Incoming!

The Pentagon has come out with its findings in re: the controversy that Newsweek kicked up several weeks ago. It isn’t exactly a straight flush [If puns could kill -- ed.] but, as the AP reports, here she blows:

The Pentagon on Friday released new details about mishandling of the Quran at the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects, confirming that a soldier deliberately kicked the Muslim holy book and that an interrogator stepped on a Quran and was later fired for “a pattern of unacceptable behavior.”

In other confirmed incidents, a guard’s urine came through an air vent and splashed on a detainee and his Quran; water balloons thrown by prison guards caused an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; and in a confirmed but ambiguous case, a two-word obscenity was written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.

The AP notes that this information was released “after normal business hours” Friday evening, which is a polite way of saying the military hopes a combination of shifts, deadlines, and the next news cycle will lessen the impact of this one. It would be nice, for instance, if it didn’t spark more deadly riots in Afghanistan.

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Update: Good news in Iran — sort of

Here is a short update on a religious liberty story that I have been trying to keep my eye on — which is hard since the MSM rarely deals with these issues. I refer to the frightening case of Hamid Pourmand, a lay pastor in Iran. To see the earlier post, click here.

This is another case where we need alternative, online media to find out what happened. The good news is that the Assemblies of God leader is not going to lose his head after all. But, as Compass Direct reporter Barbara G. Baker notes, it isn’t exactly clear how he got off. Here is a key section of her report:

An Islamic court in southern Iran acquitted Christian lay pastor Hamid Pourmand on charges of apostasy and proselytizing two days ago, declaring, “Under sharia (Islamic law), there are no charges against you.” . . .

Pourmand’s judge reportedly told him, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does. You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

But instead of dropping the charges, the judge declared he was acquitting Pourmand, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity 25 years ago, because he had “done nothing wrong” according to Islamic law.

What does that mean? That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good thing, all of a sudden? Check out Article 18.

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Hollywood’s naked public square

In 1997 I wrote a story for Christian Research Journal about Scientology’s expansion into Europe, where it was meeting resistance from various government officials — especially in Germany, where leaders have this well-founded thing about mass movements.

The low point of my effort to research the story occurred when the Rev. Heber C. Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, informed me that I was part of “Pat Robertson’s and Jerry Falwell’s cabal.” I found this amusing, considering that my sole interaction with both men was to ask them questions, as a reporter, roughly ten years earlier.

Nevertheless, I felt sympathy this week for Scientologist Tom Cruise as The New York Times reported on whispers among Hollywood executives that his recent behavior has been strange. Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman cites these examples of unusual behavior:

While promoting [War of the Worlds] over the last several weeks, Mr. Cruise engaged in an increasingly public discussion of his religion, Scientology. Then he set tongues wagging in Hollywood and elsewhere with an hourlong appearance on the May 23 “Oprah” show, during which he jumped around the set, hopped onto a couch, fell rapturously to one knee and repeatedly professed his love for his new girlfriend, the actress Katie Holmes.

Many Hollywood stars are involved with the Church of Scientology, and there is nothing particularly unusual about trumpeting a new love. But some executives at Paramount and DreamWorks have voiced concern that fans were becoming distracted from the movie, which cost some $130 million to produce.

. . . Mr. Cruise’s spokeswoman, his sister Lee Anne De Vette, said she had not heard anything negative after the “Oprah” appearance. “You’re looking at someone who’s genuinely very happy,” she said. “The response we’ve gotten back is complete enthusiasm and exhilaration for his enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’s a very happy person.”

Still, there have been other publicity hiccups related to Mr. Cruise’s increasingly public association with Scientology, the religion founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In a series of television interviews on “Access Hollywood” last week, the star spoke at length about his passion for Scientology, at one point criticizing Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants: Scientology considers modern psychiatry and its medications to be harmful.

. . . And Mr. Cruise’s insistence on having a Scientology tent on the set of “War of the Worlds” created a conflict at Universal, where the movie was being shot, two executives involved said. The executives, who asked not to be identified to protect industry relationships, said that Mr. Cruise, his agent Kevin Huvane and [director Steven] Spielberg all had to appeal personally to the president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, for the tent to be permitted on the studio lot, where no solicitation is allowed.

The studio required that the tent not be used for recruitment purposes, they said. A studio spokesman declined to comment.

“Many Hollywood stars are involved with the Church of Scientology, and there is nothing particularly unusual about trumpeting a new love,” Waxman adds. “But some executives at Paramount and DreamWorks have voiced concern that fans were becoming distracted from the movie, which cost some $130 million to produce.”

Waxman’s article is reminiscent of her earlier reportage on Mel Gibson before The Passion of the Christ became a box-office phenomenon. Together, these reports leave the impression of a common attitude among entertainment executives: Believe whatever you like, but please show the decency not to persuade anyone else to believe it.

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Noonan: Felt had his reasons

Sorry to have gone all but AWOL in the past few days due to intense teaching and editing duties at our SIJ 2005 journalism boot camp here in Washington, D.C. Let me jump in here for a moment to urge you to check out the lively exchanges on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s post on Mark Felt, ethics, modern journalism and a host of other topics — with guest appearances by whistleblowers, Clinton administration fans, Nixon critics (on the left and right) and folks offering many, many other points of view.

Who knows, the debate may even circle back around to journalism!

Meanwhile, I would also like to point readers toward the new column by Peggy “friend of this blog” Noonan over at The Wall Street Journal. She has lots of questions about the granting of hero status to Felt. Here is one of the most interesting paragraphs:

(Felt’s) motives were apparently mixed, as motives often are. He was passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI by President Nixon, who apparently wanted in that place not a Hoover man but a more malleable appointee. Mr. Felt was resentful. He believed Nixon meant to jeopardize the agency’s independence. Here we have a hitch in the story. The liberal story line on the FBI was that under Hoover it had too much independence, which Hoover protected with his famous secret files and a reputation for ruthlessness. Mr. Felt was a Hoover man who joined the FBI in 1942, when it was young; he rose under Hoover and never knew another director. When Hooverism was threatened, Mr. Felt moved. In this sense Richard Nixon was J. Edgar Hoover’s last victim. History is an irony factory.

You don’t have to agree with Noonan on everything to enjoy her romp through the moral minefields in this case. And she stresses one major truth — the journalism side of this story is not over.

Amen to that, sister. Here is my question: Does anyone know if Felt is or was a smoker?

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Iron Mike has a sense of humor

Here’s one of the more playful uses of “get religion” I’ve seen in a headline: “Getting religion about health,” which is Salon’s Q&A with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee about his weight loss, his self-help book Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork and whether his health campaign could be related to any broader political ambitions.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this interview is its near-total lack of language about culture wars. Nutrition is one issue that affects families across the usual political, cultural and theological divides, and it’s one that could always use more good-natured and good-humored voices. Those of us with poor eating habits usually feel enough shame or self-loathing without a daily scolding.

Huckabee’s message is a mixture of individuals taking responsibility for their habits and recognizing the cultural cues that can prompt poor choices. He avoids the temptation of blaming any one villain for overweight children:

We want to work with food companies to encourage them to promote healthier food choices. We realize that the food industry is at the mercy of the marketplace, and we’re not blaming them for the fact that Americans are overweight. I certainly don’t blame the fast-food industry for making me overweight. They sold what I demanded.

The second thing is to make more parents aware of how little exercise their kids are getting, and how many calories their kids are getting. Many of the things that parents do to show love for their kids are not necessarily in their best interest. For example, you take your kids to pizza not because you hate them but because you think that you’re giving them a treat. And if a medium pizza might actually meet the nutritional needs of three or four kids, the large one shows that you have no limits to your love.

It’s part of the whole culture of food. We let food become the reward. It’s one of the most important things that I had to learn about why I’d never been successful in getting control of my health. I’ve heard people on talking-head shows chastising parents for overfeeding their kids and making parents feel terrible about it, as if they’ve done an abusive thing. And I want to just scream and say, “Obviously, either you’re not a parent or you don’t understand why parents are doing what they’re doing. They’re not doing what they’re doing because they hate their kids.

In response to one of Katharine Mieszkowski’s best questions, Huckabee expresses a calm distrust of Nanny State solutions to cultural disputes:

What role should the government have in deciding what food advertisers should be able to market to children?

I’m really a First Amendment guy when it comes to telling the media what they can do, because I don’t want the government telling you what you can write. I’m almost a libertarian when it comes to things like that, much to the surprise of many, even though I’m a conservative Republican, and a person of deep personal faith. I am very uncomfortable when people want to start choosing even what’s on the cable channels. Because you know, where does it stop?

There are a lot of things on television that are offensive to me, but that’s why I have an off button. And when enough people like me are disgusted with something and don’t watch it, then they’ll be a different kind of program. The reason some programs are continuing to proliferate is because whether or not I particularly like it or agree with it, there are folks out there that enjoy it. Art typically reflects the culture rather than necessarily creates it.

Huckabee is humorous in brushing aside Mieszkowski’s questions about his political ambitions:

I’m politically astute enough to know that just because I lost weight, started running and wrote a book about it, that’s not singularly enough of a qualification to say: “Yeah, this guy ought to be president.” Otherwise, Dr. Phil would be running; Oprah would be running. Actually, come to think of it, Oprah could get elected.

Katharine Mieszkowski did a great job with this interview. She transformed what could have been just another marketing moment into a real conversation about questions that greet us every morning, especially if we step onto a scale.

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They love the smell of napalm in the morning

Good, if shallow, piece in The Washington Post this weekend about a Washington and Lee University course on apocalypticism. Reporter Susan Kenzie is present on the last day of class, which Professor Eduardo Velasquez closes out with the memorable line “Leave.”

Because it was the last class of university for many students, there are a few unintentionally hilarious taking-stock-of-it-all anecdotes. Here’s what passes for staring into the abyss for the many of the kids these days:

Michael Lee, 22, who will graduate from the small Lexington college Thursday . . . knows his immediate future: a job as a health care lobbyist in Washington. “After that, it’s a great unknown.”

and

“The end of the world for me,” [said senior Tallie Jamison], “is graduation. That’s what it is for most of us. It’s really scary. It’s coming. The clock is ticking. But we don’t really know what comes after that.”

[A job, kids, paying off college loans? -- ed.]

As reporter Kenzie notes, “the idea of the apocalypse has taken hold in strange ways in this post-millennial, post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 world.” Professor Velasquez, for his part, isn’t an especially sectarian apocalypticist, but he does take the subject matter of his course seriously:

“I can’t tell you about floating up someplace, or a rapture, but it does seem to me that we are at the end of something, that we are a civilization that has exhausted itself.”

Apocalypticism taps into deep currents of what National Post regular Colby Cosh has described as “the pervasive collective feeling (present in all human ages) that the world has gone wrong” and offers an answer to this problem.

The solution is, hold fast to the faith and wait for deliverance by a higher power. The prof rightly tells Kenzie that the end of the world in the apocalyptic context is the beginning of something else. What comes after depends on whether one had faith in that deliverer all along.

Kenzie does a good job of observing the scene — and God bless her for those anecdotes — but I wish she had asked more questions. To wit:

1) Historically, the Apocalypse has tended to be more popular with persecuted religious sects that with sects that have it relatively good. Why is it so popular with many American Christians today?

2) When popular culture adopts apocalyptic themes, does it tend to swallow them whole or is it a lot more selective in its use?

3) Are apocalyptic themes in fact more prevalent today? Have there been any attempts to quantify this?

And so forth. The thing about journalism is, class is never out of session.

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Second-guessing Deep Throat

Chuck Colson has become one of the elder statesmen of evangelical Protestantism since his conversion, his prison term for Watergate crimes and his long-term involvement with ministry among prisoners. Colson also has long shown a concern for Christian apologetics, whether through the books he’s written with various coauthors, his bimonthly column for Christianity Today, his BreakPoint radio commentaries or his other media appearances.

On Tuesday’s edition of NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Colson used the momentous news of Deep Throat’s newly revealed identity to make the case against ends-justify-the-means ethics, and the results were — how to put this? — cringe-inducing. This was not Colson as Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, but it was Colson with a blind spot for the important role that journalists play, sometimes through relying on anonymous sources, in holding government accountable. Brown tried to make the case that there was a heroic element to Mark Felt’s actions as Deep Throat, but Colson was hearing none of it.

Let’s go to the transcript:

Brown: If people make history, history also makes them, often in unexpected ways. And the history that was Watergate clearly changed Mr. Colson. And he joins us tonight from Naples, Florida. It’s nice to see you, sir. Are you buying that Mark Felt was Deep Throat?

Colson: I was shocked, because I knew Mark Felt well and did not believe — I thought he was a consummate professional, an FBI man who would take the most sensitive secrets, have everybody’s personal files in his control, deputy director. I talked to him often and trusted him with very sensitive materials. So did the president. To think that he was out going around in back alleys at night looking for flower pots, passing information to someone, it’s just so demeaning. It’s terribly disappointing. It’s not the image of the professional FBI that you would expect.

Brown: Why is it. . . .

Colson: It’s one more tragedy to chalk up to Watergate.

Brown: That’s an interesting way to look at it. Why is it not honorable? Why is it not — believing that an institution you’ve devoted your life to, care a lot about and is important to the country, is being used in an improper way, and the only way you have to solve it or to deal with that is to go outside that agency? Why isn’t that honorable?

Colson: That’s not the only way. He could have walked into Pat Gray’s office, the director of the FBI and said, here are things that are going on in the White House that need to be exposed; the president needs to know about this, needs to deal with this. Maybe you believe the president himself is involved.

We should confront him on this, because we represent law enforcement. And go into the president and tell him what you saw.

Now, let me tell you something. I knew Richard Nixon intimately. Richard Nixon was no paragon of moral virtue. He would not necessarily have said, oh, my goodness, let me get to the bottom of this, it’s terrible. But he would have known that the director of the FBI and his deputy knew these things. He of course would call an end to this kind of stuff. He could — Mark Felt could have stopped Watergate. He was in the position of that kind of influence. Instead, he goes out and basically undermines the administration. I don’t think that’s honorable at all.

Brown: So in the end — I mean, I wonder if there’s something generational here, honestly, that people my age — I’m 55 — I went through this when I was a kid, really, in the ’60s, in the 20s — I was 20 years old, late 20s. Saw Deep Throat as a hero of a sort, because we didn’t believe, honestly, that government was willing to investigate itself.

Colson: Well, I think government is willing to investigate itself, and I think we’ve seen it do it many, many times. Watergate clearly was out of control. Watergate — I’m writing memoirs at the moment, just about to publish them, that — in which I take my own full responsibility. I saw things ordered by Mr. Nixon that I should have stood up and said, no, stop, this is wrong.

But Mark Felt, with the responsibility of being the number two man in the FBI, I would feel much better about things had he tried to stop it any other way than just going out and giving scandalous kind of material to newspaper reporters, where it could never be checked, where you could never rebut the accusation.

We always forget, of course, what it was like being inside in those days. Many of those accusations that came firing our way were not true. So you were having a trial in the press, which was not a right way for this to be handled either. And the ends don’t justify the means, Aaron. I’m sure you’d agree, that this was not an appropriate way for the number two FBI official in America to act.

He easily could have come to the officials responsible. If they hadn’t acted then, he would resign, have a press conference, and that would be entirely honorable. That would be an honorable position for a whistle-blower to take.

Brown: I’ll tell you what, here’s the deal I’ll make you. When the memoirs come out, we’ll discuss it in more detail whether I agree that in this case the ends justify the means. It’s a really interesting question, and I’m glad you put it out there tonight. Thank you.

Colson: If you can make that case for me, I’d sure like to listen to it. I’d have a good time debating you.

Brown: I look forward to the discussion. It’s nice to see you, sir.

Colson: I went to prison — I went to prison for ends justifying the means.

Brown: Yes, you did. Thank you. Chuck Colson down in Florida tonight.

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Separation of coven and state in Indy

There is an interesting church-state case going on right now in the heart of Indiana, and prog-blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters of Wildhunt wants to know why more religion writers are not interested in it.

Actually, this is a coven and state case, which is one of the reasons it is so interesting. First of all, let’s look at the Indianapolis Star report that tells how two Wiccan parents ran into a judge who does not approve of their faith. Here is the key section of reporter Kevin Corcoran’s news story:

Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in the couple’s divorce decree last year over their fierce objections, court records show. The order does not define a mainstream religion.

Bradford refused to remove the provision after the 9-year-old boy’s outraged parents, Thomas E. Jones Jr. and his ex-wife, Tammie U. Bristol, protested last fall. . . . The parents’ Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford’s attention in a confidential report prepared by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights. Jones’ son attends a local Catholic school.

“There is a discrepancy between Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones’ lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . . Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages,” the bureau said in its report.

This led to the following comment by Pitzl-Waters, which was echoed by folks over at The Revealer:

This is an outrage. An outrage that will most likely be ignored by all those God-bloggers and religion reporters who don’t mind a little persecution so long as it isn’t happening to them. How many dead canaries in the coal-mine do we need before there is a problem?

I don’t know which God-bloggers he had in mind, as opposed to god-bloggers or gods-bloggers or whatever. But he is right. This is an important parents’ rights case and is, in a strange way, very similar to the cases in which Muslims, Orthodox Jews and traditional Christians wrestle with public-school officials over the moral education of their children.

Religious liberty is only as strong as the rights of miniorities. Take away the rights of parents to advocate their own faith to their children and the next thing you know you’ll have evangelical kids forced to sit in school classes that openly attack the faith taught in their homes. Wait, that’s happening already, isn’t it?

But the point remains the same. Parents have a right to pray with their kids and even preach to them. If Christians — even very conservative ones — want that right they should defend that right for others.

Meanwhile, note the strange twist that the Wiccan dad is sending his kid to a Catholic school. I wonder what the Catholic authorities think of this publicity?

That angle did, however, remind me of a great quote from a Beliefnet message board, sent to me by a friend. Someone wrote: “I am a werewolf . . . and also Catholic. . . . But too progressive for some Catholics.”

Wait! Did he say “some” Catholics? Now there is a story.

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