Something fishy in that AP racism story

The Associated Press had a huge story this weekend accusing American voters of racism, but a racism that has increased in the last four years. When people were asked if they were racist, they said no, but when a survey that measures racial preferences via tiny pictures and Chinese characters was used, the racism was found. The subhead at USA Today is “Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote on Nov. 6.” I’m still working through my thoughts about the story, how it was chosen, what it means that the Associated Press chose to investigate this story, the methodology they used, how they interpreted the results, and so on and so forth. But while digging through the data, I came across something very weird.

The question respondents were asked was:

Do you happen to know the religion of each of the following people?  If you don’t know, you can mark that too.

Here are the answers they gave for “Barack Obama” for 2010 and 2012:

It’s not uncommon to see slight variations in data over two years. For instance, 28 percent gave the answer of Protestant, up from 26 percent two years ago. Five percent believe Obama to be Catholic up from 4 percent in 2010. That all seems reasonable.

But what about that 18 percent thinking Obama is Jewish, up from nobody in 2010? Hunh? Or what about 35 percent believing Obama has no religion, up from 2 percent just two years ago? And we’re to believe that 41 percent of people didn’t know Obama’s religion in 2010 but now only 2 percent report that? And why the shocking increase in those who refused to answer?

I don’t really know what this means, but it’s exceedingly hard to buy the idea that we’d see this many changes in just two years.

Does it make sense to you?

It also makes it difficult to trust the overall results when this section is so weird.

Fishy image via Shutterstock.

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Pod people: Theodicy, pinnochios and the war on women

Last week was not one of the best for the mainstream media. I just wrote a lengthy screed about how awful the coverage, or the lack thereof, was about an Indiana Senate candidate, the administration’s handling of a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists in Libya and a so-called “war on women.” You know which one didn’t receive much coverage from most outlets and which ones did. And you can hear me talk about it on this week’s Crossroads podcast.

The only thing I will add is that the mainstream media missed an opportunity to talk about religion in a mature manner because of their single-minded focus on horserace politics. What I wish we would have seen is what some alternative media outlets excelled at this past week, looking at theodicy and different theological approaches to the question of why good or bad things happen. By wanting to push a political narrative, the media lost the opportunity to educate, inform or even just reflect the values of the communities they seek to serve. And I can’t help but think it’s a great example of why the media have lost so much trust in the public they seek to profit from.

Anyway, I don’t want to spend too much time harshing on the horribly biased week the media had. I had figured I’d have to write a “Got News?” piece about the failure of the media to call out President Obama for a particular statement he’s been making quite a bit. A statement that turns out not to be true. But the Washington Post‘s “fact checker” looked into the statement:

 “You’ve got issues like Planned Parenthood, where that organization provides millions of women cervical-cancer screenings, mammograms, all kinds of basic health care.”  — President Obama during an interview on “The Tonight Show,” Oct. 24, 2012

The media have also made this claim. I will never forget the ABC News piece that led the nightly news with a fabrication about Planned Parenthood providing mammograms. You can read my piece about it here. It’s a common statement from President Obama, as the Post piece explains, providing multiple examples. And all year long this claim has been repeated by the most powerful people in the country.

Only problem? Well, it’s not true. Or, as the Washington Post puts it:

The problem here is that Planned Parenthood does not perform mammograms or even possess the necessary equipment to do so. As such, the organization certainly does not “provide” mammograms in the strict sense. Instead, its clinics provide referrals and direct low-income women toward resources to help pay for the procedure.

It is good to correct inaccurate statements! All year long I have been frustrated by how this inaccurate statement has been bandied about. A casual news reader might be under the impression that Planned Parenthood’s most noteworthy work is the mammograms it supposedly provides (you’ll note how rarely the 300,000 abortions get mentioned or the $500 million in federal subsidies it receives each year get mentioned).

But I want to show how the Post concludes it’s “fact check”:

The president has suggested time and again that Planned Parenthood directly provides mammograms, but the organization only offers referrals and helps women find financial resources for the exams. This suggests an intentional attempt to mislead voters about all the services that are at stake with decisions regarding federal funding for the controversial group.

Obama’s campaign points out that the incumbent was referring in each case to Planned Parenthood’s broader role as a health-care provider. But that doesn’t make his remarks any less inaccurate.

We wavered between Two or Three Pinocchios but ultimately decided the president earns Three Pinocchios for his mammogram remarks on “The Tonight Show.” He has repeated them too many times in one form or another for this to be considered just playing with words to generate a misleading impression.

This is what annoys me — the awarding of a subjective Pinocchio score. Just tell us what the politician said and then tell us whether it comports with the facts. If there are differences of opinion on how to interpret something, go ahead and include that. But this Pinocchio thing? I can do without it.

Also, while the mainstream media is obviously anything but curious about why Planned Parenthood doesn’t do mammograms but does do 300,000+ abortions each year, you can read the pro-life press for more (e.g. “Abortion is 125 to 165 times more profitable than mammography.”) And back to the GotNews? thing … did anyone see mainstream coverage of the pro-life event “Schedule Your Imaginary Mammogram Day“? I didn’t.

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Media embarrassingly ill-equipped to cover rape, theodicy

The whole point of this website, since day one, has been to help mainstream journalists “get religion.” So I guess I should not be utterly disgusted and disappointed by so many reporters’ coverage of the big Richard Mourdock-theodicy kerfuffle right now. Instead I should view this as a great teaching opportunity.

Every educated person should know the fundamentals of the major world religions. Every American journalist should have a working knowledge of the basics of Christian and Jewish thought.

So everyone open your Bibles and go to Genesis. We’re hoping to end up around Genesis 50:20. In the preceding chapters, we learn about Joseph, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. His brothers really hated him and were filled with jealousy so they conspired to kill him before deciding instead to sell him into slavery. Jacob, believing Joseph had been killed, was left in anguish and grieving.

Joseph somehow becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. He does all sorts of wise and judicious things and saves all sorts of people from a brutal famine. Long story short, he ends up meeting up with his long-lost brothers again. They are really worried that he’s going to react poorly. And so:

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” is one of the most well-known passages in Scripture. The teaching that God causes good to result from evil is just basic, basic, basic stuff.

You don’t have to agree with this verse if you’re a reporter, but you should be familiar with it. If you are a reporter and you’re not familiar with the story of Joseph, or the story of Job, or the story of Jesus, you may be surprised at how easy they are to quickly catch up on. I’m not saying you’ll be able to plumb the depths in an evening, but just read Genesis, read Job, read the Gospels. These are foundational to understanding how the vast majority of the people you cover understand God’s will. With further study, you may learn about how Jews and Christians have struggled with understanding God’s will over the millennia. Turns out there is a lot written about it. Books, papers, you name it.

And here’s another thing: Meet someone who identifies as pro-life and ask them a few questions. You may learn that they believe all human life is equally valuable and sacred. You might learn that they affirm that human life begins at conception. You might learn that they really abhor the taking of human life, even at its earliest stages. You might learn that they’ve grappled with “the difficult cases” — whether unborn children should be protected if the circumstances of their conception involved rape or incest, whether unborn children should have any rights if their mother’s life is in danger. You might learn that there are different approaches to how they wrestle with these cases.

If you do these two things — bone up on just the very lowest level basics of Christian teaching on theodicy and meet a pro-lifer and find out what they really think — you might not lead your newscasts with a mangling of the news that some pro-lifers really believe (gasp!) that the circumstances of your conception and birth do not determine your worth and that every single child in the world is created and loved by God. You might learn about this newfangled ancient teaching that God causes good to result from evil.

I want to make it clear that if Democrats want to claim that Mourdock said God intends rape or that he didn’t say it was tragic, that’s their business. We have two weeks to go until election and people are getting a bit antsy. But reporters need to separate themselves from their deeply held ideological leanings and just report. There were bad things, such as the Huffington Post lying by saying that Mourdock told voters that God intends rape.

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin explained to reporters (who she suspected of partisan outrage on this story):

The essence of religious monotheism is that everything comes from one God, which naturally leaves humans befuddled when “Bad things happen to good people.” The faithful nevertheless persevere in their faith, believing that God is unknowable to human minds. This is the essence, for example, of the Book of Job, which I felt compelled to reread this afternoon. (It is a deeply disturbing story precisely because it raises these fundamental issues about the nature of God, good and evil, etc.)

At Business Insider, a reporter said this story exemplifies what she hates about media coverage of abortion:

Anyone is free to disagree with Mourdock’s position — and to make him explain and defend it — but the media’s surprise and outrage, disguised under the mask of “journalistic objectivity,” is disingenuous and irresponsible.

We all saw the biased coverage yesterday, the curious decision by the media to drum up outrage about Mourdock’s comments while downplaying other gigantic stories. “Abortion distraction for Romney,” said the CNN chyron at one point — precisely as it attempted to achieve just that. You really must read Andrew Ferguson’s attack on such journalism:

The Heisenberg Principle of Journalism puts the lie to all that. You see it at work whenever a news anchor announces that “this story just refuses to go away” or a headline writer insists that “questions continue to be raised” about the conduct of one hapless public figure or another.

The story refuses to go away, of course, because the anchor and his colleagues won’t let it; and the questions that continue to be raised are being raised by the headline writer and his editors. Reporters create more news than anybody, just by pretending they’re watching it unfold.

My favorite were the “stories” that said “Romney campaign says he still supports Mourdock, won’t ask Indiana Senate candidate to pull ad.” Do you have to be a willful partisan to take that approach to writing a story? (“Still supports” a consistent pro-lifer? You don’t say!) Or do you just have to not know that Americans views on abortion aren’t perfectly mirrored in the narrow confines of your newsroom? There were others all tied to the idea that Mourdock needed to apologize for his remarks. Mourdock’s views on abortion are less extreme — relative to the American population — than Barack Obama’s, which include thrice voting to keep a form of infanticide legal. When was the last time you saw a reporter suggest that Obama needed to do anything other than celebrate his views?

Like I said, we’re close to the election and that means that journalists struggle even more with keeping their political views in check. We’re human.

But since the forces in favor of aborting the products of rape have been overly represented in the last couple of days, let’s think of some good ideas for media coverage.

For instance, how about talking to any of the many fellow humans in our midst who are products of rape. They don’t have to be famous like Eartha Kitt was or like one of Angelina Jolie’s adopted daughter is or like Martin Sheen’s wife Janet. They might be just the normal people in our newsrooms, in our churches. We saw journalists make hay of the idea that God intended for them to be born and that their lives are gifts from God. Would we do that if they were in front of us?

Do Mourdock’s political opponents — up to and including President Obama — believe that these lives are not a gift from God? Do they believe that God didn’t intend for them to be born? Would stories framed that way lead the morning and nightly news? If they wouldn’t (and to be sure, I’m speculating about a fantasy world where all candidates are asked the same questions that consistent pro-life candidates are), what does that say about the news judgment displayed thus far? Are discussions of theodicy to be trifled with, mangled, used for partisan purposes? Are they maybe a bit more sensitive than the media outlets were letting on?

Painting via Wikipedia.

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Galling MSM abortion extremism double standards

There are so many stories related to the media’s poor coverage of abortion that I couldn’t begin to catch up. I’ve wanted to write about what it means that the media always refer to abortion in “restrictive” rather than “protective” language. See, for example, here and here.

And I’ve wanted to write about the shameful collection of so-calledfact-checks” related to President Obama’s record on the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.

But I haven’t had time. Before we get to today’s silliness, consider that Gallup reports that 52 percent of Americans support some restrictions on abortion, and an additional 20 percent think it should be illegal in all circumstances. That’s nearly three-quarters of the population saying they support at least some restrictions on abortion. Only 25 percent share President Obama’s view that abortion should be legal for any reason at any time in the pregnancy, including sex-selection abortions and partial-birth abortions.

Now, even though the vast majority of Americans favor some protection for unborn children from abortion, consistent pro-choice positions don’t generate media interest. Only consistent pro-life positions do. What’s the journalistic defense for that double standard, I wonder?

Yesterday, a pro-life news site revealed a 2004 fundraising letter from Michelle Obama, the topic of which was support for partial-birth abortion.

Also, yesterday, Democrats for Life pulled its endorsement of Tim Kaine for U.S. Senate. Now, I live in Virginia, and based on the mailers and TV ads I’ve seen, the Obama re-election strategy is highly focused on his support for abortion rights. It’s also true that Democrat Tim Kaine’s appeal in this state is based in part on the belief that he is a moderate on social issues. Democrats for Life pulling an endorsement for someone who used to be known as a “pro-life Democrat” is a story. But it’s not news at all.

What is news? Well, a GOP Senate candidate in Indiana apparently believes that all life — without exception — is a gift from God. Stop the presses! Freak out! Or, as Chris Cillizza breathlessly tweeted: “Richard Mourdock, call your office.

Call your office? Hunh? (For a comparison of political importance, I’ll just note that Cillizza did not think the Reuters story showing that the White House situation room was sent an email at 6:07 PM on, er, September 11 with the subject line “Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack” meant that anyone needed to call their office.)

Here’s what happened. Apparently Mourdock was asked in a debate to explain why he’s consistently pro-life. He said:

“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Now, it’s worth noting that no debates ever ask any consistent pro-choice candidates why they think there should be no protection for unborn children whose lives are ended simply because they’re female, or because they have Down syndrome, or because they’re inconveniently timed, or because of the circumstances of their conception. Nope, even though the vast majority of Americans seek some or total protection for unborn children, these questions are never asked. Not even of President Obama, whose voting habits while in the Illinois Senate were particularly extreme.

But if you’re consistently pro-life, then release the hounds. If you publicly affirm your belief that God loves every person equally, no matter what his or her origin, you’re painted as an extremist. You should call your office! And freak out! The AP headline was literally “Mourdock: God at work when rape leads to pregnancy.”

Back at the Religion Newswriters Association conference a few weeks ago, Amy Sullivan made an important point. She noted that religion reporters are good at what they do. But sometimes when folks on other beats try to cover religion, things can break down a bit. Obviously that would go double for discussions of theodicy such as Mourdock’s answer above, which is admittedly a challenge even for Godbeat pros.

Anyway, Sullivan disagrees with Mourdock but she tweeted, in response to the freak-out over his explanation of why he opposes abortion even if the circumstances of conception are tragic:

Is it really surprising that folks who believe all life is a gift from God believe that regardless of how it was conceived?

Will y’all read the Mourdock quote? He did not say God intends for pregnancy to result from every rape.

If a rape results in pregnancy, and pregnancy is a gift from God, then of course Mourdock thinks that pregnancy is from God, too.

Not sure why it’s worse to explain why you don’t support a rape exception than to simply oppose a rape exception.

Are the members of the political media so incurious as to not have thought about why consistent pro-lifers oppose all abortion? What did they think was the reason? I mean, really. Was it something terribly different than what Mourdock just said? I can’t imagine it would be, if a reporter was worth his salt or had, you know, talked to a single pro-lifer in his life.

Yes, it’s good to get politicians — whether they are so extreme as to oppose efforts to protect infants accidentally born after botched abortions or so extreme as to oppose abortion even when the baby was conceived via rape — to explain why they hold their views. Heck, it’s good to ask the politicians who are just generally pro-life or generally pro-choice to explain their positions, too.

But the inconsistency is galling here.

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AP knows what the Pope really thinks

I was at a meeting of a journalism fellowship program I’m part of this weekend. We heard from Sam Feist, CNN’s DC bureau chief.

So, earlier in his career, he’d written some copy for the on-air talent to read for that night’s show. The line was something like “Clinton believes that the tax bill will pass.” The guy who was supposed to read the line — he happened to be an old-school journalist with little time for silliness — excoriated him. He told Feist that a reporter can never know what a politician thinks, believes or feels. The reporter can only know what the politician says. Politicians might be telling you something for any number of reasons. It might be because they believe it. It might be because they want to send a particular message to the opposition or to the ground troops. It might be for any number of reasons. But a reporter can’t know what someone believes. He can only know what the source says. (The old-school journalist said this rule goes double for buildings, such as “The White House believes” or “The Vatican is hoping.”)

Good reporting might be able to put the quote in context, but it’s important that the reporter start by going with what the source says.

I thought of that when I read the first paragraph of this Associated Press story on big news in the Roman Catholic Church this weekend:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Some 80,000 pilgrims in flowered lei, feathered headdresses and other traditional garb flooded St. Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI added seven more saints onto the roster of Catholic role models in a bid to reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging.

This seems to be a variation of the “believes” edict from above. Unless the Catholic Church has stated that they canonized these seven saints just to “reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging,” why would the reporter say that?

Later we’re told:

The canonization coincided with a Vatican meeting of the world’s bishops on trying to revive Christianity in places where it’s fallen by the wayside.

At first it was just lagging. Now we’re talking about those places in the world where Christianity has completely fallen by the wayside! Where are those places? Is it in those places where it’s illegal to be Christian or convert to Christianity? Apparently Christianity has “fallen by the wayside” in the places mentioned below (and I have to say, I think that’s hyperbole or a terribly problematic word choice in most of the locations listed):

Several of the new saints were missionaries, making clear the pope hopes their example — even though they lived hundreds of years ago — will be relevant today as the Catholic Church tries to hold on to its faithful. It’s a tough task as the Vatican faces competition from evangelical churches in Africa and Latin America, increasing secularization in the West and disenchantment due to the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and beyond.

I’m sorry, but as a Lutheran who almost named my daughter after an early martyr — even though she lived and died more than 1800 years ago — that first sentence is cracking me up.

I mean, I guess I understand the point being made, but it’s a line that is just so very foreign to how the church operates and how Christians learn from the saints who have gone before. But you’ll notice that “tries to hold on to its faithful” sentiment again. It’s just odd considering the entire lack of substantiation for it from anyone, much less anyone affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Or as one reader put it:

I don’t mind the quote marks around “miracle”, at least on the first use of the term, since I don’t expect the AP to believe the miracle anymore than I’d expect them to believe a miracle emanating from another faith. However, the constant editorializing — sans any quote or data, not even from Fr. Reese — about how the saints seem to be just to keep up a flagging faith gets tiresome.

Anyway, I’m less willing to give a pass on the “miracle” quotes just because it seems redundant here:

Among the few people chosen to receive Communion from the pope himself was Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy of Native American descent from the western U.S. state of Washington, whose recovery from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria was deemed “miraculous” by the Vatican.

I think that readers are smart enough to figure out that the line “was deemed miraculous by the Vatican” means that the event was, you know, “deemed miraculous by the Vatican.”

But no, sometimes we need quotes to let us know that this is just the view of the particular group, but since the word “deemed” is in the phrase, I think it’s unnecessary. But I’m one of those logical people who, if I dressed up for Halloween this year, would be dressing up as “scare quotes.”

Pope Benedict XVI picture via vipflash /

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Is Sandra Fluke a ‘social justice’ advocate?

Conservatives had quite a bit of fun with a Reno Gazette-Journal article that was originally headlined:

Fluke Takes Center Stage In Reno

The caption for the photo of Fluke that ran underneath the headline but before the copy said:

Sandra Fluke, a social justice advocate and campaign surrogate for Democratic President Barack Obama, speaks in Reno on Saturday.

Now, it turns out that taking “center stage” in Reno means that 10 (ten!) people showed up in the parking lot of the Sak ‘N’ Save in North Reno to hear her. Ten. Yes, the star of such puff pieces as the Washington Post‘s recent hagiography (“Sandra Fluke isn’t finished testifying“) drew a crowd of 10 people and the local paper promoted it in advance and headlined it as if to suggest the event was quite successful. This was why so many people noticed the less-than-stellar journalism of the Reno News-Gazette.

I didn’t even bother with the silly Post piece — it ran in their progressive cultural issues advocacy section called “Style.” But my favorite part was that it called the woman, who in her prime time Democratic National Convention speech accused Rep. Paul Ryan of trying to kill women (and I don’t mean figuratively!), “independent.” Isn’t that the word to use to describe Democratic partisans hoping other people will be forced against their religious objections to pay for birth control they oppose? I think it is, obviously, and good on the Washington Post for figuring out the right word in the piece to explain how Fluke was about to embark on this awesome campaign tour for President Barack Obama. Hurray! Journalism! (To be fair, I did learn some things from the praise piece, even religion-related news, such as that Fluke is the daughter of a Methodist minister.)

Anyway, rather than focus on the “takes center stage” part of the headline, which was changed at some point, or the rather tendentious language in the copy of the piece, I want to focus on something someone else picked up on. The Gannett paper there in Reno describes Fluke as a “social justice” advocate.

What does that mean? I mean, she’s known for almost nothing other than advocating for forced birth control subsidies and abortion on demand. How is that “social justice”? And why not just call her an advocate for government mandated birth control subsidies? Why the euphemism? Why the lack of clarity?

But even more than that, “social justice” is a term with specifically Roman Catholic connotations. That it would be used to describe a woman who specifically enrolled at a Jesuit law school with the express purpose of upending the school’s policy against subsidizing students’ birth control is odd, no? Her entire fame is due to her work against Catholic teaching in practice. I think journalists can pick a better term — and hopefully avoid the incorrect euphemism — here.

“Social justice” is a non-neutral term on a good day. It suggests that people who believe in achieving the same means in a different manner are for social “injustice.” We’d be wise to avoid the term in general. But it really should not be used to describe a woman whose entire fame is based on fighting on behalf of the federal government against Catholic charities and other religious groups.

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Does the Name “Theophilus” Violate the Establishment Clause?

I got that headline from an interesting discussion at the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. Odd question, right? Well, not so much. Before we look at the media coverage of the case that inspired the discussion, let’s quickly discuss the case.

The Nwadiuko family petitioned a New York Court to legally change their name to “ChristIsKing” — one word with capital a C, I & K as the start of each internal word. The parents are immigrants from Nigeria and formed the “Christ is Lord Evangelistic Association” in the 1990s. A couple of years ago, the father was arrested on the Staten Island Ferry for preaching to commuters and refusing a policeman’s request to clear an aisle. The mother was also arrested for similar reasons.

The major legal issue with name changes deals with the state’s interest in avoiding fraud or misrepresentation. U.S. courts have also recognized an increase risk related to terrorism. But when asking the state for authority, New York has given itself the authority to limit legal name changes “when the choice of name is bizarre, unduly lengthy, ridiculous, or offensive to common decency and good taste,” among other things. From Nawadiuko, 2012 WL 4840800 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. Oct. 1, 2012):

The application in this case to have the family name changed to “ChristIsKing” … [should be rejected because i]t will result in person’s not holding petitioners’ religious beliefs to proclaim them when merely engaging in the common everyday act of calling another person by his or her name….

To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public including public servants in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs.

They give examples of how a government official might be compelled to shout out “ChristIsKing” at a court, a teacher might be forced to use the name of the child against his will, or an airport announcer might have to page the family during travel:

What petitioners are seeking here is in many ways beyond the First Amendment issues of [past Supreme Court cases barring religious speech by the government]. Petitioners will require persons who do not have the same religious beliefs as they do to be compelled to recite as a person’s name a statement of religious belief. In the United States we have the freedom of expression and the freedom to believe or not believe what we want, but we do not have the right to compel others to subscribe to our own firmly held beliefs….

The petitioners were asked if they would be demeaning Jesus’ name if they sinned. The court also worried that if the family visited Nigeria, they might be punished under Sharia there. So as odd as this case may seem, it does pose some very interesting questions about religious liberty. Even some people who thought the petition could or should be denied are highly critical of the judge’s Constitutional reasoning in this case. Others disagree with his appeal to Sharia.

Here’s the Associated Press lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge has told a Staten Island pastor and his wife that they cannot take the Lord’s name in vain.

Here’s the New York Daily News:

Though shalt not take the name of the Lord as your surname.

As for the bulk of the stories, they’re just briefs and not full of much information. They certainly don’t bring up the Sharia angle but they don’t even provide balance or response on the establishment clause concerns.

This is actually a great hook for a discussion of all sorts of things, from the religious meaning of names in various cultures and the variety of different ways the Establishment Clause has been interpreted in lower courts to the influence of foreign laws on U.S. courts. I understand that the mocking approach will be taking by the tabloid press, but this is another example of how difficult it is to cover the variety of religious experiences in this country and religious liberty cases and their outcomes — big and small.

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Benghazi terrorist hiding in plain sight

I know readers prefer us to harsh on stories rather than praise them, but I don’t care. I have to just highlight a great story from David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. Now, most of what makes the story interesting is outside this blog’s bailiwick. The piece is headlined “Suspect in Libya Attack, in Plain Sight, Scoffs at U.S.” At a time when the White House is being criticized for its handling of events in Libya, the story is probably going to be a bit politically challenging.

But I want to highlight how the reporter weaves religion into the story without seeming clumsy or heavy-handed. Up top we learn that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the ringleaders of the attack, recently hung out in a crowded luxury hotel, sipping mango juice on the patio and mocking the American government and Libya’s fledgling army. We learn he hasn’t even been questioned about his involvement in the attack. The real story, the reporter suggests, involves all the self-formed militias that provide the only source of social order in the country:

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said that the United States had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?” he asked. “Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”

We get an interesting discussion of some of the political maneuvering in the United States. Then we learn of Abu Khattala’s “spin” — he says, “contradicting the accounts of many witnesses” that it really was just a peaceful protest against a video and that the guards inexplicably fired upon them, provoking them. He goes on to say that they found all the explosives and guns with silencers in the American compound after they took it. While witnesses say he led the fighters, he says he was just breaking up a traffic jam. He says he didn’t notice that the compound had been set ablaze.

But you can tell that even though the reporter doesn’t necessarily buy Abu Khattala’s story, he asks questions in response to it:

He pointedly declined to condemn the idea that the demolition of a diplomatic mission was an appropriate response to such a video. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.

We get some more foreign policy discussion from Abu Khattala:

He also said he opposed democracy as contrary to Islamic law, and he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.

He argued that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood who embraced elections committed a “mix up” of Western and Islamic systems. And he acknowledged that his opposition to elections had been a point of dispute between his followers and the other Libyan militia leaders, most of whom had protected and celebrated the vote…

Witnesses, Benghazi residents and Western news reports, including those in The New York Times, have described Mr. Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Mr. Abu Khattala praised the group’s members as “good people with good goals, which are trying to implement Islamic law,” and he insisted their network of popular support was vastly underestimated by other brigade leaders who said the group had fewer than 200 fighters.

“It is bigger than a brigade,” he said. “It is a movement.” …

During the revolt, the brigade was accused of killing a top general who had defected to the rebels, Abdul Fattah Younes. Mr. Abu Khatalla acknowledged that the general had died in the brigade headquarters, but declined to discuss it further.

Almost all Libyans are Muslims, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal, almost every woman wears an Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, of true Islamic law.

It’s obviously not the most important point of the story — indeed these last graphs are the very end — but they are helpful at understanding some of the distinctions in Libya. Sure, everyone’s Muslim, but their conception of Islamic law differs significantly. Showing us some of those distinctions is most helpful as we try to make sense of the muddle there.

Sometimes we’ll look at stories dealing with political Islam and say we wished there were more religious details there. Here we have a story that handled it with an economy of words and it’s worth noting. A great example to follow.

Libya map via Shutterstock.

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