Have yourself a Wiccan little holiday

WICCAN PENTACLEA Christmas controversy has been brewing between the Green Bay City Council and an atheist-rights foundation that objects to holiday displays at city hall.

Shocking news, huh? But there is more.

In response to the fuss, the city has allowed and encouraged other religious traditions to put up holiday displays, including a Wiccan wreath and pentacle. The atheist-rights group Freedom From Religion Foundation still objects and may file a lawsuit to protest any religious symbols on public property.

As a reader of ours pointed out, while the reporter’s focus is rightly on the political and legal issues, it overlooks the viewpoint of the Wiccans who put up the display:

Shortly after its installation, a passer-by mistook the display for the Jewish Star of David, which is a six-pointed star.

An Appleton man connected to a state Wiccan group called Circle Sanctuary of Madison dropped off the latest display at City Hall on Friday afternoon.

“That’s pretty,” [Council President Chad] Fradette said shortly after a City Hall maintenance worker set up the display. “I’m glad there’s something else up there.”

After Fradette’s display was installed and he and Mayor Jim Schmitt publicized that the display area would be open to other religious displays, the city received six requests, mayoral assistant Andre Jacque said.

I love the fact people confused the Wiccan symbol for the Star of David, and the quote from the city hall maintenance worker is a keeper. I just wish we could know the tone of voice he used.

Including the views of the Wiccans would have of course made for a deeper story than the traditional Christian v. Atheist paradigm, but that might complicate things and break the mold. We wouldn’t want that, would we?

For that viewpoint, check out the Wiccan group’s website:

“If there are to be holiday displays with religious symbols on public buildings and property, those displays need to accommodate America’s religious pluralism. I sum this up as: Many, if Any, ” said Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary, one of America’s oldest and largest Wiccan churches, which is based near Barneveld, Wisconsin.

Perahps the atheist group could be included in the “many” that are allowed to put up displays at city hall?

Feel free to send us compelling Christmas-related stories that break the traditional mold. We’ll post the best of them.

Photo from Circle Sanctuary.

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Enemies of Tiny Tim?

TinyTimBaptist Press ran an intriguing story this week. It was one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying stories from the sort-of-secular public square.

Hang on. Sit down, in fact. You’re not going to believe this one.

Nine U.S. Representatives voted against a resolution expressing support for Christianity in general and Christmas specifically.

Ho hum, you say? Here’s the punch line to the story. When similar resolutions were put up for a vote on behalf of Ramadan and Diwali, no House members voted against them.

The resolution’s sponsor expressed astonishment over the “no” votes. Rep. Steve King, R.-Iowa, said he could not understand how members of Congress could vote against the measure after the House approved without opposition similar resolutions honoring observances of Islam and Hinduism.

… “I would like to know how they could vote ‘yes’ on Islam, ‘yes’ on the Indian religions and ‘no’ on Christianity when the foundation of this nation and our American culture is Christianity. … I think there’s an assault on Christianity,” King told Fox News, according to a release from his office.

Of the nine representatives, all Democrats, who voted against the Christmas resolution, seven supported both the Ramadan and Diwali measures. Those seven were Reps. Gary Ackerman and Yvette Clarke, both of New York; Diana DeGette of Colorado; Jim McDermott of Washington; Bobby Scott of Virginia; and Pete Stark and Lynn Woolsey, both of California. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida did not vote on the Diwali resolution, and Rep. Barbara Lee failed to record a vote on the Ramadan measure.

Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher suggested that the House vote was a waste of time. But as you might guess, I disagree.

After all, why did the nine U.S. representatives oppose the Christian resolution but not the other ones? Do they oppose Christianity in general or find some of its principles abhorrent? Perhaps they simply cannot cast a vote that would cause a conservative Christian or two to cheer?

Baptist Press reporter Tom Strode might want to go back and ask these kinds of questions to a few of the House members who voted against the Christian resolution.

The notion that some House members actually oppose Christianity is not far-fetched.

Earlier this year, Rep. Pete Stark of California announced that he doesn’t believe in God; he called himself a “non-theist.” Why does Stark oppose a resolution expressing support for Christianity but not other major religions? Having covered Stark for a couple of years for the old San Francisco Examiner, I know from firsthand experience that he is not exactly a tight-lipped pol.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that the Christian press runs a lot of stories like this one. The reporter has a great story to tell, one that the mainstream media overlook, but he or she fails to report it thoroughly. Perhaps they struggle with a lack of time and resources.

It need not be this way. Just read Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

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Give me that old-timer religion news

elderly in churchLeading off a package of religion stories in the Lansing State Journal this morning is a solid feature on the effect the growing elderly population is having on religious communities.

The story is broad and expansive, and rather than just looking at Christian churches, the reporter looked at a Hindu and Jain temple, an Islamic society and a synagogue. Here is what one of our readers had to say about the inclusion of those traditions in this religion piece:

Of particular interest is the sourcing of both local Jewish and Islamic interests written into the story without exoticism or excess fanfare. In fact, the way that the story is written, the issue of aging does exactly what it should do — unite disparate members and institutions of the local community, rather that automatically divide people between religious traditions.

The story leads off with a professor criticizing seminaries for failing to prepare their students for congregations that likely include substantial populations of elderly and retired people. Rather than simply focusing on the programming activities that some groups are working to improve, the article looks at the spiritual challenges individuals are facing and how churches are trying to address them:

“Thirty years ago, people who retired would have quickly seen themselves as aged or elderly,” said John Burow, a Delta Township Lutheran minister who teaches workshops on preparing spiritually for retirement. …

And the roles that our culture offers to seniors “are not sufficient for the 15 or 20 years of mental and physical vigor” that people now will often have left after retirement, he said.

“It’s unworthy of a spiritual being to totally wrap their retirement around their Winnebago or their golf game,” he added.

Kathy Hubbert, 67, spent a recent Saturday morning in the basement of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lansing, pondering retirement at one of Burow’s workshops.

Hubbert, who lives in Lansing, worked as a nurse for more than 35 years. She didn’t think much about retirement until she found it upon her a year and a half ago.

“It’s hard to make that transition from a hard-working person to all of a sudden getting up late and thinking ‘What’s the purpose of today?’” she said.

The other stories, which are all shorter and more focused, deal with a variety of important issues. According to numbers from the AARP, Baby Boomers are supposed to remain seekers with tenuous ties to congregations as they age. While it is always questionable to rely on one group’s statistics, it is an important issue, and the article finds good examples to go along with the numbers.

Another short story deals with how the elderly are “vulnerable” to donation appeals. While I do not doubt that the elderly are vulnerable to donation pitches and that there are preachers who would love to take their money, it is also true that some elderly are able to give away more money.

The last two stories are particularly solid. The first discusses the effect of religion on the elderly with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and the other discusses aging clergy.

Overall, the package is a great example of how to tackle a major issue in today’s society and pair it with the equally compelling subject of religion. If only more local weekly religion sections of American newspapers could be half this strong in terms of quality content.

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Oh, that’s what Christmas is about?

reason for the seasonSomeone should inform American journalists that there is something of a shift going on across the pond regarding the Christmas wars. Thanks to Jerry for sending us the following story from Reuters that should be put on the desks of The Washington Post‘s features department editors for reasons that shall be discussed later in this post.

But first, let’s see what the chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has to say about how we should celebrate Christmas this year:

LONDON (Reuters) — Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims joined Britain’s equality watchdog Monday in urging Britons to enjoy Christmas without worrying about offending non-Christians.

“It’s time to stop being daft about Christmas. It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be star of the show,” said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Let’s stop being silly about a Christian Christmas,” he said, referring to a tendency to play down the traditional celebrations of the birth of Christ for fear of offending minorities in multicultural Britain.

Suicide bombings by British Islamists in July 2005 which killed 52 people in London have prompted much soul-searching about religion and integration in Britain, a debate that has been echoed across Europe.

The Reuters article seems to blame the rise of Islamic terrorism for this new hands-off approach on the religious elements of Christmas. Clearly, our friends across the Atlantic are doing some deep thinking about what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic society, but it makes me wonder why the same discussions have not happened in America. Perhaps it is an idea for some journalist to explore.

Speaking of other journalists, the Post‘s Robin Givhan wants us all to know that we should listen to our therapists and chill out about Christmas. Givhan uses a series of classic movies to show that we should all strive to remember what Christmas is really about. And it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with religion.

So the chat shows get bogged down with experts offering tips on how to prioritize the To Do list or how to avoid debt. Therapists remind people that the real pleasures of the Christmas season are not found in a gift box. But we already know this stuff. We choose to ignore it. And then we complain about it.

At Christmas time, people need reassurance, not shopping guides and analysis. They go back to their past, which in hindsight always seems less complicated. Viewers revisit the Grinch, he of the teeny-tiny heart that grew three sizes upon learning the true meaning of Christmas, because his story grabs hold of an adult problem and wrestles it down into the simplest, most childlike terms.

And it may be that we need an annual screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to put our own lives in order. George Bailey learns to appreciate the life he has, instead of pining for the worldly one he once imagined.

The video clips attached to the story are a series of films that conveniently avoid famous religious scenes as well, which is too bad because the story could have at least mentioned the reason many people in Britain and in America believe we should celebrate the holiday.

Imagine an American newspaper carrying a quote like this from the Reuters story in the newspapers tomorrow morning. I think Bill O’Reilly head would explode:

Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Shayk Ibrahim Mogra said “To suggest celebrating Christmas and having decorations offends Muslims is absurd. Why can’t we have more nativity scenes in Britain?”

Talk about blowing the lid off the media’s typical Christmas wars story.

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Theological fire under all that smoke

Second Coming2 01It’s about the theology, of course, not the politics. There are plenty of Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals and mainiline Protestants out there who plan to vote for Gov. Mitt Romney or who can contemplate that issue without getting into discussions of heaven and hell.

There are, of course, many believers out there who are also a bit miffed that people are saying they are bigots if they have trouble buying into the decades of public relations work proclaiming that Mormons are now officially part of mainstream Christianity (as they clearly are part of mainstream American culture). By the way, how many people on the political and religious left are planning to reject Romney because of the content of his religious and moral beliefs? Just asking.

But the press is absolutely positive that this is all about the dreaded fundamentalist Christians and the fundies alone. Heck, even Peggy Noonan seems to think that and offers an off-the-record quote from a Romney aide to back that up.

Thus, Stephanie Simon’s crisp Los Angeles Times news feature on the Romney speech ends with this provocative passage about the people who still struggle to embrace the Prophet Joseph Smith and his unique revision of ancient Christianity:

When a candidate “believes things most Christians believe to be heresy — doctrinally, just plain wrong — that poses problems for [voters'] comfort level,” said David Gushee, an evangelical theologian at Mercer University.

But Mormons counter that they accept the same fundamentals as other believers — namely, Christ as savior. And they say it’s unfair to brand Smith crazy.

“The foundational story of Christianity, that [Christ] was raised from the dead, is also not rational,” said Scott Gordon, president of a Mormon theology group called FAIR. “We consider ourselves Christian. What right do you have to say we’re not?”

Well, Trinitarian Christians have the same right to say that Mormons are not Christians as the Mormons have the right to make the case that they are. That creates sparks, of course, but that’s the reality.

So it is striking, as Simon notes, that Romney — laying at least one vague card on the altar — did a bit more than hint at this reality in his speech. He admitted that the Jesus Christ of Mormon faith is not, according to creedal Christians, the Jesus Christ of traditional Christianity. That is a positive step forward in making peace with the people who want to vote for him, or are seriously considering voting for him, but want to see him be more candid.

Here is the top of Simon’s story, which is dead on target:

In a much-anticipated speech about his Mormon faith, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney avoided discussing theology — except for this: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.”

That is an accurate statement of Mormon belief, and with it, Romney could claim common ground with evangelical Christian voters. But as he noted in the very next sentence: “My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.”

Holy Trinity 250That’s a start.

Romney knows, of course, that his faith’s teachings about Jesus Christ are sharply different from all other streams of Christianity. In fact, he knows that his faith’s teachings about the very nature of God and, yes, the gods, are different than traditional Christianity and its understanding of the Trinity.

That’s the whole exaltation issue, which is the pivotal theological issue for Catholics, the Orthodox, evangelicals and mainliners. I discussed this long ago, drawing on my discussion of that issue with two of the 12 apostles at the top of the Mormon chain of command, in which they candidly discussed the issue of exaltation and the reality of multiple gods. Or flash back to this discussion in Time.

Simon offers a brief but provocative summary of some of the issues causing this conflict:

The nearly 6 million Mormons in the United States consider that translation, the Book of Mormon, a holy text, on par with the Bible. Its theology has some striking elements:

Mormons hold that God and Christ have physical bodies. They believe that man can become God-like after death, a concept called ultimate deification. They also believe that heaven has more than one tier; only those baptized and married in a Mormon temple can achieve the most exalted realm.

The only question is the choice of the term “God-like.” If that is the Mormon teaching, today, that would be a major change in doctrine. That would, indeed, be a huge story.

Meanwhile, does any of this have anything to do with going into a voting booth and pulling a lever?

For millions of people, it does not. For millions of people, it may. For some, it clearly does.

Simon did readers a service by helping them understand a few of the key issues at the heart of this media storm, which is not over. And Romney did what he had to do. He at least hinted that he knows there are people who can respect his faith, and respect him, while knowing that their beliefs are radically different. Let’s hear it for true, informed, tolerance.

And the press? Long ago, a Mormon press aide told me that he thought journalists should consider describing members of his church with this term — “Mormon Christians.” It’s hard to put that in a headline, but it would work nicely in news reports.

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All Romney all the time

romney 02It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for: Mitt Romney Speechifying Day. There are so many stories out there that we are able to look at only a fraction of them. And we’ll be sure to follow coverage throughout the days ahead.

Yesterday I expressed shock that there weren’t more stories about how Mormons feel about the speech. Bart Jones with Long Island’s Newsday spoke with Mormon missionaries and laymen, who expressed excitement about Romney’s candidacy and who felt it helped their religious outreach efforts:

Romney’s run is “shedding a lot of light on” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are known, [Vic] Goepfert said.

He noted, however, that Romney is not focusing attention on his religion — it is the media and some of the public who are doing that.

[Elder Matthew] Neil’s partner in preaching on the streets, Elder Bradley Miller, 21, from San Antonio, Texas, said he hopes Romney’s candidacy “helps bring the church out of obscurity. People are saying, ‘I want to understand him. Maybe I want to understand his religion.’”

I wonder if the flip side of this coin — Evangelical concern over the spread of Mormonism rather than any particular concern with Romney as a Mormon — has been looked at enough. We hear the stats about how Americans in general and evangelicals in particular are reluctant to support unnamed Mormons but we rarely hear enough explanation as to why. The Washington Post ran a story about the speech with this analysis:

To emerge from a crowded and unsettled field of Republican candidates, Romney must convince evangelical voters and Christian conservatives that as a Mormon he shares the same moral underpinnings they have, even if the teachings and traditions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known, are foreign to them. And he must do it, his top advisers believe, without engaging in a point-by-point theological argument.

Romney said Monday that he will not attempt to be a “spokesman for my faith,” despite the curiosity of many about the church’s distinctive traditions, which are centered around the belief that its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, found golden tablets in Upstate New York transcribed with a sacred text and left behind by ancient Israelites who once inhabited America.

Pictured below! Again, I wonder whether voters who express concern about electing a Mormon are worried about similar moral underpinnings so much as about helping spread Mormonism. I only bring it up because I make sure to ask everyone who expresses skepticism about voting for Mormons why. Some have said it’s based on their concerns about Mormon teachings. But the vast majority have said they are concerned it would help Mormon evangelical efforts — which they consider too much of a negative to counteract having a candidate with whom they largely agree. Other than the preceding link, I haven’t seen much discussion of the topic.

Either way, the Los Angeles Times had a very convincing story that argues that religion has nothing to do with Romney’s problems. Reporter Peter Wallsten says Romney’s faith isn’t the problem — voters’ faith in Romney is:

Romney has not overcome a record of shifting views on abortion and other social issues. His failure to present a clear picture of his faith and its role in his life appears to be just one part of a broader challenge: proving to GOP voters that he is being straightforward with them.

Romney’s predicament is underscored in the new poll, which found that he ranked last when Republican voters were asked which of the top-tier GOP candidates were “best at saying what they believe, rather than saying what they think the voters want to hear.”

According to the story, only eight percent of Republican primary voters in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll said Romney was best at saying what he believes, compared with 18 percent for former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the national front-runner, and 20 percent for Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor. Compare that to the 13 percent who said Romney’s Mormonism made them less likely to vote for him. That may seem like a lot, but ten percent said his religion made it more likely they would vote for him and 73 percent said it made no difference at all.

Respondent Richard Wilson, 67, a school board president in Harrisburg, Pa., said that Romney’s Mormonism “is not an issue to me.”

“I look to more how he would handle the country,” Wilson said. “I thought he seemed a little wishy-washy, like he’s not quite sure what he would do and is trying to be political. It shouldn’t be hard for someone to say what’s on his mind.”

Considering the story is about how Romney’s problem isn’t religion, it had some very interesting analysis of religious issues, such as here:

At times, Romney has deflected questions about Mormonism, and at times he has tried to highlight what it has in common with mainstream Christianity.

But that has drawn criticism from some who say he should embrace Mormonism, with its reliance on theology delivered by the 19th-century prophet Joseph Smith, as a distinct faith with some views that are very different from those of other Christian denominations.

Romney may have deepened his problems when, during last week’s CNN-YouTube debate, he used halting and uncertain language when asked whether he believed “every word” of the Bible was true.

“You know — yes, I believe it’s the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. . . . I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word,” he said, appearing to walk a rhetorical tightrope between offending evangelicals and more fully depicting his own faith, which accepts the New Testament, but views it as incomplete.

I think this analysis is much better than that from the National Public Radio interview we looked at earlier.

JesusVisitsNativeAmericansOther analysis that might interest GetReligion readers includes former GetReligionista Jeremy Lott’s Guardian (U.K.) piece arguing that Romney should pull a Hillaire Belloc and proudly tell Republicans exactly what Mormons believe and Richard Land’s appeal to religious liberty.

Kenneth Woodward’s op-ed in The New York Times was also insightful. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, wrote that the circumstances leading to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech and Romney’s speech today are more different than similar:

In 1960, Kennedy had already won the Democratic nomination and, as a Catholic, faced a phalanx of religious groups working publicly against his election. Among them was Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which was opposed in principle to any Catholic as president. An Episcopal bishop, James A. Pike of California, was its best-known spokesman. . . .

Mr. Romney, in contrast, faces no organized religious opposition he can allude to, no anti-Mormon campaign he can shame — as Kennedy adroitly did — for blatant religious bigotry. On the contrary, most Americans still do not know much about the Mormon Church, and many of them are willing to accept Mr. Romney;s assertion that Mormons are Christians, albeit of a highly unorthodox kind. Unlike Kennedy, he has no ready audience to convince. . . .

Paradoxically, Kennedy was an indifferent Catholic, which is why there really was no reason to fear that he would take orders from the pope. Even the liberal Father Murray thought Kennedy went too far in declaring the total separation of his religion from public life. It was an extreme and ultimately untenable stance he thought he had to take.

Mr. Romney, on the other hand, has been a Mormon pastor and the equivalent of a Catholic bishop. Moreover, he is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination at a time when candidates from both parties are expected to detail how their religion informs their politics — and answer to the news media if they refuse. Kennedy was spared having to explain Catholic doctrines that never mattered much to him. Mr. Romney’s challenge is to avoid talking about controversial Mormon doctrines that to him matter very much indeed.

I find that interesting that Americans United has changed so much over the years. Anyway, these op-eds and analyses provide some useful context and background for reporters covering the story. Let us know as the day progresses if you see any particularly good or bad coverage.

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Going local by going global

spotlight on missionsThings have been pretty busy for me lately, but that will change in just under two weeks. Apologies for my low level of posts lately. I wanted to slip in a brief note to highlight what seems to me an impressive journalistic endeavor for a local newspaper. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., sent reporter Trevor Aaronson along with a local Baptist church’s mission group to India to report on missionary work in the world’s second-largest country.

The result is a very long story that has generated still more comments. Here is the gist of the piece:

What happens here is funded entirely by Bellevue Baptist, a 30,000-member church in Memphis, the nation’s second-largest Southern Baptist congregation. Every year, Bellevue shells out $5.5 million — one-fourth of its $22 million annual budget — for missionary work around the world. At any given time, Bellevue is supporting missionaries in more than two dozen countries, and annually sends its Memphis congregants on international mission trips to Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

India is particularly important for the congregation. The country is at the center of what Bellevue and other evangelical churches refer to as the “10/40 window” — the area 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator, from North Africa to Japan, where 95 percent of the people are “unevangelized” and where only 8 percent of evangelical missionary dollars are spent.

“It’s really called ‘The Last Frontier,’” says Steve Marcum, Bellevue’s minister of missions.

In July, with the help of Indian Pastor Edgar Sathuluri, who named the women’s conference after his mother, Grace, Bellevue covered the transportation costs for the hundreds of women and paid for their meals during the five-day religious gathering in Hyderabad.

The article has a narrative arc that is quite long and full of rich detail. It is not by any means your traditional news story, but nor is it really a traditional feature story. It is a news article told in the style of an old-fashioned story without an ending.

The comments are also interesting because the reporter is being criticized from both sides, as well as commended for a job well done. Some of the people leaving comments think the story is rotten to the core because it promotes “holier-than-thou, so-called Christians.” Others, such as the person who sent us the story, say that Aaronson tries to “look at the purpose of and meaning of the trip from the eyes of the Indian and basically believes that [the] group is getting tricked by the pastor of the church they work with in India.”

Without weighing the particulars of this story — there is much to commend, plenty to quibble with — I think it is tremendous that so much labor and money went into the story. Not only is the newspaper reaching beyond its usual coverage and defying the trend that local newspapers have been heading in for years — it’s also focusing heavily on the activities of the local religious community.

While it may seem like common sense from a news perspective to pay attention to what the large organizations in a coverage area are doing, the activities of churches often go uncovered, particularly missionary work. Take the time to read the story, view the photos and even some of the comments and give us feedback on your thoughts and how other newspapers could follow The Commercial Appeal‘s lead.

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So is this what ‘Islamist’ means?

GetReligionBear2So here we go again.

For several days, I have been trying to decide what to write about the teddy bear named “Mohammed” in the Sudan. I was trying hard to avoid it, since the GetReligionistas strive to write about how the press covers religion events, as opposed to commenting on the religion events themselves.

But the issue will not go away and, in fact, events seem to be getting worse. Here is part of a typical CNN report:

Hundreds of angry protesters, some waving ceremonial swords from trucks equipped with loud speakers, gathered Friday outside the presidential palace to denounce a teacher whose class named a teddy bear “Mohammed” — some calling for her execution.

The protesters, which witnesses said numbered close to 1,000, swore to fight in the name of their prophet.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was given 15 days in jail late Thursday after she was convicted of insulting religion. She was cleared of charges of inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, her lawyer, Ali Ajeb, said.

But is this nationalism or religion? This is the standard question. The details, again, point to direct links to religious institutions.

This part of the standard wire-service reports is especially chilling:

The demonstration began around 2:30 p.m. as worshippers spilled out of mosques in the capital after Friday prayers. They marched to the palace, which is on the same street as Unity High School, where Gibbons taught grade school students. Those who named the bear were 7 years old.

… Armed with swords and sticks, the protesters shouted: “By soul, by blood, I will fight for the Prophet Mohammad.”

The bear in question was, of course, named “Mohammed” by a boy named “Mohammed.” The rest of the class liked the idea.

So what is the journalism question? What does all of this mean, in terms of the language that we use to describe the different forms of Islam that keep making news around the world? Stated another way, what is the difference between “Islam” and “Islamist”?

Gibbons is, of course, an “infidel.” She is also in a land where the common law is sharia. That is the only law in Sudan (and forget the U.N. Charter of Human Rights). So is the whole land of Sudan “Islamist” and, if so, what makes it “Islamist” or an “Islamic” state, instead of simply being a “Muslim” state?

I am seeing little evidence that journalists are drawing, or being allowed to draw, these kinds of lines clearly. I know there are journalists who know these lines exist.

There are government angles to all of this. There are public policy and political angles to all of this, too. Everyone knows this. But this Time passage seems to state the obvious.

I’m not saying that I know exactly what these “obvious” facts mean, right now. But here’s the bottom line:

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute.

“There is a sort of ‘who is the best Muslim?’ competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down,” he said.

Surely that statement is depressing reading for mainstream Muslims.

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