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For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

A Pegasus Books release has this curious title: “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

Huh? Say what?

Is the pope not Catholic? Don’t U.S. Democrats constitute a political party? (With Britain’s Conservatives and Labour that’s open to question lately.) The subtitle then explains what the book is about: “Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.”

Author Asma Uddin’s title targets American right-wingers who are claiming Islam is not “really” a religion — but a dangerous political movement.

Islam is, in actuality, a variegated global religion that usually intermingles beliefs with politics in ways that can become problematic, just as with some variants of Christianity -- including some of those making that anti-Islam claim.

Uddin, a Pakistani-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., belongs on your prime source list (if she is not there already). Contact: asma.uddin@altmuslimah.com. For starters, this Muslim studied her civil rights specialization at the elite University of Chicago Law School.

She became the founding editor of a lively, decade-old online magazine that journalists should be monitoring, altmuslimah.com. It emphasizes hot-button gender issues in Islam (e.g. women’s rights, man-woman relationships, polygamy, harem, genital mutilation, honor killing, headscarves and burqas). You won’t want to miss articles on whether Islam, and also Christianity, can consistently be considered religions (!), like this one.

In an interview posted by her law school last year, Uddin says her altmuslimah colleagues felt “there were so many of us who wanted to be authentic to our faith, devoted to our faith, and who were struggling with issues that we didn’t always know how to fit with our lived realities. It turned out that these were conversations that people were desperate to have. The response has been overwhelming.”

Most important, Uddin is a principled defender of religious liberty across the board, naturally quick to defend the rights of fellow American Muslims but also concerned about believers in all other faiths, including those who suffer suppression in Muslim countries.

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One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

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Is Marianne Williamson being sidelined as a serious candidate because of her spirituality?

Is Marianne Williamson being sidelined as a serious candidate because of her spirituality?

I know next to nothing about Marianne Williamson, in terms of basic facts, and most religion reporters I know are in the same boat. She’s hard to classify. Is she all about religion? Or spiritual but not religious? Guru of mysticism? Inner healing? It’s hard to tell. Although she once led a church of some kind or another, she never got ordained.

She dislikes being called a “spiritual leader;” rather she prefers being called an author. When I was a religion reporter, her books never ended up on my desk for review. I am guessing they got sent to someone on the lifestyle desk.

Sure she talks about prayer. But who or what is she praying to? Thus, I was interested in a recent profile on her by the New York Times Magazine on “The Gospel according to Marianne Williamson.”

However, I don’t think the article really goes into the facts and doctrines of Williamson’s gospel.

No surprise there. Feature writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner asks the same question that conservatives do: Why does the mere mention of religion or spirituality in the public square automatically make one suspect? The following quotes are long, but essential:

The first problem with Marianne Williamson is what do you call her. The other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination lead with their impressive elected titles: “Governor,” “Senator,” “Mayor.” She’s a lot of fancy things herself: a faith leader, a spiritual guide on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a New Age guru. But she knows that when people use terms like that outside the nearly $10 billion self-help industry, where a person like her is sought, they mean it to dismiss her. …

She has a patrician, mid-Atlantic accent that she has taped over her Texan accent — she was raised in Houston. She talks so fast, like a movie star from the ’40s, no hesitations, as if the thoughts came to her fully formed with built-in metaphors, or sometimes just as straight-up metaphors in which the actual is never fully explained. (“Am I pushing the river? Am I going with the flow? Am I trying to make something happen, or am I in some way being pushed from behind?”) She is prone to exasperated explosions of unassailable logic (“The best car mechanic doesn’t necessarily know the road to Milwaukee!”). A thing she loves to say is: “I’m not saying anything you don’t already know.” This is the self-help magic ne plus ultra, a spoken thing that rings inside your blood like the truth, a thing you knew all along, like ruby slippers you were wearing the whole time.

But is she really repeating everyone’s inner truth?

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Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Countless books have landed on The Religion Guy’s desk over decades and rarely has he cited one as a “must read” or “book of the year.”

But such descriptions are appropriate for Rachael Denhollander’s candid memoir “What Is a Girl Worth?” about exposing the vast sexual-abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The evangelical Tyndale House issues her book on Sept. 10 alongside a four-session study guide, and the author’s non-salacious “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” for young readers.

Attorney Denhollander, the first person to publicly lodge accusations against MSU athletics osteopath Larry Nassar, has a unique status. She is a heroine named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Glamour’s Women of the Year, recipients of ESPN’s Courage Award and Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. At the same time, she’s the wife of a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while raising four young children and she uses her hard-won celebrity to present Christian truth.

An account of the worst sex-abuse case in its history is obviously a landmark for U.S. sports, but this is also a vitally important story for religion writers, and most certainly for Denhollander’s fellow evangelical Protestants, who are now following Catholicism in stumbling through #MeToo crises. (Along the way, journalists will relish the inside account of her byplay with investigative reporters and the media horde.)

Denhollander alone bravely lodged public accusations against predator Nassar, a big shot in gymnastics. Eventually, he faced 332 accusers of all ages including Olympic superstars, the Feds unearthed his stash of 37,000 child pornography files and he was sent to prison for life. MSU was forced to pay $500 million in damages, but any USA Gymnastics payout is problematic because it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

What’s vitally important in this sordid narrative is helping readers comprehend the severe psychological damage that sexual abuse creates in the victims. “It follows you. It changes you forever.” And then why, like Denhollander, victims often raise protests long after the incidents, or never raise them at all. They feel nobody will believe them, and for good reason. And they fear the cost that will be paid by the accuser. For Denhollander, that cost was enormous.

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A Mother Jones piece on custody rights for rapists misses the hidden God angle

A Mother Jones piece on custody rights for rapists misses the hidden God angle

A recent story from Mother Jones about women who were raped, impregnated and then forced to share custody of their child with the rapist, grabbed my attention like a knife.

Buried in this tale was another story that got slight mention in the original article. But the reporter didn’t follow it, either for lack of time, space or interest. Yes, it’s a story with a strong religion hook.

We’ll get to that later in this post. But first there are the horrible details of what one woman lived through.

Note that where the story takes place is not the Deep South but eastern Michigan.

Before her son began school last year, Tiffany Gordon showed his father’s mugshot to school administrators. “If you see this guy, you have to call the police,” she told them.

Ten years earlier, when Tiffany was 12, a young man she knew invited her, her sister, and a friend on a late-night car ride. “I thought we would be going to McDonald’s,” Tiffany recalls. Instead, 18-year-old Christopher Mirasolo raped Tiffany and took the girls to an abandoned house in eastern Michigan.

When the hiding place was discovered, it marked the end of one nightmare — and the beginning of another. A month later, Tiffany realized she was pregnant. A prosecutor filed charges against Mirasolo, who might have faced a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for impregnating a minor if he had not pleaded guilty to attempted rape, which resulted in a prison sentence of just two years. A judge let him out less than a year later. Not long after, Mirasolo raped another young girl and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years behind bars.

Think of it: This child was 12.

Most girls would have faced pressure to abort. In this case she had crucial support at home.

Tiffany’s parents supported her decision to keep the baby. Other family members urged her to consider an abortion. But she was adamant: “My son was innocent,” Tiffany, now 23, remembers telling her family.

She dropped out of school and stayed afloat working odd jobs. For almost nine years, she didn’t speak about the assault and tried to suppress the memories — until 2017, when she applied for state assistance. Without looking into the circumstances of how she became pregnant, county probate judge Gregory S. Ross granted Mirasolo joint custody and ordered Tiffany to live within 100 miles of him. Making matters worse, Ross disclosed Tiffany’s address to Mirasolo and ordered that his name be added to her son’s birth certificate, according to her lawyer, Rebecca Kiessling.

Tiffany’s experience battling her rapist for parental rights is not unique.

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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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Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

I attended college in southwest Portland; my first newspaper reporting job was just south of town; I have multiple friends in the area and my brother was an Oregonian reporter for 36 years.

In other words, I know a thing or two about the area, its people and the local media.

Religion coverage at the Oregonian has had some definite highs and lows in past decades. Highs were the coverage of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s, reporting by Mark O’Keefe in the 1990s and in recent years, Melissa Binder, who was on the beat for a short time. She then left the paper about a year ago.

The beat seems to be at a low point now, if the paper’s recent profile of a Catholic church torn by dissension is any indication. This story is so weak that it’s really hard to read.

The new priest took charge of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church more than a year ago. Week after week, parishioners said, George Kuforiji changed their church in ways they didn’t think he ever could.

They talked to him, wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Portland about their frustrations, resisted change and protested during Mass.

But after a while, some couldn’t take it anymore. They left the Southeast Portland church for other parishes or their own spiritual groups. Others said they would stay to the bitter end.

The parish where some had prayed for decades was slipping away. St. Francis is one of the oldest churches in Portland. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.

So far, so good. However, at this point this news report turns into a one-sided jeremiad.

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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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