Death, burial and religion

Buddhist templeDeath and burial issues bring up a complex mix of beliefs, faith, rituals, customs and cultural traditions. The Chicago Tribune‘s religion section was able to cover a few of the issues in a rather short story on the growing number of religious traditions specially catered to today in the Chicago area.

In some ways the story reads more like a business section feature than a story about religion. Whether that is a good thing or not is up to the reader.

The headline of the story is clever but a bit generic: “Death is universal; funerals are not.” This statement could apply to just about any city, regardless of its cultural diversity. As a former obituaries writer, I can say that customs and traditions vary greatly even within religions, but one can usually predict the person’s religious denomination based on the type of funeral they are having.

This particular story deals with the fact that morticians in the Chicago area are “learning to cater to the burial customs immigrants are bringing to the U.S.”

The various cultural customs involved are mentioned early on in the story, but in a sense that is just engaging in labeling. The reader doesn’t learn the purpose behind some of the cultural traditions involved in death and burial until later on in the story:

Today, he is not surprised when patrons look to the lunar calendar to pick the right day and time for burial. He owns several Buddhist statues, which he uses for services. He does not flinch when patrons ask to include extra buttonless shirts in the casket or to burn paper money at the service.

Removing the buttons allows a spirit to travel unrestrained on its next journey. Paper money is an offering for the next life.

“When you don’t follow through with those, you’ve not just provided a disservice to the deceased, but you’ve also possibly brought bad luck to the family,” he said.

Pravin Purohit, who is helping launch the Hindu Cremation Society, said it is gratifying to see more people embracing an array of cultural and religious traditions. He mentioned, for example, how Hindus drape garlands — sandalwood for the most affluent — over loved ones as part of the cremation process, so that the spirit can move on to the next life. The increasing acceptance of these funeral customs is a sign that cherished traditions are finding a new home, said Purohit, a Skokie resident.

“You want to go with the rituals that your family has set for you,” he said. “We are trying to tell you our beliefs and how we want to do it.”

The challenge of this story is that the funeral companies aren’t necessarily going to advertise or tell a reporter the spiritual or religious purpose that is behind almost every death and burial cultural tradition. For that matter, the religious purpose probably varies among families and traditions.

For many, it is more than just peace of mind that the cultural tradition is being followed. For the religious, there is a genuine sense of peace knowing that the deceased loved one has followed the path set out for them by their religion. You could write books about this subject, so it is hard to harp on a newspaper article for not covering the subject in more depth.

A final historical question I was left wondering was what immigrants in America have been doing for the last century to serve their death and burial needs. Perhaps it is not a significant a story in the Chicago area until recently, but immigrants to the United States are hardly a new development.

Photo is of a Buddha statue and the typical interior of a Buddhist temple in Jejudo, South Korea. Used from the Wikimedia Commons.

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Are all blasphemies created equal?

springer opera narrowweb  300x369 0The news out of England is that the House of Lords has, in a landslide, voted to do away with Britain’s common — but almost completely irrelevant — law making blasphemy a crime.

People have been talking about doing this for ages, so this is not shocking.

However, I think there is an interesting hole in the Los Angeles Times report on the topic. The context of the debate was Sudan’s arrest of a British schoolteacher who allowed her elementary school teachers to name the class teddy bear Muhammad. That was blasphemy, under Sharia law. This led to the latest call to do away with its obscure law.

Thus, we read:

In fact, Parliament has never passed a blasphemy law. It is a common-law crime established centuries ago and clarified by judges in the 19th century to protect the beliefs of the Church of England; citizens may fall afoul if they insult God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible in a way that is scurrilous, abusive or offensive, or in a manner that may breach the peace. Attacks on other religions are not covered, prompting many critics to brand the law as discriminatory.

In practice, the law has seldom been used, and in 2006 a new law making it a crime to incite religious hatred was adopted as a more equitable alternative. The last time anyone was imprisoned for blasphemy was in 1922, when a man was convicted after comparing Jesus Christ to a circus clown.

The last successful blasphemy prosecution occurred as a result of a private complaint in 1977 against a gay newspaper for publishing a poem that describes a Roman centurion’s homosexual lovemaking with Christ’s
dead body, and legal analysts say it is doubtful any new prosecution could survive under European human rights laws.

The debate raged over whether ditching the old blasphemy law is another sign of Britain’s slide into official, state-mandated secularism. That’s an interesting question, but not the most pressing issue at the moment (since the evidence would suggest that secularism or commercial materialism took over a long, long time ago).

Mohammed s 02The issue the story fails to address is how this decision will clash with Sharia law — in Britain. What happens, in the nation’s unofficial Sharia courts, if a Muslim is accused of a crime of apostasy or blasphemy? Would the state step in to protect her or him?

Meanwhile, under the law against inciting religious hatred, it may be illegal (or dangerous) to stand in a pulpit and preach sermons on why Christianity is true and Islam is false. It may be problematic to teach classes in state universities that apply the principles of textual criticism to the Koran.

However, this raises another question. Is it illegal to preach a sermon saying that Islam is true and Christianity is false? Is anyone opposing the use of tax dollars to fund classes that apply textual criticism to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament?

And while we are at it, what would happen if a gay newspaper in “multicult” Britain published a poem that described homosexual lovemaking with the dead body of, well, Muhammad?

I am not saying that anyone knows precisely how this legal drama will unfold. I am, however, saying that it was strange to write a story about blasphemy — opening with the Sudan case — without at least mentioning that the rise of Sharia law is also a rather hot topic at the moment in Britain. In fact, I can’t find a mainstream report that even connects these issues.

Might there be a link? Ask the current archbishop of Canterbury. Ask Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester.

However, it’s rather obvious that I am interested in these topics and believe there is a link.

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Just another boring religion story

KAK KIR 220How does anyone argue that covering the religion beat is boring work?

I have never understood that complaint.

Yet, long ago, when I was doing the research for my graduate thesis at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I asked many editors why their newspapers didn’t do a better job of covering religion news. I consistently heard two answers, sometimes from the same editor.

Answer No. 1: Religion news is too controversial.

Answer No. 2: Religion news is too boring.

You see, there are just too many boring, controversial religion stories running around out there. That’s the ticket.

I mean, check out this story from today’s Washington Times, care of veteran Godbeat scribe Julia Duin. This is the kind of thing that happens on the religion beat. You take (1) a papal visit, combine it with (2) holy daggers, then add that to (3) security concerns in modern Washington, D.C., and you have a showdown between the Sikhs and the U.S. Secret Service:

Followers of a major Indian religion have been frozen out of an upcoming interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict XVI because of the group’s insistence on wearing ceremonial daggers.

The meeting, scheduled for April 17 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center near Catholic University, originally included Sikhs, as well as Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist guests. But a guest list released yesterday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops substituted followers of another India-based religion — the Jains — in place of the Sikhs.

According to Sikh leaders, at issue was the Secret Service forbidding the wearing of the “kirpan,” a dagger that is required dress for all Sikhs. Its followers liken its importance to their faith in the same way Orthodox Jewish men are required to wear a yarmulke.

Anahat Kaur, secretary general of the World Sikh Council/America Region near San Francisco, said Pope John Paul II met with kirpan-bearing Sikhs at the Vatican in January 2002. … Numbered at more than 20 million adherents, Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion. It has about 250,000 members in the United States.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said no weapon, no matter how sanctified its purpose, could be allowed within striking distance of a head of state.

There are other interesting details in this short A1 report, including the fact that Sikhs — for obvious reasons — have trouble getting on public airlines in this day and age.

Just another boring religion story. And, yes, I could not help thinking about Indira Gandhi. We live in a complex and dangerous world and that raises all kinds of questions for which there are no easy answers.

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Scientology attack news reaches MSM

News of a growing, sometimes militant, movement targeting Scientology has been brewing in tech publications for a number of weeks now, and mainstream press is finally stepping up to the plate to cover this rather significant situation. In a lenghy story Monday, The Los Angeles Times covers a couple of months worth of Internet and street protests against Scientology.

Spurred on by the organization’s reaction to the Tom Cruise Scientology video that spilled onto the Internet in January, a certain element of the Internet’s users have organized in an effort to literally shut down Scientology. The movement has moved from the Web to real life protests in front of Scientology facilities around the world.

The story does a good job of outlining the abuses that the people attacking Scientology believe the officials within the organization have perpetrated. Also well explained is the combination of the two groups of people upset at Scientology: former Scientologists and Internet activists.

Threats have been made that cross the line of decency. Official Scientology statements claimed the movement’s goals are “reminiscent of Al Qaeda spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction.” The FBI is investigating a YouTube video that includes a threat to bomb a Scientology building in Southern California:

These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet like grass fires in recent weeks, testing the church’s well-established ability to tightly control its public image. The largest thorn in the church’s side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The high-wattage movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has repeatedly trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.

No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners — Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say — to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.

“What’s actually going on here,” he wrote, is that the church is “knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don’t exist.” Within a day Pilutik’s blog had gotten over 45,000 visitors — so much traffic that his site crashed completely.

Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive.

That last sentence — that Scientology has become defensive — is the key to this story. If this were merely a group of hackers interested in causing an organization problems there would not be a story. But Scientology has become “defensive” and is therefore changing the nature of its behavior.

The story also makes a quality effort at explaining how the Internet has changed things for this rather secretive organization:

The result of all this attention has been that just about any story critical of Scientology — even those that have been publicly accessible for years — can gain immediate Web currency. On Digg.com, a popular “social news” aggregator that features popular stories from around the Web, dozens of Scientology stories have ascended to the site’s most-viewed list in the last several weeks. A successful Digg story can drive tens of thousands of views to the originating site, as was the case with Pilutik’s post about e-meters.

The LAT article makes a good effort at getting the views of both sides. Scientologists get their say and are allowed to call this group a bunch of terrorists, while the people who don’t like Scientology so much are also given their say.

The missing voice of this piece is the neutral arbitrator. Someone needs to ask the question of whether this form of Internet-vigilantism is what’s best for society and for religions in general. Should a religion or group on the unpopular end of an event be subject to treatment on the Internet (and in real life) that crosses the boundary of decency and law?

The other big question is who is next?

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Here’s a really good story — so there

2622160 550x550 mb art R0Whenever your GetReligionistas get together — face to face, as opposed to cyberspace — one of the things we bemoan is that our readers — that would be you guys — really don’t seem to respond much whenever we go out of our way to praises stories in the mainstream press.

You can add to that the fact that readers — that might be you — seem to much more interested in domestic issues than foreign issues (which is normal for American readers, alas).

Thus, if one of us wants to make sure that a post is totally ignored by readers — that might be you — then all one has to do is write a post praising a story about religion coverage in some other part of the world. Got that?

But I don’t care.

This Washington Post story by Ellen Knickmeyer ran back on A-14 and I didn’t see it until I was headed home on the train at the end of a long day. But the minute I saw it, I said to myself, “Duh! Now there is a great hook for a story!” I realize that I am really interested in stories about Turkey, after my second trip there last summer, but this is a really important story linked to modernity and Islamic faith.

It focuses, of course, on head scarves (yet again).

But the story has a strategic twist this time, a kind of “Wag the Dog” angle. The key question: Why did Turkish troops cross into Iraq the other day?

Did the Islamic-oriented government, some Turks ask, use the start of the largest offensive into northern Iraq in more than a decade to divert attention from its controversial decision to legalize head scarves in universities?

“There’s an obvious connection,” said retired Gen. Haldun Solmazturk, an administrator at Ahmet Yesevi University in Ankara, the capital.

In founding modern Turkey in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk encouraged Western attire and restricted religious dress in public as principles of the republic. Turkey’s military, which has long viewed itself as the enforcer of Ataturk’s secular vision, was angered by recent legislation aimed at lifting the long-standing head scarf ban at public colleges. But the religiously observant president, Abdullah Gul, signed the amendments into law late last Friday, the first full day of the military’s strike into northern Iraq.

At the time, “the attention of the Turkish public was firmly focused on the operation,” Solmazturk said. For the observant Muslims who lead Turkey’s government, “it was a very clear and very successful strategy.”

TurkeyScarvesIIDoes the story prove that this is what happened? I don’t know how it could do that, other than getting a BCC of a secret Turkish government email confessing all.

But there are suspicions in Turkey and they have, of course, shown up in the national media.

On the front pages and in opinion columns of Turkish newspapers this week, the two battles were linked.

A cartoon in the national daily Milliyet depicted Gul rallying ground troops rushing into northern Iraq. “Onward!” he shouts, thrusting an arm into the air. Another panel of the cartoon showed the president rallying legions of female Islamic activists in head scarves to storm Turkey’s universities. “Onward!” he shouts again.

Read it all.

It’s really hard for us, here in America, to understand just how emotional this issue is in Turkey. You risk a war in order to distract attention from head coverings? In Turkey, maybe.

By the way, for more info on the scarves offensive, check out this Reuters blog item with lots of links.

Feel free to leave a comment on this. I dare you.

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God and politics in Indy

andrecarsonI wrote last week about The Indianapolis Star‘s failure to cover or mention the fact that a candidate running for a local congressional seat in a March 11 special election would be the second Muslim member of the House if elected. A GetReligion reader in our comments pages noted that the newspaper faced the difficult role of writing for a public that “is not the most tolerant in the republic.”

My response was that a difficult situation and audience should not prohibit or prevent a journalist from covering an essential aspect of the election. Case in point is the Star‘s coverage Monday of the same candidate’s Islamic faith.

The reporter Robert King does a tremendous job of covering all of the difficult issues, which is not a surprise because King is an excellent reporter and shows a skillful hand at exploring the political and religious minefields that are involved in this story:

Andre Carson’s greatest political asset may be his grandmother’s name, but one of his biggest liabilities is proving to be her funeral.

That’s because his family gave a spot in the parade of dignitaries who eulogized Congresswoman Julia Carson to Louis Farrakhan, whom Jewish leaders consider one of America’s leading anti-Semites, gay rights activists consider a homophobe and who famously referred to white people as “devils.”

In recent weeks, Andre Carson has been reassuring Jewish leaders here and in Washington that Farrakhan’s appearance wasn’t his idea. He has spoken publicly about his distaste for discrimination, homophobia or racism of any kind. He has talked repeatedly of his desire for unity. But the Farrakhan episode also called attention to something that went largely unrecognized before — that Andre Carson is a Muslim and that, if elected March 11, he would be Indiana’s first Muslim representative in Congress and only the second in U.S. history.

The story is long and appropriately thorough. All sides of the story are presented, and as a reader and a voter I came away from the piece feeling very informed and satisfied that other voters were equally informed. The story doesn’t inflame passions, but rather, encourages a healthy discussion of religious issues.

On the flip side of the race, King wrote Tuesday about Carson’s Republican opponent Jon Elrod and his opposition to the efforts of religious conservatives in Indiana to amend the state’s constitution to make gay marriages, which are already illegal, unconstitutional. The gist of the story is that Elrod is not your typical Republican:
jon elrod

Socially conservative Republicans look at Jon Elrod’s position on gay marriage and question whether he is true to his party.

Democrats look at Elrod’s suburban, almost rural upbringing and question whether he is fit to represent an urban congressional district. And others look at Elrod’s life — an amateur stage actor and former rugby player who studied abroad in London — and note that he hardly seems a typical Indiana lawmaker, much less a Hoosier Republican.

This congressional race defies stereotypes. How often is it that the Democratic candidate is the candidate accused of associating with the anti-Semitic, “homophobe” who called white people “devils?” And how often do you see that candidate’s Republican opponent facing criticism from his own party for not supporting efforts to make gay marriage in the state unconstitutional?

King goes into Elrod’s religious background and his lifelong involvement with the United Methodist Church. King quotes him in the story saying that his view on marriage comes from the writings of C.S. Lewis. Essentially he believes the government should stay out of the business of regulating marriage. King also studied theology for three years and is not far from a master’s degree.

I wish King had dug deeper into Elrod’s own personal theology and how it affects his other views, particularly on living in the city. The story briefly mentions that he attends a downtown Indianapolis church, but that’s about it.

There’s a great political and religious story playing out in Indianapolis, and I am certainly enjoying it.

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Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000)

FanfareTrumpetsThis past summer I was talking with another religion-beat professional and this nationally known journalist put something into words that I had been feeling, but had not yet articulated. This scribe who will not be named said that on many days she or he felt like he or she was turning into a public-relations person for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“Amen,” said I. “I know just how you feel.”

In recent years, the pollsters and journalists over at the Pew Forum have been downloading waves of data about into the minds of religion-beat professionals from sea to shining sea and beyond. There are other groups doing research into some of these topics — religion and politics, for example — but no one has been creating as many headlines as the Pew Forum.

There are times when a self-aware Godbeat scribe has to go out of the way to avoid covering some of this material. Last year’s study on Pentecostalism is a perfect example. Now, I have been told, they are gearing up for a nation-by-nation study of religion in Africa. Try to avoid writing about that, in an era where tensions between growing expressions of Islam and Christianity are on the rise. Can you say, “Nigeria”?

I bring this up for two reasons — one obvious and one not so obvious.

The obvious reason is, well, obvious if you have been online this morning. There they goagain. You can run, but you cannot hide, from the results of the Pew Forum’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The stories are everywhere and legions of GetReligion readers have been sending us URL’s since yesterday afternoon, when the embargo on the results ended. More on that in a minute.

The less obvious reason is that this — a blast of trumpets, please — is the 3,000th post on this here weblog. And it would be hard to find a more symbolic or appropriate topic for a landmark post than the whole changing landscape of American religion. So here goes.

There is so much coverage out there, and so much information in this survey, that I do not quite know where to begin. I mean, the Forum crew interviewed 35,000 adults. Think about that for a minute. Personally, I plan to munch on it for a week or so, and look at some of the angles that do not draw coverage, before even attempting to find a unique lede. But other reporters, obviously, had to write — on deadline.

So what were some of the MSM ledes? This is a case where diversity was a plus and it’s interesting to note who put what right up top. I’ll avoid the names of reporters, to save space.

* One clear option was what you might call the “post-denominational age” lede. Here is the New York Times take on that one:

More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations. For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes.

* You had the same basic approach at the Associated Press, only with a hint at the winners and losers:

The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds. …

While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.

* This was a story where a classic W5H lede (if you need to ask what that is, you are not a journalist) might have been appropriate. The Dallas Morning News put as much as possible in one sentence and that looked like this multi-sentence approach:

A major new measure of religious belief in the United States confirms trends shown in earlier polls: The percentage of adult Americans claiming no particular religion is at an all-time high. The percentage of Protestants is dropping. And the percentage of Catholics is stable — but only because the overwhelming majority of immigrants is Catholic.

BelieveUSAflag* The Washington Post had some interesting breakout numbers very close to the top, after using the post-denominational lede:

Forty-four percent of Americans have either switched their religious affiliation since childhood or dropped out of any formal religious group, according to the largest recent survey on American religious identification. …

Among other findings, the survey indicated that members of Protestant denominations now make up only a slight majority — 51.3 percent — of the adult population. The 44 percent figure includes people who switch affiliations within one of the major faith traditions, such as a Protestant who goes from Baptist to Methodist. Counting only people who switch traditions altogether — say, from Catholic to Orthodox, or Protestant to Muslim — the number drops to 28 percent.

* And there you have it, one of the other strong contenders for a different and more specific angle on the story. Let’s call it the non-Protestant America lede. Here is the Los Angeles Times, which managed to get that note sounded right from the get-go:

Americans are switching religious affiliation in ever-greater numbers or abandoning ties to organized denominations altogether, and Protestants are on the cusp of becoming a minority, according to a survey released Monday.

Barely 51% of Americans are Protestants, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, just 43% identify with this branch of Christianity. … Protestants have always held a majority status in the United States.

* Now get ready for an ironic twist. Just because the Protestants are fading does not mean that the other largest body in American religious life is doing just fine. Check out this lead from the Washington Times, which is sure to raise eyebrows:

Evangelical Christianity has become the largest religious tradition in this country, supplanting Roman Catholicism, which is slowly bleeding members, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evangelical Protestants outnumber Catholics by 26.3 percent (59 million) to 24 percent (54 million) of the population. …

“There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in past few decades toward evangelical churches,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum. “They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”

The traditional mainline Protestant churches, which in 1957 constituted about 66 percent of the populace, now count just 18 percent as adherents.

In other words, the post-denominational age is producing churches that are post-denominational and those are called Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. So the fact that America is approaching a post-Protestant majority status does not automatically mean that another form of mainline faith will gain power. Things may simply get more diverse and more confused — period.

I could go on and on with this and, methinks, the other GetReligionistas will join in. But I think you see the major options.

However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.

You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage (and Rod “friend of this blog” is exploring some of that). It will be interesting to see if there are hints at that down deep in the Pew Forum survey.

Stay tuned. And tell friends about GetReligion. We are 3,000 posts into this and I think we’re hanging around. You think?

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Continuing the Useem dialogue

IMG 6378You know what?

I have been putting off posting the second part of my dialogue (click here for earlier post) with freelance journalist Andrea Useem for two simple reasons: (1) I was out of town for a week, attempting to survive four days of traffic-challenged driving in greater Los Angeles and (2) we normally fill our 5Q+1 interviews with hyperlinks to all of the publications, schools, think tanks, etc., linked to the journalist’s career and, in this case, Useem has just been too busy for me to look up all of those links.

Honest. I’m only going to do about half of them. Or less. So there. Try it yourself.

To flash back, Useem is the veteran religion-beat freelancer and researcher who is behind the ReligionWriter.com blog. There are all kinds of nice details in her personal biography — read it all — but here is the section that many will find the most interesting.

After reporting first-hand on the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi, Andrea became intrigued by Islam, a religion she knew little about. She studied informally with Muslim leaders in Kenya, Egypt and Sudan, and what started as a journalistic interest gradually became a personal conviction. Just before leaving Africa for good in the fall of 1999, she formally embraced Islam while in Zimbabwe.

Back in the United States, Andrea earned her Master’s of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. She studied Arabic at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Middlebury’s renowned summer language institute. She met and married an American convert to Islam in early 2001, before graduating from Harvard that spring. After long consideration, she decided against pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, largely because she preferred the fast pace and wide reach of journalism.

Did you follow all of that? As stated before, she has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I met her when she called me up to talk, as part of research she is doing for some Religion Newswriters Association “webinars” on coverage of Islam. It looks like the dates for those are March 11 and April 22. Check it out.

So here come the standard question:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get the majority of my news, including religion news, via RSS feed on my Google desktop sidebar. Big breaking stories — like the death of Gordon Hinckley, for example — usually come to me first from major news outlets on my RSS, like Forbes, CNN, or the Guardian.

Blog-wise, I am trying to create an all-star religion RSS line-up. Currently some of my favorite national-audience religion RSS feeds are: GetReligion, Gary Stern’s Blogging Religiously, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, the First Things blog, Reuter’s FaithWorld, the Religion News Service blog, washingtonpost.com’s On Faith, BlogRunner’s religion category, and CBN’s The Brody File, in addition to religion-specific RSS feeds from Slate, NPR and washingtonpost.com. I read ChristianityToday.com, CAIR, Altmuslim.com and the Pew Forum via email and browsing.

I also pay attention to the news feed on my Facebook page, and friends who mass-email on religious topics — that gives me a sense of what stories have caught the attention of other people. Locally, I read blogs by religious folks in Northern Virginia, including that of Reston Community Church pastor Ben Arment, and consume local publications like The Muslim Link.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here’s an important story that simply hasn’t been covered: The death of the Salafi movement in America. Maybe it hasn’t been covered because a reporter would have to spend so long setting the context for why this neo-traditionalist Muslim movement is important (Answer: It significantly shaped the character of Islam in America for a decade or more, and this very conservative thinking often results in isolationist us-versus-the-West thinking; whether it is associated with violence is a separate question).

This story came to my attention via Northern Virginia Muslim blogger Tariq Nelson, a person I think religion reporters should include in their Rolodex/Blackberry/RSS (particularly if the question at hand is, “Where are the conservative Muslims who condemn violence?” or “What are the debates going on right now among American Muslims?”) Tariq pointed me toward a seven-part series — The rise and fall of the ‘salafi dawa’ in the US — published last January by Umar Lee, an American Muslim who, like Tariq, spent time as a Salafi. Anyways, Umar’s tale of Salafism is fascinating: It’s a story that simply hasn’t been told, at least as far as I’m aware, in the mainstream press.

MuslimUSA(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Is the Christian legal movement paving a multicultural superhighway, on which the next generation of minority religions will ride? School prayer isn’t a burning issue right now, but it’s a perfect example of an issue conservative evangelicals have trumpeted without apparent thought to how non-Christian groups would use such legal precedents to champion their own rights. If there were any sort of state- or federally-mandated prayer in public school, it would open wide the door for, say, Muslim students to ask for time off during class, special foot-baths or other accommodations. The point is not that I’m against Muslims praying in school but that the very people pushing for these rights may be a bit shocked at the eventual results. Yet because the Christian legal movement frames its arguments in terms of religious liberty, which applies to all Americans, I do believe they are setting the stage for further battles over religion-in-the-public-square, as minority religions follow in the litigious footsteps of evangelicals.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Substitute the word “politics” or “economics” for the word “religion” in that question, and the answer is obvious: Religion is a large part of what makes the world go round. Remain ignorant at your own risk.

What we’re seeing now in journalism, I believe, might be called a market correction, except that it’s really an intellectual correction. Not to get too bookish, but members of the media, like a lot of secular elites, subscribed to the modernist assumption that as the world became more and more technologically advanced, religion would play a smaller and smaller role before finally being extinguished by the march of human progress. Of course, that’s not at all how the story has played out, and the media, along with academia, government and business, has finally gotten the memo. For an excellent sociological peek into the special role evangelicals are playing in bringing religion to elite American institutions, I recommend D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

While reading Jacqui Salmon’s Washington Post article on how the NFL forbid churches from broadcasting the Super Bowl on large screens, I almost laughed out loud when I read the Christian legal movement may yet weigh in on the issue:

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties group that focuses on religious freedom issues, is threatening to sue the NFL on behalf of an Alabama church that wants to host a big-screen Super Bowl party. He is also seeking sponsors for federal legislation to exempt churches from the ban.

On the face of it, this is funny just because I think only evangelicals could conceive of Super Bowl parties as a religious freedom issue. It demonstrates how hard it is find the line sometimes between American culture and evangelical culture, both for outside observers and inside believers. This religion-culture overlap comes up in a number of debates, including: Is entertainment-style megachurch worship still worship? Has Joel Osteen blurred forever the line between faith and self-help? One person who I think is asking some thought-provoking questions on these issues is Skye Jethani, now managing editor of Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal and author of the well-read 2006 piece, “All We Like Sheep,” which speaks out against the consumerization of evangelical Christianity.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Yes, very much so. While I am as interested as the next religion reporter in questions about the-next-great-religion-story and how to improve religion coverage, I do worry that these discussions are like so many concertos on the Titanic foredeck. The mainstream media faces some very serious business problems, to which it has not yet discovered any simple answers — so while we’re honing our skills on the reporting side, the business side is deciding whether or not to throw us overboard.

What I would like to see much more of are discussions about, for example, how “denominational” bloggers are not only serving as important sources for the mainstream media, but are in some senses replacing the mainstream media. I think religion reporters could also benefit immensely from digital news-gathering strategies, like Jay Rosen’s ideas about using social networks to assist in beat reporting. I find traditional print reporters are, for the most part, incredibly resistant to the changes going on. So I’d like to see the religion-in-the-media conversation be more new-media focused.

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