Clean baptisms?

baptizingWhat a great read The Associated Press’s Roger Alford provided for us this morning. I forget, being a Presbyterian and a city dweller, that water pollution is not an issue exclusively for fishermen and nature lovers. I say kudos to Alford for his work in digging up this piece — that includes some interchurch conflict over baptism at the end — and doing some quality research as well.

Here’s the heart of the story:

These Protestants believe full immersion in water for professing youths and adults is a necessity, and that there’s no better place for Christianity’s initiation rite than the great outdoors.

“We were raised that way,” said Susie Hall, who was baptized with her husband by Dawson in Johns Creek earlier this year. “I feel closer to God in nature.”

But these days, the tradition is threatened in eastern Kentucky by rampant water pollution resulting from so-called straight piping of sewage into streams.

It’s a quality story about real people with real concerns that affect their religious practices.

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Why journalists love Pat Robertson

Earlier this week, our friends over at the ethics and diversity office at Poynter.org published a column that I wrote pleading for journalists to drop the Rev. Pat Robertson from their list of “usual suspects” that they call to speak for the world of conservative Christians and other moral traditionalists. I thought the headline was pushy, but appropriate: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key idea I asked journalists who read that site to ponder. If another hurricane heads toward New Orleans, and you were one of the dozens of viewers who turned on MSNBC (OK, I wasn’t that snarky) and saw Pat Robertson’s face, would you be happy or sad? Would you be (a) happy or (b) sad because you knew that he was going to say something off the wall about why God was about to pour out his wrath once again on such a sinful city? patrobertson 01

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.

I ended with a list of names, and hyperlinks, to a variety of traditional Christians that I wish reporters (and especially television producers) would call instead of Robertson. Check out the list and let me know who you think I should add. I also realize that we need lists of new voices on the religious left and in other traditions. This column was about Robertson, so I went with traditional Christians.

Apparently, Heritage Foundation pundit Joe Loconte was thinking along some very similar lines about the time that I was. He wrote a column arguing that Robertson is the perfect symbol for the authority problems that religious leaders, in general, are having in public debates right now.

Like who? Where do we start?

The Catholic Church still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.

Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and prestige.

Though growing in numbers and political influence, evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll. Here’s one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson’s clout talks like a hit man from the Sopranos — and what do his religious brethren do about it? Not much.

Yes, some traditional Christians dissected Robertson’s remarks, but others ducked into their ministry foxholes. Loconte notes that a faithful few continue to respond to each new blast from Virginia Beach by opening up their checkbooks and sending Robertson more cash for his niche TV work.

Another excellent question: How did Robertson’s latest remarks affect the safety of missionaries in Venezuela? But in a way, argued Loconte, this is almost beside the point. Robertson has been quoted and quoted and quoted saying this kind of stuff for 20-something years.

Yes, his words are news. But for whom does he actually speak? How should people respond when he erupts once again?

Loconte has some suggestions. Anyone who digs into this will have a news story.

. . . (Evangelical) leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire — publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform.

Is anyone doing that?

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Hyped conservative takeover?

blackboard advocacyI am struggling to dissect this front page piece in today’s Washington Post. Initially it seemed like a hit piece, but on a second reading, I have trouble finding any gaping holes in what is an extremely well reported and relatively balanced piece of journalism.

Here’s the main idea of the story:

Margaret Young, chairwoman of the Charles County Board of Education, has at times taught her children at home in Waldorf using a Christian-based curriculum. She says she wants teachers to stop assigning books that contain profanity and what she believes are immoral messages. As an example, she cites Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which is an option on the 10th-grade reading list.

Young, 46, has been a controversial figure on the school board since she pulled her eldest son out of fifth grade for a day in 2000 to protest a state exam she considered a meaningless diversion. But now, she leads a voting bloc that has shifted the balance of power on the seven-member board in Charles, a growing suburban county.

The conservative views of Young and her allies are not typical among school boards in the Washington region. But such ideas have been building on boards across the nation since the 1980s.

Perhaps it was the tone of the story? I sensed an attitude of disbelief that someone who does not send her child to a public school could serve on the board governing the public school system. I also felt that the writer clearly did not understand arguments for including religious material in public school curriculum and choose to present the idea as something that only religious fanatics tied in with Jerry Falwell would advocate.

Key questions that must be asked:

  • What real changes in the school’s policy and curriculum have this conservative bloc made since coming to power?
  • What other restrictions is Young seeking on what teachers can include on optional reading lists?
  • Why are the lives of these four individuals the only ones so thoroughly researched and reported (down to the fact that one is a member of Gideons International)? What about the other three board members?

Right now this article seems like a lot of hype drummed up by opponents of Young and her allies. The main fire of the story is a lot of religious talk from the board members that will scare secularists and opponents of religion in schools. I am perplexed as to why this story was given such prominence without it containing more substantial news value. Sure, the issue of evolution vs. intelligent design is hot, as are school vouchers, but until this board actually does something, this story belongs on the cover of the Metro section.

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Two fine entrées & a shot of bile

AtlanticOct05CThe October issue of The Atlantic offers another rich meal of religion references, especially in Joshua Green’s “Roy and His Rock,” an 8,200-word essay on Judge Roy Moore and his traveling granite monument of the Ten Commandments. The Atlantic‘s website limits access to the full article, but I’ll quote some favorite passages here.

Beginning with the headline, Green’s article treats the monument as having its own personality. The device works well, especially in a passage like this:

As running mates go, the Rock is ideal. It is always on message. It is an indefatigable campaigner. It boasts a national following. And it is a terrific fundraiser. Since Moore left office it has been the force behind his political life.

Typically, an image of the Rock is beamed onto a giant screen before Moore takes the stage. Most of his speeches, and even his idle conversations, obsessively return to it. He has even copyrighted the monument. Today the Rock plays a role weirdly analogous to that of a retired Kentucky Derby winner gone to stud: with Moore’s blessing, it is being cloned for a Baptist group in Atlanta.

Green depicts Moore as a man who loves a good fight, and compares him to George Wallace. One of his more effective turns is to cite a poem by Moore, which uses the sort of doggerel you’re likely to see in God & Country emails:

“And we face another war
Fought not upon some distant shore,
Nor against a foe that you can see,
But one as ruthless as can be.
It will take your life and your children too,
And say there’s nothing you can do.
It will make you think that wrong is right,
Is but a sign to stand and fight.
And though we face the wrath of Hell,
Against those gates we shall prevail.
In homes in schools across our land,
It’s time for Christians to take a stand,
And when our work on this earth is done,
And the battle is over and the victory is won,
When through all the earth His praise will ring,
And all the heavenly angels sing,
It will be enough just to see His son,
And hear him say ‘My child, well done.
‘You’ve kept my faith so strong and true,
‘I knew that I could count on you.’”

Green reports that Moore shows a lasting interest in politics, including a possible run in Alabama’s next gubernatorial election. At least we can be relieved that Moore will not stake his future on writing more poetry.

In the issue’s cover story, Joshua Wolf Shenk shows how Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression made him into a great president.

Near the end of the essay, Shenk cites evangelical historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College:

Lincoln’s clarity came in part from his uncertainty. It is hard to overestimate just how unusual this was, and how risky and unpopular his views often were. Most religious thinkers of the time, the historian of religion Mark Noll explains, not only assumed God’s favor but assumed that they could read his will.

“How was it,” Noll asks, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?” Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.

Moving from the sublime to the hysterical, we have French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy reacting to publisher William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. Kristol had published an article by Matt Labash about the Clinton Presidential Center‘s grand opening, and he failed to agree with Lévy that the article was “crammed with the vilest gossip about the private life of the former president.” And suddenly we’re staring down the gaping maw of religious extremism:

I sense that Kristol is annoyed when I mention it.

I sense that he thinks a European can’t accept this mingling of politics with such trash, so he plays it down.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That’s just the deal, you understand — supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole.

Suppose it is.

Let’s agree that his annoyance isn’t feigned.

In that case the whole question lies right there, and in my mind it’s almost worse.

When you uphold one goal of a given faction, do you have to uphold all its goals?

Because you’re in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices?

When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu?

It takes a special kind of ignorance to perceive Matt Labash and William Kristol as water boys for the Religious Right. Next time he’s staring at a menu, Lévy also ought to consult the wine list.

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What kind of Catholic can judge?

x33There are many people on the Religious Right who are tempted to say that the great division in this land — shown by the “pew gap” — is between unbelievers and believers.

This is way, way too simplistic. While there is evidence that a secularist political niche is gaining power, this overlooks the power of what can only be called the religious left. This can be seen, in part, by studying the omnipresent battles in major religious groups over issues linked to sex and marriage. All kinds of people, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, are having theological battles about Woodstock.

The press needs to understand this, when considering the question of a “religious test” being used on nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is not whether nominee John Roberts is a Catholic. What the senators want to know is whether he is an Anthony Kennedy Catholic or an Antonin Scalia Catholic. Is he a John F. Kennedy Catholic or a Rick Santorum Catholic? In my opinion, they need to just come out and state this question openly and live with the consequences. Journalists like candid sources. Say what you mean and get quoted.

Politico Manuel Miranda dives straight into this in his latest daily commentary at The Wall Street Journal on the state of the hearings. This man is ticked off and, as a church-state studies guy, I am with him on this particular issue.

Take it away:

Article VI of the Constitution prohibits a religious test from being imposed on nominees to public office. . . . While questioning John Roberts on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter asked: “Would you say that your views are the same as those expressed by John Kennedy when he was a candidate, and he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960: ‘I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.’”

Hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made it worse: “In 1960, there was much debate about President John F. Kennedy’s faith and what role Catholicism would play in his administration. At that time, he pledged to address the issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interests, not out of adherence to the dictates of one’s religion. . . . My question is: Do you?”

How insulting. How offensive. How invidiously ignorant to question someone like Judge Roberts with such apparent presumption and disdain for the religion he practices. The JFK question is not just the camel’s nose of religious intolerance; it is the whole smelly camel.

Later on in the essay, Miranda quotes all kinds of people expressing outrage. Well, that isn’t quite right. He quotes all kinds of people who are — if you dig deep — critics or outright opponents of abortion on demand who are upset about this new form of modernist Catholic religious test. So the Jews that he quotes are not just Jews. They are traditional Jews. They are red-pew Jews and, thus, they are now finding themselves on the other side of the Woodstock gap.

Admit it. Isn’t this what leaps into mind when you read the following?

Representing more than 1,000 synagogues, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations wrote this letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days earlier: “As a community of religious believers committed to full engagement with modern American society, we are deeply troubled by those who have implied that a person of faith cannot serve in a high level government post that may raise issues at odds with his or her personal beliefs.”

Many people are immediately going to think: “Well, that’s the Orthodox. They probably even voted for George W. Bush.” And that’s right. If President Bush nominated a female Orthodox Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, the very first question she would be asked would be — one way or another — about her views on abortion rights. People would be asking not if she is religious but if she she the right kind of religious person.

It’s the age we live in.

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The gay priest debate renewed

8700228457There’s more big news from the Catholic Church this week. As most of you probably already know, the Vatican is considering a ban on homosexuals from the priesthood. This is certain to create a new intense round of debate in the mass media on the nature of homosexuality and of the priesthood. I haven’t had the time to do a thorough search yet of the coverage, but it seems that The New York Times is on top of the issue:

Investigators appointed by the Vatican have been instructed to review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for “evidence of homosexuality” and for faculty members who dissent from church teaching, according to a document prepared to guide the process.

The Vatican document, given to The New York Times yesterday by a priest, surfaces as Catholics await a Vatican ruling on whether homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood.

In a possible indication of the ruling’s contents, the American archbishop who is supervising the seminary review said last week that “anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations” should not be admitted to a seminary.

The Associated Press was onto the story two days before the Times, but I’m guessing the Times was merely waiting to make a big splash with exclusive documents and the like.

As this story unfolds, watch for quotes from the usual suspects, outrage from Andrew Sullivan, and much gnashing of teeth on both sides of the issue. And for some more background about this ongoing story, click here. Stay tuned.

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Gotta love that Post blog

It’s rather hard to get through the working day with a live video feed on your computer screen showing the U.S. Senate hearings on John Roberts. But I think The Washington Post‘s blog is amazing. Then, of course, there is National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog. What other blogs are readers following right now? This is all just another sign of an evolving technology and its changing role in our lives. Is anyone vblogging yet?

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Mama mia, that’s a spicy deity

meatballs 01My oh my, am I scared to blog about this story from the Telegraph right now. Nevertheless, rest assured that if I were to interview Bobby Henderson about his faith, I would do my best — iTalk is a wonderful thing — to quote him accurately and make sure that people know where he is coming from. That is what journalists do. Luckily, it does appear that he is rather candid about his views (even though his summary of the Intelligent Design mainstream is laugh out loud funny). But, hey, he is trying to be funny.

In an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, Mr. Henderson wrote: “I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Oh, one more thing: I am 99.9 percent sure that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, not Kansas.

I will go hide now.

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