Back on the taxidermy front

This week’s Time promises more than it delivers in saying that the feature story “The Posse in the Pulpit” offers “a portrait of the pastors who are leading the offensive against the filibuster.”

It’s more like three photos — of D. James Kennedy, Rod Parsley and Rick Scarborough — and a few sentences about Scarborough, including the telling detail that, like Bob Jones III, he has the iconic head of a dead animal on his office wall:

Last week’s federal-court decision overturning Nebraska’s gay-marriage ban has only added fuel to the right’s fire. Thus, Scarborough is spending most of his time these days working to beat back Democrats’ attempts to block several of President Bush’s judicial nominees. “It takes two-thirds of Congress, the President’s signature and three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution–or one judge,” says Scarborough, sitting beneath the mounted head of a whitetail deer in his east Texas office. “And believe me, the left learned that a long time ago.”

Much of the 1,200-word story explores the frustrating details of how Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over several of President Bush’s appointees to federal courts.

Time notes, “The Senate could be headed for this historic showdown in part because it anticipates an inevitable one down the line: a full-blown confirmation brawl over the next Supreme Court nominee.”

The story leaves the impression that the Senate would not be in this place were it not for these evangelicals preachers, or their opposite voices in People for the American Way.

Perhaps these preachers see it only as a matter of timing or intensity, though. Time doesn’t devote enough space to details that would answer such a question.

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Pinker sniffs out some sex questions

If Darwinian orthodoxy (think naturalism for a moment, not common descent) is the default god mechanism for Western intellectual elites (think New York Times editorial pages), then Steven Pinker’s “Sniffing Out the Gay Gene” piece is a rare chance to see a cluster of gods duke it out in the public square.

As always, GetReligion does not like to visit editorial pages very often. We are into news coverage of religion, as a rule. Yet this may be a case where there are more religion ghosts in a Times op-ed than in the news pages.

Every now and then, someone asks logical questions about homosexuality and natural selection. This is one of those times. The questions lead in all kinds of directions that should be interesting to reporters on the cultural right (alternative media) and left (mainstream media).

First of all, here is Pinker’s summary of the main news story, which you may already have seen elsewhere:

It sounds like something out of the satirical journal Annals of Improbable Research: a team of Swedish neuroscientists scanned people’s brains as they smelled a testosterone derivative found in men’s sweat and an estrogen-like compound found in women’s urine. In heterosexual men, a part of the hypothalamus (the seat of physical drives) responded to the female compound but not the male one; in heterosexual women and homosexual men, it was the other way around.

This is followed by the usual simple statements about massively complex research on “gay gene” questions that have caused such a, well, stink. Then the fun starts:

Homosexuality is a puzzle for biology, not because homosexuality itself is evolutionarily maladaptive (though no more so than any other sexual act that does not result in conception), but because any genetic tendency to avoid heterosexual opportunities should have been selected out long ago. Perhaps “gay genes” have some other compensating advantage, like enhancing fertility, when they are carried by women. Perhaps the environments that set off homosexuality today didn’t exist while our genes were being selected. Or perhaps the main cause is biological yet not directly genetic, like differences in hormones or antibodies that affect the fetus while it is developing.

And how is evolution linked to “the existence of homophobia”? What does all of this have to do with Dr. Laura Schlesinger? And the Boy Scouts? I would think that sex issues are tied rather tightly to issues of the survival of the fittest.

Like I said, there are lots of questions, and I don’t see even a hint of answers. Perhaps some of you do. But where you have massive questions and no answers, you should find interesting news stories — requiring chats with bright people on both sides of an issue that the MSM likes to think is settled.

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News you can use . . . to start a riot

Newsweek is in full retreat amid the fallout from its Qur’an shredding story. In the current issue, editor Mark Whitaker admitted that there were some problems with the sourcing and signed off with this:

[W]e regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.

In the same issue Evan Thomas gives the controversy a more extended treatment. He asked, point blank,

How did Newsweek get its facts wrong? And how did the story feed into serious international unrest? While continuing to report events on the ground, Newsweek interviewed government officials, diplomats and its own staffers, and reconstructed [a] narrative of events

FOB Paul Marshall — that is, friend of the blog Paul Marshall of Freedom House — is incredulous about why Newsweek ran with this story that its own reporters and editors though might be shaky. In an article for National Review Online, he charges:

The shakily sourced May 9 Newsweek report that interrogators had desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is likely to do more damage to the U.S. than the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. What is also deeply disturbing is that the journalists who put the report out seem somewhat clueless about this reality.

Marshall recounts some of the riots and deaths that have followed allegations that U.S. interrogators desecrated, destroyed, and flushed copies of the Koran to intimidate prisoners. Then he takes a few shots at Thomas’ “What have we learned from this?” treatment:

While noting that, to Muslims, desecrating the Koran “is especially heinous,” Thomas looks for explanations, including “extremist agitators,” of why protest and rioting spread throughout the world, and maintains that it was at [Pakistani politician] Imram Khan’s press conference that “the spark was apparently lit.” He confesses that after “so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise.”

What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?

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Meet the Vatican's new doctrinal dawg

Now Archbishop Levada will be the new watchdog over doctrine: prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His predecessor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

But as Archbishop Levada joked in his news conference in San Francisco on Friday, he expects to be “more a cocker spaniel than a Rottweiler” — a description he apparently rued immediately, saying, “No, no, don’t print that.”
— “A Theological Hard-Liner With a Moderate Streak,” The New York Times.

An excellent bird and small-game hunter, great companion, good with children and all around friendly, lively guy.
— Description of the American cocker spaniel at

American newspapers haven’t found quite how to classify William Levada, the Archbishop of San Francisco and Pope Benedict’s successor at the dreaded Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because he has defended the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality, he’s called a conservative by the Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News (and, as its headline indicates, a “hard-liner with a moderate streak” by The New York Times).

Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin of The Dallas Morning News dig deeper than either the Los Angeles Times or New York Times on Levada’s record regarding charges of sexual abuse by priests:

The congregation also decides the fate of priests accused of child molestation. Archbishop Levada has come under intense criticism in recent years for his handling of such cases in San Francisco.

Last fall, for example, the founding chairman of the archdiocesan panel that reviews abuse cases quit and denounced Archbishop Levada. Dr. James Jenkins, a psychologist, accused him of “deception, manipulation and control” of the panel.

Maurice Healy, the archbishop’s spokesman, said Friday that “Dr. Jenkins is flat-out wrong” and is “thrilled to throw calumny on others.”

. . . Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor whom U.S. bishops initially appointed to evaluate their implementation of reforms, said his experience with Archbishop Levada was largely positive.

He said that while the prelate may have made mistakes in the past, “he was very committed to the agenda of Dallas [the 2002 meeting] . . . fully committed to transparency, criminal referrals and zero tolerance.”

Mr. Keating resigned as head of the bishops’ national review board in 2003, likening some diocesan leaders to Mafia members because of their continuing secretiveness. He said he had not kept up closely with events in San Francisco since then, but had “real concern” about Dr. Jenkins’ reported experience on the review board there.

Dr. Jenkins said Friday that he couldn’t abide by the archbishop’s refusal to publicly identify all clergy who had been credibly accused. Dr. Jenkins said that naming them helps people take precautions when dealing with the men in the future and encourages other victims to get help.

Archbishop Levada also didn’t follow several of the board’s recommendations, Dr. Jenkins said.

“The review board needs to be more than an elaborate public relations scheme,” he said. He said he resigned because “my integrity was at risk.”

An SF Weekly story from May 2003 offers nearly 7,400 words, mostly discouraging, about Levada’s handling of various sexual-abuse allegations.

And Lee Penn has written for The Christian Challenge magazine about Levada’s informal support for the United Religions Initiative, a project conceived by Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of California.

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Star Wars "R" Us?

It is almost time for the full wave of Star Wars coverage to hit.

So far, I think that religion-beat specialist Jeffrey Weiss at The Dallas Morning News has asked the most serious questions about the content of the movies themselves — at least without seeing the new film.

The big question: What if the religion in the Star Wars canon was totally and utterly screwed up, a mixmaster blend of everything that is out there filtered through the Baby Boomer perspective of a man who has no idea what he believes?

And what if this aspect of the film is, along with special effects, at the heart of its popularity in postmodern America? What if it makes no sense whatsoever and that is a good thing? Would anyone in mainstream American religion have the courage to say that?

The lead, in this case, should have been the headline: “Like it or not, the Force is with us.” Here is a big chunk of the Weiss report, which contains the big idea:

America’s median age is about 36. That means about half the country has little or no memory of a time before Star Wars was part of the cultural landscape. George Lucas released the first Star Wars movie in 1977.

Not coincidentally, some experts say, younger generations of Americans have been turning away from institutional religion in record numbers. There may be some link, they say, between the fuzzy “theology” of the Force and the powerful but fuzzy spiritual longings of this group.

Most of those who check “none of the above” when pollsters ask about their religious preference aren’t atheists or agnostics. They believe in a Higher Power and a Higher Purpose to their lives, in a transcendent order to the universe and in the immortality of their souls: Life and love carry eternal values.

Sound familiar? Star Wars fans might say all you need to do is listen to your feelings.

As Yoda explained it: “Luminous beings are we.”

So here is my question: Will the Culture Wars — accurately defined — show up in the new movie? At some point, will Sith and a Jedi superstars point fingers at one another and say that the other is on the side of George W. Bush and the Religious Right?

Will the big word — ABSOLUTES — show up, as in “absolute truths”?

Watch for it. Will Lucas be able to resist? Or will he yield at last to the political side?

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Worship, Wars, Presbyterians, Hollywood

In this day and age, it is almost a relief to find a church fighting about something other than sex.

Yet, if you look at the congregational level, most Protestant churches that are experiencing internal conflict — as opposed to conflict with national structures — are fighting about issues linked to music and worship. This is a topic that comes up from time to time on this blog, the so-called worship wars.

All of the key elements of this story are on display in a new story by Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus, which The Washington Post featured this weekend (and posted on its website, which newspapers often do not do with wire stories, which makes wire service guys like me smile).

This battle in the worship wars is in an oldline Protestant setting — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — which means you have familair elements — declining numbers in the pews and the financial tension that this causes. But this time, the conflict is at the famed Hollywood Presbyterian Church, which is actually known as a center for a solid, traditional approach to the Christian faith.

As Flaccus crisply notes: “The decline has been especially painful at Hollywood First, where the congregation helped launch evangelists Billy Graham and Lloyd Ogilvie, who is now the U.S. Senate chaplain. It was home to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Henrietta Mears, author of the popular Sunday school curriculum Gospel Light.”

This only highlights the cultural nature of the conflict, which has led regional presbytery officials to yank the Rev. Alan Meenan out of his senior pastor role. What’s the problem?

Here is a glimpse:

Now, hundreds of new worshipers are flocking to an alternative service staged by the church at a nearby nightclub that offers live rock music and a casual atmosphere that doesn’t frown on flip-flops and nose piercings. The service, called Contemporary Urban Experience, has bolstered membership at one of the most storied Presbyterian congregations in the country. But it has also created a deep rift between old and new members that threatens to tear the conservative church apart.

Responding to numerous complaints about Meenan, regional church officials, in a rare step, took control of operations at Hollywood First last week and put Meenan and his executive pastor on paid administrative leave to restore the peace. The turmoil in the 2,700-member congregation reflects what experts call the “worship war,” an identity crisis that has beset many mainline Protestant denominations as they struggle to survive in a culture that puts less importance on the traditions of organized religion.

On one level, as the story notes, this is simply electric guitars against the pipe organ. On another, its clearly a generational battle between those who built a great church (probably G.I. Generation folks) and those who are trying to “save it” (probably Gen X and Y) and the new establishment that is caught in the middle (probably Boomers). As always, there is money involved in the conflict.

This report did leave me wondering if doctrinal conflict has soaked in here somewhere. Flaccus keeps quoting people about issues of cultural style. Like this: “I could go into any coffee shop in Los Angeles and go up to any artsy, crazy guy and feel totally comfortable inviting him to this service,” said J.C. Cornwell, 34, a church member who volunteers to produce CUE each week. “It’s just a really cool service — but it’s still the truth.”

But these style issues often come packaged with hints at change in teachings and emphasis. The so-called “emerging” evangelicals are not the same as the previous generations. This story may have another layer or two hidden in there. I will keep my eye on it.

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Bible thumping

Intended Unabomber victim David Gelernter has a sprawling cover story (here and here) in the current issue of The Weekly Standard on the knowledge of the Good Book in the United States.

The (ugh, bad pun warning) good news, says Gelernter, is that “If you ask questions that are so simple the average arthropod would find them patronizing, and cast them in multiple choice format to make things even easier . . . American high school students do okay.”

Otherwise, not so much. Gelernter writes of a study by the Bible Literacy Project:

Go beyond rudimentary and you find that “very few American students” have the level of Bible knowledge that high-school English teachers regard as “basic to a good education.” “Almost two-thirds of teens” couldn’t pick the right answer out of four choices when they were asked to identify “a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”). Two-thirds didn’t know that “the Road to Damascus is where St. Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ.” Fewer than a third “could correctly identify which statement about David was not true (David tried to kill King Saul).” And so on.

Most of this would not be a surprise to GetReligion readers. But I think Gelernter’s case for Why You Should Care is worth a read. He begins,

Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don’t tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.

The piece is a sizeable collection of fun historical material, some spot on, some of debatable merit (the higher criticism bits are both too sweeping and not sweeping enough for my taste), so I won’t attempt a summary, but I invite readers who decide to give it a go to share your impressions in comments.

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Abramoff Agonistes

Here’s how David Klinghoffer ends his latest column in the Jewish weekly The Forward:

If [Jack] Abramoff were a secular Jew who directed streams of money to left-wing candidates, to liberal think tanks, to charitable causes like Planned Parenthood and PETA, do you think we ever would have heard his name? I don’t.

The whole piece is about as good a defense as one can mount of the super-lobbyist who now finds himself in heap of big trouble over a scandal that involves Indian gambling, paid junkets for congressmen, an anti-gambling campaign that Abramoff also had a hand in, and a host of other misadventures.

Klinghoffer admits that Abramoff probably breached Congress’ ethics rules by funding some activities out of his own pocket and seeking reimbursement from organizations that he represented (verboten) rather than having the organizations fund the junkets and such directly (allowed), but he doesn’t concede that this is anything more than a very technical violation of statute designed to have no teeth.

He also admits that Abramoff said some remarkably stupid and bigoted things in private e-mails, but he asks, “Yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade’s worth of our email were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?”

Klinghoffer quotes a “close friend and ally” of Abramoff as saying, “Jack is not a choir boy. It’s funny, though, that there are no Ferraris, women, yachts or mansions in this story, and yet it keeps going.” He expounds on the friend’s commentary: “Why it keeps going is a question worth pondering.”

The charge that the Forward columnist levels isn’t anti-Semitism so much as anti-Republicanism and a general distaste by the usual suspects for people who take religion seriously. Frank Rich, for instance, described him as an “Orthodox Jew who in his salad days wore a yarmulke to press interviews.” A columnist identified only as a “Washington Post writer with a Jewish name” (Nexis says . . . Ruth Marcus) called Abramoff “an Orthodox Jew who seemed to flaunt his piety (the Christian right loved it) the way other lobbyists flash their Rolexes.”

One of the problems with “if the situation were slightly different, do you think people would still be going nuts” criticism is that it is often hard to predict exactly what will catch people’s fancy. The criteria for what makes a story a hot issue are not completely random, but I think I’d lose my shirt if I had to predict what the pack of American journalists will decide to obsess on next week. Still, Klinghoffer raises some important questions that are worth chewing on for a bit.

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