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Primary postcards from South Carolina (1)

24 Jan

The four GOP candidates debated in Charleston, S.C.: Santorum, Romney, Gingrich and Paul. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his put-down of the "elite media" after moderator John King opened with a question about Gingrich's open marriage.

We need to read only a few descriptions of South Carolina politics before a few c-words keep coming up: combative, conservative and Christian.

So what did religion have to do with Newt Gingrich’s primary victory in South Carolina on Saturday?

Not a lot.

When it came to pulling the lever, voters who identified themselves as Christians, and specifically as evangelicals, pulled for Gingrich, a converted Roman Catholic. long-time Washington insider and confessed serial adulterer.

He beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily, 40 percent to 28 percent. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the candidate endorsed by a group of 150 evangelical leaders a week before, finished a distant third. “I like Santorum personally,” one pastor told me, “but he’s not strong enough” to beat the president. So much for the power of formal evangelical endorsements.

Gingrich, on the other hand, made the case that he’d be the Republican tough and distinctive enough to defeat President Obama in November. And getting Obama out of the White House was the top agenda item on GOP minds in South Carolina.

By 9:30 Saturday morning, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist at Erskine College, knew the day would belong to the former Speaker of the House. Last-minute polls placed Gingrich up by 7 or 8 percentage points. Those were low-ball figures, it turned out. Only a week earlier, Romney was leading.

Gingrich’s turnaround came after one of his ex-wives revealed two days before the voting that he had asked for an “open marriage.” Instead of running away from the revelation, Gingrich turned it into an attack on the news media. At the Thursday-night debate, CNN correspondent and moderator John King gave the candidate an easy target by leading with a question about the affair. Gingrich went after King and blasted the “liberal media elite” (always a safe play). “That sealed the deal,” Woodiwiss said. “We like strong personalities.”

No kidding. South Carolina, after all, gave us Tea-Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Joe Wilson (famous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech to Congress about health care) and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond—not to mention the opening scene of the War Between the States, AKA the Civil War. South Carolina can be combative, remember.

Gingrich won every county in the state, except for a few around the largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, which Romney claimed. Gingrich took several of the most rural, far-flung counties by two-to-one margins.

I spent the day in Greenwood, a small town about 55 miles south of Greenville, to talk about religion and politics. The town is home to Lander University and about 23,000 residents, almost evenly white and black, according to the 2010 census.

It’s also home to one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (well over 10 percent), one of the highest and fastest-growing poverty rates in the country (about 38 percent), and one of the lowest high school graduation rates (about 30 percent of adults don’t have the diploma). By just about every economic and educational measure, Greenwood makes the rest of the state look strong.

I spoke to more than dozen people on Saturday, including a few Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Mormon couple. Most, however, were Southern Baptists. (That generally fits the profile of Greenwood County, which boasts at least 116 congregations for about 69,000 residents.)

By no means a scientific sampling, but only one person expressed the slightest concern about Romney’s Mormon faith, and none felt misgivings about Santorum’s and Gingrich’s Catholicism. Ron Paul attends a Baptist church in Texas, but that didn’t win him any of these particular votes. Serious doctrinal differences counted for almost nothing. Denominational identity counted for even less.

As for Gingrich’s moral baggage, Alvin Hodges, the senior pastor of Rice Memorial Baptist Church (and a South Carolina native), summed up the consensus view: Gingrich confessed, apologized and “tried to make it right. It’s not an issue now.” All is forgiven.

“Values voters are as pragmatic as anyone,” Woodiwiss, the political scientist, pointed out. “The No. 1 goal (for Republicans) is to beat Obama. Who’s best to beat him? It’s about ideology, not theology.”

More postcards to come …

Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

2 Mar

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

Don’t be surprised: An Alabama governor, Irish bishops, and a certain Florida pastor

23 Jan

You remember Gomer Pyle, don't you? "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

From this week’s news, file the following under “Don’t Be Surprised”:

1. The newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself immediately in public-relations hot water after telling a church audience on Martin Luther King Day that only Christians were his brothers and sisters. The new governor, who’s a Southern Baptist, apologized to his constituents two days later. Theologically, he’s very much in line with mainstream evangelical theology — that is, that Christians have been uniquely adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. But any suggestion of being exclusive or of favoring one group of constituents over another is not politically savvy — or even that advisable at the duly elected leader of all the people of Alabama.

2. The Vatican shouldn’t be surprised (and most likely isn’t) that the disclosure of a confidential letter from a Vatican official in 1997 to Irish bishops re-opened wounds, sparked yet more controversy about clerical abuse and was mostly misunderstood if not altogether falsely reported. The letter, obtained by an Irish TV network and released to the Associated Press, warned the bishops of likely consequences if they followed through with their proposed policy of reporting all charges of child abuse to police. Victims groups and at least one American lawyer who is working to sue the Vatican on behalf of a victim, said the letter was a “smoking gun” that proved the Holy See was encouraging a cover-up.

The Vatican said the letter simply alerted Irish clerics that their proposed policies had implications under both civil and church law, but it never advised them not to report abuse. Reading the one-and-a-half page letter, it looks like the Vatican has a point. To judge by the coverage, especially when it first hit the headlines, some of the reporters on this story either didn’t understand “Vaticanspeak” and the workings of Roman Catholic Church machinery — or they didn’t want to. (To read about the problems with the reporting on this story, check out this post, which gives me a chance for a shout-out to friends at the Get Religion blog, a good place to find critique of how the mainstream media covers religion.)

3. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who drew worldwide attention last fall when he pledged to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, should not be surprised that the British government denied him entry into its country. He planned to speak at a February rally protesting the rise of Islam in the UK as well as visit his daughter who lives there. The British government said he was denied a visa because it “opposes extremism in all its forms” and  thinks his views would “foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”.Jones, of course, protested the decision, calling it “sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression” as well as proof of “the effectiveness of the threat of militant Islam in the UK.” About 2.7 percent of the UK’s 62.3 million people are Muslim (compared to 0.6 percent in the US), according to the CIA World Factbook. When I lived in England in the 1980s, we could already say, accurately, that there were more Muslims than Methodists in Britain.

Are there any other threads running through these stories? Maybe, to paraphrase the most famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate … well.

Welcome to RPM

17 Jan

Welcome to RPM: Religion, Politics, Media.

When I showed the template for this new blog to my friend Jose, he laughed.

“Why don’t you  just name it ‘All the Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About’?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I see his point. Not the stuff of traditionally polite conversation. So thanks to Jose, I might adopt a lightning rod as the official RPM icon.

It’s no secret that religion, politics and media are magnets for controversy — especially when two or more of those topics intersect. And do they ever intersect, maybe more than ever. Other blogs, columns and sites deal with these topics, and I’m glad for them. (Well, most of them.) I hope RPM contributes high-quality information and insight as well, and provides a platform for good discussion and debate. With that goal in mind, RPM will include a variety of content, adding new material at least twice a week: Commentary. Reporting. Interviews. Long pieces and short ones. Video and audio. And, I hope, your comments, suggestions and critiques. Your views will add breadth and depth to the conversations here, so please feel free to join in (but on topic and with respect and good manners, of course).

In short, I hope RPM grows to be an enjoyable, helpful and regular part of your read-and-response diet. Let me know what you think. If this is a valuable site, please pass the word to friends. Best wishes.

Postscript: Why the column ended, and “now what”?

16 Jan

As today’s column says, my weekly “Face to Faith” column in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press has ended. My column did not explain why.

The column is another casualty of the shaky economics of the newspaper business. The editors decided to end my column as one of their cost-cutting measures. It wasn’t that expensive, but I guess things add up, and a “freelance” column (rather than being from the Press staff), it was an obvious target for the accountant’s spreadsheet.

The Johnson City Press is a midsize paper in midsize town, so I don’t expect this change to rattle any windows in New York City or Chicago. (Read that last clause in a dry, ironic tone of voice.) But this move could be read as another example of two trends: the erosion of local journalism and the erosion of religion coverage.

In the short term, this kind of change makes financial sense. Wire-service copy is quicker and cheaper than consistently good on-the-ground reporting. But in the Internet age, local newspapers and other news outlets actually have one exclusive commodity to sell: consistently good on-the-ground local coverage. Then there’s the point about good journalism being necessary for a functioning democracy and other such high-minded notions.  In a more perfect world, owners of news organizations, including newspapers, would bite the bullet in the short term to safeguard and build up their real franchise for the long run. In other words, they would choose to support solid local journalism, both as good citizens and as good businesspeople.

As for religion coverage, we come back to an argument made again and again by many people: how can we understand our world without understanding religion? If we scan headlines from around the world, we can find matters of faith, religion, spirituality and ethics every day. I’m not referring to the obvious ones, either (“Pope Forgives Assailant”). As today’s column suggests, a strong religion vein runs through many of the biggest or more important stories, often not very deeply (Just this week: Haiti … French marriage … health care … the Middle East (always) … Kurt Warner …). I may be biased, but I’m not sure it’s the wisest move for news organizations to reduce or eliminate their religion coverage at this particular point in history.

Thus endeth the lesson.

As for this blog: I will leave it in place for now but will take a break for a few weeks. I’m not sure what will come next, but I’ll get back to you about that. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to receive your comments, suggestions, ideas and questions, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. In the meantime, best wishes.

Grace and peace to you.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

16 Jan

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

3 Jan

I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.

If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)

Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.

But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)

For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.

Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.

The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.

Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.

You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.

These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.

“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.

It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”

By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.

“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”

While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”

There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.

Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.

 “Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”

Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.

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