Parsing that Jesus and Santa joke

20051206 4 p120605kh 0147 515hLet me jump in with a note about Mollie’s post about the White House and the raging armies of Christmas, since all of us here at GetReligion are getting boat loads of email about this topic. For me, there are two newsworthy topics linked to this (in addition to all of those that discussed by Mollie, such as the interesting Americans United angle).

First of all, it is a sign of how tone deaf the whole Bush clan is about the cultural style and lingo of evangelical Christianity. I know there are people who think that George W. is a raging theocrat, but I just don’t see it. I still think of him as more of a Texas pragmatist who had a personal experience with God linked to kicking alcohol, yet he remains married to a tough Texas country club lady and his girls, well, do not seem to be Campus Crusade chicks.

Meanwhile, my all-time favorite Bush-ite story about religion and the Bush clan remains this one, as I told it in a column about George Bush, the elder:

George Bush never did learn to open up when anyone asked about his faith, salvation, family values and all those messy spiritual issues. On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state.”

Now there is a guy who is comfortable in his own skin, when it comes to faith. Not.

So what can you say about that joke that George W. Bush tried to pull off the other day at the lighting of That Tree? It seemed that he was trying to wink at the ACLU and Focus on the Family at the same time and just could not pull it off:

“The lighting of the National Christmas Tree is one of the great traditions in our nation’s capital. Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy — and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity. Santa, thanks for coming. Glad you made it.”

Actually, if you read the White House text for that remark, it seems obvious — or perhaps punctuation spin — that the speechwriters were trying to gently nod to Jesus in one paragraph and then veer into a new paragraph that opened with a Santa gag. However, if your run the two paragraphs together, you get the now infamous one-humble-life-equals-Santa joke.

It is, however, interesting to contrast the president’s remarks this year with those from 2002, which used stronger language while still managing to avoid the call-the-lawyers J-word:

The simple story we remember during this season speaks to every generation. It is the story of a quiet birth in a little town, on the margins of an indifferent empire. Yet that single event set the direction of history and still changes millions of lives. For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us — and, because He’s with us, we can always live in hope.

The second point that I find interesting about this whole flap is the degree to which, in the post Harriet Myers-world, many MSM journalists are paying attention to alternative conservative media — including blogs — as a way to gain insight into that key subculture in the wider Republican Party world. You can see this by noting who gets quoting in the big papers. To some degree, this trend started with Rush Limbaugh and the 1994 revolution, but it seems to me that we are now in a second wave.

This is perfectly valid, to me. If you are covering the left, you read the left — all kinds of people on the left. If you are covering cultural conservatives, you need to find out what they are talking about, both the good, the bad and the angry.

So is this a case of the Washington Post chasing WorldNetDaily? Stranger things have happened.

P.S. About the photo with this post. Someone needs to tell the White House that the lighting of the first Hannukah candle or lamp this year will be at sundown on Dec. 25th and, by the way, you are supposed to light them one day at a time. I believe that Dec. 25th is also a holiday in another major world religion.

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Cue the theme from Jaws

Suffice it to say that, yes, your friends here at GetReligion have recived dozens of tips about Mel Gibson and his proposed television miniseries about the memoir of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew whose Christian neighbors hid her from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yes, this story may turn out to have some legs. Meanwhile, this was certainly a gracious quote in the New York Times piece that started the buzz:

Reached at her home in Newport Beach, Ms. Van Beek, who said she was in her early 80′s, said she had not seen Mr. Gibson’s last movie because it seemed “too traumatic.”

“I don’t know him, all I know is he’s a staunch Catholic, and the people who saved our lives are Catholic,” she said. “I respect everybody’s beliefs.”

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No room at the White House

grinchReporters and editors have been deluging viewers and readers with Christmas culture war stories. And who can blame them? Stories abound throughout the country of public school principals secularizing lyrics to Christmas carols, retail outlets forbidding employees from wishing Christmas shoppers a Merry Christmas, and members of Congress having to fight over what to call Christmas trees. And then on the other side you have folks who see nothing wrong with cancelling church on Christmas Sunday vilifying those on the other side.

Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman capitalizes on the Christmas Wars meme with his indepth story on presidential greeting cards:

What’s missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.

This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy “holiday season.”

Cooperman quotes, as he says, the “generals” on the pro-Christmas side reacting to the banal greeting card.

“This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn’t act like one,” said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

What’s interesting about Cooperman’s angle on the imbroglio the Bush White House finds itself in — this year at least — is that the story has not been pushed by the groups cited in the article but, rather, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Here’s how their Nov. 30 press release begins:

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Religious Right cohorts have been complaining for weeks now about government agencies and store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” but it looks like Falwell forgot to tell President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and the Republican National Committee about the preferred religiously correct greeting.

The White House’s 2005 holiday card is just out, and it doesn’t mention the word “Christmas” once.

A Boston Globe reporter mentioned the watered down White House greeting in a Dec. 4 piece, giving proper credit to Americans United. I’m not sure why Cooperman doesn’t but either way, he does a great job of providing historical context for Presidential greeting cards:

Like many modern touches, the generic New Year’s card was introduced to the White House by John and Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1962, they had Hallmark print 2,000 cards, of which 1,800 cards said “The President and Mrs. Kennedy Wish You a Blessed Christmas” and 200 said “With Best Wishes for a Happy New Year.”

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson continued that tradition for a couple of years, but it required keeping track of Christian and non-Christian recipients. Beginning in 1966, they wished everyone a “Joyous Christmas,” and no president has attempted the two-card trick since.

Cooperman writes that the White House and retailers use the same explanation for why they don’t mention Christmas (a desire not to offend non-Christians). And that is undoubtedly true. In this article, the context Cooperman provides is historical perspective on Presidential greeting cards. Perhaps he or another reporter should now dig deeper into why the White House, whose massive card distribution is funded and managed by the Republican National Committee as part of its fundraising strategy, shares its motivations with retailers, who are driven by profit.

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Osama’s school days

BinLadenIn the Dec. 12 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll shows how it’s possible to write about the student years of Osama bin Laden without larding up one’s manuscript with cheap-shot adjectives. After all, when a reporter has uncovered enough troubling details, it’s best to let the details speak for themselves. Here’s what Coll turned up about a soccer and study club that met at the Al Thagher Model School in Jedda, which bin Laden graduated from in 1976:

The after-school study sessions took place in the Syrian gym teacher’s room, on the second floor. The teacher would light a candle on a table in the middle of the room, and the boys, including bin Laden, would sit on the floor and listen. The stories that the Syrian told were ambiguous as to time and place, the schoolmate recalled, and they were not explicitly set in the time of the Prophet, as are traditional hadiths. “It was mesmerizing,” he said, and increasingly the Syrian teacher told them “stories that were really violent. I can’t remember all of them now, except for one.”

It was a story “about a boy who found God — exactly like us, our age. He wanted to please God and he found that his father was standing in his way. The father was pulling the rug out from under him when he went to pray.” The Syrian “told the story slowly, but he was referring to ‘this brave boy’ or ‘this righteous boy’ as he moved toward the story’s climax. He explained that the father had a gun. He went through twenty minutes of the boy’s preparation, step by step — the bullets, loading the gun, making a plan. Finally, the boy shot the father.” As he recounted this climax, the Syrian declared, “Lord be praised — Islam was released in that home.” As the schoolmate recounted it, “I watched the other boys, fourteen-year-old boys, their mouths open. By the grace of God, I said ‘No’ to myself. . . . I had a feeling of anxiety. I began immediately to think of excuses and how I could avoid coming back.”

Coll also offers this explanation of the uses (or misuses) of the word Wahhabism:

The kingdom’s dominant school of Islam is often called Wahhabism by non-Saudis, in reference to Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century desert preacher who allied himself with the al Saud family when it first established political control over the Arabian Peninsula, and whose descendants are still among Saudi Arabia’s most important official clergy. Many Saudis reject the term “Wahhabism” as pejorative; they regard Wahhab’s ideas as Islam itself, properly interpreted, and they argue that no other label is required. Some Saudis acknowledge their country’s dominant theology as a distinct school of Islamic thought, but they will typically refer to this school as Salafism, a term that refers to the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Islam. With some exceptions, adherents of the Salafi school steer away from purposeful political organizing; instead, they often emphasize matters of personal faith, such as the strict regulation of Islamic rituals, and of an individual’s private conduct and prayer.

Finally, there is this wry level of detail about the career path of Osama’s son:

Abdullah bin Laden, Osama’s son, today lives in Jedda and enjoys good health, according to several people who know him. (He did not respond to requests for an interview.) In a story published in a London-based Saudi-owned newspaper in 2001, Abdullah said that he left his father’s household in the mid-nineties, when Osama was preparing to leave Sudan, where he had been living in exile, for a new and uncertain exile in Afghanistan. Not wishing to endure such hardship any longer, Abdullah sought and received his father’s permission to return to Saudi Arabia, where he has since taken up a career in advertising and public relations.

Abdullah runs his own firm, called Fame Advertising, which has offices near a Starbucks in a two-story strip mall on Palestine Street, one of Jedda’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. “Fame . . . Is Your Fame” is the company’s slogan, according to its marketing brochures. Among the firm’s advertised specialties is “event management,” which refers to the staging of attention-grabbing corporate galas and launch parties for new products or stores. The firm makes this promise: “Fame Advertising events are novel, planned meticulously, and executed with efficiency.” On the back of this brochure is printed a single word: “Different.”

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Three cheers for consistency

AntiBushDemonstratorsA group best known for its defense of the free-speech rights of traditional religious believers has decided — acting in a totally consistent manner — to get involved in the defense of a protestor for a case that most would consider “on the left,” in terms of politics. The group to which I am referring is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The problem with discussing the MSM coverage of this case is that I cannot find any.

Thus, here is the opening of its press release on the matter.

Hampton University in Virginia has decided not to expel at least five of seven students for passing out anti-Bush flyers without university approval. …

“While we are relieved that the students were not expelled merely for passing out flyers, the fact that Hampton punished the students at all contradicts its alleged commitment to free speech,” remarked FIRE President David French.

Seven students at the private institution faced trouble with Hampton administrators after November 2, when they and others spent about half an hour in Hampton’s student center passing out flyers on issues including Hurricane Katrina, the Sudan and the Iraq war.

Maybe the news reports are out there, but I can’t find anything to read about this fascinating case. Am I missing something somewhere?

And, not to serve as this group’s press aide, but it seems that it just won another victory in a case that kind of blurs the lines between left and right. This time around, FIRE was fighting on behalf of the free-speech rights of a Muslim who spoke out against homosexuality. Once again, I am forced to turn to the press release for information.

A Muslim student employee at William Paterson University (WPU) in New Jersey has finally been cleared of baseless sexual harassment charges. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Jihad Daniel forced the public university to officially revoke the punishment it inflicted on him after he expressed his religious opinion of homosexuality in a private e-mail to a professor.

Alas, I cannot find coverage of this case in mainstream media, even through it contains hooks linked to a number of highly controversial issues.

Doesn’t anyone out there in a newsroom or two care about the free-speech rights of minority groups and anti-war protestors? Or is there some other dynamic at work here?

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Can anyone out there speak “British”?

thumb dcameron05 1Is there anyone out there in GetReligionLand who speaks the English dialect called “British” well enough to help me break the code in the following story by John Daniszewski (God bless you) of the Los Angeles Times? It concerns the rise of the ever-so-slightly modish David Cameron as the new leader of the Tory Party at the ripe old age of 39, which is even younger than a TV cyberanchor here in the USA.

Please understand that I know all about the rising tide of secularization in modern Great Britain and I know that social issues do not play much of a role over there.

Please understand that I also know that the Brits are horrified by what many consider the rise of the insane theocrats on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, I sense some cultural issues lurking between the lines of this part of the story:

With British voters having given the Labor Party’s Tony Blair a third term as prime minister in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservatives back in touch with ordinary people — just as the last three party chairmen have promised. …

The Conservative Party has been dogged by the perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron noted Tuesday that women are “scandalously underrepresented” in the party and pledged to correct that.)

Can anyone out there help me with the translation?

You see, I tend to think of the Church of England as a force on the left side of the cultural divide and, sorry, but I get that impression by reading British newspapers as well as following the political and doctrinal exploits of the Episcopal Church here in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. And what does the phrase “back in touch with ordinary people” mean in England, as opposed to here in America? Does that have religious or secular overtones in politics over there? And, if you read on, you will also notice that Cameron is using “compassionate conservatism” lingo and we all know where that came from.

Input. Need Input.

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Tell the story

suicide bomber -- femaleShe was raised as Catholic and she died as what could be the first European Muslim suicide bomber. So starts the story, as written in The New York Times, that is so thick with religious issues that go deep into history, you could start writing a intriguing book tomorrow on the situation.

Here’s how it all starts:

MONCEAU-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium, Dec. 5 — Muriel Degauque, believed to be the first European Muslim woman to stage a suicide attack, started out life as a good Roman Catholic girl in this coal mining corner of Belgium known as the black country. She ended it in a grisly blast deep inside Iraq last month.

Ms. Degauque, 38, detonated her explosive vest amid an American military patrol in the town of Baquba on Nov. 9, wounding one American soldier, according to an account received from the State Department and given to the Federal Police in Belgium.

Her unlikely journey into militant Islam stunned Europe and for many people was an incomprehensible aberration, a lost soul led astray. But her story supports fears among many law enforcement officials and academics that converts to Europe’s fastest-growing religion could bring with them a disturbing new aspect in the war on terror: Caucasian women committed to one of the world’s deadliest causes.

And the plot thickens as we find out that European women that marry Muslim men are one the largest segment of conversions on the continent, though many are in name only, experts say. Apparently Muriel Degauque was not one of them so let the speculation begin:

Most of those in the conservative ranks are motivated by spiritual quests or are attracted to what they regard as an exotic culture.

But for some, conversion is a political act, not unlike the women who joined the ranks of South American Marxist rebels in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

“They are people rebelling against a society in which they feel they don’t belong,” said Alain Grignard, a senior official in the antiterrorism division of the Belgian Police. “They are people searching through a religion like Islam for a sense of solidarity.”

He said there were many such women married to the first wave of Europe’s militant Islamists a decade ago, and some of them followed their husbands to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But while they supported their husbands’ militancy, he said, they never acted themselves. “This was the first,” said Mr. Grignard, “and it’s clear there could be others.”

Unfortunately I am not an expert in this, and I doubt I will ever be an expert, but I would like to be educated in the matter. Female suicide bombers have been around since a Syrian nationalist blew up her vehicle killing two soldiers in 1985 and most documented incidents have occurred by Muslims in the Middle East. But this incident is special as it is a European Catholic-turned-Muslim that is the bomber and that marks a monumental step in Europe’s transformation.

The New York Times should be a good place to start when it comes to coverage of this story, but watch other papers, like The Independent and the Christian Science Monitor, which are the only organizations at this point to have published something of their own on this story.

The NYT magazine piece Sunday on female Muslims in Europe is a solid piece of journalism that gives plenty of historical context that relates in several ways to this suicide bomber story. Reporters must tell this story of the suicide bombers, from all angles and they must get it right because if they don’t, we will have lost something.

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On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor — the chair of the religious studies department, no less — announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory.

Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here’s how Lawrence Journal-World’s Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv — a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic — Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, described his upcoming course “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines’ piece is good but I wonder why she didn’t tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki’s comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren’t appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki’s account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki’s most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn’t imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

“This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don’t beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof,” he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki’s report was legitimate.

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

“The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are… I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander’s approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It’s also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I’m glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

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