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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True or false: Religious Right defeated Miers?

bush jesusRegular readers of GetReligion may recall one of my tenets for MSM coverage of religion, politics and culture: The Religious Right must lose. Or stated the other way, above all else, the Religious Right must not be allowed to win.

It is easy, if you keep that in mind, to understand why the MSM seems so confused right now in the wake of the Harriet Miers nomination and all that came in its wake.

Did the Religious Right back Miers? Yes.

Did the Religious Right oppose Miers? Yes.

Did the old-guard mainstream right (including some who back abortion rights) back Miers? Yes.

Did the old-guard mainstream right (including some who back abortion rights) oppose Miers? Yes.

Now the question everyone is trying to answer, right now: When she withdrew, did the Religious Right win or lose?

Stay with me for one more question. If the Religious Right won this battle, forcing Miers to withdraw, that means that the Religious Right defeated the team of President George W. Bush and Dr. James Dobson (the living symbol of the Religious Right). Correct? Or perhaps, the Religious Right managed to defeat the evil liberal President Bush when information dug out by the MSM convinced Dobson to turn against Miers?

See how confusing this is?

With all of that in mind, you are ready to read a very confusing piece by Kevin Merida in today’s Washington Post titled “Miers, the Rebellion’s Latest Casualty: Why the Right Never Surrenders, Or Declares Victory.”

This piece gets one thing right. Yes, there are people who are conservatives first and Republicans second. But it seems that Merida waved a white flag when it came time to understanding the role that faith and moral issues have played in the modern “conservative movement” (as if there is only one). He also seems to have no idea that there are some moral and cultural conservatives who are not Republicans at all. They are independents or conservative (often Catholic, Hispanic or African-American) Democrats.

It’s all so confusing, which is why Merida tells us:

Democrats certainly have their noisy scrums — the left is either angry at the center for acting like Republicans or the center is blaming the left for election debacles. But the Republican right seems to have a special, disciplined vigilance when it comes to internal warfare. Where else can you find the ironic spectacle of a House speaker being shown the guillotine by the very crew of conservative revolutionaries he created? That was Newt Gingrich’s fate in 1998, forced to resign after leading Republicans to the first House majority in four decades.

After reneging on his read-my-lips pledge of “no new taxes,” then-President George H.W. Bush found himself hissed and hounded by conservatives and ultimately undermined as he went on to lose his 1992 reelection bid. Even the beloved Ronald Reagan got smacked from time to time by his brethren on the right. An all-star lineup of conservatives went after him over his dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his support of a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, went so far as to call the Gipper a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Three decades later, phoning in from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, Phillips said: “My loyalty is not to any political personality or any political party.”

BushFaithLG

My friends, there is a ghost in there — a great big one.

So I will ask one more question, a question that we may or may not know the answer to in a day or so when the tricky President Bush selects another nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is: Is President Bush a cultural conservative or not?

This is a question I have been asking since 2000, when I wrote the following paragraphs. They come from an essay that I wrote in the middle of election day, before the real craziness began. I wrote this for Salon, but the editors turned it down. I guess it was the wrong kind of diversity.

The essay ended up running (wait for it) in World magazine. I guess Marvin Olasky was more open-minded. The headline was “A sad Democrat votes.”

Let me be candid. I didn’t vote for George W. Bush because I am convinced that he is genuinely pro-life. I have no idea whether he will, in fact, spend any of his precious political poker chips, when push comes to shove, to try to stop abortions or to help the women who are ensnared in crisis pregnancies in a society that mainly wishes they would go away.

I also think Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney are going to march to a basically libertarian drum when it comes to other cultural issues. I think they will be in the middle of the road, watching the polling data, when it comes to sexuality. They aren’t going to stomp on gays and lesbians, even though there will be howls from the Lifestyle Left if any efforts are made to withhold the government’s blessings from active support of their causes in the arts, education, and law. I think the Religious Right can prepare to be disappointed, along with the Lifestyle Left.

And I think Mr. Bush’s court appointees will be much like his picks in Texas — country-club conservatives who come out of the mainstream of American law schools. They’ll probably split 50-50 on the divisive moral issues, just like the folks selected by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

So is Bush a cultural conservative or a company man from the country club? Can the MSM admit that this is the ghost haunting the headlines?

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More on Rice’s return to Rome

AnneRice smI cannot tell you how many times I have had readers ask me why so many religion-news stories seem to turn on the issue of homosexuality.

Actually, the issue at the heart of all this is broader — the moral status of sex outside of marriage and the sexual revolution in general. Behind that looms a mountain range of towering issues linked to ancient Christian doctrines, traditions and biblical authority. But it’s the fights over gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered that are getting the headlines right now. That’s what is making news.

For example, consider this update on the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc’s recent post about the religious revival in the life of the controversial Anne “Interview With the Vampire” Rice. Her new book is titled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and it is the first installment in a series on the life of Jesus.

Rice made news with her testimony that she has returned to the Roman Catholic faith. However, you just knew that sexuality questions had to be in there somewhere.

This is not surprising, since her writings have always been popular in the gay community. It is also not surprising that sexuality shows up in a lengthy report in The New York Times. Reporter Laura Millier is writing a feature story about Rice’s new home in California, yet we still get to learn:

In 1998 Ms. Rice rejoined the Roman Catholic Church for the first time since suffering a “total breakdown of faith” at age 18. “That was in 1960, before Vatican II, and I was a very strictly brought-up Catholic,” she explained. “I lost my faith because what I had been taught was so wrong.” An overwhelming desire to “return to the banquet table” and assurances from a priest in New Orleans that she didn’t have to resolve all her differences with the church (most notably over the issue of homosexuality) led to the reconciliation.

Well now, I wonder — when these books reach the adult life of Jesus — what we will learn about his relationship with Mary Magdalene? I would not be surprised in Rice’s series turns out to be a major event on the Christian left.

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The return of St. Mad Max

chichenSo Mel Gibson’s next movie is in the Mayan language, but the title (Apocalypto) is the Greek word for “a new beginning.”

It’s about the rise and fall of civilizations, and it would seem that Gibson may be able to have the Maya empire fall before the Catholic missionaries and Spanish conquistadors arrive on the scene. But who knows? Rare is the movie that can make Alpha Males scratch their heads in Hollywood, Colorado Springs and (probably) Rome.

We do know that it’s going to be bloody and the creator of The Passion of the Christ may turn the movie into some kind of parable about the modern world.

As you would expect, the Los Angeles Times had a reporter at the Veracruz, Mexico, press conference in which a bearded Gibson tried to explain his latest renegade, self-funded project. Reporter Reed Johnson made an admirable attempt to stay away from speculation on how this new film will be marketed to born-again Christians and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics who love warfare and rituals that involve lots of knives.

But there is a hint at the end of his newsy report about the debates that may pop up in the future.

… (While) violence may be an unavoidable ingredient in a story about a civilization in conflict, so too is a quest for understanding, he indicated. Immersing himself in the Maya world, after the Judeo-Christian worldview of “The Passion,” has been “kind of this anthropological journey.”

“It’s amazing, it’s fascinating, and it makes your brain work overtime. In fact, you meet yourself coming and going. I mean, there are some questions that you simply can’t answer. But that doesn’t stop the search.”

Stay tuned. We have not heard from Frank Rich yet.

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Help Jeremy find pop hypocrites

frank02I’m on the road in Kansas City. Can you imagine a national journalism conference with no WiFi? Frustrating.

Anyway, I did manage to notice (hat tip to Amy Welborn, yet again) that young master Jeremy Lott has issued a public call for help as he researches the mass-media angles of his upcoming book on the virtues of hypocrisy. His appeal does not have a strong news hook, unless some link this to Karl Rove, but I think GetReligion readers will find it fun anyway.

Dive in! Help out this young journalist! He writes:

… (This) is one of my rare requests for advice. The fourth chapter of my book will wrestle with hypocrisy in Hollywood. I’m looking for two kinds of information:

1) Quotes by celebs condemning hypocrites or hypocrisy. If you send these in, please identify the source of the quotation.

2) Famous hypocrites in film. Obvious candidates include Captain Renault in Casablanca, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, and Steve Martin in Leap of Faith.

Have at it folks. My e-mail address is JEREMYAL123 — AT — YAHOO — DOT — COM.

OK, I’ll take the challenge. Let’s assume that by “Hollywood” Jeremy means either television or film. If that is the case, I would argue that the most famous and, in some ways, influential hypocrite in the pop-culture era of the Baby Boomers would have to be Maj. Frank Burns of M*A*S*H.

All the key elements are there — a stupid white male conservative who thinks of himself as a puritan while shagging a nearby blonde hypocrite who is later liberated to become a brilliant feminist by the brilliant sensitive liberals (whether faithfully married or gleefully unmarried).

I think Frank Burns, in many ways, was just as powerful a figure as Archie Bunker.

The challenge in this thread is going to be nominating people who are not carbon copies of the old Elmer Gantry template. Jump in, readers. At the very least, let’s come up with a dozen or so five-star pop-culture hypocrites. Let’s go for superstars and not sink into Jim and Tammy Bakker territory.

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