All together now: Thank God for the ACLU

I was stuck in a Southern California airport for a few hours the other day and, of course, this meant spending some quality time with a dead-tree-pulp edition of the Los Angeles Times.

As you would expect, it contained large doses of post-11/2 “values” news. Some of this was fairly predictable, such as metro columnist Steve Lopez going out of his way to find a Baptist preacher — I predict from the American Baptist flock in the blue pews — who was upset about the role of Bible-thumpers in American life and politics. If you know any left-of-center Baptists and/or evangelicals, you might want to tell them to call the switchboard at their local newspaper and the odds are good someone will do a story on them right now. Hey, I’ve done one or two of those recently myself.

Then there was feature writer Robin Abcarian’s “It’s a deeper shade of red,” which offered a nice look inside the red-state numbers in Indiana. She talked to a wide variety of people whose religious and political views are much more complex than they appear when shoved through the grid of an exit poll. It is still interesting, however, how almost every interview kept pivoting on issues of sexual morality. Let’s face it, the 10 Commandments are hot.

But the story that really got me fired up was right out there on page one, in column one — Scott Gold’s report from Las Vegas about the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of some very blunt, non-PC street preachers. This was a reminder that there are times when the ACLU gets quite logical and consistent and defends everybody’s right to offend people on public sidewalks (unless those public sidewalks are too close to abortion facilities).

You want quotes and colorful details? Gold’s got ‘em from the get-go and they lead straight into a thesis paragraph that grabs you:

The way the American Civil Liberties Union sees it, the 1st Amendment was made for nights like this. The organization in recent months has turned a small band of street preachers into unlikely symbols of free speech — fighting, sometimes in noisy confrontations with police and casinos, for the preachers’ right to spread the gospel on the Las Vegas Strip.

The alliance is an awkward one. The preachers openly despise the ACLU, which they view as an insufferably liberal institution, albeit one that had lately seemed like their only friend in town. The ACLU doesn’t think much of the preachers’ condemnations of, well, a lot of people, including “fornicators,” Democrats, women who seek abortions and people who have not accepted Christ as their savior.

And the Las Vegas establishment doesn’t think much of the whole issue; evangelical preachers bellowing about “homos,” “porno freaks” and the devil don’t exactly fit with the anything-goes marketing scheme that has served this city well.

But sidewalks are supposed to be for everyone, so the ACLU has waded into this decade-long fight between preachers, casinos, lawyers, labor leaders, anti-war activists, erotic dance-club staffers and cops. There ought to be a Country & Western song in here somewhere.

Gold also has to cover the local laws and customs, which, since this is sin city, are colorful in and of themselves. When the case hit the courts, it turned out that the bottom line remains the bottom line:

“What the court said, basically, is that if it looks like a sidewalk, smells like a sidewalk and functions like a sidewalk, then by golly it’s a public sidewalk,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU.

And, by golly, free speech is supposed to be free speech, even when somebody is waving a Bible and telling people that they may or may not go to hell and the choice is up to them. That’s what happens when someone has a constitutional right to say that he is on a mission from God.

Fire and brimstone are awkward, no doubt about it. Here’s the end of the story:

For the most part . . . the Griners were simply ignored. After their lengthy struggle to be there at all, they made clear that they were satisfied with that. And some onlookers were impressed with their fortitude, given the surroundings.

“If you believe in it, you should push it,” said Garrett Midkiff, a 24-year-old student visiting from Arizona. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to go gamble and drink some more. But I look up to them for doing this. And what better place to do it than the city of sin?”

And all the people said: “Amen.” OK, some of the people said: “Amen.”

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Come one, come all

The web elves at Christianity Today have compiled what they’re calling the “longest CT Weblog ever.” Well over 400 links on Arlen Specter, Democrats and Religion, Human Rights, and Sports, plus a few dozen other subjects. To call it comprehensive would not do it justice. Go. Read. Marvel at the determination of Olsen and Moll to cover every topic under the sun. Solomon in all his glory did not think to produce a weblog like this.

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Veterans Day with the Devil

tap stonehenge2Satirist Harry Shearer makes explicit the comedic Stonehenge elements of the Episco-Druid story during Apologies of the Week (requires RealPlayer) on Le Show, his weekly broadcast of music, comedy and sketches.

After reading news reports’ common disclaimer that the Rev. William Melnyk and the Rev. Glyn Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk did not return phone calls seeking comment, Shearer cracked, “They were busy heading for Stonehenge [full beat] to say they weren’t druids.”

Shearer played Spinal Tap’s bassist, Derek Smalls, so he knows his campy Stonehenge references.

For those who don’t have This is Spinal Tap handy, here are the lyrics to “Stonehenge”:

Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Where a man is a man and the children
dance to the pipes of Pan
‘Tis a magic place where the moon doth rise
with a dragon’s face
Where the virgins lie
and the prayer of devils fill the midnight sky
And you my love, won’t you take my hand
We’ll go back in time to that mystic land
Where the dew drops cry and the cats meow
I will take you there
I will show you how

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Atheists for Bush

Hitch_1In his latest Slate dispatch, Christopher Hitchens (in a departure from his pre-election shrug) comes out swinging for George W. Bush. He begins by taking "strong exception" to the charge that one must be a "God-bothering, pulpit-pounding Armageddon-artist, enslaved by ancient texts and prophecies and committed to theocratic rule" to have backed Bush in this go-round.

He takes a swipe at Gary Wills for the historian’s "the Enlightenment is falling" piece in the New York Times. Wills, says Hitchens, "who makes at least one of his many livings by being an Augustinian Roman Catholic," should go and contemplate how much hypocrisy one can fit on the head of a pin.

The setup: "As far as I know, all religions and all churches are equally demented in their belief in divine intervention, in divine intercession, or even the existence of the divine in the first place."

Having asserted his atheist credentials, Hitchens explains that "not all faiths are equally demented in the same way or at the same time." Islam is clearly the greater of two evils. Its more virulent strains are "explicitly totalitarian and wedded to a cult of death." He sees the murder of Theo Van Gogh as "only a warning of what is coming in Madrid, London, Rome, and Paris, let alone Baghdad and Basra."

One political faction in the U.S. makes excuses "for the religious fanaticism that immediately menaces us in the here and now." And that faction, Hitchens is "sorry and furious to say, is the left." "A gallery of psuedointellectuals [Isn't he taking this faux Orwell thing too far? -- ed.] have been willing to represent the worst face of Islam as the voice of the oppressed."

While George Bush may be "subjectively Christian," Hitchens argues that "he — and the U.S. armed forces — have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled." You see, smashing the Taliban, disrupting al Qaeda, and confronting the "theocratic saboteurs" of Iraq all give a huge boost to "non-fundamentalist forces in many countries."

If liberal secularism is framed as an objection to this project, says Hitchens, "I’ll take a modest, God-fearing, deer-hunting Baptist from Kentucky every time, as long as he didn’t want to impose his principles on me (which our Constitution forbids him to do so)."

GetReligion readers will no doubt have some thoughts and questions about this. Here are a few of mine:

1) Iraq under Saddam Hussein was an essentially secular, if brutal, regime. Now Islam will likely play a large part in the nation’s government. It might be the sort of moderate Islam that Hitchens can live with but at this point I’d bet against it. If I am correct — and I hope I’m not — then Hitchens may have to rethink his support for the war in Iraq.

2) Hitchens is nominally pro-life. How much of a role does this play in his ability to shrug off many criticisms of American religious conservatives?

3) On a tangentially related note, for the mother of all overreactions to what’s being called Jesusland, click here, if you dare.

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Ponder witches, while the GetReligion crew unpacks

The GetReligion crew has been traveling the last two days to attend planning meetings for this blog and other related projects.

It looks like we might be moving to Oxford, sort of. Details soon. Academic connections take time to work out. We hope to be part of a new effort at the Center for Religion and Public Life, based at Oxford. Tentative title for the overarching project — the Center for Faith and Journalism.

In the meantime, the post 11/2 news continues to sort itself out. To me, it seems as if religion is at the heart of every other story. I’ll have some of my usual reflections on reading newspapers in airports, in a matter of a day or two.

Meanwhile, enjoy these faith-based thoughts from one of the mainstream religious leaders in Hollywood. That would be Barbra, as in Streisand. In terms of East Coast voices, has anyone seen anything new from Frank Rich? (Wait! There he is in my morning email.)

I am not joking. All of the good stories are on the religious left right now.

We Must Have Patience
. . . Barbra Streisand
Posted on November 8, 2004

In response to the results of the Presidential election last week, I would like to share with you a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Although written in 1798, I feel his words speak perfectly to the strong sentiments of frustration and disappointment 48% of the country feel.

“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt . . . If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.”

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The druidry story transmogrifies

Oath_of_druids_1Newspapers in greater Philadelphia have begun reporting on the past Druidic interests of the Rev. William Melnyk and his wife, the Rev. Glyn Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk, but some have lost the story’s finer distinctions.

"The online editor of Christianity Today magazine accused the church of ‘promoting pagan rites and pagan deities’ and the Melnyks of idolatry," David Bernard of the Chester Daily Local wrote on Nov. 6.

The same sentence appeared again three days later in a story attributed to "Staff and Wire Reports."

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today Online focused his critiques both on the rites composed by the two priests and on one rite’s distribution through the Episcopal Church’s Office of Women’s Ministries website. These are the only two paragraphs, in his varied comments on the rites, in which Olsen used the word idolatry:

But in this case, we’re not talking about something that’s merely unorthodox, or even heresy. We’re talking about pagan worship of Old Testament idols. We’re talking about a mock Eucharist, the center of Christian worship, that directly references a biblical text about idolatry–and stands proudly, "defiantly," with the idolaters.

One would have thought that the Episcopal Church USA might have argued whether it was really practicing a different religion. Instead, their challenge to [Nigerian Archbishop Peter] Akinola’s statement might be that it’s not new at all: Their idolatry has been around since Old Testament times.

Olsen wrote pointed critiques of the Melnyks’ rites, and wondered online whether Bishop Charles Bennison would have anything to say about the matter. But it should be clear to anyone who read Olsen’s articles that he saw the problem of idolatry as more widespread than the activities of two priests in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Further, both Olsen and Erik Nelson of the Institute on Religion and Democracy — who first called the rite’s attention to several bloggers — both commended the Melnyks for their letters of repentance to Bishop Bennison.

"I will not allow this situation to turn into a witch hunt of any sort," Bennison said in his first statement (PDF) on the conflict.

It never was a with hunt. It was, instead, another case of the blogosphere being a few weeks ahead of mainstream media in breaking and reporting a news story.

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Take that! No, you take that! (cue: slap)

times building2

Well now. Please note that almost nothing in the current torrent of debate about the Rod Dreher column has anything to do with the purpose of the original blog article, except that this is a demonstration of how hard this kind of bitter debate is to cover in a newspaper.

Try to imagine writing a story in a newspaper that deals fairly with the voices on both sides of this major-league slap fest.

But there is a factual question here that is central to the work of the blog. The MSM is, consistently, much harsher to the cultural right than to the cultural left. Please check out the media bias studies on this, going back to the classic Los Angeles Times study on abortion coverage. Check out this Oliphant cartoon.

What we have been trying to do is compare the levels of invective in the mainstream news media toward the religious right and the religious/secular left, in the wake of the 11/2 election. That is, after all, what this blog is about — press coverage of religious issues. Also, we are interested in editorial pages, but not as much as we are interested in the news pages. We jumped on The New York Times op-ed freak out theme because this was so symbolic of the general attitudes in that elite newspaper.

But, let me stress, even at the Times where was some fabulous journalism going on out in the main columns. There were outbreaks of information about both sides. There were voices quoted that told us something new about what was happening. Good. Anyone want to note some other exceptionally good stories that we have missed?

But I continue to think that the undercovered side of this debate is the hardcore religious left. Or maybe not. Maybe that is what we are reading on the editorial pages.

Meanwhile, here is a recent letter that cuts very close to the larger news story that remains uncovered. Can anyone imagine a major cultural issue compromise by the religious left? This is just as hard, or harder, than to imagine one on the right. Here is the letter.

Name: Charlie

The truth is that, Patricia Ireland’s apparent unwillingness to compromise notwithstanding, the Democrats could pick off a great number of orthodox conservatives if they came out strongly in favor of a few compromises on abortion, such as a uniform standard for parental notification for minors, a short waiting period, and a serious educational effort aimed at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, done in a way that is respectful of Catholic views on contraception. In doing these things, Dems would be moving the abortion wars to a more acceptable middle ground, and the radical left like Ireland would have no choice but to continue to support the Democrats — where else would they go? To the Republicans?!

If the Dems could manage to stop insulting people of faith, and could take a few steps towards the center on moral issues like abortion, marriage, the Pledge, embryonic stem cells, Israel, they might be able to claim to be the party that is seeking balance in a pluralistic society, leaving the Republicans to appear to be the party of the extremes. But such compromises would infuriate the hard left, and would probably take more moral courage than the Democrats are able to muster.

As a life-long Democrat who long-ago abandoned my party because of its positions on abortion and other “respect for life” issues, I am still not comfortable with the Republican positions on capital punishment, health care for the poor and other social justice matters. If the Democrats were smarter, they could entice people like me back into the fold.

Now, has anyone seen Charlie’s voice show up in the news pages? Perhaps a Hispanic Charlie? An African-American Charlie? A born-again, Bible Belt Charlie?

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Gasp: Rod Dreher claims that he is "normal"

Dreher_wills_1(Cue: drum roll) Here is something that seems a bit bizarre to contemplate. GetReligion readers, I bring you the journalistic team of Rod Dreher and Alexander Cockburn. It will take a moment to get to the second half of that equation.

Dreher, as many readers will know, is a conservative Catholic on the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News and a friend of this blog. In the photo he is shown with, of all people, the enlightened historian Garry Wills.

In the wake of the post-11/2 earthquake in the mainstream media, Dreher pounded out a personal column trying to explain to other journalists that, out in flyover country, the election was seen as a whisper of sanity, not the revenge of what he called "Shi’ite Baptists and the Taliban Catholics." A liberal friend even
wrote Dreher to compare the Bush victory with the 1933 burning of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Dreher is not the kind of man who hides what he thinks. He says the left, at the moment, is being tempted to engage in the "same hysteria as the McCarthy-era
right-wing paranoids who saw a crypto-commie inside every liberal." There’s more.

You love to blame us and the Republican leadership for being "divisive."
Yet it wasn’t our side that cheered when the Massachusetts Supreme Court
overturned the ancient and settled definition of marriage in a single moment,
and we were not the partisans who staged illegal and intentionally provocative
gay wedding ceremonies on the steps of city halls.

Well, last week Middle America was provoked, and provoked right back. What
did you expect?

This may come as a shock to liberals who don’t peer outside their cultural
cocoon, but believing that marriage is something exclusively between one man and
one woman is … normal. In fact, the opposite is radical by any historical or
social measure. It is also not a bizarre and reactionary act to vote for the presidential
candidate who believes it is immoral to allow a form of abortion that sucks the
brains out of partially born babies, instead of the presidential candidate who
voted to keep that kind of thing legal.

At the moment, many on the left (including more than few voices in the media) have decided that moral and cultural conservatives are not just wrong, but downright evil, the spiritual blood brothers of Osama bin Laden.

Dreher says that what this country needs, right now, is some culturally conservative — Democrats. America needs more politicians who care about old-fashioned progressive values.

Frankly, as a social conservative who worries about what GOP stewardship of the
economy is doing to families and communities, I long for the day when the
Democratic Party speaks to the concerns of people like me without derision and
condescension. You need a Harry S. Truman, an old-style populist Democrat in
sincere touch with small-town values.

Unfortunately for you — and for America — if Harry S. Truman were alive
today, y’all wouldn’t give him the time of day. For that matter, if the 1971
version of Teddy Kennedy walked in the door, those pro-life convictions would
end his career as a Democrat before it got started. Think about

As you might imagine, Dreher has been receiving some email. As you might imagine, his claim that many liberals have demonized cultural conservatives struck a nerve. Here is a sample.

Let’s clear up a few obvious errors in your screed: it is nativist
know-nothing self-righteous christians who  herald America’s dark ages.  Not
Christians of any sort, as in folks who walk the Christ talk with integrity and
meekness, but nominal christians such as yourself who wrap the cross in a flag
and use it as a spear to impale those who disagree with you or threaten your
peace of mind with, oh my, thinking.  … And do I think in your America Jews and other non-Christians will have
their religious and civil liberties curtailed?  I am quite certain of it. 
Why?   Because you are part of a belief system that condemns non-believers and
dissenters to hell.

All of this sounds rather like the thesis of an earlier Dreher piece in Touchstone magazine entitled "The Godless Party." In it, Dreher called attention to what sociologists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio of Baruch College in the City University of New York call the new "anti-fundamentalist voters." More than anything else, these voters are motivated by a stunning antipathy toward traditional religious believers.

Apparently, the Bolce and De Maio data even reached the desk of one major journalistic voice on the candid left. Check out this reference from Alexander Cockburn on the role of "moral values" in the election. We can debate his reference to America being a "Christian nation." He said it, not me. I happen to disagree. Here’s Cockburn.

… this brings us to the well-known fact (greeted with amazement
on Wednesday morning by the pundits) that the United States is a Christian
nation. Tocqueville noticed this some time ago, and anyone driving today down
any county road or state highway will see a lot of churches, still well ahead of
casinos which are facilities also predicated on a relationship with Providence.
The 2002 edition of the University of Chicago’s regular surveys reported that
the adult population of the homeland is 53 per cent Protestant, 25 per cent
Catholic, 3 per cent Christians of some other stripe, 3 per cent other
religions, 2 per cent Jewish and 14 per cent holding "no religion". Of the
Christians, 25 per cent go to church once a week or more.

Even though the highest reading on any chart of Intolerance is that nourished towards Christians by secular liberals (after all, Christians believe in forgiveness and the possibility of redemption) I suppose we’ll have to put up with much earnest journalism from sensitive liberal writers driving into the Christian heartland to inspect and commune with the natives. I read one patronizing prospectus from a Californian  free-lancer that sounded like an
application by an anthropologist in 1925 for funding to inspect an African tribe.

PERSONAL NOTE: Please excuse some problems with formatting. TypePad has changed many of its editing functions again and it will take some time to get this worked out.

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