Report on death

DyingChildKudos to the Denver Post, a paper I used to deliver in the wee hours, for devoting the resources necessary for last Sunday’s special report on the death of young Dylan Walborn.

Staff Writer Kevin Simpson — a long-time local reporter who is great at pulling out quotes from people in emotional situations — spent months covering the boy’s parents Kerri Bruning and Dave Walborn after they decided they were going to stop feeding their son through the tube he’d been implanted with shortly after birth. Dylan, who was nearing five, had suffered a stroke in utero. While he had always been severely disabled, the situation was getting worse. Never able to perform a voluntary function, the boy was experiencing painful daily siezures caused by his nightly nutrition. If the parents medicated him for them, he would become comatose.

Simpson is not the Post’s religion writer — that honor goes to the extremely talented Eric Gorski, whose work I hope to highlight soon — but he skillfully draws out the religious and spiritual ghosts that are bound to be involved. In the 12,000+ word story, Simpson covers all the bases — their consultation with a pastor before finalizing their decision, the national political struggles over death issues, how the hospital’s ethics board came to approve the plan, the conflicted feelings of Kerri’s mother:

Vicki wishes her grandson could have run around and made a mess of her house. But Dylan has left his mark on her in subtle ways. He has made her more patient, more accommodating, more appreciative of life.

“I’ve been praying since he was born for a miracle,” Vicki says. “I never got that miracle … but then, maybe I did. He’s brought me a lot of joy.”

As the two parents — who had not intended to get pregnant and are not married — decide on funeral and burial arrangements, Simpson takes readers through young Dylan’s medical journey. At 4 months, he stopped breathing because of fluid buildup so doctors installed a tracheotomy tube. At 1, he came down with pneumonia and was put on a ventilator. At 2, surgeons removed his salivary glands. He had one operation to fix his eardrum and three more to install and adjust drainage tubes in his ears. At 3, he needed surgery to realign both hips and spent six weeks in a full body cast. His head failed to grow with the rest of his body, and it remained about the size of a 7-month-old’s, and so on. Simpson tenderly records the parents efforts over five years, as well as how they met and why they did not marry. He also faithfully records the parents’ doubts about their decision, exploring their religious background. By the time the funeral is covered, the reader feels they understand what the family went through:

For an hour, prayer, songs and remembrances fill the vast sanctuary. Few words are delivered without tears, and most center on a recurring theme: Dylan may have done little with his damaged body, but he touched many with his spirit.

One of the last to take the microphone is Dave Walborn Sr., a father who admits that many years ago, as his youngest son struggled with school and responsibility, he never expected much. Yet now he stands in awe of Dave’s devotion to Dylan.

Dave watches his dad, a former preacher, fight emotion with an uncharacteristically wobbly voice.

“I learned in the last couple of years that there are things to be proud of,” says Dave Sr. “The things I’ve heard about my son in the last few weeks … they’re things I never thought I’d hear. I have great pride in the character of my son.”

By the time I reached this portion of the story, I was sobbing and I can’t imagine anyone could get through this with dry eyes. I highly encourage reporters to read this account. It handles death respectfully. It shows that day-to-day scenarios (even in an abnormal situation) are a great way to convey life’s dramas and enrich the community with new perspective. It also shows that intense resources of time and effort pay off.

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GetReligion and the Christmas season

HomePhotoAs you might expect, various members of the GetReligion team are headed out various doors in various directions for various purposes for varying amounts of time during the Christmas season (which begins Dec. 25, thank you very much).

Mollie drew the working stick in her newsroom and will be pretty close to a computer and a keyboard (and rough drafts of her book) during the days ahead.

Young master Daniel will, any minute now, board an airplane to Indiana and I believe that the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc is traveling, too.

In a matter of a few hours I will be heading back to the North Carolina mountains, where our chosen hideaway does not even have a telephone, let alone blog-friendly broadband. After that we head to Georgia, central Texas (my brother lives in Crawford, not far from you know who), back to Georgia, then maybe South Carolina and on back to Maryland. Frankly, I am worried about Internet connections at almost every stop in this journey. Can you say “Panera Bread“?

The blog will stay open, but not as active, with maybe one post a day instead of the usual two or three. If we do not respond to comments, please understand that we are not ignoring you (unless, well, we choose to do so). Please be patient with us.

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An “amen” to what Mollie said

Supreme Court 03I am somewhat afraid to do this, but let me briefly comment on something Mollie said in the, as usual, lively GetReligion wars over media bias on evolution, creationism, naturalism, fundamentalism and various other terms that the media cannot get straight, in terms of using definitions that ring true to the activists being quoted (sometimes accurately and sometimes not).

In defending her “We’re not religious” post, Mollie wrote, concerning David Klinghoffer’s National Review Online piece about Intelligent Design:

… (If) you read the Klinghoffer piece — who doesn’t fit YOUR stereotype of ID supporters being Christian, I might add — he specifically said he had been collecting quotes from evolutionists ABOUT religion, especially Christianity. ALL I AM TRYING TO SAY is that this story is important enough to at least cover fairly, accurately and with a critical eye in all directions. I’m sure we can agree about that.

Actually, GetReligion readers will remember that some in the journalism establishment (and some readers of this blog) do not agree that Intelligent Design is a subject that deserves neutral, fair, balanced coverage. That is one reason why — as a journalism issue — this story is so important.

But if you are interested in hearing both sides, you can watch Beliefnet.com for some interesting reactions to recent events. The blistering words of the opinion written by Judge John E. Jones III can be read in all their glory by clicking here. There is a wide-ranging interview — done after the ruling — with biochemist Michael J. Behe in the same online package.

And finally, the Washington Post did a second-day story on what might happen next. There was, for example, this rather hot-tempered response from a key leader in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention:

“This decision is a poster child for a half-century secularist reign of terror that’s coming to a rapid end with Justice Roberts and soon-to-be Justice Alito,” said Richard Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and is a political ally of White House adviser Karl Rove. “This was an extremely injudicious judge who went way, way beyond his boundaries — if he had any eyes on advancing up the judicial ladder, he just sawed off the bottom rung.”

Wow, that’ll sure help calm things down at the Alito hearings.

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The military and the J-word, again

WhiteHouseNC053A long, long time ago, the journalist Stephen Bates wrote a stunning book entitled “Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms.” You knew it was an amazing book because the back cover was full of praise from scholars, journalists and acitivists on the left as well as the right. His thesis: Our public schools have become so biased against traditional forms of religion that they are, ultimately, undercutting the foundations of America’s heritage of public education. They are driving away millions of parents and, thus, their children.

I thought of this book while reading veteran Godbeat reporter Julia Duin’s story in the Washington Times about a hunger strike by Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who says he is one of many U.S. miltary chaplains who face discrimination because he refuses to stop saying traditional Christian prayers in public. In other words, he continues to say the word “Jesus.” (You may recall the excellent New York Times story on this issue that drew GetReligion praise.)

What is the connection?

When I was interviewing Bates about his book, he used two terms that I recalled from my graduate studies in church-state studies — “civic toleration” and “theological (or doctrinal) toleration.”

What the American founding fathers wanted was “civic toleration,” the belief that all faiths or non-faiths would be equal in the eyes of the state. This did not, however, mean that the state would — to use modern language — practice “viewpoint discrimination” and deliberately favor some forms of religion over others. The state would not say that some religions are right and others are wrong.

The problem, said Bates, was that American public schools seem to think that it is their duty to teach “theological toleration,” which teaches that all religions are the same in the eyes of God. This means that faiths that actually teach that their beliefs are true, and others are false, are — well — wrong. This means that they must change what they teach, in order to have any role in the public square. In practice, this leads to state recognition and even support for faiths that take an approach that says that “many religious roads to lead to the same god, gods or God.” The state then has trouble tolerating the faiths that it has ruled are not tolerant enough. This is church-state entanglement of the worse kind.

Bates had a memorable way of putting this. He said this is like people who say, “You know, there are people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should and I really hate people like that.”

This brings us back to Duin’s report about Klingenschmitt, a chaplain who has fought for the religious rights of Jews, Muslims and others under his care, but refuses to pray in a manner that he believes is less than Christian and, thus, heretical. He is backed by a conservative ecumenical group called the National Clergy Council (see photo). According to Klingenschmitt, he is about to be fired. Conservatives want President Bush to step in and defend the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Thus, Duin reports:

Seventy-three members of Congress have joined the request, saying in an Oct. 25 letter to the president, “In all branches of the military, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.” About 80 percent of U.S. troops are Christian, the legislators wrote, adding that military “censorship” of chaplains’ prayers disenfranchises “hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the military who look to their chaplains for comfort, inspiration and support.”

Official military policy allows any sort of prayer, but Lt. Klingenschmitt says that in reality, evangelical Protestant prayers are censored. He cites his training at the Navy Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where “they have clipboards and evaluators who evaluate your prayers, and they praise you if you pray just to God,” he said. “But if you pray in Jesus’ name, they counsel you.” Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains are likewise told not to pray in the name of Allah, in Hebrew or in the name of the Trinity, he added.

If you search for this story on Google, you will discover that, so far, only Stars and Stripes is interested in it (other than the usual assortment of conservative news outlets). Once again, offensive free speech now seems to be more important to conservatives than to those formerly known as “liberals.”

As the New York Times noted, the Navy is facing lawsuits filed by 50 or so Christian chaplains. Thus, the issue will not go away. Let’s hope that more MSM newsrooms notice this fact.

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Enough of the war on calendars

December CalendarI am glad Young Master Pulliam cited the story below, which properly states that the “War on Christmas” was — and is — waged most furiously by some Calvinists. But there was a doozie of a problem with it:

Although no one knows when Jesus was born, his birth was celebrated on Dec. 25 in Rome as early as AD 336 as an ascendant Roman Catholic Church preempted the pagan celebrations. Most Eastern Orthodox churches later accepted that date too, although the Armenian church retains Jan. 6.

“It’s the way Europe got Christianized. The pope would write letters to the bishops saying let them keep doing what they are doing as long as they change the name,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Battle for Christmas,” which traces the evolution of the holiday.

I realize this is a popular notion. I realize this is a widely held belief. But it should not be inserted into stories on blind faith. The theory is only a few centuries old and widely trumpeted by those who thought the liturgical calendar was a bad thing. But the important thing is that there is another, older theory. And one that explains, unlike the Saturnalia theory, why the Eastern and Western church have similar but different dates for Christmas. Here’s the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling from last year, thankfully still online:

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, [William] Tighe [, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College] said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

And the reason why the Eastern church celebrated, and some still celebrate, Christ’s birth on January 6 was because they were using different calendars.

Sorry to go off on this, but this Saturnalia theory is just one of those things that belongs more in a Dan Brown novel than a news story.

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Enough of the war on Christmas

bellsWhen Bill O’Rielly makes a lot of noise about something, does that make it a story? I would hope not.

Personally, I’m sick of the “Christmas Wars” stories (click here and here for some past GetReligion analysis) and this Los Angeles Times article is a wonderful example of how it is not one of those easy to write stories with two clearly defined sides.

Essentially, the war for Christmas — a battle cry of those who believe that secularists in America are attempting to replace the term “Merry Christmas” with more religiously generic terms like “Happy Holidays” — is a battle on which both sides include sincere Christians. Here’s the gist:

Carrasco and his Christian congregation of 60 mainly Central American immigrants at the Iglesia de Dios La Nueva Jerusalem (Church of God the New Jerusalem) believe in Jesus as Lord. But they don’t keep Christmas.

“There is nothing biblical” in the yuletide celebrations, said Carrasco, 56. “And we only practice what Jesus orders us to practice.”

What’s worse, he continued, Christmas was ungodly, a time of revelry, including drunkenness and “pleasures of the flesh. They are not celebrating God,” he said.

In my church back in Indianapolis, there were several families who did not celebrate Christmas for this very reason and that was fine by the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. In most Protestant churches, Christmas is not formally celebrated and in some, it is even forbidden from mention in the worship service.

The celebration of Christmas was in fact once banned in the one of the original colonies. And it was not by some atheistic-secularist, but by the Puritans. Check out Slate’s Andrew Santella article for more details on this fascinating bit of history:

Liberal plots notwithstanding, the Americans who succeeded in banning the holiday were the Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts. Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were outlawed in the colony, and the law declared that anyone caught “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.” Finding no biblical authority for celebrating Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25, the theocrats who ran Massachusetts regarded the holiday as a mere human invention, a remnant of a heathen past. They also disapproved of the rowdy celebrations that went along with it. “How few there are comparatively that spend those holidays … after an holy manner,” the Rev. Increase Mather lamented in 1687. “But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in Mad Mirth.”

After the English Restoration government reclaimed control of Massachusetts from the Puritans in the 1680s, one of the first acts of the newly appointed royal governor of the colony was to sponsor and attend Christmas religious services. Perhaps fearing a militant Puritan backlash, for the 1686 services he was flanked by redcoats. The Puritan disdain for the holiday endured: As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day.

Then there’s the deeper history of the Christmas Wars, which goes back to Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. Go figure.

As Jon Stewart said the other night, it’s “Happy Holidays” because you celebrate two holidays: Christmas and New Years. And people just don’t have the time to say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” because they have, um, stuff to do and don’t have the time.

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We’re not religious

Sherlock Holmes OI’m a rather disinterested party in the whole intelligent design versus evolution debate so I don’t follow it as much as I should. But there is something so bizarre about the federal judge in Pennsylvania’s ruling yesterday, and attendant coverage, that I feel forced to comment. I think we could write on various aspects of this story for weeks to come, but here’s a start.

The ruling basically says that intelligent design is religion-based and therefore false science. Why is it that people have such an easy time seeing into the hearts of intelligent design proponents and discovering nefarious religious motivations but never question the religious motivations of evolution proponents? I think I used to be more sympathetic to the view that evolutionists were religiously-disinterested scientists before I spent a portion of last year reading the excited claims of secular humanists, and others, around the fin de siecle that evolution would triumph over Christianity. That’s a theological statement, to put it mildly.

For instance, Open Court, a “fortnightly journal” around from the 1880s through 1930s (of which I read much too much) was devoted to science and a leading proponent of evolution that constantly attacked Christianity. The fact is that evolution’s proponents makes theological statements. The belief that natural events have natural causes is a theological belief. The idea that the origin of the species and the origin of the universe has a natural cause is inherently atheistic. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught in the science classroom. But neither let us deny that religious belief swirls all around here.

David Klinghoffer over at National Review raises the question well:

“We conclude that the religious nature of Intelligent Design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child,” wrote Judge John E. Jones III in his decision, Kitzmiller v. Dover, which rules that disparaging Darwin’s theory in biology class is unconstitutional. Is it really true that only Darwinism, in contrast to ID, represents a disinterested search for the truth, unmotivated by ideology?

Judge Jones was especially impressed by the testimony of philosophy professor Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Professor Forrest has definite beliefs about religion, evident from the fact that she serves on the board of directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, which is “an affiliate of American Atheists, and [a] member of the Atheist Alliance International,” according to the group’s website. Of course, she’s entitled to believe what she likes, but it’s worth noting.

Klinghoffer goes on to mention other prominent evolution prononents: Daniel C. Dennit (wants Christians put in zoos), Richard Dawkins (“faith is one of the world’s greatest evils”), Steven Weinberg (“science is corrosive of religion”), P.Z. Myers (believes Abraham is worse than Hitler), and on and on and on.

Would not debates about the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory be better waged if everyone admitted that evolutionists have very serious theological beliefs, such as those mentioned by Klinghoffer? Then, as members of a civilized society, we could ask ourselves whether — and which parts of — evolutionary theory have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt and whether intelligent design provides a reasonable alternative to fit the scientific data.

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Who went to heaven with Walters?

thefiveYes, Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter is right — that ABC News production on heaven does sound like a TV-ratings-friendly variation on an old joke: “So a priest, a minister, a rabbi, the Dalai Lama, an atheist and Barbara Walters walk into a studio and …”

I did not see this report, because I was working on my Scripps Howard column and — speaking of alternative religions — getting my son to a Lego robotics team meeting. So I am not in a position to debate with Garron when he says that Walters and Co. did not deliver on the outrageous title for this “news” special: “Heaven. Where Is It? How Do We Get There?’”

Here is a clip from the Reporter summary:

What you are likely to learn from this ABC News production, if you didn’t know already, is that religious leaders have not only the sketchiest of notions as to what heaven is but also contradictory ideas of what goes on there. Cardinal Theodore E. McCerrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., says there’s no sex in heaven. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Islamic scholar, says there’s plenty of sex there — and with virgins, no less. He’s kind of vague on where the virgins come from, though.

That there is so little agreement about heaven might suggest that most of us have been making it up as we go along. Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists, says as much. If we really believe heaven is that great, she says, we’d be busy hanging ourselves to get there. It’s a point the others don’t address, except for the would-be suicide bomber now serving 24 years in an Israeli prison. His goal was despicable but there’s no denying he believes in a better afterlife.

Based on the print feature posted online, this Walters “special report” does seem to offer the usual grab-bag of interviews with clerics, scholars, scientists and pop-culture stars. That is what ABC pays Walters to do.

But there is an unspoken subtext to this approach that is much more interesting. There are three basic ways to interpret what Walters serves up. (1) All of these believers are crazy and out of their minds, (2) all of them are, to one degree right and to another degree wrong, but their yearning for heaven points to some vague reality that makes them all right in the end or (3) since so many of their beliefs clash and cannot be reconciled, some of them must be wrong and, somehow, one of the many different doctrinal positions must be right.

You will not be surprised that Walters seems to have flirted with (1) and ends up with (2) as the usual MSM all-roads-lead-to-one-god (or set of gods) orthodoxy. What is her alternative?

How does it end? Once again, it is not surprising that she ends up seeking wisdom from the postmodern version of a celebrity evangelist — journalist Mitch Albom, author of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for his universalist benediction.

Albom tells Walters, “There’s one thing I would say about heaven. If you believe that there’s a heaven, your life here on Earth here is different. You may believe that you’re gonna see your loved ones again. So the grief that you had after they’re gone isn’t as strong. You may believe that you’ll have to answer for your actions. So the way you behave here on Earth is changed. So in a certain way, just believing in the idea of heaven is heavenly in and of itself,” he said.

I am sure that, at this point, Walters gently nodded her head.

Who can give us a report on how this played out in prime time?

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