World War II

Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

The announcement by Pope Francis that the Vatican had decided to open up the its archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII — long criticized by many for staying largely silent during the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis — flooded the internet.

Got news? Words like “secret” and “files” are catnip for editors looking to fill news budgets at the start of the week.

That’s why the so-called “Friday news dump” has become such a thing in recent years, especially among politicians attempting to bury bad news at the start of the weekend when people pay less attention. In the case of Pope Francis, there’s no hiding an announcement that could forever alter Catholic-Jewish relations going forward.

Lost in all the intrigue of these Holocaust-era archives was the chance by mainstream news outlets to give some broader context for what all this means regarding Catholic-Jewish relations and the complicated history between these two faith traditions. There are several factors as to why the news coverage didn’t feature more depth. The lack of religion beat writers (an issue discussed on this website at great length over the years) and the frenetic pace of the internet to write a story (and quickly move on to another) are two of the biggest hurdles of this story and so many others.

A general sweep of the coverage shows that news organizations barely took on the issue — or even bothered to give a deeper explanation — of past Christian persecution of Jews and the efforts made since the Second Vatican Council, and later by Saint Pope John Paul II, to bring healing to this relationship.

The news coverage surrounding the announcement that the archives would be released in 2020 — eight years earlier than expected — was largely collected from an article published in Italian by Vatican News, the official news website of the Holy See. In it, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, she loves it and would like to love it more and better, just as she loves God.”

What would have triggered a “sidebar story” or a “timeline” in the days of newspapers, is largely lost in the digital age. Both would have certainly included the name and work of John Paul II.

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That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856–1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith -- and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War II Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians.

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Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol.

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This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

Human lives are ticking clocks and, right now, it's easy to forget that the clocks are ticking louder and louder for members of America's Greatest Generation.

These clocks have made news before. If you worked in the Washington, D.C., area toward the end of the 20th Century, it was easy to follow the debates about the World War II Memorial that was finally, finally, built on the National Mall. It was, in my opinion, a stunning commentary on American priorities that it took so long to build it (and required the intervention of an actor and a movie director to make it happen). We built the Vietnam and Korea memorials first.

Meanwhile, these clocks keep ticking. People who run newsrooms should remember that fact, since older Americans are loyal news consumers. In the years ahead, we will be seeing lots of coverage of symbolic events linked to the passing of the Greatest Generation and these stories could have strong religious content.

Thus, news editors and producers should mark Feb. 3 with a permanent pin on their computer calendars -- marking the Feb. 3, 1943, sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 Americans. Hit by German sub torpedoes, it sank in 18 minutes 100 miles off the coast of Greenland.

Journalists can file a copy of the New York Times feature marking the 75th anniversary of that event, which focused on the ship's four most famous casualties. The headline: "Remembering the Four Chaplains and Their Ultimate Sacrifice."

Symbolic stories, whenever possible, should be linked to appropriate symbolic events. Someone helped the Times regional desk find the perfect news hook -- the annual memorial rites held on the first Sunday of February at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Kearny, N.J. Here is the story's crisp summary of the drama on the doomed ship:

Panic ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains standing on the decks remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave the sailors their own.

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The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.

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In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

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Historian George Marsden revisits C.S. Lewis’s remarkable case for 'Mere Christianity'

Historian George Marsden revisits C.S. Lewis’s remarkable case for 'Mere Christianity'

The latest offering in Princeton University Press’s splendid “Lives of Great Religious Books” series is “C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by front-rank historian George Marsden.

Without debate, Lewis’s classic has been the most popular explanation and defense of the Christian faith the past six decades, and Marsden is just about the perfect guy to analyze this remarkable book.

“Mere” had modest sales upon its 1952 release but eventually developed quite astonishing popularity(3.5 million copies sold in English since the 21st Century began, available in at least 36 other languages). That’s a good story that many media have treated. If yours hasn’t, then the Princeton event offers the perfect peg.

This theme was so familiar that The Religion Guy’s news expectations were slim when he idly scanned a review copy. Then Marsden magic and readability kicked in and The Guy couldn’t put it down. After all, Marsden’s award-winning “Jonathan Edwards: A Life,” somehow managed to make the great Colonial theologian’s prolix writings understandable, and as intriguing as his life story.

Lewis “does not simply present arguments; rather, he acts more like a friendly companion on a journey,” Marsden says. He “points his audiences toward seeing Christianity not as a set of abstract teachings but rather as something that can be seen, experienced, and enjoyed as the most beautiful and illuminating of all realities.” 

What underlies the stunningly wide impact of “Mere Christianity”?

Marsden describes: (1) timeless truths not limited by culture, (2) common human nature that reaches readers, (3) reason put in the context of experience and affections, (4) poetic imagination, (5) the “mere” aspect, focusing on what all Christian branches believe, (6) no “cheap grace” and (7) “the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.”

“Mere” originated not as a book but brief BBC Radio talks to Britons in the pit of World War Two that were then issued as three small books.

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Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

I don't know about you, but for years now I have grown increasingly skeptical about a lot of the books and other products that continue to roll out from the publishing industry that surrounds the life and work of the great Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Don't get me wrong. I have an entire room of my house that, basically, is dedicated to Eastern Orthodox icons, my family and C.S. Lewis. My son's middle name is "Lewis" and we almost used "Jack" as his first name. I read "The Great Divorce" every year during Lent.

But, honestly, it's almost like we've reached the point where people would publish an annotated edition of this man's grocery lists, should they become available. There are still fine books being published about the Narnian, but I've grown more skeptical about some of work produced by the C.S. Lewis industrial complex.

And then someone comes up with an interesting twist in the life of Lewis. In this case, Christianity Today has just published an online essay -- by scholar Harry Lee Poe of Union University here in Tennessee -- that is a bit of a news scoop. It argues that, while no one is claiming Lewis ever ran around with a gun and a decoder ring, the young Oxford don appears to have done some work for MI6, as in Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Yes, you read that right. This kind of adds a new layer of meaning to discussions of an "Inner Ring" and talk about devilish high-ranking agents working with case officers to snare souls. Here is how it starts:

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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