'All the Religion That’s Fit to Print'

new-york-times-buildingDue to its power and prestige, The New York Times invites criticism; some of it from people of faith who feel the paper fails to give religion its due. But these critics should take note of the Labor Day edition of the Times, which provided plentiful and nuanced coverage of many major religion stories, leading me to suggest that the paper consider temporarily changing its page-one motto to: "All the Religion That's Fit to Print." Page A5 of Monday's National Edition featured three important religion stories:

1) "Sudanese Court to Define Indecent Dress for Women" by Jeffrey Gettleman, the Times' East Africa bureau chief, described the showdown between journalist Lubna Hussein and the enforcers of Article 152 of Sudan's penal code, which prescribes fines and punishment by up to 40 lashes for anyone who wears "indecent clothing."

"I am Muslim; I understand Muslim law," Mrs. Hussein said in an interview. "But I ask: what passage in the Koran says women can't wear pants? This is not nice."

By the way, she was fined, but not lashed. She has refused to pay the fine and says she is willing to go to jail for her cause.

2) "Private Motive for Egypt's Public Embrace of a Jewish Past" by Michael Slackman explores the politics behind Egypt's recent rush-rush renovation of a long-neglected synagogue named after Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon:

So why the sudden public display of affection for Egypt's Jewish past? Politics. Not street politics, but global politics. Egypt's minister of culture, Farouk Hosny, wants to be the next director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

3) "Pope Condemns Holocaust at WWII Anniversary Mass" by Rachel Donadio adds to the long-running debate about whether or not Benedict is sufficiently sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust:

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday recalled the "tragedy of the Holocaust" and the deaths of "tens of millions" in the conflict.

Speaking at an outdoor Mass on Sunday in Viterbo, north of Rome, Benedict said: "We cannot forget the major events that took place during one of the most terrible conflicts in history, that left tens of millions dead and provoked so much suffering for our beloved Polish people," he said. "It was conflict that saw the tragedy of the Holocaust and the extermination of so many other innocents."

But that's not all.

4) On page A10 the Denver bureau's Dan Frosch catches up with Catholic priest Carl Kabat, who long after the death of fellow priest and peace activist Philip Berrigan, continues to stage protests at U.S. missile sites (and spend years of his life in jail).

5) On A13 Jason Grant profiles Rev. Vernon Williams, the "P.O.D." (or "pastor on deck") in Harlem's toughest streets.

6) On the cover of the Arts section, critic Janet Maslin reviews Robert Olen Butler's new novel, "Hell." Central character Hatcher McCord is a famous network anchorman who now spends his time interviewing hell's residents, including Satan himself, who provides this killer sound bite: "I've got father issues."

7) And inside the same section, Edward Rothstein's "Connections" column visits Death Valley and contemplates the connections between deserts and religious devotion:

Of course three of the world's religions grew out of regions haunted by the desert. Those who make their homes in or near one must plan and anticipate. They know the harsh judgment imposed by natural forces; they swear close allegiance and fierce enmity. They find comfort in tightly knit communities and strengthen life's tenuous hold with faith. But in Death Valley the future hardly matters: no religion could develop here. The decree has already been handed down. There is no redemption. Hell and damnation are recurring themes in place names here.

There are some critics who don't want to let the facts about this God-packed Labor Day issue get in the way of a case they have been making against the "godless" Times for years. But for those who seek to alternate praise and condemnation based on the evidence at hand (I recently criticized the paper for failing to identify Tim Tebow's faith in a feature on his charitable work), Monday's Times was cause for high praise.

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