Where's the story?

I was alerted via e-mail by several people that — lo and behold — the FBI had now weighed in in the fake Koran flushing incident (previous GetReligion items here and here) in favor of claims that the flushing had, in fact, occurred.

Here’s the Washington Post story from today, and all I can say is better luck next time, guys. According to the Post (emphases added),

Nearly a dozen detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba told FBI interrogators that guards had mistreated copies of the Koran, including one who said in 2002 that guards “flushed a Koran in the toilet,” according to new FBI documents released today. . . .

Nearly all of the hundreds of pages of documents consist of FBI summaries of detainee interrogations, and therefore do not generally provide corroboration of the allegations. At least two detainees also conceded that they had not personally witnessed mistreatment of the Koran but had heard about incidents from other inmates, the records show.

I’m willing to believe that a Koran — or pages of a Koran, at any rate — were indeed flushed down a toilet as part of U.S. interrogations of prisoners. But I am not willing to believe this wholly on the prisoners’ say-so.

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Star Culture Wars (with links)

I have had some readers email me asking if I would post my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which can be found here.

I hesitate to do so, because that would be an obvious form of self-promotion. And if I was into obvious forms of self-promotion, I would mention the mid-November — just in time for Christmas shopping — release of my Pop Goes Religion: Faith and Culture in America, a book of new essays and clusters of columns on popular culture.

That’s what I would do if I were into that sort of thing. I might even mention that young Master Jeremy Lott is working on a book.

Meanwhile, this week’s column is about, what else, Revenge of the Sith. I think I will try to add some URLs to make this interactive. I wish I could do that with all of my columns.

So here goes:

While tweaking the original Star Wars movie for re-release, director George Lucas decided that he needed to clarify the status of pilot Han Solo’s soul.

In the old version, Solo shot first in his cantina showdown with a bounty hunter. But in the new one, Lucas addressed this moral dilemma with a slick edit that showed Greedo firing first. Thus, Solo was not a murderer, but a mere scoundrel on the way to redemption.

“Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn’t shoot someone in cold blood,” said broadcaster Dick Staub. “That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder if absolutely wrong.”

The Star Wars films do, at times, have a strong sense of good and evil.

Yet in the climactic scene of the new “Revenge of the Sith,” the evil Darth Vader warns his former master: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Say what? If that is true, how did Lucas decide it was wrong for Solo to gun down a bounty hunter? Isn’t that a moral absolute? If so, why are absolutes absolutely wrong in the saga’s latest film? Good questions, according to Staub.

While we’re at it, the Jedi knights keep saying they must resist the “dark side” of the mysterious, deistic Force. But they also yearn for a “chosen one” who will “bring balance” to the Force, a balance between good and evil.

“There is this amazing internal inconsistency in Lucas that shows how much conflict there is between the Eastern religious beliefs that he wants to embrace and all those Judeo-Christian beliefs that he grew up with,” said Staub, author of a book for young people entitled “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters.”

“I mean, you’re supposed balance the light and the dark? How does that work?”

The key is that Lucas — who calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist” — believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash. This approach allows the digital visionary to take chunks of the world’s major religions and swirl them in the blender of his imagination. Thus, the Force contains elements of Judaism, Christianity, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam.

None of this is surprising. Lucas merely echoes the beliefs of many artists in his generation and those who have followed. But the czar of Star Wars also has helped shape the imaginations of millions of spiritual consumers. His fun, non-judgmental faith was a big hit at the mall.

It is impossible, said Staub, to calculate the cultural impact of this franchise since the 1977 release of the first film — episode IV, “A New Hope.” The films have influenced almost all moviegoers, but especially Americans 40 and under.

“I don’t think there is anything coherent that you could call the Gospel According to Star Wars,” stressed Staub. “But I do think there are things we can learn from Star Wars. . . . I think what we have here is a teachable moment, a point at which millions of people are talking about what it means to choose the dark side or the light side.

“Who wants to dark side to win? Most Americans want to see good triumph over evil, but they have no solid reasons for why they do. They have no idea what any of this has to do with their lives.”

Staub is especially concerned about young Star Wars fans. He believes that many yearn for some kind of mystical religious experience, taught by masters who hand down ancient traditions and parables that lead to truths that have stood the test of time, age after age. These young people “want to find their Yoda, but they don’t think real Yodas exist anymore,” especially not in the world of organized religion, he said.

In the end, it’s easier to go to the movies.

Meanwhile, many traditional religious leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot reach the young. So they try to modernize the faith instead of digging back to ancient mysteries and disciplines, said Staub.

“So many churches are choosing to go shallow, when many young people want to go deep,” he said. “There are people who just want to be entertained. But there are others who want to be Jedis, for real.”

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There's something about "marry"

I’ve always had a soft spot in my cold black heart for The Washington Times’ refusal to run the term gay “marriage” without the scare quotes. That’s not the editorial call I would make were I in charge (and God help us all if that happens), but there’s something about the stubbornness to concede a point by accepting the usual terms of debate that I admire.

So, when I clicked on this Jerusalem Post story, the first sentence leaped out at me:

The Protestant campaign of divestment, meant to punish Israel for its “occupation,” is weakening.

The substance of the piece is solid enough. After the moral grandstanding of the last few years — during which many pro-Palestinian voices bent the ears of a number of mostly mainline Protestant churches with pleas to divest church holdings from businesses that do business with Israel — many churches are backing down from divestment. To wit:

The announcement by Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw — a staunch pro-Palestinian advocate — that he would oppose divestment efforts from within his church was the latest in a string of similar declarations by small member communities of America’s large liberal-leaning churches.

In fact, some of the advocates of divestment may come to regret the strategy. Reportedly, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decided to call a pox down on both houses and encourage divestment in companies that deal with Palestinians as well as those that do business with Israel.

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The not-so-biblical biblical baccalaureate

Carolyn Bower of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch masters understatement in her report on Lindbergh High School’s students holding separate baccalaureates this year. It seems one group didn’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an, while another group didn’t want to be preached at. But let’s turn the narrative over to Bower’s story, which is all the richer for its just-the-facts tone and lack of scare quotes:

Baccalaureates are traditionally religious services held before graduation. One of Lindbergh’s will begin at 7 p.m. tonight in the high school auditorium in south St. Louis County. Invitations have listed TV evangelist Joyce Meyer as the invited headliner. Organizers call the event a biblical baccalaureate.

The other was May 17 in the auditorium also. The service offered reflections, a prayer, music, speeches and a video of teachers offering advice to students.

Earlier this year students began to disagree about what to offer in the baccalaureate service as well as who should organize the event.

Trinity Fry, 18, a Lindbergh senior, along with her mother, Joyce Fry, helped to organize tonight’s service.

“The biggest thing we didn’t want was people reading out of the Quran or other things,” Trinity said. “We wanted to include all students, but we didn’t want an interfaith service.” Trinity did not attend the service last week.

Rob Boston of Americans United also is understated in the response he offered to Bower:

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the best solution is to have privately sponsored baccalaureates in private buildings or churches.

Boston said the Lindbergh case offered “a bit of a twist,” holding a privately sponsored baccalaureate on school grounds. But he said laws allow for private groups to access facilities on an equal basis.

“I’m not aware of other cases like this,” Boston said, adding he was shocked to hear Joyce Meyer would headline the event. “Those who attend can expect a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing.”

Bower missed one blazing irony in the story: The students who don’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an are apparently fine with hearing from one of the leading voices of prosperity theology (as reported with admirable thoroughness in the Post-Dispatch two years ago).

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Times! Finish the Ivy Christians story

The sterling New York Times reporting team of Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick served up a fine story idea this past weekend under the headline “On a Christian Mission to the Top.”

The basic question: What happens when very traditional Christians attempt to reestablish a base in what was once a haven for high-level discourse about faith — the Ivy League schools?

And the Times report about the “Christian Union” organization — which is reported in a very calm and fair manner — delivers the goods, at least at first. Here is a solid chunk of that, focusing on missionary Tim Havens and his work at Brown University:

Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain’s office now recognizes “heathen/pagan” as a “faith community.”

But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens’s prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups — more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.

There you have the problem, slipping in there at the end of these summary paragraphs. Instead of focusing on a truly interesting trend — evangelicals trying to engage elite academic culture, rather than flee it — the story veers off into ultra-familiar territory about evangelical niches and the movement’s rising clout in other areas of American life, business and, of course, politics.

Yes, those subjects are connected to the Ivy League story. But the Times report dedicates so much attention there that — quite literally — the story never delivers the goods on the subject in the lead. It seems that the story gets hijacked a third of the way in and it never recovers.

Here is another glimpse of what could have been:

Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to “reclaim the Ivy League for Christ,” according to its fund-raising materials, and to “shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural institutions.”

The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and supporters met in Princeton for an “Ivy League Congress on Faith and Action.”

I hope this is the start of a series of articles, but I doubt that is the case.

In the end, it seems that anything linked to religious believers has to get hooked to the true religion in the Times newsroom — politics. That is, after all, what life is all about.

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Evangelicals & Catholics together

If Time magazine can name Rick Santorum, a lifelong Roman Catholic, as one of the top 25 evangelicals in America, Santorum is happy to extend the ecclesial mix and match to President Bush, whom he calls America’s first Catholic president.

Santorum’s remarks about Bush are not new, but are revisited in “The Believer,” an 8,200-word profile by Michael Sokolove that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Santorum first made the remarks to John Allen Jr., the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican correspondent, in January 2002. As Sokolove makes clear, with his comparison to Toni Morrison’s remark that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president, Santorum was speaking symbolically:

In 2002, in a little-noticed interview that took place in Rome, Santorum told National Catholic Reporter, a U.S.-based weekly, that he considered George W. Bush, a Methodist, to be “the first Catholic president of the United States.” (His remark was reminiscent of the novelist Toni Morrison’s saying that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president, although an obvious difference is that there actually has been a Catholic president.) Santorum explained his claim to me: “What I meant was if you look at the two major issues of the church, it’s sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage and the family — and third is care for the poor. And you have a president who is consistent with Catholic social teaching on all of these issues.”

And what about John F. Kennedy? Santorum says he believes that in a political sense, Kennedy shed his Catholicism. (Kennedy’s most famous statement on church and state was: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”) “I can understand and even defend him in some respects for doing so,” Santorum said. “There was still a very anti-Catholic bias, certainly among Southerners.” Other Catholic politicians, he continued, “have sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing.”

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, is far from Santorum on most social issues but close to him personally. A Catholic, she has attended the catechism classes he holds in the Capitol. She wasn’t familiar with his statement in National Catholic Reporter and let out a little chortle upon hearing it. “That is so vintage Rick,” she said. “One of the things I like best about him is he is completely authentic. I would draw the line differently than where he does. But he believes there should be more of an intertwining of government and religion, and he believes it passionately.”

As this blog has noted before, evangelical Richard Land once spoke of the greater solidarity he felt with Pope John Paul II than with some of his fellow Southern Baptists. In that light, there’s nothing terribly unusual in Santorum’s remarks, except his provocative insistence that Bush behaves more like an observant Catholic than some public officials who belong to the Catholic Church.

Sokolove’s tone suggests a certain admiration for — but clearly not agreement with — Santorum’s passion for prolife issues and faith-based assistance to the poor. He explores the irony that the Democratic Party, which barred Bob Casey from the speaker’s podium in 1992, now feels such enthusiasm for Bob Casey Jr., who shares his late father’s opposition to abortion. One difference already is clear in the prolife positions of the younger Casey and Santorum: Casey’s campaign manager has criticized Santorum as “the only member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo’s hospice.”

Sokolove further captures the cultural divide on issues of fetal life in describing how Santorum and his family handled the death of baby Gabriel Michael Santorum, who died in the womb:

The childbirth in 1996 was a source of terrible heartbreak — the couple were told by doctors early in the pregnancy that the baby Karen was carrying had a fatal defect and would survive only for a short time outside the womb. According to Karen Santorum’s book, “Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum,” she later developed a life-threatening intrauterine infection and a fever that reached nearly 105 degrees. She went into labor when she was 20 weeks pregnant. After resisting at first, she allowed doctors to give her the drug Pitocin to speed the birth. Gabriel lived just two hours.

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish — others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. “Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!” Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. “Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’”

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Awesome speech case in Newark

Here we go again, back into the church-state turf defined by the words “viewpoint discrimination.”

It is one thing for a state-funded institution to decline to sponsor religious events and speech in forums that it controls. That’s why an Air Force Academy football coach is not supposed to put up Christian banners in a locker room. It’s something else to tell an evangelical chaplain that he cannot preach evangelical doctrine in an evangelical service attended by students who freely chose to be there.

Now this.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A public school prohibited a second grader from singing a religious song at a talent show, prompting a lawsuit Friday alleging violation of the girl’s constitutional rights.

A federal judge declined an emergency request to compel Frenchtown Elementary School to allow 8-year-old Olivia Turton to sing “Awesome God” at the Friday night show, but allowed the lawsuit to go forward.

Note that Associated Press writer Jeffrey Gold is covering a flap caused by a song sung by an individual, not a school choir or ensemble. This is individual free speech and, thus, to single out this song and not others means that we are dealing with “viewpoint discrimination.”

School officials merely said that the song’s Christian content was inappropriate in this public context. Thus:

The lawsuit charges that the school board violated Olivia’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process. The lawsuit, supported by the Alliance Defense Fund . . . argues that the constitutional separation of church and state does not restrict an individual’s religious speech.

The girl’s lawyer, Demetrios K. Stratis, questioned how the Frenchtown school could reject Olivia’s choice but allow another act based on the opening scene of “MacBeth.”

“They’ve got a scene about boiling animals and witchcraft, but they won’t allow a song about God,” Stratis said.

What’s next, students being allowed to do readings from Narnia and Little House on the Prairie?

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Interfaith in Iraq

How’s this for a lede?

At a humble, green-domed mosque in the heart of Baghdad, a grizzled preacher named Sheik Ahmed Yassin stood his ground. Gunmen had killed five of his followers and kidnapped two of his sons. Threats had thinned his congregation, and the worshipers who still came rushed to their cars after prayers to avoid becoming the latest victims.

Makes you want to read the next graph, yes?

It’s part of a Knight Ridder report, by Johnny-on-the-spot Yasser Salihee, on a a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims for control of Iraq’s mosques. That’s right, plural:

Shiites have seized up to 40 Sunni mosques since Saddam Hussein’s government fell, according to Shiite and Sunni clerics. While Sunnis view the campaign as a land grab, Shiites say they are reclaiming plots that Saddam stole from Shiite landowners.

This conflict led to protests, of a sort, by both factions this Friday. Shiites took to the streets to protest the jailing of several supporters of cleric — sorry, make that “radical cleric” — Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sunni, for their part, shut down several mosques “in a show of anger over alleged sectarian violence against the minority.”

Sticking up for the rights of the minority, we have the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has issued a hotly-disputed fatwa telling the his co-religionists to give the Sunni back the mosques that they have appropriated.

One paragraph could have been clearer: I think that Muqtada al-Sadr has called for American and Israeli flags to be painted on the ground outside of many mosques in protest of the occupation, so that worshipers would regularly defame the emblems of both countries. But the way it’s worded, the facts of the proposal — and its implementation — are a bit murky.

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