Is “secularism” the goal in Iraq?

new iraq flagHere we go again. It seems that, in the current post-election environment in Iraq, the United States is pulling for “secularism,” whatever that means.

In the Islamic world, this quickly leads to hard questions, such as: Is Allah in favor of “secularism”? Is “secularism” the opposite of “Islam”? Can one be a “secular” Muslim, in the current faith-charged reality of the Middle East? Is a “moderate” Muslim the same thing as a “secular” Muslim?

Just asking. I could go on and on.

Meanwhile, over here, most Americans — or, at least, those who support the war — would say that we are fighting for “freedom,” the “rule of law” and similar concepts. But does this equal “secularism”? Does any of this square with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and that tricky Article 18 that insists on saying that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

I thought of all of this while struggling to understand the story by reporter Borzou Daragahi in the Los Angeles Times, the one with the pair of headlines that said: “Sunnis Bargain for Iraq Role as Allawi Fades: Ascendant Shiites and Kurds hint that a deal to form a new governing coalition may exclude the U.S.-favored secular politician.”

flag iraq oldTry to follow the labels through the following maze. There are plenty of words that imply faith connections or anti-connections. I have, for some time now, been saying that I wish that MSM journalists would take the time to give us some info on how these terms that sound religious actually relate to religious beliefs and practices. Then we can talk about how these words relate to “religious liberty” and other idealistic concepts that many people insist are “Western” and, thus, “secular.”

Hang on. This gets complicated. And confusing.

The emerging political alliance lumps together Shiites, Kurds and Islamist Sunni Arabs — and excludes secular Iraqis, hard-core Sunni Arab nationalists and those sympathetic to the Baath Party of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein. After all but enacting a cease-fire around the recent elections, Iraq’s mostly Sunni Arab insurgents have escalated their bombings and assassinations targeting officials of the Shiite-dominated government, U.S. troops and foreigners in Iraq.

Got that? It sure doesn’t sound like “secularism” is on the rise, does it? Come to think of it, would the White House say that the purpose of this war to sell “secularism” to the Islamic world?

Just asking. I don’t think that is a winning proposition.

Has anyone seen a story that helps explain the faith content of all of this?

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Consumer religion

shopper employeeThe New York Times reports on teenagers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who attend multiple churches each week. It would be nice for the Times to consider the possibility that some evangelical Christians reside outside of the city limits of Colorado Springs, but I suppose we should be thankful that they are noticing this sizable group at all.

“Teenagers Mix Churches for Faith That Fits” by Neela Banerjee details how teenagers in the Evangelical Vatican City have located where other teenagers hang out in environments with high-tech lighting and sound, hugging and drama: in this case, churches with contemporary worship. The teens then congregate in these spots where the other teenagers are! Crazy . . . Still, the larger story is interesting:

In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.

Some critics, particularly conservative evangelicals and the ministers of various denominations, decry such practices as a consumerist approach to faith.

But sociologists say it is a growing practice, a reflection of how Americans today are less attached to a historical, family denomination.

The article tells a few stories of Christian youth attending one non-denominational Protestant church with their family and then visiting another non-denominational Protestant church with their friends. The reporter quotes people explaining that this individualism is by and large healthy. Aesthetically speaking — and just a personal aside — I’m pretty sure there is nothing healthy about what’s described in this passage:

The youth pastor, Brent Parsley, entered on a sleigh dressed as a hip-hop Santa. “I’m going to break it down for you, Clarence,” Mr. Parsley told an actor in the Christmas play. “Christmas ain’t about presents, yo! The true meaning of Christmas is my main man: J.C.”

2005 01 26 thumbA few hundred years of evangelical American Protestant thought — which largely emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ, personal morality and emotional responses to preaching and music and deemphasizes Sacraments, corporate creeds and liturgy — should leave no one surprised by this church consumerism or individualism. The aversion to doctrine — or the view that it is less important than a personal relationship with, uh, main man J.C. — leads to the very notion of non-denominationalism. I would have loved for Banerjee to explore this more, but she did try:

As a hub of evangelical Christianity, Colorado Springs offers many churches that preach similar doctrines, like the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for a personal relationship with Christ. But here and elsewhere, many Christians, especially members of the clergy, take commitment to a particular church seriously.

As a reader, I wish that Banerjee would have been more specific about criticism of the church-hopping practice. Most people quoted in the article were in favor, but those that weren’t were not given the chance to be terribly specific. I wish Banerjee would have talked both to evangelicals who are opposed as well as those from the larger Protestant community. If the examples cited in the article are any indication, this is a trend that effects evangelical Christians more than those with strong denominational or doctrinal identity. It would be helpful to understand why.

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Shameless self-promotion: back to work

PopGoesCover2I am back home from 10 days of travel near and far (I passed on buying the George W. Bush bobblehead doll in Crawford, Texas), which was hard since I enjoyed (or endured) varying degrees of Internet access. I don’t know how we are supposed to handle travel in the age of DSL, when things work great at home and zippo on the road. How do you folks handle it?

Anyway, some folks during the trip told me that I should be more pushy about my book. So, OK, here is a spot of shameless self-promotion, only I will still try to hook it to a few religion-news related topics we have been talking about here at GetReligion. Then, tomorrow, I will go back to work. Honest. Thanks so much to Mollie and Daniel for hanging in there during the break!

First of all, Dallas Morning News contributor Michael Darling hooked up for a long talk about faith and popular culture. This led to a shorter Q&A piece, that did open with a good question that kind of took me off guard. Thus, I will share it with you guys, too.

How did your time at Baylor influence your career choices?

It was during my junior year that my career interests sort of got switched. I was a writer for Baylor’s campus newspaper, and there was a huge mission festival in town. I went to cover it, and almost nobody showed up.

I thought I had a great story — why didn’t anyone show? But all the other students went, you know, “Grumble-grumble, if nobody shows up it isn’t a story.”

A famous professor, David McHam, one of the deans of journalism education in Texas, told me, “They didn’t get it from me, but they’ve already picked up on the notion that the media doesn’t consider religion all that important. … Religion’s the worst-covered subject in all of the media.”

It was at that moment that I became fascinated with why the media have trouble covering religion.

I still believe that to be true, even though there are signs of progress all over the place. Much has changed in 30 years or so, but now we are at the stage where religion news has become so important that it is getting harder and harder to know what is religion news and what is not.

You think I am joking? Check out the Associated Press list of the top 10 news events — news events, period — in 2005. See any events with religious overtones? What about Katrina? What about the politics of oil? Any faith themes in there?

I know, I know. This keeps coming up — with good reason. This is what this blog is all about, after all. Thus, here is what I said when the good people at Poynter.org, in an end-of-the-year feature called “Journalism’s Highlights and Lowlights,” asked me, “What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in journalism in 2006?” Naturally, I replied:

Like to see? That’s easy: Religion news being treated as a normal, complicated, serious hard-news beat, with skilled specialists. More people asking the question: What Would Dick Ostling Do?

Well, back to work.

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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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