Expound on that news nugget

Bush prayingA significant news morsel buried in the middle of a ho-hum article about a meeting with President Bush in the Savannah Morning News deserves attention. In an interview with author Bruce Feiler, Larry Peterson went with the metro news headline stating that local boy makes good and meets with leader of the free world.

Eleven paragraphs into the story about Feiler, who met with Bush after the president praised Feiler’s book Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, we’re told the following:

In response, he said, the president portrayed himself as “a man of faith” who remains open to people of different faiths.

“I was surprised that he is so committed to the idea of separation of church and state,” the author said. “He said he tries to serve God but knows he doesn’t speak for God.

“He said he doesn’t feel he’s in a position to impose his faith on others and … never wanted people to vote for him because of his faith.”

Nowhere in the article is there any indication that Feiler’s account of this meeting was verified with sources other than Feiler. Not that there is any reason to doubt Feiler, but when writing about a man who historians will scrutinize for decades after any of us are here, it’s always to make sure that your facts and details are verified.

There’s also the problem that we’re not given any details on what this book is about other than its title. I’m not asking for a book review, but give us at least something. I will grant that the article is heavily hyperlinked, which gives online readers plenty of places to go for more information, but what about print subscribers?

Consider also that Bush is said to have committed to the concept of “separation of church and state,” but no mention is given on what that means or how this view works with his faith-based initiatives. It’s especially frustrating since the article tells us up front that they had a 20-minute conversation about it. I wish I could get my hands on a recording or a transcript.

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Please define ‘evangelical’ (yet again)

USA evangelicals2If you type the word “evangelicals” into Google Images, the art attached to the top of this post is the very first thing that turns up. This tells us quite a bit about how most Americans now define the vague word “evangelical.”

Even Wikipedia is better than this strictly political image and — horrors — you can see the battles over what the word means by reading the start of the “evangelicalism” entry at that mixmaster site:

The word evangelicalism often refers to a broad collection of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions which are found among Protestant Christians and some Catholics. Evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to some cultural issues. Historically, the movement began in the early 18th century as a response to Enlightenment thinking. It stressed a more personal relationship with God at the individual level; as well as activism based upon one’s biblically based beliefs.

Current media usage of the term (especially in the United States), is often synonymous with conservative Protestant Christians. This is only partly accurate, as the movement embraces a wide range of expressions of faith around the four core characteristics.

Notice, again, the entire history of the term Protestant, yet somehow we now have Catholics who apparently vote evangelical, which means there are Catholics who are now evangelical Protestants. The terrible phrase in the Wiki definition is the one that says evangelicals share a “biblically oriented faith” — which could mean just about anything. Thus, all the confusion. But it is not my intent to open up that subject for debate, yet again.

No, what caught my eye this time was a recent New York Times story by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein, which makes a solid attempt to add some clarity on the diversity of “evangelical” views on at least one issue that is hard to label as “liberal” or “conservative.”

Thus, the headline: “Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State.” This coalition is stressing that both Jews and Palestinians have rights “stretching back for millennia” to territory in the Holy Lands. These leaders have issued a letter calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the “vast majority of the West Bank.”

Now, who are these people?

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

They include Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon MacDonald, chairman of World Relief; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.

“This group is in no way anti-Israel, and we make it very clear we’re committed to the security of Israel,” said Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which often takes liberal positions on issues. “But we want a solution that is viable. Obviously there would have to be compromises.”

Once again, you can see how hard it is to use political labels in this context — especially in a short news report.

What in the world does it mean that Sider and company often take “liberal positions on issues”? That is simply far too vague. What issues? Is it “liberal” to favor economic justice? Is that politically “liberal” or theologically “liberal”? Sider, by the way, is consistently pro-life and a doctrinal conservative on sexuality issues.

You can see this struggle later in the article, as well:

In the last year and half, liberal and moderate evangelicals have initiated two other efforts that demonstrated fissures in the evangelical movement. Last year, they parted with the conservative flank by campaigning against climate change and global warming. This year, they denounced the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. Some of the participants in those campaigns also signed this letter.

I do not fault Goodstein in any way for this confusion between political “evangelicalism” and doctrinal “evangelicalism.” Truth is, the word is all but meaningless right now. The reporter is caught in an impossible situation.

9780801025778However, by the end of the piece Goodstein manages to squeeze in an authoritative voice (and I must confess that he is a friend and former teaching colleague of mine) who can crisply note the nature of the doctrinal debate that looms behind this debate over Israel and Palestine.

There is a crucial theological difference between Mr. (John) Hagee’s views on Israel and those expressed by the letter writers, said Timothy P. Weber, a church historian, former seminary president and the author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”

Mr. Hagee and others are dispensationalists, Mr. Weber said, who interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Mr. Weber said, “The dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism into a major political voice.”

Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, “What in the world is a dispensationalist?” And, there is no way around it — this is another big word worth arguing about.

But at least it’s the right word and a highly precise one at that.

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Who can argue with the gay bishop?

vgr circle 01One of the greatest challenges that journalists face, in my humble opinion, is knowing how to handle a strong, newsworthy statement of fact by a person of authority that simply cannot be verified as accurate.

Don’t you hate that?

It’s like in the movies when a person is forced to make a quick decision between right and wrong and then those two imaginary figures appear out of the air, with an angel on one shoulder pleading for the right choice and the little red-suited demon on the other shoulder saying, “Ah, come on, you know you want to …”

The journalist knows that, on the one hand, the newspaper is about to print a statement of fact/opinion that is clearly attributed to a source. The paper is not saying that what the source is saying is true, it is saying that the person says it is true. Then you print someone on the other side disagreeing and you’re done. That’s that.

On the other hand, there are questions that simply cannot be answered in terms of clear statements of fact. Perhaps they are beyond scientific research (“Creation is the result of a random process”) or they are attempts to turn highly private and complex realities into statistics (“Ten percent of the U.S. population is gay”).

Case in point: This Times of London story by veteran Godbeat reporter Ruth Gledhill, who opens with this crash-boom-bang opening:

The openly gay bishop whose ordination sparked the crisis in the Anglican Communion has claimed the Church of England would be close to shutting down if it was forced to manage without its gay clergy.

The Bishop of New Hampshire in the US, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, who is divorced and lives openly in partnership with a gay man, said he found it “mystifying” that the mother church of the Anglican Communion was unable to be honest about the number of gay clergy in its ranks.

He said many of the English church’s clergy lived openly in their rectories with gay partners, with the full knowledge of their bishops.

The problem, of course, is that there is no way to pin a number or a statistic on this.

How many gay priests must a Church of England bishop lose before he forced to shut down? But wait a minute. The claim is that the Church of England would “be close” to shutting down. And, come to think of it, that vague statement is linked to an undefined number of “gay clergy,” as opposed to “sexually active gay clergy.” That’s two very different groups of people, under church law.

There is more fog, of course.

(Robinson) said The Episcopal Church, under threat of sanctions from the Communion’s Primates if it does not row back on its liberal agenda at a meeting of its bishops in September, had been ordaining gay priests “for many, many years.”

He said: “Not every bishop will do that but many do. I will and have. Many make a requirement that the person be celibate, but many do not make such a requirement. It’s interesting that the wider Anglican Communion has either not known that or has not chosen to make an issue of it before now.”

Once again, these statements are almost certainly accurate, but how would one verify them? Later in the article, the gay clergy issue is broadened to include gay and lesbian church musicians and parish officers.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that this story is not valid. I am also not saying that Gledhill should not have written it. I am simply noting that this is a classic case in which a reporter would have to work very hard to create any kind of skeleton of facts on which to hang all of these sweeping statements of opinion that are beyond verification. Where do you get “facts”? Private polls?

Sigh. What to do?

Meanwhile, let me note that — in addition to serving up this hot story — Gledhill has also offered readers a chance to read a transcript of the interview with Robinson. Here is one question and response that will certainly be discussed in many corners of the Anglican Communion, in which the bishop describes his conversion into the Episcopal Church:

Q. So it was Anglicanism’s spirit of broad enquiry that appealed?

Yes. I go off to college, which quite coincidentally happened to be owned by the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church and met an assistant chaplain there. When I raised my questions again, instead of telling me that I shouldn’t be asking, instead he congratulated me on asking all the right questions and said he didn’t have all the answers, but I was welcome to come in and let’s look for those answers together. I remember being struck at how undefensive he was about his religion — that Anglicanism seemed to be big enough and broad enough to allow and even encourage those kinds of questions. It had its own answers, but it existed to help me come to my own answers. I remember thinking ‘gosh, that seems to me to be the way religion ought to be’. So I was very encouraged by that.

One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn’t believe, he said ‘well, when you’re in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We’re not asking you do so something against your integrity’. And again I thought whew, that’s what one would hope for from a religion — honesty and integrity. And I guess that’s a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry — that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.

Photo: The consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson.

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Another story in the Iraqi whirlwind

synagoge baghdadFrom time to time, we receive emails from people concerned about a lack of mainstream media coverage of the persecution of the ancient churches inside Iraq, an already tragic situation that is getting worse as Iraq begins to fly apart into competing Islamic states, or tribes, or whatever. This is, of course, part of a wider story in the region — as I learned during my recent visit to Istanbul.

However, this morning I was reading my usual newspapers on the train when I ran into two paragraphs in The Washington Times that added yet another stunning angle to this story. This is one of those situations where I knew something was happening — at the head level — but the bare facts in the newspaper still hit home.

The story by veteran religion writer Julia Duin, a friend of this blog, focuses on yet another hearing by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Sadly, hearings of this kind take place all the time and, thus, this rather short story was located on an inside page. Here’s the lede:

Iraq’s outnumbered Christians and other religious minority groups are targets of a terror campaign and are facing a dire situation where killings and rapes have become the norm, a panel of witnesses testified yesterday on Capitol Hill.

But here are the two paragraphs that snuck up on me. The quote is from the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad:

Iraq’s eight remaining Jews, now hiding in Baghdad, are “the oldest Jewish community in the world,” he said, referring to the 597 B.C. Babylonian conquest of ancient Judah that brought the Jews to the region as captives.

“The international community has done nothing to help these people,” Mr. White said, explaining that the group is trying to emigrate to an Iraqi Jewish enclave in the Netherlands, which won’t admit them.

Here’s the question that popped into my mind: Which is more surprising, that there are only eight Jews left in Iraq or that officials in the Netherlands will not grant them asylum?

Have I missed it, or has there been extensive coverage of this issue? There will, of course, be headlines when the last Jews are killed or exiled against their will. I think.

Photo: The synagogue in Baghdad.

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Reporting on the heart of Islam

Muslims in AmericaAn Associated Press story on Muslims worldwide rejecting violence against civilians provides a great lead-in to the latest Newsweek cover story on Islam in America. Based on a survey by the Pew Research Center, the AP article tells us that Muslims are “increasingly” rejecting suicide bombings, and support for Osama bin Laden is collapsing.

As typical with day-of stories based on polls, reporter Harry Dunphy took the perspective initially published by the group issuing the polling results. As we have seen in the past, the coverage of Pew’s polls can vary and the reactions to that coverage can be just as telling, as the Newsweek piece shows us.

Buried in the Newsweek cover story compiled by Lisa Miller (more than a dozen names are listed at the end as contributors) is this little bit of information:

Muslim American advocates have critiqued the press coverage of the Pew study, saying it focused too much on the bad news and not enough on the good. The bad news, however, bears repeating: 26 percent of Muslims age 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing can be justified.

A lot of bits of information are buried in the Newsweek piece. Some of it reflects positively on Muslim Americans while other parts do not. Clearly a massive level of reporting went into this piece, but for all the apparent efforts the article turned up little that Pew’s polls did not already reveal. Much of the information was demonstrated with real live people (YouTube debates, anyone?) instead of boring statistics.

Take the opener, for example, which has a successful businessman/father commenting on what President Bush told him at a forum after he asked what he should tell his Pakistani relatives about living in the United States:

“Great question,” answered the president. “I’m confident your answer is, ‘I love living in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country where you can come and ask the president a question and a country where—’ Are you a Muslim?”

“Yes,” answered [Fareed] Siddiq.

“Where you can worship your religion freely. It’s a great country where you can do that.”

It was a good answer, says Siddiq, but not enough for him — not when he, a financial adviser at a major investment bank, is afraid to use the bathroom on flights because he doesn’t want to frighten his fellow passengers as he walks down the aisle. He thinks anti-Muslim sentiment in the country is getting worse, not better. “I’m not so much worried about myself,” he adds. “It’s the young people I’m concerned with. Those are the people we need to try — not only as Muslims but as Americans — to make them feel part of America. If you alienate the Muslim young people from America, that is dangerous.”

The major idea I took away from the piece is that Muslims are concerned about their kids and the potential influence radical Islam may have on them (in combination with increasingly hostile attitudes of some Americans toward Muslims). A lot is said about how Europe’s Muslims don’t have it as good as America’s Muslims and how that makes it harder for terrorists to create sleeper cells, but is economics all there really is to this?

There is a very cool map/chart that shows where American’s Muslims come from. This leads me to wonder why the piece did not address how non-American Muslims perceive American Muslims. I know that’s a hefty question to answer, but it would be interesting to know.

As with the AP story on the Pew survey, the Newsweek piece fails to grapple with the theological debates that are raging in Muslim communities around the world. When did the murder of civilians ever become an accepted tenant in Islam? The roots are deep, and from my understanding it has to do with the fact that “human shields” were used during the Crusades and Muslim fighters sought religious acceptance to fight through them to reach the enemy. Similar theological justifications have been used today to justify the murder of civilian Muslims in Iraq, where suicide bombings were unheard of until the U.S. invasion. Where do today’s American Muslims stand on this ancient debate?

I think stories about the huge number of Muslims who love living in America and wouldn’t mind posing for the cover of an American news magazine are great, but I’d be more interested in exploring their spiritual paths. The same goes for the Muslims who would be attracted to charismatic Islamic radicals. What tugs on the hearts of Muslims beyond the appearance of prosperity and wealth?

For an example of this type of reporting, The New York Timesaward-winning series on a local immigrant imam working out issues of faith is a great place to start.

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Overplaying religion in Turkey’s elections

turkish headscarvesReporters have not surprisingly played up the religious aspect of Turkey’s elections this past weekend. While religion has no doubt played a significant part in bringing the country to early elections and will be a big factor in voters’ decision-making, there are other aspects of the story that reporters risk missing if religion is all they focus on.

If you read The Washington Post‘s Ellen Knickmeyer, you would think the battle was all about the cosmetics:

ISTANBUL — It’s the head scarf, stupid.

But that is a bit imprecise. Yes, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nomination of Abdullah Gul as president caused outrage among the country’s secularists because his wife is known to wear a headscarf (leopard-print styles are in her wardrobe). But there is more that concerns the secularists in Turkey than just outward appearances. They are concerned about a general drift toward an Islamic state and the restrictions on personal liberty that drift could entail.

The government’s education minister, Huseyin Celik, is known for inserting creationism in the country’s textbooks and for hiring teachers who graduated from clerical schools. In 2005 Erdogan tried unsuccessfully to outlaw adultery. None of this makes secularists very happy.

The more general headline on a story by the Los Angeles Times’ Laura King — “Religion at heart of Turkish vote” — captures the matter a bit more accurately, but it still doesn’t capture the whole story. Here is the story’s second paragraph:

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, is “just too Muslim, too radical,” said Reha Guner, drinking tea in a cafe just off a crowded beach where European tourists sunbathed topless and beer flowed freely. “They want to hold the country back. That’s why these elections are so important.”

The idea that the ruling party has held the country back since Erdogan took over in 2003 is simply ridiculous. Turkey has been doing great economically and it’s only because of Erdogan’s efforts to restrain the influence and power of the military that the country has even been considered by the European Union members as a potential new partner.

Religious issues along with the “e-coup” launched by the military are the driving issues surrounding the reasons for the early election, but by overemphasizing things like headscarves and secularism versus Islam, reporters risk missing more interesting stories.

One of those stories told later in King’s piece is that Turkey’s secularists tend to be in the ruling classes. The more religious tend to be more middle class. Here’s The Economist ($):

Like fellow members of the Cercle d’Orient, her aversion to the Islamists is profoundly snobbish. The real worry is the shift of wealth from an old industrial elite towards a new bourgeoisie made up of pious Anatolian entrepreneurs, who have thrived since AK came to power.

With the final results from Sunday’s election tallied, we know that Erdogan “romped” his way to victory, exceeding even his own party’s expectations. Erdogan’s political mandate has little to do with mandating headscarves (or even allowing them in government buildings) and religious teachers. It has more to do with continuing political reforms that keep the country from joining the European Union.

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Influential? We GetReligionistas?

banner faithcentral2Why thank you.

Jolly good (and other silly things that Americans think we are supposed to say to sound a wee bit British). Texans would say, “Thanks a bunch.”

It seems that the Faith Central blog at The Times — led by writer and broadcaster Libby Purves — has decided to create a handy collection of, well, here is what the introduction to the list says:

30 Most influential religion blogs

Bloggers about religion blog religiously so Faith Central has compiled a list of the most influential among them. In no particular order, this is intended to evolve, so let us know your suggestions.

So if you scan down a bit, you will find the following reference:

Get Religion

A blog on religious affairs and based on the premise that the press just don’t get religion. Based in Washington D.C. this is the blogchild of the Oxford Centre for Religion in Public Life.

Representative quote: “What struck me was the blunt description of these fighters as ‘Islamic militants’. This seems to me to be too direct a link between the faith of Islam and the actions of the militants.”

We point this out for two reasons: (1) We are all in favor of more online guides to resources linked to religion and the news. (2) Then, well, you know, there’s sinful pride and all that other stuff.

But seriously, this is a rather global and interfaith list, which is always a good thing. You might want to bookmark it.

You might want to write in to make some suggestions of your own. For starters, I think they should look to Dallas and consider adding Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog as well as The Dallas Morning Newsreligion site. The Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon’s TitusOneNine blog has readers all over the world, too, and covers resources linked to many faith issues other than the Anglican wars (with links on left and right). They should look at Amy Welborn’s open book, too.

And your nominations? I mean, other than simply pointing to Beliefnet’s BlogHeaven library. That would be cheating.

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AP: Conservative Christians ‘revile’ China

chinaChina is giving Christian missionaries the boot in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games, according to an Associated Press article by Alexa Olesen. It’s a pretty straightforward story about more government oppression of religion in the world’s most populous nation.

The Communist Party that controls China’s government doesn’t want anyone using the massive numbers of people descending on the country as an opportunity to proselytize. That’s at least the stated motive. The actual reason is probably more complicated, involving the government’s desire to avoid embarrassing confrontations involving religious liberty.

Reader Daniel Roth brought the story to our attention and noted the following sentence that appears in the article’s sixth paragraph:

Christian mission groups from around the world say they plan to quietly defy the Chinese ban on foreign missionaries and send thousands of volunteer evangelists to Beijing next year. Evangelicals worked the crowds at the Olympics in Athens, Sydney and Atlanta but the groups say the Beijing Games offer an opening like no other, in a communist country that conservative Christians have long reviled.

There is so much that could be said about this poorly constructed paragraph. First of all, Christian mission groups do not always fall into the category of evangelicals, though a traditional understanding of that word would make all Christian missionaries evangelicals. But that’s now how the term is understood today.

There also is a false idea that only conservative Christians have mission groups. Consider the final sentence of the paragraph, which says “conservative Christians have long reviled” the communist country of China. Most conservative Christians you talk to loath the communist government for its oppression of free expression of religion, among other things. But what person who takes religion seriously doesn’t oppose the oppression of free religious expression?

Most Christians, if they’re willing to go to China as missionaries, or to support missionaries going to China, are likely to have some level of love for the country and its people. Olesen’s statement does not make any sense and cannot be supported with facts.

Photo of The Great Hall of the People, on the west side of Tiananmen Square. Used under a creative commons license.

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