Drilling down on the Godbeat

downdrillThere are many bright lights on the religion beat but for consistency, you just can't beat the Public Broadcasting Service's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. The journalists there produce a great show week after week. Readers of this blog would be remiss to not check it out. For the December 31st edition, anchor Bob Abernathy looked at the year ahead with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly's own Kim Lawton, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and National Catholic Reporter's John Allen.

The group discussed the incoming administration. Dionne says that Obama can do great things with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, education since he has a Democratic Congress and trillions of dollars to spend with a stimulus plan. Lawton talks about what a great job Obama did with framing political issues in moral terms and how religious folks would love it if he did that during his term. Which brings Allen to chime in about relations between Obama and Catholics. He says that the peril is in Obama's indication he will sign an executive order liberalizing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and his support for the Freedom of Choice Act. Dionne says such concerns are overblown. But this is why the roundtable is interesting. Discussion continues:

Mr. ALLEN: Of course, as you know, what has really made the kind of pro-life community nervous is that comment Obama made 14 months ago on the campaign trail in '07 speaking to the Planned Parenthood Federation, when he said that signing the Freedom of Choice Act would be the first thing he would do as president. Now his people have sort of let us know informally that we're not to take that overly seriously. But I do think certainly the special interest community will be interested in moving forward with that.

Allen goes on to explain how it's not all bad news for Catholics. There will be common ground with him on other issues such as immigration reform. And he provides some demographic knowledge about how key Hispanic immigrants are to the church. Allen's discussion of the "promise and peril" of Catholic relations with Obama needs more discussion, Abernathy decides:

ABERNETHY: John, we were all talking about abortion earlier. One question on that: to what extent does that issue trump all others for the leaders of the Catholic Church?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, the unsatisfying answer to that question is that it depends on who you talk to. I mean, if you take just the U.S. bishops conference, there's clearly one wing of that conference -- there are some 240 sitting diocesan bishops in the United States -- there's one wing of that conference that clearly believes that abortion is the towering moral issue of our age. They would compare it to the Holocaust. They would compare it to slavery. And to pretend that there's anything else that is morally analogous to them is a kind of blindness. I think there's another wing of the conference that certainly would be strongly pro-life but would also want to see a continuum of life issues that would include things like the war in Iraq and immigration and health care and so on. Interestingly, I think the same thing is true of the Vatican. There are some offices in the Vatican that would focus almost exclusively on the life issues -- abortion having pride of place there -- other offices, certainly the Vatican's diplomatic apparatus, which has been engaged in moral critique of the war in Iraq and other issues. On December 3, the Vatican became the first state to both sign and ratify the anti-cluster bomb international treaty, which the Bush administration opposed. So, for those agencies of the Church they would have this kind of broader view, and I think that's going to be one of those tensions that will be fascinating to watch as '09 plays out.

It's a great question and the answer from one reporter's perspective is most helpful.

Allen says that 2009 will be the Year of Africa for the Vatican because Pope Benedict XVI will be going in March, all African bishops are going to be meeting in Rome in September, and bishops from all over the world will convene in October to discuss development and peace issues in Africa. Allen notes that the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9 million in 1900 to 139 million in 2000, a growth rate of 6,708 percent.

The African discussion leads to the "conservatism" of the Global South in Anglicanism, and again Allen provides some much needed nuance. He agrees that they're more conservative than Westerners on sexual ethics but adds:

Mr. ALLEN: But if you change the conversation to the question such as the morality of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, such as the morality of international economic structures, there you will find a consensus of opinion in southern Christianity that by our standards is actually quite left-of-center. So it's this intriguing mix of traditionalism on some issues and progressivism on others.

Once again we see that political labels don't always fit so nicely on religious adherents. It would be nice to see more mainstream media take note of this.

There is much, much more. So often when I'm reading or watching mainstream media coverage of religious news, I wish that people would take the time to move away from soundbites into a slightly more explicative format. It seems worth pointing out when a media outlet does just that. Sure, it would be nice to see a wider range of perspective than that presented here, but it's also a great reminder of how valuable it is to have a reporter who has really studied his beat.

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