Worship

Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

A wise journalism professor once told me that it always helps, when trying to think through the implications of a controversial story, to try to imagine the same story being seen in a mirror, in reverse.

So let's say that there is a businessman in Indianapolis who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.

Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.

Whose religious rights are being violated? Can both sides find a way to show tolerance?

This is, of course, a highly specific parable -- full of the unique details that tend to show up in church-state law and, often, in cases linked to laws built on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) language. It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.

Is there any sign that reporters covering the RFRA madness in Indiana and, eventually, in dozens of states across the nation are beginning to see some of the gray areas in these cases?

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Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

As the media firestorm continues in Indiana, your GetReligionistas have heard from readers asking to know the essential differences between the Indiana law that is under attack and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan enthusiasm during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Simply stated, the national RFRA has served as the models for the various state RFRA bills through the years, including the law that -- when he was in the Illinois state senate -- drew the support of Barack Obama.

Reporters covering this story may, in addition to actually studying the contents of the bill, want to study the impact these state bills have had in the 19 states that have adopted the same language. This Washington Post piece, with map, is quite helpful. Have these bills been abused? There may be stories there.

Yes, it's crucial for reporters to actually consider what happens when these bills are used in real cases, with real defendants, in real courts, even in conservative zip codes. Consider, for example, this Texas press release in 2009 in which the American Civil Liberties Union cheered the state's RFRA law:

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pastor Rick Barr who challenged an ordinance passed by the City of Sinton (Barr v. City of Sinton) to close a half-way house for low-level offenders across from the pastor’s church, Grace Christian Fellowship.
“Today’s decision is significant because it is one of the Court’s first cases to affirmatively construe Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. ...
“This decision sends a strong message to state and local governments in Texas that the Court will not tolerate state action that targets a religious group, whatever their faith,” said Graybill. The court’s ruling upholds the intent of the RFRA to prevent state and local government officials from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion, including religious practices and religiously motivated conduct, without a compelling justification for doing so, she explained.  ”This is a major victory not just for Pastor Barr and Philemon Homes, but for all Texans who cherish religious freedom.”

However, journalists seeking guidance on style issues related to RFRA laws -- should, for example, terms such as "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" be framed with scare quotes -- may want to consult another authoritative source. That would be The New York Times. However, in this case we are talking about the Times of 1993.

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Was King Richard III a 'bad guy' and does that have anything to do with the church?

Was King Richard III a 'bad guy' and does that have anything to do with the church?

The headline on this particular "WorldViews" feature in The Washington Post was crisp and to the point: "Was King Richard III a bad guy?" The problem, of course, is that there are at least three different ways to read those final two words.

Are we asking if he was a "bad guy," in the sense of playing the role of the villain in a mystery play? Or are we asking if he was simply "bad" in the sense that he wasn't good at what he did. Was he a bad, as in ineffective, king? Or maybe -- since much of the historical curiosity about Richard III is linked to his faith, his alleged deeds and his dynasty -- is the question whether or not he was "bad," in terms of being a sinner?

Here's the overture of the piece (sorry to be getting to this after the event itself):

The remains of England's King Richard III, who died in battle more than five centuries ago, will be re-interred ... at Leicester Cathedral. The planned burial has dominated headlines in Britain, where the fate of the late monarch's bones has been a source of national fascination since they were dug up in a Leicester parking lot in 2012 and identified using DNA testing a year later.
Richard III was slain in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a moment immortalized by Shakespeare. In Richard III, the cornered king senses his own doom. "I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die," he intones, and then famously cries out: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." But Richard never escaped on a trusted steed and was, instead, cut down by the soldiers of his rival, Henry Tudor, whose descendants would be Shakespeare's royal patrons.

Now, this piece has plenty of "Game of Thrones" style details in it. That's OK. What I was surprised to see was that it contained absolutely nothing about Richard III being a Catholic, in this era right before the Reformation changed the destiny of the Church of England.

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Military Times team forgets to ask a crucial question about that Navy SEAL chaplain

Military Times team forgets to ask a crucial question about that Navy SEAL chaplain

Time to take a quick dip into my folder of GetReligion guilt, where some important stories have been calling for my attention. In particular, I wanted to note that debates about military chaplains, always a controversial church-state subject, have flared up once again in the news.

At the center of the debate this time around is Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a chaplain who has in the past handled the rather difficult challenge of keeping up with Navy SEAL units. Now, a Military Times article notes that he may be tossed out of the Navy after 19 years for "allegedly scolding sailors for homosexuality and premarital sex." Readers are told:

Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder was given a "detachment for cause" letter on Feb. 17 after his commanders concluded that he is "intolerant" and "unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment" of his current assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina.
Modder denies any wrongdoing and is fighting the dismissal with attorneys from the Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious expression in the military and in public institutions. Modder has served more than 19 years and could lose his retirement benefits if the Navy convenes a board of inquiry and officially separate him before he completes 20 years of service.

As often happens in these stories, the crucial question of what actually happened in these encounters between the chaplain and the soldiers making complaints is hard to discern, since the details all come from the accusers. Also, military chaplains treat the details of these one-on-one encounters as completely confidential (even chaplains who are not in traditions that include Confession).

Thus, the Gannett newsroom notes that the Navy's letter of complaint included offenses such as:

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CNN's giant love song to D.E. Paulk and the emerging world of liberal Pentecostalism

CNN's giant love song to D.E. Paulk and the emerging world of liberal Pentecostalism

So, did anyone out there in GetReligion reader land manage to make it all the way through that epic CNN.com report entitled "How the Ultimate Scandal Saved One Pastor," focusing on the life and times of the Pentecostal superstar Archbishop Earl Paulk Jr. and his secret son (for years called his nephew) the Rev. D.E. Paulk?

I can understand it if you gave up before the end. The sexual and political politics in this four-act drama are stunningly complex and scandalous and that's the whole point. It's the story of the sins of a megachurch pastor who, within a certain niche of Pentecostalism, became a powerful player in -- the key for CNN, of course -- one political corner of the Religious Right. It's about the sins of the father, literally, and the impact on the son who finally breaks free and becomes his own person, a young hero who slays his own dragons.

Here's the material that sets up the drama:

His life before was so complicated that D.E. simply told curious church visitors who said his name sounded familiar to "Google me."
Google gives part of his story: How the Paulks built the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church into one of the nation's first and largest megachurches; how three American presidents honored their church; how the place imploded after the revelation about D.E.'s biological father. But the headlines don't say what happened to D.E. afterward.
How did the revelations affect his relationship with Don Paulk, the man who raised him; the person he still calls dad. Did his uncle, Bishop Paulk, ever apologize? How could D.E. even set foot in church again?
The headlines also don't explain what happened to D.E.'s mother, Clariece. How did she explain her actions to her son and husband? Did the marriage survive? Clariece Paulk, 76, recently told me that she prayed for over 20 years that no one would discover her secret. At times, Bishop Paulk would apprise D.E. from a distance and say to her, "He kind of looks like me in the shoulders."
"I'd be so afraid that somebody would see a picture of him and Donnie Earl at the same age, and I tried to hide the pictures," she said. "I lived in fear, just misery."
D.E.'s story is not just about a scandal. It's about fate. Are we all captive to the arc of our family history, no matter what we do?

Big stuff, requiring lots of photos and thousands of words.

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When iron birds fly and Chinese leaders ponder the politics of reincarnation ...

When iron birds fly and Chinese leaders ponder the politics of reincarnation ...

Its origin is much disputed, but an often-repeated Tibetan saying goes as follows: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the world, and the dharma (Buddhist teachings) will come to the land of the red-faced man."

Because of Chinese occupation, a Tibetan diaspora is indeed scattered across the globe. But are the iron-bird and horse-on-wheels images references to airplanes and automobiles? And what about red-faced men? Is that a reference to Native Americans? As noted, the authenticity of this supposedly ancient prophecy is much in doubt.

Authentic or not, it's undeniable that various Buddhist practices and traditions have found widespread acceptance in the West. The world's best-known Buddhist, Tenzin Gyatso, much better known as the Dalai Lama, a man of gentle demeanor and a contagious laugh, is in good measure responsible for this. He's also the subject of what may be the year's oddest religion news story.

China, in case you missed it, is upset that the Dalai Lama has threatened not to reincarnate. Ponder that for a minute.

While not an entirely new story, it is, on its face, an illogical one.

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Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Sometimes a news story drags on bit by bit, piece by piece, over the years and becomes so tedious that reporters miss the dramatic cumulative impact. It also doesn't help that long, slow-developing, nuanced religion stories have been known to turn secular editors into pillars of salt.

So it seems with the lawsuits against conservative congregations and regional dioceses that have been quitting the Episcopal Church, mostly to join the Anglican Church in North America, especially since consecration of the first openly partnered gay bishop in 2003.

The Religion Guy confesses he totally missed the eye-popping claim last year that the denomination has spent more than $40 million on lawsuits to win ownership of the dropouts’ buildings, properties, and liquid assets. If that’s anywhere near accurate it surely sets the all-time record for American schisms. And that doesn’t even count the millions come-outers have spent on lawyers. For more info, click here.

Note immediately that these elaborate data were pieced together by an obviously partisan if qualified source, “Anglican Curmudgeon” blogger A.S. Haley. He’s an attorney who specializes in church property law and represents the departing Diocese of San Joaquin in central California.  No reporter should simply accept Haley’s say-so and recycle his data unchecked. But a full accounting, working through his numbers with Episcopal officials, would make a good piece.

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When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

On one level, this past week's "Crossroads" podcast added a few extra layers of information to my recent Universal Syndicate "On Religion" column about the ministry of the late Father Jack Heaslip (video clip above), an Anglican priest who for several decades was the behind-the-scenes pastor to the members of U2.

But there's more to the podcast than that. Click here to tune into the whole discussion.

The key to the discussion is the conflicted feelings that I experienced, back in 2001, when I met Heaslip at a private gathering on Capitol Hill in which Bono address a strategic circle of Hill staffers who shared his convictions about hunger, AIDS and the Third World debt crisis.

The band's pastor asked if I was with the press and I admitted that I was. He said something like, "Well, we're here to hear that man speak," gesturing toward Bono, and slipped away to the back of the room.

I was very disappointed not to "land" a rare interview with this man, yet, at the same time, I admired the degree to which he managed to stay out of the spotlight and do his work without great fanfare. He didn't want to be turned into a "Father Jack Heaslip, secret pastor of U2 superstars!" headline. Instead, he wanted to continue his pastoral support for four men he had known since they were brash young teen-agers in the nondenominational school in which he was their guidance counselor.

So that journalistic tension is what the podcast is about, really.

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Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Is there a more desirable photo op for an Israeli politician (excluding Israel's Arab and some of its left-wing Jewish parliamentarians) than one taken at HaKotel, which is the short-hand Hebrew term for Jerusalem's Western Wall?

Oh, never mind; silly question. And ditto for visiting dignitaries who also flock to the mostly Herodian-era stone blocks, the exposed portion of which stands 62-feet high. The resulting image screams identification with Israel's binary raison d'être -- secular contemporary Zionism and traditional religious piety.

Which is why Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was there the Saturday night prior to his highly charged Washington address to Congress, when he implored President Barack Obama not to sign a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to retain its suspected nuclear weapon capabilities. The visit dominated the American news cycle for the better part of a week, a virtual eon in this time of 24/7 deadlines.

Yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it was something more, because anything to do with Israel automatically takes on a religious tone. You know, Jews versus Muslims, the knee-jerk equating of all things Israeli with religious Judaism, the entire Holy Land gestalt.

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