Fish StanleyThe teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?

Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.

Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:

What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.

By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:

In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.

I’ve been unable to find any response to Fish’s essay on the Discovery Institute’s website, or on Evolution News and Views, its blog that critiques media coverage of evolution debates.

Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.

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Abortion, up close and personal

baby2Sometimes a story full of quotes and graphic descriptions can get to the heart of an issue better than a story heavy in theory and complex details. A person can know all the facts and the statistics about abortion, but can that person really know what an abortion is?

The Los Angeles Times (yes again) ran a must-read piece Tuesday that begs for an award of some kind. The religious language is amazing and Stephanie Simon really digs at the multifaceted issues of actually having an abortion. The article brings the reader into the abortion room and allows them to examine the many opinions of females before and after they have an abortion. To say the least, it’s all quite startling to read:

His Fayetteville Women’s Clinic occupies a once-elegant home dating to the 1940s; the first-floor surgery looks like it was a parlor. Thick blue curtains block the windows and paintings of butterflies and flowers hang on the walls. The radio is tuned to an easy-listening station.

An 18-year-old with braces on her teeth is on the operating table, her head on a plaid pillow, her feet up in stirrups, her arms strapped down at her sides. A pink blanket is draped over her stomach. She’s 13 weeks pregnant, at the very end of the first trimester. She hasn’t told her parents.

A nurse has already given her a local anesthetic, Valium and a drug to dilate her cervix; Harrison prepares to inject Versed, a sedative, in her intravenous line. The drug will wipe out her memory of everything that happens during the 20 minutes she’s in the operating room. It’s so effective that patients who return for a follow-up exam often don’t recognize Harrison.

The article focuses on a Dr. William F. Harrison, a self-proclaimed abortionist who says he has terminated at least 20,000 pregnancies. Harrison’s clinic has been picketed and firebombed, he routinely receives death threats and protesters have marched outside his home. Through all this he has become essentially an advocate for abortion and admits that he is “destroying life.”

But he also feels he’s giving life: He calls his patients “born again.”

Stephanie Simon has put the reality of abortion before us all to read about and to come to our own conclusions. Throughout the piece, shocking examples of excuses for an abortion (“A high school volleyball player says she doesn’t want to give up her body for nine months.”), give way to the less shocking (Kim, a single mother of three, says she couldn’t bear to give away a child and have to wonder every day if he were loved).

But a majority of the explanations for the abortions are of the shocking nature:

His first patient of the day, Sarah, 23, says it never occurred to her to use birth control, though she has been sexually active for six years. When she became pregnant this fall, Sarah, who works in real estate, was in the midst of planning her wedding. “I don’t think my dress would have fit with a baby in there,” she says.

The last patient of the day, a 32-year-old college student named Stephanie, has had four abortions in the last 12 years. She keeps forgetting to take her birth control pills. Abortion “is a bummer,” she says, “but no big stress.”

Journalists are starting to see the evil side of abortion and they will begin to tell the story. One hopes that reporters will also be able to grasp the political intricacies of an overturned Roe v. Wade.

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Shirley MacLaine, born again — again

g photo19Believe it or not, I have had a warm spot in my religion-writer heart for actress Shirley MacLaine ever since she stood up in front of the American Society of Newspaper Editors long ago and delivered a sermon on why there is more to religion news than warfare and denominational politics. Three cheers for candid people with good soundbites.

Why, MacLaine asked all those editors in suits, are so many journalists uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions of people in America and around the world order their lives with the help of religious truths and experiences?

Preach it, lady:

“We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of `religion-related’ global mayhem. … We are seeing, hearing and learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines, glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of themes which resonate with man’s deeper nature,” she said. … “What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age?’ Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?”

Anyway, MacLaine has been born again, again, as Hollywood’s crazy grandmother of choice in a new movie called “Rumor Has It” in which she plays a woman who may, in fact, have inspired the infamous Mrs. Robison of “Graduate” fame. Thus, MacLaine is out there stutting her stuff in publicity land, which sent Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times off to visit the actress at her homes — plural — in the spiritually charged air of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The result punches all the movie-page profile buttons, including some standard flashbacks to MacLaine’s previous media lives.

Eight years ago, at age 63, MacLaine completed the 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which time she came to believe she had been, in previous lives, a Moorish girl who cured the Emperor Constantine of impotence and an androgynous being of a time predating Atlantis. But here in New Mexico, she’s more inclined to ask a photographer in tight pants what sort of underwear she has on than to read her aura. …

Though much of what MacLaine believes comes with the socially imposed ambience of crystals and purple Gypsy scarves, she herself does not. Trousers and boots suit her better; she has three earrings in each ear, but two of them are tiny. No bangles rattle at her wrist; no tangle of turquoise and moonstone sways from her neck. So when she mentions that she sleeps most nights on a futon outside “because a roof keeps the stars from imprinting on your brain,” it makes as much sense as another grandmother telling you she sleeps on the floor because of her bad back.

“Billions of stars in the universe, just this universe,” she says over her shoulder as she passes by the futon, returning to the house. “Anyone who thinks we’re the only ones around, they’re the ones who are nuts.”

g photo11The big idea in this story is that MacLaine deserves some credit for creating the template for what it means to be a modern movie star, leaping from one relationship to another and from worldview to worldview while in clear sight of the Hollywood scribes and armies of photographers.

You know all those actresses reinventing themselves week after week in the magazines in the grocery-store checkout line? Shirley blazed the trail. Go ahead. Ask her about Frank Sinatra.

However, I found myself wishing — surprise — that McNamara had taken the religion side of this story more seriously. Really. I do not think, for example, that it would have hurt a bit to call up a religion scholar, or two, and ask for a quote on this lady’s place in the history of American pop religion.

I realize that there has always been an Eastern side of the gods beat in Hollywood. Nevertheless, MacLaine was a pivotal figure in creating a world in which born-again Christian ladies don’t think twice about sitting in their suburban living rooms and watching their girlfriend Oprah light candles on national television while praying to the Universe, with a Big U.

MacLaine has gone from the back side of nowhere to almost mainstream, in certain zip codes. She could get tenure in some major mainline Protestant seminaries. Would it have hurt to have asked her for an update on what she believes and for her take on the state of religion in that great spiritual shopping mall called America?

Like it or not, the lady has had a significant impact.

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Episcopal “Tower of Babel” in Chelsea?

tsprintnight 1On one level, this is your typical New York City real estate story with Chelsea neighborhood residents fighting like, well, New Yorkers to preserve the sanctity of their turf and rare views of the sky.

However, what made this recent Shadi Rahimi story in the New York Times interesting to me was the identity of the villains — the always progressive leaders of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (seminary PR photo). Here’s a brief look at the top of the story:

With hisses and boos, more than 75 Chelsea residents expressed their contempt at a recent neighborhood meeting over plans by the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to knock down a four-story building on its campus and replace it with a 17-story one. The new building would have 80 luxury apartments in a glass structure that one resident called “a Tower of Babel.”

In the latest battle waged against tall structures in Chelsea, dozens of neighbors are opposing the seminary’s attempt to build above the about seven and a half stories permitted within that part of a historic district bordered by 8th and 10th Avenues and West 19th and 23rd Streets.

I realize that real estate is, in a way, a religious subject for Manhattan folks. What caught my attention was the fact that the seminary leaders really, really need to do this tower project. And not just because they need a replacement for the 1959 office building and library that they want to tear down. According to Maureen Burnley, the seminary’s executive vice president for finance and operations, the deal:

… (Required) that the new building be at least 17 stories tall for the seminary to receive the $15 million it needs to start repairing the seminary’s historic buildings. The seminary plans to raise the remaining money needed for repairs — more than $35 million — through capital campaigns, tax credits and loans, she said. Since 1999, the seminary has spent $9 million to restore its buildings, Ms. Burnley said.

General Theological faces dire financial problems and has explored other ways of addressing them in recent years, including teaming up with other churches on real estate projects or moving from its Chelsea location of nearly 180 years, said the seminary’s dean and president, the Rev. Ward B. Ewing. But after these options fell through, the seminary believed that a private partnership would be the only way, Father Ewing said. “We needed a partner that could bring capital assets,” he said, adding that luxury housing on a seminary campus is not an ideal solution. But, “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have to do it,” he said.

Now this is interesting. I have always been under the impression that the mainline seminaries were backed by rather healthy endowments built up in the past by generations of donors. I have heard oldline leaders say that some of these seminaries could stay open with endowment alone, even without students.

So what is the nature of this financial crisis? Does this have any implications for one of the biggest stories out there right now on the Godbeat, which is the growing crisis within global Anglicanism because of doctrinal innovations that flow from institutions such as this very seminary?

Or is this just a real-estate deal that the seminary leaders cannot pass up? What lit this fuse?

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Blame the apples? Cover the oranges

13281 512The official Vatican document at the heart of the “gay-priest ban” story is now available online and it turns out that the leaked version was accurate, only it was missing the footnotes from the authors. We may hear more about that in the next day or so.

But the reactions are beginning in the usual places. For the .pdf text, click here, and for the statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, click here. For William Saletan’s summary of why the Roman Catholic Church is wrong, click here. To follow the emerging thread on this at Amy Welborn’s “open book” blog, click here.

The Saletan piece is actually quite useful to reporters, although not in the way that one would expect. Part of his thesis is that the Roman Catholic Church, due to the homophobic sin of this pope, is failing to follow the logic of many Catholic scholars on issues of sexuality. As a result, Saletan documents two decades of infighting — one URL after another — behind the scenes in Catholic life. There are no new questions here, only the old debates between nature and nurture, between choices and conditions. Can human beings change their sexual behaviors? Catholics disagree with one another. This is no surprise.

Journalists can continue to let Catholics fight this out, pew to pew and altar to altar. The New York Times did precisely this the other day and did very little to define the flames that are burning under all of that smoke. In doing so, it also repeated many of the mistakes that continue to shape MSM coverage:

Similarly, some Catholics said that because the majority of victims in the scandals involving sexually abusive priests were boys, barring gay men from the priesthood would reduce the likelihood of such abuse in the future. But others said there was no link between homosexuality and pedophilia, especially many parishioners in Boston, an archdiocese profoundly affected by the sexual abuse scandal.

Once again let me stress: Very few cases of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church involve “pedophilia” (sex with prepubescent children). Instead, the great majority — some say 90 percent or more — of the cases involve “ephebophilia” (sex with under-aged young people, and almost always boys).

Pedophilia is getting the headlines. Meanwhile, the hard questions are linked to male priests and teen-aged boys.

Here is how a Catholic progressive once explained it to me, crossing over into a discussion of heterosexuality to make the point. A 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears wants to do something that is sick, sinful and illegal. But this straight male is not wrestling with the same psychological condition as a 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears. These conditions are not the same, they are apples and oranges.

Researchers can and do make a strong case that homosexuals are, statistically, no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals. This is an important point, but not highly relevant to most cases of clergy sexual abuse in the all-male Catholic priesthood. The issue is sex with teen-aged boys. The MSM continues to ignore this crucial point. This is not surprising, since the U.S. Catholic establishment has not been anxious to discuss it, either.

To see how this error helps shape the MSM meta-narratives, check out this section of a recent “Points West” column by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez:

Church leaders might have been better off continuing to pretend there were no gays in the priesthood, or they could have stuck with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that’s made for hundreds of years’ worth of comfortable hypocrisy. But then came the molestation scandal, which was one reason for the new policy, the other being a so-called fear of a growing gay subculture in church life.

To Eric Barragan of Santa Paula, the rewritten gay policy makes perfect sense. “They’re trying to play the blame game,” he says.

You have an abuse scandal, you slam the door on people with “deep-rooted homosexual tendencies,” and it looks as if — like good Christian soldiers — you’ve zeroed in on the problem. Yeah, it was the homosexuals.

“But it’s apples and oranges,” Barragan says. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re a pedophile.”

This is true, but spin is spin, and nobody does it better than the church.

Lopez and Barragan are correct. The only problem is that they, and most of the MSM, are not covering the real story. Pedophilia is the safe topic, since these cases are very rare.

The Vatican is wrestling with two issues: Mature men having sex with teen-aged boys (and, often, with other men) and a subculture of professors, priests and bishops (many straight, many gay) that is actively opposed to the moral theology of the Roman Catholic Church. If journalists focus on these two stories, they will get closer to the heart of this bitter and painful struggle than if they continue to focus on the rare cases of pedophilia.

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Religious liberty and the law

supremecourtReligious liberty is a tricky thing. From a legal perspective, the matter is hardly settled, so the recent nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court is bound to have a significant impact.

What is more interesting to me is the media’s coverage of religious liberty issues. As seen in this Los Angeles Times piece, the law surrounding religious liberty is confusing and complex, which makes the journalist’s job all the more difficult. Sorting out precedents, summarizing cases and describing positions succinctly is an arduous task.

But the LAT‘s David Savage seemed to be up to the task in a piece dated Saturday. From his sources to his wide selection of cases, the article gives you a thorough review of Alito’s stance towards religious freedom.

Here’s a snippet:

WASHINGTON — If there is a sure winner in the cases decided by Samuel A. Alito Jr., it is freedom of religion — any religion.

During his 15 years as an appellate judge, President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee has written decisions in favor of Muslim police officers in Newark, N.J., who wore beards; a Native American from Pennsylvania who raised sacred black bears; and a Jewish professor who said she was pushed out of her job for refusing to attend faculty events on Friday evenings and Saturdays, her Sabbath. …

Religion is a subject of perpetual dispute in the courts, in part because of the conflicting principles set in the Constitution. The 1st Amendment says the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech.”

In many school cases, all three principles are frequently cited: Although officials may not “establish” religion, they also may not restrict an individual’s freedom of speech or religion.

In an article dealing with related issues, the LAT‘s Josh Getlin finds himself dealing with a Godbeat story that delves deep into the legal realm. Unlike Savage, Getlin relies heavily on others to explain positions and policies. Here are a few examples:

  • “The school singled her out because she was pregnant, and the only way they could do that was because she was a woman,” said Cassandra Stubbs, an NYCLU attorney. “How do they determine if male employees engage in premarital sex?”
  • “I don’t understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life could terminate me because I’m pregnant and am choosing to have this baby,” said McCusker, who was fired last month. “I held the Catholic religion to a higher standard.”
  • “This issue won’t stand up in court because it’s a private matter involving a religious institution,” McCaffrey said, adding that the New York Civil Liberties Union “thought they might be able to intimidate us with this kind of action, but that’s not going to happen.”
  • And here is Getlin’s only reference to an official source, but he fails to dig any deeper than the handbook:

    The Brooklyn Archdiocese issued a brief statement this week, saying: “This is a difficult situation for every person involved, but the school had no choice but to follow the principles contained in the teachers’ personnel handbook.”

    The handbook states that “a teacher is required to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition.”

    A proper examination into this issue would require a thorough understanding of Catholic teachings and doctrine. I don’t fully understand it myself, and I don’t think Getlin gets it either. A heavy reliance on news conferences and official statements does not help the reader get to the bottom of the issue. Time was probably and issue in Getlin getting this piece out the door as he was probably under a one or two day deadline, which is very little time to properly research a subject this complex.

    The key link between these two stories is the freedom of association. Any group has the right to ask members to follow their teachings and rules, but the question being raised is whether the rules in this case discriminate against females when it comes to employment. Is a private organization allowed to establish rules when it comes to the rules they are allowed to set for its employees? Even more importantly, what are the Catholic teachings when it comes to forcing a woman to marry a man if she has a baby with him?

    As we can see from the first LAT story, Alito will go to the mat to defend individual rights, but will he defend the rights of religious groups?

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    On the first day of Christmas …

    wreath4You just have to laugh at this kind of headline, if you are part of a church that takes the liturgical calendar seriously.

    Anyway, here is a weekend report from the Associated Press that brought me a chuckle:

    Pope Benedict Ushers in Christmas Season

    VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI ushered in the Christmas season Sunday, calling it a time for joy when Christians should find it within themselves to hope that they can change the world.

    The pontiff addressed the crowds in St. Peter’s Square during his traditional Sunday blessing that also marked the beginning of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas and is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year.

    “We could say that Advent is the time when Christians should awaken in their hearts the hope that they can change the world, with the help of God,” Benedict said. Advent is “a time of great religious inspiration, because it is steeped in hope and spiritual expectation,” Benedict said. “Every time the Christian community prepares to remember the birth of the Redeemer, it experiences a quiver of joy that it transmits to a certain extent to the whole of society.”

    Note the presence of the word “prepare,” as in a season that will help people prepare for another season. So if it is the season of Advent, this would mean that it is not the season called Christmas. Right?

    Actually, I predict (if only I could read Italian) that the pope talked about Advent as a season that is supposed to help Christian believers get ready for the actual season of Christmas, since the Christmas season begins with the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25 and then continues for the 12 days after that. nick lg

    Don’t trust me. Ask Charles Dickens, that famous British journalist.

    I realize that this is a picky little difference, and one that is not honored by broadcast networks and shopping malls, but facts are facts. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I kind of like it when newspapers get the facts right.

    In the most ancient Christian traditions, this seasons is called Nativity Lent (or the “little Lent”) and it is supposed to be a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. After this lengthy quiet time, Christmas is celebrated as a 12-day festival. Today, we have turned the season upside down — with Christmas marked by the mall and the church staggering along trying to catch up. Most celebrations are pretty much over by Dec. 20 or so and it’s time to move on to returning gifts and the parade of bowl games and NFL rituals.

    So, should journalists even mention this fact in the midst of the annual blow-out blitz of “Christmas” and “holiday” stories? Should the actual timing of Christmas be mentioned, at least in a passing background paragraph? How about an actual feature story on the irony of all this?

    After all, we only have a few more days until the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, which is Dec. 6th. He is the patron saint of, among others, endangered children and pawnbrokers. You can look it up.

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    One heart. One amazing story.

    040719 UGD 310Within the larger story of Hurricane Katrina there was an amazing story about journalism — the stunning performance of the journalists at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Not only did this newspaper continue to cover the disaster, they did so with few if any resources since their own organization was caught up in the storm. Shut down, the newspaper evolved into a blog that continued — 24/7, as best it could — to break stories.

    I mention this as a prologue to the following feature story that ran this past week (hat tip to Rod Dreher, an expert on all things Lousiana). One of our goals here at GetReligion is to bring you more examples of wonderful religion writing — whether by Godbeat reporters or not — from newsrooms all over the place. To do this, we need more tips.

    It is hard to know what to say about this story by reporter Bruce Nolan, but I urge you to read it. It tells the story of a circle of women in impoverished, war-ravaged Uganda — many of them dying of AIDS — who decided to do something to help raise nearly $900 for hurricane victims in New Orleans. Yes, you read that right.

    You won’t believe the details of the story told by aid worker Amy Cunningham. You see, this is a lot of money when a woman earns $1.20 a day crushing rocks by hand.

    The charity of the Kireka residents is partly the story of Rose Busingye, a charismatic 36-year-old Ugandan nurse who founded Meeting Point International, a private relief organization that has embedded itself in Kireka to help the people who live there. … Many of the women of Meeting Point International — in fact, most of those who donated their work to New Orleans — are infected with HIV, Busingye said.

    “There are so many groups out there that would basically give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it,” Cunningham said. “They are so empowering. These are very strong women who identify, in particular, with suffering. “We would consider them disenfranchised, but they are just extraordinary. They just said, ‘We can do this.’ And they did it.”

    The group’s motto is “One Heart.” It’s members believe that blood is blood, suffering is suffering. Read the story. (United Nations photo)

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