Quiet, quiet March for Life coverage

IRegretMyAbortionAll in all, it appears to have been an exceptionally quiet year on the March for Life coverage front. I, for one, was a bit disappointed that things stayed so low-key, in part because you know that the U.S. Supreme Court hearings have cranked up the work — on both sides — behind the scenes.

How low-key? This is one year in which it is pretty hard to tell the Washington Times coverage from the Washington Post coverage, at least at the levels of the main stories. In the Post, things got a bit more lively in Dana Milbank’s column, which — fair enough — sounded sirens to mainstream Washington that those frightening anti-abortion folks are currently feeling their political oats. Quick, break out those checkbooks and mail something to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The snarky line of the day was also, perhaps, the most insightful factual observation about the strange state of abortion politics. Pay close attention to the second paragraph of reporter Michael Janofsky’s story in the New York Times.

As they have every year since the Supreme Court first ruled in Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents flooded the capital on Monday with an energetic rally featuring speeches, prayers and signs that urged an end to abortions across the country.

In most respects, the rally was similar to the 32 that preceded it, as tens of thousands of people packed several blocks of the Mall before marching toward the Capitol and the Supreme Court. For the sixth straight year, President Bush was out of town for the rally, though he offered words of encouragement through an amplified telephone line.

Zing. This is precisely the kind of observation about the Republican president that you were likely to hear during the march, should you be marching alongside pro-lifers who are on the political left.

Which brings me to my main observation. This year’s MSM coverage of the march was quite bland. In some ways, this is good. No one singled out tiny groups of hot-tempered radicals on the right and portrayed them as the norm. At the same time, I can’t find anyone who sought out some of the quirkier (and, yes, much smaller) groups that often support marches of this kind. Like who? Would you believe Libertarians for Life? And then there is the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, a group that is concerned that a DNA hook for homosexual tendencies might have terrifying results. One can also find pro-life groups in the world of oldline, usually liberal, Protestantism — such as the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life.

The goal, of course, is to cover the mainstream and, in the pro-life movement, that means covering young people and women from evangelical, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sanctuaries, with a vocal presence of Orthodox Jews, as well. Perhaps the most important group at the moment is called “Silent No More,” in large part because the women with the somber, black “I Regret My Abortion” signs (photo from an earlier event, new photos here) are the archetypal opposites of the people who used to dominate television-news reports about these events. You know, that would be the angry men with red faces, bullhorns and bloody posters.

The women at these marches represent the mainstream. However, I was surprised — and disappointed, I admit — that this year’s mini-wave of coverage did not include more commentary from the left (the pro-life left and the pro-abortion-rights left). Yes, I wanted to hear more from the protesters and from the small, symbolic, groups in the march. I guess that, once again, my bias in favor of balance is showing.

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When the messenger has a message

sufjanPitchfork is an online site with daily reviews, news and features about indie music. Chris Dahlen writes an interesting and well-written piece this week about why the indie music community has such trouble with Christian themes:

I don’t know why hipsters hate Jesus. I’m not here to explain how the guy behind the Sermon on the Mount turned into a symbol of our blue- and red-state divide, or to narrow down why it’s desperately unhip to admit you’re a Christian and then get on stage at a rock club. Almost no strain of music is as secular as indie rock: It’s quaint when old men on 78s sing spirituals, and a rugged legend like Johnny Cash can pray however he wants, but if you’re a scrawny songwriter with a 4-track, siding with Jesus makes you a leper.

Dahlen looks at Michael Nau, the voice behind Page France. Nau sings about Jesus and other religious themes in some of his music but doesn’t consider himself a Christian artist. This confuses both Christian and non-Christian listeners. Sufjan Stevens, whose album was one of the most critically acclaimed of last year, has the same trouble. Everyone loves him but many of his fans don’t know how to take his religious themes. Dahlen says this is silly:

But the shame here isn’t that people made the wrong assumptions about Page France, but that they would ever have dismissed him over his beliefs in the first place. Even a religious performer can convey doubt and conflict. Sure, the bands that rocked the Christian festival at your local speedway stick to celebration and sin, but consider the work of people who are described as “thinking Christians” — a term that’s about as patronizing as “intelligent dance music,” but let’s go with it for now. Take the quest for spirituality on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or the piety and humility of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, or to widen the circle, the furious morality of the abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or the scene in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in which the reverend asks Mark Ruffalo’s drifter if he considers his life important. If we shun the religious content of these works, we’re missing their emotional and intellectual power.

You can disagree with the church of your choice, but to dismiss religion altogether — and to write off the best ideas, the best people and of course, the best indie rockers — that come out of it, seems pointless. Why shoot the messenger just because you’re scared he has a message?

This is a surprisingly open-minded piece from an unlikely source. It’s also a great idea for further study by reporters. Someone should even consider writing a book about pop culture and religion.

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Memory eternal

bg2005 IMG 1334I am in between meetings and classes in West Palm Beach, where I am doing some recruiting for the Washington Journalism Center. With a brief shot at an Internet connection, let me slip in here with a quick note.

It appears that the March For Life is drawing some balanced early coverage, which is to be expected, and that is a good thing. As you would expect, President Bush did the Ronald Reagan thing and phoned in some remarks. This allows a shy leader to be there, but avoid the photo op. It’s an old GOP move. CNN already has an early story online with this quote:

“We’re working to persuade more of our fellow Americans of the rightness of our cause,” the president told abortion foes gathered at the foot of Capitol Hill on a chilly, rainy day. He spoke by telephone from Manhattan, Kansas, where he was to give a speech.

“This is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens and is rooted in America’s deepest principle,” the president said. “And history tells us that with such a cause we will prevail.”

I guess that the news is the phrase “our cause.” However, it will be interesting to see if the press realizes the number of different pro-life groups are in this march, from pro-life atheists to gays and lesbians for life, etc. Even the phrase “pro-life” means different things to different people.

At my own parish, which is home base for the veteran pro-life writer Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet and NPR, there was a weekend emphasis on the sanctity of life. The Eastern Orthodox stance on this issue is very ancient and crystal clear, but the Orthodox have not, in the past, been eager to march or get involved in politics. There is a story in there somewhere. This is another ancient church that has been deeply affected by the Democratic Party’s decision to place abortion rights at the very, very top of its priority list.

But, among the Orthodox, the language of our opposition to abortion still sounds somewhat different than the rhetoric you hear on the far right. Here is part of a litany that the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese sent out for use [PDF] this past weekend. I think most reporters will see signs of news hooks in it.

Again we pray that You will kindle in our hearts the will to care for the needy, to show kindness to the poor, to aid the homeless and to help the helpless.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, Who are in the bosom of the Father, True God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, who came into the world to enlighten it, You were pleased to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of our souls by the power of Your All-Holy Spirit. O Master, Who came that we might have life more abundantly, we ask You to enlighten the minds and hearts of those blinded to the truth that life begins at conception, and that the unborn in the womb are already adorned with Your image and likeness; enable us to guard, cherish and protect the lives of all those who are unable to care for themselves. For You are the Bestower of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with divine and infinite love. Be merciful, O Lord, to those who, through ignorance or willfulness, affront Your divine goodness and providence through the evil act of abortion. May they, and all of us, come to the light of Your Truth and glorify You, the Giver of Life, together with Your Father and Your All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

As the Orthodox will sing today at the Supreme Court: “Memory Eternal.

I hope the complexity of this event makes it into the newspapers — from the pro-life left to the pro-abortion-rights right, from the pro-life right to the pro-abortion-rights left.

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America’s pastor?

rickwarrenHas Rick Warren become a media darling or what? The man certainly knows how to communicate a message and apparently has no trouble using the mainstream media to do so. And reporters are eating up this guy and all the wonderful things he does, including his “reverse tithing,” in which he says he keeps 10 percent of his income and gives the rest away ($14 million in 2004).

In a glowing Washington Post story Saturday, reporter Paul Nussbaum gives us an update on what the sandal-wearing, goatee-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-clad Rick is up to these days:

“One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century,” said Warren, 51, shifting painfully in his chair because of a back sprain suffered during an all-terrain-vehicle romp with his 20-year-old son, Matthew. “That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.”

Not just personal salvation, but social action. Abolishing slavery. Ending child labor. Winning the right for women to vote.

It’s time for modern evangelicals to trade words for deeds and get similarly involved, Warren contends.

Warren was tagged as the next Billy Graham a long time ago, but I think many reporters miss a critical distinction between the two. Graham was an evangelist unassociated with a church or a denomination. Warren is a fourth generation Baptist preacher and his church is Southern Baptist.

By all accounts, Warren is on the brink of becoming the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States. And this Washington Post story is dripping with The Message that Warren preaches.

At the end of his second sermon on that recent Sunday, he reminded his largely affluent Orange County audience: “Life is not about having more and getting more. It’s about serving God and serving others.”

That, simply put, is his message: Give your life to God, help others, spread the word. It is the same message that Christians have been preaching for 2,000 years. Warren has updated the language, added catchphrases and five-step guides, but he readily admits that “there is not a new idea in that book.”

Well is that the same message Christians have been spreading for 2,000 years? Did Warren say that, or is that the reporter helping us readers along? Cite the source, Mr. Nussbaum.

PurposeOther than that small beef, I am having difficulty finding something to pick at in this story, except that it may have been too positive. The muscular Christianity theme worked well — for Warren — and there was little a negative word to say about the guy.

Warren “is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways,” said Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“The Gen X-ers are sick and tired of flash and hype and marketing,” Miller said. “The soft sell of a Rick Warren is far more attractive to them than a highly stylized TV presentation of the Christian message.”

Among evangelicals, Warren is more influential than better-known and more divisive figures such as religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or radio psychologist James Dobson, and he is often seen as the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham as “America’s pastor.”

This could all easily backfire on Warren. He is human and he will make mistakes. And with the increasing public scrutiny, any mistake will be blown sky high. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Warren is riding high, but as I’m sure he is aware, many popular American preachers have been taken down tragically. And the media will not hold back in trashing him, even if all he does is trip up a bit. Perhaps Warren’s connection with a church structure will help keep him straight. He answers to other humans in a formal way, unlike most independent television evangelists.

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Altar of sport

footballSo Seahawks and Steelers, eh? Should be a good Superbowl, I think, after watching all of the Broncos-Steelers game and a bit of the lesser conference game. I am an expatriate of Broncos Nation, which means many of my Sundays after church have been spent in front of the television.

There were a few things this season that reminded me of the religious significance of football. One was that when 49ers linebacker Thomas Herrion died after a game, his casket was draped not with a baptismal pall but a 49ers blanket. The second was that when Hurricane Katrina hit, Mayor Nagin directed stranded people to find sanctuary in the Superdome.

But every football game (and the sport in general) has religious significance, as Denver Post religion reporter Eric Gorski deftly points out in his fun and yet smart and respectful piece in Sunday’s paper, “O Come, All Ye Faithful“:

If the Broncos are a religion, these are the High Holidays.

The cathedral is a glimmering oval of steel along the interstate. . . .

Services start at 1 p.m. sharp today. In the end, someone will probably kneel down.

Scholars and clergy will tell you there are legitimate parallels between sport and religion. Both are steeped in ritual, help forge identity and unite people from different walks of life in a common cause. . . .

These same scholars and clergy will tell you there are risks to blurring football and faith: of potential idolatry, or misplaced prayers and priorities.

It’s a great piece that covers a broad range of religions and treats them all respectfully — even a priest who wore orange vestments the first time the Broncos made it to the Superbowl.

The conceit behind the piece could have resulted in knee-jerk collection of quotes from various clergy, but the author really educates the reader about various religious views. Too bad my Broncos didn’t do as well as Gorski.

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Logic versus faith?

faith and reasonI realize I’ve been covering a great deal of abortion-related stories recently and some, including myself, might be somewhat beleaguered by the topic. But today is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the media are running many stories about abortion with a religion angle. The feature I want to bring to light was written by an unabashedly pro-choice man in today’s New York Times Magazine. Author Eyal Press is the son of an abortion doctor in Buffalo who was a colleague and friend of murdered abortion doctor Bernard Slepian.

He takes the reader through a light history of the pro-life movement, providing extra detail about the 1990s, when things became somewhat more politicized, especially in Buffalo.

There are many things I disagree with in the piece, both from professional and personal standpoints, but the essay is really well written and worth reading for its thoughtful commentary. Structurally, it does a fantastic job of weaving personal anecdotes with legal history and reasoning and cultural criticism.

He doesn’t do that great of a job understanding the multifaceted convictions of religious pro-lifers, but he actually tries. I fear that my examples are the worst the piece has to offer, but they are the ones dealing with the angle we love here: religion. Press says that the convictions of the pro-life activists who protested in front of clinics in New York were rooted

not in the cold logic of abstract reasoning but in something altogether more powerful and, in America, pervasive: spiritual faith.

Because, of course, convictions can’t be rooted in a combination of the two.

However, he takes the time to sit down with one pro-life veteran of the 1990s battles and finds her to be quiet and genuine. She shows pictures of children who were born after she counseled women against having abortions:

In her quiet, understated way, Mickey Van de Ven is living proof of the dedication and perseverance that religion can inspire. No one who speaks to her can come away doubting that her opposition to abortion is rooted in a desire not to curtail the rights of women but to save what she views as innocent life. The movement she joined was not the first in recent decades to be propelled by faith. Meeting her reminded me in some ways of the civil rights demonstrators I had read about . . . who often came into the movement straight out of churches and who made no secret of the fact that God inspired them.

Unfortunately he then goes on to compare many in the pro-life movement to Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, considering this piece is about the murder of an abortion doctor by an anti-abortion sniper, I like to note that he took the time to report that not all pro-lifers are of the violent variety.

Press infers, but never substantiates, that there is a link between the religious motivation of the pro-life movement and the six murders of abortion clinic personnel that occurred in the 1990s. It would have been nice if he would have either provided that link or said he looked for it and found nothing concrete. But it’s still a really well written essay that I commend. Especially when he considers the costs and benefits — from a pro-choice perspective — of overturning Roe.

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Small Atlanta gig, big media results

072804sharptonAccording to the Los Angeles Times website, the desk in the newspaper’s Atlanta bureau is currently “vacant.” This, for me, makes it even harder to understand the following story by reporter Jenny Jarvie. I predict there is a story behind this story somewhere.

The topic is clearly newsworthy, although the event is a long, long way from Los Angeles. It seems that the leaders of a gay-rights group called the National Black Justice Coalition decided, in response to GOP efforts to reach out to morally conservative African-American voters, to hold a conference. The long, long headline describes this effort as “Black Clergy Tackle Homophobia — A summit put on by a gay rights group gathers Christian leaders to explore attitudes toward homosexuality.”

It’s interesting that the top paper of the West Coast elected to staff this event in distant Atlanta, which drew 100 “pastors and theologians.” Some would say a “mere” 100, although that is a judgment call. It certainly would be a newsworthy event for newspapers in the region. However, the organizers certainly did their homework, since this small meeting also drew the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and other major media. The New York Times reports that 150 people attended, which I assume does not include the reporters and camera crews.

The event was held at the First Iconium Baptist Church, but most of the quotes in the story come from leaders on the religious left. Here is a sample from Jarvie’s piece:

“We may not all agree on gay marriage, but at the very least we can say that every child of God deserves to be affirmed in the family of God,” the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, senior pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., said in an interview.

Once a Baptist who condemned homosexuals from the pulpit, Samuel now is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which welcomes gays and lesbians.

The story is a familiar one. Sexuality is a tough subject in many historically black denominations, where a basically conservative approach to moral and social issues collides with politically progressive stands on other issues and a rock-ribbed loyalty to the Democratic Party. Thus, Republican efforts to woo black voters have centered on issues that, in most black pulpits, tend to evoke quotations from the Book of Romans rather than the Democratic National Committee.

For the political left, this is bad, bad news. Ask Democratic leaders in the state of Ohio. Let’s go back to the Los Angeles Times report:

“We have sat back and allowed the right wing to shape the political agenda,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed the summit. “Now it is important that the black church break the backs of those who are trying to use homosexuality as a political weapon.”

Rather than asking pastors to change their beliefs and condone homosexuality, Sharpton appealed for greater tolerance: “If we can forgive adulterers, why do we allow the right wing to attack homosexuals?” he asked.

So a political hook inspired this theological gathering (something that happens on the right, too). I found it interesting that almost every person quoted in the article had, in changing their views on sexuality, found their way out of traditional, doctrinally conservative Christian pulpits and pews and into progressive Christian or even Oprah-esque, “unity,” universalist-style church settings.

This, of course, is exactly what conservative black church leaders would have predicted would happen. Interesting.

And one more thing. Read the whole article and then ask: Where are the voices on the other side of this issue? Is the Los Angeles Times piece, in its own way, a piece of evangelism or, perhaps, an analysis piece that should have been labeled as such?

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What prophets rarely get to say

004I think, at this point, it’s safe to say that we can put the Ray Nagin and Pat Robertson thing to bed for a while.

But you know, you just know, that this issue will return. Right?

So what is the issue? What was this all about?

I have been watching to see how many journalists would get this right, how many would connect the wild news that came out of New Orleans with all of that wild news that keeps coming out of Virginia Beach.

Nagin’s remarks did create a bit of a firestorm, but most of it focused on race. That’s bad enough, but the combination of religion and race created an even hotter brew. I am, frankly, amazed that this story didn’t draw more coverage and commentary.

As you would expect in this day of niche media, it was a conservative commentator who connected the dots most bluntly. Thus, Linda Chavez dared to imagine Salt Lake City being wrecked by an earthquake:

Much of the city’s population fled, many never to return. Then imagine the mayor began wistfully extolling the virtues of his town in barely veiled racial euphemisms. “Salt Lake City has always been a plain vanilla town,” he says, at first only before audiences he thinks will warm to the message.

Then, as the city starts to rebuild, the mayor hints he’s not thrilled many of the jobs to rebuild the city are going to Latinos and blacks, many of whom did not live in Salt Lake before disaster struck. Before long, the mayor gets bolder in his appeals. “It’s time for us to rebuild Salt Lake City — the one that should be a vanilla Salt Lake,” he says. “I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are, this city will be vanilla at the end of the day. This city will be a majority white city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have Salt Lake City any other way. It wouldn’t be Salt Lake City.”

Now would that be a hot news story? Yes. But what we are interested in, with the link to the ongoing Robertson coverage, is that last part of the equation, the part that says “It’s the way God wants it.”

In traditional Christian theology, it is much safer for a person to stand up and say “God is judging me” or even “God is judging my house” than it is to say “Those folks over there are really nasty sinners and that’s why God dropped a hurricane on them.”

This is part of what made Nagin’s speech interesting. He did attempt to speak to the black community that is his base about its own problems, as well as speak — knowing the mind of God — about the sins of others (including people in the White House). Does this make a difference? Imagine that Robertson went on the 700 Club and said that he believed he could see God’s judgment on his own ministry for some specific reason or another.

Would that be news? I imagine so. However, would that statement of judgment be as off the wall, theologically, as Robertson saying that God has decided to take down an Israeli prime minister? No, it would not. Christian tradition stresses that it is better to judge yourself, rather than another person. Rare is the prophet who has a divine calling to put a spotlight — exclusively — on the sins of others. And even these warnings are best expressed face to face, rather than in headlines or on cable television.

Brace yourselves, but an editorial this week in the Boston Globe got this right:

Nagin was speaking at an event commemorating the accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ”I just want to do God’s will,” King said on the night before he was murdered. King tried to live out his belief in God without claiming to have a direct line to the deity. Those who think they know the divine might better show it by their actions to help others, not by invoking his name as a punishment or excuse.

mgo15This is half the equation, of course. King did preach many a sermon in which he boldly pointed out clashes between biblical faith and the cultural realities on the street. The media tend to get mad at conservative people — be they popes or TV preachers — who “go to meddlin’” and issue the same kinds of warnings about the sins that they see around them in the culture and even in their own flocks.

However, a Catholic bishop has a right (some would still say a duty) to defend Catholic teachings about the sacraments, even if one of the Catholics whose ox gets gored happens to be running for president (or mayor of New York City). This is not the same thing as what Robertson and Nagin said.

Let’s take one more shot at this. It would be one thing for a religious broadcaster to say that abortion is wrong and Americans must — for the following reasons of science, justice and nonviolence — consider banning it. There are centuries of social and doctrinal reasons to say that and engage in that debate (and people on the other side can make their case as well, naturally).

It is something else to say this: God made that hurricane strike that city, killing a wide variety of people, because these civic leaders failed to pass the following law against abortion which, by the way, I happen to be advocating at the moment.

Rare is the prophet who is called by God to connect those dots. History tells us that they tend to be humble people who judge themselves first and announce God’s judgment on others with tears and sorrow. Even these prophets say “repent” more than “I told you so.”

Thus ends the sermon.

That is, until Robertson or somebody else gets fired up and we face the same media storm again. You know, you just know, that it’s coming. Right?

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