MIA: Those Chaplain Corps wars

From time to time, GetReligion, The Revealer and other sites that dissect religion coverage are criticized for being too negative and not pointing out the good as well as the bad.

This past week was a very busy one, so I never got around to blogging what I thought was one of the best stories of the week. So let me do that now, as I get ready to turn off the computer and head out the door to Baltimore-Washington. I am referring to Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times feature, “Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps.”

The dateline on the story is Colorado Springs, but this is not — believe me, it is not — another tired follow story on religious liberty issues at the Air Force Academy. GetReligion has been watching that story carefully, of course, since we’re big on the whole issue of offensive free speech. However, there is a larger issue lurking in the background of that emotional story.

Goodstein has the story. It’s the story of a legal war that has been raging among military chaplains as the rising tide of American evangelicalism crashes into the fortress of the oldline Protestant and Catholic establishment in the armed forces. This has been covered, blow by blow, in some of the denominational news services and in mainstream Christian publications.

While the Air Force story hinges on claims that evangelicals are smothering, well, virtually everyone, the legal battle centers on claims by evangelicals that they face discrimination from the oldline world — clergy in collars, in other words.

This is a story packed with land mines, for an oldline newspaper like the Times. It’s clear that one factor in all of this is the negative attitude that the old-line churches have toward the modern military, in the age of Iraq and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The progressive churches are also in a statistical freefall in the pews. The Catholics are growing, but the priesthood is shrinking. All of that affects the chaplains issue.

There are doctrinal issues, too. Evangelicals believe in evangelism and hell. They take both seriously. The modern oldline and Catholic worlds are, in effect, universalist when it comes to salvation. It is easier for clergy on the left to exist and speak their minds in a pluralistic, interfaith military than it is for traditional Christians. Yet the government is not supposed to practice “viewpoint discrimination” on religious speech issues. This is a tough row to hoe on both sides.

Goodstein’s article features articulate, compelling voices from both sides of this debate. There are many sections I could quote. Here are two key passages:

Part of the struggle, chaplains and officials say, is the result of growing diversity. But part is from evangelicals following their church’s teachings to make converts while serving in a military job where they are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers, fliers and sailors of every faith. Evangelical chaplains say they walk a fine line.

Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, said in an interview, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.” The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel.

And, of course, there is the Vietnam factor:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of “American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993,” said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

“Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it,” Ms. Loveland said. “That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals.”

I could go on and on. There are sections of this feature to disturb and provoke readers on both sides. This is what journalism does. I hope this important free-speech story is out in the main pages and will stay there. Goodstein got the story.

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Problem solving

IslamicBritainThe current issue of The Economist has a report on Muslim terrorists titled “The Enemy Within.” It may not be newsy enough for some GetReligion readers, but the analysis is worth the read.

The anonymous author weighs into the home grown vs. foreign debate thus: “In an age of globalized ideologies, globalized communications and porous borders, there is no real distinction between domestic and foreign threats.” The report explains that even if all of the London bombers turn out to be homegrown citizens of the U.K., it is still

clear that the bombers had access to sophisticated explosives, not easily available in suburban Yorkshire; and, more important, that they were influenced by ideas, images and interpretations of Islam that would continue to circulate electronically, even if every extremist who tried to enter Britain were intercepted.

Consequently, the job of terrorist-hunters in the U.K. and the rest of Europe is to “trace how disaffected people from their own tranquil suburbs form connections with ideological mentors, and ultimately terrorist sponsors, who live overseas, and how those godfathers find recruits in western countries.”

The real shocker in the piece — and a claim that is just begging for refutation — is the assertion that not only are the terrorists homegrown, but

To a surprising extent, the onus is on individual zealots (or groups of them) to find mentors. Al-Qaeda does not actively seek recruits for the jihadist cause, partly because that would attract the attention of the security services and partly because, ever since the destruction of its bases in Afghanistan, it has — in the view of well placed British observers — been too loosely organized to recruit systematically.

Rather, from looking at several cases, the author finds a surprising “type” that tends toward terrorism in Western countries:

Frequently, a young Muslim man falls out of mainstream society, becoming alienated both from his parents and from the “stuffy” Islamic culture in which he was brought up. He may become more devout, but the reverse is more likely. He turns to drink, drugs and petty crime before seeing a “solution” to his problems — and the world’s — in radical Islam.

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Who gets to define “occupying forces”?

The Associated Press has producted a solid update on an emerging MSM theme in the wake of the London bombings — the debate inside mainstream Islam over when violence is acceptable and when it is not. A serious uptick in coverage of this issue is crucial, especially for moderate Muslims and others interested in religious liberty.

I’ll keep this short, since correspondent Thomas Wagner’s report about the gathering at London’s largest mosque is wire-service direct and you can read it for yourself. The heart of the whole matter is Israel, of course, but the wording also applies to Iraq. The key: suicide bombings can be used against “occupying forces.” Would this also include Saudi Arabian heretics in Mecca, if the first name of the person making this deadly theological decision is Osama?

“There should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime,” said Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London.

“The media in the West are mixing the difference between these two, and the result is that some of our Muslim youth are becoming more frustrated and they think that both are the same, even though Muslim law forbids killing any innocent lives,” Musawi said.

Once again, please let us know of other stories addressing these issues. I hope, for starters, AP lets Wagner and others stay on the topic.

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Harry Potter — blood and religion?

HalfBloodThe snail mail is extra, extra late today here in West Palm Beach. So late that it may end up being delayed into the regularly scheduled evening summer thunderstorm.

You think the mailperson is carrying any extra weight today? A few copies, perhaps, of the Book That Need Not Be Named? The Mattingly family will hold off on reading it until Monday, as — it’s time to move — we start the long drive to the Baltimore-Washington area. We’ll have the amazing Jim Dale on CD in one car and the family librarian reading in the other car.

No word yet on the religious content of the book from my good (Russian Orthodox homeschooler conservative) friend John Granger, he of Hogwartsprofessor.com and the Barnes & Noble online Harry Potter seminar. No, I have not looked and listened ahead to find out who dies, and the reviewers — who are raving, as a rule — have not let the White Bumblebee out of the bag.

There is, however, a fascinating remark about the faith element at the end of Sandra Martin’s review in the Globe and Mail. This is, you see, a “terror”- and “terrorism”-haunted book, and her lead is blunt: “Call out the grief counsellers.” Concerning J.K. Rowling, Martin writes:

Since then she has remarried (an Edinburgh doctor) and had two more children. She has dedicated The Half Blood Prince to her daughter Mackenzie who was born in January, calling the book her baby’s “ink and paper twin.” That sentimental linkage between creating a book and a baby shines through much of the novel. For all its mayhem and gore, this novel is really about the importance of loving and protecting children and overcoming prejudices based on blood and religion — themes that are both timeless and universal.

Please help us watch for the religion-angle stories and columns. They should hit in the next few days.

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Where are those TPS reports, brother?

BuckheadTowerEvangelical Protestants, it’s sometimes said, are cautious in doctrine but willing to experiment broadly in how they get the message across. That’s always been evident with Willow Creek Community Church, which — as historian Randall Balmer observed in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory — worships in a facility that looks more like a corporate headquarters than a worship space.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley will continue in that anti-traditional tradition when his North Point Ministries builds a new — um, er, worship product facilitation center? — in the upscale Buckhead section of Atlanta. Reporter Walter Woods of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution fills in the details:

But like the ministry’s 83-acre campus in Alpharetta, which looks more like a high school than a worship hall, church leaders wanted a new sanctuary minus the steeple, pipe organ and stained glass.

“We wanted it to look like an office building,” said David McDaniel, director of campus expansion at North Point Ministries. “One, because it’s in an office park.”

More importantly, “having the building look like the office a typical [person] would enter five days a week is right in line with what we’re trying to do,” he said, adding that’s making people feel more at ease about church.

OK, my journalist’s curiosity is killing me: What word did McDaniel use rather than person?

Back to the narrative:

Stanley delivers his messages in khakis and golf shirts. His opening act is a live band jamming Christian rock music. The laid-back elements, like the architecture, are designed to put people at ease, McDaniel said.

Many people expect to be uncomfortable during Sunday services — they don’t know when to sing, when to kneel, they don’t know the rules — particularly those who haven’t been in a while, McDaniel said.

“We’ve tried to remove any obstacle, whether it be tradition or whatever, from the experience,” he said. “We present Jesus Christ and the New and Old Testament as written but with no other obstacles in the way.”

The music is “like what you’d hear on the radio,” McDaniel said. “You don’t have pipe organ music in your CDs. Why would you subject people to that on Sunday?”

In an age when the exteriors of community centers and banks aspire to the same grand statements that churches once used, there’s a certain symmetry in having churches look like those soulless buildings straight out of Office Space.

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L.A. review of the Book that Need Not Be Named

OK, OK, but for about half of America — for competing reasons — this is a religion news story. Here is the early Los Angeles Times review — by Emily Green — of you know what. Everyone keep their eyes open for religion-angle stories tomorrow and Sunday.

At the end of the book she says she was crying — big time.

Oh, and here is the official BBC blog for reviewers. Does the book contain any terrorists?

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GOP, churches, corporations, courts

One of the ongoing themes here at GetReligion is that it is hard to jam the MSM into either a pure liberal or pure conservative camp. Here’s a sample of that from a few weeks ago. Instead of old-fashioned left and right, what the media research finds is a consistent pattern of libertarianism on moral and social issues. Thus, the constant tension between the MSM and traditional religious believers.

This divide exists — big time — inside the Republican Party, more so than among Democrats. The heart of the modern Democratic Party is the sexual revolution. That’s where you find the issues on which the party cannot compromise and, thus, we see that pattern in the MSM.

Now, the yin-yang Republicans can compromise on all kinds of things and this often shows up in news reports (often when someone like James Dobson threatens to walk out). But the GOP knows that the religious traditionalists have no place to go, sort of like the labor people in the Democratic Party. So a George W. Bush can court the country club at the same time as the traditional sanctuary.

For a great example of this, see the current Newsweek article on the teams working behind the scene at the Supreme Court war. You think the following paragraph from the Howard Fineman and Holly Bailey essay isn’t being handed around in Colorado Springs? You think the Dobson squad isn’t worried about the likes of Ed Gillespie?

Keeping Republicans and their conservative kin together won’t be easy. For the first time in a nomination fight, corporate lobbyists are determined to play a leading public role. They are concerned that an obsessive focus on abortion and gay marriage will jeopardize what they regard as a once-in-a-generation chance to unshackle commerce from the grip of federal regulators. To hold their hands, they have not only Gillespie—whose lobbying firm maintains a roster of big-business clients—but former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the actor-lawyer-lobbyist, who signed on as the “sherpa” who will walk at least one Bush nominee through the confirmation process (think Virgil in Dante’s “Inferno”).

I think the word “obsessive” sort of jumps out, don’t you think?

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Is a flock of 200 big or small?

The staggeringly in-depth conservative Anglican website TitusOneNine has an interesting take by a reader named Karen B. dissecting a New York Times report about the escalating Episcopal Church warfare in Connecticut.

To read the original Stacey Stowe news story, click here. To dig into Karen B.’s critique, click here.

As always, this wrestling match is linked to the Bible and sex outside of marriage. However, Karen is interested in how newspapers can actually bias a story with a highly nuanced, or uninformed, use of statistics.

Here is the Stowe paragraph that sent Karen to the web for some interesting research and statistics.

The Vassar College Episcopal chaplain, the Rev. Susan McCone, is now the priest in charge of St. John’s, a church with fewer than 200 members. A retired priest from western Massachusetts has been leading Sunday services. . . .

Seems innocent enough. But wait: What is the percentage of Episcopal parishes that average fewer than 80 to 100 in worship?

Read it all.

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