The illegal sacramental tea

hallucinogenic drugsIllegal narcotics, a 130-member church that likes to do those drugs and a Supreme Court with a history of restricting drugs all make for an interesting law/religion story that will certainly divide traditional political alliances in all sorts of interesting ways.

The American branch of the Brazilian church O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União do Vegetal wants to import a sacramental hallucinogenic tea — banned from the U.S. because it is a Schedule I drug — that is key to the church’s rituals. Rather than affecting First Amendment law, the case deals with a federal law that gives greater protections to religious exercise than what the Supreme Court had previously given.

Here’s the essence of the issue, as written by The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 — The Bush administration tried to persuade the Supreme Court on Tuesday that federal narcotics policy should trump the religious needs of members of a small South American church who want to import a hallucinogenic tea that is central to their religious rituals.

Two lower federal courts have barred the government from seizing the sacred drink, known as hoasca tea, which is brewed from indigenous Brazilian plants that do not grow in the United States. The tea’s hallucinogenic effect comes from a chemical, dimethyltryptamine, usually known as DMT, which occurs naturally in the plants and is listed as a Schedule I banned substance in the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Supreme Court refused last year to lift the preliminary injunction issued by the federal district court in Albuquerque. But the justices did agree to hear the administration’s appeal. As the major church-state clash of the court’s new term, the case has drawn the attention of mainstream religious groups, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Jewish Committee.

The article is clearly by a legal writer, not a religion writer (Linda Greenhouse has been covering the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years) and for that, it suffers a bit (though it is a great piece of legal journalism). We don’t learn much about the church or why and how it uses the hallucinogenic tea (some answers can be found here).

The American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals, among other groups, are filing briefs in support of the church, which makes me wonder, what is their stake in this matter?

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But is he a Catholic Catholic?

NastTheocracyIn Slate’s tradition of contrarianism, William Saletan argues that someone has indeed played the Catholic card in re Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court: President Bush and his fellow Republicans.

Whatever it is, Catholics are clearly in vogue as reliable choices of this White House. Among the eight names circulated on Supreme Court shortlists this year, I count three known Catholics. One got the first open seat; another is getting the second. If you’re pro-life, the fact that these nominees are Catholic doesn’t mean they’ll vote the way you want. But it does make it easier to label anyone who challenges their abortion writings a bigot — and to cash in that label at election time.

Saletan contends that opposing a Catholic nominee because of that nominee’s pro-life convictions is not anti-Catholicism unless opponents clearly make the link:

Two years ago, Republicans found a new way to play victim. They were trying to get Bill Pryor, the attorney general of Alabama, confirmed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor had called Roe v. Wade an “abomination” that had led to “slaughter.” Such rhetoric, according to Democrats, suggested that Pryor was incapable of subordinating his moral convictions to constitutional law. A well-connected conservative lobby, the Committee for Justice, fired back with ads depicting a warning on a courthouse door: “Catholics need not apply.” The ads accused senators of attacking Pryor’s “‘deeply held’ Catholic beliefs.”

In truth, no opposing senator had mentioned Pryor’s Catholicism. The inference was drawn purely from questions about his sharp moral rhetoric. Republican senators took the campaign further, suggesting that criticism of judges who supported abortion restrictions was inherently anti-Catholic.

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review Online addressed some of these points around the time of Pryor’s confirmation hearings:

I think a plausible case can be made that during the confirmation debate over John Ashcroft, Democrats really were playing on widespread prejudices about certain Protestant sects. (The Ashcroft fight, by the way, was a dress rehearsal for the current debate. The Democrats reacted exactly as they are reacting now to the charge of bigotry, and their anger then was a sign of political vulnerability, as it is now.) That case can’t be made now with respect to Catholicism.

So Republican rhetoric about the Democrats’ having adopted a “religious test for office” is not true. It is true, however, that the Democrats have adopted the next best thing. They have a viewpoint test for office that has the effect of screening out all Catholics faithful to their church’s teachings on abortion. The fact that the test screens out a lot of Protestants, too, makes the problem worse, not better. It really is true that faithful Catholics “need not apply” as far as most Democrats are concerned. A Catholic can win their support only by ceasing, on the decisive issue, to be Catholic — by breaking from his church’s teaching, as Senator [Dick] Durbin has done. (It is rather disgraceful for a man who went in six years from supporting the Human Life Amendment to supporting partial-birth abortion to keep carrying on about the extremism of people whose beliefs have been less supple.)

Saletan makes a fair point that claiming anti-Catholicism bigotry against Supreme Court nominees is “becoming numerically preposterous.” What’s not becoming preposterous is the concern that certain Senators will indeed seek to scuttle a Catholic nominee who declines to make the right noises about the sacrosanct nature of Roe v. Wade. Someday, perhaps, we will have the luxury of seeing whether a pro-life agnostic or atheist nominee would encounter the same resistance. Would anyone else enjoy the thought of Nat Hentoff serving his remaining years on the Supreme Court?

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A newsworthy one-year anniversary

MachetesOnce again, let me share an angry parable (with a timely tweak). Some of you don’t think it’s appropriate and I know that. But I do. So here goes (with a hat tip to Pat Sajak, of course).

Today is the one-year anniversary of one of the most shocking events in the history of American pop culture. I am referring, of course, to the shocking murder of filmmaker Michael Moore. It took place shortly after the release of his film Submission, which set out to prove that President Bush and his White House are totally controlled by the radical Religious Right.

In broad daylight, on a city street, Moore was attacked and slashed to death by a fundamentalist Christian, who shouted that Moore deserved to die because of his blasphemy and sins against unborn children. As a final symbolic act, the fundamentalist stabbed the fimmaker one last time, using the blade to pin to his chest a copy of a Four Spiritual Laws pamphlet.

Total fiction, of course. But how would this story be covered by the mainstream press? Do you think we would see MSM coverage of this event on its one-year anniversary?

I think we would.

This brings me, of course, to the one-year anniversary of the murder of Dutch filmmaker, political gadfly and liberal icon Theo van Gogh. If you search for his name today at Google News, you will find some coverage of this story — in the foreign press. I read about this story again, of course, in The Wall Street Journal. For some reason, this act of terrorism remains a “conservative media” story on this side of the Atlantic. The essay by Francis Fukuyama (“A Year of Living Dangerously: Remember Theo van Gogh, and shudder for the future”) begins this way:

One year ago today, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh had his throat ritually slit by Mohamed Bouyeri, a Muslim born in Holland who spoke fluent Dutch. This event has totally transformed Dutch politics, leading to stepped-up police controls that have now virtually shut off new immigration there. Together with the July 7 bombings in London (also perpetrated by second generation Muslims who were British citizens), this event should also change dramatically our view of the nature of the threat from radical Islamism.

This sounds, to me, like a newsworthy topic.

Now that you think about it, so does this story, which I first read about through another commentator on the political right, sort of. That would be Andrew Sullivan. The pope is talking about it, too. That’s two very sharp, and diverse, guys.

Once again we are talking about a shocking crime — the beheading of Christian schoolgirls in Indonesia. Alas, this appears to be a conservative news story, too. If you want information you need to go to foreign news sources or to Christianity Today. An online news story by reporter Deann Alford informs us:

In what one Indonesian human rights activist describes as the latest attack in an ongoing terror campaign against Christians of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, three teenage girls en route to school through a cocoa plantation were beheaded Saturday morning, apparently by Muslims. …

Two of the girls’ heads were found near a police station five miles from the village of Poso. The head of the third was left in front of Kasiguncu village’s Pentecostal Church of Indonesia (GPdI), eight miles from where the bodies were found in the cocoa plantation.

Read these stories and weep. Or don’t read them. I wish you could pick up your local newspaper and have that choice.

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Calling key conservatives

questionsSome solid reporting by The Washington Times‘ Ralph Z. Hallow on how the administration notified key conservatives, both economic and religious, of Bush’s choice to nominate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court. In referencing conversations with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission chief Richard Land, Hallow shows how Bush wanted to pick someone “who could rally the troops.” Here’s the gist:

Karl Rove called key conservative interest group leaders yesterday morning to give them a heads-up just before the White House made public President Bush’s nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

Many of the same conservatives had been labeled “sexist” and “elitist” by the White House for their criticisms of Harriet Miers, Mr. Bush’s previous court choice. But all seemed forgiven yesterday as leaders across the Republican spectrum, from economic libertarians to religious conservatives, united in praise of the Alito nomination.

The chance to heal a rift between the president and his conservative supporters brought the personal involvement of Mr. Rove, the political strategist who just days earlier had been the object of press speculation that he might face criminal indictment.

What other unreported conversations have Bush and his aides had with religious leaders? At what point does this become a religious test? Harriet Miers clearly passed some people’s religious test as they found her adequate for the highest court in the land based largely on her personal faith in God and personal integrity.

Those are questions that I believe reporters should start asking more often, and Hallow should have found room for these questions somewhere in his story.

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Again: Who is calling who a “moderate”?

Supreme Court 02This is one of those days when it is hard to be a Godbeat blogger. Where do you begin with the ghosts in the stories about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr.? It is hard to cover the territory, even if you limit yourself to The Washington Post. Let’s try to tiptoe through the minefield. But let me warn you right up front: I remain convinced that the key to this whole story is the old question, “Who gets to control the word ‘moderate?’”

This is a variation on the question I keep asking: If liberals are in favor of the status quo, which used to be called “abortion on demand,” and conservatives support a complete ban on legal abortion, what do the “moderates” want?

Of course, we already know the MSM answer to these questions. Moderates want to maintain the legal status quo and so do liberals. Thus, there are no real liberals. There is no far left on the issue of abortion.

• For example, Michael A. Fletcher was assigned the “fire up the fundraising letters” story, in which activists on the far right and on the far middle gear up to raise money and support. But, behold, right there in the lead is the “L” word. No, not that “L” word, the other one — “liberal.”

Within two hours of President Bush’s nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court yesterday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way had e-mailed hundreds of thousands of its members, contacted journalists across the country and released a report on Alito’s jurisprudence — all in an effort to derail the nominee.

The conservative Third Branch Conference, meanwhile, spent the hours after the president’s announcement happily planning ways to back Alito. In a conference call with leaders of about 75 right-leaning groups, the organization extolled Alito’s conservative credentials and urged grass-roots support of his nomination.

The word “liberal” shows up again a few lines later and then again and again. In fact, does the word “moderate” appear at all? I didn’t think so.

• But much more traditional language dominates the Charles Lane report with the headline “Alito Leans Right Where O’Connor Swung Left.” That’s a nice headline, by the way, if the issue is abortion (which it is). This report begins with the case everyone is talking about. Note the return of centrist/moderate langauge:

In 1991, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to uphold a Pennsylvania statute that would have required at least some married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion; a year later, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast a decisive fifth vote at the Supreme Court to strike it down. …

The record is clear: On some of the most contentious issues that came before the high court, Alito has been to the right of the centrist swing voter he would replace. As a result, legal analysts across the spectrum saw the Alito appointment yesterday as a bid by President Bush to tilt the court, currently evenly divided between left and right, in a conservative direction. O’Connor “has been a moderating voice on critical civil liberties issues ranging from race to religion to reproductive freedom,” said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In this case, the centrist position is to defeat a restriction on abortion rights. What would the liberal position be? The story says that the court is, at the moment, perfectly balanced. Is that accurate, if the issue is abortion (which it is)? What would the court look like if it tilted to the left? How could it tilt further to the left on this issue?

By the way, Lane later reports this interesting information:

Alito struck down a New Jersey law that would have banned the procedure known by opponents as “partial-birth” abortion — just as O’Connor did. His ruling, following the one O’Connor voted for, said the statute was unconstitutional because it did not include an exception for cases in which the woman’s health was at risk.

• That important word “center” shows up again in a Dan Balz story on President Bush and the political right. Here we read:

Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question — and one hotly debated among strategists yesterday. Given the state of his presidency and party, Bush may have had no other choice than to name a Supreme Court candidate who would help to heal the divisions within the GOP coalition, even at the risk of further alienating voters in the center.

Here we go again. In most polls, one small camp of hard-core liberals wants an absolute right to abortion while a similar camp on the right wants to ban abortion altogether. In between is the mushy middle, consisting of people who resist a total ban but want to see abortion limited to one degree or another, depending on how a poll question is worded.

In other words, compromise is in the middle. Restrictions are in the middle.

But, to read Balz literally, the way to reach the center is by defending the legal positions taken by the left. Once again, the key question is this: What would it take to create compromise legislation on abortion, some stance between a complete ban and abortion on demand? If the key to this story is finding and defending the center, what policy is in the center?

• Here is one final example, right there in the headline of a report by Charles Babington: “As Democrats Lead Opposition, GOP Moderates May Control Vote.”

We do not have to read far past the lead to see the dilemma facing reporters and their old-fashioned templates for this story. I am sorry if this is boring, but here goes:

Senate Democrats will lead the opposition to Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s Supreme Court nomination, but a handful of Republican moderates could ultimately decide its outcome, several analysts and lawmakers said yesterday.

The roughly half-dozen GOP senators who support abortion rights are scrutinizing Alito’s dissent in a major 1991 abortion case. If they determine that his judicial record or his answers to questions signal a willingness to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, they will fall under heavy pressure to oppose him, said congressional scholars and analysts.

Again, we have the obvious question: What is the difference — if abortion is the issue (which it is) — between a liberal and a “moderate” Republican? If Roe is preventing compromise and compromise is the policy option that is located between the far right and the far left, how does one get to a “moderate” policy option without overturning Roe or radically redefining it?

I do think that some journalists, when they are making decisions about these kinds of style questions, need to do some more reading on the left and the right. Notice that both of these pundits support abortion rights. But both are seeking, well, moderation.

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Football and faith

prayer circleIt seems that we all were a bit ahead of the curve when it came to faith and football. A week ago, a number of you readers engaged in a vigorous conversation on whether religion should be considered when a coach/general manager makes football personnel decisions.

One of those engaging in the debate sent me this excellent New York Times article published Oct. 30. The article deals with many of the issues explored last week, many of them wonderfully drawn out with solid detail.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Every preseason for 30 years, Coach Bobby Bowden has taken his Florida State football players to a church in a white community and a church in a black community in the Tallahassee area in an effort, he said, to build camaraderie. He writes to their parents in advance, explaining that the trips are voluntary, and that if they object, their sons can stay home without fear of retaliation. He remembers only one or two players ever skipping the outing.

Since becoming the football coach at Georgia in 2001, Mark Richt, too, has taken his team to churches in the preseason. A devotional service is conducted the night before each game, and a prayer service on game day. Both are voluntary, and Mr. Richt said he does not attend them.

On game days, Penn State players may choose between Catholic and Protestant services or not go at all. Coach Joe Paterno and the team say the Lord’s Prayer in the locker room after games.

As in politics and culture in the United States, college football is increasingly becoming a more visible home for the Gospel. In the past year more than 2,000 college football coaches participated in events sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which said that more than 1.4 million athletes and coaches from youth to professional levels had attended in 2005, up from 500,000 in 1990.

Is it right for faith to play a role in football? What about athletes who are of different faiths from the majority of their team? When is the ACLU going to get involved? How has the Supreme Court affected faith in football? These are all great questions that go to the heart of some of the church and state debates. Also a great example of why sports are a superb microcosm of life.

On a similiar note, The Indianapolis Star ran a great profile of Danny Granger. He is the Indiana Pacers’ first-round draft pick who will hopefully lead them to the NBA finals this year and he also happens to be a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Read on for an interesting profile of a green NBA player with a great deal of potential to become a bright star in the professional sporting world.

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Mamma mia, that’s a hot quote!

Hf3Z1ByrtmnCWell, a reporter researching Judge Samuel Alito can’t turn to a much better source than this. Here is the Associated Press report by Gina Holland that is defining the first wave of MSM coverage.

Alito, a Catholic, is opposed to abortion, his 90-year-old mother forthrightly told reporters in New Jersey. As an appeals court judge, he held that states can require women seeking abortions to notify their spouses. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Actually, I would have preferred to hear more from Alito’s mother. Luckily, another AP reporter did land an actual quotation while researching the man who — ALL TOGETHER NOW! Let me HEAR you! — would “become the fifth Catholic on the nine-member court.”

Here are the “Mamma mia!” quotes from the wire-service profile by Maryclaire Dale:

Alito’s mother, Rose, who will turn 91 in December, spent Monday fielding congratulatory telephone calls from her home in Hamilton, N.J., a Trenton suburb. “I’m so excited I can’t even express myself,” she said.

More candid that her son might wish, she said, “I think he was upset that he didn’t get there in the first shot, that Miers got it.” That was a reference to Bush’s choice of Harriet Miers, since withdrawn.

If confirmed, Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court. “Of course he’s against abortion,” his mother said, another comment supporters in Washington might wish she’d held back.

This is actually a nice report by Dale, with concise quotes by people on both sides of the judiciary aisle who have had experience working with this man.

Still everyone knows that we are now facing a tsunami of coverage on abortion rights. It is crucial to note — again — that we know what Alito thinks about some restrictions on abortion rights. Note the word restrictions. This is crucial because many Democrats also favor increased restrictions on abortion, even while they do not favor a complete ban on all abortions.

So once again we face that question: What is the centrist position on abortion?

If liberals back abortion on demand and conservatives favor a complete ban, what do people in the middle believe about abortion and how might America reach such a centrist position? The even tougher question: Is compromise possible under Roe?

With that in mind, Democrats who want to see the pro-life left and pro-life middle liberated once again to back Democratic candidates may want to read this recent column — “Support Choice, Not Roe” — by that noted Religious Right patriarch Richard Cohen of The Washington Post.

Dr  Strangelove  more Slim Pickens 2I realize that many of you have already seen this piece. Still, for those who have not, Cohen raised many, may eyebrows inside the Beltway way, way up high when he wrote:

The antiabortion movement has made headway. That shift in sentiment is not apparent in polls because they do not measure doubt, only position: for or against. But between one and the other, black or white, is a vast area of gray where up or down, yes or no, fades to questions about circumstance: Why, what month, etc.? Whatever the case, the very basis of the Roe v. Wade decision — the one that grounds abortion rights in the Constitution — strikes many people now as faintly ridiculous. Whatever abortion may be, it cannot simply be a matter of privacy.

Here we go (with the second piece of art offering a tribute to young master Jeremy Lott): Bombs away.

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LAT splurges on Islam trend stories

islamMaybe it’s just that time of the year for the Los Angeles Times, but two stories over the past few days covering remarkably similar subjects seem a bit more than a coincidence.

The first, reporting from Rome on page A-1, fails in that it tells me little I don’t already know, but it does succeed in showing me what I’ve already been told, which is a positive (for those of you who attended journalism school, think “show, don’t tell”).

Here’s the section that was my personal highlight of what was essentially a well-reported story on Muslims living in Italy:

The conversation turns to faith and tradition, the difficulty of maintaining a native cultural identity while trying to blend into an assumed one.

Perhaps surprisingly, Manel does not rebel when her parents declare that she will have to marry a Muslim — obligatory in the daughter’s case, they add, but not so in the sons’.

“It’s not about me,” Manel says. “The religion says a girl can’t marry a non-Muslim. Years ago it was a death penalty for breaking the rules. Now it’s not death but. …”

The adults point out that ingrained social pressure is in part responsible for their opinion — what would the relatives think if Manel married outside the faith?

On that note, Manel does protest. “Arabs are too worried about what other people think,” she says. Islam “is a very pro-masculine religion.”

Magdy is adamant: “Good or bad, correct or mistaken, you have to keep your religion.”

This segment brings a whole slew of examples of a personal nature to mind. I find it all a bit humorous, the whole marriage issue (My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham come to mind), but it’s a serious social issue that Europe’s Muslims will struggle with. Manel will marry a Muslim as her parents wish her too, but will her children? What type of social tensions will this create or possibly alleviate?

The second LAT story, on Latino Muslims, is a good example of The Big Local Paper finally digging out that story that everybody’s been aware for a while. Here’s the essence of the piece, which appeared in the Beliefs section:

Muslims throughout the world are observing Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and repentance. For many Latino Muslims in Southern California, it is also a time to celebrate Islam’s diversity and their conversion to a religion still struggling against intolerance in the overwhelmingly Christian United States. This year, the holy month started the first week of October.

The American Muslim Council estimates that there are about 40,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S. Local Muslims say there are about 1,000 Latino Muslims in Southern California, but that an accurate count is difficult because Islam is a decentralized religion.

The Los Angeles Latino Muslim Assn., founded in 1999, hopes to find converts through an outreach program to introduce Islam to the millions of Latinos living in the city. The group meets at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, and on Sundays during Ramadan members break their dawn-to-sunset fast together at the Vermont Avenue facility. The group also meets at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Los Angeles.

The big glaring error in this one was the “intolerance in the overwhelming Christian United States” line. Sure, the U.S. is majority Christian, but intolerant? There are social tensions, but what do you expect, or want? Even the Dutch are reconsidering their hyper-tolerant society. Such a strong statement should be backed up, but the article completely fails to show real incidents of intolerance.

The example used in the piece at the beginning — of a Catholic-turned-Marxist-turned-Muslim — is fascinating to consider, and one wonders if the Muslim faith has any chance of making serious inroads into the Latino community. There is a heavy emphasis at the end on the similarities these Muslims find with their Christian faith. In fact, the word “Jesus” is used five times in the final half of the story.

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