Social Issues

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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Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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About that 'Christmas miracle': What it means that Nashville has lost its only abortion provider

About that 'Christmas miracle': What it means that Nashville has lost its only abortion provider

Nashville, Tenn. — one of the 25 largest cities in America — has lost its last remaining abortion provider. At least for now.

That seems like a pretty major story.

And indeed, The Tennessean has the basic details on today’s front page.

But the newspaper’s coverage of this stunning development seems overly low-key and matter-of-fact. Ho-hum, in other words.

This is the lede:

The only remaining abortion clinic in Nashville has ceased offering abortions, instead referring patients to clinics hundreds of miles away in Knoxville and Memphis. 

Officials with Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, which operates the north Nashville clinic, could not say when the clinic would resume providing abortions. The organization has a shortage of abortion providers, a spokeswoman said.

It is also "undergoing a period of quality improvement and will return with these services soon," a statement said. 

It is the second clinic in Nashville to stop providing abortions this year. The Women's Center closed in August after the sale of its building and its operators said then they hoped to reopen. The center has not yet reopened. 

The suspension of abortion services at Nashville's only abortion clinic comes at a time when the number of abortion providers in Tennessee and throughout the Southeast continues to dwindle.

OK, but here’s my question as a reader: What in the world is going on here?

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Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

This just in: It appears that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, thus, totally embrace his agenda to destroy all of humanity.

Or something like that. Also, it doesn’t matter that evangelical voters aren’t all that powerful in several of the key purple or blue states in which Hillary Clinton received way fewer votes than Barack Obama, thus costing her the election.

But let’s return to the great 81 percent monolith again, a number that hides complex realities among morally and culturally conservative voters. For more information on that, check out this survey by LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. Also, click here for a GetReligion podcast on that topic or here for a “On Religion” column I wrote on this topic.

I bring this up because of interesting remarks made during a recent Faith Angle seminar, an ongoing religion-news education project organized by the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The topic this time: “America’s Religious Vote: Midterms and New Trends.” Clicking that link will take you to a website containing a video of the event and, eventually, a transcript. I heard about this through Acts of Faith at The Washington Post, specifically its must-get online newsletter. In a recent edition, religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein pointed readers to remarks at that event by Alan Cooperman, director of religion surveys at the Pew Research Center (and a former Post reporter). The Christian Post offered a summary of what Cooperman had to say — focusing on four myths about evangelical voters.

This is interesting stuff, although it doesn’t really explore key fault lines and mixed motives inside that massive white evangelical Trump vote (click here for tmatt’s typology of six different kinds of evangelical voters in 2016 election).

… Cooperman outlined what he says are “straw men” arguments, or “myths,” that he hears being asserted in political discussions today. Four of those myths involve some common misconceptions about white evangelical voters.

Myth 1: Evangelicals are turning liberal or turning against Trump

While there certainly are some white evangelicals who are staunch in their opposition to President Donald Trump, he doesn't see any rise in their numbers in Pew data.

Citing aggregated Pew Research Center data compiled from 2017 to 2018, Cooperman stated that there is “a lot of stability” when it comes to Trump’s approval ratings among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Protestants.

“Right up before the election, aggregated data from our polls over the last several months [showed] 71 percent approval rating for the president [among white evangelicals],” Cooperman said. “If anything, party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican. This notion that white evangelical Protestants are turning liberal, I don’t see. … I don’t see it anywhere.”

Now, here is the crucial question: Is saying that “party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican” the same thing as saying that all of those white evangelical Protestants wholeheartedly support Trump?

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The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

THE QUESTION:

What do today’s U.S. Protestants believe about the use of alcoholic beverages? Have attitudes softened?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Yes, without question. And there’s been a bit of soul-searching about this in America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Its press service reports ongoing concern especially about teen alcohol abuse has increased somewhat since recent Senate testimony about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Catholic prep school experience.

Further, just afterward USA Today reported a study showing from 2007 to 2017 U.S. deaths attributed to alcohol increased 35 percent, and 67 percent among women (while teen deaths declined 16 percent). These fatalities well outnumber those from opioid overdoses that have roused such public concern.

Not so long ago, total abstinence predominated among many or most Protestants, who effectively mandated this for clergy and expected the same from lay members. (Other faith groups such as Muslims and Mormons elevate abstinence into a divine commandment.)

In a 2007 survey of Southern Baptists, only 3 percent of pastors and 29 percent of lay members said they drink alcoholic beverages. This survey showed that across other U.S. Protestant denominations 25 percent of pastors and 42 percent of lay members said they drink.

A 2016 Barna Group poll showed 60 percent of adults who are active churchgoers (both Protestants and Catholics) said they drink, compared with 67 percent for the over-all U.S. population. Among evangelicals there was a nearly even split with 46 percent who drink. (Barna defines “evangelicals” by conservative beliefs, not the loose self-identification political polls use.) Only 2 percent of evangelicals admitted they sometimes over-indulge.

Otherwise, Barna found, regular churchgoers consume smaller amounts on average than others. Asked why they don’t drink, 10 percent of abstainers acknowledged it’s because they are addicts in recovery. Notably, 41 percent of the population said alcohol causes trouble for their families.

The Bible does not teach total abstinence, and says wine can be a blessing (Psalm 104:15) and helpful medicine (Proverbs 31:6 or 1 Timothy 5:23).

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Haunted suicide sonnet: USA Today and Gannett launch huge effort to stem the tide

Haunted suicide sonnet: USA Today and Gannett launch huge effort to stem the tide

It’s pretty weird when a story at a major newspaper carries a trigger warning at the top of the article.

But this is a mega-story on suicide, written by a former editor at one of the top newspapers owned by the Gannett Co. It’s gripping reading until the very end.

Yet, there’s a religion “ghost” in this story; that is, a missing story hook connected with religion. It’s not hard to spot. It’s important, whenever there are references to religious faith, to look for specifics, for the basic facts. Where are they?

I stood and looked down into the canyon, at a spot where, millions of years ago, a river cut through. Everything about that view is impossible, a landscape that seems to defy both physics and description. It is a place that magnifies the questions in your mind and keeps the answers to itself.

Visitors always ask how the canyon was formed. Rangers often give the same unsatisfying answer: Wind. Water. Time.

It was April 26, 2016 – four years since my mother died. Four years to the day since she stood in this same spot and looked out at this same view. I still catch my breath here, and feel dizzy and need to remind myself to breathe in through my nose out through my mouth, slower, and again. I can say it out loud now: She killed herself. She jumped from the edge of the Grand Canyon. From the edge of the earth.

I went back to the spot because I wanted to know everything.

Written in first person by Laura Trujillo, a managing editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer when the suicide occurred, the article is almost a small book, with chapters, even.

Suicide is as common and as unknowable as the wind that shaped this rock. It’s unspeakable, bewildering, confounding and devastatingly sad. Don’t try to figure it out, I told myself, stop asking questions, assigning blame, looking.

Yet there I stood, searching.

Some of it is disturbing; how the mother tried to reach her daughter the morning she jumped but the busy editor merely texted her mom back instead of picking up the phone. And how she’d just sent her mother a disturbing email a few days before. It turns out that Trujillo insists that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather for years as a teen-ager and she’d finally gotten up the courage to tell her mom.

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A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason.

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