Church & State

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days.

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Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Australia is often referred to as a “secular” nation, but the reality is more complex than that. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the practice of religious faith, researchers are more likely to find modern Australians at the beach or in pubs than in church pews.

Australia isn’t post-Christian Western Europe, but religious faith is rarely a major player in public life. (If my reading on this topic is out of date, please leave comments and point me to new sources.)

Thus, it’s interesting that religion is currently making big headlines down under, in part because religious issues are affecting politics and another topic that ordinary Australians view with religious fervor — rugby.

The question in this post is whether these two stories might be connected: First, there was Rugby Australia sacking the land’s most popular star, after he included homosexuality in a social-media post on sin, hell and the Bible. Then, days later, conservatives — led by an evangelical Protestant — shocked the world by winning a national election.

Once again we see a familiar questions: Are worries about religious liberty and free speech playing a role, in many cases, in this “populist” political wave that journalists around the world are struggling to cover?

First, let’s talk rugby, with this story from News.com.au, days before the national election:

An understandably gutted Israel Folau has issued a parting jab at Rugby Australia shortly after his official axing from the Wallabies.

The 30-year-old had his $4 million contract scrapped … following the nuclear fallout to his anti-gay Instagram post.

“It has been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” he said.

That social media post, which Folau has refused to take down, quoted the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.

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Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

For a brief period of time in 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder made headlines by attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for president.

This is the kind of thing that leads to press conferences, especially in Denver.

Schroeder was, to say the least a freethinker on a host of cultural and political leaders, including gay rights. At one press conference, I asked the congresswoman a question that went something like this (I am paraphrasing): You have said that you believe people are born gay. Do you believe that, at some point, there will be genetic evidence to back this stance and strengthen your case?

She said “yes,” but didn’t elaborate. However, she did allow me to ask a follow-up question. I asked: If that is the case, and this genetic information could be shown in prenatal tests, would you support a ban on parents choosing to abort gay fetuses?

The press aide in charge was not amused and shut that down immediately. However, I was not accosted by other journalists in the room. A few Rocky Mountain News (RIP) colleagues used to refer to this as “that Mattingly question.” They may not have approved, but some thought it was logical and, thus, fair game.

This anecdote popped into my mind when I read a re-posted 2015 think piece by Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway at The Federalist. The headline: “Why Do The Media Keep Helping Nancy Pelosi Avoid Abortion Questions?” While, obviously, she offers commentary about abortion, Hemingway is primarily asking a journalism question about bias linked to mainstream news coverage of an issue that always involves religion, morality and culture.

This media-bias question remains relevant, after all of these years — as readers could see in the comments attached to this recent Bobby Ross post: “Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote.” Thus, let’s look at this older Hemingway work.

Here’s my take: Yes, I have seen some improvement in abortion coverage, if your goal is balanced, accurate reporting that shows respect for people on both sides of the debates. Some religion-beat reporters have worked hard to talk to both sides. However, in my opinion, political-desk coverage of abortion issues has been as bad as ever — or worse.

This brings us back to that Hemingway piece.

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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Washington Post goes into the classroom in front-page story on Bible classes in public schools

Washington Post goes into the classroom in front-page story on Bible classes in public schools

Let’s talk about Tuesday’s front-page Washington Post story on “Teaching Scripture in public schools.”

But before we do, let’s refresh ourselves on some relevant background: Back in January, President Donald Trump tweeted his support of Bible classes in public schools.

As I noted at the time, Trump’s tweet followed a USA Today story that reported on “a wave of ‘Bible literacy’ bills emerging in state legislatures.”

I said in that post:

Here’s the deal: Bible classes in public schools already exist, and they have for a long time. While the USA Today story, for example, did a nice job of quoting politicians and advocacy group talking heads, the better, more enlightening story is in the classroom itself.

That’s a point I’ve made before, urging reporters to talk to actual students and teachers involved in such classes — and if possible, observe in person — to see what these courses are actually like.

Fast-forward to this week’s Post story, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see religion writer Julie Zauzmer actually go into Kentucky school classrooms to report her piece.

That approach — which, according to a tweet by Zauzmer, involved two trips to the Bluegrass State — makes all the difference in the Post’s insightful and informative report.

Zauzmer’s lede sets the scene:

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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

The 2020 presidential race is in full swing. The political press and its insatiable appetite for all things Donald Trump has subsided in as much as it needs to dedicate column space and airtime to the Democrats looking to replace him.

At last count, 20 people are running in the Democratic primary. Those include long-time frontrunners like Bernie Sanders, according to various polls and based on money raised, as well as those you may never have heard of before now like John Hickenlooper.

Overall, religion and faith, as expected, has gotten little to no coverage thus far. Only Pete Buttigieg has seen crossover coverage and that’s only because he injected his Christian faith (as a shot against Vice President Mike Pence) into the conversation.

The religion of these candidates and history with the dogma of their respective faiths — what they believe, why they believe it and, in some cases, when they changed their minds — is an issue many Americans care about. Journalists in the New York and Washington, D.C. bubbles may not think so (or even be aware of it), but the rest of the country (from the Bible Belt to the Western Plains) cares.

One candidate whose faith does need examination is Joe Biden. The former vice president has been in the news a lot recently — even before he announced a 2020 bid — but the faith angle (and his history with Catholicism over the decades) has sadly been overlooked.

For starters, Biden was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Were he to win the presidency, Biden would only be the second Catholic — after John F. Kennedy — to occupy the Oval Office. That’s no longer a big a story as when JFK did it in 1960. Nonetheless, Biden’s brand of Catholicism (past and present) is worth lots of news stories and TV segments. One can't run a Biden is running in 2020 story without including his faith and how it has influenced his life and politics.

It's true that Biden winning wouldn't make the same headlines JFK did in 1960. Or can they? After all, Catholics have come a long way in this country — both in terms of political clout and in overall population — that a Biden win wouldn't do much in the way of cementing Catholicism in any way. After all, a majority of the Supreme Court now features Catholic judges. Issues like abortion (Biden was once a pro-life Democrat) and religious freedom are at the center of the culture war being waged primarily by conservative Catholics, with help from Evangelical Christians, Mormons and other Protestants.

Overall, the Biden coverage has been devoid of any faith.

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