The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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Define anti-Mormon

mitt romneyMassachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination means we get to read lots of profiles about him. Saying absolutely nothing about his political positions, the man has got charisma and charm for days and certainly adds a nice new face into the never-ending campaign cycle.

James Taranto has an excellent run-down of where Romney stands in his Wall Street Journal article today, the focus of which is whether conservative Christians could support the Mormon. As a Lutheran, I don’t vote for elected officials based on their religion. I vote for elected officials based on their policies and ability to do the job well. I judge church officials, on the other hand, based on their religious views. So I could vote for a Druid for the Municipal Water Authority — or President — in good conscience so long as he shared my political views. Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%). . . .

The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”

The only problem is that it is not necessarily anti-Mormon to say Mormons are not Christian. It is true that Mormons call themselves Christian and may take umbrage that other folks disagree. But if a Christian thinks that a non-Trinitarian conception of God, a belief that God has a wife, and the belief that men can become gods puts Mormons outside of the Christian faith, that’s not anti-Mormon. One can believe that Mormons are not Christian and still donate gobs of cash to Mitt Romney for President. Reporters need to understand this distinction.

Reporters should also realize that it’s not just those on the “religious right” who don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Officially speaking, almost all Christian church bodies do not consider Mormons to be Christian or believe their baptisms to be valid — meaning converts are baptized. This includes the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which accept baptisms from other Christian church bodies. Would it kill reporters to study this or understand why?

Admittedly, learning about Mormonism can be challenging. Mormons believe in ongoing revelation, which is how substantial church doctrines change over the years (polygamy, blacks not having the right to hold the priesthood). There are also difficulties in understanding which statements from the church’s authorities are ex cathedra, so to speak, and which are just personal thoughts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Especially since the country might have its first Mormon president pretty soon. I wonder what James A. Garfield would say?

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Other voices on “Brokeback” morality

BrokebackTruckSorry for the delay on this one. I have been without a solid Internet connection for two days. Let me note what has already been mentioned in comments, which is a commentary on “Brokeback Mountain” by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher (who I had lunch with yesterday in Dallas, before flying on to Atlanta with my family in this long, long Christmas tour).

Dreher is a very orthodox, traditional Christian and does not hide that. However, his nuanced evaluation of this movie and the whirlpool around it is getting him some interesting mail over at the Dallas Morning News opinion-page weblog. This is one of those situations that journalists tend to cherish. Rod is managing to tick off people on both sides of the love-hate spectrum on this movie.

The key is that Dreher says this is a good, not great, movie that makes a sincere attempt to capture the art in a gripping short story — a story that is much more honest about this tragic affair (and its roots) than the movie that is being hailed as a political landmark. Thus, Dreher writes:

It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we’d legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis’ pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool — social, moral, spiritual and erotic. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality, or “about” anything other than the tragic human condition.

In other words, I think Dreher is trying to say that the movie — like any artistic work that deserves to be called a “tragedy” — is, in large part, about sin and “The Fall.” This kind of art is not tidy. Thus, Dreher quotes Flannery O’Connor: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”

Among the more gripping emails in response was a post by a man that Dreher simply identifies as a gay Catholic friend of his. His post points toward a possible story in all of this. How are gay conservatives, especially those who are seeking to honor traditional Christian beliefs, going to react to this film? What are the discussions like, these days, at Courage meetings?

Consider this passage from the online comment by the gay Catholic, with its reference to God — the Other Who — and the riptide of beliefs involved in all of this:

No man with homosexual attractions forgets the first time he ever had a serious love-crush on a male friend in a disapproving environment — disapproval being either internal (morality) or external (society). There’s a strange mix of terror and lust, and a need for SOME sort of same-sex approval that I cannot imagine having absolutely any equivalent in the straight world. It’s a whirlpool of attraction and revulsion. You know that what you most want, what your body is telling you (and male bodies can’t be fooled), is wrong and/or that acting according to it would ruin you in the eyes of the other, the one you love (in some sense). And in the eyes of the Other Who loves you. And in some sense yourself. If you know/believe (rightly or wrongly) that homosexual acts are wrong, there is simply no secular way out. Only the acceptance of tragedy, the embracing of the Cross, and seeking to die to self.

Like I keep saying, there are many points of view out there on this issue and this movie that are not making it into the MSM coverage. Journalists need to find the voices in between Hollywood and, well, the 700 Club.

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CT on top 10 events of the year

I guess I really am alone in thinking that terrorism remained one of the major “religion” news stories of the year. Christianity Today has its list out now and they have also produced a terrorism-free top 10.

CT did have this interesting item at No. 7:

Media Spotlight Religion: 2004 “values voters” bring reporters into churches, Time releases list of 25 most influential evangelicals, The New York Times promises more religion coverage, and CNN hires full-time religion correspondent.

Any other interesting lists out there?

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When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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How reliable is a piece of rock?

stone reliefOne of the things that I have always been fascinated with is archaeology. Especially archaeology that uncovers things we did not know or could not confirm about the past. Such is the case here in an article on the China Daily Web site that describes an artifact that could be used as evidence that Christianity spread to China as earlier as 100 years after the death of Christ. The reporter Wang Shanshan has the details:

A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks like a manger, with allegedly “the three wise men” approaching from the left side, holding gifts, “the shepherd” following them, and “the assassins” queued up, kneeling, on the right.

As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates of Paradise in Florence?

Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China, said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn’t.

Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China’s parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the gilt-bronze gates of Florence. …

Before Wang’s discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as far as to China.

The veracity of these types of archaeological finds from a historical basis always perplexes me. Call me a skeptic, but the discovery of a piece of stone proves something as significant as the spread Christianity? Apparently, this rock provides us with some — pardon the pun — hard evidence:

There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.

But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer seems entirely groundless. “It really happened,” he said.

The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or “Terrace of Nine Women,” in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the site were first excavated in 1954.

Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and the themes were similar to those found in Shandong Province.

GetReligion reader David Buckna, who provided us with the link to this story, said that he found it incredible that the Chinese government would even report on these stone tablets. But could this report be exclusively for Western consumption, Buckna wonders.

As I said earlier, I am no archeological expert, nor will I attempt to play one on the Internet, but I’m sure some faithful readers could provide some insight into this subject. The piece contains some good back-and-forth between sources debating exactly how established Christianity was in the first centruy and how effectively it was spreading. And you have plenty to work with. The article is 1,500-plus words long and finishes with a dramatic pronouncement:

Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang’s discovery will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.

“They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making investigations, because he is the ‘flagship’ historian in the Chinese Christian community,” Qi said. “He is a master not only of the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.

“There could be an earthquake in the world’s Christian community and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.

“World history could be rewritten.”

Is it time to rewrite world history? Call me a skeptic on this one.

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When is religion news “religion” news?

iraqi firefighter baghdad 11704The 2005 end of the year wrap-up stories are starting to bloom. With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday — massive newspapers — look for tons then.

You will see top 10 lists for news stories and top 10 lists for “religion” news stories. Here at GetReligion, we are interested in both and, especially, in the overlap between these lists. This was the subject of my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. Veteran GetReligion writers will, I confess, hear an echo of the blog in the main theme. Click here if you want to see that.

I started with the Palestinian suicide bomber at the sandwich stand in Hadera, Israel.

Are events such as this “religion” news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers — Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events “religion” news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

I asked these questions again because events related to terror, Iraq (photo), Israel, etc., were missing in the Religion Newswriters Association’s top 10 list of religion news stories in 2005. Click here to get to the RNA home page, which appears to be crashed at the moment. I will try to post the direct link to 2005 RNA list later.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see the role that faith plays in this Peggy Noonan column about the top five news events of the year. It’s from the Wall Street Journal, of course.

Seen any other interesting Godbeat lists you want to point out?

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Moving on with the story

dungyI returned to Washington from Indianapolis this afternoon/evening and expected to be reminded that the story of the death of Colts coach Tony Dungy’s son was a local one. Sure, I thought, if Dungy retires due to this tragic event, people outside the community are going to take notice, but front-page stories on the funeral will be hard to find outside of Colts-land.

But I forgot. Dungy was a man who left a mark wherever he went that must have included journalists based on the tremendous stories that have flowed out of the Florida papers and even in Minnesota where was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings.

Indianapolis Star sportswriter Phil Richards covered the event masterfully, catching Dungy’s key quotes and portraying the scene of deep family sadness:

Tony Dungy had a message for all.

“I urge you not to take your relations for granted,” Dungy told the gathering of about 1,500. “Parents, hug your kids each chance you get. Tell them you love them each chance you get. You don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”

James Dungy, 18, died Thursday in what authorities said was an apparent suicide.

Tony Dungy last saw his son at Thanksgiving in Indianapolis. James was in a rush to return to Tampa. Goodbyes were hurried.

“I never got to hug him,” Dungy said. “I knew I was going to get to see him pretty soon, so it didn’t bother me a lot.”

The faith-theme so prevalent in earlier coverage largely disappeared from the headlines starting Monday, but sub-themes were still there with stories on Dungy’s impact on players as fathers started making their way out of Florida.

As a fill-in for Dungy, Colts assistant coach Jim Caldwell has had the tough job of balancing this team’s needs to support their coach, attending to their own family matters over the Holidays and two road games in the final two weeks of the season. Again Richards nails the spiritual element that is flowing out of this sports-related story:

It’s a reflective time and Caldwell has done much reflecting. The words that keep coming to him are those of Oswald Chambers, a Scottish minister, teacher and author who died in 1917.

“Chambers wrote that so he could serve the Lord in the best way, he would like to be broken bread and poured-out wine,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s a great description of Tony and his family: He and Lauren are broken bread and poured-out wine.”

Caldwell believes that in closing ranks around its leader and his family, an already close team has been welded even tighter.

The spiritual angle of this story is ripe for the picking for any number of Christian publications. Give Dungy and the team some time and a great God-beat story could be told by any number of journalists ready to listen and understand.

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