Hey MSM: Some sins are universal

colbert kingAs always, we tend to steer clear of op-eds here at GetReligion, since we are all about news. But Colbert King at The Washington Post has written the theologically appropriate column of the day, whether he knows it or not. This is excellent and I hope lots of MSM editors and network producers read it.

Let me get out of the way and King can speak for himself:

It all goes to show what happens when some people get it in their heads that they can take things that don’t belong to them without getting caught. All it takes is a time and place where authority is absent. Bring on such a scene for those predators and opportunists always lurking in our midst and, bingo, you have your looters. . . .

First, to state the obvious: The people caught stealing on camera in that majority-black city weren’t doing it because they were black. Just as raiders of corporate treasuries don’t do it because they are white. Skin color has nothing to do with the urge to take what doesn’t belong to you. Poverty also isn’t the reason liquor gets stolen in a storm-ravaged city.

The looter on Canal Street in New Orleans and the corporate looter on Wall Street have a similar motive: greed. That is their taproot. And greed is no respecter of pigmentation, income, status or social class.

To paraphrase Father Andrew Greeley — the progressive Catholic sociologist and gadfly — “original sin” is one of the easiest theological concepts to prove in the laboratory of real life. The condition is universal. Angels and demons come in all colors. That’s the good news and the bad news.

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ReligionLink tackles the hurricane

relilinkThe pros at the Religion Newswriters Association have posted a collection of resources linked to Hurricane Katrina and the swarm of spiritual and moral questions events such as this raise. Check it out.

Some of this is pretty standard material, offering theological echoes of the tsunami story. Thus, item No. 1 in the ReligionLink list is:

Evil And Suffering

Katrina has inspired talk of why such destruction occurs. Where is God? Why would God allow such suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is Katrina a sign of the end times? With New Orleans, a city known for drinking, debauchery and licentiousness, there is an added factor. Some suggest that the city’s sins caused the storm to ravage it. These questions will play out in the conversations of storm victims, relief workers, donors to relief efforts, clergy and political leaders in the days to come, revealing much about the foundations of people’s beliefs.

Obviously, I think the middle section of that note is spot on. But check out the rest of the list. Some of this stuff is really strong — the power of prayer, homelessness, charity, race, class, technology, hope, burials, voodoo. And can the historic churches and cemeteries be saved?

Try to imagine what a journalist would run into researching a feature on how different faiths will view funerals and burials under these circumstances. Is there a Roman Catholic rite for the re-burial of a body?

And voodoo. What happens if you let New Orleans be New Orleans?

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Watching Katrina with Sen. Moynihan

1101670728 400At the moment, it’s hard to pick up any section of any newspaper and read any story without thinking about what is happening on the Gulf Coast. And, for me, it’s impossible to think about New Orleans without thinking about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then the following reality, as described in the classic five-part New Orleans Times-Picayune series titled “Washing Away.” (To see the whole package from 2002, click here.)

The risk of dying is so high that trying to ride out a storm is foolish, emergency managers say. Yet for various reasons, many people do not leave. In New Orleans, many residents don’t own cars. Some are unaware of the danger. Some think they can judge it for themselves. About 44 percent of Orleans residents and 52 percent of Jefferson residents evacuated during Georges, according to a University of New Orleans survey. A separate Jefferson Parish study estimated that 60 percent of residents left the parish.

“I don’t have a question about the fact that a lot of people are not going to leave, not just the 100,000 who don’t have private transportation,” said Terry Tullier, acting director of New Orleans’ Office of Emergency Preparedness. “We think we’re going to do our people a terrible disservice if we don’t tell them the truth. And the truth is that when it happens, a lot of people are going to die.”

So who was left behind and why? What are the factors — human, political, moral, economic, educational — that helped produce the anarchy that the nation is watching unfold in our media? As Jack Shafer noted at Slate, this leads to the topics that everyone has been afraid to talk about up until the past day or sorace and class.

But the minute journalists open up that topic, they will be led right into another hurricane — the “culture wars”-related clashes about what did or did not happen to urban America in the 1960s and who is and who is not to blame for it. And it is impossible to sink into that riptide without being distracted from the real and urgent issues of justice and peace — yes, literally peace — that must be addressed right now by government officials at the local, state and national levels.

Do you arrest and/or shoot people seeking bread and water?

Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to hijack a boat to escape?

Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to steal guns and alcohol? Looting the homes of their innocent neighbors or of those in richer parts of town? Looting historic sites? Art collections? Churches?

What if all of the people you have to arrest and/or shoot are just as poor and distressed as the people who are simply seeking food and water?

And what happens when some different form of disaster takes place in some other American city that is built on top of the same fault line between rich and poor, black and white?

With that in mind, let’s jump back to Baltimore, another historic city with elite water views and poor neighborhoods nearby. I was thinking about all of this as I read a column in my local newspaper, which is the Baltimore Sun. I live in a largely blue-collar part of town in which one cannot purchase the local sign of prestige and power — a daily subscription to The Washington Post. The headline on Michael Olesker’s column was blunt: “As Baltimore builds itself up, the poor sink lower down.” I imagine that journalists wrote similar columns in New Orleans during the past few decades.

The themes are familiar. Parts of town are in fine shape and other parts are on the rise, while one out of four city residents live in poverty. In the city, the population is about 65 percent African-American. Down on the water, the prices of townhouses are soaring (you can catch the train to Washington, D.C.). Elsewhere, you can get abandoned townhouses for a song or much less. Olesker writes:

In Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods, the sound of rehabbing fills the air. Downtown construction — including residential units — is booming. With so much money coming in, it points out ever more starkly the dismal overall poverty figures. It says poor people are losing ground. It also points out the changes, in the last several decades, in the exodus to suburbia. Middle-class blacks joined fleeing whites, leaving behind an economic underclass that now wonders: With city housing prices rising so sharply, where will poor people find a place to live?

But something is missing. There is some other X-factor in this scene, one that that late, great Democrat named Moynihan wrote about so long ago in a Department of Labor report that could have been called “It Takes A Family.” (Click here for a City Journal refresher on this hot-button topic.)

Here is the end of Olesker’s haunting column. Read this and then ask if he should not have asked one more question and then included one more statistic: What is the difference in income between intact African-American families in the Baltimore area, families that include a father and a mother, and families in which there is no father living in the home? Is race the only issue?

“Children raising children,” says Lonnie Woodland. “I’m in the supermarket the other day, and a young lady’s carrying a baby. The baby was a few days old. I said, ‘My, you sure got your figure back in a hurry.’ She said, ‘This isn’t my child, it’s my grandchild.’

“I said, ‘How old are you?’ She said, 31. I said, ‘Thirty-one?’ She said, yeah, her daughter was 13 when she had her baby. She said, ‘The last thing I wanted my daughter to do was make the same mistake I did.’”

The new government reports tell the continuing mathematical story of poverty. But such stories illustrate the ongoing human distress behind the numbers.

If newspapers dig into the stories behind the images on our screens, they will have to ask questions that political and religious leaders have been afraid to ask for generations. These questions will need to be asked, because lives are at stake.

But right now, it is time to protect the innocent. It is a time for justice and for peace. Send in the National Guard. Send in the church groups, when it is safe to do so. Send in whoever has the heart and the courage to try to help. Save those who can be saved, even if that means judging those who must be judged.

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A cry for help

katrinaThe aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is turning into one of the worst domestic episodes in American history. We started with a hurricane that could possibly destroy a major city, but did anyone really believe that could happen? Well, it’s in the process of happening and while it will not be as fast as the collapse of the Twin Towers, we are just beginning to understand the ramifications of the event, from the structural issues in the city to the sociological issues in dealing with people who have essentially become refuges.

Peggy Noonan has a good summary of events through yesterday and Instapundit has become the clearing house for all things Katrina.

Local government officials are reporting a bleak depiction of the state of affairs while federal officials attempt to calm people and assure them that everything that can be done is in fact being done. The sociological factors of the disaster — looters, lack of law and order — are also playing out slowly as a handful of bad people are making a mess of the recovery efforts.

A few observations on the media’s coverage of the tragedy that is Hurricane Katrina:

  • Why no mention of the obvious race and class issues surrounding the recovery efforts and the images we see on our televisions? I saw CNN dance around the issue by reading a letter from a viewer, but so far the issue has largely been ignored.
  • When the federal government stops putting out official announcements on its actions, speculation runs amok among the talking heads as to the feds’ efforts to help the people affected by the disaster.
  • President Bush is likely to be pummeled for not responding faster and more often on television. He will also be criticized for failing to visit the region (I hear that he is likely to drop in Friday). But there is little he himself can do by visiting the region, and saying stuff on TV doesn’t help the situation, other than boosting morale.

Overall this is a huge challenge for President Bush that rivals the situation on Sept. 11, 2001. May God be with him and all those affected by this disaster.

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Angels & demons in a city of sin

Bourbon NitePardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.

I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.

Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.

What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.

There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.

Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?

Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”

Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.

This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.

Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.

UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Trying to avoid abortion questions

62611I was on the road this past weekend in New York City and had some time — while bracing for the Katrina story — to read a long takeout piece in The New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen titled “Roberts’ Supreme Futurology” (the Web version calls it “Roberts v. the Future”). The first part of the read out on the cover told you what you needed to know about the goal of the piece: “The most divisive issues likely to be argued before the Supreme Court in the coming years have nothing to do with abortion. . . .”

In other words, this piece can be read this way — the Times pitching in to help progressive politicians find a way to dissect John G. Roberts Jr., without appearing to pound away on abortion, a major “Catholic” issue. This is crucial in terms of “pew gap” strategy.

This is not to say that the article is without merit. Far from it! It is a story that covers nearly a dozen complex subjects that could turn into major news hooks, during the hearings and beyond.

But I do find it interesting that the article still ends up running into issues linked to what the late Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” time after time. Then these issues keep getting entangled with the moral logic of, well, to quote the court, liberty being defined as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The “mystery of human life,” indeed.

It seems that journalists and politicos cannot, these days, run away from the big life issues. All the roads keep crossing.

For example, in a section on “Genetic Screening and the Future of Personal Autonomy” Rosen writes:

In order to get a better sense of these coming debates, I turned again to O. Carter Snead, who recently served as general consul to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, to describe the kinds of developments that might give rise to Roe v. Wade-like controversies. The first issue he mentioned was genetic selection. In the future, he noted, scientists may have analyzed much more of the genetic makeup of embryos created through in vitro fertilization. They might then be able to use that information to help aspiring parents implant in the woman’s womb only those embryos that display a specified range of desired characteristics — including those having to do not only with sex but also, perhaps someday, traits like intelligence, eye color and height. Not all the traits that parents demand will be conventionally desirable: a few years ago in the United States, a deaf lesbian couple attracted attention (and criticism) by deliberately choosing a deaf man as a sperm donor in order to increase their chances of having a deaf child. And if scientists ever learn to identify a genetic predisposition to homosexuality with a high degree of certainty, genetic screening might be used to “weed out these embryos,” as Snead put it, “or to select for them.”

The political response to so-called designer babies might create strange bedfellows. “Feminists are rightly concerned that male embryos will be routinely selected over female embryos,” Snead noted, which is why many feminists say they would oppose the practice. . . . Social conservatives would also oppose these efforts, but out of concern for the right to life of fertilized embryos. Earlier this year, in fact, a Republican state legislator in Maine introduced a bill to ban abortions based on the sexual orientation of the unborn child. Snead imagined that a conservative state might pass a law banning genetic screening “for elective sex selection or sexual-orientation selection not linked to a therapeutic concern.”

Just try to count all of the potential stories in these few lines of a long essay and note how many of them lead right back into the heart of issues linked to faith, family, marriage, sex and, yes, the “culture of life.” Like I said, the roads keep crossing, and they still all seem to lead, well, to Rome. If Democrats want to know what Judge Roberts believes about this stuff they may as well ask him head on.

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Still interested in Pat Robertson?

offeringplateIf there is anyone out there in GetReligion land who really, really wants to work their way through 43 more news stories and editorials about the Rev. Pat Robertson, they can demonstrate their free will — I am not a Calvinist — by clicking here and browsing through (scroll down a screen) the always awesome collection of URLs at the Christianity Today weblog. Then again, the whole subject does raise issues of total depravity.

Let me go on the record and say that I remain stunned at the media reaction to this story, in large part because I have considered Robertson a non issue ever since his fade started in the late 1990s. There is more I could say, but I won’t. The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career.

I am not alone in thinking this way. Check out this Cal Thomas column, which is a strong call for people on left and right to stop believing that they can vote in the Kingdom of God (and pay people to push for that). Here is the end of the piece:

If people who bear the label “Christian” want to reduce these embarrassments, which interfere with the proclamation and the hearing of “true religion,” they should refrain from sending money to TV preachers and contribute more to their local church. Local giving not only would allow the giver to better monitor how the money is spent, but also, if the pastor occasionally says something he should not have said, the embarrassment will remain within the walls and not be a rhetorical shot heard around the world.

Pat Robertson eventually apologized for his remarks about assassinating Hugo Chavez. His penance should be to retire and to take his bombastic conservative and liberal colleagues with him.

Believe it or not, this is one Thomas column that even drew praise from Andrew Sullivan. Preach it, brother.

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Revenge of Al Gore’s God: Part II

God spared New Orleans. Sort of.

That means God sent the storm to Mississippi. Maybe.

God is now pouring out his wrath on New Orleans. It just seemed like the city was spared with that final Eastern tweak in the storm path.

It’s a global warming thing. Mother Nature is taking her revenge.

God and/or Mother Nature is also mad about America and all its SUVs that drink so much gas. This is going to show America the error of its ways. Somewhere, Al Gore is laughing.

And so forth and so on. It is hard to watch the Katrina coverage without hearing variations on all of those themes in the back of my mind, a kind of nightmare flashback to the questions of last fall (when I was living in West Palm Beach). Once again, the only God language we are hearing in the coverage right now are the prayers of thanksgiving by the survivors. Another predictable layer of faith language will show up — as it should — as aid pours into the region.

But veteran religion reporter Deborah Caldwell at Beliefnet has plunged into the theological blame game. This is tricky territory, but she has done a fine job of listening to the muttering voices on both sides of the religious aisle.

Was this storm linked to recent events in Israel?

All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people’s fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.

At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane “as a direct ‘coming back on us’ [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home.” Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as “the fist of God” in a Monday column. “What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel,” Goodenough writes. “The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them.”

Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth’s pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.

And then there is this excellent summary quotation (although I also want to know how a professor evolves into an expert on apocalyptic media):

Stephen O’Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, “God’s got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it’s sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it’s conspicuous consumption and Hummers.”

Even The Associated Press has pulled out some of the stops and, Caldwell writes, has started “priming the doomsday pump.” Here is one of those leads:

“When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”

I tried to wade into this last year in one of the columns that I wrote amid the wreakage in South Florida. The crucial thing, for me, is that these kinds of questions are being asked right now on the ground in the Gulf Coast region. That means they are fair game for the media. My question is this: Who are the sources? Who are the best sources? Who are the untapped sources? Any ideas?

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