U.S. Constitution

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

I realize (trigger warning!) that the U.S. Constitution is a rather controversial subject right now, with all the talk about U.S. Senate “majority votes” and tiny little red flyover states getting to have two senators, just like blue powerhouse states on the coasts.

Still, it’s a good thing for journalists in mainstream newsrooms to know a thing or two about this document, especially when covering the religion beat. I’m not just talking about the free press and freedom of religion stuff, either.

Yet another wild story in the White House has raised an issue that, #ALAS, I think we will be seeing more of in the near future. The key issue: Candidates for public service facing “religious tests” served up by their critics.

First things first: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This leads us to several relatively recent news stories that raised questions about “religious tests.”

The key question: Can journalists recognize “religious tests” when they take place on the political left and the right?

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What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

THE QUESTION:

Here’s one for July 4th:  What were the religious beliefs of the three founding presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence, was the date when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died.

What were the odds?! The two served on the five-man Continental Congress committee responsible for the Declaration of Independence, and Adams, who recognized Jefferson’s golden pen, ensured that his younger colleague would be the author.

The immortal prose had a distinctively religious flavor, with non-sectarian affirmation of peoples’ unalienable human rights that were “endowed by their Creator,” citation of the laws bestowed by “nature’s God,” appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and with “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” during the improbable and risky rebellion against mighty Britain.

These two Founders coincided otherwise in life, as in death. Adams was the nation’s first vice president and Jefferson its first secretary of state in the administration of the first president, George Washington. Adams was then elected president in 1796 with runner-up Jefferson as his vice president. After the nasty 1800 campaign, during which Jefferson was assailed as a religious infidel, he turned the tables and defeated the incumbent Adams.

Adams was so furious he even boycotted Jefferson’s inauguration. Though these allies of independence had become fierce rivals, they reconciled later in life and exchanged fascinating letters that enrich the recent book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (Penguin) by prize-winning Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood.

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AP offers reaction piece about the 'loud dogma' story that it didn't cover the first time around

AP offers reaction piece about the 'loud dogma' story that it didn't cover the first time around

For decades, the Associated Press played a crucial role in the typical news cycle that followed a big event -- from Supreme Court decisions to tornadoes, from big elections (whether presidents or popes) to plane crashes.

Back in the 1970s, when I broke into journalism, you would hear the chimes on the newsroom AP wire machine signalling that something "big" just happened. I'll never forget hearing the four bells marking the first clear sign that President Richard Nixon would resign.

The key: The AP usually wrote the first story on big news, or quickly picked up coverage from local outlets to take a story to the national or international level.

It helps, of course, when people agree on whether an event is news or not.

I put the question this way in my first post on the U.S. Senate appeals-court nomination hearings for Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven, who was told that the "dogma lives loudly within you" by Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

... The main question is an old one that your GetReligionistas have asked many times: Can you imagine the mainstream press ignoring this story if the theological and political doctrines in were reversed? Can you imagine liberal senators asking the same questions to a Muslim nominee?

Several readers sent emails taking that idea a step further: Try to imagine the press coverage if conservative senators asked if a nominee was too Muslim, or too Jewish, to serve on a major U.S. court.

Yes, I think the AP would have written a first-day news story in those cases, reports with the basic facts and reactions from voices on both sides. At that point, the AP story would trigger the normal "news cycle" in other newsrooms, in radio, television and print outlets.

Thus, it's crucial whether AP people think an event is news or not.

We finally have an AP story about last week's "loud dogma" hearing. Please read the overture carefully, since this is a follow-up story about an event that didn't deserve an initial report:

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The Atlantic goes there again, when newsrooms avoid another hot church-state story (correction)

The Atlantic goes there again, when newsrooms avoid another hot church-state story (correction)

This is becoming a rather common pattern on a certain type of hot-button story on the Godbeat.

What kind of hot-button story? To be honest, I'm not quite sure whether I'm ready to pin a label on this church-state phenomenon or not. However, we have another one of of these stories, no matter what we call it. Let's walk through this.

Stage 1: Something happens in the public square that combines clear religious content and politics (if possible linked to You Know Who in the White House). Take, for example, a U.S. Senate hearing in which a Notre Dame University law professor who is a traditional Catholic and the mother of seven children is -- since she is being considered for a federal appeals court slot -- bluntly asked: "Are you an orthodox Catholic?" Another senator warns her that Catholic "dogma lives loudly within you."

Stage 2: Conservative and religious news websites, fired by Twitter storms, cover the story. Meanwhile, major news outlets -- starting with The New York Times (still) -- ignore this interesting drama linked to the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing religious tests for public servants. Click here for my first post on this issue.

Stage 3: The Atlantic then runs an online story which puts the key facts into play, while offering what amounts to a second-day feature analysis story about an event that -- in terms of first-day, hard-news coverage -- doesn't exist in the mainstream press.

Strange, huh?

We are, of course, talking about the whirlwind surrounding 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a pro-Catechism Catholic legal scholar. The double-decker headline for religion-beat pro Emma Green's feature at The Atlantic says a lot:

Should a Judge's Nomination Be Derailed by Her Faith?
During a recent hearing, Democratic senators pushed an appellate-court nominee to explain how her religious beliefs would affect her legal decisions.

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Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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What’s the deal between America’s Episcopal Church and the Church of England?

What’s the deal between America’s Episcopal Church and the Church of England?

LISA ASKS:

If Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church, does that mean today’s head of the Episcopal Church is the reigning monarch of England?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

No. After the American colonies won independence, Anglican leaders in the new nation met in 1789 to form the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America” as a totally separate, self-governing denomination, though with shared heritage, sentiment, and liturgy with the mother church.

The current distinction between these two bodies was dramatized when the Church of England bishops issued a new consensus report upholding “the existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships” (meaning the tradition that disallows same-sex partners) and supported it by 43-1 at a February 15 General Synod session. In separate votes, lay delegates favored the proposed “take note” motion by 58 percent but clergy delegates killed it with 52 percent opposed. (See www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/02/result-of-the-vote-on-the-house-of-bishops-report.aspx).

By contrast, the U.S. Episcopal Church has turned solidly liberal. It endorsed consecration of the first openly gay bishop in 2003, affirmed ordination of priests living in same-sex relationships in 2009, and rewrote the definition of marriage in 2015 to authorize same-sex weddings.

Since King Henry broke from Roman Catholicism in 1534, yes, the reigning monarch has been the head of the Church of England (odd as that seems from the U.S. standpoint). Upon coronation, the king or queen becomes the church’s “supreme governor” and takes a public oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.”

Nonetheless, modern-day monarchs are figureheads without any of the religious leverage exercised by Henry and his royal successors.

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Seriously: Is the Bible so 'dangerous' it should be banned? What about burned?

Seriously: Is the Bible so 'dangerous' it should be banned? What about burned?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

The Bible is the most-purchased and least-read book of any. What can we do to discourage the reading of this dangerous book? The medieval church kept it wisely in Latin. The damned Protestant Reformers wanted everyone to read it and look what evil that has accomplished!

Shall we burn it? Shall we prevent it being sold? I am serious.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Religion Guy would have ignored this one except for the last three words above that require us to take this seriously. Norman’s prior postings to “Religion Q and A” indicate he’s quite knowledgeable about intellectuals’ attacks against biblical Jewish and Christian tradition. With a tiny faction such thinking turns to hatred or intolerance toward Scripture (at a time when devotion to Islam’s Quran expands in secularized western natiuons).

If Norman is “serious” the answer here is easy. No, “we” won’t be doing any such thing, even if “we” are not Bible fans, certainly in the U.S. given the Constitution’s freedoms of publishing and speech. (However, upholding, defining, and applying the freedom of religion guarantee is hotly contested.) The right to publish and read the Bible in common languages was a hard-fought freedom centuries ago. Access fostered widespread literacy and is normally regarded as a boon to civilization.

The theme is timely in this 200th anniversary year of the American Bible Society, which has distributed 6 billion copies, and next year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Yes, both the Reformers and the society “wanted everyone to read it.”

Reverence or at least respect toward the Bible remains strong.

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The devil you say: Washington Post helps boost Satanist school program

The devil you say: Washington Post helps boost Satanist school program

Satanists have announced plans for "After School Satan Clubs" in public schools, trying to compete with Christian clubs already there.  And the Washington Post is all too ready to help the campaign.

The WaPo guest writer strives to show that the Satanic Temple is not the devil you know. But the article has a clear twin purpose: dissing the "fundamentalist" Good News Club organization.

At least the writer is accurate about the look and feel of the After School Satan promotional video:

SALEM, Mass. —It’s a hot summer night, and leaders of the Satanic Temple have gathered in the crimson¬-walled living room of a Victorian manse in this city renowned for its witch trials in the 17th century. They’re watching a sepia-toned video, in which children dance around a maypole, a spider crawls across a clown’s face and eerie, ambient chanting gives way to a backward, demonic voice-over. The group chuckles with approval.
They’re here plotting to bring their wisdom to the nation’s public elementary school children. They point out that Christian evangelical groups already have infiltrated the lives of America’s children through after-school religious programming in public schools, and they appear determined to give young students a choice: Jesus or Satan.
"It’s critical that children understand that there are multiple perspectives on all issues, and that they have a choice in how they think," said Doug Mesner, the Satanic Temple’s co-founder. 

You've no doubt read about the Temple's skill in getting publicity. David Suhor of the West Florida branch got people upset in July for his invocation for Pensacola's city council. And last year, Mesner -- aka Lucien Greaves -- pushed to put up a Satan statue on public property in Oklahoma last year. (He gave up after the state supreme court said the Ten Commandments couldn't be set up, either).

The new video "feels like a mash-up of a horror movie trailer and a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch, the WaPo writer chuckles, but says the Satanists are serious about planting clubs in schools. She says chapter heads from four states attended the viewing, with others from at least six cities taking part online. How many individuals? We'll come back to that later.

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A question that would stun old-school left: Does religious liberty in U.S. go too far?

A question that would stun old-school left: Does religious liberty in U.S. go too far?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Given that many religious groups have some very socially undesirable beliefs and, even more, practices, how much does religious liberty in America need to be restricted?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Here’s a sketch of a very complex constellation of issues. The question provides no examples of what’s offensive but The Guy guesses that Norman is a liberal critic of religion who especially decries “socially undesirable” religious stands on moral matters like homosexuality. Such hostility from liberals, in turn, provokes deeper worries among traditionalists about religious freedom that we’ve seen since perhaps the 19th Century (something candidate Donald Trump hopes to capitalize on).

Preliminary points: Most religions and most believers agree society’s common good overrules any claimed religious justifications for heinous crimes. That would include terrorism enacted in God’s name by today’s Muslim extremists or, in centuries past, human sacrifice rituals of non-biblical faiths. Some religious activism is generally regarded as positive for society (abolition of slavery, women’s vote, civil rights) and other campaigns as negative (alcohol prohibition).

Certain “new atheists” are so intent on restricting religion that they would forbid parents from teaching their children about faith (while avoiding whether freethinkers should likewise be barred from teaching children that viewpoint). Some democratic nations have sought to discipline preachers who advocate traditional moral beliefs.

In the U.S., the Constitution erects a barrier against such extreme anti-religion tactics. But local and state legislatures, and increasingly powerful administrative rulings, have sought religious limits in various ways. For instance, a pending California law would drop a religious exemption to facilitate gay and transgender students’ discrimination suits, potentially affecting 42 colleges.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings draw the ultimate legal lines and thus provide many of the examples below.

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