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All protests not equal, time after Times

Time for a trip into the tmatt folder of guilt about a media-criticism issue that, let’s face it, could be reviewed year after year, world without end. Amen.

So where to start? How about these questions: When is news really news? When is old news still big news?

I think most people who pay close attention to the world of causes and protests would have to admit that the recent demonstrations by a coalition of liberal activists against the activities of two rich GOP big shots — Charles and David Koch — was pretty small potatoes.

Nevertheless, it represented something that was new, sort of, since the conservative event had been quiet and relatively secret for some time. Plus, the event took place in a nice, warm location for reporters to visit. Here’s the top of the New York Times coverage of the event, which ran about 640 words (a normal wire-service length).

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – So much for a quiet little weekend getaway.

An invitation-only political retreat for rich conservatives, run out of the spotlight for years by a pair of Kansas billionaires, became a public rallying point for liberal outrage on Sunday, as 11 busloads of protesters converged on a resort in the Southern California desert.

An estimated 800 to 1,000 protesters from a spectrum of liberal groups vented their anger chiefly at Charles and David Koch, brothers who have used many millions of dollars from the energy conglomerate they run in Wichita to finance conservative causes. More than two dozen protesters, camera crews swarming around them, were arrested on trespassing charges when they went onto the resort grounds.

So, is 11 busloads a big crowd or not? It’s a bit unusual, but it’s not major league by any means. Defenders of the significant Times coverage would say — I think this is valid — that this was a small liberal red flag waved in front of the still bullish giant that is the Tea Party Movement. It was worth a story.

However, was this event anywhere near as big as the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.? The answer, of course, is no.

But, says the typical journalist, the March for Life is no longer big news in the sense that this giant march takes place every year and has for decades. Right? It’s big, but it’s not news. So the march tends to get little coverage, which really ticks off the opponents of abortion.

Have many people attend the march, year after year? That’s one of the hottest questions in Washington, D.C., political life. The typical story says “thousands” attend, which sounds like five or six or maybe 10 or 15 thousand. If you compare photos of the typical March for Life with other rallies and marchers, the claims made by organizers — that several hundred thousand people attend — are plausible. The pre-rally Mass this year drew 27,000.

So should the march be covered? The answer would have to be “yes.” Does it deserve big coverage, in terms of being “big” and “new”? That’s where the arguments get rolling. (Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of MSM coverage of the other large marches that take place at the same time in many other major cities across the nation.)

Could someone in the mainstream press do a major story on, let’s say, some of the more unusual groups that always march, small alliances such as Libertarians for Life, Atheists and Agnostics for Life, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, etc.? Yes, and that would be interesting.

Maybe someone could do a story asking why there SEEM to be 10 young Catholics at the march for every one young evangelical, in light of the fact that polls show that evangelicals are just as opposed to abortion these days, or more so, than American Catholics. And where are the Catholic bishops at the march? Why are some Eastern Orthodox bishops present, but not others? Ethnic differences? Theological differences? There are lots of stories at the march.

This year, the Washington Post did a basic story that — while modest — actually drew praise from some pro-lifers. That’s progress.

However, the question that energizes press critics on the right is always the same: What will the Times do this year? It’s been three years, you see, since the newspaper of record covered the event at all.

But this year was different. This year the New York Times ran three sentences about the march, which, after all, is not in New York. However, it is not very far from the newspaper’s still formidable DC bureau. On top of that, a Times photographer was present, which led to the production of an eight-photo slide show. Click here to see it.

In keeping with tradition, the photos show Catholics, Catholics and more Catholics — including a nice photo of the Mass that required several images placed side by side in order to capture the size of the event. This small slide show does not, however, contain an image of the march itself. Perhaps the photographer did not have a lens large enough to do it justice.

I know this post comes long after the fact, in terms of looking for news coverage. However, has anyone seen in major online articles — left, right or center — analyzing this year’s coverage? Otherwise, see you next year. Same time, same place. Let’s hope for some new and insightful coverage of this major, ongoing story.

PHOTO: From Holy Cross Online, the website for my own parish, Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md. That’s Metropolitan Jonah, the leader of the Orthodox Church in America, in the center, to the left of the icon.

DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

Return of (part of) the chaplain debates

It seems that we are going to see more mainstream coverage of those debates about religious liberty, military chaplains and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” So let’s back up and note a few basic fact, some of which were handled quite well in that CNN.com report that I praised the other day in the post called, “Chaplain questions older than DADT.”

As that title implied, I wanted to note that church-state questions about military chaplains are not new.

The military powers that be have been arguing for a long time about doctrinal and legal issues linked to public prayers, God talk, preaching, evangelism/proselytism and a variety of subjects. Tensions between the traditionalist camp and what the oldline-Universalist-progressive camp are not new. It’s much harder for an evangelical, charismatic of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest to lead a wide variety of vague rites that mesh with various other traditions than for a liberal Episcopal priest to do that same. It’s easier for a Reform rabbi to function in a state-funded religious environment than it is for a Southern Baptist, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran or an Eastern Orthodox priest (to name a few examples).

These hot-button issues almost always revolve around public expressions of doctrine, as opposed to silent, private beliefs.

When looking at DADT, however, the current state of things clearly affects the left as well as the right. As mentioned in the GetReligion comments pages, clergy in religious groups that favor DADT repeal have had their hands tied in public ministries to gays and lesbians in the military.

However, the must crucial question is not whether many doctrinal traditionalists will have to leave the military if DADT is repealed. The real question is whether many will leave rather than face punishment for public or even one-on-one expressions of their religious beliefs. Thus, it was important that the CNN.com story included this crucial slice of the Pentagon DADT report:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, “A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains’ free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement,” the report said.

Or, as Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America put it in a letter to the chaplains board:

“If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

So there is much more to this story than what happens if DADT is repealed. The question is how DADT repeal (or the continuation of the policy) will affect the ministry of military chaplains — liberal and conservative — and the rights of the soldiers that they serve — liberal and conservative.

This brings us to the new story on these issues in the Washington Post, which adds some useful information on the point of view of liberal clergy, such as:

The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.

“They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me,” said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. “It was horrible. Right from the beginning I was saying, ‘This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.’ “

Yet in the paragraphs immediately before these lines, the Post framed the debate in the following manner:

The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law was changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.

“In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual,” the report stated. “In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that ‘we are all sinners,’ and that it is a chaplain’s duty to care for all Service members.”

Once again, repeal is not the ultimate issue for the leaders of traditional religious groups. The issue is hidden in that phrase “care for all Service members.” Does “care” equal acceptance of homosexual activity? For example, I cannot imagine many traditional clergy actually saying that they would “refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual.”

Really? Did the Pentagon offer any direct quotes from chaplains expressing those views, or is that an official bureaucratic interpretation of what women and men said in these interviews? What is the legal content of those words “support,” “comfort” and “assist”?

The Post report does offer the following information from someone who is worried about protecting the rights of clergy who advocate traditional views on sexuality issues.

Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Air Force chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains’ behavior.

“There’s a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn’t be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you,” he said. “If there’s no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops.”

Once again, note the following inserted — but valid — commentary noting that Lee made these comments, “even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains’ behavior.”

That’s true, although the Pentagon would find itself involved in court cases challenging those policies. Where are the crucial decisions being made, these days, on these kinds of moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the CNN.com report was much stronger in this regard, since it noted that the current policies that guide the work of military chaplains already contain the very tensions about the public and one-on-one expressions of doctrine that are now being linked to the DADT debate. Again, here is that section of the CNN.com story:

“Existing regulations state that chaplains ‘will not be required to perform a religious role … in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.’ At the same time, regulations state that ‘Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.’ “

Once again, define the word “care.”

In other words, these doctrinal tensions are not new. The DADT debates are merely the latest chapter in a larger church-state story, once in which voices on the left and right must be reported accurately.

Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t cover

At this point, it appears that Democrats who are fighting to survive in red zip codes are going to make it to Election Day without a clear resolution of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” standoff. That’s the last thing they needed — a final wave of ads talking about a hot-button cultural issue.

Meanwhile, supporters of repeal are not happy, for obvious reasons. Yet many Democrats who understand the politics of the situation in the tightly contested states probably realize that they have dodged a bullet.

To say that military people are tense — on both sides of the issue — is an understatement. In particular, no one knows how many officers from more culturally and religious conservative parts of America will choose to leave the armed forces, rather than live with the policies that will flow out of DADT (whatever the precise nature of those policies). No one knows how this would affect recruiting in red zip codes.

I, of course, remain interested in how this will change one of the most controversial groups of professionals in the ranks of the military — the chaplains.

On the theological left, chaplains say there will be no change — unless so-called “fundamentalists” choose to flee, which means that the changes will be good.

Religious traditionalists in several different camps — Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic — are predicting that troubled times are ahead, with some of these ministers differing on just how big the explosion will be. How many chaplains will be affected? Here’s a hint, coming from the left:

In American Fascists, author Chris Hedges warns of the growing power of fundamentalist Christian evangelicals in the US military, noting that the Christian Right sees the military as a key target. …

Some may challenge Hedges’ estimate that “radical Christians” hold half of the armed forces’ chaplaincies. A New York Times investigation in 2005 determined that the numbers of evangelical and Pentecostal chaplains in the Air Force had grown while, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of mainline Christian and Roman Catholic chaplains had declined.

The number of liberal Protestant chaplains has been affected by several factors, including the statistical decline of those churches, the aging of their clergy, the declining number of clergy who (after Vietnam and the ’60s) want to have anything to do with the military and the rising number of second-career ministers who at the time of their ordination are too old (or too out of shape) to meet the military’s guidelines for chaplains. Thus, the number of chaplains who — doctrinally speaking — are likely to thrive in the post-DADT military is declining.

The number of Catholic priests is declining, period, to no one’s surprise. This affects one of the largest flocks in the American military and, of course, some Catholic bishops are going to openly oppose repeal, while many try to remain silent and out of the line of fire.

I tried to deal with some of that in my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. This was a really hard one to cut down to my usual op-ed page length. I have had lots of feedback on this column, including notes from chaplains involved in this tense situation. Here’s how the column opens:

The setting: The office of a priest who serves as a military chaplain.

The time: This hypothetical encounter occurs soon after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forbids gays, lesbians and bisexuals to openly serve in America’s armed forces.

The scene: An officer requests counseling about tensions with her same-sex partner as they prepare for marriage. The priest says this would be inappropriate, since his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for unions of a man and a woman.

The priest offers to refer her to a chaplain at another base who represents a church that performs same-sex rites. The officer accepts, but is less than pleased at the inconvenience.

What happens next? That question is driving the tense church-state debates that continue behind the scenes of the political drama that surrounds “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

There are at least two strong camps in this debate. Here is what that sounds like in real life:

“If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men,” stated a September letter from 60-plus retired chaplains to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” they argued, will cripple the ability of many chaplains to provide counseling. “Service members seeking guidance regarding homosexual relationships will place chaplains in an untenable position. If chaplains answer such questions according to the tenets of their faith, stating that homosexual relationships are sinful and harmful, then they run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination. And if chaplains simply decline to provide counseling at all on that issue, they may still face discipline for discrimination.”

These complaints are “somewhat disingenuous,” according to the Rev. John F. Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain from the United Church of Christ, the progressive Protestant denomination into which Obama was baptized.

“These chaplains … will continue to have the same rights they’ve always had to preach, teach, counsel, marry and conduct religious matters according to the tenets of their faith. They will also continue to have the responsibility to refer servicemembers to other chaplains when their own theology or conscience will not allow them to perform the services to which a servicemember is entitled,” stressed Gundlach, writing in Stars and Stripes. “Any chaplain who can’t fulfill this expectation should find somewhere else to do ministry.”

How many may have to choose to “find somewhere else”? At this point, one has to start doing some math.

Everyone agrees that the Southern Baptist Convention has an unusually high number of chaplains, primarily because so many Southern Baptists want to do this work. Then there are about 300 Catholic chaplains — about half the number needed. Then there is a flock of evangelical/Pentecostal chaplains from a wide variety of sources, including evangelical and charismatic parishes in otherwise mainline Protestant denominations (think charismatic Anglicans, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, evangelical United Methodists, etc.).

Remember, it’s voices on the LEFT who have argued that “fundamentalists” and “radicals” make up 50 percent or more of America’s military chaplains, those active and on reserved status. And then come the Eastern Orthodox, the Catholics, the Orthodox Jews, the Muslims, etc.

And what happens if the conservatives are right and that any advocacy of traditional doctrines by chaplains is labeled “hate speech,” with offenders either being punished or simply denied the ability to advance in rank? If you read the views of theological liberals, there will be no problems after repeal, unless there are problems. No one is talking about “hate speech,” except for those who believe that conservatives are already guilty of “hate speech.” In other words:

There is no easy way out of this church-state maze.

If “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

So be it, said Gundlach. While these chaplains “worry about being discriminated against, they openly discriminate against some of the very people they are pledged to serve and serve with. If the hate speech currently uttered by some conservative chaplains and their denominations is any indication of how they will respond in the future, we can expect this discrimination to continue.”

These chaplains need to resign, he said. The armed services “will be the better for it.”

This is a story, right? Over at USA Today, veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman is following these trends carefully at her weblog, which I would assume means she is building connections for further coverage on dead-tree pulp.

As you would expect, editors at the conservative Baptist Press know that this is a story. Ditto for the professionals on the left side of the Baptist spectrum, at Associated Baptist Press.

But who else is covering this drama closely? Please let us know. This is a story. Period.

The naked tea partiers

For reasons known only to New York Times editors, Kate Zernike is continually given free rein to write about the Tea Party. There have been a litany of complaints about her coverage, perhaps most notably when earlier this year she accused Human Events editor Jason Mattera of speaking in a “Chris Rock voice” and using “racial stereotypes” to mock Obama. Mattera was born and raised in Brooklyn, and Zernike didn’t realize that was just how he talks. Not content with the amount of racial phrenology she’d employed to date, she wrote a piece about race and the Tea Party pegged to the Glenn Beck rally that contained this immortal sentence:

In the Tea Party’s talk of states’ rights, critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace.

“Critics say” is the ultimate news reporter’s cop out; it’s just a shibboleth meaning “here’s what I think.” And then to employ it as a way of smearing a healthy portion of the American electorate as racist… oy. Well, she was back in the Times again this weekend purporting to decode how the Tea Party “has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon.” I’ll just dispense with the most cringe-inducing aspect of the story now. Here’s Zernike discussing economist F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom:

Ron Johnson, who entered politics through a Tea Party meeting and is now the Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, asserted that the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill circumvented “the rule of law,” Hayek’s term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of “personal ends and desires.”

I’ll throw this one over to my old colleague Jonah Goldberg:

If I had said a day ago that your typical New York Times reporter doesn’t have the vaguest sense of what the rule of law means, I would have heard from all sorts of earnest liberal readers — and probably some conservative ones too — about how I was setting up a straw man. But now we know it’s true. It’s not just that she doesn’t know what it is, it’s that even after (presumably) looking it up, she still couldn’t describe it and none of her editors raised an eyebrow when she buttered it.

Ok, you get the picture. The reason why I’m even discussing this piece here is because Zernike discusses three texts in particular — Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Bastiat’s The Law and W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap. Contrary, to Zernike’s assertion, the first two of these books can’t even remotely be described as “once-obscure.” Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was a best seller when it was published in the forties and his works have never been out of print, despite being all but ignored by the academy. His talks drew huge crowds and he’s perhaps the best known economist of the 20th century after Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. (Fun fact: Hayek was also Ludwig Wittgenstein’s second cousin.) He won the Nobel Prize, for crying out loud! As for French political economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s slender volume The Law, it’s a classic economic text and conservatives and libertarians have been touting it for decades, and certainly well before Tea Parties sprang up in the last 18 months.

Which brings us to W. Cleon Skousen, the only one of the the three whose work generally might be seen as obscure. Skousen’s The Naked Communist did sell millions in its day, but it does seem weird that an almost forgotten Mormon writer (who owes his current influence almost single-handedly to Glenn Beck’s promotion of his work) would be elevated to the same status as Hayek and Bastiat. Here’s how Zernike describes it:

The relative newcomer is “The 5000 Year Leap,” self-published in 1981 by an anti-communist crusader shunned by his fellow Mormons for his more controversial positions, including a hearty defense of the John Birch Society. It asserts that the Founding Fathers had not intended separation of church and state, and would have considered taxes to provide for the welfare of others “a sin.”

And:

The book was published in 1981 by W. Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief who had a best seller in “The Naked Communist” in the 1960s, and died in 2006 at the age of 92. “The 5000 Year Leap” hit the top of the Amazon rankings in 2009 after Mr. Beck put it on his list for the 9/12 groups, his brand of Tea Party.

Hmm. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, it would be nice if we got some more context here. The way Zernike writes this, she makes it sound like Skousen was some sort of Mormon outcast. That’s not exactly the case. In 1959, Mormon prophet David O. McKay had encouraged the entire church body to read The Naked Communist, during one of the church’s General Conferences.

Yes, it is true that W. Cleon Skousen was a Bircher and defended the church’s institutional racism. Skousen also had a conspiracy-minded group in the 1970s known as the Freeman Institute, and the church felt compelled to issue an official proclamation banning the group from using church facilities so as to avoid the implication they were endorsing the group’s wackier ideas.

But all of this hardly means that Skousen was shunned by Mormons in a broad sense. Quite the contrary, Skousen was a professor of theology at BYU, and his works on Mormon theology are still fairly standard texts on the subject. (Bound sets of Skousen’s The First 2000 Years: From Adam to Abraham, The Third Thousand Years: From Abraham to David, The Fourth Thousand Years: From David to Christ were quite common to see in Mormon households when I was growing up.)

As for me, I wrote about him in detail a few years ago and went on record as saying that politically Skousen is a radical and a firebrand who embodies a conservatism that is best left “chained to a radiator in the attic.” However, to be fair to Skousen — he was actually quite intelligent — his writings on political matters are sometimes extreme, but often they were within the mainstream of conservative thought, even if many conservatives are uneasy with Skousen’s overall reputation.

The 5,000 Year Leap is among the more intellectually sober things Skousen wrote, which is why I suspect Zernike’s heavily contextualized two-word excerpt seems like a forced attempt to make the book seem more radical than it is. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find much more politically radical sentiments in works by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and the dozens of other lefties currently clogging up college syllabi while worthy conservative writers such as Hayek are often ignored.

What I ultimately find interesting here is that Zernike sought to frame Skousen as a radical by saying he was shunned by the Mormon church when the truth is much more complicated. Perhaps that’s a sign of the church’s increasing acceptance as part of the mainstream religious community.

Israel’s Jewish question

Israelis pray at the Western Wall, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 5770, in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 18, 2009. During Rosh Hashana Jews examine their deeds from the past year and pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. UPI/Debbie Hill Photo via Newscom

There have been a lot of stories in the past week about the conversion bill that was steamrolling through the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, before being tabled for the next few months. Few prospective laws in the Middle East draw much attention, but this one did, largely because of it’s potential consequences for American Jews and future American Jews.

What is at stake, as David Horovitz, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, wrote, is the very connection between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora — a very, very, very important relationship for American Jews, and an even more important one for Israelis.

What we are facing is an explosive global crisis over Jewish identity — a huge, snow-balling disaster that is ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations.

I’m not to keen on doing a general survey of all this coverage. Instead, I’d like to compare two stories from two publications that really should get this story right. One is from the paper of record for Los Angeles’ Jewish community; the other is just from the paper of record.

First the story from The New York Times:

The bill that so angered American Jewish leaders was actually aimed at making conversion easier for the 300,000 Israelis among the 1 million who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Those Israelis are not, by Orthodox rabbinic law, considered Jewish because they come from mixed parentage. The law would have tried to make conversion easier by granting conversion powers to local rabbis across the country, a group considered closer to their communities.

But after objections from the ultra-Orthodox, the bill formally placed authority for conversion in the hands of the chief rabbinate and declared Orthodox Jewish law to be the basis of conversion, making Americans fear that their more lenient conversion processes would be invalidated. …

Rabbi David Schuck of the Pelham Jewish Center in Westchester County, N.Y., said of the religious conversion bill, “It spits in the face of Diaspora Jews in particular, and if passed, it would be an acquiescence of the majority of Israeli Jews to a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.”

That’s easy enough to understand, and the NYT’s Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner does well to close this context-filled story with the aforementioned comment from the JPost’s Horovitz. Bronner also mentions something that I’ve noted before when discussing issues of Jewish identity and that unresolvable question:

The question of “who is a Jew?” is as old as the state of Israel. The more liberal forms of Jewish practice advocated by the Reform and Conservative movements, with which most American Jews are affiliated, have never taken root here. Israel has left liturgy in the hands of the Orthodox, with most Israeli Jews leading almost completely secular lives, seeking out rabbis only at birth, marriage and death.

I’ve spent eight days in Israel, and it doesn’t even take that long to recognize how secular most of Israel is. (Remember that story about long beards and black hats?) But Bronner, who had a son in the IDF, has been there much longer, and it shows in this story.

Now let’s see how handicapped Jonah Lowenfeld, my replacement at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, for which I write The God Blog, was by being stuck stateside. After leding with the “who is a Jew?” question, Lowenfeld wrote in this past week’s cover story, “The Israeli Conversion Bill: What it means and why everyone’s so mad“:

There is much confusion about what the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Amendment — Jurisdiction Regarding Conversions) Bill, 5770-2010 does and does not say. Some observers wonder what — if any — practical impact it would have if passed. …

Few people can say exactly what the Rotem bill will do. “If you were to read a translation, it would be baffling,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO and president of the Israeli educational and advocacy organization Hiddush, which is dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Equality.” According to Regev, Rotem’s three-page bill claims to accomplish two things: “One, to provide greater availability of conversion venues for the new immigrants — namely authorizing more rabbis, and among them hopefully some lenient rabbis to do conversions.” The bill’s other stated aim, Regev said, is to address “the phenomenon of rabbinic courts that hold that Orthodox conversions are null and void.” …

Nobody knows what will happen if the bill passes. The former Soviet Union olim are “clearly not particularly religious,” Regev said, “and clearly not going to be particularly adherent to mitzvot,” which would make it unlikely that they would convert within the rabbinate’s Orthodox framework. “Fewer and fewer immigrants are interested in conversion,” Regev said, “on two counts: One, they realize what kind of hoops they will have to go through.” Also, “They realize that it’s really a conditional status,” Regev said of the status of even Orthodox converts in Israel today — one that can be revoked at any time. Secondly, “They realize that life really isn’t impossible for them without conversion,” Regev said. “They have become accustomed to living their lives without going through conversions.”

Lowenfeld’s story is much longer than Bronner’s, but captures less of the dynamic in Israel. It was also hamstrung by an earlier deadline that predated the tabling of the bill. Lowenfeld did, however, offer more perspectives from the American Jewish community, nationally and in Los Angeles, and captured the most important aspect of this bill:

Uncertainty.

No one really knows what this bill would mean, particularly for American Jews who have gone through the more lax conversion processes of Conservative, Reform and other non-traditional strains of Judaism.

I guess we may find out if the conversion bill is resurrected in 2011.

Totally secular right to die

A billboard campaign orchestrated by a right-to-die group remains alive and well, but it already has gone straight to heaven.

Free-media heaven, that is.

From the New York Daily News to ABC, the mainstream media are shining a spotlight on the billboard’s message: “My Life / My Death / My Choice / FinalExitNetwork.org.”

Religion News Service picked up a Star-Ledger story on the billboards this week and distributed it nationally. Datelined Hillside, N.J., the RNS report explains:

The 15-by-49-foot billboard went up June 28, paid for by Final Exit Network, a nationwide group that provides guidance to adults seeking to end a life of constant pain from incurable illness.

The billboard, along with one in San Francisco and another planned for Florida, anchors a national campaign by the network to raise awareness of itself and its mission. Members say the locations were chosen for their reputations as being socially progressive and, in Florida’s case, for its elderly population.

“What we’re trying to do is let people know that Final Exit Network exists, and that we’re here, and if they spend a little time trying to find out what we do, they might actually support us,” said Bob Levine, 88, of Princeton, who founded the group’s New Jersey chapter after his first wife died of cancer.

From there, the story immediately delves into what could be considered religious issues — just as you’d expect from the nation’s only secular news service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics:

Levine said reaction on the organization’s website has been mixed: “From, ‘God bless you, we finally have somebody who understands us,’ to ‘You are a bunch of atheists and you ought to be put in jail.’”

Criticism has also come from two other corners: suicide prevention counselors and the Catholic Church.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the message “cannot be condoned.”

“The Catholic Church teaches, and has always taught, that all human life has dignity and all human life is precious,” he said.

OK, the organization has been called a “bunch of atheists.” What religious beliefs, if any, does Levine actually hold? What about Final Exit’s reported 3,000 members nationwide? Do they come from diverse religious backgrounds or share a common theological — or lack of theological — perspective? Unfortunately, RNS provides no answers — or even clues — on any of these questions.

Those two paragraphs about the Catholic Church, meanwhile, are as deep as that theological discussion gets. There is no context on the complexity of how the church hierarchy views different life issues, such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

Contrast the RNS approach with that of Fox News, which consulted a variety of faith leaders and religious scholars for its report on the moral debate sparked by the right-to-die billboard campaign.

I know that wire services, such as RNS and The Associated Press, face word-count constraints, but Fox managed to answer a key question with two single words:

Levine, an agnostic, says he has no problem with other people’s religious beliefs. “If you want to say, well, God just has to take it (my life) that’s OK as far as I’m concerned for you, but certainly not for me.”

An agnostic. See, that wasn’t so hard. Now, granted, if RNS had used that description, I would have wanted an explanation of what Levine means by that. But that’s because I expect more of RNS. Smile. Seriously, though, in a story about religion, such details matter.

Fox also turned to a leading religious scholar for insight:

And that’s where the secular and sacred worlds part. None of the major religions condone suicide, as defined as the willful taking of one’s own life, says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of “God is Not One” and “Religious Literacy.”

“Suicide is forbidden in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” and it is considered “bad karma in Buddhism and Hinduism,” he said.

But the question of whether it is acceptable to end pain and suffering or commit to martyrdom is nuanced in many faiths.

Again, that’s great information. And I couldn’t help but chuckle at Fox quoting a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor. But I digress.

Here’s another meaty chunk of the Fox report:

But Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church says martyrdom “is not taking your life (or anyone else’s). It’s giving your life.” He says that’s a major distinction, even when a person is in severe pain.

Nelson, author of “A Life Well-Lived,” says nowhere in the Bible is there a glorified suicide. “You see good men wishing they were dead, and asking God to take their life” — like Jonah or Elijah. “But they never do it themselves.”

One of the problems with our society is that we never have conversations about death, said Rabbi Irwin Kula. It’s the common denominator of all human beings, the great equalizer, yet most of our talk is polarized.

“What we need is a genuine conversation about what it means to die, which we don’t have,” said Kula, author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.”

“The billboard is rhetoric, it avoids conversation,” he said. He also said it’s part truth. “It’s not ‘my life’, it’s both my life and God’s life…. It’s not just my choice, it’s my choice and God’s choice. “You’re not here alone. You’re part of a network.”

Unless I’m missing it, Fox doesn’t tell me where Denton Bible Church is located or give any more details on Kula’s home congregation — both facts that seem relevant.

But I’m impressed with Fox’s attempt to dig below the surface and conquer the religion ghosts in this story.

‘Road’ campaign markets apocalypse

the-roadWe survived the opening of the movie “2012,” which was last weekend’s top-grossing film. (See it now before the world actually ends, as is predicted on a faux- newsy movie related web site).

Meanwhile, apocalyptic themes will make another appearance at the Cineplex the day before Thanksgiving with “The Road,” a film based on Cormac McCarthy’s unrelentingly bleak novel about a father and son who struggle for survival in a barren world following a cataclysmic event that is never described (and never connected to any particular faith tradition).

Now Entertainment Weekly writer Adam B. Vary reports that the veteran Christian p.r. company A. Larry Ross Communications will try to help fill theater seats by marketing the film to believers. Vary is surprised at the partnership, as he writes in a solid, snark-free article (that is curiously unavailable on the ew.com web site):

When picturing the ideal film to market to Christian filmgoers, The Passion of the Christ is a no-brainer. Even a silly family comedy with clear biblical overtones like Evan Almighty makes sense. But the grim, R-rated postapocalyptic drama The Road?

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie will need all the help it can get:

Shot through with a bleak intensity and pessimism that offers little hope for a better tomorrow, the film is more suitable to critical appreciation than to attracting huge audiences though topliners Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron will attract initial business.

Ross has worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association since the early 1980s, so he should know a lot about forgiveness. That’s good, because Ross earlier promoted the “Left Behind” movie, which is perhaps (and this is saying something!) one of the worst Christian films in history.

But will Christians forgive Ross for promoting “The Road,” which features hunger, cannibals, criminals, killings and (spoiler alert!) the death of one of its main characters? After all, Christian versions of the End Times typically include a hint of redemption—at least for the redeemed, if not for sinners. Such hope is nowhere to be found in “The Road.”

Ross is promoting the film via Twitter and his Facebook site but not his corporate web site (which does list the company’s work promoting other films, including “Prince of Egypt,” “Jonah: a VeggieTale Movie” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

CORRECTION: Ross’s site DOES feature their work on the film (see comment).

The promotional partnership has been virtually ignored by both the mainstream and Christian press (one notable exception being is a story published by The Christian Post).

Ross, who will hold advance screenings for Christian leaders, told Entertainment Weekly that he hopes pastors will refer to the film in their sermons. If so, will pastors read a statement to their congregations saying: “This seemingly gratuitous reference was made in exchange for free tickets and other promotional considerations provided by the makers of ‘The Road?’”


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