearns for this to be true:

At last, Christmas morning. May we now declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? All those poor salespeople who struggled to remember whether company policy was to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” are free to relax and settle down around their Christmas tree or holiday tree or whatever other seasonal symbol they prefer and celebrate in their own private way. For celebrate Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says 96 percent of Americans observe the holiday in some way or another.

But there is a problem. There are other poll numbers to consider.

Take, for example, that recent poll in which 62 percent of Americans said that generic season greetings such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” represent a “change for the worse” in public life. This was music to the ears of conservative news services such as Baptist Press, which added:

In addition, 32 percent of adults say they are bothered when stores use generic holiday greetings on their displays; 68 percent say they are not bothered. By contrast, only 3 percent of adults say they are irked when stores use “Merry Christmas.” The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — says the reference to Christmas doesn’t trouble them. The poll was conducted Dec. 5-8.

“[T]he use of the generic holiday expressions does not bother most Americans in general, including most major political and religious groups examined in this survey. But substantial minorities are bothered — enough, perhaps, to cause concern among some retailers,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote in an online analysis.

Now you would think that this would be good news for cultural conservatives who want to win the Christmas Wars.

But, as Saad noted, there is another way to read the Gallup numbers. For, you see, 24 percent of those polled said generic greetings are a “change for the better.” That’s a lot of people — more than the number of Democrats who vote in primaries, for example.

And then Baptist Press happily reported that only 8 percent of non-Christians told the pollsters that people saying “Merry Christmas” offends them. Now that is a small number, too. However, that is a large number of a significant number of those offended are lawyers, editors, public-school leaders, Hollywood producers and church-state activists.

So will the fighting end? No way. The numbers are absolutely perfect for fundraisers on both sides of the battle lines.

Oh joy.

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How to report on a life of faith

dungyThe news of the death of James Dungy, son of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, came from left field Thursday morning and hit a community that lived and breathed news of its pro football team. Appropriately, The Indianapolis Star fired up its reporting engines and published a half-dozen stories covering the variety of angles, not the least of which was how this news would impact the recently undefeated football team.

The weight of the news was only moderated due to the fact that the team had lost five days earlier, ending an undefeated season. As Dungy left the team Thursday to be with his family, team officials seemed to repeat one word more than any other: faith. In the world of cynical sportswriters, no one failed to acknowledge that Dungy was a man of faith.

Local Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz weighed in with an excellent a column that summarized nearly everyone who associated with Dungy either as a fan or as a friend:

In Dungy’s life, service to God and his family rate as his two most important jobs, with his role of a football coach a distant third. From the moment he arrived on the scene as the head coach in Tampa Bay, Dungy has promoted faith-based initiatives that were aimed at turning men into solid, nurturing fathers. That’s what makes this so horribly ironic, so painfully difficult to comprehend.

It’s the hard lesson of parenthood you never want to learn: Sometimes, you can do everything right and it’s still not enough.

“I’ve learned many things from coach Dungy,” linebacker David Thornton said. “About fatherhood, about being a man of faith, about being a man of integrity.”

Prior to losing last week to the San Diego Chargers, commentators, in urging Dungy to push his team to go 16-0, would use the phrase “immortality” to describe how the Colts team would supposedly be rememebered if they went undefeated. Despite such promised aspirations, Dungy refused to buy into it and continued his mantra that winning the Super Bowl was the team’s mark of excellence. Perhaps Dungy’s knowledge of what it means to have true immortality kept him from getting carried away with the undefeated hype?

None of it matters any more to Dungy, not the streak, the season or even football. And even though it was in the back of every reporter’s mind, the question on how this could affect the team in the playoffs was not prominent in any of the articles or player’s statements. They all knew that football no longer mattered.

No one ever doubted Dungy’s faith and his dedication to his family and for this reason the news was all the more shocking and heart-felt.

In what I feel was a poor news decision, the Star ran this article on a Web site with an identity that the newspaper at the time of publication could not verify:

A profile on a popular free Internet community under the name James Dungy, with a photo of the Indianapolis Colts coach’s eldest son and apparent first-person narrative from him, told a different story.

The site contained pictures of handguns, marijuana, stacks of cash, gang signs and sexual positions. Heroes listed included “the D.C. Snipers.” It could not be verified that the site was created by Dungy, and it was taken offline Thursday afternoon.

Many friends were shocked at the site, in which Dungy appeared wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth beside text condemning the police.

Despite the fact that someone close to James Dungy stated that the Web site was a front, Star editors publicize the Web site in an article about what they believed to be a troubled person. No doubt James Dungy had problems and most likely committed suicide, but does that mean you run with a story associating him with a Web site when they cannot be 100 percent sure that it was his?

What’s next for this story? Dungy has talked in the past of retiring and going into prison ministry and spending more time with his family. Was James Dungy the child he wished he had spent more time with? Much of this will be Dungy’s decision to reveal. He is entitled to a certain amount of privacy, especially if he chooses to retire.

I have no doubt that the Star‘s sports department will continue to report the religious angle to this tragic story. They’ve done it before and it’s because religion is something they get.

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