Ethics

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t only the highest court in the land, its judges have the responsibility to rule on cases that have a lasting impact on American politics, culture and religion. Driving those changes going forward will be a Catholic majority of justices who have become increasingly conservative, shifting the balance of the court for years to come.

The bitter partisan divide over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court — including weeks of debate over the credibility regarding allegations dating back to the 1980s that he had sexually assaulted a fellow teenager at a party – revealed how polarized politically the country has become since President Trump’s election just two years ago. To conservatives, Kavanaugh is a man smeared with unproven accusations; liberals consider him a danger in the #MeToo age.

Just 20 percent of people in the United States identify as Catholic, a number that is in decline, according to a Pew Research study. As the president has vowed to chip away at abortion rights (legalized in 1973 by the court in the Roe v. Wade decision), it will be conservative Catholics who will be tasked with doing so in the coming years. Aside from Kavanaugh, the Catholics on the Supreme Court include Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor. With the exception of Sotomayor, the other four justices are part of the court’s conservative wing. The remaining justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — are Jewish.

“I do think, however, that the Catholics on the court do fairly represent Catholicism. Roe v. Wade is only one of many issues that are important to Catholics,” said Anne Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. “Indeed, most Catholic abhor abortion. They split on the question whether the government should prohibit others from exercising their right, not so much on whether they would have an abortion. There is a spectrum of issues that Catholics care about ranging from what constitutes marriage, abortion, birth control, poverty, etc. People are not monolithic. We tend to pick and choose what aspects of who we are will be emphasized — hence, the phrase ‘cafeteria Catholic’ … Roberts and Alito represent one end of the spectrum. Sotomayor, a lapsed Catholic, represents another.”   

Some critics have called the current makeup of the Supreme Court a “Catholic boys club” given that they dominate the majority and are male conservatives.

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry?

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Washington Post editorial writer is back with more 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick scandal news

Washington Post editorial writer is back with more 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick scandal news

Attention all Catholic readers and other news consumers who want to keep up with news reporting about the life and times of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Teddy” McCarrick: It appears that you are going to need to read the opinion pages of The Washington Post.

Yes, the opinion pages.

McCarrick is, of course, the man at the center of this latest earthquake in the decades-old Roman Catholic crisis linked to the sexual abuse of children, teens (almost always males) and adults, mostly seminarians. While headlines linked to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s blast at the Vatican (text here) have centered on his call for Pope Francis to resign, the heart of the document centers on McCarrick and a network of cardinals and bishops who have protected, promoted or depended on him.

This brings us back to the work of Post editorial-page columnist Elizabeth Bruenig.

The last time we heard from her — in terms of the Catholic crisis — she was committing this act of journalism, seeking an actual interview with McCarrick:

… A little before 9:30 on Monday evening — likely a little later than is fair to an elderly man, I admit — I knocked on his door. I was dismissed by another person, via a muted conversation through a windowpane, but left a note and a business card. Hearing no word, I returned Tuesday afternoon and found my card still on the windowsill where I had left it. I suspected my efforts to contact the former cardinal might not be getting through, and so resolved to try a little more persistence this time, waiting on his doorstep for roughly an hour, with a letter I had brought.

But it seems my contact information had made it to authorities: After I left, a representative from the Washington archdiocese called my editor to complain about my presence. I was surprised to learn I had caused sincere alarm — I don’t present an imposing figure, and nobody ever so much as opened the door to ask me to go away — but my insistence, the ringing and knocking, had clearly inspired fear.

Have the D.C. Catholic powers that be called any other editors? At this point, it’s impossible to know. However, it was very journalistic of Bruenig to seek an answer to this basic question: Are the accusations true?

Now, Bruenig is back with another opinion-page piece with this headline: “He wanted to be a priest. He says Archbishop McCarrick used that to abuse him.” It’s must reading for, well, people looking for news on this topic. Here is the overture:

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So an anonymous seminarian, and folks who talked to seminarians, said that Cardinal Cupich said ...

So an anonymous seminarian, and folks who talked to seminarians, said that Cardinal Cupich said ...

It’s hard to imagine a topic that causes more debates in newsrooms than this one: Under what circumstances should reporters and editors trust second-hand quotes?

Here’s the context: What do you do when sources on only one side of a debate will talk with you? Or what about this: There is a crucial meeting and the powers that be will not include reporters. Do you print direct quotations based on the memories of participants (who almost always have an axe to grind, or they wouldn’t be talking to the press in the first place)?

If you’ve worked in Washington, D.C., you know that journalists sit around after the release of each Bob Woodward book (yeah, like this one) and discuss the status of his second-hand or even third-hand material — that ends up inside quotation marks as verbatim quotes.

Most of the time, reporters (including me every now and then) argue that this is a first-person quote about what a person heard someone say to them or these were words spoken in their presence. It may be is acceptable to quote them if you give the reader precise information about the identity of the person providing the second-hand quote and their link to the story.

But what about anonymous quotes of second-hand material?

Editors at The Chicago Sun-Times ventured deep into this minefield the other day on a high-profile story linked the the scandal surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his friends and disciples in the halls of Catholic power. The headline: “Cupich on scandal: ‘We have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this’.

Spot the journalism questions in this overture:

The young man studying at Mundelein Seminary to become a Catholic priest seemed anguished as he vented to Cardinal Blase Cupich about the clergy sex-abuse scandal that threatens to topple Pope Francis and drive more people away from the faith.

“I’m hurting, I can’t sleep, I’m sick,” the seminarian told Cupich during an Aug. 29 gathering at which the cardinal spoke to about 200 future priests enrolled at the seminary, according to another person who was there and spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times but asked not to be identified.

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Spot the ghost: Idealistic doctor from Catholic college seeks to build hospital near Ave Maria

Spot the ghost: Idealistic doctor from Catholic college seeks to build hospital near Ave Maria

If you have followed GetReligion for a decade or so, you know that one of our goals is to spot "religion ghosts" in mainstream news coverage.

What's a "ghost"? Click here for our opening post long ago, which explains the concept. The short version: We say a story is "haunted" when there is a religious fact or subject missing, creating a religion-shaped hole that makes it hard for readers to understand what is going on.

I received a note the other day, from a longtime reader, that pointed me to a perfect example of this concept. In this case, we are talking about a solid, timely New York Times story about an effort to build a new hospital in a rural corner of Florida that certainly appears to need one. Here's the double-decker headline on this long feature:

A Rural Town Banded Together to Open a Hospital. Its Foe? A Larger Hospital.

Even when a town wants to open a new hospital to make up for a lack of health care, the challenges can be enormous.

Here is the overture. Can you spot the ghost?

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Not long after Beau Braden moved to southwest Florida to open a medical clinic, injured strangers started showing up at his house. A boy who had split open his head at the pool. People with gashes and broken bones. There was nowhere else to go after hours, they told him, so Dr. Braden stitched them up on his dining room table.

They were 40 miles inland from the coral-white condos and beach villas of Naples, but Dr. Braden said that this rural stretch of Collier County, with tomato farms and fast-growing exurbs, had fewer hospital beds per person than Afghanistan.

So when he proposed starting a 25-bed rural hospital to serve the 50,000 people who live in the farming town of Immokalee and the nearby planned community of Ave Maria, people rallied to the idea. They envisioned a place where mothers could give birth and sick children could get 24-hour help -- their own novel solution to an exodus of hospital care from rural America.

Wait a minute. Is that THE controversial Ave Maria community that has been at the center of so much news coverage through the years? 

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Medium opines on training of young abortionists, but is there another point of view missing?

Medium opines on training of young abortionists, but is there another point of view missing?

The publishing platform Medium is a social journalism site started in 2012 by a co-founder of Twitter. It makes no visible attempt to be objective on culture wars issues and thus inhabits a left-leaning focus stemming, no doubt, from the millennials who run the site.

I began getting it in my mailbox several years ago and was fascinated with its curated content. I liked all the reporting on offbeat topics I couldn’t read about elsewhere, especially the astronomy pieces.

Unfortunately, it has little to nothing on religion and certainly nothing that looks on it favorably. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see an article by a freelancer on a “new generation” of abortionists moving up the ranks. He actually used the term “abortionists;” that's a wording I’ve never seen in left-of-center milieux. 

A sign in the lobby of the Philadelphia hotel read:

THERE ARE NO EVENTS SCHEDULED FOR TODAY
Please enjoy your day!

Meanwhile, in the ballroom upstairs, a significant portion of America’s current and future abortion providers were eating breakfast. The fake-out sign was one of multiple security measures, but the atmosphere at the Medical Students for Choice (MSFC) national conference still hummed with energy. Over the course of a day and a half, 450-plus medical students tried to absorb as much information as possible about providing abortions, information that -- depending on where they go to school -- can be extremely difficult to get…

Would this, I wondered, be another “Handmaid’s Tale”-tinged fear piece about the specter of a Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination that will take abortion back to the back alleys? Also, for GetReligion, there is this question: Will this story deal with any of the religious and ethical questions that haunt this line of work?

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For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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