That Voodoo that you don’t do

voodoosanteriaobeahIndispensable Pagan blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters brought an interesting story to our attention. It begins with a fire at a San Diego store. Here’s how the San Diego Union-Tribune described the situation:

An unattended candle in a voodoo supply shop started a fire early yesterday that damaged three buildings, causing $340,000 in damage and displacing two adults from a home nearby, officials said.

The Associated Press, local broadcast outlets, and papers nationwide also described the fire at a voodoo supply store.

The only problem?

It wasn’t a Voodoo store. It was a Santeria botanica.

David Silva, of San Diego City Beat, reported the news that the national outlets missed:

Centro Botanico La Santisima wasn’t a Voodoo supply store. It catered to practitioners of Santeria, an obscure religion that, like Voodoo, has distant West African roots but has as much to do with Voodoo as Catholicism has to Judaism.

“Santeria is very different from Voodoo. We have some of the same saints, but other than that, we’re something else entirely,” says Carlos Perez, a santero — or priest — at the Santeria shop Botanica Santa Barbara on El Cajon Boulevard. “Santeria is a religion. Voodoo is more like witchcraft.”

Practitioners of the various forms of Voodoo would likely take exception to that characterization. For them, Voodoo is as much a religion as Santeria. But Perez’ point is clear: Santeria is not Voodoo.

Silva interviews a local pagan who ran the store Superstitious. The man was described in a Union-Tribune article as Wiccan when he’s actually an elder priest of Stregheria.

Perhaps lost in all the confusion, unfortunately, is that the loss of Centro Botanico La Santisima was disastrous for those who depended on it.

“It’s terribly sad that the store burned down,” says Misty Johnson, a wedding consultant and head costumer at Dragonmarsh, a pagan supply shop in Riverside. “That was someone’s livelihood, and it’s going to make it harder for people to get the supplies they need.”

In the years I’ve been paying attention, it has struck me that Santeria, Voudoun, Paganism and many other religions and philosophies that are not one of the big three monotheistic religions are not treated with respect. This story clearly got national attention because editors loved the shock value of a Voodoo store burning down. It’s not that difficult to get basic facts right and reporters shouldn’t be afraid to ask a few questions to get the story down.

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New York Times is anti-Hindu?

harvesting souls of indiaThe Hindu American Foundation is very upset with the New York Times because of its ongoing coverage of anti-Christian violence in the Orissa State in eastern India, leading to a series of three letters calling for coverage that focuses more attention on the role of Christian missionaries in that region.

The latest letter makes the following comments about a recent Times article by Somini Sengupta that ran with the blunt headline, “Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee.”

As Hindu Americans, we unequivocally condemn and repudiate all of the violence consuming Orissa today. That the New York Times would engage in blatant, inflammatory race-baiting with the front-page headline above is shocking. If the intention is to spuriously allege that marauding Hindus across India are contemporary actors emulating the Crusades or the Islamic conquests — then mission accomplished! …

The tragedy unfolding in Orissa state results from the venomous amalgam of the Swami’s murder, and Hindu radicals in the area inflamed by evangelicals blaspheming Hinduism as they seek to meet quotas of new converts in a wild west battle for souls. Pluralism and respect for the tribals’ indigenous Hindu traditions became the first casualty that opened the door to the madness seen today.

While the focus seems to be on the work of evangelical missionaries, Hindu wrath has hit Catholic leaders and churches as well. Here is the latest summary material from the Times coverage:

India, the world’s most populous democracy and officially a secular nation, is today haunted by a stark assault on one of its fundamental freedoms. Here in eastern Orissa State, riven by six weeks of religious clashes, Christian families … say they are being forced to abandon their faith in exchange for their safety. The forced conversions come amid widening attacks on Christians here and in at least five other states across the country, as India prepares for national elections next spring.

The clash of faiths has cut a wide swath of panic and destruction through these once quiet hamlets fed by paddy fields and jackfruit trees. Here in Kandhamal, the district that has seen the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and over 130 churches destroyed. …

Across this ghastly terrain lie the singed remains of mud-and-thatch homes. Christian-owned businesses have been systematically attacked. Orange flags (orange is the sacred color of Hinduism) flutter triumphantly above the rooftops of houses and storefronts.

Some facts are clear. In August, the popular Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati — a leader in efforts to oppose Christian missionaries — was attacked and hacked to death. Police blame Maoist guerrillas. Hindu leaders — the Hindu American Foundation included — insist that the Maoists were, in fact, converts to Christianity. As the Times article explains, the violence is also rooted in economic tensions between two tribes, the Panas (largely Christian) and the Kandhas (Hindus).

In one lurid event that has drawn worldwide news coverage, a nun said that she was repeatedly raped. The attack was also witnessed by a priest, who was severely beaten — but gave interviews from his hospital bed. Police also, after medical examinations, have agreed with the nun’s account.

This leads us to the other side of the story, as reported by the Times:

Given a chance to explain the recent violence, Subash Chauhan, the state’s highest-ranking leader of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu radical group, described much of it as “a spontaneous reaction.” He said in an interview that the nun had not been raped but had had regular consensual sex.

On Sunday evening, as much of Kandhamal remained under curfew, Mr. Chauhan sat in the hall of a Hindu school in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, beneath a huge portrait of the swami. A state police officer was assigned to protect him round the clock. He cupped a trilling Blackberry in his hand.

Mr. Chauhan denied that his group was responsible for forced conversions and in turn accused Christian missionaries of luring villagers with incentives of schools and social services. He was asked repeatedly whether Christians in Orissa should be left free to worship the god of their choice. “Why not?” he finally said, but he warned that it was unrealistic to expect the Kandhas to politely let their Pana enemies live among them as followers of Jesus. …

Besides, he said, “they are Hindus by birth.”

There are many more sickening details in this report that are sure to upset the Hindu American Foundation and others who believe that their side of this story is being given short shrift.

There are, of course, factual questions that remain unsettled about these crimes. One can only hope that the Times and other publications (even Newsweek) will continue to follow the police investigation into the swami’s murder and the crimes that followed it. But can they also find a way to protect India’s tiny 2 percent Christian minority?

ILLUSTRATION: Hindu drawing depicting Christian missionaries “harvesting souls” of Hindu believers.

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Unbridgable gap in Iran?

mosque iranWhen reporters write stories about traditional Islamic law, or sharia, for Western audiences, they often face a few dilemmas.

How do you explain a complex, multilayered legal system that is threaded through the history of Islam, and yet so foreign to Western Europe and the United States, in a way that helps readers understand it better? Here’s an even tougher question: How does a journalist limn a situation where the potential repercussions of sharia law are so disturbing that many of his or her readers will consider them morally reprehensible?

Such is the case with a recent story about Rashin Soodman, an Iranian woman living in London whose father, a Christian convert, was the last man — for now — executed in Iran for apostasy (renouncing or abandoning one’s religion).

Last month the Iranian Parliament approved a bill, the “Islamic Penal Code,” which makes it legal to impose the death penalty on any male who no longer practices the Islamic faith. Soodman’s brother, Ramtin, also a Christian, currently languishes uncharged in an Iranian prison.

In describing the situation faced by the Soodman family, Telegraph writer Alasdair Palmer has chosen to take a stance of righteous indignation. While this is understandable, it may not be the most illuminating way to tell this powerful story — one which would have been even stronger if he’d gotten a voice from the Iranian opposition.

A paragraph into the article, Palmer makes his position plain.

Imposing the death penalty for changing religion blatantly violates one of the most fundamental of all human rights. The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in the European Convention of Human Rights. It is even enshrined as Article 23 of Iran’s own constitution, which states that no one may be molested simply for his beliefs.

And yet few politicians or clerics in Iran see any contradiction between a law mandating the death penalty for changing religion and Iran’s constitution. There has been no public protest in Iran against it.

Palmer makes a fascinating point here — there’s a contradiction between the code just passed and Iran’s own constitution. Why doesn’t he quote someone who can address that dichotomy?

Finding a voice from within Iran is difficult, but not impossible. Addressing another disturbing consequence of the Islamic penal code more than a year ago, the New York Times was able to find a dissident within Iran.

We are left with the sense that there is no opposition in Iran, or that they are totally squashed — something that is clearly not the case. There is, of course, another implication: Being quoted on the record may, in and of itself, be seen as an offense against Iran’s version of Islamic orthodoxy and, thus, dangerous to one’s health.

Although Palmer does have lengthy quotes later in the story from a representative of a group called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (quoted both as a “he” and a “she”), the article would also have been enriched by perspective from an expert from a think-tank or a university on the complexities of the legal system in Iran. Dollars to donuts most of us are clueless about it.

A little less hyperbole in the next few paragraphs would also have strengthened the article.

David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, stands out as one of the few politicians from any Western country who has put on record his opposition to making apostasy a crime punishable by death. The protest from the EU has been distinctly muted; meanwhile, Germany, Iran’s largest foreign trading partner, has just increased its business deals with Iran by more than half. Characteristically, the United Nations has said nothing.

It is a sign of how little interest there is in Iran’s intention to launch a campaign of religious persecution that its parliamentary vote has still not been reported in the mainstream media.

Yet in spite of the flaws in Palmer’s story, he has done Western readers a valuable service in raising the issue of Iranian religious persecution in such a dramatic way. At the end of the article, he allows Rashin Soodmand’s voice to starkly illustrate the potential repercussions of the new law.

Time may be running out for Rashin’s brother. She believes that the new law will be applied in an arbitrary fashion, with individuals selected for death being chosen to frighten others into submission. That is why she fears for her brother. “We just don’t know what will happen to him. We only know that if they want to kill him, they will.”

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Is yoga a religious discipline?

94869 004 76DE2BAAOf the many mailing lists I’m on, the Hindu American Foundation‘s is one of the more interesting. An advocacy group, they send out regular emails with news stories relating to Hinduism.

One of the regular topics is yoga and they send out updates anytime it’s reported that the practice of yoga is spreading in the United States or other non-Hindu countries. As believers that yoga is one of the schools of Hinduism, HAF is also interested in discussions of whether yoga can be practiced apart from Hinduism. They’ve also been following a story about public school teachers in New York teaching yoga to students to relieve stress before exams.

The Associated Press picked up the story this week after a group of parents and religious leaders said the instruction violates boundaries between church and state:

“We are not opposed to the benefits. We can understand the benefits. We are opposed to the philosophy behind it and that has its ties in Hinduism and the way they were presenting it,” said the Rev. Colin Lucid of Calvary Baptist Church in Massena.

The program does not have ulterior motives, Julie Reagan, Massena Board of Education president, said Thursday.

The story attempts to put the New York practice in context and give the reader some background. Let’s look at how well they did that:

A hundred schools in 26 states use yoga in the classroom to relieve stress, Reagan said. Federal funds and grants are available to educators seeking yoga certification, [Reagan] said.

According to a statement on the Web site of the American Yoga Association, yoga is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Hinduism, as well as other world religions.

There are more than 100 different schools of yoga, which seeks to bring harmony to the mind and body. The most commonly practiced type in the United States is hatha yoga, which encompasses physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques

That second paragraph is just clunky. It’s like saying, “praying with beads is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Catholics.” (Speaking of, one wonders whether there would be an outcry if teachers were encouraging kids to use rosary-type beads for prayer, meditation and relaxation.) Even people who oppose teaching yoga in government schools are not saying that yoga is a religion but, rather, a religious discipline. And whether or not yoga can be divorced from Hinduism, to the Hindu it certainly is a religious discipline. But to say that yoga has been “adopted” by Hinduism is really downplaying the association. The earliest Vedic Scripture mentions yoga. So that adoption, as it were, took place at least 3,000 years ago. And the “other religions” mentioned by the AP must be Buddhism, which is a descendant of Hinduism.
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To the Hindu, yoga unites not just the mind and body, as this article says, but the soul as well. From a Time article last year about an increase in yoga injuries:

“Yoga means bringing together mind, body and spirit, but in Western yoga, we’ve distilled it down to body,” says Shana Meyerson, an instructor in Los Angeles. “That’s not even yoga anymore. If the goal is to look like Madonna, you’re better off running or spinning.”

The worst part about the AP article, though, is that it doesn’t speak with any Hindus. Considering how widespread the practice of yoga is in the United States, it’s somewhat surprising that its relationship with Hinduism isn’t explored more. Sam Hodges of the Dallas Morning News interviewed Swami Mukundananda, who lectured at the DFW Hindu Temple in August and led classes in yoga and they discussed the topic. Certainly there are many Hindus qualified to speak about the matter.

There is a debate about whether yoga can benefit people of different religions or no religion. (Here’s a Times (U.K.) article about a yoga instructor who stopped the practice after she converted to Christianity.) But that debate isn’t even treated in the AP story. It doesn’t really present an informed case for how yoga can be divorced from Hinduism either. It’s just a weak story all around.

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Wars over sex, scripture and what? (updated)

christenthroned1Something very interesting is going on in the mainstream media’s coverage of the decision by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to leave the U.S. Episcopal church and align with conservative Anglicans in the Province of the Southern Cone in South America.

As I mentioned before, journalists have finally grasped that there is more to this story than a fight over an openly noncelibate bishop in New Hampshire. So what is the fight really about? Reporters and editors are still stuggling to get that into words.

Consider this breaking news story about the Pittsburgh vote by the Associated Press. Here’s the lede:

Clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly Saturday to break from the liberal Episcopal Church, with which it differs on issues ranging from homosexuality to biblical teachings on salvation.

Now that’s interesting. There certainly are doctrinal disputes among Episcopalians and Anglicans about salvation, especially the question of (tmatt trio alert) whether salvation is found in the name of Jesus Christ, alone. You may remember some very interesting quotes about that issue from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She bluntly said Jesus is the way to salvation for Christians. Period.

But what are these doctrinal wars actually about? How should reporters describe this wider dispute, in an age of fewer and fewer words and inches of type in newspapers? Later in this same AP report, we read:

Clergy and lay members on both sides of the aisle were impassioned before Saturday’s vote. Several opposed to splitting from the national church acknowledged disagreeing with its more liberal teachings — including a more “inclusive” salvation that doesn’t rely on Christ’s crucifixion alone. But many said staying in the church was the only way to remedy those teachings.

Say what? The word “inclusive” is helpful, I guess, but the rest of that statement makes it sound like the Episcopal left believes that salvation is found through the cross — plus something else. What does that mean? Frankly, it sounds like the reporter is paraphrasing comments made by conservative Anglicans, but is not sure what the words mean.

For another glimpse into this struggle, let’s take a second look at that New York Times story that I praised earlier. It included this passage that is causing some of the Episcopal Church’s media pros to get upset at a newspaper that ordinarily is their bread and butter.

The dispute includes complaints that the national church allows open debate on whether Jesus is the Son of God, or that the only way to God is through Jesus — tenets of faith that conservatives find indisputable.

Over at the conservative online fortress Stand Firm In Faith, people are discussing an objection to that paragraph that has been raised by the Episcopal powers that be on a listserv.

Here’s the heart of the matter from former New York Times and Washington Post reporter James Naughton — now the communications director for the powerful Diocese of Washington, D.C.

To my knowledge, there is no debate in our church over whether Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t know whether everyone who finds his or her way into a church on Sunday believes it, but it isn’t as though the issue is open to dispute in any serious way. We proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God in our Prayer Book. This understanding infuses our hymns. We profess it every Sunday as part of our Creed. We teach it in our seminaries. There is absolutely no movement to change this bedrock element of our faith.

To suggest that we do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to call the integrity of our faith into question.

I guess the key word in this debate is “debate.” There are, of course, many different viewpoints in the modern and post-modern Episcopal Church about the nature of the divinity of Jesus — from the traditional point of view to Newark-ian views that use traditional language, but who knows precisely what those words mean?

But note — are these views openly debated? Not really. They’re just out there, part of on ongoing effort to hold a church together with the words of worship, but with the precise definitions of the words left up to the local diocesan bishop to enforce or not enforce. At the heart of the dispute is this question: Are Anglicans supposed to have precise, common doctrines on these kinds of issues in the first place?

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that Naughton does not argue that the liberals and conservatives are united in the belief that the “only way to God is through Jesus” (at least, he does not mention this in the listserv items Stand Firm has chosen to circulate). And if Jesus is not the way, the truth and the life — instead of a way, a truth, etc. — then this raises questions about the status of Jesus as the Son of God, as traditionally understood.

This is complicated material and hard to condense into crisp, short phrases. Reporters are going to have to ask lots of follow-up questions and be very careful when they paraphrase the results. May I make a suggestion? This is a perfect chance to offer back-up online materials, using verbatim question-and-answer transcripts to let people on both sides — left and right — explain their views in their own words. Just do it.

UPDATED: The New York Times story on the actual vote stuck to the wording that is being protested by the establishment Episcopal communicators:

The movement is driven by theologically conservative leaders who believe the church has turned away from traditional biblical teachings on issues like whether Jesus is the son of God and the only way to salvation.

So here’s a question: What do you think that the conservatives said, that the reporter is trying to paraphrase in the statement about Christology?

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When is a beard a religious beard?

56114This is one of the strangest stories that has come my way in a long time.

First of all, it’s a religion-in-the-workplace story about a conflict here in Washington, D.C., yet the mainstream news coverage that I can find is from the DC bureau of The Jerusalem Post. On one level, “Fighting for their whiskers ” is a story that asks an important question and that issue dominates the lede:

Steven Chasin is the first to admit he isn’t the world’s most observant Jew.

Tattoos, a Jewish taboo, cover his burly body, while his shaved head goes bare. He doesn’t go to synagogue every Shabbat or keep all the laws of kashrut. …

“I’m not the perfect Jew,” is how Chasin, a 40-year-old Fire Department paramedic from Virginia, puts it. But he has always strongly identified as one, and used outward symbols to reinforce the point, including the Star of David pendant that hangs around his neck and the full, brown beard that has graced his face for the past two decades.

“The beard is my way of celebrating and practicing,” he explains. “The beard is making up for some of the stuff I don’t do.”

So, when is a beard a religious beard? More on that in a minute.

Chasin’s his superiors insist that they are demanding that he shave the beard because of safety regulations. It seems that the powers that be are afraid that beards interfere with oxygen masks. Thus, we read:

… Chasin, along with six Muslims and Nazarene Christians, filed suit, charging that they should be accommodated on grounds of religious freedom. The District of Columbia District Court has sided with them, but the city is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for October 7. The fire department argues that a beard can interfere with certain gas and oxygen masks that need an airtight seal with one’s face to work.

Later, there’s this:

Chasin’s lawyer, Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, says freedom of religion statutes mean fire department and other workplaces must make “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs. In this case, he says there was no question about the sincerity of those religious beliefs on the part of any of the plaintiffs, and that “the real issue isn’t the sincerity of the belief, but whether the belief can be accommodated.”

In this case, so far, the court has said it can. Continuing to work with a beard while the matter is pending has had its ups and downs, according to Chasin, with some co-workers being supportive and some looking askance. But the bottom line, he says, is that “standing up for our beliefs is what it came down to. It doesn’t matter — being Jewish, being Muslim, being Nazarene — we stood up for what we believe is right and didn’t let them bully us.”

So we have a very interesting story here, based on an important question in laws affecting faith in the work place: How orthodox does a believer have to be in order to claim faith as a defense in a case like this? Is simple sincerity enough? Chasin is, in effect, standing up in defense of his own version of Judaism. Can he be a movement of one?

Meanwhile, there is a real puzzler of a reference in this story that I want to note, because it raises another question. What in the world is a “Nazarene” beard?

Folks, I have visited a bunch of campuses associated with the evangelical Protestant Church of the Nazarene and I have never heard of such a thing. I mean, think about it. If “orthodox” Nazarenes are supposed to have beards, then why doesn’t Dr. James Dobson have a beard?

No, no, no! This has nothing to do with the fact that Dobson is not ordained (cue: rim shot).

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Paranormal side of the tolerance coin?

guardian angels LThe Religion Newswriters Association is currently meeting here inside the Beltway, which guarantees that somebody, from somewhere is going to release a boatload of new information about some trends in American religion.

This time around, it’s a team of scholars from Baylor University, my alma mater. Sic ‘em Bears, and all that.

Due to a GetReligion-related business meeting (no breaking news, at this time), I was not able to get down to the press conference rolling out the latest numbers from the Gallup and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. I also need to admit that I did not spend last night munching my way through the data. I’ll be down at the RNA meetings tomorrow for a panel on religion blogs and I hope to pick up the study and some recordings of the presentations about it.

But there’s some interesting mainstream coverage out there today. Check it out.

So far, what I am seeing is dividing into two camps — the two sides of what may be the same coin.

On one side, you have the news (I am shocked, shocked!) that very few Americans are very Orthodox when it comes to matters of heaven, hell and eternity. Americans tend to think that good people go to heaven (people we like) and bad people do not. It’s a majority-rule kind of thing.

That’s the angle that you find in crisp Religion News Service report from Adelle Banks (a friend, I must confess) and also over at the next-door-to-Baylor Waco Tribune-Herald. The basic idea is that there are few narrow, intolerant people still out there. The RNS lede:

Heaven is no longer viewed as an exclusive place by many Americans, according to a new survey from Baylor University.

When researchers polled U.S. adults about who (and how many) will get into heaven, 54% of respondents said at least half of average Americans will make it through the Pearly Gates. More than a quarter of those surveyed — 29% — said they had no opinion about the fate of the average American, a figure that mirrored those who thought “half or more” of nonreligious people would make it into heaven.

Rodney Stark, co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion in Waco, Texas, said the findings represent a marked difference from earlier studies.

“I think that it’s really just a … broadening because of the cultural experiences of diversity,” said Stark, author of the new book What Americans Really Believe, which details the study’s findings on topics ranging from belief in guardian angels to the practices of “irreligious” people. “I know that when we did studies like this back in the ’60s, the notion that only Christians could go to heaven, for example, was much more extensive than it is now.”

It will be interesting to see the numbers. The basic idea seems to be that people want to be more tolerant, but they still are looking at the world through a lens that is basically semi-Christian or, dare I say, liberal Christian. Remember that Pew Forum study from last summer on this same theme?

But note that it is possible to turn this coin over and see this same trend another way: Very few Americans have a consistent, coherent approach to religious faith and doctrine. Is this good or bad?

To see the Baylor report from that angle, click here to head over to Julia Duin’s A1 story in the Washington Times. The lede:

Half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, one-fifth say they’ve heard God speak to them, one-quarter say they have witnessed miraculous healings, 16 percent say they’ve received one and 8 percent say they pray in tongues, according to a survey released Thursday by Baylor University.

ufo0414aNow, get ready for the twist:

The survey, which has a margin of error of four percentage points, also revealed that theological liberals are more apt to believe in the paranormal and the occult — haunted houses, UFOs, communicating with the dead and astrology — than do conservatives. Women (35 percent), blacks (41 percent), those younger than 30 (40 percent), Democrats (40 percent) and singles who are cohabitating (49 percent) were more likely to believe, the survey said.

Now, that’s interesting.

I’m reminded of a comment by a Czech journalist this past summer, who told me that the Czech Republic is one of the most secular nations in Europe (and, thus, the world), yet it is also the most superstitious. Religious faith fled the pages of scripture and moved into the tabloids.

The same angle shows up in the Wall Street Journal coverage, where we read this spicy detail. It seems that the survey answers were:

… (Added) up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

I would share more about this provocative story, but I really shouldn’t do so. You see, it’s written by someone named (wait for it) M.Z. Hemingway.

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Getting great quotes (updated)

quotesWhen I was a cub reporter lo many years ago, I was advised to get great quotes. Getting the full context of the story was important; ensuring that the story was accurate and fair was important; but nothing was quite as important as getting great quotes. Great quotes, and only great quotes, made the Story.

My editors pounded this message home; journalism experts pounded this message home; Tom Wolfe pounded this message home. This was in the era of journalism right before the dawn of the Internet, so the message has lost cachet. Yet the message is no less important or relevant, though perhaps not as critical as I was told.

As an example, consider the following story by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Burke wrote about the origins of the U.S. Catholic Bishops‘ decision to change a line in the Catholic Church’s catechism and the response of American Jewish leaders. Burke’s use of quotes elevated the story, turning what could have been a ho-hum article into an excellent one.

Most importantly, Burke’s quotes were revealing. The first half of his story addresses why Catholic bishops voted to change a line in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults about the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Jews’ relationship with God. As you might imagine, the topic is a sensitive one, and Burke’s quote from a top U.S. Catholic official highlights the political and social calculations involved:

Deleting the sentence allows U.S. bishops to dodge the controversy, said Monsignor Daniel Kutys, executive director of evangelization and catechesis at the USCCB’s committee on the catechism.

“Part of the decision was to skirt the issue rather than explain it,” said Kutys.

The second half of Burke’s story addresses the roots of the change. It discusses the role of Robert Sungenis, an amateur Catholic apologist. Burke got a great quote from Sungenis’ bishop questioning the apologists’ writings.

Sungenis’s writings on Jews have been sharply criticized by fellow Catholics, who accuse him of anti-Semitism. His local bishop, Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, has demanded that Sungenis stop writing about Jews and made him stop using the word “Catholic” in his organization’s name.

“I had hoped that he would cease from speaking or writing about Judaism and the Jewish people in a hostile, uncharitable, and un-Christian manner,” Rhoades wrote to a former colleague of Sungenis last February.

In addition, Burke’s quotes had variety. He talked to top Catholic prelates; he talked to top Jewish leaders; he talked to Sungenis and quoted from Sungenis’ bishop. In all, he quoted from seven people. His story was not, in other words, a cut-and-paste job.

However, Burke’s use of quotes was not perfect.

His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis “helped lead the charge.” Yet Sungenis’ role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke’s story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops’ conference who suggests that Sungenis’ role was overstated:

Sungenis may have been the first to raise the issue, but he shouldn’t be given credit for revising the catechism, said the USCCB’s Kutys.

“It was changed, but not because of what he said,” Kutys said. “People were misunderstanding it, and through that blog spreading that misunderstanding to other people.”

Kutys’ quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis’ role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys’ quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.

Despite this one misstep, Burke’s story deserves praise. As a rule, Catholic prelates are wary of the press and so don’t give interesting quotes, let alone revealing ones. Yet somehow Burke got them.

UPDATE: I should have described the dispute in question. The USCCB voted to remove the following passage from the adult catechism:

Pending Vatican approval, this sentence will be deleted from the text: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

In its place, the USCCB approved this passage:

“To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”

Also, I should have explained the reason that some Catholics consider Sungenis’ writing anti-Semitic. Below is Burke’s evidence:

[Sungenis] also asserts that “an anti-Christian, Jewish influence has infiltrated the Catholic Church at the very highest levels.”

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