Douglas LeBlanc

In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

The story of sisters Samantha and Lori Sally is a jackpot of drama.

It includes, let’s see, a fierce sibling loyalty, strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, two sisters marrying two brothers, deceit, arms trafficking, betrayal, wife abuse, Islam in America, the Islamic State in Syria, child slavery, child rape, federal charges against Samantha (more often Sam) because of her late husband’s involvement in ISIS, and rekindled loyalty. Did I miss anything? Possibly.

Jessica Roy of ELLE tells most of this story with sparkling writing, empathy, and a sustained focus on the sisters’ respective struggles. Her report of 10,400 words (divided into Sam’s story and Lori’s story) is blessedly free of ideological posturing, jargon, or rambling diversions into first-person details.

Here’s a sample of Roy’s narrative style, from high in her first report:

How does a woman from Arkansas, a woman who used to wear makeup and take selfies and wear flip-flops, end up dragged across the border into a war zone by her fun-loving husband? How do you grow up in the United States of America, surrounded by Walmarts and happy hours and swimming holes, and end up living in Syria under a terrorist group?

Samantha Sally met her husband Moussa Elhassani in Elkhart, Indiana. A few years after meeting, she says he forced her to move to Syria so he could fight for ISIS.

Lori, maybe more than anyone, knows how. She’s the reason Sam moved to Indiana. And the bad guy Sam married, the one who became an ISIS fighter? He was Lori’s brother-in-law. The two sisters married two brothers. Lori was there with Sam, until Sam was gone, beyond reach. Until not even Lori knew whether what the Justice Department claimed—that Sam was an accomplice, not a prisoner—was untrue.

Lori passes through the metal detectors and makes her way to the fourth-floor courtroom, which is circular and paneled with brown oak. Sam seems to sense her little sister come in, and she looks up and smiles, gives a small wave. Lori slides into a bench near the back.

There is a significant qualifier amid my praise, however: in Roy’s reporting of this story, vast details are sealed off behind the word religious.

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Another abuser Catholic bishop: Crux pieces together the long, painful story of Joseph Hart

Another abuser Catholic bishop: Crux  pieces together the long, painful story of Joseph Hart

Every so often, a piece of investigative journalism shows up that bears mention, which is why I wanted to draw attention to a three-part Crux series on the disgraced former Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart and the tale of sex abuse allegations that have dogged him for years.

There’s more. This is also the story of the bishop who took his place and how he was determined to bring some just into the situation. Not all bishops are so minded.

The series, written by their national correspondent Christopher White, ran this past week and starts here with the story of one family.

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — As parishioners attended the Feast of the Assumption Mass inside Guardian Angels Catholic Church on August 15, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) gathered outside on the sidewalk for a press conference marking an occasion that many believed would never come.

Less than 24 hours earlier, police in Cheyenne, Wyoming recommended to prosecutors that a one-time Guardian Angels priest, who would go on to become a beloved Catholic bishop, face criminal charges for the sexual abuse of minors.

Prior to being named a bishop, Joseph Hart had served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the first two decades of his priesthood, following ordination in 1956. Although his ecclesial career has spanned over five decades, serving in two states where he was widely popular, he has been trailed by allegations of serial abuse — which he has consistently denied — dodging both civil and canonical adjudication for more than two decades.

Now, in the twilight of his life he not only faces criminal charges, where he could become the first U.S. bishop ever to face criminal prosecution for abuse, but also the possibility of being stripped of his title of bishop and removed from the clerical state as a church trial in the Vatican is also underway.

By the 1960s, Hart is accused of moving on to:

… organized sexual assault, becoming close companions with two of the diocese’s most notorious abusers: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Thomas Reardon…

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If you feel snarky about missionary John Chau’s death, read this elegant GQ update

If you feel snarky about missionary John Chau’s death, read this elegant GQ update

Here’s a confession: when the world learned of John Chau’s death late last year when he tried to make contact with the isolated and violent residents of North Sentinel Island, I had one immediate reaction: “That young man was a fool.”

I admit that with shame. Like Chau did, I believe that the good news of Jesus should be spread across the world; that everyone should hear this good news; that serving Jesus may well mean becoming a martyr; and that missionaries discern God’s clear direction to take the good news to a specific group of people somewhere in the world.

Unlike Chau, I do not believe this means disregarding laws meant to protect outsiders from probably fatal encounters with the Sentinelese, and to protect the Sentinelese from unwelcome visits by outsiders. There are still thousands of people groups throughout the world that have never heard anything of Jesus Christ. Obeying Christ’s Great Commission hardly obliges a missionary to attempt a mission among people quite likely to kill first and ask no questions later.

Nevertheless, I was haunted by the hostility of my initial reaction to Chau’s death.

I cannot forget Christ’s warning about calling someone a fool, or about the noble church tradition of the holy fool. Maybe God did call Chau to this quixotic errand. I tremble at that thought, and then can only find comfort in the thought that only God and Chau know the answer.

Now comes Doug Bock Clark of GQ, whose work I have praised before, when he wrote about the underground railroad leading out of North Korea. He has also written in stunning detail for GQ about Otto Warmbier’s ordeal as a prisoner in North Korea, and of the brazen murder of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. If a report is set in Asia and it involves complex details, Clark is the man for the job.

As soon as I saw the web headline to Clark’s 10,000-word essay — “The American Missionary and the Uncontacted Tribe” — I knew that Chau would benefit from Clark’s style of extensive research and elegant writing.

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Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker has a bit of fun with the Esalen Institute in a report for the Aug. 26 issue, posted online as “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Marantz reports on a widely perceived problem in 21st-century America: how well the leaders of Big Tech companies recognize the social harm in their innovations, and whether they intend to decrease that harm. 

Marantz does not flat-out mock Esalen or what happens there, but instead quotes keynote speakers who favor jargon and therapy-speak. The amusing remarks begin by the end of the first paragraph:

“This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

To be clear, it is also a place: twenty-seven acres of Big Sur coastline, laid out lengthwise between California Route 1 and the Pacific, a dazzling three-hour drive south of San Francisco. Its full name is the Esalen Institute—a tax-exempt nonprofit, founded in 1962.

Still, Marantz devotes most of his 6,600 words to reporting the background of what troubles some of tech’s innovators, and how they are trying to limit the damage of social media.

Much of the report centers on Tristan Harris, a former project manager at Google who worked on Gmail:

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Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a longtime friend of GetReligion and its founders, began her transformation into a pro-life activist in 1976, after reading a piece called “What I Saw at the Abortion” in Esquire. Read it and I predict you can tell the passage that grabbed her and would not let go.

We never quite know the potential of one honest essay or journalism feature to move a person’s conscience. This leads me to “I Found the Outer Limits of My Pro-choice Beliefs” by Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, writing for The Atlantic.

Karkowsky remains resolutely pro-choice in her sympathies, as reflected in how she describes pro-lifers protesting at late-term abortion facilities as “screaming at [women] not to do what they have already spent days or weeks weeping about.” It’s odd that pro-lifers — diverse people who often protest in silence, pray the rosary, have calm conversations with women and offer to help them bring their babies to term — apparently can only scream in their mass-media appearances.

But I digress. Karkowsky’s new awareness of these outer limits emerges from a time of working in Israel, after her husband took a job there. Israel’s laws on abortion are more permissive than those in the United States, although they also require taking the decision to a Termination of Pregnancy Committee (va’ada), as Karkowsky explains:

In this majority-Jewish country with deep socialist roots, abortion law has never been constructed around the idea of a woman’s power over her own body, or around the value of fetal life. The basics of abortion law were passed in the 1970s, and were largely built around demographic concerns in a tiny collectivist country that, at the time, was almost continually at war. Though changes have been made, those foundational laws still prevail. In Israel, terminations of pregnancy, regardless of gestational age, must go through a committee, a va’ada. Without its assent, an abortion is officially a criminal offense. But here’s the surprise: In the end, more than 97 percent of abortion requests that come before the committee are approved.

The va’ada can approve abortions for specific reasons spelled out by the law: if the woman is over 40, under 18, or unmarried; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, an extramarital affair, or any illegal sexual relationship, such as incest; if the fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect; if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life or cause her mental or physical harm. Some of these rationales, such as rape and incest, are familiar from the U.S. abortion debate. Other justifications, such as those involving the woman’s age or marital status, bespeak a certain amount of social engineering, and may strike Americans as odd matters for the law to take into account.

Karkowsky describes herself as homesick for Roe v. Wade, which sounds ghoulish for a moment, but her explanation makes it warmer and — how to put this? — almost pro-natal:

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Attention readers and reporters: Is this the interfaith Marxist Moment?

Attention readers and reporters: Is this the interfaith Marxist Moment?

Two recent essays — the first by a young Catholic writing for the Jesuit magazine America and the second by a graduate student published in Aeon — argue that Karl Marx is compatible with two of the world’s major religions.

Both devote precious little attention to communism’s sordid history of oppressing people who believe in something transcendent, from Catholic martyrs in Cuba to Buddhists in Tibet.

The question: Does the debate surrounding either of these pieces tell us anything about trends in the age in which we read and report the news?

In his piece for America, Dean Dettloff responds to “What Catholics don’t understand about communism,” which Dorothy Day wrote for America in May 1933. If Dettloff is aware that Day was a communist before becoming a Catholic, he does not make that clear by the quality of his argument. Instead, at one point he reduces her essay to the caricature of “we should hate the communism but love the communist.”

Dettloff finds it impressive that some Catholic theologians have been friends of communist rulers, and that contemporary communists seem more receptive to some Catholics than in past decades:

Despite and beyond theoretical differences, priests like Herbert McCabe, O.P., Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, S.J., Frei Betto, O.P., Camilo Torres and many other Catholics—members of the clergy, religious and laypeople—have been inspired by communists and in many places contributed to communist and communist-influenced movements as members. Some still do—for example in the Philippines, where the “Christians for National Liberation,” an activist group first organized by nuns, priests and exploited Christians, are politically housed within the National Democratic Front, a coalition of movements that includes a strong communist thread currently fighting the far-right authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte. …

The Communist Party USA has published essays affirming the connections between Christianity and communism and encouraging Marxists not to write off Christians as hopelessly lost to the right (the C.P.U.S.A. paper, People’s World, even reported on Sister Simone Campbell and Network’s Nuns on the Bus campaign to agitate for immigration reform). In Canada, Dave McKee, former leader of the Communist Party of Canada in Ontario, was once an Anglican theology student at a Catholic seminary, radicalized in part by his contact with base communities in Nicaragua. For my part, I have talked more about Karl Rahner, S.J., St. Óscar Romero and liberation theology at May Day celebrations and communist meetings than at my own Catholic parish.

Dettloff mentions neither Pope John Paul II’s pointed rebuke of Ernesto Cardenal nor the Sandinistas’ attempts to shout down the pope as he celebrated Mass in Managua.

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Slate is alarmed that some Pentecostals mix politics and prophecy

Slate is alarmed that some Pentecostals mix politics and prophecy

Pentecostal Christians who believe in modern-day prophecy and support President Donald Trump gathered more than a year ago in Washington, D.C. That should be enough to frighten anyone braced for battle against theocracy.  

Worse still, they gathered at the Trump International Hotel, so you know that here is something deeply menacing to the future of America.

Ruth Graham ofSlate wrote about “The Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven,” drawing in part from an on-site report filed Jan. 18, 2018, by Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.

Here’s the strange twist. Montgomery’s report for the activist group surpasses Graham’s report for the more journalism-oriented web daily.

The key difference is that Montgomery’s report conveys a more nuanced picture of this melodramatic gathering, whose leaders are clearly outliers in the evangelical subculture.

Montgomery writes:

Joining [Dutch] Sheets at the conference — called “The Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven” — were Chuck PierceCindy JacobsLou Engle and other leaders of the “intercessory prayer” movement, along with 1,300 attendees who filled the Trump hotel’s presidential ballroom to capacity for hours of music, prayer, speaking in tongues, and prophetic decrees. Many of the conference leaders have been working together and supporting one another’s ministries for decades, and they joked and teased each other on stage. But they were utterly serious about their mission in Washington, D.C.

Right Wing Watch’s video shows a small rock outfit in the background, including a saxophonist, so we can at least presume that the music was engaging.

Montgomery clearly knows the gold to be mined when a writer can sit in on a gathering of like-minded people and listen carefully to what they say.

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

For the second consecutive week, I am pleased to focus on an amazing work of religion coverage from an unexpected platform: “Why On Earth Are So Many Millennials Becoming Nuns?” by Eve Fairbanks, writing for the Huffington Post longform section, Highline.

Her essay begins (disclosure of my bias) exactly the way I would expect a HuffPost article to begin, when dealing with a subject linked to a traditional form of faith.

It’s all here — right down to the “scare” quotes in the predictable places. But the key word in that headline is “Millennial,” a generation wrestling with some interesting hopes, fears and anxieties. Let’s start here:

I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case. …

Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men — only men — who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn’t help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.

Still, there’s a certain allure to a high school with public art “depicting the triumph of mathematical logic.” The first photo featured wit this post, taken from Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., offers one possibility.

Once Fairbanks moves past this scene-setting about how she came to write this essay, she interviews a few different young women — Tori, Rachael, Mackenzie — who are high-achieving idealists.

The key question: Is there more to life than what is offered by a consumerist American culture?

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