Politics

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

As a rule, the foreign desk of The New York Times does high-quality work when covering religious stories that are clearly defined as religion stories, frequently drawing praise here at GetReligion.

However, when an international story is defined in political terms — such as Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish communities in northern Syria — editors at the Times tend to miss the religion “ghosts” (to use a familiar GetReligion term) that haunt this kind of news.

The bottom line: It’s hard to write a religion-free story about news with obvious implications for Turkey, Syria, Russia, the United States, the Islamic State and a complex patchwork of religious minorities. The Times has, however, managed to do just that in a recent story with this headline: “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.

Included in that complex mix is the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, based in Damascus. Let me state the obvious here: Yes, part of my interest here is rooted in my own faith, since I converted into the Antiochian church 20-plus years ago. Click here for my 2013 column — “The Evil the church already knows in Syria” — about the plight of the Orthodox Church in a region ruled by monsters of all kinds.

This brings me to this particular Times feature. One does not have to grant a single noble motive to Russian President Vladimir Putin to grasp that secular and religious leaders in Russia do not want to risk the massacre of ancient Orthodox Christian communities in Syria. And there are other religious minorities in the territory invaded by Turkish forces. This is one of the reasons that American evangelicals and others have screamed about Trump’s decision to stab the Kurds in the back.

How can the world’s most powerful newspaper look at this drama and miss the role of religion? Here is the overture:

DOHUK, Iraq — Russia asserted itself in a long-contested part of Syria … after the United States pulled out, giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East.

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New Yorker riffs on Doug Pagitt counseling Democrats on how to reach out to evangelicals

New Yorker riffs on Doug Pagitt counseling Democrats on how to reach out to evangelicals

With President Donald Trump facing everything from impeachment to plummeting poll numbers, many Democrats are no doubt thinking this is their moment.

One huge gap in their 2020 strategy is how to pick off adherents to the GOP, most notably the religiously devout, who voted in huge numbers for Trump in 2016.

The New Yorker’s Eliza Griswold set out to cover an activist from the evangelical left who can speak fluent Democrat, yet at the same time offer up pointers on how to nab some of America’s evangelicals, who are one-quarter of the U.S. electorate. Candidate Barack Obama did a decent job of that in 2007.

Fellow GetReligionista Bobby Ross looked at some coverage of this effort a year ago. Since then Democrats have gotten more, not less polarized on religion. The big elephant in the room? That would be Beto O’Rourke’s promise to remove tax exemptions from houses of worship if leaders don’t embrace modernized doctrines on LGBTQ issues.

Her piece begins:

On a Tuesday afternoon this past summer, Doug Pagitt, a fifty-three-year-old pastor in a blue straw hat and glasses, stood in a conference room at the Democratic Congressional Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., laying out sandwiches. Pagitt was preparing to lead a training session for Democratic members of Congress on how to speak to evangelicals. A table was littered with blue-and-orange lapel pins reading “Vote Common Good,” the name of an organization that Pagitt launched last year to make the religious left more visible. “We want people to know that it exists, and they can join it,” he said. Last year, the group’s members spent a month traveling the country in a tour bus, campaigning for roughly forty progressive candidates on their religious message, but this was their first time speaking to politicians in Washington…

Robb Ryerse, a self-described former fundamentalist pastor and the political director of Vote Common Good, opened the meeting with a tip. “Trying to memorize John 3:16 in the car on your way to the event and then quote that is probably not the best way to connect with faith-based voters,” he said. He had seen a candidate try this trick on the way to a rally in Kansas and then struggle to remember the phrase onstage.

Here is a snapshot of a pastor from the ranks of the “emergent church” trying to help Democratic politicians succeed among voters who are active in traditional forms of religion. As tmatt has written previously, Republicans in recent years have increased their clout with religious voters and Democrats are increasingly made up of the unaffiliated “nones” a growing demographic.

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Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

First, an apology for a long delay (I have been on the road) getting to this important news topic — as in the hand grenade that Beto O’Rourke tossed, whether his fellow Democrats want to talk about it or not, into the 2020 White House race.

I am referring, of course, to his LGBT-forum statement that the U.S. government should strip the tax-exempt status of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious groups that defend — even inside their own doors — ancient teachings on marriage and sex that do not mesh with modernized doctrines.

If you want to start a firestorm, that was the spark you would need in a nation bitterly divided on the role of religious faith and practice in the real world. Here’s the key quote:

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights and full civil rights of every single one of us,” he said. …

Will journalists keep asking about this or will that job be left to members of Donald Trump’s campaign advertising team? That was the topic we discussed during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in).

To its credit, the team at Religion News Service did a basic follow-up report: “Buttigieg, Warren reject O’Rourke plan to link church tax status, LGBT policy.” Here’s a crucial chunk of that:

“I’m not sure (O’Rourke) understood the implications of what he was saying,” said Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who is married to a man. “That (policy) means going to war not only with churches, but I would think, with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do.

“So if we want to talk about anti-discrimination law for a school or an organization, absolutely they should not be able to discriminate. But going after the tax exemption of churches, Islamic centers, or other religious facilities in this country, I think that’s just going to deepen the divisions that we’re already experiencing.” …

In a statement to Religion News Service on Sunday, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign also pushed back on O’Rourke’s remark.

So, for journalists who are paying close attention, it would appear that O’Rourke’s bold stance represents the left side of the Democratic Party, while Mayor Pete and Warren are trying to find a centrist stance.

Reporters: What is the content of that center stance?

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Friday Five: Elijah Cummings, Kurdish evangelicals, Tree of Life, viral forgiveness, open marriages/NYT

Friday Five: Elijah Cummings, Kurdish evangelicals, Tree of Life, viral forgiveness, open marriages/NYT

It’s not religion news per se, but for those interested in the future of American journalism: Poynter.org reported this week on signs pointing to USA Today phasing out its print edition.

Amazing.

But come to think of it, I don’t open those free copies that I receive at hotels as often as I once did.

Anything that affects the health of major American newspapers will, ultimately, affect their ability to cover tricky, complicated subjects like religion. So would changes at USA Today affect Gannett newspapers everywhere, including funding for religion news coverage? This is worth watching.

Anyway, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In case you missed my post Thursday, faith was a major part of the life of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who died this week from complications from longstanding health challenges. He was 68.

Some major news organizations — including Cummings’ hometown Baltimore Sun — nailed the religion angle.

However, at least one major national news organization failed to do so.

Check out my post.

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Looking for a tough group to interview? Try doing cold-call visits with the Amish

Looking for a tough group to interview? Try doing cold-call visits with the Amish

Julie Zauzmer seems to be the Washington Post’s down-in-the-trenches reporter these days who gets to slog about places like rural West Virginia, Concord, N.H. and Virginia Beach to get interesting stories outside the Beltway.

Must say I appreciate it when journalists get off the phone and go on the road. Her latest is based out of Lancaster County, Pa., where there’s an effort going to get the reclusive Amish to sign up to vote for President Donald Trump in 2020.

There’s only one problem. Amish folks aren’t hot on being interviewed. Read the beginning of the piece:

MANHEIM, Pa. — In 2016, when more than 6 million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential election, the state’s 20 pivotal electoral votes were decided by a margin of less than 45,000 voters.

Pennsylvania is home to more than 75,000 Amish people, and most who are eligible don’t vote.

For two Republican operatives, those two numbers add up to one major opportunity — to convince the traditionally reluctant Amish to come out to the polls, where their votes might be tremendously influential…

What they came up with was a group called the Amish PAC, which hopes to keep Pennsylvania — always a vital swing state — Republican in 2020.

Amish people tend to align strongly on policy with Republicans, who share their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But making voters out of the Amish, who forgo television and the Internet and believe fiercely in the separation of their religious community from government intrusion, may be a steep goal.

No kidding.

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Obituary of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland haunted by religion ghosts

Obituary of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland haunted by religion ghosts

There’s sad, sad news today in the world of politics: the death of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.

The Associated Press obituary — which will be the one many thousands of Americans read — captures key highlights of Cummings’ prominent life.

Yes, those highlights include clashing with President Donald Trump:

BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a sharecropper’s son who rose to become a civil rights champion and the chairman of one of the U.S. House committees leading an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, died Thursday of complications from longstanding health problems. He was 68.

Cummings was a formidable orator who advocated for the poor in his black-majority district , which encompasses a large portion of Baltimore and more well-to-do suburbs.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led investigations of the president’s government dealings, including probes in 2019 relating to Trump’s family members serving in the White House.

But read the full AP report, and it’s clear that something is missing.

Holy ghosts, anyone?

AP offers hints of a potential religious influence in Cummings’ life, including here:

It steeled Cummings to prove that counselor wrong. He became not only a lawyer, but one of the most powerful orators in the statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first black House speaker pro tem. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.

Hmmmmm. Why might Cummings’ oratory have resembled a sermon?

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Might even 'Trump's Court Artist' (per The Atlantic) have a sense of humor?

Might even 'Trump's Court Artist' (per The Atlantic) have a sense of humor?

Here’s a tug of the LeBlanc beret for Jennifer A. Greenhill for “Trump’s Court Artist” in The Atlantic. Being described as a court anything to President Trump qualifies as apostasy among his snarkiest critics. Consider, for example, historian John Fea’s frequent designation of “court evangelical” on his weblog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Greenhill, professor of art history at the University of Southern California, concentrates her remarks largely on McNaughton’s full-barreled support of Donald Trump and his pointed depictions of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, even Woodrow Wilson.

I have lived through the past several years without realizing that McNaughton does so much to provoke the cultural left, including art critic Jerry Saltz of New York magazine. Saltz, as Greenhill mentions, called one McNaughton painting (of a glowering President Obama holding a burning Constitution) “bad academic derivative realism,” “typical propaganda art, drop-dead obvious in message” and “visually dead as a doornail.” (Props to the TV affiliate CBS DC for seeking his thoughts.)

Greenhill too quickly moves on from McNaughton being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (his attending Brigham Young University is one clue). This is the one church that teaches the most exalted perspective on the nation’s founding.

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What do Tulsi Gabbard, Stehekin and the Science of Identity Foundation have in common?

What do Tulsi Gabbard, Stehekin and the Science of Identity Foundation have in common?

Stehekin is a unique and lovely spot in central Washington state that’s very hard to get to, as it can only be reached by foot, boat or plane. It’s at the end of the lovely 55-mile-long Lake Chelan and about 95 people live there year-round.

So how does this isolated spot become a religion story involving Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to be elected to Congress and one in a crowded field of Democrats vying for president?

I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Civil Beat, a website in Honolulu, but they came up with a pretty interesting story on this lady and went so far as to send a reporter to Washington state to try to track the story down. It begins:

STEHEKIN, Wash. — Deep in the Washington state wilderness, a highly paid political consultant is raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaign.

It’s the kind of money usually spent on national name-brand political operatives with bustling offices and large staffs based in Washington, D.C., or New York.

But few people in the business have ever heard of Kris Robinson, the owner of Northwest Digital, a web design and internet marketing firm working for Gabbard’s campaign. His company address is a P.O. box here in Stehekin, a remote village in the Northern Cascades mountains that’s famous for its isolation.

After explaining how truly out-of-the-way this place is,

Yet in the first six months of 2019, federal campaign finance records show Gabbard paid Robinson and his company more than $259,000…Robinson is one of her top vendors.

Then the religion angle pops up.

Like her, he has ties to an obscure religious sect called the Science of Identity Foundation that’s based in Kailua and run by a reclusive guru whose devotees have displayed political ambitions. …

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Friday Five: Dodger blues, religious freedom threat, Bathsheba raped?, judge's faith, Chick-fil-A hero

Friday Five: Dodger blues, religious freedom threat, Bathsheba raped?, judge's faith, Chick-fil-A hero

This week in news from the baseball gods: They sure don’t seem to like the Los Angeles Dodgers (or the Atlanta Braves).

In the National League Championship Series, I’ll be rooting for the Washington Nationals to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals (I’m a Texas Rangers fan, after all, still dealing with whiplash from what the Cardinals did in the 2011 World Series).

On the American League side, I must decide whether to support the Houston Astros (the Rangers’ division rival) or the New York Yankees (the Evil Empire). Hey, is it possible to root against both?

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Did you catch that headline, via the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas? “During LGBTQ rights town hall, top Democrats call for limits on religious freedom.”

It’s a must read.

Already, this story — including Beto O’Rourke pledging to strip the tax-exempt status from churches that refuse to change their doctrines to accept same-sex marriage — is causing an uproar in conservative media. And it’s drawn attention elsewhere in the mainstream press, too.

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