The Nation surveys the pew gap

nation_aug30When thinking about favorite sources for enterprising religion reporting, GetReligion does not normally turn to The Nation — although that magazine does collect its sporadic religion coverage on this accessible page.

All the more reason, then, to praise a report by Eyal Press that appears in the Aug. 30 issue and covers one of GetReligion’s favorite hobby horses: Closing the ‘Religion Gap.’

Press consults the usual sources, including Jim Wallis, John Green and Amy Sullivan, but goes beyond the “Bulletin: Democrats are Christians Too” tone, and argues back in a refreshing way.

Consider, for instance, how Press contrasts remarks by Alphonso Jackson, the Bush administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, with those of Wallis. He begins with Jackson’s remarks at Pentecost 2004, an event sponsored by Call to Renewal:

But when Jackson told the audience that being poor was merely “a state of mind” and that the best thing government could do was stay out of the way, the reaction was chilly. As his speech drew to a close, few clapped. One man stood up and, shouting across the room before Jackson could reach the exit, asked what the Bush Administration was doing for people like the woman he’d met by chance that morning on the street, a mother who worked as a prostitute at night because she didn’t earn enough to support her family from her daytime job. “Well, I would say to you that you should ask a different question,” Jackson replied. “What are you going to do for her?” Here was “compassionate conservatism” distilled to its essence. The audience responded with a cascade of hisses and boos.

By refocusing the debate about values away from what happens in the bedroom and toward issues like homelessness and poverty, strategists like [Tom] Perriello believe progressives can reclaim the moral high ground in American politics while mobilizing religious activists to advance concerns they share. At the Call to Renewal conference, Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners, echoed this line, arguing that unlike inherently divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a campaign against poverty could unify Christians “across political and denominational lines.” It’s an inspiring thought, although in reality such a campaign would likely fracture along familiar political lines. For as Jackson’s speech showed, framing poverty as a religious issue can as easily buttress a conservative agenda as a progressive one.

It is, by the way, baffling that a reminder of each individual believer’s call to make a difference in suffering people’s lives would meet with such hostility at a gathering of justice-loving Christians. Of course individual action cannot meet every need. Does that mean it’s an offense worthy of hissing and booing to say that a Christian should make a personal sacrifice to help a woman enslaved by poverty and prostitution? What does it say about Christians — left, right or center — when they think first of the government, rather than the church, in fighting poverty and oppression?

Press also meets Ron Sider, who is a familiar name to reporters seeking evangelicals who care about social justice. Sider delivers a remark that even nonmembers of Call to Renewal could find entirely orthodox: “”I don’t think God is a Marxist, but frequently the Bible suggests that people get rich by oppression or are rich and don’t share what they have — and in both cases, God is furious.”

Green offers this honest observation: “The Democrats would be in trouble if they tried to be a purely secular party . . . but they would also be wasting their time trying to woo the most traditional religious voters, because they are firmly Republican, and they would have to give up a lot to go for them.”

But the most engaging section of his essay comes when Press interacts both with Brenda Peterson, the Democrats’ short-lived strategist on religion, and with Amy Sullivan:

“The tradition of the political left seems to be to only listen to people of faith if they are African-American” and to dismiss everyone else, complained Brenda Peterson, who was recently named director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party, a newly created post. A similar view was expressed by Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, in the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine Blueprint. Talking about faith and values only in front of minorities is “not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one,” she wrote.

It’s a fair point. But it would also be condescending — and quite possibly foolish — for John Kerry to counteract this perception by peppering his speeches with biblical references and talking effusively about his faith on the stump. Kerry is, by all accounts, a sincerely religious person, a former altar boy who briefly considered a career in the priesthood and who regularly attends Sunday mass. But he is also someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs close to the vest, regarding faith as a personal matter that deeply marks his character but does not predetermine how he makes his decisions in office.

Print Friendly

Through the space-time continuum with Bishop Robert O'Neill

bponeillThe usually excellent Jonathan Petre of the Telegraph reports today that four bishops of the Episcopal Church arrived in London on Tuesday to express their anger about possible discipline of their church for approving an openly gay bishop.

Petre identifies the four bishops as Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts, Robert O’Neill of Colorado, J. Clark Grew [Petre spells it as Drew] of Ohio, who is now retired, and Don Johnson of Memphis, Tennessee.

The theological balance of that group — three bishops who favor gay blessings and one sort-of conservative who has nevertheless excoriated the conservative American Anglican Council — would reflect the pastoral sensitivity the Episcopal Church normally shows to the rest of the Anglican world.

There’s one catch, though: Unless O’Neill has taken up time travel, it’s unlikely that he could speak in Colorado on Tuesday night and still have arrived in London on the timetable reported by Petre.

Such a meeting as Petre reports may well be occurring. If it is, however, Petre’s source apparently cannot tell one liberal bishop from another.

Update: Bishop Johnson weighed in again on the American Anglican Council, with less anger this time, in a pastoral letter (PDF) dated Aug. 23. In that letter, he refers to a pending meeting with Archbishop Rowan Williams:

God willing, I will meet with Archbishop Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace in September to share with him what it has been like as your bishop in the midst of the challenges and opportunities presented to us this last year. A generous private donation has underwritten the trip. I am honored to join the long line of bishops from varying theological and ecclesiological perspectives who have had the opportunity to meet with Archbishop Williams in recent months.

Print Friendly

Hell-haunted Hollywood

MaherAsSatanOf the many stories devoted to Hollywood Hellhouse, one of the best is by Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News (registration required).

Like most reporters, Weiss includes the remark by Maggie Rowe — the show’s director who posed as a youth group director to buy a Hell House Outreach Kit from Assemblies of God pastor Keenan Roberts — about her churchgoing childhood. But then he follows it with comic understatement:

Ms. Rowe, a close friend of just about everyone in the cast and many in the first-night audience, said that she was raised in a conservative Christian household — and that it warped her.

“The biggest fear of my entire life was going to hell,” she said.

Now she attends a Zen Buddhist center, where eternal damnation isn’t in the big picture.

Weiss also dug more than most reporters, discovering that Andy Richter is a member of the United Church of Christ, and that another cast member isn’t entirely sure that hell is just a raucous joke: “Ninety-nine percent of me is sure we’re doing OK here,” said Michael Friedman, 35, an aspiring screenwriter. “One percent of me is worried we’re all going to hell.”

And how very reassuring it is to know that Hollywood Hellhouse leaves one of L.A.’s hothouse flowers believing that he now knows conservatives — not just the fraction of evangelicals or fundamentalists who choose to dwell on hell — better:

The Hollywood version was real enough for Padraic Duffy, 29, a playwright. He said he knew little about conservative Christianity and welcomed the chance to hear what evangelicals preach — in a nonthreatening setting.

“It was like a zoo of conservative thinking,” he said. “And they were safely behind bars.”

Honorable mention: Catherine Seipp in The Wall Street Journal, for writing about the Happy Ending Worthy of a Sitcom: a face-to-face meeting of Roberts and Rowe.

The photo of Bill Maher, dressed for his role as Satan, appears on this blog by Nora Murphy, and is used here with her kind permission.

Print Friendly

Caught in the crossfire: Symbolic details in Beslan massacre

allah-akbarThe power is back on here in West Palm Beach (or at least in our neighborhood) and the flood waters are receding — only to be replaced by a flood of email and news. I hardly know where to begin, especially on the hellish reality that has emerged in Beslan.

Most of the mainstream news coverage has emphasized the ongoing nature of the conflict between the Chechens and the Russian government. It is true that the politics of the situation are absolutely Balkan. Nevertheless, I am haunted by a few articles that have focused on the debate among Muslims about this bloodbath and the tactics behind it.

This raises a familiar issue here at GetReligion: To what degree are terrorism stories political? To what degree are they religious?

While U.S. media are stressing the political side of the equation — with a few exceptions — media in England have openly addressed the religious questions behind this carefully planned massacre of children. But let’s start with the New York Times, which did report a controversial detail from one of the victims:

“The terrorists ran in yelling, ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ ” said Asamaz Bekoyev, 11, who escaped with his mother and brother and lay in his bed on Saturday at his grandmother’s house, being treated for cuts and minor burns.

At this point, no translation is needed.

It seems that the whole world knows what it means when armed men run into the public square shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” or Allah is great. (This is the script in the painting above.) It means that many people are going to die — soon.

This reality infuriates Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, who poured out his anger in a column in the pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. It was then published in the Telegraph. This is one of those cases where a Muslim commentator is allowed to say what others cannot say:

It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.

The hostage-takers of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, were Muslims. The other hostage-takers and subsequent murderers of the Nepalese chefs and workers in Iraq were also Muslims. Those involved in rape and murder in Darfur, Sudan, are Muslims, with other Muslims chosen to be their victims. Those responsible for the attacks on residential towers in Riyadh and Khobar were Muslims. The two women who crashed two airliners last week were also Muslims.

Bin Laden is a Muslim. The majority of those who manned the suicide bombings against buses, vehicles, schools, houses and buildings, all over the world, were Muslim. What a pathetic record. What an abominable “achievement”. Does all this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies and our culture?

When you add all of this up, it has created a horrific image of a faith that has been seized by what he calls “Neo-Muslims.” Ultimately, the only people who will be able to wrest Islam away from these terrorists are other Muslims. This certainly seems to be the case in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where it is clear that the worst acts of terror will now be focused on Muslims who in any way seek to embrace the freedoms of the West (and Christian Arabs who symbolize another ancient approach to “infidel” life).

Continuing with the quote from the Telegraph:

We can’t call those who take schoolchildren as hostages our own. We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds. These are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image.

We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.

This angry voice is not alone. Here is another quote along the same lines, featured in an Associated Press report by Maggie Michael that rounded up a host of Arab media viewpoints on the slaughter in the Russian school. The terrorists in Russia are, ultimately, harming Islam more than they are fighting for nationalism, or an Islamic state, according to Egyptian Ahmed Bahgat, writing in Egypt’s pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram.

“If all the enemies of Islam united together and decided to harm it … they wouldn’t have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations, and misunderstanding of the nature of this age,” Bahgat wrote. The horrifying images of the dead and wounded Russian students “showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families.”

But as Abdel Rahman al-Rashed noted, the problem is that there is no unified Islamic voice rejecting the actions of the terrorists. As the Beslan horrors unfolded, one extremist based in England said just the opposite. If the cause was just, it would be appropriate to bring the same tactics to England. Here is the opening of a report by Rajeev Syal in the Sunday Telegraph:

An extremist Islamic cleric based in Britain said yesterday that he would support hostage-taking at British schools if carried out by terrorists with a just cause. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the spiritual leader of the extremist sect al-Muhajiroun, said that holding women and children hostage would be a reasonable course of action for a Muslim who has suffered under British rule. …

“If an Iraqi Muslim carried out an attack like that in Britain, it would be justified because Britain has carried out acts of terrorism in Iraq. As long as the Iraqi did not deliberately kill women and children, and they were killed in the crossfire, that would be okay.”

The bottom line: Who gets to define “in the crossfire”?

Try to square that statement with the opening of a major feature story in the Sunday Mirror.

The details of this report by Euan Stretch are almost too much to endure. The headline was bad enough — “They Knifed Babies, they Raped Girls.” I apologize for using such large block quotations from these reports. But sometimes, you just need to read the coverage for yourself.

… Scores of the 323 who died — including many children — had been shot in the back. While despairing soldiers and rescue workers moved among the growing pile of body bags, it was revealed that an 18-month-old baby had been repeatedly stabbed by a black-clad terrorist who had run out of ammunition.

Other survivors told how screaming teenage girls were dragged into rooms adjoining the gymnasium where they were being held and raped by their Chechen captors who chillingly made a video film of their appalling exploits.

This certainly does not sound like “crossfire,” does it?

This raises a question that makes journalists (me included) very nervous when covering this kind of nightmare. Should the news media do more to cover the religious elements of these events and the moral, even theological, debates they inspire?

How can we say “no”? Let me stresss that I believe that we need to cover this side of the terrorism story in order to defend the rights of moderate Muslims to speak out.

However, after sifting (post-hurricane) through waves of coverage of the Beslan massacre, it seems clear to me that many journalists have been afraid to write about the religious elements of this story.

To test this, just go to Google News and search for “Beslan” and “Allahu Akhbar.” You will not find much in the way of details — although some news organizations are at least quoting the victims.

It seems to me that the chants of the terrorists are a symbolic detail worth reporting — unless this damning detail can now be assumed. If that is the case, then I cannot imagine a more hateful and condescending slap at Islam by reporters than this attitude of cynicism.

Why bother to report that the murderers chanted “Allah is great”? They all do, don’t they? This is news?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a very long post and it really needs one or more pieces of art to go with it. But we have a problem, one shared with many news-related blogs that do not have art budgets. We are dependent on finding digital illustrations that are not under copyright. Thus, the more newsworthy and specific the story, the harder it is to find art that is relevant, but not produced by a news agency for its own use. Any suggestions out there on how to deal with this problem?

Print Friendly

Theodicy on the radio

rowan-williamsThe Archbishop of Canterbury sat Saturday morning for an 11-minute interview (requires RealAudio) with John Humphrys of the BBC about the school massacre in Beslan, Russia. Humphrys asked tough questions the entire time (hat tip: Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans).

Their conversation is an amazingly detailed dialogue about evil, the nature of free will and what it all means for a Christian’s faith. A key excerpt:

In a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate, intervene for outcomes.

Human decisions are free.

Human decisions are free.

Not for the children they weren’t, were they?

The children were held captive. The decisions were being made by others. And that’s how power works in the world, of course, that some are enslaved by the decisions of others.

So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.

It means the ability to make a difference in a situation. Now that also means the difference — the ability, tragically — to use others in the way that these terrorists were attempting to use those children. I suppose the sense that we all have that some kind of line has been crossed here is the almost impossibility of imagining how people can not only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose but actually to sit with suffering children for days, watching that in a calculating way. And that’s the kind of decision that, yes, you have to call evil.

In condemning the terrorists’ actions, Williams cites not only Jesus’ words about the judgment that will come to those who harm children (Matt. 18:6), but also cites the Qur’an’s warning that “Allah does not love people who overstep the limits” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 87).

The interview is a model of how a religious leader can, amid the most horrifying circumstances, speak on behalf of God’s love and justice.

Print Friendly

Qualifying a bishop's words

JonBrunoI’ve sometimes covered the same events as Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times, and I’ve found him unfailingly soft-spoken and courteous — especially at press conferences, which so often bring out some reporters’ tendencies toward preening arguments posing as questions.

It’s distracting, then, to see Stammer using the “what he sees as” qualifier in his profiles of Bishop Jon J. Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles (left) and Archbishop Henry Orombi of the Church of Uganda (below, with his wife, Phoebe). Three congregations in Bruno’s diocese have renounced Bruno as their bishop and accepted Orombi’s offer of refuge. Both Bruno and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold have decried Orombi’s action as intrusive and illegal.

You’re probably familiar with the “what he sees as” construction, in which a reporter notes that a subject sees something in a way that someone else would see differently. It can imply that a person is eccentric, if not detached from reality. A reporter could qualify virtually any belief this way, but I’ll admit to seeing it as a label applied more often to conservatives than to others. Throughout the 1990s, the church-owned Episcopal News Service so often favored the phrase “what conservatives see as the church’s drift toward liberalism” that I figured ENS must have stored those words as a word-processing macro.

I’ve almost certainly used the device at some point in my career, and let me repent now in case anyone turns up some damning proof. I Googled for it myself, but my admittedly cursory search turned up nothing.

Here are examples of the form in Stammer’s profiles:

In the last two weeks, three conservative parishes in his six-county Los Angeles diocese had left the Episcopal Church, alienated by what they said was their church’s drift toward heresy and wrongful affirmation of homosexuality.

. . . Orombi, 55, has a reputation for two things: welcoming refugees from the civil war and ethnic strife in neighboring Congo and preaching fiery sermons against what he sees as the Episcopal Church’s fall from historic Christian teachings.

Compare this with Stammer’s characterization of a cornerstone in Bruno’s teaching:

For conservatives, those issues have become a test of fidelity to biblical tradition. To Bruno, they test something equally important: Christ’s message of inclusion.

(Christ’s message of absolute inclusion would have been news to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who could not have felt very included when Jesus called them a brood of vipers; see Matt. 12:34.)

OrombisStammer’s profiles of both bishops include good details — such as Bruno’s saying of himself, “I am one of the most Christo-centric men in this world,” and Orombi’s perspective on keeping faith with the apostles: “There is a tradition on human sexuality that was passed to us by the apostles, and if we’re an apostolic church, how come the Episcopal Church claims they are better than St. Paul?”

Another difference in how Stammer describes the two bishops: the gentle Bruno is disturbed “in the predawn stillness” and must force himself back to sleep, but Orombi has brought “evangelical intensity to his denunciations of the American church.” The deck headline says Orombi “berates the American church.” One could come away with the impression that Orombi is personally responsible for disrupting Bruno’s circadian rhythm.

Nevertheless, Stammer closes his profile of Orombi with a deft contrast in how the two bishops describe reconciliation:

Speaking of the three breakaway parishes, Bruno said, “I will have my hands open to welcome them back anytime they choose to come. I hope they’ll make that decision. I hope they’ll move back toward this reconciliation.”

Orombi spoke of the entire American church. “There is an opportunity to repent and come back,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity if you injure your brothers to say, ‘I am really, really sorry.’ If this is not going to happen in the Anglican Communion, this fragmentation is inevitable.”

Print Friendly

The perks of "breeders"

pregnantIt’s one thing for prolifers to believe this, but quite another to hear it from a writer whose heart is with the prochoice side: The future belongs to the fecund.

That’s the conclusion of pundit James Pinkerton, writing for Tech Central Station about a Planned Parenthood fundraiser featuring Lou Reed and several other celebrities. Pinkerton’s essay is a mix of on-site reporting and trend-spotting.

First he notices that some prolife protesters don’t fit the expected profile:

Politely penned up by watching cops, the peaceful and proper sign-holders weren’t a bunch of little old ladies from Dubuque or Pasadena; they were mostly young, mostly female, mostly non-white. Amidst the familiar messages — “Planned Parenthood Kills” and “It’s a crime that a child must die, so you can live as you wish” — were other signs that were in themselves a sign of the times: “Pro vida, sin excepciones.”

He soon gets down to numbers-crunching:

The basic freedoms guaranteed by Roe are still intact, to be sure, but as both sides in the debate argue, just one more anti-Roe justice on the Supreme Court could reverse that ruling.

So what happened? I think a lot of the answer can be found in birth-rate differentials — demography is destiny. To put it bluntly, in the name of “empowerment,” the Left has birth-controlled, aborted, and maybe also gay-libbed itself into a smaller role in American society. Yes, it was their personal-is-political choice, but others will benefit politically. We might consider, as just one example, what’s happened to New York City. In 1973, the Big Apple had a population of about eight million; the population of the United States overall was 211 million. In 2004, the Apple was still at around eight million, but the country’s population, in the meantime, had increased by nearly two-fifths. It’s not automatically a bad thing for a population to stay stagnant — unless, of course, the goal is to wield power through the ballot box.

The heart of his essay, at least for GetReligion, comes when Pinkerton considers the work of Charles Galton Darwin, grandson of Charles and the author of a Malthusian text called The Next Million Years (1952):

And so the more recent Darwin offered a grim prediction: the future of the world belongs to illiberal religions. Or, if you prefer, conservative religions, including not only Christianity, but also Islam and Hinduism. How come? Because those faiths that emphasize traditionalism, including traditional sex roles, are more likely to be procreative. In modern countries, feminists are free to be feminists, but if they don’t have feminist children — which is to say, boys and girls who sustain the “free to be . . . you and me” philosophy — then the politics of the future will be shaped by those hands that do, in fact, rock the cradle — after putting a baby inside.

Print Friendly

The GOP's in-house comic

stine_bricksBrad Stine landed the gig, sort of. The conservative and Christian comedian, who really wanted to perform at the Republican National Convention, didn’t win the same billing as Michael W. Smith or Third Day, but NPR’s Talk of the Nation mentions that he performed at “R: The Party,” hosted by the hard-partying Bush twins (click here for Talk of the Nation‘s interview, which lasts just over three minutes).

A radio actualities page on the convention website describes him as “Brad Stein, Convention Comedian” (click here for Stine’s one-minute paean to George W. Bush).

The GOP convention is not the first venue to botch Stine’s name. In an interview on Thursday with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, Stine joked about people who confuse him with Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter, harried teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and egghead host of the campy game show Win Ben Stein’s Money. When Gross said his name “sounded so Jewish,” Stine talked about wishing he could be Jewish (or left-handed). Perhaps most amazing of all, Stine managed to make Gross — not your typical patron of Christian-subculture comedy — laugh several times.

If Stine finally realizes his dream of performing on The Tonight Show, he may have to drop his career-defining complaint about being held back because of his faith and his hairy-chested patriotism.

Print Friendly