The New Yorker probes a curse word — "proselytizing"

Washington-icon.jpgI have been on the road again, doing a seminar or two at the National College Media Convention in New York City (home of Brendan’s Bar & Grill). As usual, I munched my way through a stack of newspapers and magazines while stalled in airports, etc.

This led me to the March 21 issue of The New Yorker, pulled to the news rack by the big headline: “Jesus in the classroom.” I wish I could link to Peter J. Boyer’s story, but that is not up on the site. I think there are times when we forget there is valid content out there in the MSM to which we cannot link. Blogs are amazing things, but we cannot — at this point — link to everything.

However, The New Yorker‘s crew has backed up the piece with an online Q&A that offers insights into some of the strengths of the piece. The feature focuses on the church-state war inside the ultra-elite Cupertino, Calif., public schools, which focused on all of those headlines that screamed “DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE BANNED AT CALIFORNIA SCHOOL!” The man at the center of the fight was born-again elementary school teacher Stephen Williams, backed by a legal team from the Alliance Defense Fund.

This could have been one of those Religious Right vandals sacking Blue State Paradise stories, but Boyer digs in deeper than that.

Yes, there is ample evidence that some conservative Christians still want to turn the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, I suppose) into megachurch Sunday school teachers. The story also mentions a few bobbles by school officials and times when supposedly tolerant parents lose their cool.

But more than anything else, this is a very nuanced, complicated look at one of GetReligion’s pet subjects — offensive free speech and the tensions inside the First Amendment. It certainly does appear that the teacher in this case was attempting to follow the guidelines in the state laws about religious content.

But was he being too fervent? Were his motives bad?

Boyer talks about this in that Q&A, noting that the nuclear weapon in all of this is the dreaded term “proselytizing”:

Was Stephen Williams proselytizing in the classroom — which is strictly forbidden, all sides agree — or was he merely misunderstood to be proselytizing because he had openly expressed his own born-again Christianity? It’s a terribly difficult matter to work out. One of the complaining parents told me that the problem with Stephen Williams is that he made it known that he was a Christian, that his faith mattered more to him than anything in his life. And that reality sort of changed the dynamic in the classroom. When Stephen Williams, Christian, was teaching about the faith of the Founders, did it have the effect on an eleven-year-old’s mind of proselytizing? Perhaps, but how do you stop a teacher from being open about his own faith, outside the classroom, without infringing upon his right of free expression?

What if some of the people on the right do want to bend the rules? What if people on the left really do want to practice viewpoint discrimination? What if folks on both sides have visions of fundraising letters dancing in their heads?

What if media hotheads on both sides want to blow the whole thing up for the sales and ratings?

This is tricky stuff. One of my favorite sections of Boyer’s piece notes that the natives did not grow restless and start hurling the P-word when Williams had his students dig into primary sources on Hanukkah, Ramadan or the Hindu festival of lights. But his discussion of the origins and history of Easter sent some students scampering home to their parents.

Once again, we see people in positions of power hitting the wall on free speech, which is always a story worth covering. I’ve seen major stories in big-city Bible Belt newspapers that were not as balanced as this feature in, of all places, one of the holy texts of the blue elites. Check it out.

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All Schiavo all the time

justice.jpg As many readers now know, the stop-gap measure of issuing a congressional subpoena to prevent the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube failed to stop anything. Judge George Greer ordered the authorities and doctors to proceed as planned and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the House’s appeal.

So the House and Senate worked a bit of procedural magic to a) bring the House bill in line with the Senate bill; and b) allow a handful of House members to pass the compromise legislation either Sunday night or very early Monday morning.

President Bush will return to D.C. to sign the bill. The upshot of the legislation will be to strip jurisdiction in this case from the Florida courts and give Terri Schiavo’s parents — and, by extension, Terri Schiavo — another chance to break custody away from Michael Schiavo, who is madder than a hornet that Congress would dare to interfere in, and I quote, “somebody’s private judicial matter.”

What I think this means is, the feeding tube is about to be reinserted for the third time — though a lot of supporters believe that Terri Schiavo might not actually need the tube to survive.

Several protesters were arrested yesterday trying to bring her bread and water to see if she might be able to swallow them. Randall Terry, the former Operation Rescue big who is acting as the spokesman for Terri’s parents complained about the tight security around her. According to ABC News,

He said the parents also were concerned about the tight security in their daughter’s room, which includes a police officer standing guard.

“They are so determined to kill her that they don’t want mom or dad to even put an ice chip in her mouth,” Terry said.

Judge Greer — who looks likely to be stripped of jurisdiction in the case — had refused to allow a swallow test. For what it’s worth, the Baptist Press reports that Greer withdrew his membership from his Southern Baptist church over the controversy.

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St. Francis, pray for us

FrancisStigmata.jpgIt’s often entertaining to read champions of the religious left excoriating fellow travelers for their cultural powerlessness or their unwillingness to stand up to the religious right. Consider Giles Fraser and William Whyte, writing in The Guardian as if Oliver Cromwell were in charge again and the public executions will begin tomorrow morning:

For decades, the political class on this side of the Atlantic has prided itself on the absence of religious culture wars. The obsession with abortion, gay marriage and obscenity, the alliance between the secular and religious right — these are peculiarly American pathologies. It couldn’t happen here. After all, we’re just not religious enough.

Except it does seem to be happening here. In making abortion an election issue, Michael Howard has prompted the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, pointedly to warn against assuming “that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour party”. Elsewhere, the Christian right targets the BBC, and the Church of England is being colonised by homophobic evangelicals with broad smiles and loads of PR savvy. No wonder the cogs are whirring at Conservative central office on how best to exploit the voting power of religion.

Giles and Whyte seem especially baffled that their fellow believers fail to articulate what they call Jesus’ political manifesto:

But progressive Christians also seem incapable of confronting the religious right on its own terms. Jesus offered a political manifesto that emphasised non-violence, social justice and the redistribution of wealth — yet all this is drowned out by those who use the text to justify a narrow, authoritarian and morally judgmental form of social respectability. The irony is that the religious right and the secular left have effectively joined forces to promote the idea that the Bible is reactionary. For the secular left, the more the Bible can be described in this way, the easier it is to rubbish. Thus the religious right is free to claim a monopoly on Christianity. And the Christian left, hounded from both sides, finds itself shouted into silence.

Giles and Whyte make fair points about a more vibrant social-justice Christianity of the past, as represented by “millions of Christians, from St Francis to Donald Soper, who have fought against injustice throughout the ages.”

Francis would indeed be a fascinating model for today’s religious left to adopt. Perhaps he could point toward a spiritual and political movement that draws its strength more from what it’s for than what new names it can call conservative Christians.

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On the brink

TerriAndMother.jpgAn informative piece at updates readers about what’s going on in the Terri Schiavo case and captures some of the insane wrangling that the case has inspired.

Right now (very early Friday morning) the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform plans to issue a subpoena to require hospice administrators and attending physicians to “preserve nutrition and hydration for Terri Schiavo to allow Congress to fully understand the procedures and practices that are currently keeping her alive.”

This effort comes after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a plea by Terri Schiavo’s parents that it stay the removal of their daughter’s feeding tube until a court could decide whether Terri’s “religious freedom and due process rights were being violated” by her husband’s attempts to remove the tube. The Florida Supreme Court likewise rejected a similar plea from Florida’s Department of Children and Family Services.

The subpoena is a stop-gap measure while Congress decides what to do. Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would give the federal courts some sort of jurisdiction in the case, but the House version is broader than the Senate’s, and with Congress about to go on recess, quick resolution is extremely unlikely.

“As Terri Schiavo lays helpless in Florida, one day away from the unthinkable and unforgivable, the Senate Democrats refused to join Republicans to act on her behalf,” Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay have charged in a joint statement. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid shot back, “If the House Republicans refuse to pass our bipartisan bill, they bear responsibility for the consequences.”

Schiavo’s feeding tube is set to be removed at 1 p.m. today, but at this hour I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to occur.

Legislation to do anything about it stalled in Florida, but in partial defense of the Florida lawmakers, they’ve already dealt with this issue before, only to have the Florida Supreme Court deem their efforts unconstitutional. There a sense in which the decision is out of their hands.

That’s unfortunate. A great way to frame this story is to look at how the courts are taking hold of an explosive case with real ramifications for the debate about end-of-life issues and arrogantly refusing to accept any legislative curbs on their powers. Some conservative writers have used that frame, but reporters have been wary of accepting this angle, as it challenges all sorts of trendy Cherished Beliefs about the American political system.

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A shoutout to another Irish saint

St Brendan the Navigator.jpgI just arrived in midtown Manhattan and I really think the website for this smallish hotel should have noted that it is next to an Irish bar. Getting to bed early tonight is not going to be easy. This is going to be worse than being in the hotel room next to the ice machine at an Episcopal Church convention.

It does seem that today is St. Patrick’s Day and, in New York, this is a pretty big deal. I wanted to share the link of an interesting little item in a recent Wall Street Journal Houses of Worship column that offered a shoutout for a different Irish saint. I bring this up because St. Brendan of Ireland is my patron saint. So there.

What’s the big idea of John J. Miller’s piece? He wants to argue that Brendan, not Patrick, is the logical patron for Irish Americans. This is radical stuff.

The key question: Did the Irish get to North America ahead of the Vikings and, if so, was a missionary saint steering the boat?

If Irish monks really did make it to the Western Hemisphere, then perhaps Brendan is best understood as America’s first immigrant. The story of Irish America, at least in its initial phases, is essentially the epic of a people who uprooted themselves, crossed an ocean and made homes in a place they’d heard about but had not seen.

And if the notion of displacing St. Patrick’s special place on the calendar is too much to abide, then we can compromise: two parties instead of one. Or perhaps more piously, St. Brendan’s feast day on May 16 can be devoted to good works as well as good ale.

I would say amen to that.

Actually, the whole subject of Celtic Christianity — the symbols and the realities — is very interesting and, a few years ago, came close to breaking out as a Godbeat news story. If you are interested in my take on it, click here.

Cheers. Anyone know where you can get a cheap Lenten supper in this town?

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A brief paean to Firefox

Get Firefox!It’s been an especially busy week for all three editors of GetReligion, which affected our ability to post a fresh item today.

This seems like a good time for a brief item of housekeeping. Various readers of this blog have expressed frustration about our photos obscuring our text. We have not found a consistent pattern to this problem, except perhaps older browsers running on older operating systems.

One reader today found that his problems were solved by using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer or Safari. Considering how many of our posts have been prepared on Firefox, we should give this browser an overdue endorsement.

Those of you who have experienced this problem and found solutions are welcome to post them in the comments thread of this post, or to send email to any of the editors.

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Broken Communion story rolls on — in England

gsch_sm.jpgHere we go again.

There have been times, during recent decades, when plot developments in the Anglican Communion drama have become so complicated that I have been tempted to open columns with a written cue for a swirl of organ music under the caption “As Canterbury Turns.”

We are at such a stage right now, as you can probably tell by this rare, multicontinent Anglican double-header here at GetReligion. I did not know that Doug was planning an Episcopal Church update and I was not able to alert him that I was planning a post about a symbolic event in England.

(A personal note: I have been unplugged for a week during business hours at my office, due to an attack of the new backdoor virus on the computer network at Palm Beach Atlantic University. You can imagine how this affects blogging and my Scripps Howard column work.)

I will try to make this brief. At the moment, the real news in the Anglican wars exists at the level of symbols and sacraments, not at the level of bishop ballots and press releases. At least that is what I think.

It is also easy to think of this merely as a story pitting armies of angry Third World traditionalists against a pack of trust fund-wielding Episcopalians who want to evolve into Unitarians with nice Christmas hymns and pretty vestments. But over in England, reporters Jonathan Petre and Jonathan Wynne-Jones of The Telegraph have spotted a sign that the broken Communion story from the recent primates meetings in Ireland may have legs. Here’s the news from London:

A group of clergy has broken sacramental ties with the diocesan bishop in an unprecedented revolt against his liberal views on homosexuality, The Telegraph has learnt.

In what could be the start of an escalating conflict, at least eight conservative clerics have told the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev John Gladwin, that they will refuse to share Holy Communion with him. They are furious that the bishop and five of his colleagues sent a letter to a national newspaper earlier this week announcing their determined support for liberal Anglicans in North America.

The Telegraph notes that this flare-up could be more serious than it looks at first glance, because 100 or so priests in that diocese signed a statement last fall protesting trends in the Church of England.

Well, 100 priests is way less than a majority. But it is a mighty big photo opportunity at a diocesan convention. This may produce some media-friendly tensions when the bishop comes to town for confirmations and ordination rites.

The big question is whether this will spread to other altars in England, thus putting even more pressure on (cue: swirl of pipe-organ music) Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

While American newspapers (hello cable networks!) continue to emphasize the formal documents, it is this emotional story of bread and wine that best symbolizes what is happening at Anglican altars around the world.

This is a battle over sacraments, beginning with the sacrament of marriage. There is no way to avoid this angle. The lawyers are important, but that’s not the real story.

By the way, to read the actual protest statement, click here.

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Everybody loves to see justice done — on somebody else

Consecration.jpgIn the next day or so, much fuss likely will be made about how the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has agreed to a one-year moratorium on approving any newly elected bishops.

The bishops made their decision in response to a recommendation in the Windsor Report and a request by the Anglican Communion’s primates that they not approve more noncelibate homosexual bishops, should any be elected, until there is a greater consensus among Anglicans. The Rev. George Conger, writing for The Living Church magazine, reports that Bishop Gene Robinson, whose election and confirmation is the source of this controversy, proposed applying the moratorium to all bishops’ elections until General Convention, which meets in June 2006.

Conger also reports that Robinson’s proposal originally came from Bishop Otis Charles. The idea of such universally applied moratoria is not new for Charles, an openly gay retired bishop living in California. While Charles served as dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., the chapel there denied its space for weddings until gay students also could be married. That practice has been renewed in the EDS chapel, in protest of a Diocese of Massachusetts policy that forbids priests to officiate at gay weddings.

Of the dioceses Conger identifies as immediately affected by the decision, five are led by a bishop who voted against Robinson’s consecration as a bishop:

Southern Ohio (scheduled election: June 11)

West Texas (October 15; PDF)

Tennessee (November)

Southwest Florida (December)

South Carolina (to be determined by the Standing Committee and Bishop Ed Salmon, who is scheduled to retire in January 2006)

The two dioceses most likely to nominate or elect an openly gay bishop are California (based in San Francisco) and El Camino Real (based in San Jose).

According to Oasis, a gay ministry supported by the Diocese of California, that diocese’s standing committee has refused to “discriminate against any qualified clergy, including gay or lesbian clergy, who might be nominated in the course of the search process.”

The Diocese of California has scheduled its election for May 2006, which means its bishop-elect could be approved by General Convention. If that bishop-elect is gay, it will repeat the high-stakes voting of General Convention in 2003, which confirmed Gene Robinson’s election.

In other words, the House of Bishops has responded to a requested moratorium on more openly gay bishops by delaying the consecration of bishops in dioceses that are less likely to elect gay bishops.

Some Episcopalians will call this justice, or perhaps even justice-love.

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