More bombs, more blood, more ghosts

ammhya01p001Once again the terrorism story of the day is drenched in blood and religion, yet it is hard to know how the mainstream press should respond. The faces are are so familiar by now, with 57 dead and more than 100 wounded.

The main question journalists face: Do you quote — or even release, or link to — the actual text of the letter from the al Qaeda network claiming responsibility? Why? Why Not?

If you do, you end up with something that reads like this news report from The Guardian:

A statement, which has not been authenticated, was posted on a website used by militant groups and said Amman was targeted because it is the “backyard” for US operations. The claim was signed in the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The statement said Amman is “a backyard for the enemies of the faith, the Jews and crusaders … a filthy place for the traitors … and a centre for prostitution.”

It is a familiar equation — Jews, Christians and a Western, consumer approach to sexuality.

I realize that this story is still very new. Yet it is interesting to read the first reports from the major newspapers and note the total lack of information about the religion element in the event.

The New York Times, of course, continues its almost total blackout on religious images and information related to terrorism. Then again, The Jerusalem Post also seems to assume that, by this time, its readers do not have to be told what they already know. Ditto for The Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times, however, includes the following detail that is not exactly religious, but it does give some insights into the dynamics of this tragedy. We can expect this fact to be spun around in some conspiracy theory sites:

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israelis staying at the Radisson on Wednesday had been evacuated before the attacks and escorted back home “apparently due to a specific security threat.” Amos N. Guiora, a former senior Israeli counter-terrorism official, said in a phone interview with The Times that sources in Israel had also told him about the pre-attack evacuations.

“It means there was excellent intelligence that this thing was going to happen,” said Guiora, a former leader of the Israel Defense Forces who now heads the Institute for Global Security Law and Policy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The question that needs to be answered is why weren’t the Jordanians working at the hotel similarly removed?”

Once again we see an attack by Islamists, justified with faith language. The attack targets moderate, pro-West Muslims, Jews and Christians.

At least that is what the bombers say. This is not what the newspapers say. Or, at least, they do not say it very often.

(Photo: The Grand Hyatt in Amman)

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The statue breakers of Hollywood

BuddyJesusNormally tmatt has written about the articles regarding our friend Barbara Nicolosi, but I’m taking this one — the essay “Can Jesus Save Hollywood?” — because of its appearance in The Atlantic. Hanna Rosin travels to Hollywood in this month’s issue to report on Nicolosi and her colleagues at Act One, who are striving to transform Hollywood one talented writer at a time.

And let’s be clear about this: transforming Hollywood does not translate into convincing studios to film higher-budget versions of any of the Left Behind books. To the contrary, Rosin describes three waves of Christians who represent an increasing comfort believers feel about working in Hollywood and being open about their faith. Here’s how Rosin describes the third wave:

They are the cinematic wing of what the sociologist Alan Wolfe calls the “opening of the evangelical mind,” a cultural renaissance among conservative Christians. Though their parents may have taught them to take refuge in a parallel Christian subculture, the movies these people found in Christian bookstores bored and embarrassed them. To be accepted at Act One you have to believe that Jesus is a real presence in your life. But the worst insult you can deliver there is to say that a movie reminds you of such notoriously low-budget Christian schlock as the Left Behind series and The Omega Code, or that the dialogue sounds like “Christianese.”

Rosin delivers plenty of other satisfying quotes from Nicolosi and her fellow instructors. Here’s an amusing illustration of how much Hollywood has changed since the terrorist strikes of 2001 and the box-office earthquake known as The Passion of the Christ:

The movie industry remains affected by post-9/11 national anxiety, and now studio heads want to make movies that “mean something.” At the same time, it’s well aware of what’s known around town as “Passion dollars” — the previously untapped religious audience that made Mel Gibson’s independently distributed movie The Passion of the Christ last year’s biggest surprise. Recently the entertainment TV show Inside Edition invited Nicolosi to be a guest. “When I first came [to Hollywood], I never thought I’d be on Inside Edition,” she confessed to the host before the show. “Didn’t you know?” he replied. “‘Christian’ is the new ‘gay.’”

This is deeply satisfying religion writing, with minimal editorial intrusions, that makes a sometimes foreign subculture more accessible to a wide audience. Two thumbs up, folks — and hey, I mean that.

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Religion stories (plural) in France

MapofOutbreaksofViolenceinFranceAbout a year ago down in South Florida, I did a Scripps Howard column about young American Jews visiting Israel. One of the young people I interviewed was a 28-year-old cheeseburger devotee who was only hours away from her flight to Tel Aviv. She had made the decision to move to Israel for good.

As always, there was all kinds of interesting material from these interviews that I did not have the space to use. My weekly column is very tightly formatted — plus or minus 10 words.

I asked her if she was worried about finding work once she got to Israel. Did she have something lined up?

She laughed and said she had no worries whatsoever. She said she planned to continue her work in real estate and, “besides, I speak French.”

I replied: “French?”

Yes, she said, French. Behind the scenes, Jews from France were starting to do their homework in Israel — preparing for the day when their synagogues and homes would start to go up in flames and they would have to move. They wanted to be prepared.

She didn’t mention Jews worried about their automobiles.

That is just one story, and there are millions like it as the tensions build on both sides in the changing Europe. Events there are, no doubt, being caused just as much by fierce secularism and native racism as they are the tensions between moderate and radical Islam. Few would dispute that.

In fact, since I raised questions about one of her stories the other day, let me go out of my way to point out the following passage in an excellent report from the front lines by Molly Moore of The Washington Post. This is a major chunk taken from her story that ran with the headline “France Beefs Up Response to Riots.” This material begins only four paragraphs into this report.

While many French leaders depict the rioters as simple criminals, political and social analysts and many French citizens see the fires that are burning across the country as reflecting a growing identity crisis in a nation where social policies have not kept up with rapidly changing profiles in religion, race and ethnicity.

“France is in a social and economic crisis,” said Michelle Rosso, a 43-year-old music teacher from the town of Bagnolet in the northern suburbs of Paris, where the unrest has been most intense. “It’s similar to the U.S. civil rights movement in the ’60s. The integration policies of this country clearly do not work.”

Most of the rioters are the French-born children of immigrants from Arab and African countries. A large percentage are Muslim. Their parents’ generation was invited to France as laborers who were expected to return home but didn’t. The new generation is coming of age in the midst of France’s worst economic slump in years and during a time when many in the country, which is culturally Christian but officially secular, are increasingly fearful of the growth of Islam inside its borders.

At present, the country has an estimated 6 million Muslims, most of African descent. The fear of losing France’s traditional white European identity fueled French voters’ rejection of the proposed European Union constitution last summer and has heightened French opposition to admitting Muslim Turkey into the E.U.

In short, says one activist: “The French social model is exploding.”

In my opinion, Moore hits all of the right notes in this tense, yet compact, section of a hard-news story. The religious elements in this story are placed in some meaningful context — on both sides — and she does not deny the role of racism and economic strife.

Contrast this with this Los Angeles Times report that seems to go out of its way to avoid the religious elements of this continent-shaking story. Read it for yourself.

GetReligion readers who are interested in a roundup of religion stories linked to the riot can go here (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan), where you will find links to all kinds of disturbing reports. Hopefully, this “French Intifada” list will continue to be updated. That’s a radical metaphor, but it does seem that the fires are going to rage on for some time.

Note: The graphic featured above is from The Telegraph and has appeared on several news blogs.

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Here ye go again

1127lgWait a minute. Have the malls already been turned into little fake islands of New England? Is it already that time of year?

Methinks that this punchy little story by Richard N. Ostling of the Associated Press officially represents the starting bell for that season most beloved to merchants and lawyers — The Holidays.

Yes, the Christmas wars are getting off to a very early start.

“Wordless instrumental music”? Saints preserve us!

Communities and courts have long fielded protests against municipal creche displays and school Nativity pageants, based on strict views of church-state separation and sensitivity toward religious minorities. In recent years, however, local disputes have extended to carol singing, wordless instrumental music, Christmas trees and decorations, classroom visits by Santa Claus, distribution of Christmas-themed cards and gifts, “Merry Christmas!” greetings and designation of Christmas on official calendars.

This week, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., announced that its 800 cooperating attorneys have volunteered to handle without fee complaints about “improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property.”

Truth be told, there are valid issues at stake here. I know that. But I do wish that more churches would put more effort into actually marking Advent (or Nativity Lent, in the East) and then actually celebrating Christmas — all 12 days of it after Dec. 25 — in their own homes, in their own sanctuaries, on their own property and, in ways that are completely legal, by caroling and greeting people in the public square. Just do it.

And if you want to laugh to keep from crying, dig out a copy — used ones right here — of the classic Away with the Manger by an evangelical wise guy named Chris Fabry. My favorite moment is when the angry Christians march toward the town square, led by a U.S. Marine, who helps them belt out this military-style chant:

You can’t take our holiday!
It’s in our heart and here to stay!
Sound off!
Sound off!

I think you get the idea.

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Los Angeles Times gets religious liberty

AllSaintsIt is rare that you get to watch a great newspaper — in this case the Los Angeles Times — wake up and realize it has published two stories in the same issue that are, in fact, directly related. In this case we are dealing with religion stories, so let me happily help GetReligion readers connect the dots.

Let’s start with story A. This is a news story titled “Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning” by reporters Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch. This is a story that will make your blood boil, if you have even the slightest interest in free speech, the freedom of association and the side of the church-state separation equation in which the state has to keep its hands off the church. Here’s the heart of the story:

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support. But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine.”

The story also included this fact:

On a day when churches throughout California took stands on both sides of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors unless parents are notified, some at All Saints feared the politically active church had been singled out.

That’s interesting, because the same edition of the newspaper included story B by reporter Jenifer Warren, with the headline “Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches.” This concerned Proposition 73, a ballot initiative which would require doctors to alert parents of minors seeking abortions. Action on this proposition had been surprisingly quiet, this story informs readers:

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics — their neighborhood church. So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy “yes on 73″ flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a “no” vote. And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

Set aside, for a moment, the word “propaganda.” What is interesting about story B is that it appears, to me at least, that the Los Angeles Times does not realize the irony of these two stories being in the same paper. For years, liberal groups have challenged the tax-exempt status of conservative churches that get involved in political fights in the public square. The reality, of course, is that churches and other nonprofits have every right to do this — if they stick to issues, not personalities. It’s a hazy line, but one that protects anti-war activists and pro-lifers at the same time (and, of course, many activists are pro-life and pro-peace at the same time).

In other words, the same laws protect the religious left as well as the religious right (as well as the people who are so consistent that they cannot be labeled).

Thus, I was pleased to get my email summary of the Los Angeles Times this morning and discover story C, with the headline “Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches.” In it, that duo of Felch and Biederman inform us that — surprise! — there are thinking conservatives who are willing to be consistent and defend the free-speech rights of liberals. Imagine that.

… (The) IRS action has triggered an unusual coalition of critics who say they are concerned about the effect on freedom of speech and religion. When Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case Monday, he told his staff to contact the National Council of Churches, a more liberal group.

Haggard said he personally supports the war in Iraq and probably would not agree with much in the Rev. George Regas’ 2004 sermon at All Saints, which was cited by the IRS as the basis for its investigation. But Haggard said he wants to work with the council of churches “in doing whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop” such actions.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the IRS to threaten that church. It may not be a violation of IRS regulations, but IRS regulations have been wrong,” said Haggard, who is pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The only problem with this is that this particular coalition is not all that unusual. It has worked on a number of issues, from freedom of religion in the workplace, to environmental issues, to human rights in the Sudan, to sex trafficking and a host of others. Perhaps it is only unusual to see it covered by reporters — other than the excellent religion-news team — in the Los Angeles Times. Note to editors: If you have religion-beat professionals, please involve them in important stories as much as possible.

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Can journalists cover the rioters?

riotersRiots by their very nature are difficult for a journalist to cover. They are confusing, widespread, hectic and dangerous for everyone. Riots are kind of like war, except the rioters don’t wear uniforms and are generally difficult people to interview.

Unfortunately, our impressions of riots are often shaped by media accounts written days after the events unfold. It’s pretty much impossible for anyone to get the story right in that amount of time, and sometimes it takes as many as 10 years for the facts to reveal themselves (most notably misconstrued in my opinion were the Los Angeles riots, which are still being sorted out by sociologists).

One of the more interesting angles of the Paris rioting story happens to be the issue of religion. Many news reports have downplayed religion. For instance, see this story posted on the New York Times website on the first death and the increase of arson.

Check out the first paragraph that deals with the issue of religion:

Though a majority of the youths committing the acts are Muslim, and of African or North African origin, the mayhem has yet to take on any ideological or religious overtones. Youths in the neighborhoods say second-generation Portuguese immigrants and even some children of native French have taken part.

In an effort to stop the attacks and distance them from Islam, France’s most influential Islamic group issued a religious edict, or fatwa, condemning the violence.

“It is formally forbidden for any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone’s life,” the fatwa said, citing the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad.

You won’t find this part of the story on the first page. In fact, appears 34 paragraphs deep into the story. If that is not the case of burying the news, I don’t know what is.

On my way into work this morning, I heard a French Muslim leader being interviewed by the BBC adamantly declaring that the rioters were by no means acting for religious reasons. It was purely young men who lacked jobs and felt neglected by society. Must be the case, then, huh?

By contrast, this Newsweek piece takes the issue of religion head-on and with no apologies, but fails to follow up later in the piece:

“It’s Baghdad here,” the rioters shouted. Night after night last week, rage spread through the ghettos that ring Paris, then beyond to every corner of France. When a tear-gas canister exploded near a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois on the fourth violent evening, a new cry went up. “Now this is war,” said one of the vandals. Others cried “jihad.”

The Washington Post‘s Molly Moore jumped on the “violence could spread to your backyard” story this morning, and as with most daily news stories, it contained little background on who these rioters were and exactly who in my backyard (or that of my girlfriend Noelle, who lives in London) would be rioting.

Associated Press reports of churches being set on fire in Lens and Sete has a reader, Terry, worried because the Bosnia war took a “new and ominous turn when the various parties began blowing up each other’s churches and mosques.”

If this New York Post article, which can hardly be considered an objective piece of journalism but more of a European-style essay, is correct, the BBC and the NYT will be looking awfully foolish for ignoring the religious overtones in the Paris riots. Here’s a snippet:

With cries of “God is great,” bands of youths armed with whatever they could get hold of went on a rampage and forced the police to flee.

The French authorities could not allow a band of youths to expel the police from French territory. So they hit back — sending in Special Forces, known as the CRS, with armored cars and tough rules of engagement.

Within hours, the original cause of the incidents was forgotten and the issue jelled around a demand by the representatives of the rioters that the French police leave the “occupied territories.” By midweek, the riots had spread to three of the provinces neighboring Paris, with a population of 5.5 million.

But who lives in the affected areas? In Clichy itself, more than 80 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim immigrants or their children, mostly from Arab and black Africa. In other affected towns, the Muslim immigrant community accounts for 30 percent to 60 percent of the population. But these are not the only figures that matter. Average unemployment in the affected areas is estimated at around 30 percent and, when it comes to young would-be workers, reaches 60 percent.

Maybe we should just wait for the sociologists to sort these riots out? Are journalists incapable of getting it right when it comes to riots? I would hope not.

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That Jimmy Carter flashback

cover largeI have had a number of readers ask me for my reaction to the recent remarks by former President Jimmy Carter in which he addressed both his party’s dogmatic stance in favor of abortion and its growing estrangement from traditional religious believers.

The remarks are not all that surprising, if you know Carter’s history as a moderate or progressive Southern Baptist. It is also not surprising that the remarks made headlines in The Washington Times. I was somewhat surprised — given the recent MSM interest in the Democratic Party’s efforts to rally the religious left — that few other media outlets picked up the story. A follow story produced by the Associated Press did run in many newspapers and broadcast websites.

Times reporter Ralph Z. Hallow placed Carter’s remarks in the context of behind-the-scenes debates among Democrats over the wisdom of filibustering the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court, largely because they fear he may be opposed to abortion. Carter proclaimed:

“I never have felt that any abortion should be committed — I think each abortion is the result of a series of errors,” he told reporters over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, while across town Senate Democrats deliberated whether to filibuster the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. because he may share President Bush and Mr. Carter’s abhorrence of abortion.

“These things impact other issues on which [Mr. Bush] and I basically agree,” the Georgia Democrat said. “I’ve never been convinced, if you let me inject my Christianity into it, that Jesus Christ would approve abortion.”

I have interviewed Carter on this topic and his compromise stance essentially boiled down to this: Abortion is a church-state issue. While clear on his own beliefs, he maintained that the state had to stay out of an issue that, for so many, pivoted on religious questions. Thus, he said government money would not be used to fund or to oppose abortion. This infuriated conservatives, but also created rage in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Those who said Carter’s recent remarks were “astonishing” have not paid attention to what the man has — for better or for worse — said through the years. I once saw him, facing an audience of Lutheran teens in the mid-1980s, begin crying when asked to describe his toughest moment as president. He said it was when he made the political decision that he would not be able to do more to actively oppose abortion.

The most provocative passage in Hallow’s report came at the end:

Mr. Carter said his party lost the 2004 presidential elections and lost House and Senate seats because Democratic leaders failed “to demonstrate a compatibility with the deeply religious people in this country. I think that absence hurt a lot.”

Democrats must “let the deeply religious people and the moderates on social issues like abortion feel that the Democratic party cares about them and understands them,” he said, adding that many Democrats, like him, “have some concern about, say, late-term abortions, where you kill a baby as it’s emerging from its mother’s womb.”

I am surprised that the Democrats for Life website did not do more with this quote.

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Was Swoopes born a lesbian?

main feature sherylsOK, I have held off writing about this for a week because I wanted to see how the daily sports press and the weekly magazines handled a tricky style question at the heart of this story.

This is not, of course, what most people would call a religion story. However, we live in a day and age in which it is almost impossible to write about sexuality — period — without raising religious, moral and cultural questions.

Thus, I want to raise this as a question for the Associated Press Stylebook committee: Is WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes a lesbian? Or is she bisexual?

It is perfectly legitimate to ask if anyone needs to answer this question. However, it is an interesting question in terms of science and in terms of moral theology and, sooner or later, it is going to be an interesting question at the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a question that has popped up in politics and in religion news.

If you have read the first-person ESPN essay that began this national coming-out story, you know that Swoopes said some very interesting things.

I didn’t always know I was gay. I honestly didn’t. Do I think I was born this way? No. And that’s probably confusing to some, because I know a lot of people believe that you are.

I’ve been married, and I have an 8-year-old son. Being with a man was what I wanted. When I got divorced in 1999, it wasn’t because I’m gay. I’m three years older than my ex-husband, and I matured a lot faster than he did. …

I’ve had plenty of gay friends I’ve hung out with, but that thought never entered my mind. At the same time, I’m also a firm believer that when you fall in love with somebody, you can’t control that. Whether it’s another woman. Whether it’s another man. Whatever.

So was Swoopes a lesbian when, as a pregnant married woman, she was used as a heterosexual poster child by a professional sports league that has always wrestled with its gay-friendly image?

If, in the near future, Swoopes broke off her relationship with her female former coach and fell in love with another man, would she still be a lesbian? Or would she be bisexual? Is there a moral, scientific, theological or legal difference between these two conditions? Does bisexuality exist? Or, as the Kinsey Report said, is human sexuality a spectrum of behaviors and, in many cases, not a matter of either-or?

These questions only matter if you believe that, in journalism as in theology, the meaning of the words we use actually matter.

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