CNN interviews 100 Muslims for its '25 most influential' list, and takes a few hits from critics

CNN interviews 100 Muslims for its '25 most influential' list, and takes a few hits from critics

It’s been almost two weeks since CNN ran a “25 most influential American Muslims” list. Lists are popular in this clickbait era, but they are tricky things to put together, as was the case when Time magazine put together its “25 most influential evangelicals” list in 2005. Those of us who track such things had strong opinions back then on who should’ve been included and who should have been left off.

Unlike the evangelicals list –- which was assembled by Time’s staff –- CNN asked 100 Muslims who should be on this list. (Asking real evangelicals for input on the 2005 list might have improved it greatly).

What resulted was a list of 12 women and 13 men. Which I find curious. Did Muslims really vote in that many women? Religious lists tend to be skewed toward men. The evangelicals' list only had four women, two of which were coupled with their husbands.

So here’s what CNN had along with some comments from me and other publications. The list consisted of short videos each with a descriptive paragraph. I include a few of their choices:

Hasan Minhaj: The comedian -- Hasan Minhaj says his faith doesn’t inform his comedy, exactly, but growing up Muslim in California offered a unique perspective on American life. “I had the whole course of my life to think back on all these situations where I was on the sidelines, whether it was, like, not being able to eat pepperoni pizza all the way up to (President Trump’s) travel ban.” …

Ibtihaj Muhammad: The Olympian -- Ibtihaj Muhammad has heard the stereotypes about Muslim women: they’re docile and oppressed, wear nothing but black, speak only Arabic and aren’t allowed to play sports. “I speak English, I like wearing bright colors, I’m athletic and I’m on Team USA.” In the 2016 Olympics, Muhammad became the first Muslim-American to wear a hijab in Olympic competition, where she won a bronze medal in the team sabre event. …

Feryal Salem: The teacher -- Feryal Salem (is the) co-director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. The Connecticut seminary offers one of the country’s few accredited programs for Islamic chaplaincy, which means that Salem has a large role in training the next generation of Muslim interfaith ambassadors and spiritual counselors …

Eboo Patel: The bridge builder -- Eboo Patel’s … Interfaith Youth Core is one of the largest inter-religious organizations in North America, with an $8.5 million budget and 45-person staff who train thousands of students on nearly 500 college campuses. The author of three books, Patel was also a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.


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In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

Once upon a time, there was this era in American life called the Sixties. As the old saying goes, if you remember the Sixties, then you really weren't part of them -- which kind of implies that the only people who remember the Sixties were Baptists, or something like that.

Anyway, lots of things in the Sixties were "cool." Some things were even "groovy," although I thought -- at the time -- that no one who was actually "cool" would have fallen so low as to use the word "groovy." 

Whatever the word "cool" meant, journalist Tom Wolfe was "cool," while at the same time being "hot." If you dreamed of being a journalist in the late Sixties and early 1970s, then you knew about Wolfe and you looked at his writing and thought to yourself, "How does he DO that? That is so cool."

Revolutionaries were "cool" and traditionalists were "not cool."

So with that in mind (and as an introduction to the content of this week's "Crossroads" podcast), please read the following quotation from a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Wolfe. The key is to understand why, at one point, he calls himself a "heretic." This is long, but essential:

RS: I believe it was in the New Republic that Mitch Tuchman wrote that the reason you turned against liberals is that you were rejected by the white-shoe crowd at Yale.

WOLFE: Wait a minute! Is that one by Tuchman? Yeah, oh, that was great.

RS: He talked about your doctoral dissertation. 

WOLFE: Yeah, he wrote that after The Painted Word. It went further than that. It was called "The Manchurian Candidate," and it said in all seriousness that I had some-how been prepared by the establishment, which he obviously thought existed at Yale, to be this kind of kamikaze like Laurence Harvey -- I think that's who was in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn't it? -- to go out and assassinate liberal culture. I loved that.

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That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856–1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith -- and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War II Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians.

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Inquiring minds still want to know: Was Meghan the wrong kind of 'Protestant,' or what?

Inquiring minds still want to know: Was Meghan the wrong kind of 'Protestant,' or what?

No matter that happens today (the big US news is tragic), for millions of people the force of gravity in global news will pull toward St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

We are talking about a wedding rite in the Church of England, so royal wedding coverage has included all kinds of dishy details about liturgical issues rarely seen in the press. That has been the case for several months now for one simple reason: American actress Meghan Markle was raised as a Protestant by her mother Doria Ragland, while her father is an Episcopalian (and, thus, part of the global Anglican Communion).

Thus, an unanswered question still hovers in the background, because of silence from Kensington Palace: Precisely what kind of Protestantism are we talking about, in Markle's case? For a refresher on this drama, see my earlier post: "Royal wedding quiz: Must a 'Protestant' be baptized in order to become an Anglican?" In that post, I noted:

... The Church of England split off from the Church of Rome. For most people, especially low-church Anglicans, this (a) makes it part of the wider world of Protestantism. However, it should be noted that some people argue that (b) the Anglican via media -- a "middle way" between Protestantism and Catholicism -- is its own unique form of faith. The odds are good that some Anglican readers will be offended by my description of (a), (b) or (a) and (b). This is complicated stuff.

There continue to be clues that Markle was the "wrong kind" of Protestant, since she was baptized -- Again? -- before being confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Anglican. How does that theological question affect the royal rite?

Read carefully this passage from an explainer piece in The Washington Post, that ran with the headline: "Why Meghan Markle, raised a Christian, still got baptized before her royal wedding."

“Miss Markle did not need to become an Anglican in order to marry Harry in church, but at the time of their engagement last November she made clear she had chosen to be baptised and confirmed out of respect for the Queen’s role as the head of the Church of England,” the Daily Mail wrote.

The Church of England recommends that couples either include a Communion service during their wedding or take Communion shortly after getting married. That means that Markle, if she wants to take Communion with Harry (italics added by tmatt), did need to be confirmed in the Church of England or in another Anglican church, such as the Episcopal Church, which the Church of England welcomes to take Communion at its services.

Wait a minute.

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Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

There was breaking news this week in the world of religion, as noted by Religion News Service's Aysha Khan.

"We now believe in hell," American Atheists announced on Twitter.

The impetus for this major change in (lack of) theology?

It was a New York Times report that "a television show featuring Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is suing President Trump on behalf of a pornographic film actress, and the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was pitched to two cable networks in recent weeks." 

Yes, I believe we'll all be reassessing the state of the universe now.

In the meantime, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Louisville Courier-Journal's investigative report headlined "Is your church van a death trap?" is the must-read religion story of the week. 

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Gay students forced to read Bible verses, which offers media chance to bash town in Oregon

Gay students forced to read Bible verses, which offers media chance to bash town in Oregon

The Oregon coast is one of the tourism wonders of our country with its misty capes, baying sea lions, dusky brown sand, pods of grey whales and majestic basalt rock formations a few dozen feet into the surf. About midway down its Pacific coastline is the town of Coos Bay, not far from the North Bend School District.

Who knew that this quiet, rural place hid a dark secret? On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a story that had been percolating for more than a week but which had surprisingly gotten no coverage from media in Portland.

It involves a public school, a lawsuit, the Bible and LGBTQ students.

In the hallways of a rural Oregon high school, gay and lesbian students were taunted with homophobic slurs. In the cafeteria, students pelted a transgender student with food. And when gay and lesbian students got into trouble, the school’s principal assigned a specific punishment just for them: readings from the Bible.

Students detailed those allegations in recent state investigative reports into the North Bend School District, a coastal area about 100 miles north of California. In the reports, gay and lesbian high school students described years of harassment and bigotry from school employees and other students, and a deeply religious culture that silenced their complaints.

The two reports, completed in March by an investigator in the Oregon Department of Education and made public this month, found that top officials in North Bend had for at least the past two school years fostered hostile conditions for gay and lesbian students, hesitated to intervene after reports of sexual harassment and retaliated against a school counselor who had cooperated with the state investigation.

Let's pause for a moment.

Having lived and reported out of Oregon -- for more than eight years at one point -- I know that this state is one of the most irreligious states in America. Gallup polls bear me out. So, there’s this “deeply religious culture” lurking just southwest of the ultra-liberal college town of Eugene?

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The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

About five years ago, I traveled to rural Iowa to report on a 156-year-old church surrounded by corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace.

The news angle was that the tiny congregation was working hard to survive despite immense challenges facing it and similar houses of worship.

As part of the same "Rural Redemption" project, I spent a Sunday with a 200-year-old assembly in the farming and coal-mining country of southeastern Ohio.

I thought those churches had long histories!

But Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer recently wrote about an Episcopal congregation in rural Virginia that is marking 400 years — 400 years! — in 2018.

The Post's headline pretty much nails it:

This 400-year-old church is older than almost any institution in America

This won't be a long post because my basic message is simple: This is an interesting, well-reported story, and I'd urge you to read it. 

What did I like about it? I'll quickly mention three things.

But first, let's set the scene with the compelling lede:

BURROWSVILLE, Va. — Long before American independence, before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth Rock, there was Martin’s Brandon Church.

And now, the Rev. Eve Butler-Gee looks at her flock at the same Martin’s Brandon Episcopal Church in amazement. “They’re faithful. Every single one of them is engaged and active,” she said. But then again, it’s no wonder: “They’ve been doing this for 400 years, and they’re not about to stop now.”

The church, one of the oldest in the United States that still operates, celebrates its 400th birthday this year. And for many families in the rural congregation, the pink-colored house of worship near the James River has been part of their family stories for a very large portion of that time.

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Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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