The New Yorker goes behind The Door

Door_coverThe New Yorker has published an engaging and sympathetic profile of Ole Anthony, leader of the Trinity Foundation, the Dallas-based scourge of TV evangelists. Anthony’s appearances on network television, and the changes he brought to The Door magazine, can leave the impression of a man obsessed with televangelists.

Burkhard Bilger’s 11-page profile, published in the Dec. 6 issue, is not available online. Two paragraphs best capture Trinity’s effects on The Door:

When Trinity inherited the magazine, nine years ago, it was a favorite among seminarians for its subversive wit and its interviews with theologians. The current editor, Robert Darden, is a Trinity supporter who teaches writing at Baylor. He has tried to preserve the magazine’s spirit, but Trinity’s investigations sometimes introduced a strident, acerbic tone. Mild satires like “Harry Potter in the Lake of Fire” now alternate with cover stories on Pat Robertson, “Lifetime Loser,” or on Charlton Heston as a “Christian Soldier of Fortune,” dressed as Moses with a machine gun.

The low point, even Trinity members now say, came when The Door set its sights on W.V. Grant, a local faith healer who presided over a five-thousand-seat church. In 1996, after a two-year investigation by the foundation, Grant was sentenced to sixteen months in prison and ordered to pay three hundred and fifty-three thousand dollars in back taxes, in addition to a fine. Afterward, to celebrate the conviction, Anthony insisted on publishing a Playboy-style centerfold of a picture that a Trinity investigator had found. It showed Grant standing at a window, buck naked and uncommonly hairy. If Darden hadn’t objected strenuously, Anthony would have added a caption in large print: “Even the hairs on his ass are numbered.”

Bilger’s profile tells of Anthony’s decades-long path to becoming a Christian and founding the Trinity Institute — being kicked out of a Lutheran catechism class, taking drugs as a teenager, setting a wooden cross on fire, serving in military intelligence, and witnessing a nuclear-weapons test in 1958:

Anthony’s body still bears traces of the explosion. His blood is so marked by radiation that a doctor once told him he should be dead. His flesh is pocked with more than four hundred lipomas — hard, fatty tumors, strung under his skin like knots in a clothesline. . . . His foundation, as it turns out, is named not after the Holy Trinity but after the first nuclear device, which was detonated in New Mexico, in 1945. “God vaporized my value system the way that bomb vaporized its target,” Anthony says.

The article is most valuable, though, in showing Anthony’s daily life of ascetic discipline, helping homeless people and drug addicts and living among the poor and gang members of East Dallas:

“I couldn’t be a believer outside this community,” he said, when I stopped by his office to say goodbye. “I know my own greed and my need to be right.” He leaned back in his chair and glanced around the room, at the peeling paint and the twittering bird and the books full of words about the Word. “I own nothing, I have nothing, and I make fifty-five dollars a week,” he said. “I’m sixty-six years old, and I have no privacy and no retirement plan. I am a blithering idiot by my own definition.” He shrugged. “The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”

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An honorary Oscar statue for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

submission01Speculation about who will receive what honor at the Academy Awards starts early and runs right through the ceremony itself. So let me openly campaign for a person who I believe should receive a major standing ovation that night. This has nothing to do with Whoopi or Mel.

No, I hope that Hollywood shines a spotlight, somehow, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, once of Somalia and currently — in hiding — in the Netherlands. I will let a Dallas Morning News editorial from this week pick up the story:

In 2003, she was elected to the Dutch Parliament but has had to go into hiding on several occasions after receiving death threats. Her most recent retreat into the underground came after the Nov. 2 slaughter of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam. Police have charged a Muslim extremist with that murder. Ms. Hirsi Ali collaborated with the assassinated artist on Submission, an 11-minute film . . . protesting the condition of women under Islam. A note pinned to the dead man’s chest with a dagger said she would be next.

Hirsi Ali has vowed to carry on, including plans for a sequel to Submission (which is accessible at iFilm.com). The issue, according to the editorial, is what activists in the rest of the world can do to help protect her, especially “artists, writers, political activists and feminists.”

Maybe, maybe not. It’s been more than week since The Wall Street Journal ran a column by Catholic writer Bridget Johnson titled “Look Who Isn’t Talking: A filmmaker is murdered, and Hollywood loudmouths say nothing.” The topic is old, by now, but still timely — since little or nothing has appeared in the mainstream press or the entertainment press on the topic. Strange. Johnson notes:

There’ve been many films over the years that have taken potshots at Catholics, but I don’t remember any of us slaughtering filmmakers over the offense. You didn’t see the National Rifle Association order a hit on Michael Moore over “Bowling for Columbine.”

One would think that in the name of artistic freedom, the creative community would take a stand against filmmakers being sent into hiding à la Salman Rushdie, or left bleeding in the street. Yet we’ve heard nary a peep from Hollywood about the van Gogh slaying. Indeed Hollywood has long walked on eggshells regarding the topic of Islamic fundamentalism. The film version of Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” changed Palestinian terrorists to neo-Nazis out a desire to avoid offending Arabs or Muslims. The war on terror is a Tinsel Town taboo, even though a Hollywood Reporter poll showed that roughly two-thirds of filmgoers surveyed would pay to see a film on the topic.

The conservative press has, of course, been all over this story.

Which is really strange if you stop and connect the dots between the issues raised in this murder. Tick them off again, with the Dallas Morning News editorial — women’s rights, artistic freedom, the right to offensive free speech. Sounds like a Frank Rich column to me.

Instead, it was the launching pad for a column in Human Events by that noted voice for human rights — wait for it — Pat Sajak. I have to hand it to him. In his “A Hush Over Hollywood” essay, Sajak has come up with a logical way to turn this story inside out and see it in a different light.

GetReligion readers on the left should take a deep breath and proceed. Is this fair, or what?

Somewhere in the world, a filmmaker creates a short documentary that chronicles what he perceives as the excesses of anti-abortion activists. An anti-abortion zealot reacts to the film by killing the filmmaker in broad daylight and stabbing anti-abortion tracts onto his body. How does the Hollywood community react to this atrocity? Would there be angry protests? Candlelight vigils? Outraged letters and columns and articles? Awards named in honor of their fallen comrade? Demands for justice? Calls for protection of artistic freedom? It’s a pretty safe bet that there would be all of the above and much more. And all of the anger would be absolutely justified.

So here is my appeal to the academy: Can you spare an honorary Oscar statue for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

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The Big Three wimp out

ucc adThe three major broadcast TV networks stepped in a deep cowpie by turning away a witty ad from the United Church of Christ, and the UCC likely will gain more attention through news reports than it would have through the ad.

News reports in three major dailies — The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle (where it appeared on the front page, below the fold) — focus on different finer points of the story.

The 30-second ad makes a favored point among liberal Christians: that some churches, by stressing Christianity’s historic teachings on homosexuality, are being exclusive, turning people away or otherwise being spiteful. The ad takes that idea up a notch by depicting a church as excluding a gay couple, a young Latino man and an African American girl.

The ad’s humorous genius is in how it illustrates the concept: two muscular, bald, black-clad bouncers stand outside a church and behind a proverbial velvet rope. One says in a voice of deadpan contempt: “Step aside, please,” “No way, not you” and “I don’t think so.” What American who loves fair play and underdogs could watch this commercial and feel anything other than revulsion for these goons (or the one white married couple they let through the rope)? Is this a church, or Studio 54?

In Michael Paulson’s report for the Globe, one striking detail is that UCC officials did not expect that the commercial could be taken as criticizing any other church:

[The Rev. Nancy S.] Taylor [president of the UCC's Massachusetts Conference] said the ad is not intended to criticize other denominations. She said she showed the ad to members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches, where it drew no criticism.

That detail may say more about the goo-goo atmosphere in councils of churches, even at the state level, than it does about the ad’s content.

Another striking detail from Paulson’s report: Although NBC and CBS have taken the bulk of criticism for flatly rejecting the ad, ABC got off the hook by accepting the ad on its ABC Family cable channel. Otherwise, in the chirpy and conflict-averse spirit of Disney, its parent company, ABC rejects ads from all religious bodies. (One irony here: ABC Family began its life as the 24-hour channel for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, became Fox Family for a time, and still broadcasts The 700 Club a few times a day.)

In the Chronicle, arts and culture critic Steve Winn quotes a UCC minister who sees the long and theocratic arm of the Bush administration yanking the networks’ chains:

“It’s ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial,” said the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, in a statement. “What’s going on here?”

The Rev. Kyle Lovett, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in San Francisco, proposed an answer. On the eve of President Bush’s second term, she said, the networks “can’t afford to go against the administration’s version of Christianity and what counts as moral values and what doesn’t count as moral values.”

In fairness to Lovett, GetReligion is baffled by this explanation from a CBS official mentioned in Paulson’s story: “Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch [the Bush administration] has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast.” Since when should legislative actions of the executive branch determine whether a network accepts an ad that violates no decency standards of the FCC?

In the Tribune‘s story, religion professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College raises a concern that we’re likely to hear many times during the next four years:

“CBS and NBC seem to be afraid, not of stirring controversy, but of alienating potential viewers, the kind, moreover, that like to organize boycotts and write letters,” Wolfe said. “There may be a new form of political correctness arising in America, one in which attempts are made to avoid violating the sensibilities, not of women or racial minorities, but of conservative Christians.”

The Tribune also managed to find two conservative Christians who approved of the networks’ decision:

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, gave a strong thumbs up to the networks’ decision.

He said that in the late 1990s, conservative groups wanted to run a commercial featuring “ex-homosexuals who had been converted back to being heterosexuals.” Under pressure from gay-rights groups, the networks refused to accept the spots.

“At least they’re being consistent,” LaBarbera said.

Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, also endorsed the networks’ stand, calling the commercials “false advertising.”

“When the Roman soldiers in the Gospel came to Jesus and said, ‘How can I be saved?’ Jesus did not respond, ‘Be inclusive.’ Jesus responded, “Follow the commandments.’”

LaBarbera has a point: When networks reserve the right to turn away any ads they deem too controversial, that sword can cut conservatives as much as liberals.

Nevertheless, the networks would show more integrity — and provide more interesting broadcasts — if they were less skittish about a 30-second ad from the UCC than they are about the Coors twins.

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Common cup II: intinction and infections

LsIn response to my last post on fears that shaking hands and sharing a common communion cup just might increase the chances of infection during flu season, reader Garrett Brown pointed us to an article by Anne LaGrange Loving, a professor of microbiology.

Loving shares the results of two studies that she conducted. The first pitted the process of intinction — in which the wafer or bread is dipped into wine and distributed to parishioners — against the more pedestrian process of people lining up and taking sips out of the same cup.

The one time I visited an Orthodox church, intinction was the mode of communion. The priest dumped a bunch of bread squares into a big chalice of wine and fished them out with a ladle to place them on people’s tongues. But I digress.

The intinction study found what one would might expect — that this variation on the common cup transmits less bacteria rather than no bacteria. Loving explains that as a member of a church "where many members use intinction, I was able to observe that the fingers of the parishioners and ministers often dip into the wine during the process of intinction," so she had a good idea of what she would find in advance.

But Loving was curious about the rates of infection for those who drink out of a common cup vs. those who don’t, and so she conducted another test. Here the results should cause some brows to furrow. The results of a ten-week survey of 681 people revealed essentially no difference in reported illness between those two groups. Those who supped from the chalice weekly or even daily were no more likely to get sick than those who got drunk the night before and slept in Sunday morning.

Now, it is entirely possible that Loving’s methodology was flawed. At a glance, I’d say that different groups might have reasons to report that they felt "sick" at varying rates. While the survey data may be useful, I would place a lot more trust in it if they had taken weekly throat cultures or similar, more objective, markers.

Still, the piece is well worth the price of admission. We learn about the various strategies by Christians who share a common cup to minimize the risk of infection, including using wine with higher alcohol content, coming up with crazy compartmentalization schemes, or (for the priests) wiping down the chalice with linen that’s been soaked in vodka.

There’s also an interesting inference from Renaissance art that I’ll leave you with:

Alternatives to the common cup have evolved over the 2,000 years of Christianity. Leonardo DaVinci’s "The Lord’s Supper" depicts the disciples with separate cups of wine, indicating that this practice may have been customary during his lifetime.

[A footnote: Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I thought that Loving's name practically screamed hoax but it turns out she's legit -- I think. There really is a Felician College, and one "Ann Loving" is listed as a professor emeritus in the directory. The journal that the article is said to have appeared in really does exist, though the archives do not go back as far as this particular issue. Same goes for the Journal of Environmental Health.]

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The Washington Post needs to listen to Dowd's brother

compcondoms 2A decade ago, a sharp Harvard-educated think tank wonk named Stephen Bates wrote an important book — praised by everyone from E.J. Dionne Jr. to Father Richard John Neuhaus — that I still hear quoted in Beltway discussions from time to time.

It was called Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. Bates thought he would be on the side of the educational establishment. He ended up worried that American public schools are in danger — because educators cannot not get themselves to be fair to the religious conservatives in their desks. I cannot possibly do justice to the book in a few paragraphs. But here is a chunk of an interview I did with him at that time:

It speaks volumes, said Bates, that the educational establishment will accommodate so many other special interest groups, but not conservative Christians. Driving millions of people away from public schools will only increase support for the ultimate weapons in education battles — tax-funded tuition vouchers and school board takeovers, he said.

Thus, it undercuts education, and threatens religious liberty, when state officials attempt to woo children away from the religious beliefs of their parents.

“I’m afraid that public school leaders are cutting their own throats,” said Bates. “They are going to have to realize the importance of being sensitive to the beliefs of all kinds of faith groups — big, little or whatever — before it’s too late.”

I thought about Bates’ book while reading a Washington Post piece titled “Some Abstinence Programs Mistead Teens, Report Says.” Ceci Connolly’s report offers half of a very important story. I have no doubts whatsoever that this hit piece has unearthed some wonderfully wacky examples of religious-right influence in some abstinance-based sex education programs.

I also have no doubt that the conservatives behind some of the better programs have science that they can quote to back their arguments. This is another one of those reports in which it is assumed that every anecdote and statistic the progressives quote is accurate and every anecdote and statistic the traditionalists quote is wrong — with almost no details cited on the source of anything being quoted by anyone. The left could be using highly politicized studies funded by Planned Parenthood, for all we know. The right could be quoting Focus on the Family. Who knows?

You can read the details for yourself. Here is one of the key summaries, drawing on research pushed by the office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.):

Several million children ages 9 to 18 have participated in the more than 100 federal abstinence programs since the efforts began in 1999. Waxman’s staff reviewed the 13 most commonly used curricula — those used by at least five programs apiece.

The report concluded that two of the curricula were accurate but the 11 others, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, contain unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits and when life begins. In some cases, Waxman said in an interview, the factual issues were limited to occasional misinterpretations of publicly available data; in others, the materials pervasively presented subjective opinions as scientific fact.

The story is simply loaded with statements sure to inspire hand-to-hand combat between apologists for the sexual revolution and apologists for, let’s say, Evangelical-Catholic-Muslim-Hindu traditions about the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Back to Bates, for a moment. Here is the hard part of the issue the Post is trying to cover. How does an institution funded with tax dollars offer sex-education materials that say that sex outside of marriage is just peachy — or that it is sin, sin, sinful — without attacking the moral beliefs on one or the other side of this divide?

How do schools, and newspapers, treat both sides with respect? I would imagine that the progressives quoted in the Connolly piece would say she treated them fairly, while the conservatives scream bloody murder. If you want to hear what they would scream, you can read Maureen Dowd’s account of her Thanksgiving visit with the red-zone traditionalists in her family. At one point, she lets her brother Kevin — a salesman from Montgomery County, Md. — air some of his views about the 2004 election. He writes:

We do not live in a secular country. There are all sorts of people of faith that place moral values over personal freedoms. They are not all “wacky evangelicals.” . . . They don’t like being told that a young girl does not have to seek her mother’s counsel about an abortion. They don’t like seeing an eight-month-old fetus having his head punctured and his brains sucked out. They don’t like being told the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silent prayer and the words “under God” are offensive to an enlightened few so nobody should be allowed to use them. . . . My wife and I picked our sons’ schools based on three criteria: 1) moral values 2) discipline 3) religious maintenance — in that order. We have spent an obscene amount of money doing this and never regretted a penny. Last week on the news, I heard that the Montgomery County school board voted to include a class with a 10th-grade girl demonstrating how to put a
condom on a cucumber and a study of the homosexual lifestyle. The vote was 6-0. I feel better about the money all the time.

There you go. That’s the divide that Bates described so well in his book. It’s the divide that the Post failed to cover in its story on the Waxman report.

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Managed death care

Dead_babyPundits belittled Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the 1980s, when their book and film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? predicted that euthanasia and infanticide were the logical companions of unrestricted abortion.

When Ronald Reagan nominated Koop as surgeon general, Elisa Isaacson wrote in The New Republic, “Dozens of newspapers and national organizations oppose Koop on the basis of his doctrinaire anti-abortion stance, his backward views on women’s and gays’ rights, and particularly his inexperience in the field of public health.” (This was before Koop won over all but his most vociferous critics with his stances on AIDS, condoms and smoking.)

Now the Netherlands seems hell-bent on proving that Schaeffer and Koop were connecting the ethical dots, albeit a few decades before euthanasia and infanticide were mentioned regularly in the same sentence as “dignity,” “compassion” or “mental retardation.”

Toby Sterling of the Associated Press delivers the grim news in his terse opening:

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — A hospital in the Netherlands — the first nation to permit euthanasia — recently proposed guidelines for mercy killings of terminally ill newborns, and then made a startling revelation: It has already begun carrying out such procedures, which include administering a lethal dose of sedatives.

The practice is beginning with the hardest cases of suffering infants:

The Groningen Protocol, as the hospital’s guidelines have come to be known, would create a legal framework for permitting doctors to actively end the life of newborns deemed to be in similar pain from incurable disease or extreme deformities.

The guideline says euthanasia is acceptable when the child’s medical team and independent doctors agree the pain cannot be eased and there is no prospect for improvement, and when parents think it’s best.

Examples include extremely premature births, where children suffer brain damage from bleeding and convulsions; and diseases where a child could only survive on life support for the rest of its life, such as severe cases of spina bifida and epidermosis bullosa, a rare blistering illness.

But there are the standard voices arguing that if a culture is going to kill babies, at least the killing should be supervised by the state:

“As things are, people are doing this secretly and that’s wrong,” said Eduard Verhagen, head of Groningen’s children’s clinic. “In the Netherlands we want to expose everything, to let everything be subjected to vetting.”

To see where such vetting may take a culture, consult P.D. James’ dystopian novel, The Children of Men: in a world rendered sterile by an unexplained catastrophe, old people begin killing themselves in despair. The state begins supervising those suicides so everything will be orderly, clinical and tidy — and before you can say “I’d like to join the Hemlock Society,” euthanasia becomes mandatory.

Sterling gives the prolife movement’s concerns a few mentions, including this remark from Wesley J. Smith: “The slippery slope in the Netherlands has descended already into a vertical cliff.”

But he closes with another “Let’s end the hypocrisy” argument:

“Measures that might marginally extend a child’s life by minutes or hours or days or weeks are stopped. This happens routinely, namely, every day,” said Lance Stell, professor of medical ethics at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., and staff ethicist at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. “Everybody knows that it happens, but there’s a lot of hypocrisy. Instead, people talk about things they’re not going to do.”

More than half of all deaths occur under medical supervision, so it’s really about management and method of death, Stell said.

Well, that’s a relief.

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Yes, we read the Brooks column about Stott

All_souls_1As you would imagine, legions of readers from around the world saw fit to email us copies of David Brooks’ op-ed page tribute to the great evangelical Anglican apologist John Stott. Nothing causes evangelicals to cut and paste and then click send (or forward) as much as a kind word for traditional faith in the pages of the Bible of the blue zip-code elites.

Perhaps they were surprised that Brooks, who leans left on the hot social issues, was so kind to an intellectual who has for decades defended the concept of eternal moral absolutes. I was not surprised, in part because I have interviewed Brooks and knew of his interest in the ideas and influence of C.S. Lewis. If someone starts reading Lewis and then follows that side of the traditional Christian thought into modern evangelicalism, he will bump into Stott sooner rather than later.

Once upon a time, the New York Times used to admire the writings of Lewis and his ilk. Perhaps Brooks is the rare person at the TImes who still read serious books by traditional Judeo-Christian thinkers.

This was, in a way, the point of the column by Brooks. He was steamed (amen, brother) by the astonishingly stupid sight of Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton sitting on "Meet the Press" trying to discuss religion and public life with Tim Russert.

Earth to Russert: What were you thinking? I realize that there were other people on the show, including some fairly logical usual suspects on the left and right. But anyone who still thinks that Sharpton and Falwell have anything insightful to say about the views of the religious left and right should go see a journalism doctor, quick. As Brooks said:

Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.

Thus, Brooks asked: Why do so many media people quote Falwell and Pat Robertson, people whose influence is long gone, instead of interviewing people such as Stott? The sermons and books from the legendary voice of All Souls, Langham Place, in London (shown in the picture) have influenced evangelicals around the world for decades and will continue to do so for years to come.

Brooks is asking a question that is at the very heart of the mainstream media’s problems with religion coverage — when dealing with the religious left as well as the right. Why not turn to the bright lights on the left and right, instead of merely seeking the familiar red faces that provide emotional heat?

It isn’t fair to have stupid conservatives paired off with smart liberals or, perhaps on Fox, the other way around. And it isn’t fair to contrast, in the name of diversity, a few smart evangelicals on the left with the old voices of the simplistic right. The reason Brooks saluted Stott was because the low-church Anglican priest is nuanced, sympathetic, quotable AND a traditionalist.

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock — especially if you’re a Jew like me — when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It’s like being in "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood," except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed.

As I said, this is a matter of how journalists do their homework and find sources. Another interesting article on this same subject — entitled "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews" — showed up at Tech Central Station, of all places. In it, Harvard Law School professor William J. Stuntz jumps behind the red and blue imagery to discuss what he has learned in the bluest of blue environments, the faculty club at Harvard, and what sounds like a pretty red environment, his own evangelical congregation.

Not surprisingly, each of these institutions is enemy territory to the other. But the enmity is needless. It may be a sign that I’m terminally weird, but I love them both, passionately. And I think that if my church friends and my university friends got to know each other, they’d find a lot to like and admire. More to the point, the representatives of each side would learn something important and useful from the other side. … You wouldn’t know it from talking to the people who populate universities or fill church pews.

Church people assume that universities are no longer interested in fair debates. You can see where I am going with this idea. Church people make precisely the same assumption about newsrooms. Thus, everything Stuntz writes about his university faculty club can also be applied to the need for newsrooms to be more open-minded in seeking diversity in sources about religion news. At one point in the article a professor friend turns to Stuntz and says: "You know, I think you’re the first Christian I’ve ever met who isn’t stupid." Traditional religious believers make the same kinds of snap judgments all the time about journalists and thinkers on the left.

The bottom line: Churches and faculty clubs are supposed to be places where people take ideas, doctrines, traditions and debates seriously. You could say the same thing about newsrooms.

In the end, America is failing to hear interesting and important viewpoints on a wide range of issues — from failing schools to abortion. Other issues seem to have vanished altogether from national policy debates. Take the issue of poverty and economic justice, for example. Stuntz believes this is tragic.

I don’t think my liberal Democratic professor friends like this state of affairs. And — here’s a news flash — neither do most evangelicals, who regard helping the poor as both a passion and a spiritual obligation, not just a political preference. (This may be even more true of theologically conservative Catholics.) These men and women vote Republican not because they like the party’s policy toward poverty — cut taxes and hope for the best — but because poverty isn’t on the table anymore.

So what is on the table? Whatever the likes of Sharpton and Falwell want to yell about — on cue. What journalists need is some new names and telephone numbers in their Rolodexes. They can start with the Rev. John Stott.

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Common cup, meet common cold

ChaliceAt Mass this Sunday I had a bit of a cough, though nothing bad compared with the seriously congested woman who sat down behind me. I thought she was going to hack up a lung as she settled into the pew. She made half throat-clearing, half choking noises throughout the service.

When the priest instructed us to make the sign of peace, the guy next to her — probably a relative — explained that she "has a bad cold" and thus wouldn’t be shaking hands, and he didn’t have to work hard to convince any of the surrounding coreligionists. After all, we’d had a good loud demonstration of why we wouldn’t want what she had.

An article in the same day’s issue of the New York Times captured well one of the downsides to the communal aspect of religion: flu season.

According to the Times report, only one diocese in the American arm of the Catholic Church (in Vermont) has flat out ordered priests not to administer the common cup and formally asked parishioners not to shake hands. Other diocese are taking less severe measures like "encouraging hand-washing, requesting that sick people refrain from taking communion and encouraging those uncomfortable with shaking hands not to do so."

For what it is, this story is competently told. But it could have done without the back-and-forth over whether modern germ theory applies to the blood of Christ. It does and the church doesn’t claim otherwise, but it turns out that your odds of infection don’t go up dramatically if you’re shaking people’s hands and drinking out of a common cup vs. if you’re just sitting in the room with the same people, breathing the same sneezeified air.

The account quotes one renegade Vermont priest who continues to offer the common cup, in addition to individual wafers. He says his parishioners are "grown-ups, and they’re also people of great faith" who can make up their own minds about such things.

The father says that, even with flu season as a factor, he hasn’t observed much of a drop in the number of people who make use of the chalice. And so far, he adds, the diocese hasn’t brought the hammer down for keeping the option open.

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