Progress via a Muslim Spong?

Driving back from the North Carolina mountains tonight, I heard an amazing commentary on NPR that fits into our discussion of the MSM’s heated search for a “moderate” version of Islam that it can hold up as some kind of majority viewpoint. This is part of the whole template that there are “fundamentalists” in all faiths who are equally dangerous in their often violent quest for the illusion of certainty and moral absolutes and then there are “moderates” who, if they all had their way, would all get along as they search for the Eternal Other.

Here is the NPR link for those who want to hear the commentary and the brief summary:

July 8, 2005 — Commentator Irshad Manji, who is a practicing Muslim, would like Muslims around the world to publicly reject some of the violent messages that she says are inherent in the Koran.

There’s a lot of valid content in this piece, and let me stress that I am not suggesting, for a moment, that moderate Islamic voices are unimportant or that they should be marginalized. No way. I am saying that the press, at the moment, needs to be covering the who, what, when, where, why and how of how most Muslims are responding to the events in London.

Manji is, in a way, calling for the same thing. In particular she urges mainstream Muslims to take a tough look at the actual contents of the Koran and, in particular, how it is being parsed and preached by those who approve of violence against Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, etc.

So far, so good. Then she suggests it is time for all religious leaders to be equally honest in dealing with their own scriptures and histories. So far, so good. Then she holds up, as the model for these exchanges, the work of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark. This is where the train comes off the tracks.

The last thing in the world we need right now is for Western leaders — religious or political — to find and promote the views of some Islamic version of Spong, someone who is no longer even a theist. You want a clash of civilizations? Let the mainstream Muslim world see America praising the work of those who do to Islam what Spong does to Christian faith. Heaven forbid. Here, for example, is a link to Spong’s 12 Theses for the new reformation of Christianity. Here’s the first half of the list.

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

Come to think of it, mainstream Muslims have a higher view of Christianity than Spong.

I realize this was a commentary, not an NPR news piece. But I still think its contents reflect the worldview of many in the MSM. Check it out.

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For the love of God, place a period

BurnsAndAllenKevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service does a brilliant job this week of contrasting the United Church of Christ’s “God is Still Speaking” ad blitz with its historic image:

The glitzy “God is Still Speaking” ad campaign by the United Church of Christ features a giant black comma with a quote from comedian Gracie Allen — “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Some conservatives, however, worry that a punctuation mark has pushed aside the UCC’s traditional logo — with its prominent cross and crown of Jesus Christ — and with it, the church’s Christian identity.

As UCC delegates gathered in Atlanta last weekend (July 1-5) for the church’s General Synod meeting, they considered a resolution to reassert the UCC’s 1957 “Cross Triumphant” logo as the “central symbol” for its 1.3 million members.

Eckstrom teases out that clash of images by interviewing the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, leader of the UCC reform group called Biblical Witness Fellowship, and Diana Butler Bass of Virginia Theological Seminary, who’s leading The Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a two-year study of vital mainline churches.

One angle that does not become explicit in Eckstrom’s story is the larger theological debate embodied by the comma versus cross debate: Is there a continuing revelation that contradicts what churches have historically held is God’s definitive self-revelation in Scripture?

Just where this could lead, both theologically and grammatically, is evident in a column (16-page PDF; see p. 2) by Herb Gunn, editor of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s newspaper, The Record:

The idea that God’s message is not finished yet but the real risk is that Christians have stopped listening is the strongest reason I can give for why I was drawn into the Episcopal Church from the Church of my youth, Presbyterian.

The UCC advertisement touches on precisely what I value in a church community and the “comma campaign” is . . . well, a stroke of genius. Not only does the comma suggest more is coming, but move it around.

God is still, speaking
God is, still speaking
God, is still speaking

If the UCC campaign continues attracting this kind of cutting-edge thinking, perhaps The Wittenburg Door might consider choosing Gracie Allen as its first posthumous Theologian of the Year.

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An attack by Islam on Islam?

I understand the tension caused by young Master Jeremy’s hell wish. Christian believers should, of course, pray for evangelism, debate, repentance, conversion and dangerous stuff like that. Free speech, even.

But all of that’s out of line these days. It probably is safer to simply say “to hell with it.”

My initial reaction, hearing about the news this a.m. in the remote mountains of North Carolina, was a moment of relief that the attack was so conventional. The worst technology used was cell telephones. No nerve gas. No small but terrifying amount of radioactive material.

It’s been a long time since the Tube in London had conventional garbage cans. London is not a city that will be shut down long by a few bombs. London has seen its share of bombs, with all kinds of labels on them.

I do wonder how this will affect the European Union talks and, of course, the larger issue of Islam and European culture. That is, of course, what the debate will be about. Why? Because the people most at risk in Europe (other than Jews, of course) are moderate Muslims who have shown evidence that they want to live in a society where you can rally around concepts such as, well, religious liberty and the Bill of Rights.

This is a battle inside of Islam, and journalists have to make sure that they do not automatically assume that all of our friendly sources — those moderate Islamic voices linked to academia in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere — represent the majority of the Islamic world. The reality is more complex than that. It is time to find the truly dangerous Muslim voices in the West and put them on the record, in part as a way of contrasting them with the endangered world of moderate Islam.

Andrew Sullivan has a link up to the site of British writer Johann Hari, best known for his work in the Independent and the major gay publication called Attitude. Here is the crunch of his concerns, which includes some interesting inside London information about the bombings themselves:

In the scarred miles between each explosion — walking from Moorgate to Liverpool Street down to King’s Cross — you could see several fights taking shape yesterday that will grip us for years. The fight against Islamic fundamentalism became clearer. Anybody who tells you these bombers are fighting for the rights of Muslims in Iraq, occupied Palestine or Chechnya should look at the places they chose to bomb. Aldgate? The poorest and most Muslim part of the country. Edgware Road? The centre of Muslim and Arab life in London and, arguably, Europe.

Does anybody need greater evidence that these Islamic fundamentalists despise Muslims who choose to live in free societies, and they would enslave Muslims everywhere if they were given the opportunity? Nor is this tit-for-tat revenge for deaths in Iraq: very similar jihadist plots have been foiled in France and Germany, countries that opposed the invasion. Anybody who doubted that the fight against Islamic fundamentalism — a murderous totalitarian ideology — was always our fight should know better now.

But another fight began yesterday: to defend our civil liberties — and especially those of the decent, democratic Muslim majority — in an age of terror. I headed for the East London Mosque — a few minutes’ walk away from the bomb in Aldgate — to watch afternoon prayers. Chairman Mohammed Bari said, “Only yesterday, we celebrated getting the Olympics for our city and our country. But a terrible thing happened in our country this morning . . . Whoever has done this is a friend of no-one and certainly not a friend of Muslims. The whole world will be watching us now. We must give a message of peace.” Everybody in attendance agreed; many headed off to the Royal London Hospital to give blood. But they were afraid the message would not get out: several people were expecting attacks on the mosque tonight.

We can expect to read waves of such quotes tomorrow. That is good. We also need to know who is celebrating in London tonight. Who, what, when, where, why and how. We need that information on both sides of that terrible divide in Islam.

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Re: London falling

Dear readers,

I’m now heading into my day job in Washington, D.C., and a bunch of terrorists have decided to make the commute all the more fun by killing people in London. I hope the culprits don’t give up when the police come knocking, so they can start their stints in hell early. Meanwhile, why do I have a feeling that this story will soon help reinforce the lore about all those Jews who didn’t die at the World Trade Center? Feel free to discuss in my absence.


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Get your Freak on

It appears to be abortion week at GetReligion, so I don’t feel too bad about this shameless plug. Several weeks back, an editor from Beliefnet (host of Blog Heaven) approached me about a project that her website had in mind. There was this new book called Freakonomics, maybe I’d heard of it . . .

Beliefnet had permission to run an excerpt, and the site wanted a pro-lifer to subject Levitt and company to some scrutiny. I was asked to criticize the book’s abortion arguments on ethical grounds. Here’s the setup in the piece:

[S]uppose that economists and social scientists from other disciplines subject Levitt’s conclusions to a battery of tests and find he has proved not only loose correlation but ironclad causation. In other words, suppose that more abortions do translate into lower incidence of crime, and go from there. Should that affect how we think about abortion?

Short answer: no.

My only problem with this proposal was that I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that Levitt’s findings on abortion are unassailable, so I offered to do a piece arguing against both the economics and the ethics of the abortion arguments in Freakonomics. The website turned this offer down, but promised to link prominently to Steve Sailer’s criticism of the book, and has done so.

Fun moment along the way: I was riding the Metro from D.C. to my home in Virginia. I took my seat along with a young woman who I’d never met.

“Well that’s weird,” I said, when I glanced over at her.

She agreed, and we traded stupid smiles.

We were both reading Freakonomics. Even more eerie: We were both on the same page in the middle of the book. Any other book and I would have started a conversation, but I didn’t want to accidentally start an argument about abortion on the Metro, so we’ll just have to add her to the long list of ones that got away.

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Old Atlantic beats fresh Newsweek

NewsweekJuly11<Andy Rooney voice>Did ya ever notice that, for all the fuss about Supreme Court justices appointed by Republicans, Roe vs. Wade still stands?</Andy Rooney voice>

Benjamin Wittes, an editorial writer for The Washington Post, raised this point in the January issue of The Atlantic:

Republicans have put seven of the nine current justices on the Supreme Court — and they still have only one more anti-abortion vote than they had in 1973, when the decision came down 7 to 2. Where reproductive rights are concerned, the bark of a conservative nominee is frequently worse than his bite — as three justices nominated by Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush proved in 1992, when, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they voted that “the essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed.”

“I generally favor permissive abortion laws,” Wittes writes, but in his essay “Letting Go of Roe” (subscription required), he argues that the long-term cause of abortion rights may actually be better off if Roe were to fall.

Wittes continued in this contrarian groove in the April Atlantic, playfully wondering if the forthcoming judicial confirmation ordeal is more trouble than it’s worth:

Unless President Bush commits an act of true statesmanship in nominating the next head of the federal judiciary, the confirmation process is going to be an ugly spectacle. Democrats will wax indignant about a “rollback” of the hard-won gains of the civil-rights movement — indeed, of our fundamental rights more generally. Republicans will whip themselves into a frenzy over the impropriety of opposing nominees because of their “ideology.” Some poor nominee will have his or her name dragged through the mud. If the Democrats successfully filibuster, we may have to repeat the whole process with another candidate. And after all the fuss, Bush will get what he wants anyway: a conservative chief justice. Why don’t we dispense with the song and dance?

(Wittes helpfully writes that he’s “almost” serious with that last sentence.)

Amid breathless headlines like Newsweek‘s “The Holy War Begins: Bush must choose between the big tent or the revival tent” (paging the Rev. Elmer Gantry), let’s step back, take some deep breaths and read another paragraph from Wittes:

President Bush knows that he’ll have a fight on his hands if he sends up a die-hard right-winger. And although it’s impossible to divine from the proceedings how a given justice will evolve over time, or what issues will define his tenure, the president’s awareness of the possibility of Senate rejection encourages accommodation and consensus. The major value of the Senate’s proceedings, in other words, lies not in anything we might learn from them — which, if history is any guide, will be negligible — but in the president’s knowledge that they happen at all.

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Reaching tmatt (but not today)

high elevation blue ridgeA personal note from the DotCom Cafe in beautiful Burnsville, N.C. I had to come in this a.m. to ship the column to Scripps Howard News Service.

Next stop — Mitford. Anyone get the reference?

From time to time, people write to ask how to send us stuff (while promising not to be cyber stalkers) for personal reactions. In my case, it just became a lot easier to tell people how to reach me. All you have to do is look up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, where I am moving next week to start work on a semester-length journalism program. This is growing out of the 11-year-old Summer Institute of Journalism project.

All you have to do to reach me now is consult the contact us information at and that’s that. Thanks! Now back to the mountains.

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Yin-Yang Republicans face Roe

Here’s a question for you, as you wade into the waves of press coverage of the battle for the U.S. Supreme Court and, thus, the moral and cultural dimension of American law.

If opposing abortion on demand is the stance of radical conservatives who are out of the mainstream (even if they are Democrats) and defending abortion on demand is the stance of moderates (and even of sane conservatives), then what is the stance of liberals and progressives on this complex issue?

I ask this because it is very hard to find political compromises on this kind of hot-button issue when the principalities and powers of public discourse — that would be the MSM — have already decided that the middle ground is occupied.

Stop and think about that: What is the liberal stance on abortion rights? Have you read about it in your local newspaper in the past few days? On the issue of abortion, what is the difference between a faculty-club Democrat and a country-club Republican?

I bring this up because of a Los Angeles Times story — a “news analysis” actually — by Peter Wallsten that perfectly describes the message the MSM will deliver to the Republican leadership over and over during the weeks ahead. The headline says it all: “If Ax Falls on Roe, It May Also Split GOP.”

Here’s the heart of the story:

But the prospect of progress toward overturning Roe — and the realization that President Bush could have at least two chances to make transformative appointments to the court — has exposed a disagreement between conservatives who want abortion criminalized and pragmatic Republicans concerned that shifting the issue from the courts to the ballot box would lead to massive GOP losses.

Of particular concern is the party’s fate in closely contested battlegrounds such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan, where the resurgence of the abortion issue could alienate moderate voters who have helped Republicans make gains on all levels.

“Smart strategists inside the party don’t want the status quo changed,” said Tony Fabrizio, chief pollster for the 1996 Republican presidential campaign of Bob Dole.

“This may cause Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger — who are strongly committed to being pro-choice — to flip or to push for a third-party movement,” he added. “If they did outlaw it, it would ultimately turn the Republican Party into a theocratic-based party rather than an ideological party, and the party would necessarily start shedding people.”

Now this is not the story where you are going to read about the high cost that Democrat leaders have paid — especially in the House of Representatives — for their decision to drive all but a handful of Democrats for Life out of the party.

But Wallsten’s point is valid. The Democratic Party knows what it believes about abortion. On this issue, there is absolute truth and the party leadership is willing to defend it. This is a black and white issue. There is no way to compromise. The press affirms the Democratic position on this issue.

It is the Republicans who are the yin-yang “What is truth?” party on the big life issues, the party that is trying to find a way to keep James Dobson and The Terminator in the same tent. And everyone knows — see this Washington Post story — that the barbarians will be firing live ammunition in this battle.

This is the game of chicken that Beltway politicos have been anticipating for five years. What would happen if Roe fell and voters were able to cast votes on abortion? I think we know the answer to that: Compromise and moderation, state by state. Basically the same thing that we see happening on gay unions.

The right would not be happy. The left would not be happy. The MSM would be very, very unhappy, because there might actually be a right, center and left to cover. Compromise would be possible.

But right now, there are only radicals and moderates and the action is all on the Republican side of the church aisle. Will George W. Bush knock down the big revival tent? Wallsten writes:

As a candidate, Bush sent plenty of signals that he agreed with that approach, even calling the two men examples of his ideal nominee. During his reelection campaign last fall, the president referred repeatedly to a “culture of life,” and he thrilled religious conservatives during a campaign debate when he described the 1857 Dred Scott decision affirming slavery as an example of a bad court opinion. Abortion foes view Roe as the Dred Scott decision of its time, and said after the debate that they saw the reference as a deliberate signal.

But Bush — aware of the need to attract votes from women and moderates — has stopped short of endorsing Roe’s reversal. Two prominent abortion rights supporters, Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, were given prime speaking roles at last summer’s Republican National Convention.

Bush told Danish television last week that although he believed abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape and incest or when a mother’s life was at risk, he understood that the nation was not ready for Roe to go away. “I’m a realist as well,” Bush said. “I mean, this is an issue that has polarized the American political society. And in order to get good policy in place that protects the life of a child, we’re going to have to change hearts.”

True, but that is another story, one with a Hollywood dateline.

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