I love the lede on an Associated Press story this week about a California seminary's plans to train leaders of three different faiths:
CLAREMONT, Calif. -- A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a classroom, and it's no joke.
The venerable Claremont School of Theology has taught Methodist ministers and theologians for more than a century, but in the fall they'll try an unorthodox approach: cross-training the nation's future Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders in classrooms scattered around Southern California as they work toward their respective degrees.
However, I'm not as crazy about the rest of the story.
The 1,200-word piece makes clear that the plan has drawn questions and concerns, but it takes on a cheerleading tone as it brushes aside opponents as "more conservative elements" -- never defining exactly, or even vaguely, what that means. The story quotes five named sources, all of them excited about Claremont's plan.
The basic gist: We live in a pluralistic world where all religions are the same, and everybody except for the usual vague people referred to as the "more conservative elements" recognizes that.
You can just hear the cheers, can't you? Rah-rah-rah!
So here is the first reference to "more conservative elements":
The experimental approach launched Wednesday is intended to create U.S. religious leaders who not only preach tolerance in an era of religious strife, but who have lived it themselves by rubbing shoulders with those in other Abrahamic faiths.
The idea has already met resistance from more conservative elements in some religious communities; its architects say that only underscores the need for such an approach.
Who are the more conservative elements in some religious communities? What is their standing in the historically progressive context of Claremont? Wish I could tell you. However, the story doesn't say.
The second reference to "more conservative elements" provides a few clues:
But organizers have not been able to avoid acrimony entirely. Some more conservative elements in the Christian and Jewish communities have pushed back, worried the approach may dilute their own faiths. One Jewish Academy faculty member took a leave of absence when he heard of the project's inception.
The United Methodists have withheld funds and the University Senate, a body within the United Methodist Church that oversees schools and colleges, hampered the project's momentum last April when it called for a review of the curriculum.
The United Methodists traditionally give about $800,000 to Claremont each year, said Campbell, the school's president.
"There are some elements within Methodism that felt we shouldn't be doing this," he said. "The issue is whether the United Methodists will put money into the school for education of only United Methodists."
Call me crazy, but I wouldn't have minded a quote from one of these three: (1) the unnamed Jewish Academy faculty member, (2) a United Methodist leader who supported withholding funds or (3) a University Senate member. Maybe I'm totally off my rocker, but I wouldn't even have minded the story quoting more than one of these folks.
Even better, AP could have included the perspective of Stephen Prothero, Boston University religion professor and author of "God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- and Why Their Differences Matter."
The book by Prothero, a regular contributor to CNN's new Belief Blog, has been the subject of much recent discussion, from Beliefnet and The Boston Globe to the Austin American Statesman and The Washington Post, just to name a few. In an interview with The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Prothero said:
I hope people consider seeing both the good and bad of religions and the similarities and differences. Religion is tremendously important and horribly misunderstood.
We keep racing to pretend that all religions are the same -- both among multiculturalists who want to say they're all good, and atheists who say they're all bad. That doesn't help us understand the world we live in.
It's worth noting that the "more conservative elements" language apparently appeared first Wednesday in a front-page Los Angeles Times story. To his credit, however, Times religion writer Mitchell Landsberg (the subject of recent criticism by GetReligion) includes input from those elements:
Claremont's administration sees the multi-faith expansion as the wave of the future in American theological training. But it is straining relations between the school and more conservative elements of the United Methodist Church, which this year was expected to provide about 8% of Claremont's $10-million budget. The church suspended its support for the school earlier this year pending an investigation.
Marianne E. Inman, president of the church's University Senate, which oversees Methodist seminaries, declined to comment on Claremont's plans, referring a reporter to a January statement in which she took the school to task for failing to consult with the church body on budget matters and on "a substantial reorientation of the institution's mission."
Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist who is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based ecumenical organization, was more outspoken in his criticism.
"Claremont seems to be moving away from its responsibility to the United Methodist Church," Tooley said. "It almost seems that they're trying to fulfill the stereotype that many in the church have of liberal Methodism on the West Coast."
In the AP story, the third reference to "more conservative elements" actually doesn't use that terminology, but it's close enough:
Project leaders have agreed to teach the classes on separate religious campuses to address concerns among some conservatives that too much integration would dilute the study of their own beliefs. Originally, the planners had envisioned a "university within a university."
Professors will be able to cap the number of students from other faiths in their classes.
So there you have it. A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a classroom, and the world's largest news organization fails to provide substantive coverage of the arguments for and against a multi-faith theological education.
Unfortunately, that's no joke.