What’s really the matter with Kansas?

WizardAndCurtainThere may be no news whatsoever from this bizarre tip. But can you afford to take that chance?

Are you editors demanding a new, creative religion angle on the Sixth Coming of Harry Potter? Are you tired of chasing evangelicals who are still worried about the occult and elitists who have tired of this family friendly, populist entertainment fad?

What if the real story of the moral decline in Western Civilization could be found elsewhere?

Yes, Catholic uber-blogger Amy Welborn at Open Book is on the case. The shattering question on her mind: “Can we talk about The Wizard of Oz?” Pay no attention to that not-so-powerful man behind the curtain.

I’m sure you’ve thought about this too — no all-powerful Wizard, just a little man behind the curtain, tricking everyone. No need to really have anything real within — just believe that you have a brain, a heart and courage, and take on the external signs, and you’re there, baby.

Does Focus on the Family know about this?

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CT: Is Gonzales pro-life? Says who?

ag gonzales mediumOur goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to focus on MSM coverage of religion news. But we also want to point journalists toward helpful online materials at sites such as Poynter, Beliefnet, ReligionLink and elsewhere.

In that vein, let me point toward a very interesting essay that just hit the Christianity Today weblog, written by the omnipresent Ted Olsen. Clearly, evangelicals are at the heart of the behind-the-scenes wars over the Supreme Court and, thus, it matters what they think of the leading candidates. Thus, Olsen’s headline: “Is Gonzales Pro-Life? Does it Matter?” In addition to source-material links, there’s a ton of reporting in this essay. Here is a key section:

Religious conservatives have to be very careful, too. Opposing Gonzales merely because his views on abortion are unknown could seem capricious or hypocritical, especially if you’ve been critical of “judicial activists” making decisions on personal bias. (The judicial campaign of Family Research Council, which opposes a Gonzales nomination, is so far centered on making sure a Supreme Court nominee doesn’t have to declare his or her views on abortion.)

But National Review‘s Edward Whelan suggests another reason Gonzales would be bad for conservatives — he would have to recuse himself from several cases, probably including the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (A Gonzales recusal in that case would almost certainly ensure an invalidation of the ban, Whelan notes.) He may even have to recuse himself “from virtually all the cases of greatest importance to the administration.” That would include the Patriot Act, too, something Bush probably cares more about than the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (And something on which Christians are quite divided, by the way.)

This gives pro-lifers an opening without compromising their commitments. They don’t have to fight Bush on Gonzales on the abortion front; they can claim to protect Bush from Gonzales, or at least from the legal implications of appointing any attorney general to the bench. Such a shift from ideology to strategy would shift the nomination debate significantly.

P.S. By the way, amid the usual 1,000 or so links in this edition of the CT weblog, music fans will want to check out the little blurb about Liam Gallagher of Oasis being ticked off at Bono because the U2 singer won’t quit trying to covert him to traditional Christianity. Some versions of this story floating around contain another reference to Bono being a Roman Catholic.

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Visiting the ghosts of Srebrenica

mitrovicav2When is a Serb a Serb and when is a Serb an Orthodox Christian? When is a Serb a practicing Orthodox Christian?

When is a Bosnian a Bosnian and when is a Bosnian a Bosnian Muslim? When is a Bosnian Muslim a practicing Bosnian Muslim or even an Islamist Bosnian Muslim?

These are the kinds of issues that journalists faced when covering the horrors of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, quite frankly, few reporters were up to the challenge. Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin — marking the 10-year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre — ventured back into this journalistic minefield in a new report that bravely attempts to remind readers just how complex this region was and is.

As an Orthodox Christian, I can be accused of reading the story with an agenda. So be it. I am very aware that journalists during the fighting there had a tendency to say that all Serbians were Orthodox. Meanwhile, on the ground, leaders of the Serbian Orthdox Church were often attacked by the same Serbian government thugs loyal to Slobodan Milosevic — neo-Communist criminals who hated believers of all stripes — who proudly massacred Muslims and Catholics. Here is a Scripps Howard column I wrote back in 1999 trying to sort some of that out. It’s complex stuff.

And so is the territory that Rubin is trying to map. Clearly, this region is still haunted and almost all of the ghosts are religious, to one degree or another. The various religious groups live in a tense standoff, living their own lives in a divided land. The divisions are increasing with the passage of time, not healing.

Of course, “healing” is defined in this article as religious people compromising and erasing the lines between their faiths. “Progress” equals a loss of religious tradition. But this does not seem to be happening. Strong forms of faith tend to stay strong and gain strength.

Here is a sample, describing life among Bosnian Muslims:

Although Muslims, Serbs and Croats sometimes live side by side in the big cities or in neighboring hamlets in the countryside, they say they live in different worlds. The inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages that were commonplace in the big cities before the war have almost entirely disappeared.

Muslims have developed “a consciousness of their identity as a nation and an awareness of their religion,” said liberal columnist Gojko Beric, a Bosnian Serb who lives in a mixed neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Muslim-majority capital. Before the war, most Bosnian Muslims, especially those in Sarajevo, rarely attended prayers except for the most holy days of the year and had friends from different groups. Few women wore head scarves.

Today, the Muslim call to prayer sounds from mosque loudspeakers five times a day — a reminder that the largest group in the country follows a different religion from that of the minority Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, and Croats, who are Catholic.

Let me make one other comment. For Orthodox Christians, the bloody land of Kosovo has been described as the “Jerusalem of Serbia,” with 1,300 churches, monasteries and holy sites. Many of those are now in ruins, and the destruction goes on and on. There is no hint of that.

Again, I know that I am biased. I also know that Rubin could not deal with all of the wounds, all of the horrors. I also know — because I have tried to cover some of these stories — that the radical Muslims often burn the shrines of the believing Christians, just as the secular Serbs once massacred the families of Muslim believers. It is hard to keep the players straight in this kind of deadly game.

UPDATE: Well now. It appears that it is also possible to cover this story and pretty much ignore the religious complexity altogether. Check out this shallow New York Times report. Maybe the copy desk simply gutted the reporter’s work and this is what we were left with.

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Now carrying the NPR imprimatur!

YoungAndChoirFor a few decades now, John Lennon’s “Imagine” has served as a secularist hymn. From the end of The Killing Fields to the post-9/11 America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast, “Imagine” has been there to tell us that the world could be so much more pleasant if only everyone were inclusive enough to set aside what they believe about God, the afterlife and other trivial matters.

Neil Young played “Imagine” on America: A Tribute to Heroes, and now he’s written a song that could join it in the pantheon of believer-bashing hymns.

Young performed his new song during the Live 8 concert in Toronto on July 2. Weekend Edition Saturday played the song again because, well, let anchor Scott Simon explain it: “One week ago today, at the Live 8 concert in Ontario, Neil Young presented a new song, ‘When God Made Me.’ It was his first performance since suffering a brain aneurysm last spring, and after the events of this week, it seems worth another listen.”

“When God Made Me,” like “Imagine,” is set to a simple and haunting melody played on a piano. Young’s lyrics also are simple — concise but saying a lot, posing questions that also function as accusations. Here’s one stanza:

Was he planning only for believers
Or for those who just have faith?
Did he envision all the wars
That were fought in his name?
Did he say there was only one way
To be close to him?
When God made me
When God made me

If that isn’t enough moral authority for you, the Fisk University Jubilee Choir provided vocal backup and the legendary Spooner Oldham (who played on Bob Dylan’s Saved) offered a brief Hammond B3 solo.

The complete lyrics, and a glowing review of Young’s performance, are available at the Neil Young News blog. You can see a video of Young and the choir performing the song on AOL Music’s comprehensive Live 8 site (here’s the Toronto page, which also includes the lighthearted “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies).

You’ll likely hear “When God Made Me” many times in the coming decades, especially at elementary schools’ winter holiday festivals and weddings that favor vows custom-written by the bride and groom. Enjoy.

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The Times and the Whitehall dossier

The Times has a sobering story about the number of potential Al-Qaeda sympathisers that might be found among British Muslims or other Muslims who now live permanently in Great Britain. This ties into our discussions of “moderate” Islam, radical forms of Islam and the double-edged sword of assimilation in the West.

Here is the challenge to the press. One one side, journalists can demonize Muslims as some kind of unified threat. On the other side, journalists can made a leap of faith and assume that the “moderate” or even “reform” elements within Islam now represent the majority point of view. This approach leads to waves of stories quoting Islamic leaders repeating the “religion of peace” mantra and very little coverage of the complex, and often disturbing, points of view found elsewhere.

Time after time, I have heard journalists say — accurately — that Islam is not a monolith. The problem is that they then turn around and argue that it will only fan flames of prejudice if American newsrooms dare to do in-depth coverage of radical Islamic influences within local communities. Islam is complex and contains a multitude of voices, but we can only cover one set of voices? That is progress?

In this context, the Times report by Robert Winnett and David Leppard can be seen as somewhat brave. Some will, surely, call it “conservative,” whatever that means in this context. Here is the lead:

Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. A network of “extremist recruiters” is circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees.

The key in this Whitehall document — the ghost even — is contained in its description of the environments that are yielding radical Islamists who might be willing to take part in terror campaigns.

The bottom line: This is not a matter of finding angry young men on the bad, or even oppressed, side of town.

So how big is this dangerous minority within British Islam? The document

. . . (Paints) a chilling picture of the scale of the task in tackling terrorism. Drawing on information from MI5, it concludes: “Intelligence indicates that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than 1%.” This equates to fewer than 16,000 potential terrorists and supporters out of a Muslim population of almost 1.6m.

The dossier also estimates that 10,000 have attended extremist conferences. The security services believe that the number who are prepared to commit terrorist attacks may run into hundreds. Most of the Al-Qaeda recruits tend to be loners “attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion” because of “disillusionment with their current existence”. British-based terrorists are made up of different ethnic groups, according to the documents.

“They range from foreign nationals now naturalised and resident in the UK, arriving mainly from north Africa and the Middle East, to second and third generation British citizens whose forebears mainly originate from Pakistan or Kashmir. In addition . . . a significant number come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or (are) only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction.”

Are similar recruiting patterns forming in the United States? What is happening out it, let’s say, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando and elsewhere? If reporters argued in favor of investigating these issues in the American heartland, would they be accused of bias? Of promoting hate and prejudice?

The goal is to find and accurately quote a wide variety of Muslim voices, trying to find out (a) who represents the majority point of view and (b) who is quietly recruiting Muslims to a more radical point of view. Is this journalistic task possible?

We need to watch the Times for follow-up stories.

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Judge dread

Readers of GetReligion are not allowed to enjoy this paragraph. Don’t even think about it:

TV news crews and an Associated Press photographer waited in pelting rain for three hours Friday morning for [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist to emerge from his suburban Virginia town house. He eventually did, wishing reporters a good morning. When asked about retirement rumors, he answered, “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” before getting into a waiting car.

It’s from Gina Holland’s excellent AP story on Supreme Court retirement rumors currently swirling around that cauldron of gossip and innuendo called Washington, D.C.

Holland does a good job of showing both the pack mentality of journalists and the massive uncertainty that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor created when she announced her retirement. Right now, anything seems possible, and my fellow ink- (and pixel-) stained toilers don’t want to be the second to know:

The press room at the Supreme Court was filled, a rarity during a time when the court is not in session. And the rumors flew.

E-mails to reporters from various groups speculated when Rehnquist would make an announcement and also speculated about other possibilities.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 85 and healthy, may be going, the speculation went. Stevens is the court’s liberal leader and would seem an unlikely prospect with a Republican in the White House and GOP-controlled Senate.

He also has already started hiring law clerks to work for him in 2006-07. That could be a sign that he’s sticking around for a while. Or that he’s sneaky and wants to keep reporters off his trail. [If so, there are going to be some pissed off Yale law students in the fall -- ed.]

Next came hints that the real retirement would be that of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the petite opera lover President Bill Clinton put on the bench in 1993.

The one bit of speculation that Holland didn’t sneak into the piece is that the chief justice delayed the announcement of his retirement in deference to the recent ugliness in London. He might have considered it in poor form to announce his departure so soon after the president got caught in the middle of another terror dustup while in Scotland.

Whatever the case, there’s a sense in this city that we’re in for it: multiple confirmations; vitriolic arguments about abortion; charges of dishonesty and cronyism; charges of a coup d’état by liberals; rent garments over potential betrayal by conservatives; and generally lots and lots of speechifying.

It’s likely to start off nasty and get worse as Bush’s second term drags on. The press has had this unfortunate tendency to reduce the issue of judges to arguments about abortion and school prayer, but the disgust with the court by people loosely grouped together under the banner of the political right is fairly ecumenical and far-reaching.

For instance, a source in New Hampshire tells me there is reason to be optimistic that efforts to bulldoze Justice David Souter’s mum’s house over the Kelo ruling stand at least a fighting chance. If the home wreckers succeed, would Souter retire early or cling on to the bitter end? There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this in D.C. because news that some locals were trying to bring it to a vote was, roughly speaking, laughed out of polite society.

But politeness only goes so far. Many of the justices are getting long in the tooth, and the time for speculation is now. Will John Paul Stevens be able to make it to the end of Bush’s second term? Will Ginsburg? Will Bush make good on his deal with the right to reshape the court along more rigorous originalist lines? And will we have a fistfight on the floor of the Senate before this is all over?

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“The Way We Were”

thelasthole largeSometimes you just have to let art wash over you.

I don’t know what to add to this Associated Press story (hat tip to Rod FOTB Dreher), except to say that we Baby Boomers are not going to go into middle age and beyond quietly. Is this a Godbeat story? Trends in Baby Boomer entertainment rituals? The liturgy of the media?

So here we go. This is the whole report.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Henry Smith was a zealous Pittsburgh Steelers fan in life, and even death could not keep him from his favorite spot: in a recliner, in front of a TV showing his beloved team in action. Smith, 55, of Pittsburgh, died of prostate cancer Thursday. Because his death wasn’t unexpected, his family was able to plan for an unusual viewing Tuesday night.

The Samuel E. Coston Funeral Home erected a small stage in a viewing room, and arranged furniture on it much as it was in Smith’s home on game day Sundays. Smith’s body was on the recliner, his feet crossed and a remote in his hand. He wore black and gold silk pajamas, slippers and a robe. A pack of cigarettes and a beer were at his side, while a high-definition TV played a continuous loop of Steelers highlights.

“I couldn’t stop crying after looking at the Steeler blanket in his lap,” said his sister, MaryAnn Nails, 58. “He loved football and nobody did (anything) until the game went off. It was just like he was at home.”

Longtime friend Mary Jones called the viewing “a celebration.”

“I saw it and I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “People will see him the way he was.”

Smith’s burial plans were more traditional — he’ll be laid to rest in a casket.

Ah, a casket you say? But what kind of casket?

There might be a story there as well, as I discovered a few years ago at one of the stranger events I have ever tried to sneak into religion pages from coast to coast. Enjoy!

Anyone strolling through last year’s National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven.

The Baltimore exhibits included “fairway to heaven” caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

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The woodpecker must die!

That was the caption that got morning radio hosts Corey Deitz and Jay Hamilton suspended from the “Corey and Jay Show” in Little Rock, Arkansas. The pair had posted a cartoon on the show’s website. This AP story strongly hints that Clear Channel Communications, owner of the hosts’ station, did not take kindly to the gesture. They were kicked off the air for one day, which led National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz to ask, “Is nature our new religion, then? Or, to put the question in a slightly different way, can a woodpecker be the victim of hate speech?”

Yeah, yeah, I know, what some GetReligion readers must be thinking right now: There go those wacky conservatives — turning over rocks in search of Gaia worship. OK but consider two things:

1) The hosts have a record of actually being kind to some animals (go to the website to read of their participation in the recent “Eat a Dog — Save a Dog” fundraiser for the local Humane Society).

2) The local news has gone absolutely nutso over the April sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which had been thought extinct. Take a look at this story archive for KATV Channel 7. It’s become an animal obsession of Ron Burgundyesqe proportions.

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