On math and charity

panic_graphThe Washington Post carries some water today for Jim Wallis, an evangelical social activist. The story, by domestic economic policy reporter Jonathan Weisman and religion reporter Alan Cooperman, is about Christian approaches on Republican spending policies.

As a recovering economist — and reporter who covers federal programs — I have to make a point in defense of statistical analysis. It’s no secret that reporters enjoy budget analysis about as much as we like sources who burn us. But math is our friend. It keeps us from beginning stories this way:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

If last year your boss gave you a 6% raise and this year you only receive a 5% raise, is that an income cut? In Washington, D.C., it is — but reporters should know better. An increase in spending, no matter how contentious, really should not be called a cut. Anyway, without making any comment on whether this budget change is worthy of protest, the story is that the House of Representatives voted to slow the increase in the rate of spending. But we’re Get Religion and not Get Math, so let’s proceed:

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking — but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

housing project 2Don’t you love news stories that read like opinion pieces? Here are the details of the protest:

To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin [budget] measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations — the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ — issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings “good news to the poor.”

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: “Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan.”

By the end of the story, after many evangelical Christians have been cast as religious hypocrites who don’t care about the poor, the Post reporters allow them to defend their policy positions. In the Post’s defense — and as I have come to expect from at least one of the two bylined reporters for this story — care is taken to make sure that perspective is understood and presented correctly:

And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives “know that the government is not really capable of love.”

“You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need,” she said.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government’s role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

“There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact,” he said. “But it does not say government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.”

Without contrasting the outcomes of church and state charity for the last couple of thousand years, isn’t it weird that reporters never write news stories that put those folks who support governmental charity on the defensive? Should reporters investigate the motivations of those people who advocate for housing projects that breed crime, subsidized income programs with incentives for bearing more and more children out of wedlock and welfare programs that drive fathers away from homes? Or have reporters settled the debate that the preferred way to show concern for the poor is through massive federal programs, regardless of their results?

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Holiday hathos from Lapham & Huffington

laphamCoverI’ve spent a few weeks now pondering what it is in the temperament of Lewis Lapham, the soon-retiring editor of Harper’s, that prompts him to devote the December issue’s cover to an essay celebrating “Jesus without the Miracles.”

In a recent feature for New York magazine, Kurt Andersen helps explain Lapham’s influence on Harper’s for much of the past 30 years:

It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

AriannaHuffington2Remember the days when people worried about Ted Turner buying out CBS News because of his excessive right-wing sympathies? Like Turner, Arianna Huffington is a celebrity whose ideological about-face is enough to induce vertigo.

In the December Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews helps explain Huffington’s political (and theological) identities. Andrews spends more time on Huffington’s politics than on her religious beliefs, but the details she does report are as high-energy as one of Huffington’s appearances on a talk show:

• There were, to be sure, aspects of the new HuffPost [blog] that invited ridicule: incoherent blogs from celebrities including Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Deepak Chopra’s cryptic admonition that death was not to be feared, because “you are dead already”; and Huffington’s own post on the female orgasm, which she declared to be “so complex and strange it could only have come from God.” Wouldn’t it be “delicious,” she wrote, “if the female orgasm were the thing that tips the scales in favor of the Intelligent Design crowd?”

• Success at such an early age, she recalls, brought on feelings of anxiety and emptiness. “Certain there was something else,” Arianna embarked on a period of spiritual searching. She read the writings of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and of Yogi Sri Aurobindo and various mystical philosophers. She did dream analysis, explored the New Age programs est and Lifespring, walked on hot coals with the life coach Tony Robbins, and got involved with a mystic who claimed to be channeling a 3,000-year-old man. “I began to see,” Huffington says, “how basically for people to find themselves spiritually there had to be an element of service, a dedication to something more than ourselves.” The result of this was her second book, After Reason, a densely written treatise that argued for the need to integrate spirituality into modern politics. Attacking the “bankruptcy of Western political leadership,” and describing politics as “our hypnotized acquiescence in this organized sham,” the book called for a “spiritual revolution” in Western democracies. Nothing less, she wrote, could save “individual freedom” in a culture where “the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has been reduced today to the pursuit of comfort.”

• And then there was John-Roger. The press went wild with the allegation that Arianna had been, since the late 1970s, a minister in the guru’s Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA). A New Age spiritualist whose seminars and books advance a regimen of therapy, positive thinking, and rigorous self-improvement, John-Roger was also believed by his followers to embody the “Mystical Traveler Consciousness,” which inhabits God’s chosen one on earth. It was never clear whether Arianna believed, as many of John-Roger’s adherents did, that he was the personification of God and that he could read her mind, heal her illnesses, and even endow her with the power to change the weather. Over and over, she obfuscated as the press dogged her with questions about John-Roger, whom ex-followers accused in the press of mind control, electronic eavesdropping, and sexually coercing his male acolytes. Several former adherents also said that John-Roger had almost completely controlled Arianna, financing her lavish lifestyle in New York in return for introductions to her powerful friends, guiding her through her courtship with Huffington (she allegedly called him after each date “to see what God would do next”), and instructing her to marry Huffington for his money. When asked about John-Roger, Arianna denied these allegations and claimed that he was just a friend, and that she knew very little about his teachings. “I have not spent many years in his training,” she told Vanity Fair in 1994. “Nobody’s been a guru to me.”

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Brokeback stone table story hangs around

091205 brokebackIf, while visiting the usual online newspapers and blogs, you clicked this gay-based Golden Globes story in Variety (“It’s red meat for the culture warriors.”) and then happened, by chance, to click on this sobering summary of movie and DVD trends in 2005 (“Plummeting 2005 box office sparks Hollywood crisis”), would one be justified with a click here and even over here to touch base with the American mainstream?

If Variety is going to start using what it thinks is “culture wars” language, at what point does someone write the end of the year round-up (that’s cowboy lingo) that explores the moral, cultural and, yes, religious angles of the whole brokeback stone table showdown? Of course, King Kong may drive this out of the headlines. But I think not, especially if blue zip-code writers such as Ken Tucker of New York Magazine are going to write reviews that wave red flags in front of easily provoked leaders out in flyover country. Check this out the twist in his “Brokeback Mountain” hymn:

When, a half-hour into the film, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, both drunk, cold, and lonely on a remote Wyoming campsite, fold around each other and commence an act of sex that manages to be both rough and tender, romantically intimate and lustily intense, Brokeback Mountain achieves its own early climax: You either buy into this tale of men in love or you join the ranks of those who’ve been snickering during the movie’s prerelease trailers, and who can be divided into the insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots.

Well, on to the Oscar races. Let’s see how many of the insecure idiots out in middle America tune in this year and how that affects both the ratings and the advertising revenue.

Wait a minute: I thought Hollywood was all about making money and that, if someone wanted to send a message, they were supposed to call Western Union?

topnav aslanMeanwhile, the newspaper of record on all things Tinsel has raised the stakes as high as they can possibly go. Forget about a showdown between the gay cowboys and the Lion King of Kings. For some folks in Hollywood, says the Los Angeles Times, it is past time for the ultimate symbolic showdown (cue the theme from “Braveheart”):

“Brokeback Mountain’s” future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood’s. In some ways, “Brokeback” could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.

The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.

Really? Hollywood insiders are still shook up about “The Passion”? You think so?

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Talk about mingling church and state

repentThere has been some amazing coverage surrounding this morning’s execution of convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The gang leader, who killed four people in two separate robberies in 1979, unsuccessfully tried to receive clemency from various courts and Gov. Schwarzennegger.

With many Christian churches and other religious groups taking different positions on whether the state has the right to enact the death penalty, all capital punishment stories invite religious angles. But I can’t recall such an open embrace of religious terminology as what we saw in headlines and copy today. The first few stories I read pounded the themes of redemption, mercy, and atonement. I wasn’t sure if I was in church or reading the news.

Many of these “redemption” stories gave second or third billing to redemption’s sidekick: repentance. The stories that did mention atonement, such as this one from the San Francisco Chronicle, used an unlikely source:

“Clemency cases are always difficult, and this one is no exception,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a six-page statement rejecting Williams’ bid to have his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole. “After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury’s verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case.”

Williams said he was a changed man and of value to society because of his anti-gang writings from behind bars. Schwarzenegger noted, however, that Williams had never apologized for the murders. Williams maintained he did not commit them.

“Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption,” Schwarzenegger said. “In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.”

The Governator articulating an understanding of the relationship between repentance and forgiveness is not what I expect when opening my California papers. What a day.

Reporters also managed to include the religious motivations of many of the death-penalty opponents. For instance, Washington Post writer Evelyn Nieves quoted these Williams supporters:

“The first thing you learn from the Bible is about forgiveness,” actor Jamie Foxx told CNN in criticizing Schwarzenegger’s decision. Foxx portrayed Williams in “Redemption,” a made-for-television movie.

and, later:

“Schwarzenegger could have called for a moratorium today,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions until January 2009 to review the fairness of how the state imposes the death penalty. The bill was introduced in August and is scheduled to be heard in committee next month.

“It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption,” Leno said. “Unfortunately, the governor has missed an opportunity to do just that.”

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea. The lack of quotes arguing against such mingling of church and state was striking. When some Christians advocate for a ban on abortion or resolutions against same-sex marriage, the media is quick to identify opponents who claim church-state violations. Do they not see the state taking over the work of forgiveness of sins, dispension of grace, etc., as a mingling of church and state? Surely there are folks who could speak to this. Where were they in the stories?

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Thank you, Eugene Robinson

pryor4Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has put into words part of what I was struggling to say in my post about the God-haunted side of comic genius Richard Pryor.

When the main hook for comedian is that he is going to talk openly about the dark side of life, that implies that there is some light — somewhere. When that comedian openly states is that his goal is to tell the Truth, with a big “T,” then that implies that such a thing exists, even when talking about the racist sins of a society or the drug-based demons in his own soul. So how did Pryor handle all of that, when he was on stage?

… (Along) with the fallen, Pryor also portrayed men of the cloth — black preachers whom he cleverly used to deliver social commentary. It didn’t matter how puffed-up he made them sound, or how foolishly he had them preen and strut; it didn’t matter that they might be paying undue attention to shapely female parishioners or the contents of the collection plate. Pryor always gave his preachers an air of dignity and command that their sins could not diminish. On a 1975 album — “. . . Is It Something I Said?” — Pryor complained that “white church” was “too scary for me,” with its otherworldly music and somber iconography. “In black church,” he said, “you get a show for your money.”

It makes perfect sense that the most influential comedian of his time would identify with preachers who knew how to put on a proper show, who gave a committed performance, who refused to hold anything back — and who told the truth. If the preacher was delivering a eulogy and the dearly departed had been a no-good dirty dog, well, that’s what the preacher said. And the church said amen.

Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Has anyone else seen solid MSM coverage of this side of Pryor’s work?

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The missing abortion debate

babyThe European papers are all over this study from Oslo University on the trauma abortion can cause, which appears to be greater than the trauma caused by a miscarriage. The interesting thing here is that while European journalists jump all over this story, there is relatively little noise over in the United States. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Here is London’s The Daily Mail‘s take on the subject:

Women who have an abortion can suffer mental distress, anxiety, guilt and shame even five years afterwards and sometimes even longer, research has shown.

The study compared a group of 40 women who suffered a miscarriage with 80 women who chose to have an abortion, questioning them 10 days, six months, two years and five years after the event.

The team from Oslo University, found that women who had a miscarriage suffered more mental distress up to six months after losing their baby compared with those who had an abortion.

There is a certain Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade that prevents any true debate in the United States on abortion. It’s perceived as a settled issue so journalists have little need to explore the deeply compelling story that is the actual act of an abortion rather than the horse race that is Supreme Court nominations.

It’s considered a right as basic as voting, which keeps it out of the political arena and thus largely the journalistic arena. There are exceptions of course, graphically seen here in the Los Angeles Times (for more commentary spurred on by that article, click here and here).

As the Economist wrote so eloquently this week (no link, sorry folks, I read this one while at the dentist and it’s blocked on their Web site), abortion in the United States remains a hot button issue precisely because there is no true debate on the issue. The issue of abortion is largely settled throughout most of the world (in favor with some restrictions), but in the U.S., the debate rages onward and has started to negatively impact our judicial system and take time away from other much more pressing issues that must be debated such as terrorism and a flu pandemic. And all because a few judges believed that the right to an abortion was akin to the right to vote. Clearly, the issue is not that simple.

Fox News’ Salynn Boyles seems to be the only American journalist to have jumped on this story, and she does so in great detail. The Australian Doctor.com covered the story as did the Hindustan Times. The BBC has an article on this, as does the Telegraph and The Independent. I know this story is only a day or so old, so it might take time for it to catch on in the U.S.

For reporters who coverage laps into this area of health and abortion issues, don’t let a legal decision stop you from covering this story. This Web site might be a good place to start as might the local church or abortion clinic. One way or another, there’s a story to be told and one way or another, the truth will get out. The question is whether American journalists have it in them to cover the story.

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Muslim hero

good muslimI’ve caught most of Showtime’s Sleeper Cell. The 10-hour miniseries follows an Al Qaeda terrorist group in Los Angeles and the FBI agent who infiltrates it.

Permit me to get my complaints out of the way. The show suffers from too much exposition. In a desperate bid to cater to the whims of the politically correct, the terror cell has fewer Arabs than non-Arab Muslims. This includes a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Californian; a French ex-skinhead; a Bosnian and a Black American Muslim. And to take advantage of being on cable, the nudity and premarital sex is more fitting of the Sopranos than a show about Muslims.

But I have been sucked in for two reasons: Michael Ealy and Michael Ealy. I kid. But the actor who plays the Muslim hero who infiltrates the terror cell is incredibly easy on the eyes.

On a less shallow note, the show has highlighted something that I wish reporters and editors would pay attention to. Apart from the artistic merits or lack thereof, it provides a valuable news service by showing the difference between the violent Islam of the terrorists and the Islam of the FBI agent.

At a time when every politician repeats the mantra that Islam is a religion of peace, even the most culturally unaware American knows that the September 11 hijackers were Muslim, the July 7 London bombers were Muslim, the Madrid bombers were Muslim, the kids who rioted in Paris earlier this fall were Muslim, Osama bin Laden is Muslim, etc.

People aren’t stupid. Or, if they are, they still understand that there is something that all these folks have in common. What Sleeper Cell does is show various interpretations of Islam. And with the current climate, learning more about Islam is good.

Which brings me to the media analysis. Detroit Free Press writer David Crumm wrote about Sleeper Cell last week before it debuted. His story describing the show and community reaction to it is genuinely interesting:

In the first hour alone, the troubling images include a Muslim father killing his teenaged daughter for sleeping with a boyfriend and Muslims burying a friend, who they believe has betrayed them, to his neck and stoning him to death as he screams for mercy.

The Free Press hosted a screening this week for Alawan, two other adults and a religiously diverse group of seven seniors from Salem High School in Canton.

Afterward, all three adults called the series disturbing and said they hope no one sees it. But all of the students said they’ll recommend it to friends, mainly because of a key detail that appeared to mean much more to them than to the adults.

The teenagers noticed that “Sleeper Cell” is the first major TV series with a Muslim hero. Darwyn al-Sayeed (played by actor Michael Ealy) joins the terrorist cell, but viewers find out that he is an FBI agent trying to stop the terrorists.

Crumm’s story doesn’t just take national story and make it local, it doesn’t just find a new and creative way of reviewing television, it is also illuminating. It would be interesting for other reporters to look at how youth and adults react to seeing Muslim heros in various media.

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’Tis the journalism season…

… For editors to require religion-beat specialists to pull dozens of holiday and Holy Day stories out of a hat. Here is the official Religion Newswriters Association tip list for stories this year.

Mary of Nazareth
A Merry Hindu Christmas
The soundtrack of this Christmas
Happy Christmakkah!
When it’s not your holiday
Home for the holidays
Homeless for the holidays
Christmas: A Muslim-American Parent’s Dilemma
Religious toys and games
A gift to be simple

Behold! No sign of empty megachurches. Visit ReligionLink to see the interactive resources there.

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