The other cheek, not turned

So a man repeatedly beat his three-year-old son and shoved him into a box, which induced shaking, vomiting, and, eventually a coma. The boy died this January. The father is claiming that he beat the hell out of the kid in order to keep his son from becoming a “sissy” or going gay.

All of these facts I learned from this article by a reporter for PlanetOut, a repository of “gay and lesbian news.” The report explains that the father is attempting the “gay panic” defense. A spokesman for Equality Florida also explains that it isn’t likely to work, because “Juries in even the most conservative states reject gay panic as a defense for murder.”

Having read the same report that I did, Andrew Sullivan had the following comment:

“He didn’t want him to be a sissy,” Shelton Bostic, the defendant’s Bible-study friend, testified. Yep: the guy was in Bible study. And this is what he learned.

The urge to resort to invective is nearly overwhelming, but let me make a few points:

1) Interesting that juries in even the most conservative states — on which one would assume conservative Christians have a greater representation than elsewhere — are not likely to cut the father some slack. Why would that be? [Hint: it has to do with millstones -- ed.]

2) Sure, the man’s religous formation may have had something to do with the violence he visited on his son, but it might not have. We don’t have enough information from this report to make a determination one way or the other.

3) The fact that Andrew Sullivan is so prone to make these sorts of leaps — not as occasional lapses or mistakes but as as a matter of course — has led an awful lot of people to take him less seriously.

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Memo from Planet Hollywood

JohanssonA film featuring exploding vehicles, men with rippling biceps, lots of gunfire, women of the big bosom — it must be the latest work of Michael Bay film, or a project aimed at “giving succor to the religious right.”

Come again?

Bay’s latest film, The Island, raises questions about cloning, you see, and it engages in the shallow character development that one critic concludes only a right-wing True Believer could applaud. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter explains:

For a while, the dystopian story about human cloning by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci seems more likely to inspire viewer games of Spot the Movie Clone as the filmmakers shuffle through any number of old science-fiction movies for plot points and design ideas. These range from “Coma” to “Logan’s Run.” Since human cloning itself has become such a hot-button topic, the film feels contemporary. Even Kazuo Ishiguro’s recently published novel, “Never Let Me Go,” deals with a similar story minus, of course, the chases.

What’s troubling from a political point of view is that these filmmakers have, perhaps unwittingly, delivered a film certain to give succor to the religious right. In this ethical horror story, scientists experimenting with human genetics to advance medicine and cure illness are cast as Dr. Frankenstein villains. The chief villain, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), mouths platitudes about curing leukemia but clearly has greed in his heart.

Claudia Parsons of Reuters used the review as the seed for a reasonably informative feature story:

Several of the actors in the film also said they did not see it as a cautionary tale against research.

“I certainly hope we don’t get to the point that we’re cloning whole human beings and harvesting them for body parts but I do believe that stem cell research should be funded and supported and continued,” said [Steve] Buscemi.

“I hope no one would use this film to make the case against stem cell research,” he said. “Of course the technology is probably there. If we can clone an animal we can probably clone a human being,” he added. “Should we? No. But that doesn’t mean we should stop research in trying to cure diseases.”

Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communications at New York’s Fordham University, said historically movie audiences had proved their ability to discern fact from fiction.

“These kind of movies serve a very important public service, which is getting these issues before the public in a vivid and dramatic way,” said Levinson, author of five sci-fi novels. “It’s better than another movie about a cartoon fish that isn’t contributing anything to the intellectual debate.”

British actor Sean Bean’s character provides the most complex insights on the issue. He plays the director of the institute who pioneers the technology for birthing adult human clones, or “products” in the terminology of the movie.

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Catching up on that little court story

Mercy! What a 48 hours or so to disappear into the zoo of I-95 while listening to the latest Harry Potter novel. It seems that I have missed a minor development up here in the greater Washington area.

My work on the blog will be spotty in the days ahead. Verizon will not have the just-moved Mattingly family’s DSL up and running for a week or so. At least that is what the computerized Ms. Darth Vader said in the company’s hellish automated service system. My fair wife was switched around and cut off three times. Also, I don’t start work on the Hill at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities until August 1. My Scripps Howard News Service column this a.m. — the second of two columns (here’s the first) on the mini-media storm involving The New York Times, the popes and evolution — should have opened with this credit line: “Today’s column is brought to you with the assistance of Panera Bread.” Try the Cobblestone.

Anyway, it seems that Newsweek may have nailed the heart of the Supreme Court story this past week. Check here for a refresher. The big idea was that the country-club side of the GOP was worried 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.”

So, crucial to the success of the John Roberts nomination is the media spin that the libertarian side of the yin-yang GOP is happy and that the Religious Right is not too happy. But who is actually happy? How would we know? Who will find out if this guy ever sits in a pew?

Of course, in the age of the blogosphere, the quickest way to catch up on this drama within the drama is to turn to media-hot blogs on both sides. For starters, you turn — naturally — to Andrew Sullivan. Here is a link near the start of his blitz into fretting and praise, as he relaxes for a few months and then rides more tense emails and then repeats the cycle. The bottom line is that if Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and other cultural conservatives believe they have reason to worry, then there is reason for the Lifestyle Left to hope. More than ever, Sullivan is a must read for the next few weeks (and you know the elite reporters are reading him).

Meanwhile, the blog crew at Christianity Today already has a link-happy report online about religion-turf reactions. Enquiring minds want to know, of course, what the human warning siren on the Religious Right thought of the nomination. Here is a piece of Collin Hansen’s report:

The question of judicial philosophy is central because Roberts did not deliver an opinion on the D.C. court about abortion, religious symbolism, gay rights, or many other contentious social issues. For these reasons, Roberts may avoid the combative confirmation process that so many groups have been predicting and promising since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement July 1. However, this same fact renders him somewhat mysterious, even for supporters.

“To my knowledge Judge Roberts has never talked about abortion and he certainly has no rulings about it, so we don’t know what his private views are,” said James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. “But we do know that he is what Justice Scalia called an ‘originalist,’ who will interpret the Constitution as written, not dream up his decisions based on some preconceived ideology.”

Ah! But is the good doctor bluffing? Who consulted who? Who winked and who nodded?

I hope the good people here at Panera Bread in Glen Burnie will let me come back in the days ahead and find out.

P.S. Can you believe The New York Times didn’t use “beam me up” in this obituary headline? Others could not resist. Ah, that British culture.

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All over but the shoutin’

LadyJusticeFrom the non-apocalyptic front in Supreme Court news, Ronald Brownstein writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

In effect, Roberts may represent an effort to thread the needle in filling the court vacancy. The selection could offer Bush an opportunity to maximize his chance of a relatively smooth confirmation while minimizing the danger of either conservative disaffection or scorched-earth Democratic opposition.

As a former clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a legal official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and a reliably conservative voice on the bench, Roberts is well-respected in Republican circles.

Conservative activists welcomed the nominee more enthusiastically than they would have Edith Brown Clement, the justice from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals who, for part of Tuesday, was Bush’s rumored pick.

Roberts also has drawn high marks from experts in both parties for his qualifications, and may present a limited target for Democrats because he has written few decisions in his two years as a federal judge.

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic drills down to one religion angle in this nomination:

Finally, Bush did not slavishly reward his base of evangelical conservatives. Conservatives are describing Roberts as a “bold” choice. He is clearly not. Bush’s trademark, especially when it comes to his most high-profile personnel decisions, is to select hard-right nominees that spark polarizing debates and send Democrats into a spitting rage. He has done that with Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, John Bolton, and many of his lower court nominees. Considering the importance of the high court to his most rabid supporters, there was every reason to believe Bush would choose a more ideological conservative than Roberts. The more brass knuckles and base-pleasing Judge Michael Luttig apparently made it to the end of the sweepstakes, but was passed over for the more moderate, more even-tempered, and more easily confirmable Roberts. After 15 years of crying “No more Souters,” the religious right has been presented with someone whose views on many social issues are as mysterious to them as their judicial bête noir’s were in 1990.

. . . The only similar big decision this recalls is Bush’s needle-threading announcement on stem cells back in August 2001 when his political fortunes were sagging and moderate voices in the White House steered him towards a compromise position. As in that case, Bush seems to be getting everything he wants. He is nudging the Supreme Court to the right. He has a good chance of getting a smooth conformation process. He seems to have satisfied his evangelical base. He may even win some political capital to spend on the rest of his agenda. Maybe Bush will even learn that sometimes the politics of conciliation pay more dividends than the politics of confrontation. If so, then this would truly be a historic choice.

Photo credit: Justin T. Johnson, Washington.

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The Robert Bork hearings were easy

Here’s a story about the nomination of Judge John Roberts.

And here is the text of Roberts’ smile-for-the-cameras remarks.

Three things:

1) Never let it be said that George W. Bush is one to back down from a fight.

2) There will be a fight.

3) And this nomination goes to show that, in William Goldman’s words, “Nobody knows nothin’.” Who predicted the Roberts pick? I did a fair bit of reading leading up to this nomination and never once ran across his name.

And to all a good night.

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Sight and sound with Pete Seeger

PeteSeeger2Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News offered an amazing package about Pete Seeger on Saturday and Sunday, including a Q&A about his nominal Unitarianism, another Q&A on his standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and his life as a happy lefty; and still another brief feature on his strawberry shortcake recipe.

Better still, a DallasNews.com/extra sidebar offers several MP3s in which Seeger, 86, performs at the Beacon Sloop Club’s Strawberry Shortcake Festival, voices his disapproval of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and offers his advice for reforming the U.N. This package is a good example of how reporters can combine writing and sound without pandering.

Two segments are especially striking. First is the pleasant surprise of Seeger’s respect for two staples of modern evangelical music-making — projecting lyrics onto a wall, and repeating lyrics over and over and over:

Question: Other than performing, what message did you have for the Unitarian Universalist convention in Fort Worth?

Answer: The point I wanted to make to Unitarians is, too often you ask your congregations to sing, and they’re supposed to open the hymnbook and turn to page such-and-such. With their noses buried in their hymnbook, they aren’t really singing. They’re kind of mumbling. I want them to start doing what some evangelical churches do — they project the words on the wall and everybody has their face up and they’re singing out!

Also I’ve tried to persuade them to have songs with more repetition. This is the great thing about spirituals and gospel songs. More repetition.

And in these paragraphs, Seeger reflects on communism and moral equivalence:

Question: How did you become a communist?

Answer: I joined the Young Communist league in 1937 in college — because Hitler was helping Franco take over Spain. And [Maxim] Litvinov stood up in the League of Nations — he was the Soviet representative in the League of Nations — and said all aggressors should be quarantined, that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia and Hitler and Franco and so on. Well, they just laughed.

Question: But didn’t Stalin turn out to be one of the worst despots of the 20th century?

Answer: Well, when it comes to big ones. But there’s bad ones all over. And, you know, for 50 years, the United States has helped control the politics of Latin America. And they have the School of the Americas, they call it, in Fort Benning, Ga. Training military — Latin American military men — how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.

Question: But the U.S.S.R. really was an enemy of the U.S.A., yes?

Answer: Not necessarily. The communists claimed, I won’t say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution. It wasn’t Soviet soldiers helping Mao Zedong take over China. They could applaud them and perhaps even help them. But they didn’t likewise in Vietnam or Cuba.

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How about Atheists for Christ?

The Los Angeles Times today has a flawed but interesting piece on how atheists are coping with an increasingly red America. According to reporter Gina Piccalo, atheists are feeling besieged by the forces of faith and trying to organize politically. So far the results have been lackluster:

The first godless march on Washington drew thousands in fall 2002, and a few months later the Godless Americans Political Action Committee was formed. This year, an Inauguration Summit of 22 like-minded groups was held in Washington to stimulate cooperation days before Bush’s swearing in. And this Veterans Day, so-called foxhole atheists (servicemen and women who are nonbelievers) will be honored in the capital.

If all goes as planned, says Ellen Johnson, longtime president of American Atheists, at least one presidential candidate will be courting their vote in 2008.

“We can’t complain about what the religious do,” she says. “All we have to do is copy their strategy.”

One thing I hold against this report. All claims of “hate mail” are treated uncritically. I know something about protest letters and hate mail, and I think that people who claim that they’ve received a bunch of the latter should have to furnish evidence.

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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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