Shallow looks at faith-based hate

hate crime the movieA significant story is brewing in California as diverse groups of people with clashing social values conflict with the American promises of religious freedom and tolerance. The themes of the stories are filled with religious values and terminology, but some news articles are not quite as precise or as informative as they could be. For instance, take this Los Angeles Times article on a punch that resulted in involuntary manslaughter and hate-crime charges:

Andrey Vusik, 29, fresh from morning church services with his young children in tow, stared with disgust as Singh danced and hugged the other men while their wives giggled. To the Russian, Singh seemed rude and inappropriate, a gay man putting on an outrageous public display.

Angry stares led to an afternoon of traded insults. As the long day slid toward dusk, the tall Russian immigrant approached with a friend to demand an apology. Singh refused. Vusik threw a single punch.

Singh's head smacked into a concrete walkway. The joyful young man with the musical laugh died four days later of brain injuries.

The story's hint at religious issues in this incident -- the church service reference -- is not a mere diversion. The introduction's mention of church introduces the idea that what is preached at the pulpit could become grounds for hate-crime prosecutions, but the issue is not fully explored. The religious-teaching issues come up again in the story but not in a way that helps inform the reader:

"The roots of what these guys did to Satender Singh can be traced to what's being preached in their churches," said Jerry Sloan, founder of Project Tocsin, a Sacramento-based group that monitors the religious right. "Some sitting in those pews believe they've heard it straight from God: that homosexuality is an abomination."

With as many as 100,000 newcomers from republics such as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, the Sacramento region has one of the nation's largest concentrations of Soviet immigrants. Most began arriving in the late 1980s -- about a third of them conservative evangelical Christians seeking religious freedom.

The influx has created a thriving Russian community with Russian-language newspapers, cable TV and radio shows, as well as 70 Slavic churches -- nearly all adherents of a fundamentalist creed that condemns homosexuality.

Those beliefs, preached from the pulpit and voiced in Russian-language media, did not attract much attention until 2005, when a vocal crowd of Slavic evangelicals mounted a protest at the state Capitol against same-sex marriage.

In general, I think that journalists should avoid the term "evangelical." It is overused, undefined, and does a poor job of saying anything.

In this case, the term confuses, particularly since it is tied with the term "conservative." This is not to minimize the fact that this group has become a vocal opponent to same-sex marriage, as are generally American conservative evangelicals, but that does not necessarily mean the two groups are closely associated.

The article spends plenty of time exploring what one side of the debate believes is an increasing threat to homosexuals in these communities due to this immigrant group, but there is little mention of whether or not these acts of violence are actually inspired by anything preached in the churches. The article in general is fairly clumsy when it comes to discussing the religious issues in this story and allows for broad generalizations that are probably not entirely precise.

Another violent incident takes on the slightly different issue of schools and the teaching of sexuality to children at young ages. The Washington Post's article on the shooting of a gay 14-year-old in a Los Angeles junior high school doesn't give much attention religion or moral values.

The article is rightly focused on educational issues, but the only hint of religion is by Focus on the Family psychologist and his belief that sexuality should be taught by parents at home, not by the schools. In other words, questions of morality should be kept out of the schools.

That statement seems ironic to me considering the source. When it comes to issues of sexuality, which is a moral subject, teachers and educators are supposed to keep silent? Just like they are supposed to keep from teaching about God in the classroom? It depends all on your perspective.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles junior high shooting story has turned into a pretty big national story. The Washington Post's style section had a major story on it Thursday that focuses on how the Internet has generated a fairly massive response:

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and the author of "Life on the Screen," says the online reaction to Larry shows "the other side of the Internet.

"When people talk about the Internet, people usually say, 'You can have your own blog, you can be Matt Drudge, you can start your own business,' " Turkle says. "What's going on with Larry is the flip side of all that. Things happen to other people and we don't often have a way to express how we're personally touched. 'There but for the grace of God go I .' The Internet allows us to express that connection. What were once private connections are now made public, but they're no less intimate."

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