Who’s calling who a creationist?

GodAdampurAnyone who has read GetReligion for a while knows that, as a rule, we are fans of the work of religion-beat star Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Click here for a flashback to her fine work on a story that other papers we could mention have been, well, oversimplifying a bit.

It has been a busy week for me and I have been struggling to catch up the whole time, at work and here at the blog. Dozens of stories I wanted to write about have come and gone. One of them was Goodstein’s coverage of a July poll — done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press — on what Americans believe about creation.

As so often happens on the Godbeat, language is everything and the problems start right there in the headline: “Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey.” It turns out that this is the rare story in which it is possible to use the term “creationism” and have it mean something more than a slur. You betcha, there are real-life “creationists” in this poll and lots of them.

More on that in a minute. The key is that Goodstein is caught in a thicket of words, trying to draw lines between two very different groups of people and her newspaper seems to want to describe all of them with the same word — creationists. In fact, I would argue that the story centers on three or more different groups.

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of all Americans say they think “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. But things get more complex right there in the second and third paragraphs.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was “guided by a supreme being,” and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

Well now, that’s complicated. In other words, there are strict biblical literalists and millions of them. Then there are people who believe that the mechanism of evolution could not have been random and impersonal. Some of these people probably call themselves “theistic evolutionists,” except that the Darwinian establishment is not going to allow that definition of “evolution” in any educational space that is meaningful. There also appear to be true evolutionists who are in favor of free speech on issues of science and philosophy in the public square — even if the idea is tainted with the word “creationism.” Thus:

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of “American pragmatism.”

The problem, of course, is that Goodstein and her editors have only two words to use — evolution and creationism — and they have a number of other camps to describe, on both sides of the divide.

There are evolutionists who truly believe that schools should lurch beyond science and teach that the evidence proves that evolution is random and impersonal, thus locking the God of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam out of the equation. There are other evolutionists who believe that they should just stick with the facts and remain neutral on the theological questions. They do not behave the same in these debates. There are young-earth “creationists.” There are other “creationists” who think the world is millions and millions of years old and that God has worked in ways that produced evidence — big word, evidence — of design in that process. There are other “creationists” who affirm some aspects of Darwinian dogma and reject others. This pope and the last one fit in this particular “creationist” camp, even if journalists hate to say so.

So what is a “strict creationists” and what is a “creationist” and what is a “creationist” who accepts some Darwinian doctrine and rejects other parts of the canon?

What in the world does “creationist” mean, anyway? Is this puzzle something like the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of “pornography”? New York Times editors cannot define the word “creationism,” but they know one of these crazy people when they see one (or millions and millions of them)?

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Are you ready for the joint-shaped shroud?

MountainParkThe New Yorker has published another lengthy feature story — this time about an entrepreneurial “cemeterian” in California named Tyler Cassity — that’s available only in print (the Aug. 29 issue). Tad Friend, author of the 12-page article, discusses it in this online Q&A.

Cassity is a champion of green burials, which favor shrouds or boxes over airtight coffins, and natural decay over embalming. Death and mourning customs raise universal questions, and this article touches on an amazing number of them.

First come some of the more colorful alternatives to traditional funerals:

It appears that his deeper project, his emerging life’s work, is to codify a new religion of departure — one that encompasses the struggle between the wish to become a meadow and the belief that nothing, not even a meadow, matters to the dead. Cassity has approved Wiccan and Goth funerals and a pre-need request for a monument in the shape of a giant prehistoric rat, and he acceded to the wishes of a man who asked, when his time came, to be rolled up in a shroud as if he were a joint.

Then comes a brief discussion between Cassity and Richard Jongordon, another pioneer of alternative burial, which mentions the religious precedent for green burials:

The cost of the average American funeral and burial can exceed ten thousand dollars, but Jongordon said that he planned to charge only about fifteen hundred dollars for a “simple burial and wooden box.”

“Or a shroud? The way the Jews do it?” Cassity suggested.

“No shroud; a box,” Jongordon said. “It’s an emotional factor. The box looks better going in.”

Cassity’s radical improvements at a cemetery he renamed Hollywood Forever led him to another Hollywood connection — namely influence on the cable series Six Feet Under:

Occasionally, the funerals at Hollywood Forever are studio productions, staged for the HBO funeral-home drama, “Six Feet Under.” Cassity is a consultant for the show, and has provided it with story lines from his own experience, from Buddhist funerals to blood spewing from the embalming-room drains. When Cassity told the show’s writers about his new cemetery in Marin, they decided that when the main character, Nate, died, at the end of this, the final season, he would receive a green burial. “Tyler has affected the tone of the show, more than anything else,” Alan Ball, the creator of “Six Feet Under,” said. “There’s this amalgamation of sadness and loss and regret, the hopefulness on top of that, his soulfulness, his soft voice. Everybody in the writers’ room has a huge crush on him: men, women, gay, straight — after he comes in we all go, ‘Mmm!’”

Which opens the theme of how Tyler’s parents, identified as born-again Baptists, changed their worldview when they came to terms with his homosexuality:

In high school, Tyler was an All Division defensive end with no great interest in football or the girls who came with it. At sixteen, tormented by a forbidden crush on his best friend, he tried to kill himself by swallowing all sixty pills in the family medicine cabinet. When he was a freshman at Columbia University, he came out. His mother was devastated; his father was bewildered. “I’m a farm boy from southwest Missouri, and I had looked at gayness as a choice, because that was what my religion said,” Doug Cassity told me. He immersed himself in medical and psychological studies, “and it became obvious that it wasn’t a religious or moral issue.”

“It had a big effect on my family,” Tyler said quietly. “My parents changed from being Baptist to being spiritual.”

To make this story the perfect storm of culture clashes, consumer-level anti-evolution views pop up at a funeral. Friend describes being invited to the service by Billy Campbell, a physician who has pioneered green burials at Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina:

One Sunday in April, Campbell invited me to visit: “We’ve got a couple people who are hot right now” — close to death — “so you might get to see a burial.” The following afternoon, there was a service at Ramsey Creek for Anna Palmer, a seventy-eight-year-old former nurse. Palmer, who was dressed in a white sun hat and white gloves and tucked up with a patchwork quilt, lay in a cardboard box beside her freshly dug grave at the edge of a clearing.

A Baptist minister, David Blizzard, addressed the three dozen mourners. He looked around uncertainly, clasping a small Bible, and widened his stance. “This is kind of a unique funeral,” he began, “the first one I’ve had this way, out here in beautiful creation. It reminds us that where there is a creation, there is a creator. Thank God I didn’t descend from no monkey.” There were murmurs of “Amen,” and Campbell’s expression became studiously neutral.

Both the print story and the online Q&A mention Cassity’s breathtaking plans for his own final resting place. Here’s how Friend describes it in the Q&A:

He would like to be memorialized at Hollywood Forever with a circular monument of Carrara marble set in the ornamental lake, atop which will be a statue of a naked Narcissus on all fours, gazing at his reflection. Which is weird, because that was also my plan.

Friend offers an engaging portrait of a young man who could transform the funeral business, especially as more Baby Boomers face their mortality.

About the art: Town cemetery, Mountain Park, Canada, by Johnnie Bachusky.

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Hey MSM: Some sins are universal

colbert kingAs always, we tend to steer clear of op-eds here at GetReligion, since we are all about news. But Colbert King at The Washington Post has written the theologically appropriate column of the day, whether he knows it or not. This is excellent and I hope lots of MSM editors and network producers read it.

Let me get out of the way and King can speak for himself:

It all goes to show what happens when some people get it in their heads that they can take things that don’t belong to them without getting caught. All it takes is a time and place where authority is absent. Bring on such a scene for those predators and opportunists always lurking in our midst and, bingo, you have your looters. . . .

First, to state the obvious: The people caught stealing on camera in that majority-black city weren’t doing it because they were black. Just as raiders of corporate treasuries don’t do it because they are white. Skin color has nothing to do with the urge to take what doesn’t belong to you. Poverty also isn’t the reason liquor gets stolen in a storm-ravaged city.

The looter on Canal Street in New Orleans and the corporate looter on Wall Street have a similar motive: greed. That is their taproot. And greed is no respecter of pigmentation, income, status or social class.

To paraphrase Father Andrew Greeley — the progressive Catholic sociologist and gadfly — “original sin” is one of the easiest theological concepts to prove in the laboratory of real life. The condition is universal. Angels and demons come in all colors. That’s the good news and the bad news.

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ReligionLink tackles the hurricane

relilinkThe pros at the Religion Newswriters Association have posted a collection of resources linked to Hurricane Katrina and the swarm of spiritual and moral questions events such as this raise. Check it out.

Some of this is pretty standard material, offering theological echoes of the tsunami story. Thus, item No. 1 in the ReligionLink list is:

Evil And Suffering

Katrina has inspired talk of why such destruction occurs. Where is God? Why would God allow such suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is Katrina a sign of the end times? With New Orleans, a city known for drinking, debauchery and licentiousness, there is an added factor. Some suggest that the city’s sins caused the storm to ravage it. These questions will play out in the conversations of storm victims, relief workers, donors to relief efforts, clergy and political leaders in the days to come, revealing much about the foundations of people’s beliefs.

Obviously, I think the middle section of that note is spot on. But check out the rest of the list. Some of this stuff is really strong — the power of prayer, homelessness, charity, race, class, technology, hope, burials, voodoo. And can the historic churches and cemeteries be saved?

Try to imagine what a journalist would run into researching a feature on how different faiths will view funerals and burials under these circumstances. Is there a Roman Catholic rite for the re-burial of a body?

And voodoo. What happens if you let New Orleans be New Orleans?

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Watching Katrina with Sen. Moynihan

1101670728 400At the moment, it’s hard to pick up any section of any newspaper and read any story without thinking about what is happening on the Gulf Coast. And, for me, it’s impossible to think about New Orleans without thinking about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then the following reality, as described in the classic five-part New Orleans Times-Picayune series titled “Washing Away.” (To see the whole package from 2002, click here.)

The risk of dying is so high that trying to ride out a storm is foolish, emergency managers say. Yet for various reasons, many people do not leave. In New Orleans, many residents don’t own cars. Some are unaware of the danger. Some think they can judge it for themselves. About 44 percent of Orleans residents and 52 percent of Jefferson residents evacuated during Georges, according to a University of New Orleans survey. A separate Jefferson Parish study estimated that 60 percent of residents left the parish.

“I don’t have a question about the fact that a lot of people are not going to leave, not just the 100,000 who don’t have private transportation,” said Terry Tullier, acting director of New Orleans’ Office of Emergency Preparedness. “We think we’re going to do our people a terrible disservice if we don’t tell them the truth. And the truth is that when it happens, a lot of people are going to die.”

So who was left behind and why? What are the factors — human, political, moral, economic, educational — that helped produce the anarchy that the nation is watching unfold in our media? As Jack Shafer noted at Slate, this leads to the topics that everyone has been afraid to talk about up until the past day or sorace and class.

But the minute journalists open up that topic, they will be led right into another hurricane — the “culture wars”-related clashes about what did or did not happen to urban America in the 1960s and who is and who is not to blame for it. And it is impossible to sink into that riptide without being distracted from the real and urgent issues of justice and peace — yes, literally peace — that must be addressed right now by government officials at the local, state and national levels.

Do you arrest and/or shoot people seeking bread and water?

Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to hijack a boat to escape?

Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to steal guns and alcohol? Looting the homes of their innocent neighbors or of those in richer parts of town? Looting historic sites? Art collections? Churches?

What if all of the people you have to arrest and/or shoot are just as poor and distressed as the people who are simply seeking food and water?

And what happens when some different form of disaster takes place in some other American city that is built on top of the same fault line between rich and poor, black and white?

With that in mind, let’s jump back to Baltimore, another historic city with elite water views and poor neighborhoods nearby. I was thinking about all of this as I read a column in my local newspaper, which is the Baltimore Sun. I live in a largely blue-collar part of town in which one cannot purchase the local sign of prestige and power — a daily subscription to The Washington Post. The headline on Michael Olesker’s column was blunt: “As Baltimore builds itself up, the poor sink lower down.” I imagine that journalists wrote similar columns in New Orleans during the past few decades.

The themes are familiar. Parts of town are in fine shape and other parts are on the rise, while one out of four city residents live in poverty. In the city, the population is about 65 percent African-American. Down on the water, the prices of townhouses are soaring (you can catch the train to Washington, D.C.). Elsewhere, you can get abandoned townhouses for a song or much less. Olesker writes:

In Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods, the sound of rehabbing fills the air. Downtown construction — including residential units — is booming. With so much money coming in, it points out ever more starkly the dismal overall poverty figures. It says poor people are losing ground. It also points out the changes, in the last several decades, in the exodus to suburbia. Middle-class blacks joined fleeing whites, leaving behind an economic underclass that now wonders: With city housing prices rising so sharply, where will poor people find a place to live?

But something is missing. There is some other X-factor in this scene, one that that late, great Democrat named Moynihan wrote about so long ago in a Department of Labor report that could have been called “It Takes A Family.” (Click here for a City Journal refresher on this hot-button topic.)

Here is the end of Olesker’s haunting column. Read this and then ask if he should not have asked one more question and then included one more statistic: What is the difference in income between intact African-American families in the Baltimore area, families that include a father and a mother, and families in which there is no father living in the home? Is race the only issue?

“Children raising children,” says Lonnie Woodland. “I’m in the supermarket the other day, and a young lady’s carrying a baby. The baby was a few days old. I said, ‘My, you sure got your figure back in a hurry.’ She said, ‘This isn’t my child, it’s my grandchild.’

“I said, ‘How old are you?’ She said, 31. I said, ‘Thirty-one?’ She said, yeah, her daughter was 13 when she had her baby. She said, ‘The last thing I wanted my daughter to do was make the same mistake I did.’”

The new government reports tell the continuing mathematical story of poverty. But such stories illustrate the ongoing human distress behind the numbers.

If newspapers dig into the stories behind the images on our screens, they will have to ask questions that political and religious leaders have been afraid to ask for generations. These questions will need to be asked, because lives are at stake.

But right now, it is time to protect the innocent. It is a time for justice and for peace. Send in the National Guard. Send in the church groups, when it is safe to do so. Send in whoever has the heart and the courage to try to help. Save those who can be saved, even if that means judging those who must be judged.

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A cry for help

katrinaThe aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is turning into one of the worst domestic episodes in American history. We started with a hurricane that could possibly destroy a major city, but did anyone really believe that could happen? Well, it’s in the process of happening and while it will not be as fast as the collapse of the Twin Towers, we are just beginning to understand the ramifications of the event, from the structural issues in the city to the sociological issues in dealing with people who have essentially become refuges.

Peggy Noonan has a good summary of events through yesterday and Instapundit has become the clearing house for all things Katrina.

Local government officials are reporting a bleak depiction of the state of affairs while federal officials attempt to calm people and assure them that everything that can be done is in fact being done. The sociological factors of the disaster — looters, lack of law and order — are also playing out slowly as a handful of bad people are making a mess of the recovery efforts.

A few observations on the media’s coverage of the tragedy that is Hurricane Katrina:

  • Why no mention of the obvious race and class issues surrounding the recovery efforts and the images we see on our televisions? I saw CNN dance around the issue by reading a letter from a viewer, but so far the issue has largely been ignored.
  • When the federal government stops putting out official announcements on its actions, speculation runs amok among the talking heads as to the feds’ efforts to help the people affected by the disaster.
  • President Bush is likely to be pummeled for not responding faster and more often on television. He will also be criticized for failing to visit the region (I hear that he is likely to drop in Friday). But there is little he himself can do by visiting the region, and saying stuff on TV doesn’t help the situation, other than boosting morale.

Overall this is a huge challenge for President Bush that rivals the situation on Sept. 11, 2001. May God be with him and all those affected by this disaster.

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Angels & demons in a city of sin

Bourbon NitePardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.

I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.

Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.

What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.

There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.

Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?

Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”

Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.

This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.

Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.

UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Trying to avoid abortion questions

62611I was on the road this past weekend in New York City and had some time — while bracing for the Katrina story — to read a long takeout piece in The New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen titled “Roberts’ Supreme Futurology” (the Web version calls it “Roberts v. the Future”). The first part of the read out on the cover told you what you needed to know about the goal of the piece: “The most divisive issues likely to be argued before the Supreme Court in the coming years have nothing to do with abortion. . . .”

In other words, this piece can be read this way — the Times pitching in to help progressive politicians find a way to dissect John G. Roberts Jr., without appearing to pound away on abortion, a major “Catholic” issue. This is crucial in terms of “pew gap” strategy.

This is not to say that the article is without merit. Far from it! It is a story that covers nearly a dozen complex subjects that could turn into major news hooks, during the hearings and beyond.

But I do find it interesting that the article still ends up running into issues linked to what the late Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” time after time. Then these issues keep getting entangled with the moral logic of, well, to quote the court, liberty being defined as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The “mystery of human life,” indeed.

It seems that journalists and politicos cannot, these days, run away from the big life issues. All the roads keep crossing.

For example, in a section on “Genetic Screening and the Future of Personal Autonomy” Rosen writes:

In order to get a better sense of these coming debates, I turned again to O. Carter Snead, who recently served as general consul to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, to describe the kinds of developments that might give rise to Roe v. Wade-like controversies. The first issue he mentioned was genetic selection. In the future, he noted, scientists may have analyzed much more of the genetic makeup of embryos created through in vitro fertilization. They might then be able to use that information to help aspiring parents implant in the woman’s womb only those embryos that display a specified range of desired characteristics — including those having to do not only with sex but also, perhaps someday, traits like intelligence, eye color and height. Not all the traits that parents demand will be conventionally desirable: a few years ago in the United States, a deaf lesbian couple attracted attention (and criticism) by deliberately choosing a deaf man as a sperm donor in order to increase their chances of having a deaf child. And if scientists ever learn to identify a genetic predisposition to homosexuality with a high degree of certainty, genetic screening might be used to “weed out these embryos,” as Snead put it, “or to select for them.”

The political response to so-called designer babies might create strange bedfellows. “Feminists are rightly concerned that male embryos will be routinely selected over female embryos,” Snead noted, which is why many feminists say they would oppose the practice. . . . Social conservatives would also oppose these efforts, but out of concern for the right to life of fertilized embryos. Earlier this year, in fact, a Republican state legislator in Maine introduced a bill to ban abortions based on the sexual orientation of the unborn child. Snead imagined that a conservative state might pass a law banning genetic screening “for elective sex selection or sexual-orientation selection not linked to a therapeutic concern.”

Just try to count all of the potential stories in these few lines of a long essay and note how many of them lead right back into the heart of issues linked to faith, family, marriage, sex and, yes, the “culture of life.” Like I said, the roads keep crossing, and they still all seem to lead, well, to Rome. If Democrats want to know what Judge Roberts believes about this stuff they may as well ask him head on.

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