Saturday, October 6, 2012

Notebook jottings - Part 2

The Religion Newswriters Association conference continues in Bethesda, Md. Here are a few more notes from Friday and Saturday at the event.

At a presentation called "50 Shades of Evangelicalism," a group of younger evangelicals talked about the growing diversity among this substantial slice of Christians in America. The diversity does not all move in one direction.

Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, for instance, noted that even though younger evangelicals trend more liberal on social issues, their support of Mitt Romney now is higher than that for John McCain four years ago. Patton Dodd, executive editor of Bondfire Books (e-books), said younger evangelicals often struggle with how to define themselves, since they don't fit into conventional stereotypes. And Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the new managing editor of Odyssey Networks after serving as the online editor at Christianity Today, said that when she was a student at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago, she found that "a lot of people know where they are from but they don't know what they are right now."

Brad Russell of, a new social network with appeal in the evangelical world, wondered if "evangelical is still a valid term." And panelists talked about the debate among the evangelical leaders about who could be called an evangelical and who could not. Is author Brian McLaren still an evangelical if he supports gay marriage? Dodd said the issue is do you identify yourself or do others define you.

Russell said a significant change in attitudes on social issues like gay marriage reflected a greater tolerance of a pluralistic society: "What's not right for me does not have to be a matter of law for everyone else... Younger evangelicals have grown up thinking their stance in the public square has been defined for them." They no longer accept that.
Perhaps the oddest session of the conference was one where representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns faith outreach operations were invited to "tell war stories from the front lines."
First, the two from the Obama campaign - Broderick Johnson and Michael Wear - refused to let C-Span video the session. Then all three of them said in many different ways that faith really did not matter that much in the election, even though that was their area of focus. As Bob Smietana of the Nashville Tennessean tweeted:  "Faith advisors on panel want to talk about works, not faith."
Stephen Prothero discussed his new book, The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide and Define a Nation. It's a collection of 27 texts with a varieties of commentaries on each that he defined as "the texts that we value and fight about." He said that the U.S. is "held together not by a common creed but by a shared argument." And that plays out in the pages of this book.

Prothero acknowledged that sometimes the argument can get out of control. He suggested that the great thinkers of the past modeled how people could engage in public conversation and he cited the Jewish tradition of two kinds of arguments - one on behalf of the self, the other on behalf of heaven. An argument on behalf of heaven recognizes that truth resides there, not in any one of us, so as we listen and as we talk, we can come closer to the truth.

A Mormon trio on the Mormon moment

Jana Reiss converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints as an adult, has written a lot about it and would generally be considered fairly knowledgeable about the faith.

But she said she was brought up short after addressing a group of Protestants who asked her about the "white horse prophecy." This is something attributed to Mormon founder Joseph Smith about his followers who would come from the Rocky Mountains on a white horse to save the U.S. Constitution as it hung by a thread. Whether Smith ever said it is in doubt, but it has gone into circulation around the prospect of Mitt Romney being the first Mormon president of the U.S.

That's one example from a panel of Mormons today talking about how their faith has gotten a lot more attention in the past few years, whether because of the Romney campaign or the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.

There has been a lot of interest in what is unusual or exotic about the faith, said Terryl Givens, a Mormon scholar at the University of Virginia. "So the Mormon sense of self has been challenged," he told folks attending the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Bethesda, Md.

Darius Gray, an author and film producer, said that in the past when controversy around his faith arose, the leaders would run for cover or issue inflammatory responses. Now they are telling their story in very human terms, which he appreciates.

Yet Mormons still deal with accusations that they are not truly Christians, even though the name of their faith is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Givens said Mormons are "bewildered" by the claim that they are not Christians. He said the evangelical Christians have a theology derived from Christians of centuries past and are not willing to consider other understandings of how one follows Jesus.

That prompted Reiss to say that for her, it's been "a very painful year to be a Mormon."

She told of watching the Republican convention on the night a series of Mormon speakers talked about the way Mitt Romney had lived out his faith, using easily accessible language instead of insider talk. "I had a sense of Mormons being welcomed in the public square," she said.

The next day, she received word from the Academy of Christian Editors that her invitation for membership was being rescinded because she was a Mormon - a notification that hurt her deeply.

Gray, who is an African American, noted that he is about to celebrate his 48th year as a Latter-Day Saint and talked about the change in attitudes in the church that once barred blacks from the priesthood. He helped tell those stories in a movie called Nobody Knows: The Untold Stories of Black Mormons.

Gray said that overall, he was pleased with the greater understanding of the Mormon faith and of Mormons that he senses is occurring. "The Latter-Day Saints aren't as weird as some may have thought," he said with a chuckle.

But it was Givens, who has a new book coming out on Monday on Mormon beliefs, got into the heart of Mormon theology by outlining what he described as the five core beliefs:

  • Humans have a heavenly father whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts,
  • Humans pre-existed as spirit beings, 
  • Mortality is not a catastrophic fall but an ascent to greater godliness,
  • God has capacity and desire to save entire human family
  • Heaven will see the preservation of relationships most valued on earth (a reference to eternal marriage).

Schools, faith and freedom

So who is protecting free expression of religion in public schools these days?

Here's one surprising answer - the ACLU.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told journalists at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference on Friday about efforts in defense of students:

  • Fighting a rosary ban in one school (it was banned because some gangs were using it as a symbol)
  • Defending a Native American students' right to have long hair as a religious expression
  • Arguing that a student had a right to sing "Awesome God" as an entry in a student talent show
  • Making sure students were allowed to use a Bible verse as their personal quote on a yearbook page

Of course, the ACLU also jumps in when schools try to impose a particular religious viewpoint on students.

Mach talked about a public school in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, that set aside a day devoted to "converting as many people to Christ as possible" in all-school assemblies. Students who chose not to attend the assemblies were given the "option" of serving time in detention.

Charles C. Haynes, one of the nation's top scholars on the First Amendment who directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., argued that the general consensus on how to handle religious expression in public schools has grown fairly strong, while agreeing with Mach's observation that while "the rules are clear, there are rampant and repeated abuses."

Haynes said that the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning organized prayer in public schools - a decision long vilified by conservatives actually "opened the door to more discussion of religion in schools than ever before." The guidelines that have emerged over the half-century since then have created space for thoughtful examination of various religious traditions and left open room for individual student expressions of religious beliefs.

But those are also areas that are still contested on the ground, as Mach suggested. Haynes said one of the on-going struggles is over when a student may give a religious expression to what is essentially a captive audience, as compared to a prayer group gathered for an extra-curricular activity. Some groups try to rig the rules to make sure their viewpoint - and only their viewpoint - is the one that is favored.

A second area is over how courses approach the Bible. "There are a lot of stealth laws to encourage Bible courses," Haynes said. While there is nothing wrong with treating the Bible as an academic subject, he contended, what some districts do is use a Bible course as a form of religious instruction - and that violates the notion that public schools should not favor a particular religious belief.

Looking more broadly at the First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, Haynes quoted James Madison's observation that the more diverse we are as a people, the more protection of freedom of religion for everyone there will be. When one faith is overwhelmingly dominant, it is easier to steamroll those who don't share that faith.

Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the American Catholic bishops, reminded the audience that "everyone is a minority somewhere." The ACLU's Mach echoed that, saying, "Virtually all religious groups have been in the minority at one time or in one place."

Arguments over religious expression are nothing new in U.S. history. Haynes noted that Alexander Hamilton tried to form what we would now call an early version of the Christian Coalition while Madison and Jefferson argued for a free marketplace of religious ideas.

Haynes praised the U.S. for have "the boldest free expression of religion of any country" yet cautioned that "the vitality of religious freedom depends on the minds and hearts of the American people."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Notebook jottings as journalists gather

The Religion Newswriters Association is gathering for its annual conference this week in Bethesda, Maryland. Here are a few vignettes along the way.

Joanna Brooks is a professor at San Diego State University and the author of “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith.”  She said that in the run-up to the presidential debate on Wednesday night, some Mormons were fasting so that Mitt Romney would have a successful debate. "We're all going to fast to make sure our guy kills in the debate ... and he does!"

Brooks also noted that there is a "feminization of heresy in many traditions ... women who do not speak in orthodoxy are excluded."
In a discussion over what's fair game about religion for reporters to ask candidates, David Campbell, a ;olitical scientist at the University of Notre Dame and co-author with Robert Putnam of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, offered this proposition: "Religion is relevant only to the extend it has a plausible connection to what that person would do in office." Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, argued in a column last year and in person on Thursday that journalists should be "less shy about probing the religious beliefs of candidates." He said a candidate's religious beliefs can be a window in how he or she views science, gay rights and a host of other issues. 
David Beckmann, head of Bread for the World, exuded great enthusiasm as he talked about the progress in the battle against global poverty. "The world has cut in half the number of people in extreme poverty in the last 30 years," he said. Using Biblical imagery, he called this "the Biblical exodus of our time."
Thomas Reese, S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He said that too often we cite violation of church state boundaries just because we disagree with someone. "If I disagree with you, then you are violating the separation of church and state," he said. That ignores that "politics is a hard and ethical endeavor."

He observed that while the Catholic bishops still hold to the "consistent ethic of life" approach of the past generation, their emphasis has shifted away from economic issues to things like contraception, abortion and gay marriage. He noted they will grant "prudential judgment" to people on issues around things like poverty, but say that on things like abortion or gay marriage, there can be no dissent. That, Reese said, is "a fundamental misunderstanding of prudence."

Reese also posed this question: "Did the Nuns on the Bus have more impact than (the bishops' religious liberty campaign known as) the Fortnight of Freedom?"
The brand new dean of the National Cathedral, The Very Rev. Gary Hall (brand new as of Monday), talked about his vision for the future work of the Cathedral as we gathered in a conference room seven stories up in this magnificent building. One element is to use the Cathedral's "convening power" to focus on the intersections of faith and public life. Another is to build on a tradition of interfaith dialogue to be a convening presence for interfaith ministry. Another is to be even more a part of "healing the wounds and addressing the needs of the people of Washington D.C. And, of course, there is the matter of raising $20 million in the next five years to repair the damage done from the August 2011 earthquake.

Sally Quinn, who started the "On Faith" section of the Washington Post web site six years ago, welcome journalists covering religion to Washington - "a spiritual hardship post." She told of starting "On Faith" because she was concerned about the lack of coverage of religion everywhere, including the Post. She could not persuade editors to do much, but Don Graham, the publisher, told her to start a religion web site on the Post's site. "I didn't know anything about religion and I didn't know anyting about the web," she said. So she gathered smart people from both fields together and now On Faith is a powerhouse in the field of journalism about religion. When her friends asked her if having a religion site would not stir up controversy, she told them in Washington, "people's egos are much more sensitive than their souls."

Religious liberty? How about for mosques?

One of the subtexts of the political season this year has been the debate over religious liberty. Has the Obama administration’s rules on making contraceptives available for free to employees violated the rights of Catholic institutions that oppose artificial birth control?

The American Catholic bishops have launched what they call a Fortnight of Freedom to defend their right to deny contraceptive coverage in insurance plans for their employees. They have gone to court to challenge the government’s ruling.

But a recurring theme today in panels at a session for journalists from across the nation who cover is religion is that this misses the real threat to religious liberty in this country.

Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School 's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, said that the spate of attacks on mosques “is a critical religious freedom issue” as she talked with Religion Newswriters Assoication participants in a conference on religion and politics at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington , D.C.

“We’re not talking about religious freedom if we’re not talking about that,” she said.

Since early August, there have been nine acts of vandalism or arson at mosques in the U.S, including one last weekend in Toledo, Ohio.

There was also the shooting of worshipers gathering at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek near Milwaukee in  early August.

In a separate session later in the day, Sally Steenland of the Center for Amerian Progress said that while there are many components to religious liberty, “the most basic one is the freedom to worship.”

Attacks on mosques, attacks on worshippers on a Sunday morning, are far more of a threat to religious liberty than the ongoing legal battles defining the boundaries of the relationship of church and state.

Jerome Copulsky, who teaches history at American University, noted that too often, the idea of religious freedom is being used to "shore up the privileges of the dominant religious traditions" in this country instead of to protect those traditions that are most vulnerable.