Back in the USSR! Izvestia on the Crimea

Save for Mitt Romney, no one — in my opinion, at least — appears likely to benefit from the Anschluss in the Crimea. Not only has the annexation of the Crimea by Russia been a blow to the Ukraine, it has underscored the fecklessness of the EU and President Obama while also pointing to the structural weakness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

And it is really, really bad news for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bet that line caught you by surprise. When the crisis in the Ukraine first arose, GetReligion chided western newspapers for omitting the religion angle to the conflict. The press eventually caught up to what most Ukrainians knew about the interplay of religion, politics and ethnicity, but only after pictures of Orthodox and Catholic clergy acting as human shields to halt clashes between police and protesters in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev flashed round the world via the wire services.

And when monks from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) opened their cathedral near the Maidan to the wounded, turning the church into an unofficial headquarters for the anti-Moscow protestors, even the Western press took notice.

The religion angle of the unraveling of the Ukraine continues to be under reported in the West, but it is emerging in reports out of Eastern Europe. Last week Izvestia reported that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) would not turn over its parishes in the Crimea to the Russian Orthodox Church now that the Crimea is once more part of Russia.

But before we dive into this article let’s say a few words about Izvestia. In the bad old days (good old days), from 1917 to 1991 Izvestia (which means Reports in English) was the official newspaper of record of the Presidium — the Soviet Government. Its formal title was Reports of Soviets of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR. Pravda was the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Izvestia was privatized but then purchased by oligarchs close to the regime. While not an official government organ, it does represent the views and voices of Putin’s regime.

Reading Izvestia and Pravda in the olden days was an art form — part astrology part psychoanalysis. There was always some truth to be found and for those with an eye and ear for the nuances of the regime Izvestia was a pretty good guide to what the people at the top believed to be true or were debating amongst themselves. (Which is not the same thing as truth itself, but I digress).

The paper still performs this role to a lesser extent. I make no claims of expertise in the intricacies of palace politics in Putin’s Russia, keeping track of the Byzantine ways of the Anglican Communion is a full time job for me, and it may well be this piece in Izvestia is a straight news story. Or does it reveal a discussion taking place within the Kremlim?

Patheos will not let me use Cyrillic script on this page, preventing me from pulling the direct lines from the story. But in a nutshell, the article says Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) will seek to register its dioceses in the Crimea with Moscow as religious entities separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches located in the Ukraine and under the ecclesiastical authority of Moscow — told Izvestia that they had not decided whether to move from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) to the Russian Orthodox Church.
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Preachers and politics: Be careful out there folks …

Today’s digest from the Religion News Service (sign up for this very helpful service, if you have not already done so) points readers toward a very important story in the wake of this year’s White House race. Come to think of it, this story has been highly relevant in every single national election year since, oh, 1973. Here is the short RNS blurb for this story:

Church-state and atheist groups have long complained about churches endorsing candidates; now they’re going to court in a bid to force the IRS to do something about it.

The key word in that statement? The answer is “candidates.”

Thus, the actual RNS news report, as it should, provides the following crucial information:

IRS rules state that organizations classified as 501 (c) (3) non-profits — a tax-exempt status most churches and other religious institutions claim — cannot participate or intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any political candidate.” …

IRS rules do allow for some nonpartisan activity by religious institutions, including organizing members to vote and speaking out on issues. But endorsing or supporting specific candidates could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

Thus, it is acceptable for religious organizations to discuss the specific doctrinal stands taken by their faith and then to apply them to specific issues in the public square. It’s fine for African-American congregations to tell members that the God of Holy Scripture demands that his people fight to defend the poor and the weak. It’s fine for Catholic bishops to tell their flocks that, for those in sacramental relationships with ancient churches, it is a sin to support the killing of unborn children and the unnatural deaths of the elderly.

But this is where things get interesting, in light of the new lawsuits by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and others. Thus, the RNS report notes:

The lawsuit … challenges the legality of several full-page newspaper advertisements paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, another 501 (c) (3), that exhorted voters to vote along “biblical principles.”

Other complaints include:

– Roman Catholic Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote an appeal on diocesan letterhead inserted in parish bulletins warning voters that they could “put their own soul in jeopardy” if they voted for a party or candidate that supports same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

– Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who criticized President Obama in a homily and then exhorted parishioners that “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences.”

– Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who, in an article appearing in the local diocesan newspaper, wrote of “non-negotiable” political issues, and that “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’ ”

Now, that second Catholic case — the Jenky case — is interesting. One must assume that it would also be illegal for pastors in African-Americans to praise Obama and then to urge the faithful to vote according to their consciences.

In light of surveys from the Pew Research Center, it does appear that journalists need to be probing these issues on both sides of church aisles. We know that it is illegal for churches to endorse specific candidates by name, which, for example, the Graham advertisements did not do. We also know that it is legal for churches to preach on specific issues, to relate them to church teachings, and then to remind their members what actions their churches consider sinful and what actions they consider to be faithful to scripture and tradition (whether we are talking about the environment, the death penalty, health care, abortion, gay rights or whatever).

This chunk of the Pew report is long, but essential reading:

While many regular churchgoers say they have been encouraged to vote by their clergy, relatively few say church leaders are discussing the candidates directly or favoring one candidate over the other. Black Protestants are far more likely than white Protestants or Catholics to say they are hearing about the candidates and the importance of voting, and the messages they are hearing overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama.

Among those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, about half (52%) say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting over the past few months. Just one-in-five (19%) say their clergy have spoken about the candidates themselves, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) black Protestant churchgoers say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting, compared with about half of white evangelical Protestant (52%) and white Catholic (46%) churchgoers. Only about a third (32%) of white mainline Protestants who attend services say their clergy have discussed the importance of voting.

Black Protestants are twice as likely as churchgoers overall to be hearing about the candidates at church. Among regular churchgoers, four-in-ten (40%) black Protestants say their clergy have spoken directly about the candidates, compared with 17% of white Catholics, 12% of white evangelicals and just 5% of white mainline Protestants.

Most regular churchgoers say the messages they are hearing in church are neutral when it comes to the 2012 election — whether or not they mention the candidates directly. Only about three-in-ten say what they are hearing at church is more supportive of one candidate or the other. Among those who feel their clergy’s messages favor a candidate, roughly equal numbers say the messages support Obama (15%) as Romney (14%).

What people are hearing varies greatly by race. Nearly half (45%) of black Protestant churchgoers say the messages they hear at church favor a candidate, and every one of those says the message favors Obama. Fewer white churchgoers say they are hearing things that favor a candidate, but among those who are, the messages are far more favorable to Romney than Obama. In particular, white evangelical churchgoers say their clergy have tended to be more supportive of Romney (26%) than Obama (5%). Among white Catholic churchgoers, 21% say their clergy’s messages have been more supportive of Romney, compared with 4% who say the messages have been more supportive of Obama.

What, precisely, does it mean to say that sermons “favor a candidate” or that they are “more” supportive of one candidate or another?

This is where journalists must be very, very precise about the actual language that preachers are using. Is it illegal for a black pastor to urge church members to vote for the candidate who will best understand the concerns of African-Americans, in a race involving a black candidate? Is it illegal for a Catholic priest to remind parishioners that abortion is intrinsically evil in a race in which one candidate has a muddled record on sanctity of life issues and the other has one of the most faithfully pro-abortion-rights records possible in American politics? It’s easy to do similar equations when dealing with other cultural, moral and political issues that, beyond all doubt, are linked to centuries of doctrine.

Journalists must remember that activists on both sides — left and right — are wrestling with these issues. Be careful out there, because God is in the details and the same is true of the First Amendment.

Stay tuned.

Red-state American in her natural habitat

I gotta admit: Just a few sentences into this Washington Post feature on post-election Red America and I was already worried.

I just knew that this was going to be one of those sarcastic, elite-reporter-gets-to-know-ignorant-people-in-the-sticks kind of stories (i.e., see the pretty zoo animals with “Mitt Romney” campaign buttons):

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — She arrived early to take apart the campaign office piece by piece, just as she felt so many other things about her life were being dismantled. Beth Cox wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt, a cross around her neck and fresh eyeliner, even though she had been crying on and off and knew her makeup was likely to run. A day after the election, she tuned the radio to Glenn Beck and began pulling posters and American flags off the wall.

Her calendar read “Victory Day!!” and she had planned to celebrate in the office by hosting a dance party and selling Romney souvenirs. But instead she was packing those souvenirs into boxes, which would be donated to a charity that sent clothes to South America. Instead a moving company was en route to close down the office in the next 48 hours, and her friends were calling every few minutes to see how she was doing.

“I will be okay,” she told one caller. “I just don’t think we will be okay.”

Next comes the nut graf:

Here in the heart of Red America, Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama’s reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.

(An aside before we move on: Central Tennessee? Is there such a place outside of a Beltway newspaper page? Folks familiar at all with Tennessee know that it has three grand divisions: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.)

As I kept reading, I kept seeing signposts indicating a strong religion angle to this 1,800-word, front-page feature. “Values and beliefs” were referenced. The Romney supporter was described as “prayerful.” Her causes were “at the heart of her faith.” She counseled young married families “at church.”

I started marking up my printout of the story, prepared to point out the holy ghosts.

But then something strange happened: I actually began to like the story — and the flair with which the writer revealed important details all along the way. My initial concern that this would be a cardboard-cutout portrayal of a mindless social conservative mostly disappeared. Instead, the focus on a single voter allowed the writer adequate space to intertwine nuggets of nuance:

She blamed some of the divisiveness on Republicans. The party had gotten “way too white,” she said, and she hoped it would never again run a presidential ticket without including a woman or a minority. The tea party was an extremist movement that needed to be “neutralized,” she said, and Romney’s campaign had suffered irreparable damage when high-profile Republicans spoke about “crazy immigration talk and legitimate rape.”

But many other aspects of the division seemed fundamental and harder to solve. There was the America of increased secularism that legalized marijuana. And there was her America, where her two teenage daughters are not allowed to read “Harry Potter” or “Twilight,” and where one of them wrote in a school paper: “God is the center and the main foundation of my family.”

There was the America of gay marriage and the America of her Southern Baptist church, where 7,000 came to listen on Sundays, and where church literature described marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

That reference to church literature strikes me as a bit awkward because I suspect that the church would attribute that belief to a different source.

Later in the story, the reporter follows the woman to a small-group prayer meeting at the church and backs out of the way (letting the dialogue itself tell the story):

“The world will tell you to be so many things,” she advised them, and on this night she talked to them about the importance of preserving life, the sanctity of marriage, the advantages of raising children at home and the importance of “relying on family, and on your core values, and not on the government.”

“It’s not an easy road to be a Christian, and if it was, everybody would be on it,” she said. She passed out blank white note cards and asked each woman to write down a worry to surrender to God. Then, before closing, she asked what they wanted to pray for.

“Our president,” said one, and the women in the group nodded.

“Our values,” said another.

“All people in our country who are lost.”

“The soul of America.”

“Amen,” Cox said.

This is not a perfect narrative, and some questions go unanswered (such as the name of the church and the specific role of Cox’s vaguely referenced pastor husband).

But all in all, this piece converted me. Mark me down as a believer in this particular Post story.

Broken heart image via Shutterstock

Which religious group should be blamed for the election results?

Well, everyone, we made it through another presidential campaign year! Congratulations to the winners and condolences to the losers and all that.

With the election over, we’re now in the stage of the airing of grievances and assigning of blame.

It’s usually much easier to do this than this year, where the campaign wasn’t about big issues. Or as it was put in this fantastic Washington Post piece explaining how Obama won:

The campaign bore almost no resemblance to the expansive one Obama waged in 2008 — by strategic choice and by financial necessity. Without the clear financial advantage it had last time, Obama’s campaign relied more on the tools of micro-marketing than on the oratorical gifts of the nation’s first black president.

Gone were the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago. Instead the president focused on Romney. Meanwhile, his campaign spoke early and often with “persuadable” voters, selected for targeted e-mails and doorstep visits through demographic data unavailable last time.

“We turned a national election into a school-board race,” a second senior Obama campaign official said.

Before the effort to define Romney began, before they even knew for certain Romney would be the opponent, the Obama campaign laid the groundwork for victory in a race that would be won in the margins of a polarized electorate.

The lack of big issues led, perhaps, to an obsession with polls. That obsession continues as journalists look to exit polls for meaning. The New York Times has a great interactive page with election information. It begins with the note:

Most of the nation shifted to the right in Tuesday’s vote, but not far enough to secure a win for Mitt Romney.

Weird, right? Most of the nation shifts to the right but the big story is that the right lost. Big time. How to make sense of that? The first thing I might suggest is caution. Whether it’s on election night or the first few heady days after, people are desperate to make sense of things. But sometimes it takes a while for actual vote totals to come in or good local data that explain particular elections.

Just for instance … I really enjoyed this Denver Post/Eric Gorski piece about the Pew data, which mentioned:

The initial speculation and preliminary evidence was white evangelicals and other conservative Christians might not enthusiastically support Romney, either for theological or other reasons, [University of Akron political scientist John] Green noted. Ultimately, though, exit polls showed nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Romney, an improvement over John McCain’s 73 percent in 2008 and on par with George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Romney received less support from his fellow Mormons than allegedly skeptical white evangelicals – although it was just 1 percentage point less.

That’s fascinating, no? The evangelical voters increased their support for the GOP candidate in 2012 over 2008 and 2004? And Mormon support was below that of white evangelicals? Crazy! (The piece also has great discussions on the “nones” and why Obama lost seven points among white Catholics — Green suggests the “religious liberty” issue was a factor.)

But what we also need to know are whether those percentages reflect changes in the actual voters. Meaning, did some evangelicals sit out the election this year? And did Mormons come out to vote more than usual? Both of those things could have happened as well. Or not. We’ll have to wait a bit to find that out. Going back to that New York Times map mentioned above, it shows that the country went more Republican everywhere with a few exceptions. One of those areas was the South. Is that partly a religion story? I don’t know. (There’s some great analysis on these questions here.)

One interesting approach taken by Religion News Service was the piece headlined “What’s next for religious conservatives?” Even though the Romney campaign was laser-focused on the economy at the expense of getting out the vote over social conservatism or other issues Americans care about, the piece suggests that the problem lies with … social conservatives. It includes lines such as:

The electorate today is increasingly Latino, and younger, and both those groups are turned off by anything that smacks of righteous moralizing.

I only wish that young people were turned off by anything that smacked of righteous moralizing. But the ratings success of Glee would suggest otherwise. As for this claim that Latinos are all turned off by, um, “anything that smacks of righteous moralizing” … I’m not quite sure how to respond to it. I mean, maybe it’s true. Maybe Latinos were turned off of Romney (and the GOP) not because of his comments about self-deportation, or his lack of outreach to them, or this (from ABC/Univision):

Nationally, 74 percent of Latino voters said that Romney did not care about Latinos or was outwardly hostile to them, with a whopping 56 percent believing the latter. Compare that to what Latino voters thought of President Obama: 66 percent said he truly cares about Latinos.

But maybe RNS is right and the failure to crack 35 percent of the Latino vote — which one analysis says would have changed the outcome of the entire election — had something to do with social conservatism. Journalistically, though, it would be better to substantiate claims such as this about youth and Latinos rather than just assert it without any evidence.

This was an interesting election and one that, despite how narrowly divided the country is, had some decisive results with serious implications for religious adherents and the issues they care about. But it’s always good to proceed with caution when trying to make sense of why voters made the decisions they did.

Note: Please keep comments focused on media coverage as opposed to personal political preferences, etc.

Recriminations image via Shutterstock.

Evangelicals warming to Mormon Romney?

YouTube Preview ImageA recent front-page Los Angeles Times story makes the case that reluctant evangelical Christian voters are warming to Mormon Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee.

Or, should I say, the story purports to make that case.

The headline and deck:

Evangelical support grows for Romney

Overcoming concerns about Romney’s Mormon faith, conservative white Christians, buoyed by a massive outreach effort, get behind the GOP challenger.

Presumably, the writer traveled to Colorado to write this story because it features a Colorado Springs dateline:

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Celebration Church sits tucked away in the corner of a repurposed shopping mall, one of the more modest venues for worship in this city of booming megachurches and superstar preachers. It has no cafe, bookstore or multimedia wizardry, but it compensates with warmth, friendliness and an especially erudite pastor who has a day job as an entrepreneur.

Still, the message from the pulpit on Sundays this month is not so different from that being heard in conservative evangelical churches across America. “When you vote,” Pastor Barry Farah tells his flock, “you have to vote responsibly.” And that, he says, means supporting “biblical principles.”

Farah hasn’t endorsed a candidate, nor does he need to. It doesn’t take a theologian or seer to figure out which presidential candidate is closer in line with biblical principles as he describes them — principles that translate into opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and support for school choice and limited government.

Hope you enjoyed your quick visit to Colorado, fellow readers, because that’s all the time you’ll spend there until a couple of bare-bones quotes at the end.

As for the “especially erudite pastor,” the above three paragraphs represent the full extent of his cameo appearance in this front-page news story.

I’m not a theologian or a seer, but I must admit that I need a few more details to understand what Farah means by supporting “biblical principles.” How exactly did he describe those principles? Did he mention abortion/same-sex marriage/school choice/limited government specifically? If not, how did the reporter decide which candidate is closer in line?

Also, since the story is supposedly about evangelicals who once had concerns about Romney and his Mormon faith but no longer do, has Farah’s position on the Republican candidate changed in recent months? If so, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the reporter to quote the pastor on how his outlook has changed? If not, what’s the point of featuring him up so high in this story? Seriously, it would be nice if the Times gave some clue as to why this particular church and pastor were chosen for the spotlight amid all the “booming megachurches and superstar preachers” in Colorado Springs.

In a story full of unattributed generalizations (in the old days, we called it “editorialization”), the Times quotes Romney advocates who claim he has gained support among evangelicals. But the piece provides no polling data to confirm that. (For those new to journalism, attribution means providing a named source to answer the question, “How do you know that?” That, by the way, does not seem to be a question asked that frequently by Times editors.)

Meanwhile, here’s the entire rest of the story from the Colorado church:

Celebration Church members who were interviewed said they planned to vote for Romney in part because they agree with him on social issues, in part because they believe he is best equipped to turn around the economy, and in part because they are unhappy with Obama.

John Chinnock, 62, manager of an environmental cleanup company, said he sided with Romney on social issues but believed the economy was the most important matter in this election. Obama, he said, is trying to make the country more like Europe, “where the government stresses the direction of where the economy is supposed to go.”

Chinnock said he had no problem voting for a Mormon. “Not all the Founding Fathers were Christians,” he said. “Some of them were Unitarians; some of them were Deists. … But they did believe in inalienable rights — that is, rights that come from God.”

So, there you go. A front-page story in a major American newspaper on once-leery evangelicals changing their mind about a Mormon candidate. The only thing missing: an actual evangelical who changed his/her mind on Romney.

If Romney is ‘not one of us,’ who is this ‘us’?

YouTube Preview Image

Inside the ultimate Beltway, everyone is talking about Ohio.

Which is why I am surprised at how The Washington Post has decided to play a very interesting political-ad story from that crucial swing state. Of course, the Post team also deserves some credit for publishing the story in the first place, even if the A4 location, with no art, is a bit on the strange side given the report’s explosive content. By the way, where is The New York Times on the story? Have I missed something? Just asking.

Here’s the crucial question, for me: When it comes to Mitt Romney, the public figure, which factors dominate his public image? First and foremost, are we talking about race, social class or, well, religion?

So here’s the top of the Post report, which opens with a direct quote lede:

“Mitt Romney. Not one of us.”

That’s the tag line to a tough new ad that the Obama campaign is airing in Ohio. But ironically, it echoes a slogan that has been used as a racial code over at least the past half-century.

The context of the Obama ad is very different from some others, in which the phrase “one of us” was used to divide voters along racial lines, but conservative commentators have quickly seized on it.

President Obama’s critics said the fact that he would use such loaded language in the hard-fought Ohio race shows how much he has changed since his famous “one America” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, in which he denounced “those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.”

The key, of course, is the meaning of the term “us” in the advertisement. So, who is this “us” crowd?

The story makes it clear — accurately — that the text of this ad (shown above) focuses on economic issues in the hard-hit Ohio economy. At the same time, the Post story notes the long and ugly racial history of this “not one of us” slogan in American politics. This is explosive stuff, in a campaign that has racial and class-warfare overtones.

Yet, what about religion? Surely the creators of the ad knew that — on the religious and secular left and among African-Americans — Romney’s leadership role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a hot-button topic. The minute I saw this headline, I wondered how long it would take the Post team to ask if the Obama team was playing the Mormon card.

More than half-way into the story, there is this:

Obama, the nation’s first black president, has himself been a target of insinuations of otherness, including false but widely circulated suggestions that he was not born in this country and that he is a Muslim. During this presidential campaign, his allies say, they have seen racial coding in accusations that Obama is a “food stamp president” and in popular tea party slogans such as “Take back our country.”

Romney has faced mistrust and prejudice as well, regarding his Mormon faith.

Other than this reference, the entire story focuses on the history of “not one of us” being used as racial code language.

That is, in fact, the old news angle on that phrase. The question for the current news cycle is different: If this slogan is not, in this case, a reference to race — which would be highly unlikely — then how is the term “us” being used this time around? Try to imagine the vehemence with which this question would have been explored if the Romney team had used this slogan in swing states such as Colorado or Virginia.

So, kudos to the Post team for having the courage to run this story, even if it’s on A4 without art. At the same time, I’d like to ask why the Mormon card angle isn’t in the lede, along with the class-warfare angle that actually dominates the ad text? Why bury the religion angle? Who focus on the old story from the past, rather than what appears to be the actual story in this campaign?

This is not quite a “religion ghost” story. It was a close call, however. Too close, for my news tastes.