Politics

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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Secular or sacred? LA Times says some Hong Kong protestors tempted to become 'martyrs'

Secular or sacred? LA Times says some Hong Kong protestors tempted to become 'martyrs'

I have covered quite a few public protests in the past four decades and I have even taken part in two or three, after leaving hard-news work in a newsroom and moving into higher education.

If I have learned one thing about protests it is this: They are almost always very complex events. Protestors may have gathered to protest about a single issue or event, but they often are doing so for different reasons. While they are there at the annual Right to Life march, members of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians will have their share of differences with most mainstream Catholics and evangelicals who are taking part. Then there is the Secular Pro-Life network of atheists, agnostics and others.

I have also noticed that protestors are rarely silent, in terms of chants, songs and symbolic speech (think signs and banners). It is often important to listen to what protesters say and then (a) ask them questions about these statements, (b) quote the statements verbatim or (c) both.

This brings us to a long, long, I would say appropriately long Los Angeles Times news report about the protests that continue to rock Hong King. The headline: “Activists fear shattered glass may obscure demands of Hong Kong protest movement.” What caught my eye, online, was a reference to some of the protestors seeking “martyrdom.” Hold that thought.

I read this piece, of course, with an intense interest in whether some — or perhaps many — of the protesters where motivated by fears about Chinese crackdowns on Christians, Muslims and members of other minority faiths. Have these human-rights concerns continued to play a role in the protests. GetReligion readers (about 6,000 people have clicked that, so far) may recall Julia Duin’s recent post with this headline: “American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests.”

So what did protesters do and say, during that recent protest when they shocked authorities — including some sympathetic to their cause — by seizing Hong Kong’s legislative chambers? What kinds of groups took part and why?

I would still like to know answers to those questions. And who is talking about new “martyrs”?

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Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

It’s the kind of dig-below-the-surface, front-page takeout for which the New York Times is famous.

It’s certainly a meaty subject matter: the arrest of an Alabama woman whose unborn baby died in a shooting.

But here’s what I noticed: A holy ghost (refresh yourself on that term if you’re new to GetReligion) most certainly haunts this in-depth but religion-free report from Monday’s Times.

I mean, this is a story that’s impossible to tell without acknowledging the huge role that religion plays in the South, right?

Somehow, though, the nation’s most elite newspaper attempts to do so.

Let’s start at the top:

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. — In the days since police officers arrested Marshae Jones, saying she had started a fight that resulted in her unborn baby getting fatally shot, the hate mail has poured in.

“I will encourage all U.S. business owners to boycott your town,” a woman from San Diego wrote on the Facebook page of the Pleasant Grove Police Department.

“Misogynist trash,” wrote another.

“Fire the chief and arresting officers,” wrote a third.

But Robert Knight, the police chief, said his officers had little choice in the matter.

“If the laws are there, we are sworn to enforce them,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Around the country, the case of Ms. Jones — who was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter — has served as a stark illustration of how pregnant women can be judged and punished when a fetus is treated as a person by the justice system.

A quick aside before I ask you to stay off my lawn: How sad is it that we live in an age in which unnamed Facebook critics are deemed worthy of the Times’ cover? Seriously, are there no opposition sources who could speak intelligently in that prime dead-tree real estate against the arrest and the Alabama law? But I digress.

Back to the main point of this post: Keep reading, and the Times boils down the debate this way:

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Thinking about beating Trump: How many Democrats would back a pro-life Democrat?

Thinking about beating Trump: How many Democrats would back a pro-life Democrat?

The conservative interfaith journal First Things is not the place that one would normally look for an essay offering advice to Democrats who absolutely, positively, want to defeat Donald Trump in the next race for the White House.

I had intended to put this piece up as this past weekend’s “think piece,” but was not able to get that done. My free WIFI options in the North Carolina mountains were much worse than normal. Where I hang out, there isn’t even service on my smartphone.

So what is going on with this First Things piece by John Murdock, an attorney in Texas?

First of all, he takes very seriously the evidence that many, many conservative Protestants and Catholics really didn’t want to vote for Trump the last time around, but felt they were stuck in a lesser-of-two evils crunch — because of Hillary Clinton’s stances on issues such as abortion and religious liberty.

So what if the Democratic Party ran a candidate — a popular governor in a state Trump carried — who is a consistent Catholic on moral and social issues as well as a solid Democrat on a host of economic and justice issues. Yes, we are headed back into those interesting pro-life Democrat waters, again (following up on some interesting coverage at The New York Times).

We are talking about Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. Hold that thought, because we’ll come back to it.

Let’s start with this interesting Murdock analysis of the Hyde Amendment issue. That’s the longstanding ban on using federal dollars to fund abortions.

Polling by Morning Consult earlier this month found that 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported the Hyde Amendment, as did 49 percent of the overall electorate (with only 33 percent opposed). That largely corroborates what Marist polling found in early 2018. Their survey showed that 24 percent of Democrats “strongly oppose using tax dollars to pay for a woman’s abortion.”  Another 19 percent were “opposed,” making the total Democratic opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions 43 percent. While these voters may have other issues — like civil rights, immigration, or healthcare — driving their election day choices toward the Democrats, many would still prefer a more pro-life candidate if one were available. Today, none are. 

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Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has gotten ultra-favorable coverage (this NPR piece is an example) as the history-making one-of-two-first-ever Muslim women to serve in Congress.

A one-time refugee in Kenya, the Somalia-born politician came to Virginia as a child, moved to Minnesota, got a political science degree from North Dakota State University, got involved in political activism and, like President Barak Obama, was a community organizer for minority groups in a large American city. She is now the country’s first hijab-wearing member of Congress.

She’s also faced death threats, been tweeted against by President Donald Trump and gotten major condemnation over her description on March 23 of September 11 as “some people who did something.”

I wrote about the reaction of some Minnesotans to the influx of Somali refugees in their state not long ago. This lengthy profile on Omar on the British web site MiddleEastEye.net goes in the opposite direction: Setting out the benefits of the Somalis getting politically involved.

Omar, as the first Somali-American to make it to the Minnesota state legislature and then to Congress, is part of a new cohort of path-breaking politicians daring to challenge not only US President Donald Trump but the broader American political establishment.

But Omar is more than just a congresswoman with fight. She is a refugee from a country that is now part of the president's Muslim ban; she is black, visibly Muslim; a walking antithesis to Trump's purview of America.

Within months, she has shaken the halls of Congress. As an "other" she is now the embodiment of what is fast becoming a fight for America's soul.

The story is an interesting meander through the many Muslim personalities the author meets while trying (somewhat fruitlessly) to get an interview with Omar. He does get a few words with her here and there but Omar seems loathe to divulge too much.

What strikes me in this –- and other articles I’ve dug up -– is how little Omar refers to her Muslim background. We hear nothing about how her faith influences her life. We get no idea of what mosque she attends, how she fits prayer into her work schedule and what precepts of the Quran she follows.

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U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

“Of making many books there is no end,” complains the weary author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. And there’s no end to lawyers making many lawsuits trying to learn what the U.S. Supreme Court thinks the Constitution means when it forbids “an establishment of religion” by government.

Journalists should provide follow-up analysis of a new era in “separation of church and state” launched June 20 with the Court’s decision to allow a century-old, 40-foot cross at a public war memorial in Maryland. Importantly, we can now assess new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who filed separate opinions supporting the cross display.

Actually, the nine justices produced a patchwork of eight separate opinions, which demonstrates how unstable and confused church-state law is.

Ask your sources, but The Guy figures the Court lineup now has only two flat-out separationists, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 86) and Sonia Sotomayor. While Samuel Alito managed to assemble five votes for part of his opinion, his four fellow conservative justices are unable to unite on a legal theory. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan seem caught halfway between the two sides.

Federal courts have long followed the “Lemon test,” from a 1971 Court ruling of that name that outlawed public aid for secular coursework at religious schools. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion devised three requirements to avoid “establishment,” that a law have a “secular” purpose, “neither advances nor inhibits religion” and doesn’t foster “excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Kavanaugh declared that the Court has now effectively abandoned Lemon in favor of a “history and tradition test,” which permits some cherished religious symbols and speech in government venues despite the “genuine and important” concern raised by dissenters.

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New York Times team explains black Democrats in South Carolina -- without going to church

New York Times team explains black Democrats in South Carolina -- without going to church

If you’ve been reading the political coverage in The New York Times lately, you’ve had a chance — if you are patient and willing to dig deep — to learn a few complex realities about life in today’s complex and often splintered Democratic Party.

Two months ago, the Times ran a very interesting piece with this headline: “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate.”

The thesis is right there in the headline. Lots of Democrats, especially in the Bible Belt, call themselves “moderates” or even “conservatives.” Lots of them are African-Americans. Yes, it would have been nice if this feature had addressed moral and religious concerns. Here is a key chunk of this must-read report that is based on data from the Hidden Tribes Project.

In recent decades, most of the candidates who have found their core strength among the party’s ideologically consistent, left-liberal activist base have lost. … Establishment candidates won the nomination by counting on the rest of the party’s voters.

The rest of the party is easy to miss. Not only is it less active on social media, but it is also under-represented in the well-educated, urban enclaves where journalists roam. It is under-represented in the Northern blue states and districts where most Democratic politicians win elections.

Many in this group are party stalwarts: people who are Democrats because of identity and self-interest — a union worker, an African-American — more than their policy views. Their votes are concentrated in the South, where Democratic politicians rarely win.

Then there was that interesting Times feature about grassroots pro-life Democrats — in Pennsylvania, of all places (as opposed to the Bible Belt). Check out Julia Duin’s post on that topic: “New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be.” I followed up on her must-read post by pointing readers to a New York Post essay that noted that a high percentage of pro-life Democrats in the South are African-Americans who go to church — a lot.

The bottom line: If you are interested in what Democrats in the South think, especially African-American Democrats, it really helps to explore their views on issues linked to religion. Reporters might even want to go to church.

This brings me to a new Times political feature with this headline: “ ‘The Black Vote Is Not Monolithic’: 2020 Democrats Find Split Preferences in South Carolina.

What’s so interesting about this story? Well, for starters it is absolutely faith-free, other than a passing reference to Cory Booker’s style as an orator. This whole story is framed in Democratic Twitter lingo.

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The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

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New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

On the face of it, Thursday’s New York Times story about a Minnesota city that doesn’t want any more Somali refugees sounds like a racist-town-hates-Muslims kind of piece.

I decided to look deeper into it and ask a few questions the article didn’t raise to see why everyone’s so upset why a 16 percent growth in non-white residents –- and mostly Muslim ones at that -– has frazzled the populace.

As you would expect, there’s lots of information here about politics and life in the Donald Trump era — complete with red “Make Saint Cloud Great Again” hats and lots of references to locals reading conservative websites online.

However, this is also a story in which it is important for readers to pause and do some math. The bottom line: It’s simple to write a story about racist right-wing Christian bigots who don’t want any more Muslims moving in. It’s not as easy to look at some of the other factors, like overcrowded classrooms in public schools; school districts having budget money for interpreters and ESL instructors; crowded emergency rooms at local hospitals and a tax base that’s not being greatly added to by all the new arrivals.

First, here’s the opening of the story:

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — John Palmer, a former university professor, has always had a cause. For decades he urged Minnesota officials to face the dangers of drunken driving and embrace seatbelts. Now he has a new goal: curbing the resettlement of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, after a few thousand moved into this small city where Mr. Palmer has lived for decades…

On Thursdays, Mr. Palmer hosts a group called Concerned Community Citizens, or C-Cubed, which he formed to pressure local officials over the Muslim refugees. Mr. Palmer said at a recent meeting he viewed them as innately less intelligent than the “typical” American citizen, as well as a threat.

“The very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a false narrative,” Mr. Palmer, 70, said. “A phobia is an irrational fear.” Raising his voice, he added, “An irrational fear! There are many reasons we are not being irrational.”

In this predominantly white region of central Minnesota, the influx of Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, has spurred the sort of demographic and cultural shifts that President Trump and right-wing conservatives have stoked fears about for years.

So “right-wing conservatives,” and people who rally in church pews, are all basically racists?

That does appear to be the thesis of this Times article.

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