Echo chamber: Democrats get religion?

UCClogo.jpgWe could have started an entire blog during the past six months on the subject of the Democratic Party and religion. Check out this package at The Dallas Morning News — in the new weekly Points section edited by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher — on the theme “Can the Democratic Party be fixed?”

Then there is this piece by columnist Andrew Ferguson at Bloomberg. As you know, we don’t do much here with opinion columns, but, hey, don’t you think this is a snappy headline? — “Can Democrats, Like Republicans, Get Religion?”

We like the sound of that.

By the way, if you Google the words Get Religion right now, we are nearing the 100,000 mark for use of the phrase. Then there’s nearly 16,000 for GetReligion (without the space, the way we use it in the URL). Coming soon — GetReligion T-shirts, mugs and (according to young Jeremy) lunch boxes. We will pass on the Air America-style thong.

Meanwhile, here is one of the money quotes from the Ferguson column, focusing on the recent life and times of one John Podesta and the Center for American Progress:

Many Democrats have been awed by the success of the conservative movement within the Republican party. So over the last two years, Democratic activists have created a series of mirror-image institutions and initiatives — their own talk radio network, quasi-academic think tanks (Podesta’s center is the most prominent), media watchdog groups, ideologically motivated lobbying firms. It worked for conservatives, why not liberals?

Podesta’s faith initiative shows the delusion at the heart of this mimicry. There’s no doubting that religious conservatives have been one of the great engines of Republican electoral success. Yet this part of the conservative movement has been what a progressive might call “organic,” a spontaneous coming-together of like-minded people in the face of intolerable offenses (so conservatives believed) from the larger secular culture.

The religious right, in other words, is a bottom-up movement, bound together by a sense of grievance. Podesta’s initiative, on the other hand, looks like an attempt to gin up an artificial movement that otherwise shows no independent signs of viability.

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Don't ask, don't tell — and don't drink Hutch's Snapple

HutchCover.jpgThe New York Times follows up on The Stranger‘s story about the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, the pastor who believes his pressure made Microsoft back away from its support of a gay-rights bill before Washington’s legislature.

Times writer Sarah Kershaw sees dangerous Deeper Meanings in Hutcherson’s outlandish method to keep people the hell away from his bottles of Snapple:

If there is any question about Dr. Hutcherson’s intolerance of dissent or disobedience — one that is infused with a stinging sense of humor — it could be answered quickly by a glance at the mini-refrigerator in his office. Next to his chair, which is submerged under a lavish white sheepskin cover, a sign on the fridge says, “Warning: I have licked the tops of all my Snapples — Hutch. * And I have tested positive for anthrax.”

Hutcherson has a novel way of dealing with church members who apparently think adultery is no big deal:

Dr. Hutcherson is known for publicly chastising and excommunicating members if he finds out they are sinning, calling adulterers, for example, up to the pulpit and demanding they repent, congregants said.

“And if they don’t want to repent of it, he’ll let them know that this is not the church for you,” said John Stachofsky, 42, a longtime friend of Dr. Hutcherson and a member of the church who goes bird and deer hunting with him.

And Kershaw delivers some damning advice from Hutcherson on how gay people can best cope in America:

“I even get upset when people say, ‘Well, you got to understand what they go through.’ Not when they’ve chosen to do what they do. They can stop choosing what to do what they do, and they can hide it anytime they want. They can hide their homosexuality. Could I take a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy as an African-American? I could try even to pretend I was Puerto Rican, but I’m still going to get blasted for my skin color.”

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Life after "Firm Believer" videos

WWDEat.jpgOK, OK, this story is a few days old, but I just had to pass it along because of the oh so sweet headline: “Christian Diets: Fewer Loaves, Lots of Fishes.”

Maybe I am just sensitive to this right now, having just finished the traditional Eastern Orthodox Lent (no meat, no dairy), which makes it nigh unto impossible to avoid carbs. As Frederica “grandmother of this blog” Mathewes-Green likes to quip, during Lent “we don’t eat. We graze.”

Actually, this is a great example of what I like to call the “photocopy the culture” option among Christian entrepreneurs (like the whole Contemporary Christian Music industry). When in doubt, the Christian marketplace just sells a copy of whatever is hot in the real marketplace, only adding a few Scripture quotations.

Here are, literally, the money paragraphs from reporter John Leland’s feature in The New York Times:

Lose It for Life is among the many Christian weight-loss programs hoping to combine the success of “The South Beach Diet” with the Christian self-help pull of Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life,” a best seller at 22 million copies. “Look, it’s no secret that some of the most popular songs, books and movies now are faith-based,” said Jordan S. Rubin, author of “The Maker’s Diet,” which has sold more than a million copies. “Look at ‘Purpose-Driven Life’ and ‘Left Behind’ in books, ‘Passion of the Christ’ at the movies and musical artists like Switchfoot, who sell in the millions. In the pop secular marketplace people are embracing faith as mainstream.”

And the marketplace is returning the embrace. If you have ever wondered “What Would Jesus Eat?” you need only turn to the best seller by the same name written by a Florida physician named Don Colbert. (Answer: lots of fish, grains and vegetables.) And if that fails, you can try “Body by God,” “The Hallelujah Diet” and dozens of others.

Well, the Passion wasn’t exactly a photocopy of anything, was it?

But, hey, readers: What are your favorite “photocopy the culture” products from the past year or so?

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Say what? A Polish spy in the Vatican?

pope stamp.jpgI was flipping through the back pages of the news section of my local newspaper this weekend and this Associated Press story stopped me in my tracks.

It didn’t surprise me that Polish authorities had worked overtime to try to stop the newly enthroned Pope John Paul II from making an early return to his beloved homeland. It would have shocked me if they had cooperated.

But then I hit this element of the story, based on a report from Leon Kieres, head of Poland’s National Remembrance Institute:

On Wednesday, Kieres identified a Polish priest working at the Vatican, the Rev. Konrad Stanislaw Hejmo, who he said had collaborated with communist-era secret police during John Paul’s papacy. Hejmo has said he never knowingly informed on the church.

Kieres denied in the La Repubblica interview that his claim of alleged informers within the Roman Catholic Church was politically motivated. Kieres also told the paper that hundreds of clergymen collaborated with the communist regime in Poland as part of a network of informers in operation for several decades.

Once again, it isn’t all that surprising that there were undercover informers in Poland. Still, that is a major story. What rocked me was the news of the informer inside the Vatican.

Heading to Google News, I found that international newspapers have been all over this story, while American papers have either ignored it or downplayed it big time. The experts say Americans don’t care about global news, and I assume that is true. But I think this is a story people would have wanted to read.

Nice headline (yes, all in caps) in the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia: “HEJMO: NAIVE AND STUPID, BUT I’M NOT A SPY.”

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Will TV Land defile Salem, Mass.?

Montgomery.jpgKathy McCabe of The Boston Globe reported this week that the TV Land cable network wants to honor Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched character, Samantha Stephens, with a statue in Salem, Mass.

The network’s plans upset some residents who believe the statue, to be placed in a city park, would dishonor the memory of the Salem witch trials’ victims:

“It’s insensitive to what happened in 1692,” said Jean Harrison, one of several Salem residents opposing the plan. “She was a fictional witch, but the people who died were not witches.”

Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz Jr. said the statue will bring a bit of whimsy to town and maybe a boost to Salem’s seasonal tourist trade. He said the city insisted that the statue be placed away from sites associated with the witch trials, such as a park dedicated to the memory of the 19 accused witches hanged on Gallows Hill in 1692.

“I see this as something like the Red Auerbach statue in Boston,” he said of the bronze figure of the former Celtics coach on a bench at Quincy Market. “It’s a place where people will stop, get their picture taken, and have a little bit of fun while they’re visiting Salem.”

In a brief editorial today, the Globe opposed statue for reasons similar to those expressed by Harrison: “A happy fictional TV witch in a place of so much historical sadness could soften realities for some people — especially children, who get enough mixed messages from television. Better to keep Montgomery in reruns, and out of the park.”

McCabe also sought comment from a local Wiccan:

Not everyone is bothered by the return of “Bewitched” to Salem, the self-proclaimed “Halloween Capital of the World.” Some in the city’s Wiccan community say they welcome the tribute to one of America’s best-loved witches.

“Many of us love and adore the show; we grew up watching it,” said Jerrie Hildebrand, 50, a graphic designer and practicing Wiccan. “But it has nothing to do with our religion. . . . I only wish I could twitch my nose and make my house clean.”

Neither the ACLU nor Americans United has weighed in on whether the statue would establish a kitschy TV version of witchcraft as a city-sanctioned religion.

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Der kidding me, right?

Ratzinger-Report.jpgWow, check out this reaction to the election of Benedict XVI in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. I mean, the editors might as well have assigned a heavily sedated Matthew Fox to write the piece on the election of the first German pope since 1048. The long subhead reads:

Joseph Ratzinger has spent his entire life trying to ignore real life. He has been more successful at doing this in Rome than at home in Germany. Now the world’s Catholics hope that this rigid guardian of the faith will transform himself into a good shepherd.

The portraiture of the pope in his previous life is so shaded that it often veers into caricature. We read about Ratzinger the borderline autistic worker:

Every day at precisely the same time, Joseph Ratzinger would leave the apartment, carrying his briefcase in his left hand, and walk diagonally across St. Peter’s Square to his office . . .

Ratzinger the monomaniac:

“He could write as if possessed, spending 12 or 13 hours without eating,” says a [quasi-anonymous] priest . . . “The sisters would put sandwiches on his desks, only to find hours later that they hadn’t been touched.”

Ratzinger the German out of step with the march of his fellow countrymen:

There was apparently only one German cardinal who voted for Ratzinger in the first round of the election: Joachim Meisner, the ultraconservative Archbishop of Cologne, unpopular with many in his diocese.

Ratzinger the young theological radical:

He was called the “teen-ager” of the [Second Vatican] Council.

Ratzinger the wimpy neoconservative:

At some point he heard his own students utter the scandalous words: “Jesus be damned.” Horrified, he left Tuebingen for a position at the more conservative and tranquil University of Regensburg. . . .

He has inherited St. Augustine’s theological pessimism, his conviction that there is no real future when it comes to earthly matters. In this world view, neither history nor nature can offer any hope or expectation, and nothing good can be expected to transpire in the world beyond the walls of the Church and the Vatican, especially when that world is represented by shabbily dressed, unshaven students calling for revolution in the name of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ.

And, finally, Ratzinger the preacher to whom grace has become a foreign concept:

Even his last sermon before the conclave was harsh and didactic. As in the past, man is delegated to the sidelines in Ratzinger’s perspective. And as he had done so many times before — and perhaps for the last time? — he claimed that Jesus died for the truth, not for our sins. Indeed, one of the Church’s main functions is to continue repeating this message, always in a fresh and timely manner. (Emphasis added.)

I hardly know where to start here, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll stick to the claim highlighted in the last paragraph as a great example of how the Der Spiegel writers fail to . . . get religion.

In his final homily before Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he said, in part,

Saint Peter says: “He himself bore our sins in His body upon the cross.” And Saint Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,’ that the blessing of Abraham might be extended to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

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A simple story: God, Zo and a kidney

Mourning2.jpegAccording to the seminars offered by our friends at Poynter.org, one of the quickest ways to improve religion news coverage in the MSM is for journalists simply to stop removing the faith elements of stories in which they are already present.

This is the opposite of trying to find religion news.

The goal is to stop ignoring it or, worse, editing it out of the lives of oridinary people all around us. Click here for a fine essay on this by Poynter fellow Aly Colon.

Well, Alonzo Mourning of the NBA’s Miami Heat is not an ordinary person — he is one of those stunning towers of mind, heart, talent and muscle that achieves riches and fame in media and sports. Down here in South Florida, he has been a major force in community life, and his life-and-death struggle with kidney disease is more than a sports story. It has been an epic human drama.

And this is precisely how The Miami Herald‘s NBA-beat reporter Israel Gutierrez (is that a South Florida byline or what?) handles a little-known part of the Zo comeback in a sports-page feature about the relationship between the superstar and the cousin, Jason Cooper, who donated the kidney that saved his life.

There is a faith element to the story and Gutierrez does not play it up, but he also does not ignore it. He just lets the people tell their story, and that is enough.

This was, apparently, one of those private, personal stories in which chance events took place that the people involved later decided were not chance at all. It was, they said, a God thing. Here is the key passage. You need to read the whole story to understand the part about the television set.

Cooper offered to take the necessary tests to see if he could donate one of his kidneys to Mourning. It was an eerie coincidence that Cooper decided to make the trip to visit his grandmother on that particular day, and that the news came across the TV screen at that particular time. Some would say it’s more than a coincidence. Whatever the explanation, that moment put in motion an act of selflessness and kindness that would reinvigorate an NBA star, and created an unbreakable bond between two cousins who didn’t figure they would ever be this close again.

“Jason, man — he’s a lifesaver,” Mourning said. “It’s just God sent how it all worked out. Things don’t happen like that just because it happens. People just say, ‘Oh, it’s a coincidence.’ No it’s not. There’s a reason why Jason went to that hospital to see his aunt on her deathbed and I just so happened to come up on the television. I mean, come on, that’s not a coincidence. That’s somebody higher than us planning all that out.”

It’s a simple story, the kind that people tell all the time. It’s nice to see it in the sports pages of a major newspaper, where fans are more likely to read about steroids and sucker punches than faith and the family ties that bind.

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No alt-del-esc for Microsoft

StrangerApril28.jpgIt’s always a pleasure to see an independent weekly breaking news of national importance, which The Stranger (Seattle) is doing in a story involving Microsoft, an African American megachurch pastor and a proposed gay-rights bill in the state legislature.

In a cover story from this week’s issue, Sandeep Kaushik reports on how Pastor Ken Hutcherson and Microsoft vice president and general counsel Bradley Smith have sharply different memories of their conversations about the gay-rights bill. Microsoft says it decided to take a neutral stance on the bill before Hutcherson met with Smith. Both Hutcherson and the bill’s sponsor believe Microsoft is not telling the truth.

Well, Hutcherson puts it more bluntly than that:

In previous days, Microsoft had confirmed to other publications, in particular the New York Times, The Stranger‘s original report that Smith had met with Hutcherson, and that the company had taken a “neutral” stance on the bill this year after supporting it in previous years. However, in an e-mail to the company’s 35,000 United States employees last Friday night, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer denied that the meetings with Hutcherson had influenced the company’s switch. Ballmer wrote that he had “done a lot of soul searching over the past 24 hours on this subject,” and that the company was “thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike — when should a company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?”

Hutcherson expressed disappointment with Ballmer’s statement — “Steve Ballmer, I believe, is a liar” — and said in no uncertain terms that Microsoft was not being forthright about the substance of the conversations company executives had with him, and about the timing of the company’s decision. “The company lied, and ‘the Black Man’ is not going to lie down and say ‘okay,’” he said, referencing his nickname around the church office. He added, “Evidently they don’t know that I won’t keep my mouth shut about unrighteousness.”

Hutcherson’s further explanation of his meeting with Smith shows that he has no shortage of memorable remarks:

Hutcherson said that he asked for a meeting with Microsoft after becoming upset that two company employees had testified in favor of the bill on February 1. He first met with Smith and three other lower-ranking executives on February 23.

At that meeting, Smith made it clear to the pastor that the company supported the bill, Hutcherson said. Smith told him, he said, that the company had recently been asked by GLEAM, the gay and lesbian employees group at Microsoft, to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, but the company had said no. Smith went on to say that Microsoft did support the anti-discrimination legislation, and he described it as a “civil rights issue” — a red flag for Hutcherson, who is African American — Hutcherson said. The pastor recalled asking Smith a question: “You won’t stand up for two men or two women getting married, but you will put your power behind a guy who wants to dress up in a dress and come to work?”

Smith replied, according to Hutcherson’s recollection, “That’s our policy. We thought this is a good bill to stand behind.” Hutcherson then said he told Smith he would organize a national boycott of the company if it did not withdraw its support for the bill. “You’re not going to like me in your world. I am going to give you something to fear Christians about,” he said he told Smith. “I told him, ‘You have a week’” to decide, Hutcherson said.

Smith replied to inquiries from The Stranger during a business trip to Europe:

Smith offered a very different impression of the discussion. He said the bulk of the conversation was taken up with a discussion of the confusion about Microsoft’s position on the bill that had been created by two employees who had testified on February 1. Smith had read the testimony that morning, and felt there was some confusion. Smith recalled telling Hutcherson that “the company wasn’t involved in this” and that “the company hadn’t taken a position” on the bill.

“He told me that he thought that we should fire the employees,” Smith said. He added, “It didn’t strike me as a situation where it was appropriate to fire people.” He did agree with Hutcherson that the testimony “created the impression that the company was supporting a bill when the company wasn’t involved,” he said, adding, “In my mind, that was what the meeting was about.” Smith also added that Hutcherson had requested that the company issue a letter stating that it was neutral on the bill, or that the bill was unnecessary, but that he declined.

Both sides in this debate have spoken of boycotting Microsoft (blogger John Aravosis, for instance, recommends using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer as one punitive response). Some of us who spend much of our time shackled to a laptop can enjoy the idea of a Microsoft-free workday, if only on the grounds of aesthetics and supporting innovative shareware.

Smith argues that Microsoft does not make policy based on impending boycotts: “Almost every large corporation does receive at least monthly — often weekly — letters from groups threatening to organize boycotts. You can’t run your business on that basis.”

That could well be true, though the battling boycott threats of this story make it more interesting as a news story.

Tim Gill, founder of Quark Inc., has long linked his software (including Quark XPress) to pro-gay activism. Are there other examples of software companies that take clear sides in the nation’s debate about sex and marriage?

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