Right to religion

girl with bible2The Sunday Telegraph carried a couple of interesting pieces on the growth of Christianity in China, though I think the author missed a few issues. The first article looks at the growth of Christianity as the country’s “new social revolution” and the other looks at the reason Christianity is growing (hint: democracy protests and Western values).

Both subjects are inflammatory for the Chinese people and their government due to the country’s sad history of failed social revolutions and policies against Western values and democracy.

China’s rulers are said to be ambiguous about Christianity’s growth. Some see its emphasis on personal morality as a force for stability. House churches which go along with the authority and theology of the official organisations are often left alone.

But many reject the party’s control over Christian practice and doctrine, and these are seen as a threat. After all, 80 million members would mean there are now more Christians than Communists in China.

Writing from Beijing, Richard Spencer describes the spread of Christianity in rural and urban areas. Converts, as well as those who attempt to promote their religion, face challenges foreign to most in the Western society (another older article addresses the challenges in a bit more detail here). Spencer finds individual examples that do a good job of illustrating this point.

While the article covers the necessary main points, Spencer overlooked a few areas, beginning with the reaction to this growth of China’s other approved religions, Taoism and Islam. Christians now outnumber Muslims in China (as well as members of the Chinese Communist Party), according to the article, and I can’t imagine the rapid growth of Christianity sits too well with them.

According to a friend of mine who recently returned from a summer trip in China, the government does not want the country to become highly religious, though China’s constitution gives citizens the right to practice in a “reasonable” manner. Perhaps Taoists and Muslims keep quiet about the growth of Christianity for fear that conflict between the groups could create a government crackdown? Chinese government officials abhor anything that could hinder the country’s economic development.

The article also fails to examine where Catholicism and Protestantism are growing. From what I know from a friend who is Catholic, Catholicism is growing in areas that are developing economically, but I would like to know where the growth of Protestantism is occurring. Is it right alongside Catholic growth? Or separate areas? China is quite a large place, and its linguistic diversity rivals Europe’s. Also, what Protestant denominations are growing in China?

The third area in which I believe the article fails to inform the reader is in examining the high number of atheists in China and their reaction to the growth of Christianity. Many of the Chinese elite do not take religious people seriously and will laugh if you tell them you believe in God.

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Re: Room to grow

gaffneyFrank J. Gaffney Jr. writes in an op-ed that the Saudi government uses American mosques to promote jihad. In the article I linked to in yesterday’s post on construction of Muslim mosques, the writer mentions deep into the story that the funds for one particular mosque were raised from the local community. But the story explains little about this other than delving into the particular difficulty Muslims have in constructing religious buildings due to the ban on borrowing money in Islam.

Now either the mosque being constructed in the Post piece is fairly unusual, the reporter is being deceived and has not been very thorough or the study isn’t as “superb” as Gaffney states:

A superb study released in January by Freedom House documented that the Saudi government is also using American mosques — by some estimates 80% of which have their mortgages held by Saudi Arabian financial institutions — to promote jihad. Materials officially produced and disseminated to such mosques by the kingdom are filled with calls to hate Christians and Jews. Those who fail to conform are threatened with violent punishment as apostates. Saudi-trained and -selected clerics serve as enforcers in our mosques and in our prisons and military as recruiters for a rabidly anti-American Wahhabi creed.

The point of Gaffney’s column is that the Saudis are not with the United States in fighting terrorism. But that raises the question of why and he does not answer it very well. What would be the motivation of the Saudi leadership to undermine our efforts to neutralize the more radical elements of Islam? In their public statements, they make efforts to show their support, but actions speak louder than words.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of King Fahd (actual or nominal), Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it was possible to be with us and with the terrorists.

Gaffney says that the Saudi leadership believes that promoting attacks outside their country will keep attacks from happening within their country. But that doesn’t answer the economic questions involved in a terrorist attack and its effect on the Saudis ability to sell their oil abroad.

The article also does not examine the lack of common sense in a theory that has the Saudi government directly funding terrorism. If this were true, wouldn’t the American government do something about it? We certainly did not hesitate in invading two large countries, spending billions of dollars in the process. Certainly the terrorist element in Saudi Arabia is alive and well, but that is different from official government endorsement. What gives?

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Partial-truth semantics at the Times

I have a confession to make. From time to time, I have been known to read about a fascinating article that is in some elite publication that does not publish online versions of its articles and then wait to blog about it until somebody, somewhere goes ahead and posts the text anyway. Thus, I can link to it. Bloggers out there: have you ever done this? Come on. Come clean. You see this happen on bulletin boards all the time.

Well, that happened for me the other day when the Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn posted a long and detailed note about an essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy by veteran Newsweek Godbeat scribe Kenneth Woodward. He sent her the text, so she posted large chunks of it.

The topic is most provocative, especially in light of our recent GetReligion go-round (or two) about newspaper style issues involving coverage of abortion. Woodward set out to study The New York Times and its refusal, under any circumstances, to publish the term “partial-birth abortion.” Welborn sums up the basic thesis:

(Woodward) begins by noting the difficulties of defining and naming this procedure from 1995, when it first came to public attention and Clinton vetoed a bill banning it. The difficulty is that it’s not a medical term (but then, neither is “heart attack”) and that the medical community had not named it, mostly because it was a procedure not performed by reputable physicians, for the most part. It was an underground procedure. Once names were determined (Intact dilation and extraction), for example, they were too awkward for headline writers. So even though “partial-birth” abortion was the term of choice for pro-life advocates, it became the most popular way to refer to it, in journalism, usually in scare quotes or with “what opponents call” attached to it.

But not . . . Woodward notes . . . in the NYTimes which steadfastly refused to use the term at all, even in scare quotes, even without the modifier.

The Times jumped through row after row of journalistic hoops to avoid the actual words that were being used in this heated public, political and legal debate. Clearly, notes Welborn, this is a matter of journalistic dogma. The newspaper’s point is that “partial-birth abortion” does not exist if the Times does not say it exists. This horrific procedure is, merely, a myth created for political purposes by those who are opposed to abortion on demand.

It is a “metaphor,” a “slogan.” That is all. There is no moral content to the discussion.

Thus, Woodward concludes (with a nod to recent debates about how the Times views the world in general):

This conclusion should not surprise long-time readers of the New York Times. Nor am I under any illusion that the Times will, on this subject, rethink its one-dimensional newsroom practices, much less its constraining newsroom culture. A walk through the Times, as Okrent put it, can indeed make readers feel like “you are traveling in a strange and forbidding world.” It is a strange world where “women” carry “fetuses” but where it is forbidden to ever write that “mothers” carry “babies.”

In the end, it is a battle over words that is more than a battle over words. But in journalism the words matter. As Woodward noted in a Notre Dame forum last March focusing on “objectivity” in the news:

Woodward also said that magazine writers and editors look for a story line and controlling themes.

“Journalism is not a science and not an art, but it is a craft,” he said. “Morality in journalism has much to do with our commitment to the language.”

If anyone sees another source for the complete Woodward essay, please let me know. Perhaps Woodward can post it somewhere himself? I will try to ask him.

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Questions of faith

John G robertsWashington Post columnist E.J. Dionne believes that questions of faith should be asked of Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts. His argument is based on the idea that politicians invoke religion only when it benefits them, and for that reason Roberts should answer questions about his faith, just as any other candidate for office.

Conservatives typically praise religious activism on abortion and homosexuality but dismiss liberal clerics who offer theological insights on economics or social spending. Liberals love preachers to speak out for civil rights and economic justice. But they see “a church-state problem” the instant anyone in the clergy speaks out for vouchers or against abortion and stem cell research.

In the case of Roberts, Republicans appreciate the intense lobbying on his behalf by conservative Christian groups and see the nominee’s faith as part of his appealing personality. But when Sen. Richard Durbin took Roberts’s religious commitments seriously enough to ask him how they might affect the judge’s court rulings, the Illinois Democrat was accused of . . . dragging religion into politics.

Dionne believes that conservatives don’t want Roberts questioned on his faith and how it would affect his judicial philosophy because they fear it will impair his path to confirmation. Liberals want the questions asked in the confirmation process for the very same reason.

It’s all so political. Senators want Roberts on the record stating how he will rule on certain issues before they support his nomination, and for obvious reasons. If Roberts turns out to be the key vote overturning Roe, moderate Senators supporting Roberts will have their lunches taken from them in the Democratic primaries. Senators like Clinton and Edwards, people who desperately want to become president in three years, are in a bind.

Since religion plays such a key role in deciding how many people think on issues like abortion, shouldn’t those religious views be put on display for the country to examine? Actually, no, Dionne misses the entire point of having a court system independent of the other branches of government.

As my friend (and the person responsible for my start in blogging two summers ago) Lucas pointed out to me in an email conversation discussing this piece, Dionne and others are forgetting a basic principle governing the nomination of Supreme Court justices. They are not politicians; they are arbitrators of law who are charged by the Constitution to rule on cases on the basis of their legality, not morality, and certainly not for political reasons. On this basis, questions on a potential justice’s faith are out of line in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Appropriate questions would relate to the nominees’ attitudes towards interpreting the Constitution or why type of cases they would hope to bring before the court, giving Senators an idea of nominees’ legal priorities. Supreme Court judges are not policymakers. They are interpreters of the law, and asking questions relating to policy only hurts the Supreme Court through politicization. Roberts must refuse to answer any questions regarding his faith (and how he would rule on individual issues), because as an interpreter of the law, his faith should have no effect on his decisions.

Some would say that Roberts’ Catholicism could make the difference in a case like Roe, but this is also wrong. Roberts could quite easily argue that Roe was wrongly decided as a legal matter, but his convictions on the morality of abortion should have nothing to do with the decision.

Justice Antonin Scalia has said that if the Catholic Church ever required a vote contrary to what he would choose on a matter of legal principle, he would recuse himself from voting or possibly quit. This obviously hasn’t happened, and it is doubtful it would happen for Roberts or any other justice.

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Mitt Romney’s two Ms

Sridhar Pappu is a masterful writer of profiles — just a few issues back in The Atlantic, he wrote an article on Geraldo Rivera that was both respectful and critical. In the September Atlantic he writes eight pages on Mitt Romney, the Latter-day Saint who serves as the governor of Massachusetts.

Romney’s LDS faith is not a central focus of the story, but when it does come up toward the end of the essay, it’s a doozy. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was surprised by the strength of Romney’s run against him in 1994, brings the fireworks:

I was winding down our conversation when Senator Kennedy interrupted me. “The one question you didn’t ask,” he said, “was about Mormonism — whether it would hurt him in a national campaign.”

“I was about to,” I said.

“The answer is no,” Kennedy said. “We’ve moved on. That died with my brother Jack.”

Romeny himself says he serves the people, not the Book of Mormon. But though the matter should have died with the election of Jack Kennedy (who himself spoke on religious freedom at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960), Romney’s religion remains — as a prominent Republican strategist who worked on both George W. Campaigns told me — “the other M.”

“There are two Ms — Massachusetts and Mormonism — and they’re the elephants in the room,” this strategist said. “And the question is whether they step on him or ride him to victory. I think that’s a challenge for him to overcome in conservative Christian circles. Romney’s people have to have a strategy to beat it, to win on that point.”

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Silence on that hot Vatican scoop?

Every now and then, a story comes out in a niche magazine or alternative form of media that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me say, “Wow! What a scoop! What will the MSM do with that?”

Since this is a blog about the major media and religion news, I tend to wait until someone else picks up the story before I write about it. Recently we had one of those “Wow!” stories and I have been waiting and waiting and waiting and . . .

So I guess I better let GetReligion readers help me figure out what happened to the hot story that the one and only John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter broke not that long ago. You knew it was a big story, because Andrew Sullivan blasted away from the progressive side of the church aisle and Catholic World News was encouraged on the traditional end of the kneeler. The story?

Sources indicate that the long-awaited Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries is now in the hands of Pope Benedict XVI. The document, which has been condensed from earlier versions, reasserts the response given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002, in response to a dubium submitted by a bishop on whether a homosexual could be ordained: “A homosexual person, or one with a homosexual tendency, is not fit to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

That reply was published in the November-December 2002 issue of Notitiae, the official publication of the congregation.

It is up to Benedict XVI to decide whether to issue the new document as it stands, to send it back for revision, or to shelve it on the basis that for now such a document is “inopportune.”

So did I miss the story somewhere else? Or did Allen nail it with a piece of enformed speculation lower in his report? You see, people tend to forget that sexuality issues in the Catholic world are not strictly a left vs. right affair. It is also a matter of public vs. private.

Privately, some hope Benedict will decide to put the document in a desk drawer for the time being, on the grounds that it will generate controversy and negative press without changing anything in terms of existing discipline.

As one bishop put it to me, the policy against ordaining homosexuals is already clear — the only interesting question is, what do you mean by a “homosexual”? At one end of the continuum, it could refer to anyone who once had a fleeting same-sex attraction; at another, it could be restricted to someone who is sexually active and openly part of a “gay pride” movement. Most people would exclude those extremes, but where is the line drawn in between?

Watch Allen for the updates. He is the insiders’ insider. It is hard to overemphasize how important this story is among Catholic politicos. I cannot believe that the MSM did not chase the work of a reporter as plugged in as Allen.

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Easy journalistic game in these Times

Here is a very easy journalistic game. What we have here are two Boy Scout Jamboree leads. Both are from White House beat stories in newspapers called the Times.

Without clicking the hyperlinks, just yet, name the newspapers.

Lead No. 1 is:

President Bush drew cheers on Sunday from a crowd of tens of thousands of Boy Scouts and their parents with talk about patriotism, morals and the role of their organization in creating leaders.

And here is lead No. 2:

President Bush yesterday told more than 30,000 Boy Scouts of America gathered at their annual jamboree not to waver from their moral conviction or their duty to God and country, telling the boys that “there is right and there is wrong, and we can know the difference.”

OK, name that Times newspaper.

Easy, isn’t it?

The news here is that New York Times reporter Matthew Wald did include the crucial “right and wrong” quote — attention Dr. James Davison Hunter — later in his story, at least in an early version that was on the website. Here is the context:

Mr. Bush praised the virtues of scouting and listed all those included in the Boy Scout law, including trustworthiness and loyalty. He said that some people might “question the values you learn in scouting.”

“But remember, lives of purpose are constructed on conviction that there is right and there is wrong, and we can know the difference,” he said.

What I found interesting was that the MSM did not mention why this quote was in the speech in the first place and why the Boy Scouts are, in these times, such a controversial organization. Freedom of association is another one of those controversial issues, these days.

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Room to grow

USA WashingtonDCThis morning’s Washington Post had a story that, believe it or not, I finished. Rarely is there anything in the morning paper, unrelated to my day job, that is interesting enough for me to finish (another example was this story on China).

Here’s the nut graph of the story. Muslims are moving to the suburbs like many other Americans on their way up the economic ladder and they are building mosques and, like many other religious groups, they are struggling financially.

The boom in exurban mosques has resulted from the migration of Muslims to the outer suburbs, as followers of Islam — just like other suburban emigrants — seek less-expensive housing and good schools.

The story deals with some of the tensions in a Muslim community in the suburbs of Washington. Some harassment, some bigotry, but for the most part, the author paints a pleasant portrait of a group of outsiders, trying to establish themselves as insiders. There is also the issue of radical Islamic terrorism, but the Muslims settling in Northern Virginia and Maryland have denounced the radicals behind the recent terrorist attacks. Underlying the whole story are the incidents in London and whether they could happen in the United States. A fascinating angle of the story is that, in building their mosque, these Muslims could not go into debt and used local fundraisers to bring in money.

The story represents a very similar experience I dealt with growing up in a conservative denomination, which did not believe in going into debt for church-related funding. When a new addition was needed, several years went by as we raised funds. Then, to defray costs, we choose to use people from within the congregation to finish the interior, once the frame was up, much like these Muslims in the suburbs of the nation’s capital.

While some would see this Mosque as a threat to their community, I would try to see it in a different light. Residents in a community are attempting to construct a center they can be proud of and, with this center, something they can base their community life on. As more Muslims in America live in communities like this, where they can come together to construct a building, it will be less likely that their youths will turn to extremism as we have seen recently in London.

Area mosques have tried to educate non-Muslims that extremist views are not a part of the religion of Islam. After the recent bombings in London and Egypt, the Woodbridge mosque and a mosque in Manassas jointly issued a statement condemning the incidents. “These actions are not sanctioned, nor justified, in Islam,” the statement read. Both mosques promised to nurture “interfaith understanding and diversity” in Prince William.

Yet connections between mosques and more militant elements of Islam have been unsettling for some members of the public. The FBI found that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers worshiped at Dar Al Hijrah in Falls Church for a short time. And Ali Al-Timimi, a popular lecturer at the Center for Islamic Information and Education in Falls Church, was recently sentenced to life in prison for inciting a group of followers to train for a violent jihad against the United States. The executive committee at Dar Al Hijrah supported him and called the federal prosecution overzealous.

In all, it’s a well-written, balanced story that favors a positive outlook, rather than a fear-mongering-future-terrorists-could-be-your-next-door-neighbors story that so easily could have been written. Favorite quote, involving a minor issue that keeps mosques in the area from sounding the traditional Adhan, or call to prayer:

“I’m laughing now,” he said, speaking from a coffee shop near his office in Falls Church as noontime chimes began ringing at a nearby church. “I can hear the church bells coming from Columbia Pike. . . . One day we will hear bells and the call for prayers. I believe that day is coming.”

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