The sensational and sentimental

childcustodyCould there have been two more dramatically different religion stories last week than Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to the United States and the ongoing drama with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It is completely understandable that almost all religion reporting resources focused on papal coverage, but I keep hoping that we’ll see some really good coverage of the ins and outs at the Yearning For Zion compound ranch in West Texas.

Reader FW Ken said it well:

The story in the FLDS business here in Texas needs desperately to tease out the legitimate religious angles from the cultic. The isolation and focus on the leader are classic cult behaviors. The sexual exploitation of younger girls by older men is not uncommon in cults (I’m thinking Moses David and the Children of God back in the 70s), although, to be fair, polygamy and arranged marriages between younger and older is not uncommon in history . . . But that’s the sort of thing that really needs telling, because it is possible to interpret the current event as the government swooping in and stealing the children of people who’s religion and way of life based on that religion aren’t socially acceptable. Look, I’m a Catholic and don’t approve of polygamy. But I amreally uncomfortable with government force being applied to people who believe differently then me. Again, sorting out the cult aspects from the authentically religious choices people make is crucial to protecting the legitimate interests of the kids without force feeding them standard American culture. . . .

Bottom line: I’ve worked for the great State of Texas most the past 40 years in one capacity or another and somehow I don’t trust us to really help these children through our child welfare system. Call me cynical, but this is a job for journalism, but, unfortunately, a journalism that “gets religion” (what a concept!) and doesn’t settle for the sensational and sentimental.

I finally found a few stories that weren’t terribly sensational or sentimental. However, the stories didn’t really help us understand, as FW Ken put it, the religious angles versus the cultic. Written by Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times, their focus is on the DNA tests that members of the polygamous sect are being subjected to:

Current and former members of a deeply conservative polygamous sect whose children have been seized by the state came to a county office building here on Tuesday to donate their DNA for a genetic database that state officials said could be a step toward the reunification of parents and children.

The collections began even as the first children were sent off under a judge’s order into foster care pending an investigation of under-age marriages by the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S.

The parents came in ones and twos and groups on a blisteringly hot day, some resigned to the task, others simmering with resentment. Jarring juxtapositions — old ways and new, science and faith, cynicism and hopefulness — were everywhere. Just after lunch, a group of women in pastel prairie dresses climbed down from a late-model S.U.V. with dark-tinted windows like those used by movie stars. But for the West Texas dust, they looked straight from Hollywood central casting.

David Williams, 32, clutching a Book of Mormon and a binder with pictures of his three sons, said he drove 1,200 miles from Nevada “to give all that I have to aid in the return of the children to their parents.”

Mr. Williams said that he had left the sect three years ago, but that his three sons had continued to live here at the group’s compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch, with their mother. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than a century ago after the Mormons abandoned their traditions of polygamy.

I like that jarring juxtapositions line — a very efficient way to capture a great deal of context. And the imagery in the following line manages to paint quite the picture without being condescending or rude.

Perhaps discussing why Mr. Williams left the sect would be a good way to explore some of the tangled religious issues. He’s carrying a Book of Mormon and he left the sect — he seems like a good potential source.

It’s also worth noting that the timeline about the FLDS is a bit off. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did officially change its position on polygamy over a century ago but I believe the FLDS emerged in the 1930s after the LDS really began cracking down on polygamists. Kirk Johnson’s follow-up story seemed to fix this problem somewhat:

The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.

Anyway, most stories out there continue to take either the “look at these freaks” or the “these poor, poor parents” approach to the story. A more nuanced and less extreme approach is called for as a service to readers.

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Straightforward coverage of Umbanda

How often does a reporter get to write about the 100th birthday of a religion? The Miami Herald, no stranger to covering off-beat religions (at least from the perspective of a reader in the United States), has a rather unusual story on the “uniquely Brazilian religion” of Umbanda.

The story is rather positive and takes an outsider’s perspective on the religion. For a story that is serving to introduce the religion for the purposes of commemorating it’s 100th year in existence, it covers all the basics. The story focuses appropriately on the religion’s history and has the benefit of presuming that the reader knows little or nothing about Umbanda:

Umbanda has been a natural fit for a country where many believe in the everyday presence of spirits and omens. What’s drawn the interest of international scholars is the religion’s unmistakably Brazilian bent, which has won it fame as the country’s only home-grown faith.

Umbanda’s Brazilian focus is most obvious in its pantheon of spirits, which includes popular folk figures such as the rogue, who’s a fixture of street culture here; the freed slave known as the preto velho; and an indigenous warrior known as the caboclo, who can appear adorned with feathered headdresses and bows and arrows.

Worshipers also can be possessed by someone from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, a cowboy from southern Brazil or a poor ranch hand. In its use of Brazilian folk mythology, it’d be as if worshipers in the United States were possessed by cowboys, astronauts and blues singers.

The story’s introduction, which is not included in this post, follows the stereotypical lead for a story about a religion outside the mainstream. It describes from an onlooker’s perspective someone being possessed by a spirit. Perhaps it’s just too difficult for reporters to resist painting that word picture of the seemingly defining experience of the religion.

Thankfully, as faithful story finder Chris Chase pointed out, it moves on to discuss the religion in terms of more relevant information such as Brazilian nationalism and the influence of 19th century spiritualism.

That event launched what would become a potent mix of African religions, Roman Catholicism and the teachings of 19th-century French spiritualist Allan Kardec. The religion now claims as many as eight million devotees and more than 100,000 temples around Brazil.

Many temples are holding special ceremonies this year to celebrate the religion’s centennial, which is as much about survival as it is about spirituality.

Throughout the early 20th century, Brazilian governments, alarmed at the religion’s intense ceremonies, outlawed its practice, forcing many worshipers underground. Although the religion is legal now, Brazil’s mushrooming Pentecostal churches still regularly condemn Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions as the work of the devil.

A quick point about the numbers cited in the story. I am curious how many of the religion’s faithful live in the United States. I’m sure there are some Florida and Miami residents who would be curious if there are any estimates on the number in their area.

As for 8 million practitioners cited in the story, the linked above Wikipedia article cites a sociological study that says there are 30 million practitioners, but that includes people in Uruguay, Argentina and the United States. I’m not one to necessarily put a Wikipedia fact above a fact vetted by a newsroom, but it would be interesting to know more about how extensive this religion is and whether it is growing or not.

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A blessed Holy Week to you, too

PutinLukashenkoLightingCandlesRegular GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that I noticed the New York Times story that ran with the headline, “Kremlin Rules — At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church.” I noticed it and other people made sure that I noticed it, too.

It covers some of the territory handled by a recent Telegraph feature that I wrote about, a post that produced a giant silence on the comments board. Apparently, more people want to make sure that I know about stories critical of Eastern Orthodoxy than are interested in discussing them.

The Times story is, sadly, highly relevant and contains lots of solid reporting. Here’s a key chunk of it:

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working “in symphony.”

This is not, of course, a new story. I find it interesting that our newspaper of record is very concerned about the oppression of Methodists in Russia — a decade-plus after the initial efforts to crack down on rapidly growing Pentecostal and evangelical movements. Trust me, Methodists are not a booming force in Russian culture. Conflicts between the Russia and Rome are an even older, and more complex, story.

The oppression is inconsistent, which is why the story says it is present in “many areas,” rather than “all.” Russian authorities have tried to define which groups are hostile to Russian culture and which ones are not, a tricky and troubling business at best. The oppression is not as bad as under the Soviets (legal woes are not quite the same think as being butchered inside your sanctuary), but that is no excuse. Here’s another good summary of what is going on:

Mikhail I. Odintsov, a senior aide in the office of Russia’s human rights commissioner, who was nominated by Mr. Putin, said most of the complaints his office received about religion involved Protestants. Mr. Odintsov listed the issues: “Registration, reregistration, problems with property illegally taken away, problems with construction of church buildings, problems with renovations, problems with ministers coming from abroad, problems with law enforcement, usually with the police. Problems, problems, problems and more problems.”

“In Russia,” he said, “there isn’t any significant, influential political force, party or any form of organization that upholds and protects the principle of freedom of religion.”

Much of this is due to extreme forms of nationalism. But there is another reason for the defensive posture, which must be taken into account. I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service several years ago about corruption inside the Russian church that noted:

Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

The KGB records also contain the stories of clerics who yielded. Russian Orthodoxy was a complex mosaic of sin and sacrifice, during the era of the martyrs.

So what is wrong with the story?

My main comment is the same as the last time around, following that Telegraph report. Orthodox readers would consider this half of a story, one lacking some critical and informed Eastern Orthodox voices.

pascha 02There are, you see, Orthodox people — journalists, even — who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the best research into the horrors of the Soviet era and its crimes. Like I said before, for a glimpse of that, check out some of the reviews of the brutally honest “The Price of Prophecy” by the American priest Father Alexander Webster. Or get your hands on the book, which, sadly, is out of print but easy to find.

This is a very complex story and there is a lot of information to take in. The Times article needed more voices, if it wanted to show what is happening on the ground in different parts of Russia.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of Putin himself. As I discovered years ago, when I ended up in Russia days after the 1991 coup — click here for more info on that adventure — the believers there have a special word to describe the political posturing that may be going on in this case. This brand of public figure is called a “podsvechnik,” or “candlestick holder.”

Some Orthodox believers even use this term to describe some of their shepherds. Here is another clip from that earlier column I wrote on this topic:

Many ask … if some of the church’s bishops are mere candlestick holders — or worse. Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

In conclusion, there is one other reason that many Orthodox believers are somewhat upset about this edgy New York Times story about their church — the timing.

This is Holy Week in the Eastern Christian churches, under the ancient Julian calendar. Today is Good Friday. In the late hours of Saturday night we will begin celebrating Pascha, the greatest feast in all of Christendom, which is called Easter in the West. It’s a hard time to read terrible news about a branch of your church, especially if it is old, incomplete, news.

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Who speaks for Islam? Good question

MuslimMosaicUSA 02A long, long, time ago — before that Pope Benedict XVI person came to town and took over the lives of your GetReligionistas (with some help from a controversial sect in Texas) — the Los Angeles Times ran a short educational feature entitled, “Muslim true/false — What you think you know about them is likely wrong — and that’s dangerous.”

This piece was written by John L. Esposito, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, who is the executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup. Together, they wrote a book entitled “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”

The goal of the article was to influence how media leaders think about Islam and, thus, the contents of the news that reaches American citizens. If Americans are, as a rule, ignorant when it comes to basic facts about Islam, Mogahed and Esposito wanted to help set them straight. The article made a wide range of claims, based on new Gallup data. For example:

… Gallup found that 72% of Americans disagreed with this statement: “The majority of those living in Muslim countries thought men and women should have equal rights.” In fact, majorities in even some of the most conservative Muslim societies directly refute this assessment: 73% of Saudis, 89% of Iranians and 94% of Indonesians say that men and women should have equal legal rights. Majorities of Muslim men and women in dozens of countries around the world also believe that a woman should have the right to work outside the home at any job for which she is qualified (88% in Indonesia, 72% in Egypt and even 78% in Saudi Arabia), and to vote without interference from family members (87% in Indonesia, 91% in Egypt, 98% in Lebanon).

And on the ultimate hot-button issue:

What about Muslim sympathy for terrorism? Many charge that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths, but studies show that Muslims around the world are at least as likely as Americans to condemn attacks on civilians. Polls show that 6% of the American public thinks attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.” In Saudi Arabia, this figure is 4%. In Lebanon and Iran, it’s 2%.

Moreover, it’s politics, not piety, that drives the small minority — just 7% — of Muslims to anti-Americanism at the level of condoning the attacks of 9/11. Looking across majority-Muslim countries, Gallup found no statistical difference in self-reported religiosity between those who sympathized with the attackers and those who did not. When respondents in select countries were asked in an open-ended question to explain their views of 9/11, those who condemned it cited humanitarian as well as religious reasons. For example, 20% of Kuwaitis who called the attacks “completely unjustified” explained this position by saying that terrorism was against the teachings of Islam. A respondent in Indonesia went so far as to quote a direct verse from the Koran prohibiting killing innocents. On the other hand, not a single respondent who condoned the attacks used the Koran as justification.

This is one of those cases where I really thought that there wasn’t much I could say, despite having read quite a few case studies that would seem to undercut these poll numbers. I have heard Muslim scholars quote data that seriously clash with these numbers, too. Thus, I decided to ask for the opinion of one of my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues, Dr. Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute. He directs that conservative think tank’s Center for Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World and is one of the editors of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.

I figured that there would be two ways to view the issues in the Los Angeles Times piece. As it turns out, Fradkin was already on top of that — leading to a post at the weblog called Middle East Strategy at Harvard, responding, in part, to the article and, primarily, to the book it was promoting.

Here is a piece of Fradkin’s response:

So who does speak for Islam? Apparently, Esposito and Mogahed do. For the book does not actually present the poll. It provides a very small and partial account of the responses to some questions, but fails to include even one table or chart of data. It does not even provide a clear list of the questions that were asked. The appendix, where one might expect to find questionnaires, charts, and tables, provides only a short narrative discussion of Gallup’s sampling techniques and general mode of operation.

To a certain degree, the authors admit the bias of their presentation: “The study revealed far more than what we could possibly cover in one book, so we chose the most significant, and at times, surprising conclusions to share with you. Here are just some of those counterintuitive discoveries.” But this admission is ridiculously inadequate. After all, this is a book, not an article. In the end, the authors betray their own standard that “data should lead the discourse,” because there is no data. A reader without deep pockets cannot easily remedy this deficiency: the Gallup Organization charges $28,500 to access the data.

dalia mogahedAnd here is another crucial piece of the post, responding to claims about basic human rights issues. For example, do most Muslims want “democracy,” as that term is defined in Western documents?

Fradkin writes:

It … turns out that Muslims apparently want a different kind of “democracy,” one which avoids moral and other kinds of risks. For example, although they would like freedom of speech, they would not like it to be unlimited, such that it might permit speech offensive to religious sensibilities. In other words, blasphemy laws should limit it.

As for other “freedoms,” the authors provide no information. In particular, we do not know whether Muslims accept “freedom of religion.” This is a most peculiar omission since it is essential to a clear understanding of contemporary Muslim views of democracy.

But perhaps all of this is to be understood in light of the finding that Muslims — women as well as men — want to ground their “democracy” partly or entirely in Sharia or Islamic law. The authors hasten to assure the readers that this does not mean that “Muslim democracy” would actually be a “theocracy,” since their respondents largely reject the prospective rule of Muslim jurists.

But this leaves the matter totally confused. If Sharia is to be the partial or entire base of future “democratic” governments, who is constituted to decide what Sharia prescribes, other than the jurists to whom its interpretation has always been and is still entrusted? We are left totally in doubt as to whether the poll asked this kind of question. We are also left in doubt about a whole set of issues, including and especially whether or not “Muslim democracy” would permit religious freedom of the sort characteristic of American and other liberal democracies. Would the status of non-Muslims — especially Christians — be governed by traditional Sharia prescriptions for non-Muslim or dhimmi minorities, which involve various legal disabilities and inequities? Or would they be fully equal? Would non-Muslims be permitted to run for and hold public office?

Obviously, this is not a debate that will end soon and I doubt that the editors of the Los Angeles Times think that it will, either.

But everyone would agree that American journalists (and American politicos) need to know more about the complex and many-layered beliefs and practices of Islamic believers and Islamic societies. As we have heard many times: There is no one Islam. There is no one understanding of Sharia law. There is no one Islamic understanding of “religious liberty.”

There are no quick answers to any of these question. The realities are complex and hard.

Read the articles on both sides of this debate. Please. And please stick to the journalism issues when hitting the “comment” button. By the way, here is a link to another Harvard piece by Fradkin on a related issue — the media debates about the meaning of terms such as “Islamism” and “Islamist.” This, too, has come up from time to time here at GetReligion.

Second photo: Co-author Dalia Mogahed, from the homepage of the Middle East Institute.

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Covering the church-going atheist

Emblem illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality, titled "Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan", from Picta poesis,Religion reporters covering atheism should approach the subject as straightforward as any other group of individuals who believe in similar ideas about God, an afterlife, the reason for evilness in the world, and the need for community and morality. To assume that atheists come down on the same side of all those issues would be to engage in gross stereotyping and fail to give significant depth to covering a complex minority in the United States.

An article in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus‘s Vermont Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Horowitz of the Columbia News Service is an example of good coverage of atheism in the sense that the article avoids pigeonholing and allows the story’s subjects to direct the narrative:

Ken Novak, a marketing analyst from Evanston, Ill., is an atheist. But that doesn’t stop him from going to services on Sundays. While there, he leads a discussion group and a book club, listens to the Sunday school children sing and finds fellowship with others.

Novak, 54, is a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a religious group that focuses on respecting others and does not worship a deity. He found it 16 years ago when looking for a nontheistic moral education for his children, and knew right away that he wanted to get involved.

“It’s a place where atheists and agnostics can get what a lot of people get out of church and temple,” Novak said of the society.

Novak is part of the growing group of American atheists who have left traditional religions but still feel a desire to be part of a religious group. Many had a positive experience with religion before losing their faith and now miss the community, the tradition and the chance to talk about values with like-minded people. So they join religious organizations that are accepting of atheists, form churches just for atheists or even attend traditional theistic churches.

Christopher Chase, a reader and commenter on our Web site, said that the story is one of the first he has seen in recent memory discussing humanist churches. If that is the case, then religion reporters in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, should consider looking into this group and others like it.

An additional area worth exploring that could have been touched on in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus article is the source of these groups’ ethics and morality. Saying that you believe in tolerance, ethics, morality or treating other people the right way is just a conclusion without a meaningful definition. Do groups like these rely on any particular authoritative code, or maxim through which they interpret morality and ethics? Do they feel that they are necessary?

Photo is of an emblem by Barthelemy Aneau titled “Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan” illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality. Taken from Wikipedia and is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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Polygamy in context

mormon polygamyLast week we discussed the need for reporters to distinguish between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the comments, reader Michael Nielsen — a Mormon social psychologist — pointed us toward an op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune that argued for improved information about the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church:

To deny polygamy’s importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism is, well, to be in denial. Many Latter-day Saints prefer to avoid polygamy or to think that it has no bearing on the present, but this is pointless if we are to consider what other people think of the church. Evidence of this is found in the results of a recent Vanderbilt study on bias against Mitt Romney and Mormons. Negative opinions in the study shifted markedly when people were provided “clear, accurate information” about polygamy and other stereotypes regarding Mormonism.

From my reading of newspaper letters, article comments and blogs, it seems that defenders of the church too often provide information that is clear but inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it strikes an observer as disingenuous when told “the LDS Church has nothing to do with polygamy,” as I’ve read in the comments to several newspaper articles in recent days. Clear? Yes. Accurate? Not so much.

As if on cue, Peggy Fletcher Stack, ace religion reporter for the Tribune, filed a comprehensive look at the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church. Headlined “Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy,” the article explains exactly how the LDS came to practice polygamy, how it was discontinued, and what the current view is. She explains, for her non-Mormon readers, that Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in clothing from the 19th century or wear, as a rule, unusual hairstyles.

Stack explains how LDS founder Joseph Smith was inspired by Old Testament figures who had multiple wives and recorded that he received a revelation in 1843 defining “a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives”:

After Smith’s death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state. . . .

Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.”

And by policy, men can be “sealed” for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.

Three of the church’s current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.

Stack explains how Mormons see the polygamy of the past differently than they view its contemporary use.

One of the things she gets into is the economic motivation for the polygamous Mormon communities at their height in the 1860s. According to a scholar she interviews, many of the second, third or otherwise plural wives were widowed, divorced, or had no other men to take care of them. That’s a major difference from the FLDS where boys are routinely kicked out to keep up the supply of plural wives. Religion & Ethics‘ Lucky Severson had a fantastic news piece about this back in November, but I haven’t seen much coverage now that the FLDS are back in the news. Slate was one notable exception.

Stories have also failed to explain the general economics of the FLDS. How do the families support themselves? Do they support themselves? Do taxpayers support the plural wives? What are the religious teachings related to the economics, particularly as they relate to self-sufficiency?

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B16: Is the pope still pope? (updated)

The papal visit is over, which means that we have only one major media ritual left to survive — a final wave of “what it all meant” features. It’s hard not to note that these stories will serve as logical bookends to those “what his visit will mean” features that ran just over a week ago. Please know that I am not knocking these journalistic rites. After all, I plan to write a wrap-up column myself, this week.

The surprise of the trip was the drumbeat of references by Pope Benedict XVI to the clergy-abuse scandal, highlighted by the meeting with victims — from Boston no less — during his stay in Washington, D.C. This did not, of course, cancel out any of the themes that the pope was expected to emphasize, and did, such as religious liberty, a belief in absolute moral truths, unity on essential Catholic doctrines and a defense of attempts to instill a sense of Catholic identity on Catholic campuses. He touched all of the bases that he was expected to touch.

Here at GetReligion, we were only able to touch a few of the stories written and aired from coast to coast. For example, there was that New York Times news feature about the significance of his visit to cat lovers. Click here, if you decide that this was an essential angle of the visit. (The Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc is smiling.)

In general, I think that the coverage of the pope’s visit has been pretty good, which is a comment about the media coverage and about Benedict’s ability to make his subjects rather clear. It was a serious visit, with content as well as massive photo ops. However, there is something about pope news that brings out one of my least favorite tools of modern journalism — the dreaded scare quotes.

The final New York Times report on the Yankee Stadium Mass included some classics. It covered the contents of the sermon (text here), but there must have been some uncomfortable moments at the editing desk. This starts right in the lede:

Before a crowd of nearly 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday ended his first visit to the United States as leader of the Roman Catholic Church with a reminder to the faithful that “obedience” to the authority of the church, even in a country that prizes individual freedom, is the foundation of their religious faith.

What is the precise meaning of those quote marks — framing the word “obedience”? Is this a statement that the pope does not know what the word means, that significant numbers of Catholics cannot agree on what the word means, or that the Times disagrees with the pope’s definition of the word? Or, perhaps, the newspaper’s editors have decided that this term is irrelevant in the modern world?

There are many other interesting wordings to discuss, given the time. Here’s another key one:

But at Yankee Stadium on a cool, brilliant Sunday afternoon, with an adoring audience of people waving yellow cloths, one of the colors of the Vatican, Benedict acted chiefly as pastor to America’s 65 million Catholics, laying out in simple terms their obligations to a church that represents what he has called the “one church” established on earth by God.

“Authority. Obedience. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays,” the pope said in his homily during the Mass, held on an acre-size platform built over the Yankees infield, “especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom.”

Clearly, Benedict understands that there are conflicts over the meaning of words like “obedience.” Otherwise, he would not be preaching this sermon. But the really interesting language here, for me, is the part about “a church that represents what he has called the ‘one church’ established on earth by God.” What in the world is the meaning of the words “he has called,” in terms of the facts of history? One does not have to accept that Rome is or was the “one church” established by Jesus Christ. People will debate that ’til the end of time. But it is crazy to suggest the “one church” claim is a mere personal opinion of this one man.

There are three levels to the language issues in this kind of story.

At one level, journalists are making sure that readers understand that just because the pope says something does not make it true for everyone.

On another level, journalists seem to be making sure that readers understand that just because the pope says something does not make it true for Catholics. To put that another way, just because the pope says something doesn’t mean that Catholics have to believe something. That’s the reality in the day in which we live, of course.

Pope Benedict Easter Vigil 2007But many of these scare quotes seem to have another purpose. Often, they seem to promote the idea that there is no historical reality, no consensus of belief, about some of the claims that the Catholic Church — a voluntary association, not a democracy — makes about its own doctrines and disciplines. People do not have to agree with those claims, but it is not factually accurate to pretend that they do not exist.

To cut to the chase: The pope is not just another Catholic. The word “obedience” does have meaning — a defined meaning — in Catholic thought. One does not have to agree with it, but the definition is there. The “one church” claim is not a matter of papal opinion. It’s a serious claim made, and debated, through the centuries.

Journalists are supposed to do their best to cover the divisions and debates within religious bodies — like the post-Vatican II Catholic church. But journalists are not supposed to deny — whatever the motive — the factual contents of centuries of church history.

Let me be clear. Skepticism is a good thing. But it’s wrong to mangle history and the facts. Here’s an example from one of the final Washington Post pieces about the visit:

Benedict’s stops in Washington and New York dramatically raised American Catholics’ familiarity with — and affection for — their 81-year-old pontiff. Experts said it was too early to know if it would also affect the depth of their faith or their trust in an institution rocked by sex abuse scandals. The visit made Benedict a more familiar and less authoritarian figure, they said, but the chasm between American Catholics and the pope is wide, particularly regarding subjects like same-sex unions and married priests.

In that last sentence, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the chasm between “some” or “many” American Catholics and the pope is wide? Are all American Catholics united in their opposition to their church’s teachings on these topics? Are active, daily- or weekly-Mass Catholics more or less likely to accept the church’s teachings on this kind of topic?

You know what conservative Catholics think. They think that there is a wide chasm between the pope and ex-Catholics and liberal Catholics who work in major newsrooms, when it comes to these kinds of controversial topics. It would be good if our major news organizations went out of their way not to give journalism-bashers many reasons to think that way.

UPDATE: Sigh. From the Times website. What a world.

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Media circus, maybe

poster b1While papal coverage dominated religion news last week, the saga involving the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints continued. I’m still digging through all the recent updates and analyses, but I wonder what readers think of this headline:

Polygamist sect hearing in Texas descends into farce

Here’s how the story, by the Associated Press‘ Michelle Roberts began:

A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamist sect descended into farce Thursday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.

The case – clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history – presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

She goes on to describe the hearing as a circus. The article is packed with tons of information even if it’s a bit heavy on the adjectives. Still, I wonder if “farce” and “circus” are the best words to use. Assuming we still have some presumption of innocence for the accused, they might describe what they’re going through as a tragedy.

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