Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens.

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

I missed this incredible story in the midst of celebrating Christmas.

A few days before the holiday, the Los Angeles Times published Hailey Branson-Potts’ compelling and important piece on a young pastor who preached about depression then killed himself a few days later.

Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, that paper has been boosting its staff since its $500 million purchase last summer by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who has voiced a desire to compete with the Washington Post and the New York Times.

As far as I know, the Los Angeles Times hasn’t hired a full-time religion writer as part of its revival, but that would be a tremendous step, right? Who wants to organize the petition?

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Congress is getting more diverse, but it’s still dominated by Christians, according to a Pew Research Center study cited by CNN’s Daniel Burke, Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas, NPR’s Tom Gjelten and others.

In related news, the Washington Post — in a story produced by Godbeat pros Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer, along with Marisa Iati reported on the swearing in of the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen.

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Time for next wave of election ink: So it's time to look for the elusive Catholic vote -- again

Time for next wave of election ink: So it's time to look for the elusive Catholic vote -- again

Election Day is upon us. You may have noticed what a big deal the midterms are given the extensive coverage and hype from both the networks and cable news channels over the past few weeks.

While the fight for Republicans to maintain control of Congress has been framed, of course, as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office, there is also a religion angle — specifically a Catholic one) to examine. These elections could also serve as a litmus test for
American Catholics and whether they opt to go left or right. After all, Catholicism is the country’s single largest religious denomination, and the ultimate swing vote, although you wouldn’t know it from all the aforementioned news coverage.

Overall, the data is mixed on whether Catholics as a whole backed Trump or Clinton.

But there’s the key fact. There is no one Catholic vote. That’s a myth.

It’s that elusiveness that makes Catholics and the midterms a difficult story for news organizations to tackle. In a polarized world where loud voices on Twitter get lots of attention,
black and white issues and point-of-views reign supreme. There isn’t much room for gray.

Nonetheless, moral and religious issues like abortion, religious freedom and immigration could make the Catholic vote – even if split — an important factor in the midterms. While immigration, climate change, abortion and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have gotten lots of attention this election cycle, the religious angle — specifically looking at Catholic candidates and voters — is what has been lacking from mainstream news coverage.

Let me stress: It isn’t that coverage has been devoid of religion. In the Trump age, evangelicals are the group news organizations like to focus on because so many of them backed the
president (see this tmatt update on that).

The Catholic vote has become even harder to pin down in recent years.

Catholics have not voted as a bloc since the 1960s when John F. Kennedy became the first, and to date the only, Catholic to win the White House. In recent decades, Catholics have been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The key? Look for information about how often a Catholics go to Mass.

Journalists should look at the nation’s political divisions and how they are akin to what we see in the current church. Catholics are divided among conservatives (of various kinds) and liberals (of various kinds) — which means there are a lot of people in between. As always, abortion and immigration remain hot-button issues.

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In this congressional race, the question apparently is: Which candidate loves Jesus more?

In this congressional race, the question apparently is: Which candidate loves Jesus more?

When I got home from work the other day, I found a political flyer on my door.

The full-color leaflet concerned a legislative race in the Oklahoma House district where I live. I don't have the shiny paper handy, but what I remember is: The candidate touts herself as a pastor's daughter and a devoted Christian. Apparently, that kind of thing matters where I live. (Smile.)

Unrelated side note: The woman running for the seat wrote a personal note to our family and said she was sorry she missed us. That'll probably stick with me longer than the mailer itself.

But anyway ...

I bring up the above little anecdote because of an interesting story (to say the least) in the Charlotte Observer this week. 

When I first printed out the piece to read, this was the headline:

Rep. Robert Pittenger airs new ad featuring Jesus Christ

But now there's a new headline, and yes, I'd say this one better nails my question about this U.S. House race:

How did Jesus Christ become an issue in this NC primary?

The lede provides the basic facts:

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#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

As I mentioned Thursday, I'm attending the Religion News Association's 68th annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Among the interesting people I've met: Paul Singer, Washington correspondent for USA Today.

I talked to Singer about why he came to Music City for this week's conference. Here's a quick transcript (please forgive any typos or other deadline sins).

Q: What is your job with USA Today, and what brings you here?

A: My job officially is running our congressional coverage for USA Today and the hundred newspapers and news outlets in the Gannett network. I have some responsibility for our coverage of the Trump administration as well. I am here on my own interest trying for some stories about faith and religion.

Q: Why do you think that’s important?

A: Because our readers care about it. It is something I know our readers have interest in. Every time we write a story about faith and religion, it gets a lot of traffic and interest. It is an area of interest for me personally because I cover politics, and a big question in the 2016 election was were evangelicals going to look past the personal failings of Donald Trump and support him for political reasons, (because) he’s going help them advance their political agenda.

Q: Do you think this election only makes the need for a religion emphasis that much stronger?

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#DUH -- That 'atheist' candidate for Congress turns out to be a liberal Jewish guy

#DUH -- That 'atheist' candidate for Congress turns out to be a liberal Jewish guy

Honestly. I thought we had handled the old non-Jewish Jew, humanist, probably agnostic, maybe atheist, cultural Judaism equation several weeks ago with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

You remember that, right? The whole affair reminded me of the infamous media brain freeze years ago when candidate Jimmy Carter started talking about being a "born again" Christian. As I wrote earlier in the primary season (which still isn't over, with everyone keeping an eye on the crucial FBI primary):

I understand that many journalists in New York City needed time to grasp the basics of evangelical Christianity. Hey, 40 years later lots of elite journalists are still wrestling with that.
However, is it really big news at The New York Times that there are million of people of Jewish heritage whose identity centers more on matters of culture than on the practice of the Jewish faith?

The main problem with the Times coverage back then was that it asked a pack of rabbis to explain who and what Sanders is, when it comes to religion, rather than asking other agnostic or atheist Jews to explain that -- statistically speaking -- they are in the heart of the Jewish community (and Democratic Party) mainstream.

Now, the Associated Press has put out a feature about the campaign by Jamie Raskin to win Maryland's 8th Congressional district. And what's the hook for this story? That would be a bad headline in a major online "news" source, building on a bad public-relations piece from the Freethought Equality Fund, a humanist political action committee. As the AP piece put it:

“If successful in the general election, Raskin will be the only open nontheist serving in the U.S. Congress,” the email said. The Huffington Post quickly published an article headlined, “Congress Likely To Get Its Only Openly Atheist Member in November.”
The only problem? Raskin is Jewish.

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Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

There's no question that, for those reading the Pope Francis address to Congress through the lens of politics, the most newsworthy passages were his explicit references to immigration and climate change. Why? These words pointed to wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans that will almost certainly play a major role in the 2016 elections.

Also, there were powerful passages about the death penalty and the blood money earned through the international arms trade.

It was a remarkable scene, all the way around. What are the other nominations for a list of the deepest and most philosophical speeches ever delivered to Congress?

However, if you look at the pope's remarks through the lens of doctrine -- as Francis urged reporters to do days earlier -- then the crucial passage, the thesis statement, was this one:

We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity ...

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More on politics, sin and Louisiana's kissing congressman

For anyone unfamiliar with Rep. Vance McAllister, he’s a Louisiana congressman who ran on a Christian family values platform. But now he’s in trouble with some voters — and presumably his wife — after he got videotaped kissing a staff member (not a peck on the cheek, by the way). Last week, I praised the serious, respectful nature of the New York Times’ reporting on McAllister’s predicament, his request for forgiveness and the various reactions of folks in his northeast Louisiana district.

It’s no surprise that a 1,700-word Washington Post Style section treatment of the same story contains more snark — and innuendo — on McAllister’s relationship with Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock:

The McAllisters and Peacocks were close friends. Two friends — speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said they thought it was unusual that McAllister seemed to openly flirt with Peacock in public, even sometimes when his wife was present.

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